The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II
“The Mosquito Bowl is not just a book about war. It is, instead, about the men who fought that war. The author brings us rich details about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and their aspirations, many of which were either delayed, derailed, or destroyed on Okinawa.”
In a piece of forgotten history, on Christmas Eve of 1944, shortly before one of the deadliest battles of World War II, an improbable football game took place. It was a game that many of us likely have never heard about. But now, thanks to Buzz Bissinger’s The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II, that little-known contest is thrust front and center.
On that day, former college football players serving in the 29th and 4th Regiments of the 6th Marine Division faced off on the gridiron on the hard-won island of Guadalcanal. Of the 65 men who played that day, more than 50 percent would become casualties a few months later on Okinawa, including 15 killed.
These were not just any football players. There were All-Conference and All-American players from Purdue, Cornell, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and California, among others. A number of them had been team captains at their respective schools, and 16 had already been drafted or would receive offers from the National Football League.
But their college credentials notwithstanding, the author tells us: “[I]f you measure sports by the values that have since become so blurred by money and fame—pure brotherhood without a guaranteed contract, sacrifice of self, the ability to rise above pain, the refusal to quit . . . then those who died were the best who ever played.”
Books about war tend to bog down in the minutiae of strategies, moves and countermoves on the battlefield, not to mention the politics that led to a particular war in the first place. But The Mosquito Bowl is not just a book about war. It is, instead, about the men who fought that war. The author brings us rich details about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and their aspirations, many of which were either delayed, derailed, or destroyed on Okinawa.
One of the best parts of the book is that it makes readers feel as if they really know the men involved. One of the worst parts about the book, but at the same time one of its most valuable attributes, is that, as a result, it makes readers feel their pain and that of their families and loved ones. War is best tolerated or rationalized when it is not personalized, but The Mosquito Bowl strips us of that innocence.
The seed for the game was planted when Brown University star and son of the Brown coach, John McLaughry, got a new tentmate, University of Wisconsin All-American Dave Schreiner. Excited, McLaughry wrote his father, “Did I ever tell you about the football team we could get up in this regiment from the officers—it sure would be a powerhouse and bigger than the Chicago Bears in prime.”
From that germ of an idea, events were set in motion, teams were established, and the game was set for Christmas Eve 1944. The author tells us that, of the 65 men on the rosters, “Fifty-six had played college football. Most of the rest had played in high school. The remaining handful just wanted in on the mayhem.”
There was so much excitement built around the game that the Mosquito Network, a loose association of radio stations on military bases in the Pacific, broadcast the game live. The broadcast featured announcer Keith Topping, himself a football star at Stanford in the 1930s. Originally called the All-Star Classic, it was redubbed the Mosquito Bowl.
The book is light on detail about the game itself, which occupies but one chapter, ten pages, a little over midway through the narrative. That might seem like a lot of buildup with little payoff, but the truth is, as stated above, the book is not about the game; it’s about the men who played the game, and it’s only fair that the bulk of it be dedicated to them.
What makes the contest important is that it gave these young marines an afternoon of normalcy in the midst of a decidedly abnormal time. Most of the rest of the book is about the battle for Okinawa and the fates of those who had played the game.
As General William T. Sherman said, “War is hell.” And Bissinger brings it home. He makes you feel every life lost, repeating a pattern for each of the 15 deaths of Mosquito Bowl veterans, starting with the first. “John Henry ‘Red’ Anderson was the first player from the Mosquito Bowl to die. He was buried on Okinawa in 6th Marine Division Cemetery No. 1, Grave 6, Row 1, Plot A. He was twenty-two years old.”
About University of Illinois star Tony Butkovich, Bissinger writes that, due to Butkovich’s acclaim as a college football star, there were a few write-ups about his death in newspapers. But afterward, “except to his family and men who knew him and had served with him, he disappeared, and after the war, as those men grew into careers and families, he would disappear from them.”
But thanks to Buzz Bissinger, Butkovich and his comrades have now reappeared.
The Mosquito Bowl will make you laugh, will make you cheer, and will make you cry. It makes you wonder at the valor and honor of men willing to sacrifice themselves for others. Men who, for one afternoon on a Godforsaken island in the South Pacific in the midst of a war, could put their fears and trepidations aside for a few hours and do that which they loved doing the most: play football.