Third Down and a War to Go

8/20/2004 - Wisconsin Badgers

The following is adapted from the upcoming book, "Third Down and a War to Go: The All-American 1942 Wisconsin Badgers," by ESPN regular contributor Terry Frei.

Frei was moved to research the 1942 Badgers after the 2001 death of his father, Jerry Frei. At the time of his death, Jerry Frei -- the former head coach at the University of Oregon, and then a long-time NFL assistant coach and administrator -- still had the 1942 Badgers' team picture in a place of honor on his den wall. The elder Frei had been a sophomore backup guard on that team, then flew 67 combat missions as a P-38 fighter pilot during the war before returning to play for the Badgers again in 1946 and '47.

As young men of that era, the Badgers were both typical and extraordinary. Among other reasons, that's why theirs is an All-American story.

Day of Infamy

Around 1:30 in the afternoon of December 7, 1941, Erwin Kissling strolled into Rennebohm's Pharmacy, on the edge of the University of Wisconsin campus. The stocky freshman halfback from nearby Monticello had just finished his freshman season, and he was proud to be considered one of the athletes on campus. Only his parents and his professors called him Erwin. A few called him Erv. Almost everyone else knew him as Booby.

As Kissling paid for his newspaper and headed out, another student rushed through the door. Kissling had never seen him before and never would again. But this guy had to tell somebody. He settled for Booby.

"Hey," he breathlessly informed Kissling, "the Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor!"

"What are you talking about?" Kissling asked.

"The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor!"

Kissling hadn't noticed that at the lunch counter, two other Badger freshmen -- halfback Jim Regan and quarterback Jack Wink -- were having coffee after finishing their meals. As they talked, the guy in the white shirt behind the counter suddenly turned up the radio.

As other students crowded behind them to listen, Regan and Wink looked at one another. It was a look exchanged across America that morning. It meant, "Our lives have just changed."

Third Down . . .

As the undefeated Badgers -- coached by former Four Horsemen quarterback Harry Stuhldreher -- prepared to play the Great Lakes Naval Training Station's team in Chicago's Soldier Field in mid-October, Congress made it clear it was about to lower the draft age from twenty to eighteen. While most of the Badgers were already in various reserves, the lowering of the draft age would mean the acceleration of callups.

That Saturday at Soldier Field, the Navy team led 7-0 at the half. In the third quarter, sophomore Elroy Hirsch raced 61 yards for the Badgers' first touchdown. Pat Harder's extra point tied the score, 7-7. Jack Wink's 101-yard interception return in the third quarter gave the Badgers a 13-7 victory.

On the train ride to Madison the next morning, many of the Badgers read the Chicago papers, noticing that Francis Powers of the Chicago Daily News wrote that Hirsch "ran like a demented duck. His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions all at the same time."

Hey, Ghost, this says you have crazy legs!

Hey, Crazylegs!

The rest of the season, Hirsch was still primarily referred to as Elroy "Ghost" Hirsch, but Powers's story and the teasing of Hirsch got the Crazylegs name in casual circulation. Eventually, it supplanted Ghost and even Elroy. "Anything's better than 'Elroy,'" Hirsch said years later.

The Badgers beat Ohio State 17-7, but lost to Iowa 6-0 the next week and ended up finishing a half-game behind the Buckeyes in the Big Ten race. Ohio State was the Associated Press national champion. Wisconsin did get the nod from the Helms Foundation, though the ratings talk was considered largely theoretical malarkey. End Dave Schreiner and halfback Mark Hoskins, lifelong friends from the tiny town of Lancaster, were voted the cocaptains after the season, and the other stars were Hirsch and fullback Pat Harder. Schreiner was an All-American for the second season in a row, and won the Chicago Tribune's silver football as the conference player of the year.

Schreiner and Hoskins were separated a few months after the season. Schreiner had renounced a pre-med student deferment, but his partial color blindness ruled out trying to become a pilot and joining Hoskins in the Army Air Forces reserves. So Schreiner decided the best course was to follow many of his teammates and sign up for the Marine Reserves.

After the Christmas break, the Badgers went back to school, but for the most part their hearts weren't in it. Most of the underclassmen stopped attending class and studying. "We should have all flunked out of school," recalled Jim Regan. "When football season ended, I got all Fs. Most of us did. Very few of us went to class."

Most of the Badgers in the Army Air Forces, including guard Jerry Frei, were indeed called in to the service before the end of the second semester, in early 1943. Mark Hoskins even tried to speed up the process. The Badgers' potential flyers were so eager, they delegated their team cocaptain to go to Chicago, where Hoskins brashly made an appointment to see a general in the Fifth Army headquarters.

When he was called into the office, Hoskins asked: "Sir, when are we going to be called in?"

The general told Hoskins to pass along a message to his teammates and fellow prospective pilots: "Don't worry, boys, we'll take care of you!"

One by one, or in small groups, the Badgers left Madison and civilian student life.

. . . And a War to Go

The B-17 bomber was on fire. Copilot Mark Hoskins could see the flames, smell the cordite, and sense the crew's time running out. From the seat to Hoskins's left, the captain yelled the order to abandon the plane. Hoskins scrambled down to the nose, joining the navigator and bombardier, expecting to follow them out the opened hatch.

But they were struggling with the little door. They yanked and shoved and twisted but couldn't get it open. The flames burned and the smell grew stronger. If they didn't get out soon, they wouldn't get out at all, and their frenzy showed they knew it.

Hoskins pulled them away from the door.

The twenty-two-year-old airman told himself he was a blocker again, leading a sweep for Hirsch or Harder in Camp Randall Stadium. Against Notre Dame or Ohio State, it didn't matter. He backed up, charged at the little door, and crashed into it with his shoulder.

Not only did the hatch open, but Hoskins flew through it and found himself in the skies over Hungary. Stunned, he managed to pull his parachute ripcord and began to drift to the ground, where he would take his chances.

Then he saw the German fighter plane, presumably the one that had nailed the B-17.

The pilot, his guns at the ready, was flying toward Hoskins, a floating and defenseless target.

It was June 27, 1944.

Eight months later, on April 1, 1945, three of Hoskins's Badger teammates -- Dave Schreiner, tackle Bob Baumann, and halfback Bud Seelinger -- landed on Okinawa with the Sixth Marine Division. By the third day, the Sixth Division was almost across the thin Ishikawa Isthmus.

"Dave complained to me that he wasn't getting his share of action," Captain Clint Eastment recalled. "He wanted to get more action. I said, 'Just wait a while. It's a long campaign.'"

Eastment was right. The three Badgers, all first lieutenants, were in the thick of it.

By April 20, the U.S. forces had control of the Motobu Peninsula and there was a lull in the fighting. Schreiner eventually had time for socializing, both to talk about the news that the Germans had surrendered and the war was over in Europe, and to talk football. Young Larry Parmelee of Milwaukee was a corpsman, officially a Navy pharmacist's mate attached to the Marines. One corpsman in Schreiner's A Company asked Parmelee if he would like to meet the Wisconsin All-American football player. Parmelee, who had played high school ball, jumped at the offer, saying he had listened to Schreiner and the Badgers on the radio and dreamed of playing in Camp Randall, too.

"They were bivouacked about a half-mile from us, and my friend came over and got me and introduced me to Dave," Parmelee recalled. "We just sat around, cross-legged on the ground, and we talked. We talked a lot about Wisconsin, the hunting and fishing, and about some of his football exploits. He asked me if I was interested in football, and I said, 'Boy, do I want to go to Wisconsin in the worst way.' He said, 'Well, if we get out of this thing OK, you look me up and I'll be available for you.'" Schreiner said he would introduce Parmelee to the Wisconsin coaching staff.

Parmelee returned to his unit and excitedly told his buddies about meeting one of his heroes.

On June 8, 1945, according to a later dispatch by Marine Corps correspondent Don Petit, Schreiner was heroic in grenade battles for two hills near Naha. Petit wrote that Schreiner twice charged up the hill and tossed grenades into Japanese positions, and the one hundred enemy soldiers withdrew.

Eastment was severely wounded that day. "Dave Schreiner pulled me out of the line of fire," Eastment said. "He looked at the holes. He said I had four of 'em, so we thought that I'd been hit by four bullets. But I found later, there were only two bullets that made the holes."

Eastment's fighting was over, and he hated leaving his men behind. Schreiner became company commander. And the battle raged on.