Remembering the fallen heroes
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.
"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:
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.
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