BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Before one of the bloodiest battles of WWII, a group of Marines took part in a pickup football game on an island in the Pacific Ocean. Within months, several were dead.
Buzz Bissinger, an author best known for “Friday Night Lights,” has captured many of these men’s stories in his new book, “The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II,” which was published Tuesday. The book tells the stories of the men of the 4th and 29th Regiments of the 6th Marine Division and the game they played on Christmas Eve in 1944 in Guadalcanal before taking part in the Battle of Okinawa that April.
Some of the players from the game would go on to careers in the NFL, such as Houstin Smith of the Chicago Bears and John Genis of the Baltimore Colts. However, others like Tony Butkovich, who had been drafted by the Cleveland Rams in 1944, and Bob Bauman, who had been drafted to the Bears in 1943, died during the 82-day fight in Okinawa.
“If you merged the players from the 29th and the 4th into one team, it would not only have posed a challenge to any National Football League franchise, with proper training it most likely would have beaten most of them, as the aggregate included sixteen players who had already been drafted by pro football or would receive offers,” Bissinger wrote.
Bissinger wrote that while the regiments were stationed in Guadalcanal in 1944, the idea for a football game sprung up among the Marines.
“It was over a few beers that former collegiate football players in the 29th Regiment of the 6th Marine Division stood toe-to-toe with former collegiate football players of the 4th Regiment and made the emphatic claim that the 29th would kick the 4th’s ass if there was ever a football game between the two, which of course was preposterous in a place like Guadalcanal with a war going on,” he wrote.
The game, which was broadcast to military bases throughout the Pacific, had high stakes, at least for the Marines.
“It was a big game, not simply because of bragging rights but because of the betting: officers from the 4th alone had collectively put $3,000 on the outcome. Before the game, enlisted men wagered a day’s pay, a week’s pay, a month’s pay,” Bissinger wrote. “The likely presence of beer probably had a significant influence.”
Outside of the game ending with a 0-0 tie, not many aspects of the game are known, Bissinger wrote, but what was a fact was how rough the game eventually became.
“The players’ knees and elbows were a bloody mess from cuts inflicted by the coral on the field that in some cases later blew into infections even with proper first aid,” he wrote. “The game seesawed back and forth with near touchdowns and field goals, but nobody could score.”
One of the players mentioned in the book is Eli Kaluger, a corporal in the 29th who had been a lineman for the Alabama Crimson Tide in 1942 and also played on the baseball team under coach Paul F. Burnum during the 1943 season. Before being drafted, Kaluger had left UA to go back home to Ohio, where he joined Miami University’s football team.
At Okinawa, Kaluger was one of five men from the 29th who were injured in the battle. Kaluger, who was 23 at the time, was later awarded a Purple Heart and would go on to Texas after being discharged from the Marines, where he would play baseball for the Bryan Bombers in 1947 in the Lone Star League.
Years later, memories of Okinawa were still fresh for Kaluger.
“A piece of shrapnel whizzed by me,” Kaluger told the Orange County Register in 1985. “I know it has been 40 years, but as I look back it doesn’t seem that long.”
Kaluger died on March 20, 1995 and is buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Smith Township, Ohio. He was 73.
Outside of Kaluger, there was at least one other Marine with an Alabama connection who may have played in the game. Terry Frei, a former reporter for the Denver Post who wrote “Third Down and a War to Go” about the 1942 Wisconsin Badgers players who served during WWII, published a roster of the players in the game. Playing for the 4th, one player was simply listed as “Jones” and was from “Alabama Hi-School.”
In Bissinger’s book, there are references to “the kid from Alabama” and “a marine from Alabama,” but no name was given. According to Marine records, it is possible “Jones” could have been Don Lee Jones, who enlisted in 1943, although no information could be found on where he may have attended high school in Alabama. On May 20, 1945, Jones died in Okinawa on Horseshoe Ridge. He was 21.
Bissinger wrote that Jones was the ninth player from the game to die at Okinawa, where he was later buried.
“Until 1947, his family held out a slim hope that he might still be alive after they had not heard from him on Okinawa,” he wrote. “The Marines finally confirmed that he had died in action.”
Of those who played in the Mosquito Bowl, 12 died during the Battle of Okinawa, which claimed the lives of over 12,000 American soldiers.
Bissinger, who first started working on the book in 2017, said the work was a dedication to his father, Harry G. Bissinger, who also fought in Okinawa.
“Because many of those I wrote about were great college football players and my dad was a great sports fan, I have no doubt that he knew of them and maybe met some of them,” he wrote.