Christmas Eve 1944:
Marines' Mosquito Bowl
George Murphy of Notre Dame, Dave Mears of Boston University, and
Walter "Bus" Bergman from Denver North High and Colorado A&M/State
While researching the book Third Down and a War to Go, about
the 1942 Wisconsin Badgers serving with great distinction in both the European and Pacific theaters, I came across the fact
that three members of that team -- Marines Dave Schreiner, Bob Baumann and Bud Seelinger -- all played in a notable Christmas
Eve 1944 touch football game on Guadalcanal.
I also noticed that two Marines in what was billed as the "Football
Classic" had played collegiately in Colorado. One was well-known to me -- long-time Mesa College football and baseball
coach Walter "Bus" Bergman, who had been a star at Colorado A&M. The other was former University Colorado football
and baseball player Bob Spicer.
I contacted both as part of my research and in 2003 found myself sitting
in Bergman's living room in Grand Junction, talking with him for several hours. He was 83. And I became increasingly fascinated
with the Marines' football game, and the men who played in it ... and in many cases were killed in action a few months later
in the Battle of Okinawa.
Fifty-nine years earlier on that Christmas Eve, Bergman and his fellow
Marine lieutenant George Murphy warmed up with the 29th Regiment's team on Guadalcanal, the island in the Solomons taken by
U.S. forces in late 1942.
The tentmates and buddies had been college team captains during their
senior seasons – Murphy in 1942 for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Bergman in 1941 for what then were known as the Colorado
Among the military men ringing the field, the frenetic wagering continued. Bergman
and Murphy knew that if the 29th lost to the opposing 4th Regiment, many of their friends would have lighter wallets, or have
to make good on IOUs.
Not compared to what was ahead.
They knew that if they survived the island fighting in the Pacific theater, they would consider themselves fortunate.
For the rest of their lives.
“They say certain guys are heroes because
they did this and that,” Bergman told me. “I say the heroes are those guys who never came back. I’ve thought
about that a lot. I think about the 60 or 70 extra years I got on them. I know I was lucky.”
for years didn’t volunteer much information about his combat experiences, even to his children – Judy Black of
Washington, Walter Jr. of Grand Junction and Jane Norton of Englewood, elected Colorado’s lieutenant governor in 2002.
His wife, Elinor, also a Denver native, at times was compelled to point out things Bus neglected to mention.
Little things, such as the citation that accompanied his Bronze Star.
the original Elitch Gardens in northwest Denver, Bergman was a three-sport star at Denver’s North High School. At Colorado
A&M, he earned 10 letters in football, basketball and baseball, and also was student body president.
February 1942, Bergman and Aggies teammate Red Eastlack drove to Denver to enlist in the Marines. The Marines’ preference
was for upperclassmen to stay in college long enough to graduate. To publicize the officer training program, the Marine brass
had the star athletes “sworn in” a second time at midcourt during halftime of an A&M-Wyoming basketball game.
Bergman and Eastlack were playing for the Aggies in Fort Collins, so they toweled off the sweat and raised their right hands.
As he finished his classes, Bergman didn’t respond to an eye-popping $140-a-game contract sent by the Philadelphia
Eagles. After receiving his degree, he went to boot camp and Officer Candidates School, then joined the 29th Regiment at Camp
Lejeune, N.C. By August 1944, he was on Guadalcanal. There, the 29th Regiment became part of the newly formed Sixth Marine
Bergman, George Murphy and former Boston University tackle Dave Mears were the platoon
leaders in D Company of the 29th Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. The three lieutenants shared a tent, trained and waited.
“We built our own shower at the back of the tent with a 55-gallon drum,” Mears, a retired CPA, told me
from his home in Essex, Mass. “We got a shower head someplace, and we were all set. We were living high!
“Bus was a very easygoing person and very friendly, but when it came to doing his job, he was pretty serious.
George was more serious than either of us, though. At the time, he was married and his wife had just had a baby. So he was
further ahead than us that way.”
Looming over the Marines was the likelihood that they soon would be
“We didn’t know where we were going,” Bergman said. “But we
knew it was going to be close to the (Japanese) mainland. Football and little things kept us away from all that talk. Plus,
we spent a lot of time in that tent censoring the mail.”
had girlfriends all over the world, and they wrote to all of ’em. We had to read it, and we were supposed to cut things
out, but nobody really said anything we had to worry about that way.”
After several pickup games on Guadalcanal,
and many beer-fueled debates among Marines about which regiment had the best players, the “Football Classic” on
Christmas Eve was scheduled. Organizers mimeographed rosters and lined up a public-address system, radio announcers, regimental
bands and volunteer game officials. The field was the 29th’s parade ground, which had as much coral and gravel fragments
as dirt, and no grass. It was christened Pritchard Field after Cpl. Thomas Pritchard, a member of a demolition squad killed
in a demonstration gone array shortly before the game.
Crowd estimates ranged from 2,500
to 10,000. With no bleachers, Marines scrambled to stake out vantage points.
started in the 29th’s backfield, lining up with halfback Bud Seelinger, one of the former Badgers; fullback Tony Butkovich,
the nation’s leading rusher in 1943 at Purdue and the Cleveland Rams’ No. 1 draft choice in 1944; and quarterback
Frank Callen, from St. Mary’s of California. Murphy was one end and player-coach Chuck Behan, formerly of the Detroit
Lions, was the other. Behan captained the 29th Regiment squad. The 4th Regiment team captain was Schreiner, Wisconsin's two-time
All-American and winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Silver
Football as the Big Ten’s most valuable player in 1942.
Spicer, who was from Leavenworth, Kansas
and had played guard for CU in 1942, was the 4th Regiment’s starting quarterback.
game was spirited, violent and inconclusive.
Neither team scored.
Spicer intercepted a pass on the last play
of the game.
“It was two hands above the waist,” Spicer said of the rules from his home
in Park Ridge, Illinois, “but it could be a two-handed jab to the shoulder, guts or knees. It was fun!”
Bergman said, “We hadn’t gotten to practice much, and that’s why it was a 0-0 game, even with all
the talent we had.”
John McLaughry, a former Brown University star and ex-New York Giant
in the 4th Marines, served as a playing assistant coach and played next to Spicer in the backfield. He and his 4th Regiment
teammates wore light green T-shirts and dungarees, a better choice than the 29th’s shorts.
didn’t get out of hand,” McLaughry told me from his home in Providence, R.I. “But it came pretty close.”
McLaughry wrote to his parents the day after the game.
“It was really a Lulu, and as
rough hitting and hard playing as I’ve ever seen,” he said in the letter. “As you may guess, our
knees and elbows took an awful beating due to the rough field with coral stones here and there, even though the 29th did its
best to clean them all up. My dungarees were torn to hell in no time, and by the game’s end my knees and elbows were
a bloody mess.”
In the letter, McLaughry said the stars were Schreiner and Bob Herwig,
a lineman at California in the mid-1930s. Bergman said Herwig was best-known among the men for being the husband of Katherine
Windsor, author of the controversial, banned-in-Boston historical novel, “Forever Amber.” Herwig originally was
ticketed to be one of the two game officials and was listed as such on the program. He couldn’t resist playing.
Sgt. Harold T. Boian, a Marine Corps combat correspondent who later became advertising director for the Denver
Post, wrote a dispatch that was distributed by United Press and ran in many newspapers. Because of wartime secrecy, his
“SOMEWHERE IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC – (Delayed) – (U.P.) – Tropical
heat and the lack of equipment failed to stop the leathernecks of the Sixth Marine division when they decided it was football
time back home. They arranged the Mosquito Bowl football classic.”
Boian listed many of the well-known players
in the game. He didn’t mention Hank Bauer, who spelled Spicer at quarterback, a blocking position in the single wing.
Bauer came to the Marines from East St. Louis (Ill.) High School and would go on to fame as a major-league baseball player,
and as a manager.
Survivors don’t remember it being called the “Mosquito Bowl”
at the time, and that name wasn’t used on the program.
Because the game was a tie, all wagers were
Bergman and the Sixth Division continued training, then left Guadalcanal
for Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Islands, about 400 miles south of Japan.
“I remember that just as we were getting
ready to load on our landing craft, one P-38 (fighter plane) flew over us and I felt like I could reach up and touch it,”
Bergman said. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
Part of a multiservice command operating
as a Tenth Army expeditionary force, the Marines went ashore on the western beaches of Okinawa on Easter, April 1, 1945. The
landings were unopposed. The Japanese would make their stands elsewhere.
The 29th Marines first moved up to the northern
end of the island, roughly 65 miles long.
“The only men we lost were from mines and booby traps in caves,”
Bergman said. “We lost our machine gun officer and mortar officer going in one of the caves. But then we came back to
the lower third, and that’s where all the trouble was.”
In the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill, Murphy
and Mears both were hit on May 15.
The Tenth Army’s official Okinawa combat history, published three
years later, said Murphy first ordered “an assault with fixed bayonets” against Japanese forces.
“The Marines reached the top and immediately became involved in a grenade battle with the enemy,” the
combat historians wrote. “Their supply of 350 grenades was soon exhausted.
Murphy asked his company commander, Capt. Howard L. Mabie, for permission to withdraw, but Captain Mabie ordered him to hold
the hill at all costs. By now the whole forward slope of Sugar Loaf was alive with gray eddies of smoke from mortar blasts,
and Murphy ordered a withdrawal on his own initiative. Covering the men as they pulled back down the slope, Murphy was killed
by a fragment when he paused to help a wounded Marine.”
A Marine correspondent wrote of Murphy’s
death at the time. That story was carried in many U.S. newspapers in May. It had Murphy making multiple trips to help carry
the wounded to an aid station before he was hit as he rested. It added: “Irish George staggered to his feet, aimed over
the hill and emptied his pistol in the direction of the enemy. Then he fell dead.”
Bergman, “One of the men in his platoon told me he pulled out his pistol and unloaded it.”
the battle, 49 of the 60 men in Murphy’s platoon were killed or wounded.
Also on May
15, Mears’ platoon was approaching Sugar Loaf when he felt a flash of pain.
said it was a machine gun, and it was one bullet through my thigh,” Mears said.
evacuated to an airfield that night, then flown to Guam the next day, where he heard of Murphy’s death.
“Oh, that one was really bad,” he said. “He was just such a terrific guy. That was a real low blow.”
Mears paused, then added, “But there were so many of them …”
Bergman was the only tentmate remaining in the battle.
“Then all the outfits got hit
pretty hard,” Bergman said. “Our company went up with others on the 18th and 19th (of May), took the hill, and
stayed there. . . By that last night on Sugar Loaf, I was
the executive officer. I organized a couple of guys to carry ammunition and stuff to different companies up there that night.
We took guys down to the first-aid tent, not so many of the wounded, but several who cracked up from the stress of the whole
In the Bronze Star citation, Maj. Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr. said the
Coloradan “organized carrying parties and supervised the distribution and delivery (of supplies) to all three companies
throughout the night. When time permitted, 1st Lieut. Bergman visited the troops on the line, exposing himself to enemy fire,
speaking to many, reassuring and encouraging them during the enemy’s intense counterattacks.”
forces held the hill.
Spicer, the former Colorado player in the 4th Regiment, was wounded
twice on Okinawa. He suffered a shrapnel wound in the arm, but was back in the battle at the end.
were coming north after cleaning up the bottom of the island,” he said. “I jumped over a ditch and found a bunch
of Japanese soldiers lying there. I guess somebody threw a grenade at me. That’s how I lost my eye.”
Spicer said that so matter-of-factly. “That’s how I lost my eye.”
July 2, when the campaign was declared over, 12 players in the Football Classic had died on Okinawa.
was just part of the game plan,” Bergman said, shrugging and summoning a sports analogy for war, reversing the usual
practice. “We knew it was going to happen, and it did happen.”
After the island was secure, Bergman visited
Murphy’s grave at the Sixth Marine Division Cemetery.
“It was real tough,” Bergman
recalled softly. He struggled to say something else, then settled for repeating: “It was real tough.”
On that visit, he took a picture of Murphy’s white cross and grave. He still has a tiny print.
Murphy never met his daughter, born in July 1944.
Schreiner and Tony Butkovich before the game.
Baumann (74) and Dave Schreiner (80) in the 1942
Wisconsin team picture. That's Crazylegs Hirsch (40)
Like Murphy, the two team captains in the
game, Schreiner and Behan, both died in battle. So did Schreiner's Wisconsin teammate, former tackle Bob Baumann, who served
in the same company as Schreiner.
Behan, born in Crystal Lake, Illinois, also was called both Charlie and Chuck, and
he had played end at Northern Illinois State Teachers College and as a Detroit Lions rookie in 1942 before going into the
On Okinawa on the the morning of
May 18, shrapnel struck Behan in the mouth. Behan's "runner," Bill Hulek, wondered if the severely bleeding lieutenant
would head back to the aid station.
Behan insisted on staying on the front lines.
"He kept changing cotton
in his mouth," Hulek told me from his home in Castleton, N.Y.
Behan had a last charge to make.
"We went up Sugar
Loaf and got up there all right," Hulek told me. Behan tossed grenades at a Japanese machine gun nest. Next, Hulek said,
"Lieutenant Behan kneeled there with a little carbine. That jammed, so he took my rifle and started shooting again."
was hit by machine gun fire.
"The bullets came right out of his back," Hulek said, "and you could
see his jacket raised - plink, plink, plink."
Behan posthumously was awarded the Navy Cross.
The other Football Classic players killed in action:
–Bob Fowler, who attended Michigan.
–Lehigh tackle John Hebrank.
–Southern Methodist tackle Hubbard Hinde.
–Marquette halfback Rusty Johnston.
–Wake Forest and Duke halfback Johnny Perry.
–Amherst end Jim Quinn.
–Cornell tackle Ed Van Order.
They were “only” a dozen
among 2,938 Marines killed or missing in action on Okinawa. U.S. Army dead and missing numbered 4,675.
of the survivors, including Bergman, were ticketed to serve in an invasion of Japan. Bergman was given a “G-2”
summary of the Sixth Marine Division’s strategy on Okinawa. In the letter on the first page from Maj. Gen. Shepherd,
dated Aug. 1, 1945, the Sixth Division’s commanding officer declared: “I believe that the lessons learned at so
dear a price on (Okinawa) should be published and distributed for the benefit of combat units who will land again on Japanese
New President Harry S. Truman approved the use of atomic bombs against Japan, and they
were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August.
“We were real happy it was going to
end the war,” Bergman said. “Before that, we knew we were going to go to the mainland.”
the invasion of Japan was unnecessary after the September surrender, and Bergman’s unit drew occupation duty in China.
Spicer returned to Boulder, lettered three more seasons for the Buffaloes at guard and was the team captain in 1948.
Incredibly, he did it with one eye. After a long career in the banking business, he retired in 1989.
1946, Bergman returned to Fort Collins and earned his master’s degree. He went into coaching at Fort Lewis College in
Durango, then moved to Mesa College in Grand Junction in 1950. He coached the Mesa football and baseball teams, and the baseball
team three times was the runner-up in the national junior college tournament – an event Bergman helped Grand Junction
land as the annual host. He retired from coaching in 1974, and from the faculty in 1980. He was inducted into the Colorado
Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
Bergman told me he often thought about his Marine buddies.
About those who survived the war. And about those who didn’t.
Bob Spicer died in April 2006.
Bus Bergman died in March 2010.
Dave Mears died in November 2017.