Skip to content
Football That Really is a Matter of Life and Death
Go to my account

Football That Really is a Matter of Life and Death

'Friday Night Lights' for The Greatest Generation

View of United States Coast Guard commander (and former professional boxer) Jack Dempsey (1895 - 1983) and his crewmates in a landing craft as they head for the beach, Okinawa, Japan, April 13, 1945. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)

My dad served in the Pacific theater during WWII. He was in the Army Air Corps, a radio operator on cargo planes flying “Over the Hump”—the Himalayas—from India to China to supply allied troops. It was dangerous duty, both because of enemy aircraft and the challenge of traversing such rough terrain, often in less-than-ideal weather conditions. He never talked about it. I never asked him. He died 20 years ago. 

After reading Buzz Bissinger’s new book, The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II, I regret more than ever having missed that opportunity. The Greatest Generation is almost gone—all of the first-person accounts in the book came from men in their 90s—and this book is a powerfully disturbing yet necessary reminder of what those men did for us.

Bissinger is best known for having written Friday Night Lights, the definitive book about what is all-but-literally a matter of life and death to many Texans: high school football. Who better, then, to tell a story built around a nominally touch football game played on Christmas Eve of 1944 between two rather bored Regiments of the 6th Marine Division on Guadalcanal as they trained for the invasion of Okinawa, the bloodiest battle of the war in the Pacific. (“Nominally” touch football because the game quickly devolved into tackle; these were, after all, marines.)

Bissinger is a master portraitist. While Friday Night Lights portrays boys who see football as a way to give heft and meaning to a rather bland quotidian life—and perhaps a way out of it—in The Mosquito Bowl, Bissinger has us look through the other end of the telescope. On Guadalcanal the men knew that the Mosquito Bowl was just a two-hour diversion before they would have to enter the hellscape that awaited them: “Boredom led to anxiety; anxiety led to sights and sounds and smells you could not shed of shit and blood and once-human carcasses turning black with bloat or green with flies or white with a million squirming maggots, which led to fear, and fear never relented no matter how much you had already witnessed and how numb you already felt.”

This book is not an easy read.

Sixty-five marines played in the Mosquito Bowl, 56 of whom had played college ball. Several of the rest had played in high school. “The remaining handful,” writes Bissinger, “just wanted in on the mayhem.” Many of them had been stars, some even All-Americans, at such colleges as Wisconsin, Purdue, and Notre Dame. Sixteen had been drafted by or received offers from a second-fiddle-to-college-ball NFL that was a far cry from the bread-and-circuses, fighter-jet-flyover spectacle that it is today.

The players in the Mosquito Bowl were not shiny new recruits. Bissinger recreates the atmospherics of a patrol that one Mosquito Bowler had been on during the fight for Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands, months before the game: “The jungle could make you feel as though you were going mad, pressing in, on your hands and knees searching for a hole in the undergrowth, looking up to see nothing but black because of the tree cover, strings of thorny vines a massive spider’s web, knotted roots of trees crawling over one another like snakes, sharp blades of kunai grass up to your shoulders, young vegetation strangling old, the simultaneous smell of birth and death.” Scores of such evocative accounts are the book’s core strength.

The game itself takes up just ten of the book’s 341 pages, and they mostly describe the pageantry: marching bands; printed programs, including the height, weight, and collegiate affiliation of the players; a live broadcast on The Mosquito Network, a part of the Armed Forces Radio Service; the commanding officers of each Regiment shaking hands at midfield before kickoff, à la the Army-Navy game.

The makeshift field was a parade ground from which as many shards of coral as possible had been picked—but there were still enough to cause plenty of cuts and gashes once the devolution to tackle football took place. There were no play-by-play accounts of the game, and it ended in a 0–0 tie. A fitting score for brothers-in-arms trying to distract themselves from the real enemy they were about to face together.

In the first part of the book—pre-game, if you will— Bissinger introduces us to three American archetypes:

The east coast prep school all-star, John McLaughry. Class president at Brown University, star of the football team, heavyweight boxing champion, and a track-and-field hammer thrower who would have made the 1940 Olympics had there been a 1940 Olympics. 

The respectful midwesterner, David Schreiner. While at the University of Wisconsin he wrote a letter to himself: an improvement plan. If you read the letter, you would have thought that he wasn’t particularly accomplished. But among other things, he was a consensus All-American on the football team.

And then there was the scrappy working-class kid, the marine with the perfect football name, Tony Butkovich. He played college football at Illinois and was one of seven brothers, all of whom were known by their nicknames. Tony was “Blondie.” The others were Scrap, Jargo, Boul, Diz, Koja, and Sonny. 

After the Mosquito Bowl, Bissinger walks us through how the trio, and their fellow marines, performed in the Battle of Okinawa in disturbingly affecting prose.

A rifleman with Company G of the 29th Regiment “knew the fear would only multiply when he was moving forward on attack out into the open, totally exposed, with no foxhole to take along with him, so f— naked, feeling like the only person on the face of the earth with all those blasts of smoke and fire and shrapnel that had somehow not already obliterated him or made him stark raving crazy because you should be stark raving crazy, saved by the adrenaline rush that kept you moving.”

After the USS Bush has been hit by a kamikaze aircraft: “Brody is badly burned, and fellow seamen are trying to apply ointment. The skin comes off in their hands. ‘Thanks for trying to help me,’ he says and jumps into the ocean to drown.”

There are many more such examples.

As the book draws to a close, it offers vignettes about a number of Mosquito Bowl participants, each ending with this same somber cadence:

Edmund Van Order, Jr., was the sixth player from the Mosquito Bowl to die.

He was buried on Okinawa in 6th Marine Division Cemetery No. 1, Grave 149, Row 6, Plot B.

He was twenty-four years old.

What at first seems like merely rhetorical parallelism develops into an evocation of the sad majesty of the rows upon rows of a cemetery’s grave markers.

Roughly 13,000 men from the US Army, Navy, and Marines were killed or declared MIA during the Battle of Okinawa. The Mosquito Bowl brings those statistics to life by telling the story of 65 men who played in a touch-then-tackle football game, more than a dozen of whom were killed and another 20 wounded on Okinawa. (Spoiler alert: Simple probability suggests that McLaughry, Schreiner, and Butkovich would not all survive.)

In retrospect, the book can be summarized by three sentences from its preface, which begins: “My father was a marine at Okinawa.” It ends: “I so terribly want to tell him how proud I am of his duty on those killing fields. The book is my way of doing so.”

Bissinger has done his father proud. He has done all of us—and our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers—a service as well.

Update, December 10, 2022: This article has been updated since its original publication.

John Guaspari, an aerospace engineer by training, became a management consultant and is the author of seven business-related books He lives in Walpole, Massachusetts.