GRAND JUNCTION – Wearing shorts, T-shirts and boot-like field shoes on Christmas Eve 1944, U.S. Marine lieutenants Walter “Bus” Bergman and George Murphy warmed up with the 29th Regiment’s football team on Guadalcanal, the battle-scarred island in the South Pacific.
The tentmates and buddies had been college team captains during their senior seasons – Murphy in 1942 at Notre Dame, Bergman in 1941 at Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Fort Collins. They were about to play with and against many other college stars in the Sixth Marine Division’s “Football Classic.”
Among the military men ringing the field, the frenetic wagering continued. Bergman and Murphy knew that if the 29th lost to the opposing 4th Regiment, many of their friends would have lighter wallets, or have to make good on IOUs.
Not compared to what was ahead.
They knew that if they survived the island fighting in the Pacific theater, they would consider themselves fortunate. For the rest of their lives.
From one year to the next, the “Greatest Generation” dwindles. From one year to the next, Bus Bergman loses more Marine friends.
Bergman has attended many reunions, including those tied to his student-athlete days, and also to his highly successful coaching career in Colorado. But when the men of the Sixth Marine Division Association hold conventions, look one another up in their travels, or open and read Christmas cards with “Semper Fi” under the signatures, the resummoned emotions are powerful. It is as if they again are young, slim and elite fighting men. Marines who served in the same platoons or companies, and were together when comrades fell in the Battle of Okinawa, have the strongest bonds.
“They say certain guys are heroes because they did this and that,” Bergman, 83, said recently in his Grand Junction home. “I say the heroes are those guys who never came back. I’ve thought about that a lot. I think about the 60 or 70 extra years I got on them. I know I was lucky.”
Bergman for years didn’t volunteer much information about his combat experiences, even to his children – Judy Black of Washington, Walter Jr. of Grand Junction and Jane Norton of Englewood, elected Colorado’s lieutenant governor in 2002. His wife, Elinor, also a Denver native, at times is compelled to point out things Bus neglects to mention.
Little things, such as the citation that accompanied his Bronze Star.
Eagles no match for Marines
Raised near the original Elitch Gardens in northwest Denver, Bergman was a three-sport star at Denver’s North High School. At Colorado A&M, he earned 10 letters in football, basketball and baseball, and also was student body president.
In February 1942, Bergman and Aggies teammate Red Eastlack drove to Denver to enlist in the Marines. The Marines’ preference was for upperclassmen to stay in college long enough to graduate. To publicize the officer training program, the Marine brass had the star athletes “sworn in” a second time at midcourt during halftime of an A&M-Wyoming basketball game. Bergman and Eastlack were playing for the Aggies in Fort Collins, so they toweled off the sweat and raised their right hands.
As he finished his classes, Bergman didn’t respond to an eye-popping $140-a-game contract sent by the Philadelphia Eagles. After receiving his degree, he went to boot camp and Officer Candidates School, then joined the 29th Regiment at Camp Lejeune, N.C. By August 1944, he was on Guadalcanal, the island in the Solomon Islands chain taken by U.S. forces in late 1942. There, the 29th Regiment became part of the newly formed Sixth Marine Division.
Bergman, George Murphy and former Boston University tackle Dave Mears were the platoon leaders in D Company of the 29th Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. The three lieutenants shared a tent, trained and waited.
“We built our own shower at the back of the tent with a 55-gallon drum,” Mears, a retired CPA, said recently from his home in Essex, Mass. “We got a shower head someplace, and we were all set. We were living high!
“Bus was a very easygoing person and very friendly, but when it came to doing his job, he was pretty serious. George was more serious than either of us, though. At the time, he was married and his wife had just had a baby. So he was further ahead than us that way.”
Looming over the Marines was the likelihood that they soon would be fighting.
“We didn’t know where we were going,” Bergman said. “But we knew it was going to be close to the (Japanese) mainland. Football and little things kept us away from all that talk. Plus, we spent a lot of time in that tent censoring the mail.”
“Marines had girlfriends all over the world, and they wrote to all of ’em. We had to read it, and we were supposed to cut things out, but nobody really said anything we had to worry about that way.”
One of the makeshift programs from the Marines’ game. Gametime was changed after publication to early morning to avoid the worst heat and the name of the field was misspelled.
After several pickup games on Guadalcanal, and many beer-fueled debates among Marines about which regiment had the best players, the “Football Classic” on Christmas Eve was scheduled. Organizers mimeographed rosters and lined up a public-address system, radio announcers, regimental bands and volunteer game officials. The field was the 29th’s parade ground, which had as much coral and gravel fragments as dirt, and no grass. It was christened Pritchard Field after Cpl. Thomas Pritchard, a member of a demolition squad killed in a demonstration gone array shortly before the game.
Crowd estimates ranged from 2,500 to 10,000. With no bleachers, Marines scrambled to stake out vantage points.
Maj. Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr., the Sixth Division’s commander, diplomatically watched the first half on one side of the field, then switched for the second half.
Former college standouts George Murphy of Notre Dame, Dave Mears of Boston U., and Denver native Bus Bergman of Colorado State/A&M as Marine tentmates. All three played for the 29th Regiment in the Marines’ Christmas Eve game on Guadalcanal. One would be among the 12 players from the game to die in battle on Okinawa.Photo courtesy Bergman family
Bergman started in the 29th’s backfield, lining up with halfback Bud Seelinger, formerly of Wisconsin; fullback Tony Butkovich, the nation’s leading rusher in 1943 at Purdue and the Cleveland Rams’ No. 1 draft choice in 1944; and quarterback Frank Callen, from St. Mary’s of California. Murphy was one end and player-coach Chuck Behan, formerly of the Detroit Lions, was the other. Behan captained the 29th Regiment squad. The 4th Regiment team captain was Dave Schreiner, a two-time All-American at Wisconsin and winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football as the Big Ten’s most valuable player in 1942.
The 4th Regiment’s backfield included quarterback Bob Spicer, a sergeant from Leavenworth, Kan., who had played guard at Colorado in 1942.
The game was spirited, violent and inconclusive.
Neither team scored.
The ‘Mosquito Bowl’
Spicer intercepted a pass on the last play of the game.
“It was two hands above the waist,” Spicer said of the rules last week from his home in Park Ridge, Ill., “but it could be a two-handed jab to the shoulder, guts or knees. It was fun!”
Bergman said, “We hadn’t gotten to practice much, and that’s why it was a 0-0 game, even with all the talent we had.”
John McLaughry, a former Brown University star and ex-New York Giant in the 4th Marines, served as a playing assistant coach and played next to Spicer in the backfield. He and his 4th Regiment teammates wore light green T-shirts and dungarees, a better choice than the 29th’s shorts.
“It didn’t get out of hand,” McLaughry said recently from his home in Providence, R.I. “But it came pretty close.”
McLaughry wrote to his parents the day after the game.
“It was really a Lulu, and as rough hitting and hard playing as I’ve ever seen,” he said in the letter. “As you may guess, our knees and elbows took an awful beating due to the rough field with coral stones here and there, even though the 29th did its best to clean them all up. My dungarees were torn to hell in no time, and by the game’s end my knees and elbows were a bloody mess.”
In the letter, McLaughry said the stars were Dave Schreiner and Bob Herwig, a lineman at California in the mid-1930s. Bergman said Herwig was best-known among the men for being the husband of Katherine Windsor, author of the controversial, banned-in-Boston historical novel, “Forever Amber.” Herwig originally was ticketed to be one of the two game officials and was listed as such on the program. He couldn’t resist playing.
Sgt. Harold T. Boian, a Marine Corps combat correspondent who later became advertising director for the Denver Post, wrote a dispatch that was distributed by United Press and ran in many newspapers. Because of wartime secrecy, his story began:
“SOMEWHERE IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC – (Delayed) – (U.P.) – Tropical heat and the lack of equipment failed to stop the leathernecks of the Sixth Marine division when they decided it was football time back home. They arranged the Mosquito Bowl football classic.”
Boian listed many of the well-known players in the game. He didn’t mention Hank Bauer, who spelled Spicer at quarterback, a blocking position in the single wing. Bauer came to the Marines from East St. Louis (Ill.) High School and would go on to fame as a major-league baseball player, and as a manager.
Survivors don’t remember it being called the “Mosquito Bowl” at the time, and that name wasn’t used on the program.
Because the game was a tie, all wagers were “pushes.”
Bergman and the Sixth Division continued training, then left Guadalcanal for Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Islands, about 400 miles south of Japan.
“I remember that just as we were getting ready to load on our landing craft, one P-38 (fighter plane) flew over us and I felt like I could reach up and touch it,” Bergman said. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
Part of a multiservice command operating as a Tenth Army expeditionary force, the Marines went ashore on the western beaches of Okinawa on Easter, April 1, 1945. The landings were unopposed. The Japanese would make their stands elsewhere.
Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill
The 29th Marines first moved up to the northern end of the island, roughly 65 miles long.
“The only men we lost were from mines and booby traps in caves,” Bergman said. “We lost our machine gun officer and mortar officer going in one of the caves. But then we came back to the lower third, and that’s where all the trouble was.”
In the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill, Murphy and Mears both were hit on May 15.
The Tenth Army’s official Okinawa combat history, published three years later, said Murphy first ordered “an assault with fixed bayonets” against Japanese forces.
“The Marines reached the top and immediately became involved in a grenade battle with the enemy,” the combat historians wrote. “Their supply of 350 grenades was soon exhausted.
“Lieutenant Murphy asked his company commander, Capt. Howard L. Mabie, for permission to withdraw, but Captain Mabie ordered him to hold the hill at all costs. By now the whole forward slope of Sugar Loaf was alive with gray eddies of smoke from mortar blasts, and Murphy ordered a withdrawal on his own initiative. Covering the men as they pulled back down the slope, Murphy was killed by a fragment when he paused to help a wounded Marine.”
A Marine correspondent wrote of Murphy’s death at the time. That story was carried in many U.S. newspapers in May. It had Murphy making multiple trips to help carry the wounded to an aid station before he was hit as he rested. It added: “Irish George staggered to his feet, aimed over the hill and emptied his pistol in the direction of the enemy. Then he fell dead.”
Said Bergman, “One of the men in his platoon told me he pulled out his pistol and unloaded it.”
In the battle, 49 of the 60 men in Murphy’s platoon were killed or wounded.
Also on May 15, Mears’ platoon was approaching Sugar Loaf when he felt a flash of pain.
“They said it was a machine gun, and it was one bullet through my thigh,” Mears said.
Mears was evacuated to an airfield that night, then flown to Guam the next day, where he heard of Murphy’s death.
“Oh, that one was really bad,” he said. “He was just such a terrific guy. That was a real low blow.”
Mears paused, then added, “But there were so many of them …”
Suddenly, Bergman was the only tentmate remaining in the battle.
“Then all the outfits got hit pretty hard,” Bergman said. “Our company went up with others on the 18th and 19th (of May), took the hill, and stayed there. The Japs were beat up pretty good by then, and we got good tank support.
“By that last night on Sugar Loaf, I was the executive officer. I organized a couple of guys to carry ammunition and stuff to different companies up there that night. We took guys down to the first-aid tent, not so many of the wounded, but several who cracked up from the stress of the whole deal.”
In the Bronze Star citation, Maj. Gen. Shepherd said the Coloradan “organized carrying parties and supervised the distribution and delivery (of supplies) to all three companies throughout the night. When time permitted, 1st Lieut. Bergman visited the troops on the line, exposing himself to enemy fire, speaking to many, reassuring and encouraging them during the enemy’s intense counterattacks.”
U.S. forces held the hill.
Spicer, the former Colorado player in the 4th Regiment, was wounded twice on Okinawa. He suffered a shrapnel wound in the arm, but was back in the battle at the end.
“We were coming north after cleaning up the bottom of the island,” he said. “I jumped over a ditch and found a bunch of Japanese soldiers lying there. I guess somebody threw a grenade at me. That’s how I lost my eye.”
Spicer said that so matter-of-factly. “That’s how I lost my eye.”
‘Part of the game plan’
By July 2, when the campaign was declared over, 12 players in the Football Classic had died on Okinawa.
“It was just part of the game plan,” Bergman said, shrugging and summoning a sports analogy for war, reversing the usual practice. “We knew it was going to happen, and it did happen.”
After the island was secure, Bergman visited Murphy’s grave at the Sixth Marine Division Cemetery.
“It was real tough,” Bergman recalled softly. He struggled to say something else, then settled for repeating: “It was real tough.”
On that visit, he took a picture of Murphy’s white cross and grave. He still has a tiny print.
Murphy never met his daughter, born in July 1944.
Like Murphy, the two team captains in the game, Schreiner and Behan, both died in battle.
The other nine Football Classic players killed in action:
–Wisconsin tackle Bob Baumann.
–Michigan center Bob Fowler.
–Lehigh tackle John Hebrank.
–Southern Methodist tackle Hubbard Hinde.
–Marquette halfback Rusty Johnston.
–Wake Forest and Duke halfback Johnny Perry.
–Amherst end Jim Quinn.
–Cornell tackle Ed Van Order.
They were “only” a dozen among 2,938 Marines killed or missing in action on Okinawa. U.S. Army dead and missing numbered 4,675.
Many of the survivors, including Bergman, were ticketed to serve in an invasion of Japan. Bergman was given a “G-2” summary of the Sixth Marine Division’s strategy on Okinawa. In the letter on the first page from Maj. Gen. Shepherd, dated Aug. 1, 1945, the Sixth Division’s commanding officer declared: “I believe that the lessons learned at so dear a price on (Okinawa) should be published and distributed for the benefit of combat units who will land again on Japanese soil.”
New President Harry S. Truman approved the use of atomic bombs against Japan, and they were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August.
“We were real happy it was going to end the war,” Bergman said. “Before that, we knew we were going to go to the mainland.”
Instead, the invasion of Japan was unnecessary after the September surrender, and Bergman’s unit drew occupation duty in China.
Spicer returned to Boulder, lettered three more seasons for the Buffaloes at guard and was the team captain in 1948. Incredibly, he did it with one eye. After a long career in the banking business, he retired in 1989.
In 1946, Bergman returned to Fort Collins and earned his master’s degree. He went into coaching at Fort Lewis College in Durango, then moved to Mesa College in Grand Junction in 1950. He coached the Mesa football and baseball teams, and the baseball team three times was the runner-up in the national junior college tournament – an event Bergman helped Grand Junction land as the annual host. He retired from coaching in 1974, and from the faculty in 1980. He was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
Bergman often thinks about his Marine buddies.
About those who survived the war. And about those who didn’t.