When United States military officials said the Rose Bowl game could not be played in Pasadena, Calif., after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 the game was shifted to Durham where Oregon State would play Duke.
Duke football coach Wallace Wade organized the game in about two weeks. Organizing in this case also meant convincing his players to participate.
The players had been excited to go to Pasadena. The Blue Devils team had been invited to visit with Hollywood stars, travel the country and see West Coast sites.
But spending another two weeks in Durham? Not so exciting, especially when many of the players knew they soon would be in the military and might not be home for Christmas for years.
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The initial vote was 25-2 against playing the game. Wade promised to give the players six days off for Christmas, and they still voted against playing, 17-10. Eventually, by a 15-12 margin, the Duke players agreed to play.
And history was made.
But the 20-14 Oregon State victory 75 years ago, on Jan. 1, 1942, was only the start of the story. Brian Curtis’ new book, “Fields of Battle,” not only reveals facts few people know about the game – such as the Blue Devils’ vote – but he follows the players through World War II and into their post-war lives.
“It started out as an article for Sports Illustrated, turned into a book about the Rose Bowl game in Durham, became a World War II book and ended up, I think, as a people book,” Curtis said last week from the Rose Bowl, where he was promoting the book.
I have written several stories about the game and interviewed a few of the principals, but I learned something new on almost every page. The book is fascinating as it reveals how Wade put the game together in a couple of weeks (Dec. 15 through Dec. 31).
Wade once told me that Duke’s performance in the game was hampered by him being distracted with off-the-field preparations and the players not having enough distractions. He mentioned the players having seen every movie at the local theater. I didn’t realize that he meant they didn’t want to spend their Christmas break in Durham. They wanted to go somewhere else. He cut back practice and let them go home.
But the book is most riveting following the game.
“More than seventy players and coaches from the 1942 Rose Bowl served in the armed services during the war, some in battle, others in support roles in the United States,” Curtis writes. “They stormed the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima and flew over Germany and Guadalcanal. They fought in Europe and in the Pacific and they did so with valor and courage.”
Oregon State had an active ROTC program and 29 of its 31 Rose Bowl players served in the war. Four players – Duke’s Walter Griffith, Al Hoover and Bob Nanni and Oregon State’s Everett Smith – died in the war. Their stories almost perished with them.
“I had assumed there would be a handful of players still around, but there were not,” Curtis said. “When I was lucky enough to find a brother, child or wife they invariably said their loved one never talked about what he did in the war.”
Curtis turned to declassified military archives. In many cases, he learned information that the relatives had never known.
“Telling them about their loved one’s war experiences, their heroic service, was one of the most rewarding aspects of the project,” Curtis said.
At age 52, Wade fought at Normandy, on the Siegfried line, in the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine during World War II. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Croix de Guerre with Palm from France.
He coached at Duke again after the war, from 1946-50, but he never was the same coach.
He had learned that making life and death decisions had nothing to do with football. Football didn’t seem as important anymore.
“I think the game had changed, too,” Curtis said. “He had been away five years, and he didn’t like a lot of the changes that had been made.”
Jim Smith, a former Duke end, is the the only living player from the game. He survived a kamikaze attack off Okinawa. He lives in Louisville, Ky., plays golf three days a week.
Curtis and Smith visited Durham last November. He spoke to the Duke team and was recognized at halftime.
Wade once was asked if the loss to Oregon State in the Durham Rose Bowl or Southern California scoring in the final seconds of the 1939 Rose Bowl to beat his 7-3 Blue Devils was the biggest disappointment of his life. Duke had been undefeated and unscored upon.
He replied the biggest disappointment of his life had been not being allowed to be among the first Americans to land at Normandy.
Buy the book
Fields of Battle: Pearl Harbor, The Rose Bowl, and the Boys Who Went to War
By Brian Curtis, Flatiron Press, 2016, $29.99
USC vs. Penn State
When: 5 p.m. Monday
Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.