Remembering the Mosquito Bowl on Christmas Eve 1944

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The endless college football bowl season is upon us. Beginning last weekend with the Mrytle Beach Bowl, and mercifully ending on January 8 with the College Football Playoff National Championship game, 43 games will be played.

No football game ever played, or ever to be played, will exceed the drama surrounding the Mosquito Bowl, played on insect-infested Guadalcanal in 1944. The 4th and 29th U.S. Marine Corp regiments faced off before their next stop, Okinawa.

The Mosquito Bowl evolved from a bold claim that Brown University and eventual New York Giants superstar John McLaughry made to his father. Young McLaughry claimed that the 4th Regiment could go toe-to-toe with the NFL champion Chicago Bears. McLaughry backed off a bit but still maintained that the 4th and the 29th combined could beat any team, anywhere.

To lift the Marines’ spirits, the brass okayed a football game between the 4th and the 29th for Christmas Eve 1944. The regiments had long debated which would prevail if they ever met on the football field. By kickoff time, there was a regulation-size field with goalposts, programs with roster information, a marching band and more than a thousand spectators. The excitement was so high that the Marine Corps radio network broadcast the game, and wagering was at a feverish level.

With its six early round professional draft picks, the star-studded 29th took the field against the 4th, which had players who had professional careers with the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Cardinals.

The gridiron was dirt and gravel without a blade of grass. Two-handed tag, the official rule, was ignored. The Marines played in t-shirts and torn-off khakis. Although they came away battered and bruised, no one complained. The game, which ended in a 0-0- tie, distracted from training for the Okinawa invasion which they correctly described as being “bound for hell.”

Of the 65 Mosquito Bowl players, 56 played in colleges, including Notre Dame, California, Purdue and Wisconsin, and five were team captains. Fifteen died during the fierce Okinawa fighting, the Pacific War’s bloodiest battle. After 82 days of brutal combat, more than 240,000 people had been killed, a 3,000 daily average. The American loss rate was 35 percent of the force, totaling 49,151 casualties. Of those, 12,520 were killed or missing, and 36,631 were wounded in action.

Wisconsin teammates Robert Bauman and David Schreiner were among those killed in action. Heavy Japanese fire blindsided Bauman’s platoon, and a bullet to his head shattered his skull. Bauman, age 24, became the 12th Mosquito Bowl player killed. On the day before Okinawa was declared secure, Schreiner was shot in the upper chest. Schreiner had weathered 81 of the 82 days that the battle lasted before dying in the hospital on the 82nd day. Schreiner was the 15th and final Mosquito Bowl fatality.

Ironically, Schreiner could have stayed behind. He rejected a medical school deferment and instead enlisted. Schreiner wrote in a letter to his parents: “I’m not sitting here snug as a bug, playing football while others are giving their lives for their country…If everyone tried to stay out of it, what a fine country we’d have!”

After learning of their sons’ deaths, the mothers of Schneider and Bauman corresponded. Bertha Bauman to Anne Schreiner: “Our two darling boys were real pals and went through everything together and seems they could not be separated and for that reason, God took them both.” Anne replied: “Are your days and nights getting any better, Mrs. Bauman? I find mine are getting harder and harder.”

In 1947, Anne wrote to Bertha again after Bauman and Schreiner’s fiancées had married. Although Anne was happy that Odette, a WAVE and her faithful friend throughout, now would have the chance “to build another future for the one that was taken away,” she was saddened because “she [Odette] had been David’s, and oh, oh, doesn’t it hurt?”

Anne lived until age 105, and to her the Badgers were always “her boys.” Before she moved into a nursing home at age 99, she kept David’s room exactly as it was the day he left for the Marines.

The lucky, living 50 Mosquito Bowl competitors returned home, but most were never the same. After receiving a telegram McLaughry sent from San Francisco that read “short time, then home soon, love,” his mother picked him up at Grand Central Station. Gone was the Brown University swagger, replaced by, in his mother’s words, a reclusive, jittery man who was an “empty shell that held empty eyes.”

The three and a half hours long Mosquito Bowl that the 65 Marines reveled in may have been the last and longest sustained joyous moments the brave young soldiers ever experienced in their war-shortened lives.

Copyright 2023 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected].