U.S. Marines and a football game in WWII

October 3, 2023

Pictured (L-R) are U.S. Marine 1st Lieutenant David Scheiner and U.S. Marine Corporal Anthony Butkovich during the Mosquito Bowl, December 24, 1944.

Few Americans today remember the then-famous Mosquito Bowl

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating football games in the history of the sport is the one-time Mosquito Bowl played on the island of Guadalcanal during the final December of World War II. Though little had been written about that game until Pulitzer-winning Buzz Bissinger’s book, THE MOSQUITO BOWL: A GAME OF LIFE AND DEATH IN WORLD WAR II, was released in late 2022, the ballgame was played by battle-weary U.S. Marines who were destined to land, fight, and some of them lose their young lives on Okinawa a few short months after the Guadalcanal game was played on Christmas Eve 1944.

Bissinger, by the way, is best known for FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, the New York Times bestselling tale of a high school football team in Odessa, Texas (1990).

Last night when I decided to review the book I wasn’t sure where to begin or how. I didn’t want to simply critique or describe the book in the traditional “template” if you will of a book review, but I knew I had to write something about it, so I that’s what I’m doing here.

There’s so much about this thoroughly Marine Corps story, why it spoke to me, how I learned about it which I’ll share momentarily, and why I began to love the story even before I had turned the first page. One line in the book struck me right off the bat because I had heard it similarly expressed many times before. Though it had little to do with the game itself, the author was discussing why the newly formed Marine Raiders (Marine riflemen trained and organized for special operations, amphibious raids, diversionary attacks in support of larger amphibious assaults, etc.) were being disbanded in 1944, the year of the big game.

According to Bissinger: “An elite [Marine] fighting unit was redundant since all Marines were elite fighters.”

Yes, that, and I remember from myriad other World War II stories over the years wherein senior U.S. Marine leaders argued that no one man in the Corps was superior to another, particularly in Marine Infantry and reconnaissance units. That truth has been so deeply rooted in Marine culture for decades that it was one of the primary reasons U.S. Marines resisted official membership in the U.S Special Operations Command (SOCOM) until Marine Raiders were reconstituted in 2006 and the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (aka MARSOC) immediately became part of SOCOM.

Culture is after all everything in the Corps, and the 1944 Mosquito Bowl is part of that unique culture.

Bissinger’s MOSQUITO BOWL details that then-famous South Pacific football game played nearly 80 years ago between two teams formed from two Marine regiments: The 4th Marines, the oldest regiment in the Marine Corps, and the since-deactivated 29th Marines both within the since-deactivated 6th Marine Division.

Aptly dubbed Mosquito Bowl; the hot, humid, insect-infested USMC football game was broadcast on U.S. armed forces radio stations all across the Pacific, and it actually received quite a bit of media coverage here in the United States. But after the war – really after that terrible battle of Okinawa and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the Mosquito Bowl was largely forgotten. Beyond the actual game, Bissinger’s book also chronicles the lives of several of the participating Marines and what they were experiencing in the Pacific War. And it is in fact an historically accurate primer on Marines fighting in WWII. Bissinger cut no corners in his research.

An article published last year in the Associated Press stated: “All [the Marine football players highlighted in the book] were in their 20s when they fought [three months later] at Okinawa, Japan, an experience that would change them just as it would hundreds of thousands of other Americans as well as their families and friends. While plenty of other able-bodied men didn’t let the war disrupt their lives, these men – many of whom were All-American or All-conference players – postponed offers to play in the NFL, begin careers, marry or start their own families, to join the fight.”

According to the book: “Of the 65 men who were listed on the rosters of the two regimental teams for the Mosquito Bowl, 56 had played college football. Most of the rest had played in high school. The remaining handful just wanted in on the mayhem.”

Among those with college football pedigrees, 22 had been starters on teams at major college football programs then mostly Ivy League schools, a few midwestern teams and a few from the South. Sixteen players had either been drafted by the pros or they had received offers. Five were former college team captains. Three were All-Americans. Again they were all Marines, and perhaps that’s the point.

Described by the UK’s The Guardian as “three hours of pure joy amidst the horrors of war,” the game ended in a scoreless 0-0 tie which speaks to both teams’ defenses, or their lack of offense. But as a Marine, it almost feels like heresy to suggest the latter.

Even crazier is that weeks earlier, the 29th Marines challenged 4th Marines to a preliminary matchup. The 4th Marines tied the 29th Marines, 0-0, which the 4th considered an upset since they’d had less time to practice than the 29th and the 29th had more star players. Then a week before the Mosquito Bowl, the 4th Marines pulled together a team from its regimental weapons company (mostly enlisted Marines) and played the 4th’s officers in a pre-bowl “full contact” scrimmage that was also scoreless through three quarters until weapons company scored a safety in the fourth, and that was that.

Unlike college, Mosquito Bowl rules stipulated two-handed touch above the waist, no tackling because the players did not have pads, and the Navy’s medical officers did not want the Marines killing themselves in a football game. But no football game played by Marines – at least as I remember during my own time in the Corps – is without full contact and tackling regardless of rules, base regs, and whether or not the men had headgear and pads. Injuries? Of course. Marines on Guadalcanal in 1944 were no exception.

When I was telling my near-89-year-old mom about the Mosquito Bowl, her initial reaction was “Why would they be playing football in the middle of a war?” Then she thought for a moment and answered her own question: “They were just kids and wanted some semblance of home, normalcy, and fun in their lives.” Of course!

Not to mention it was Christmas.

The sad ending to this story is that 15 of those Mosquito Bowl Marines would perish a few months later during the hellish fighting on Okinawa.

As much as I love and have been a student of Marine Corps history, I had never heard of the Mosquito Bowl and I only learned about Bissinger’s book at a family gathering at my sister’s last weekend. My Aunt Sandy Rollings’ husband Bob Rollings, a former Gamecock pitcher (scholarship ballplayer his sophomore, junior and senior years at the University of South Carolina) and a retired baseball coach, history teacher, and administrator at Irmo High School was telling me about MOSQUITO BOWL, and why he thought I might enjoy the book. He was right.

As a former Marine who deployed in the mid-1980s to the Western Pacific as a rifle-squad leader and who spent six months on Okinawa and elsewhere, I’m very familiar with the WWII fighting in the Pacific, which as mentioned the book also covers. And I have a reasonably solid command (without researching) of which specific USMC units – both Raiders and regular-line rifle companies – were deployed, where they landed, and when. But I did not know about the Mosquito Bowl, another truly unique bit of Marine lore, which again speaks to the uniqueness and manly tough competitiveness of the Marine Corps overall.

Great read. Hard to put down. God Bless and Semper Fi.


– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine Infantry leader and a New York Times bestselling editor. Visit him at http://uswriter.com.