A war story, “mosquito bowl” defines courage and duty

“The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II,” by Baz Besinger (Harper)

Little did the US Marines train for the invasion of the Japanese island of Okinawa know they would face the bloodiest battle in the Pacific theater of World War II. The nearly three-month battle in the summer of 1945 would cost the Marines, Army, and Navy nearly 13,000 dead and three times as much wounded.

The Japanese leadership accepted 60,000 to 100,000 deaths in action, and the loss of up to a third of the island’s civilian population, to demonstrate their resistance to the invasion of the Japanese mainland.

And who were the Marines training in Okinawa? Author Buzz Bissinger, whose bestselling non-fiction book “Friday Nights Lights” explored life shaped by high school football, taps into a footnote in Marine Corps history for “The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II,” Another story about football and a lot more.

As fate would—and fate often takes a hand in wartime—dozens of Marines at the Sixth Division training on the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal played college football, many of them American or all-conference players. An offhand observation that the two divisions’ 29th and 4th cohorts could each lead an all-star team to the so-called mosquito bowl on the bug-infested island led to Christmas Eve 1944.

The Marines brass and hundreds of other cowboys — many of whom placed bets on the outcome — gathered around a makeshift soccer field to watch the game and get a taste of home. The event even gained some Pacific radio broadcast and media attention in the United States. Sixty-five men of college football descent play in the Mosquito Bowl, and Bissinger’s compelling narration closely follows the lives of five of them:

–George Murphy, captain of the Notre Dame team and son of a writer in South Bend, Indiana.

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