On the Pacific island of Guadalcanal, two Marine Corps regiments enjoyed a rare respite from second world war in December 1944. On Christmas Eve, the 4th and 29th regiments squared off in a football game nicknamed the Mosquito Bowl. This was no pick-up game. The teams included some of the top college football talent in the US, their rosters featuring All-Americans, captains from big-name schools and future NFL players or draftees. Tragically, of the 65 players in the game, 15 would die the following year, during the war’s deadliest battle: Okinawa. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Buzz Bissinger brings this wartime narrative back to public attention through his new book, The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II.
“I think it was the last time these guys were allowed to be boys, allowed to do something they loved,” Bissinger says. “For three hours – not that long – they got away from training and combat and what might happen at Okinawa. It was joy, pure joy, then back to training.”
The book profiles a number of the Marines who suited up on the field that day. They include John McLaughry, who starred for Brown University under his father and coach, DeOrmond “Tuss” McLaughry; Dave Schreiner, a standout end for Wisconsin; and Tony Butkovich, who played three seasons for Illinois before a standout year at Purdue.
“I was very moved by Dave Schreiner,” Bissinger says. “A two-time All-American from a small farm town in Wisconsin … He was personally self-effacing. [I was struck by] how hard he was on himself, his love for his family, the love his family had for him.”
McLaughry “had been a great football player who played professionally [for the New York Giants],” Bissinger says. “Tony Butkovich came from a coal town deep in Illinois … His father was an immigrant from Croatia who spoke no English. He was a first-generation American who went off to a major university, as did two of his brothers – three of seven siblings who went off to major universities.”
That McLaughry, Schreiner, Butkovich and fellow college gridiron greats all wound up becoming Marines was no accident. The Marines were part of the Navy, which saw value in football players joining the military.
“The Navy believed American football seemed like the best source of training for combat,” Bissinger says. “Many of the things learned on the football field, you’ll need on the battlefield: discipline, playing through pain, getting used to violence, teamwork. All those different things, they felt, were invaluable.”
Combat did come months after the Mosquito Bowl. The book chronicles the 82-day nightmare of Okinawa, when many of the players from the game and their fellow servicemembers would find themselves tested in unimaginable ways.
“I was shocked at how horrifying it was,” Bissinger says. “Combat is relentless, obviously dangerous. It never leaves you.” He adds that it was “beyond imagination to address what the men went through. They were willing to sacrifice, willing to die for their country.”
The book also contrasts the opposing military commanders on Okinawa – American general Simon B Buckner Jr and Japanese general Mitsuru Ushijima.
Buckner was “a good man, great patriot, spent his life in the military”, Bissinger says, but adds, “He had no combat experience. He was a compromise choice. There was constant infighting between the Marines, Navy and Army.” Ushijima, meanwhile, used “very meticulous preparation” for the battle.
And yet, Bissinger notes, “the only goal of the Japanese at that point … was to kill as many Americans as possible in the vain, frankly ridiculous hope [the US] would come to the negotiating table. Japan was horribly deluded. They were deluded throughout the war. I think it was criminal delusion. So many men died – not just Americans but Chinese, people from Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam. [Japan] refused to quit until the bomb dropped and the entry of Russia in the [Pacific] war.”
Asked about any similarities between arguably his best-known work, Friday Night Lights, and his latest, Bissinger notes, “One commonality is that I never thought of Friday Night Lights as a football book. It’s about the social implications of football in small towns in America. The Mosquito Bowl, to me, is not a football book, but about the influence of football in the military.”
Although unsure on exactly how he came across the story of the Mosquito Bowl, he speculates that it might have been while working with Caitlin Jenner on a memoir about her veteran father, who served at D-Day and helped liberate Buchenwald.
“I was struck,” Bissinger says, “by the patriotism of Caitlin’s dad. The power of their relationship kind of got me started researching, just for the hell of it, sports and football.”
What resulted was a five-year process of research and writing that even helped the author learn about his own veteran father, Harry G Bissinger. Although the elder Bissinger died in 2001, there were some surprising discoveries about his military service. He, too, was in the Marine Corps with the 4th Marine Regiment, serving on Guadalcanal during the Mosquito Bowl, and then on Okinawa.
“He did not talk about it,” Bissinger says. “It was too painful. He moved on with his life.”
Yet, he added, “It blew my mind, the possibilities. He might have been at the game. He liked to drink … he loved gambling, he liked football.”
So did many other Marines on Guadalcanal in late 1944. The island had been captured from the Japanese earlier in the war. Now it was being used for training. Morale was low as the men contemplated where the war would take them in the coming year, and whether they would survive.
To lift the men’s spirits, the brass OK’d a football game between the 4th and the 29th. The regiments had long debated which would prevail if they ever met on the football field. Now they would finally have an opportunity to settle things. There were goalposts, a regulation-size field, game programs, over a thousand spectators and even a radio broadcast on the Marine Corps network.
When asked what it felt like to come across an actual program from the game, Bissinger says, “That was exciting. It was not that hard to find some of them online.” He added, “It was just cool to see an actual program from a football game on Guadalcanal.”
The author is haunted, however, by what happened to the players who lost their lives mere months after the game, on Okinawa.
“Writing about the men who died was painful and hard,” Bissinger says. “I think about these men a lot. There was no joy in writing about them, but tremendous sadness. They had all their lives ahead of them. They should have had opportunities, whether to be married, divorced, have kids, have a great job, have a job they didn’t like. All the experiences of life were snuffed out because of war.”