The contributions of American athletes to the war effort during World War II has been well documented. The experiences of Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Tom Landry, Ed Lummus and hundreds of others have been recognized for their impact in defeating Germany and Japan. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Buzz Bissinger’s latest book, THE MOSQUITO BOWL: A GAME OF LIFE AND DEATH IN WORLD WAR II chronicles events leading up to a game between the 4th and 29th Marine Regiments on Guadalcanal in late 1944 and the fate of many who fought at Tarawa, Saipan, and Okinawa. The soldiers were made up of former All-Americans from Brown, Notre Dame and Wisconsin universities twenty of which were drafted by the National Football League. Of the sixty-five men who played in the game, fifteen would die a few months later at Okinawa.
Bissinger, the author of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, a story of high school football in Texas brings to life the men and their military training as they prepared for the Marine assault on Okinawa. During their preparations trash talking between the two Marine Regiments reached a fever pitch which led to what has been referred to as “the Mosquito Bowl.” Bissinger’s narrative explores the lives of these men with insight, empathy, and a clear picture of what they were experiencing and would soon be up against. It is a well told story of college athletes and their loss of innocence. It begins on the playing fields of America’s colleges through their final time f to remain boys to the darkest days that would follow on Okinawa.
The book is a dichotomy in the story it tells. First and foremost, Bissinger zeroes in on the lives of a number of individuals who developed as exceptional athletes and morphed into American Marines. Bissinger focuses on the lives of John Marshall McLaughey, Captain of the Brown football team, played one year with the New York Giants and enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor. Another major football star, this time as an All-American at the University of Wisconsin, David Schreiner enlisted as an officer candidate with the Marines. Tony Butkovich, from a family of eleven, one of which was a fighter pilot, was an All-American at the University of Illinois, later at Purdue University and was drafted number one by the Cleveland Rams. Butkovich would not make the grade as a Marine officer and became a corporal in the infantry. Bob Bauman was Butkovich’s teammate at Wisconsin and his brother Frank played at Illinois, both brothers joined the Marines. Bob McGowan, from western Pennsylvania was a Sergeant and Squad leader who was severely wounded on Okinawa and whose story provides the reader with the feel of the terror and bloodshed of battle. Lastly, George Murphy, Captain of the Notre Dame football team would join the others as Marines, in his case as an officer candidate.
The book jacket describing Bissinger’s narrative is a bit misleading. It appears the book will concentrate on football, but its treatment goes much deeper in its exploration of a number of important topics in American history during the first half of the 20th century. Bissinger follows the military training that the athletes experienced, but its focus is diverse. The depression plays a prominent role in the upbringing of the Bauman brothers in a small town just south of Chicago. The issue of immigration stands out because of its impact on the diversity of American society, but also the backlash that was created after World War I when families like the Butkovichs came to the United States from Croatia at the turn of the century. By 1924, Congress passed the Johnson Act designed to block immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The legislation reflected politics combined with the pseudo-science of eugenics which became very popular in the post-World War I period that argued certain groups were inferior to “white Americans.” Daniel Okrent’s THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA is an exceptional study of American racism during that period.
Racism is a dominant theme apart from war and athletics as Bissinger explores how blacks were treated in the military. Lynchings and murders were common in the American south and the experiences of blacks in the military revolved around demeaning jobs mostly in supply, laundries, bakeries, sanitation, ammo dumps leading to the conclusion that the United States fought for freedom in occupied Europe and the Pacific, but there would be no freedom for the 13 million Blacks living in the United States of America. At the outset of the war there were no blacks in the Marines.
(DeOrmond “Tuss” McLaughry, football coach 1926-1940. With his son John McLaughry, coach 1959, shown with Colgate)
The military leadership used college football stars as a recruiting tool and stressed the similar values and talents that college football and the military held in common. Exemptions for college athletes from the draft led to anger by the families of those fighting in Europe and the Pacific while many the same age enjoyed the life of a star athlete. Bissinger does an exceptional job delving into the West Point football program as they experienced their best seasons in 1944 and 1945 due to the accomplishments of exempted players “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis, who were better known as “Mr. inside, and Mr. Outside.” Their exploits would lead the Army to national championships.
Bissinger has total command of the history of the war and college athletics. The author lists more than 100 pages of endnotes, assembled from military records, correspondence, interviews of survivors and other reportorial feats — shows up everywhere, in the numbers, in battle accounts, in the homey mundanity of letters, and a clear incisive writing style, sprinkled with humor and sarcasm which are keys to the book’s success. As to the conduct of the war, Bissinger pulls no punches as he recounts the errors in judgement by military higher ups as it planned and carried out the amphibious landing at Tarawa which turned into a bloody disaster with 2000 casualties in the first 76 hours of the invasion. The key to victory over Japan would be “island hopping” therefore amphibious warfare was of the utmost importance, but military strategists did not make use of all of its assets, i.e.; LVT boats as opposed to Higgins boats that could not navigate through the coral that surrounded many Pacific islands. Bissinger’s discussions of Tarawa and the outright stupidity of General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. who commanded US forces at Okinawa can only anger the reader as it resulted in the useless deaths of so many young men.
Another important weapon Bissinger explores is that of the “flame thrower.” On Okinawa and other islands, the Japanese benefited from their use of caves with interlocking tunnels, a difficult problem to overcome. The caves were challenging to penetrate by bombing so the use of napalm from flame throwers became imperative. Despite the application of this weapon which saved many American lives, the Japanese inflicted innumerable casualties on the Americans as they fought from hill to hill. Japanese troop strength on Okinawa was much higher than US intelligence pointed out, roughly 100,000, not the 66,000 that was estimated. Bissinger lays out the fears and hopes of the men as they prepared and carried out their mission with horrendous results. In the end over 250,000 people died in 82 days at Okinawa. Of that number 50,000 were American, 20,000 Marines, 8222 from the 6th Division. In the last quarter of the book Bissinger does justice to their memory as he lays out the battle for Okinawa, the Japanese who fought to the death, and the obstacles that the Marines had to overcome. He lays out the story of all the men who fought at Okinawa and played in the Mosquito Bowl along with countless others.
The core of the book revolves around The Mosquito Bowl, which was a spirited, semi-organized football game on Guadalcanal. The game, played on Christmas Eve 1944 with at least 1,500 Marines watching, is both a pretext and an organizing principle for the book, but its significance fades as Bissinger explores the fates of several participants. Combat and other dirty aspects of warfare are ever present. The fighting on Tarawa, Saipan, Okinawa and stories of those who never returned home point to the insanity of war, which regrettably still dominates our news cycle today as we witness Russian terrorism and atrocities in Ukraine. The title of the book is a misnomer as there is little discussion of the game itself – more to the point the book is not about a football game but the tragedy of young men fighting and dying in wars far from home.