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Remembering the fallen heroes

11/11/2004

It's Veterans Day, but we're arguing over such issues as
"disgraces" in the latest BCS Standings, the Heisman Trophy race, and which
coaches should be fired.

Every day, we're losing more of the men -- including former football
players -- who in World War II helped secure our freedom to be, among many
other things, so emotional about the relatively inconsequential.

This is a story about football-playing Marines getting together on a
makeshift, coral-strewn parade ground on a Pacific island to play a spirited
football game in 1944.

We'll start with a single tent on Guadalcanal, shared by three
lieutenants with college football in their past. They were platoon leaders
in D Company of the 29th Regiment's 2nd Battalion.

"Irish" George Murphy had been Notre Dame's 1942 captain. Denver
native Walter "Bus" Bergman had won 10 letters as a star halfback, as well
as a basketball and baseball player, at Colorado A&M in Fort Collins. Dave
Mears had been a rock of a lineman at Boston University.

"We built our own shower at the back of the tent with a 55-gallon
drum," Mears recalled from his home in Essex, Mass. "We got a shower head
someplace, and we were all set. We were living high!"

Murphy showed off pictures to Bergman and Mears of his newborn
daughter, born in July 1944. Irish George hadn't yet seen her in person. He
dreamed of the day he would.

By late 1944, the three tentmates and all the other Marines knew
they were headed for fierce battles in the months ahead. Some already had
been in battle before arriving on Guadalcanal, which American forces had
retaken in late 1942.

"We didn't know where we were going," Bergman recalled at his home
in Grand Junction, Colorado. "But we knew it was going to be close to the
(Japanese) mainland. Football and little things kept us away from all that
talk."

After several pickup games, and many beer-fueled debates among
Marines about which of the Sixth Division's units had the best players, the
"Football Classic" was scheduled between the 29th and 4th regiments on
Christmas Eve. 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.

Crowd estimates ranged from 2,500 to 10,000. With no bleachers,
Marines -- many of whom had placed wagers on the outcome -- scrambled to
stake out vantage points.

Bergman started in the 29th's backfield, 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.

It was supposed to be "touch" football.

The rugged Marines, of course, mostly ignored that restriction.

John McLaughry, a former Brown University star and ex-New York Giant in the 4th Regiment, served as a playing assistant coach. He wrote to his
parents the day after the game, saying: "It was really a Lulu, and as rough
hitting and hard playing as I've ever seen. 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."

The game ended in a scoreless tie, so all bets -- and there were
many of them, some involving astounding stakes -- were "pushes." (The brass
didn't mind that.)

Bergman and the Sixth Division continued training, then left
Guadalcanal for Okinawa, about 400 miles south of Japan. Part of a
multiservice command operating as a Tenth Army expeditionary force, the
Marines went ashore on Easter, April 1, 1945. The landings were unopposed.
The Japanese made their stands elsewhere.

In the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill, Murphy and Mears both were hit on
May 15.

The Tenth Army's official Okinawa combat history 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 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 Bergman's subsequent Bronze Star citation, Maj. Gen. Lemuel
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.

After the island was declared secure five weeks later, 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. He was one of 12 players from the
Guadalcanal football game killed on Okinawa. The dead included both team
captains -- Behan, the ex-Detroit Lion, and former Wisconsin All-American end
Dave Schreiner. The other nine killed in action:

  • Tony Butkovich, the fullback who lined up next to Bergman in the
    29th's backfield.

  • 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.

    After the war, Mears returned to Massachusetts and became a CPA. At
    age 83, he still cuts firewood at his home and loves to ski in New
    Hampshire. "The last few years, I've gotten a season pass," he said.

    Bergman returned to Colorado A&M (now Colorado State) 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. He retired from
    coaching in 1974, and from the faculty in 1980, and was inducted into the
    Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. He and his wife, Elinor, split
    their year between Grand Junction and the Phoenix area, and they stay in
    touch with their three children, including Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton.

    Last spring, Bergman traveled to Washington D.C. for the dedication
    of the National World War II memorial. "It was real nice," Bergman said. "I
    was real impressed with it. They had different stones for campaigns like Iwo
    Jima, Okinawa, Guadalcanal. You could get your picture there, and it was
    real emotional."

    Bergman was thinking about his Marine buddies, including those who
    also played football.

    He still thinks about those who survived the war and about those who
    didn't.

    And so should we.

    Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third
    Down and a War to Go
    " and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."