All photos courtesy of Duke University Archives
All photos courtesy of Duke University Archives

War and Roses

On New Year’s Day in 1942, with the U.S. gripped by war, the Rose Bowl made an extraordinary visit to Duke. Why the Blue Devils lost that day—and ultimately won
Writer: 
November 30, 2011
 
IN DECEMBER 1944, amid the snow-crusted mountains of southern Belgium, Wallace Wade happened upon a young infantryman making coffee. Wade, a lieutenant colonel in the Army’s 106th Infantry Division, had been chasing Hitler’s army for seven months, commanding an artillery battalion that had fought the Germans at Normandy and helped force them out of France. But the relentless combat and the encroaching chill of winter were taking a toll. Wade’s men were out of ammunition and low on food. He himself hadn’t eaten in two days.
Bowl Durham

Bowl Durham: In the only Rose Bowl ever held away from Pasadena, Duke (with white stripes on uniforms) faced Oregon State on a muddy Duke Stadium field. A ticket to the game, inset, cost $4.40.

Cold and famished, Wade asked the soldier for some of his coffee. A round-faced, stout young man in his early twenties, the soldier poured a cup for Wade and then gathered some food. He didn’t appear to recognize Wade as anything but a superior officer. But as the men chatted, they realized their paths had crossed before. They had met almost exactly three years earlier, on a soggy New Year’s Day in Durham.

Ironically, the day was one Wade often wanted to forget. It had been his final game as coach of the Duke Blue Devils before enlisting in the Army, what was supposed to be the crown on a golden season. Instead, he walked away in disappointment and defeat. The soldier, whose name was Stanley Czech, had been a tackle for the victors that day.

But in another light— one that seemed clearer in the midst of a war half a world from home—the game had been a stunning success, if only for the fact that it was played at all.

Cars began to flood onto Main Street as soon as the news reached Durham. Horns blaring, windows rolled open to the late November air, they filled the artery between campus and downtown, forming a slow-moving parade of spontaneous joy. Young men in Sunday blazers piled onto convertible sedans, shouting to each other: Pasadena! Here we come!

Mad rush

Mad rush: Duke’s ticket office was overrun with orders for the Durham game, which sold out in three days.

In 1941, no one argued about the most prestigious of college football’s bowl games. The Rose Bowl was king. The oldest of the bowls, it was also the most transcontinental, pitting champions from east and west, something that rarely happened in those days. As a result, the game often served as a barometer of regional football power. When Alabama upset Washington in 1926, it helped legitimize the Crimson Tide— and Southern football, generally—as worthy of the national stage.

Sixteen years later, the man who coached Alabama in that game was at Duke, crafting a new legend. Wallace Wade had stunned the sports illuminati when in 1931, at the age of thirty-nine, he left Alabama to coach at Duke, a university with a splendid new Gothic campus, but comparatively little football glory. He quickly changed that, leading the Blue Devils to Southern Conference championships in 1933, 1935, 1936, and 1938. But he had yet to bring a bowl trophy to Durham. His only previous opportunity, the 1939 Rose Bowl, had proved demoralizing: After not allowing a point to be scored against them all season, the Blue Devils gave up a touchdown in the final minute of the game, giving Southern Cal a 7-3 victory. Following the loss, Wade had irked Los Angeles reporters when he declined to shake hands with the Southern Cal player who threw the game-winning pass. Although he denied spiteful motives— he said he wanted to congratulate Southern Cal’s coach first—sportswriters pilloried the coach in print, only deepening the frustration of the trip.

Collector’s item: A game program

Collector’s item: A game program

Wade had hungered for a chance at redemption, and his 1941 team had delivered one. Once again, the Blue Devils had galloped effortlessly through the regular season, winning their nine games by an average margin of thirty points. The Associated Press ranked them second in the country, behind only Minnesota. In Pasadena, Duke would face Oregon State, a team few had expected to contend for a bowl bid. Early on, the Beavers appeared destined to prove their doubters right, losing two of their first four games, before rallying to win five straight and claim the Pacific Coast Conference title.

And so, as the long procession slinked toward downtown that Sunday afternoon, most Duke fans liked their odds. Students and townspeople began making plans to make the 2,500-mile journey to southern California. One package offered a crosscountry train ticket, hotel accommodations, and a side trip to the Grand Canyon for $181. At the Western Union office, students lined up to send wires home, many of them begging for money to purchase a ticket.

For the next week, the campus brimmed with festive anticipation. And then it shuddered. Late on the afternoon of Sunday, December 7—almost exactly one week after it rejoiced with news of the bowl game—Duke was thrown into sudden mourning. Teletype machines clattered with horrible details of the brutal attack on Pearl Harbor. As students scrambled for maps to locate the naval base, a solemn reality was beginning to dawn. The U.S. was at war.

Two nights later, students huddled around portable radios to listen to President Roosevelt’s radio address. The speech, calling for national sacrifice in a long, arduous war, hardly struck a mood for football. “College seems rather unimportant now,” remarked Duke student John W. Kennedy ’42, A.M. ’47 to a Durham newspaper reporter, “and the Rose Bowl doesn’t seem very significant.”

There was historical precedent for abandoning sports in the wake of war: In 1918, following America’s entry into World War I, the War Department ordered an early end to the major-league baseball season. The Olympic Games of 1940, scheduled to take place in Helsinki, had been similarly nixed. Some pundits thought college football should follow suit, keeping the nation’s focus squarely on the front. “In the light of this historic and unprecedented crisis,” wrote the Charlotte Observer in an editorial, “the nation needs to turn itself to more practical pursuits than those of any program of pleasure.” Others argued sports were important for maintaining morale and bolstering patriotism.

California Dreaming

California dreaming: Students celebrated news of Duke’s invitation to Pasadena, only to find out two weeks later there would be no game in California.

With no official pronouncement on the bowl, Duke went about the business of readying for the game. The team carried on with daily drills the week after Pearl Harbor, expecting to board a train for Pasadena the following Saturday. On December 13, however, California governor Culbert Olson informed Rose Bowl officials that he had received a request from Lieutenant General John DeWitt, commander of the Army’s West Coast operations, to cancel the game. DeWitt thought the game and the Tournament of Roses Parade, which combined drew more than a million spectators, posed too great a security risk, given the Japanese offensives in the Pacific.

What few in Durham realized was that Duke officials, anticipating the bowl might be canceled, had been quietly planning an alternative. That same day, Wade and Dean William Wannamaker issued an invitation to Oregon State athletics director Percy Locey to play the game in Durham, “either with Rose Bowl sanction or otherwise.” Although groups in Chicago, St. Louis, and New York were similarly organizing offers to host the bowl, Locey was eager to realize something from the school’s first Rose Bowl bid. Durham was certainly a defensible choice: Duke’s football stadium, built twelve years earlier, was the largest in the South outside of the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. And as Wade had so proudly noted in his invitation, “Our climate at New Year’s is usually favorable for football.”

A day later, Locey accepted the offer. Duke might not be headed to the Rose Bowl, but the Rose Bowl was headed to Duke.

War and Roses

All photos courtesy of Duke University Archives

They waited in the thin light of dawn, important men, dressed in suits and ties, overcoats, and fedoras. The governor was there; the mayor, too. A few had gone ahead to Greensboro to meet the train at five o’clock in the morning, only to learn its passengers were still asleep. The rest waited at Durham’s Union Station, glancing at watches, straining to hear the sound of an approaching whistle. By 8:15 a.m., when the Southern Pacific Railway engine puffed into the station, 2,000 people crowded onto Church Street, eager to greet their guests from the West.

Just ten days had passed since Durham had inherited the Rose Bowl, but the city had been steeped in preparations for the event. Duke borrowed metal bleachers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State to close in the end of its horseshoe stadium, expanding capacity to 55,000. New grass was planted on the field. At the athletics department, extra workers were brought in to answer phones and process ticket requests, which came flooding in from everywhere. Reportedly, crooner Bing Crosby ordered 271 seats over the phone. The new batch of tickets sold out in three days.

Friends and foes

Friends and foes: Oregon State’s players were all smiles at a Christmas dinner in the West Campus Union, above. On game day, however, Duke’s holiday spirit would turn sour, above.

The game had won the approval of the Tournament of Roses Association, the bowl’s sanctioning body in Pasadena, meaning it would have all the trappings of an official Rose Bowl. But Wade warned there would be some concessions to the calendar. “We won’t attempt to match the Tournament of Roses spectacle—a show that has been in preparation for fifty years—on two weeks’ notice,” he cautioned. There would be no plans for an elaborate parade, for example. The tournament’s queen would be crowned in a simple ceremony three days before the game.

In lieu of pageantry, Durham’s plan was to pummel visitors with an unrelenting flurry of Southern hospitality. Townspeople wore ribbons on their lapels that read, “Welcome, Rose Bowl visitors.” Nearly every storefront on Main Street displayed a wreath celebrating the event. The arrival of the Oregon State team on Christmas Eve morning was regarded as a critical charm offensive. As the players disembarked, still bleary from their six-day cross-country journey, a local high-school marching band regaled them. Martin Chaves, the team’s captain, was presented with a framed certificate making him honorary mayor for the day. In short order, the traveling party was whisked off for a tour of Duke and breakfast.

George Bertz, the sports editor of the Portland Journal, wrote that during its week in Durham the traveling party “has been feted to a Queen’s taste.” On Christmas, the players dined on Virginia baked ham and North Carolina sweet potatoes at Duke’s West Campus Union. Durham merchants assembled elaborate gift boxes for each team member containing cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and locally made hosiery. A few nights later, the Chamber of Commerce hosted the visitors for barbecue at Josh Turnage’s restaurant. The Kiwanis weighed in with a New Year’s Eve kickoff lunch. The Beaver players were fed and entertained so often that their coach, Lon Stiner, would joke it was a conspiracy to weaken his team.

Undeterred: Durham fans lined up early on New Year’s Day to claim their seats.

Undeterred: Durham fans lined up early on New Year’s Day to claim their seats.

Most in Durham welcomed the distraction from the sobering news of the war. But it would be naive to say the event united Durham in celebration. If anything, the national spotlight brought to the fore a few tensions that welled deep in the city. Duke angered many in Durham’s African-American community, for example, when it initially refused to sell Rose Bowl tickets to African Americans, although the university had made a small, segregated bloc of tickets available for other games. Durham’s black newspaper, the Carolina Times, published an article claiming that Duke would allow Japanese fans into the Rose Bowl before it admitted blacks. Duke eventually reversed its decision and released a few hundred seats for African-American fans.

As the Times editorial suggests, racism against the Japanese and Japanese Americans was also rising in wartime America. With the country determined to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific theater, a tide of fear and paranoia swept over the home front, prompting the government to strip thousands of Americans with Japanese blood of their rights. And football, often imagined as a diversion from war, was not immune from its infections. Two weeks before the game, Oregon State reserve back Jack Yoshihara, who was born in Japan but had lived in Oregon since he was three years old, was told he would not be allowed to play in the Rose Bowl because of government-imposed travel restrictions on Japanese Americans. He was forced to quit the team and later was interned at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. It wasn’t until 1985 that Oregon State awarded him a Rose Bowl ring.

Packed house

Packed house: Temporary seats in the end zone and above the permanent stands expanded Duke Stadium’s capacity to more than 55,000 for the event.
Duke University Archives

When the day finally arrived, it came bearing bad omens. Most concerning was the weather. Durham woke on January 1, 1942, to a thick blanket of ashen clouds that doused the city in cold, relentless rain. By game time, the temperature barely topped forty degrees. Many fans donned oilcloth table liners to keep the rain at bay. At least one group started a fire in the stands in a futile search for warmth.

The wet conditions did not bode well for the Blue Devils, whose high-scoring, single- wing offense relied on speed and misdirection. By game time, the grass that had been planted just two weeks earlier was a ruddy, muddy mess, bound to slow down Duke’s powerful running game. But the rain may have done more to dampen Duke’s spirit. Jim Smith ’44, a senior end for the Blue Devils, would later remark, “I’ve never seen so much rain in all my life.” The visitors from drippy Oregon, on the other hand, felt right at home. One Beaver player described the day as merely “misty.”

Whether because of the rain or not, the game started inauspiciously for Duke. A Blue Devil fumbled the opening kickoff, setting the tone for a sloppy day. Two more fumbles and four interceptions would follow. The turnovers forced Wade’s team to scramble out of trouble all day. And yet they had chances. Just before halftime, a Duke receiver dropped a pass in the end zone, costing the Blue Devils a go-ahead touchdown. Then, in the third quarter with Duke trailing 14-7, All-American halfback Steve Lach ’42 looped around left end for a thirty-nine-yard run. Three plays later, fullback Winston Siegfried ’42 plowed into the end zone to tie the game. It seemed Duke was finally regaining its form. On the sideline, Wade was reminded of now his Alabama team had stormed back to defeat Washington and told an assistant, “It looks like 1926 all over again.”

But it wasn’t to be. On the Beavers’ next possession, Oregon State halfback Bob Dethman found Gene Gray open deep in Duke’s backfield. Gray caught the pass, sidestepped a Duke tackler, and raced thirty yards to the end zone to make the score 20-14. The Beavers missed the extra point, but they wouldn’t need it.

Duke’s offense made valiant work of trying to score in the final period, probing into Oregon State territory on three drives. Each time, the crowd tensed with expectation, sure that the game would finally swing in Duke’s favor. But the stout Beaver defense thwarted every volley. Duke’s defensive line did force a safety, pinning Oregon State’s Don Durdan in his own end zone, to narrow the score to 20- 16. But the score would get no closer. With the seconds slipping away on Duke’s perfect season—and Durham’s glorious moment as bowl host—a last, desperate pass fell into an Oregon State defender’s hands. Duke was out of chances.

Game ball

Game ball: now resides in the Duke Sports Hall of FamePhoto by Jon Gardiner

As the game ended, Duke’s All-American center, Bob Barnett ’42, J.D. ’48, stood near midfield, staring at the ground. It was just the fourth time in twenty-eight games as a Blue Devil that he’d tasted defeat, a sour note to finish the opus of his career. Had Duke been cocky? Had they been distracted by the hullaballoo surrounding the game? Wade would blame himself, saying the extraordinary responsibilities of hosting the game took his attention away from preparing his players. But in retrospect, Barnett knew something else wasn’t right with his team.

When the game was moved to Durham, several players had voiced disappointment. Missing a holiday at home was one thing when there was promise of a train trip to Pasadena, but a glorified home game— bowl or not—didn’t strike some as worth the trouble. Barnett had needed to call a team meeting to sort it all out, and in the end, Wade had granted them five days’ leave to go home for Christmas. “We were just not ready to play, emotionally and mentally,” Barnett told a newspaper reporter in 2001. “We had too much on our minds.”

Indeed, as much as the Rose Bowl marked an end for players like Barnett, it also symbolized a beginning. For the first time in a generation, a new year found the U.S. at war, and players on both teams had already begun to contemplate their place in that fight. Wade, an Army captain during World War I, had decided to re-enlist, and he had encouraged his players to follow him into battle. Barnett would enter the Marine Corps on January 21, 1942, and within months, many of his teammates would again be in uniform, united against an enemy far more fearsome than anything found on a football field.

Four young men on the field that day would not survive the war. Duke back Walter Griffith, a sophomore, joined the Marines the same day as Barnett. Eleven months later, he was killed in a battle in the Pacific. Reserve running back Al Hoover dove on a grenade on Peleliu Island in September 1944, trading his life for those of his compatriots. Star tackle Bob Nanni was shot at Iwo Jima in March 1945. Oregon State’s Everett Smith drowned during a landing in the South Pacific.

Gene Gray, whose long touchdown catch and run doused Duke’s comeback hopes, flew more than thirty bombing missions over Germany during the war. He went on to serve as a Navy test pilot in Panama, where, in 1948, a jet fighter he piloted crashed on takeoff. Gray survived, but the fire burned him badly. To save his life, doctors amputated both his arms.

For others, the Rose Bowl remained strangely present throughout the war, a link to home that had a way of surfacing at fortuitous moments. A few of those instances— like Czech’s hot cup of coffee for a starving coach Wade—might be written off as mere coincidence, something that was bound to happen with thousands of soldiers living and fighting side-by-side every day. But at least one connection between Duke and Oregon State seemed like a higher order of fate.

That incident happened between Charlie Haynes ’44, a reserve quarterback for Duke, and Frank Parker, Oregon State’s starting guard. Haynes and Parker both led rifle platoons within the 88th Infantry division and were deployed to Italy at the same time. The two soldiers happened to meet on a boat carrying their platoons across the Mediterranean Sea, and they soon discovered their link to the Rose Bowl. They spent the rest of the trip reminiscing about the day they’d spent out in the January rain.

Several months later, in the fall of 1944, Haynes was leading his men up a hill near the Arno River in Italy when he was struck by shrapnel, leaving a wound in his chest the size of his fist. One of the first soldiers to reach him—carrying him downhill to an aid station and almost certainly saving his life—was Frank Parker.

Haynes recalled the story to a newspaper reporter in 1991, shortly before the fiftieth anniversary of the game. “If it hadn’t been for Frank Parker, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I was dying. No melodramatics about it: I thought I was dead.”

Years later, Duke’s Jim Smith was asked what playing the 1942 Rose Bowl meant. Smith completed tours in both the Atlantic and Pacific on the deck of a U.S. Navy destroyer during the war, and he was on board the USS Bright when its fantail was slammed by a Japanese kamikaze pilot near Okinawa. He had a quick answer to the question: normalcy. Playing the game, Smith said, sent a message to the world that “we’re still a nation, we’re still here, we’re still going about things.”

We talk sometimes of football in the language of war, with its bombs and blitzes, its aerial assaults and battles in the trenches. But no one confused the battle that took place in Durham on New Year’s Day with the real thing. The bowl was there to entertain, to let people forget for a moment that in other parts of the world helmeted young men fight and die. For a few hours, at least, the only combat that mattered was symbolic. The only wounds were dealt to one’s pride.

The great Iowa halfback Nile Kinnick had drawn the distinction so eloquently in accepting the 1939 Heisman Trophy. Closing his brief remarks, he said, “I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather, struggle and fight to win the Heisman award than the Croix de Guerre.”

Kinnick died during a Navy combat training mission in 1943.

As the leaden skies gave way to darkness and the players walked off the Duke field for a final time that New Year’s Day, they understood they were marching toward an arena that kept harsher scores. They were bitterly disappointed, grieving over fumbles and miscues, agonizing at opportunities let slip away. But the sting of their loss would soon fade. In the end, it was sweet victory enough that they had one last chance to play.

Jessica Wood, of Duke’s University Archives, contributed to the research of this story. A collection of Rose Bowl memorabilia will be on display through January 15, 2012, at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library as part of an Archives exhibit titled “From Campus to Cockpit: Duke During World War II.”

See additional Rose Bowl photographs, game footage, and other digital materials.

View materials on display in the exhibit "From Campus to Cockpit: Duke During World War II."