'Friday Night Lights' author tackles a historic WWII football match-up
: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: As Buzz Bissinger correctly reported in his book, Barney Poole played at the University of Mississippi, not Mississippi State, as Bissinger mistakenly says in this interview.]
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Dave Davies has today's interview. Here's Dave to introduce it.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: My guest, Buzz Bissinger, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's best known for "Friday Night Lights," his book about Texas high school football, which was a bestseller and was adapted into a movie and a TV series. The title of Bissinger's latest book, "The Mosquito Bowl," also refers to a football game, but it's not really a sports story. Bissinger writes about a group of young men who fought in the Pacific theater of World War II assigned to the 6th Marine Division. Two regiments of the division were studded with former college football stars. And boasts and trash talk in 1944 about which regiment had the better talent led to a one-of-a-kind game played on a dirt-and-coral field on the island of Guadalcanal. It was such a celebrated event within the military it was broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio Service.
But the Marines who dueled that day and those who rooted for them would soon be sent to one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the invasion of Okinawa, where the casualty rate among the two regiments was over 50%. Bissinger's book is about the young men's lives in peace and war with insightful descriptions of the World War II experience from how service rivalries led to poor command decisions, which cost lives, to the hardships Marines endured in training, on board transport ships, and in combat zones. Buzz Bissinger's writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated and other publications. Among his other books are "A Prayer For The City," "Three Nights In August," "Shooting Stars" and "Father's Day."
Buzz Bissinger, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
BUZZ BISSINGER: Hey. Thank you.
DAVIES: You know, people who know something about World War II know that the battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest. It was the last island that the U.S. needed to capture to establish bases and launch an assault on the Japanese mainland. Defenders were dug in and committed to fighting to the death. You tell us in the book that your father was actually a marine who served at Okinawa. It wasn't the reason that you pursued this story. But what did he tell you? What did you learn about his experience?
BISSINGER: My father basically never, ever talked about it. If he did, he would kind of almost make fun of it. You know what? I knew he was at Okinawa. I didn't know what he did. I didn't know what his rank was. When I did the book proposal, I finally said, I might as well look up his records, see who he was and what he did there. And this is not apocryphal. I got muster rolls. They're easy to get. And I look. And it's my same - namesake. There's his name. And there he is in the 4th regiment of the 6th Marine Division, which is one of the regiments that I was writing about. So that put me over the top. I said, I got to do it. And he was a rifleman, so he was on the line. He was on the line involved in some of the horrific, horrific, terrifying combat that I wrote about. Two hundred and forty thousand people died in Okinawa in 82 days. I mean, think about that. And a lot of them were civilians - almost all the Japanese army and about 14,000 American soldiers and seamen.
DAVIES: When you asked your dad about it, what did he say?
BISSINGER: You know, I would ask - you could tell he - he did mention once - so I asked him once. I said, did you shoot? And he said, yeah. And I said, did you hit anything? He said, I don't know. I wasn't about to find out. But I remember my mother telling a story. I think they were at his grandmother's and talk got to be about the war, and he had to leave. He had to go downstairs and have a cigarette. You know, my father was a pacifist. He hated firearms. But you know what? It didn't matter in World War II. You served with duty. That's what it was about. And I got to tell you, as I did the research, I'm so immensely proud of him that I wish I had probed. I wish I had probed because if you hit people who have been at World War II at the right time, they will talk about it particularly late in life 'cause they want to leave a legacy. And I just wish I had tried to get him to talk more.
DAVIES: You know, you and I are of the generation where a lot of our fathers served. And...
DAVIES: All - when I was growing up, all the kids in my neighborhood, their dads had served. And I could never get my dad to talk. But he was on an aircraft carrier...
BISSINGER: All right.
DAVIES: ...In the South Pacific - same experience.
BISSINGER: All right.
DAVIES: You know, in the Pacific War, there were real rivalries among the service branches. You write that the Navy hated the Army. The Army hated the Navy. Everybody hated the Marines. And the Marines hated everybody else. I wanted to understand what made the Marines so different and so resented and so disparaging of the other branches. And I pointed to a reading...
DAVIES: ...You might want to share with us here. Yeah.
BISSINGER: All right. Let me read that first. But it's true. And the Marines had a certain swagger and arrogance that drove the Army nuts and the Navy nuts, and the Marines basically said, I don't care. That's what we're about. But let me read this.
(Reading) The Army could not wait to get its hands on the Marine budget and be done with all that Semper Fi swagger, hot dog BS, how the next time they bathed would be the first, and that screwy tilt in their eyes as though they hated everyone except themselves and didn't much like themselves either. The Navy wasn't so crazy about the Marine Corps either. Its original mission to board enemy vessels and enforce peace among wild-eyed sailors had become obsolete in modern warfare. Maybe it could defend a base or supply an ammo depot. That was about it. The Navy existed to sink other ships. It did not exist to play second fiddle and provide endless bombardment cover to the Marines when they landed on some island in the middle of nowhere. Nor did the Navy wanted ships in a holding pattern offshore with a constant threat of Japanese attack by air and sea. Sorting out the priorities was a constant dilemma throughout the Pacific War. And there was no easy solution.
DAVIES: Right. When the Marines would go on an amphibious landing, for example...
DAVIES: ...They would have these Navy ships anchored offshore...
DAVIES: ...Battering the defenses to make it - you know, to soften up the enemy.
BISSINGER: Yeah. I mean, they realized, as amphibious assault developed, that that was a key. And then, how long would the bombardment be? But, you know, you're at cross-purposes. The Navy wants to get the hell out of there. You know, bombarding is really not very exciting. And then, the fact that it's Marines is, like, oh, Jesus, let's drop it. But at the beginning, it was two hours. Then, they realize it had to be extended. So I think at Okinawa, the entire week before was constant, constant bombardment. But, you know, it's still limited because the Japanese got very smart. They were underground. So you could hear the sounds, which were terrifying, but they were underground in tunnels. So many, many lived through it.
DAVIES: And those Navy ships that were just anchored there...
DAVIES: ...Were sitting ducks for the...
DAVIES: ...Japanese attacks, you know.
BISSINGER: Well, in Okinawa, they - not only were they sitting ducks, you had the kamikaze. And that was the big use of the kamikazes. Not only were you sitting ducks, you're hoping that the kamikaze doesn't attack you. But that was all part of the relentless terror of this battle.
DAVIES: Yeah. And you describe how awful it was to be on a ship...
DAVIES: ...When suddenly, you know, the water boiled and bulkheads collapsed and fire was everywhere. Yeah.
BISSINGER: Yeah. I mean, you - you know, you die in all sorts of ways. I mean, you can die because the water is boiling. You can die because you get hit by fire. Some men landed in the sea and sort of lost their mental capacity and just swam off. They swam off into oblivion. And you're in waters that are 50 or 60 degrees. And by the way, you're in the water, and the Japanese are now strafing it. I don't know how any, any, any of these men did it. I just don't know. I asked myself a dozen times. But their sacrifice, their sense of duty, it was - it blew my mind. I still can't fathom it.
DAVIES: The other element of the reasons that the Army and the Navy hated the Marines was that the Marines - you know, there was a whole romantic thing. They really trained hard.
DAVIES: They fought hard. And they had a different relationship with the press. I didn't know this till I read this in your book.
BISSINGER: The Marines were very, very, very clever. The Marines had a great sense of PR, and that drove the Army crazy as well, because, you know, if - many people think the Marines won World War I because of the Battle of Belleau Woods. And basically, it was the result of a one-eyed correspondent named Floyd Gibbons for the Chicago Tribune. He made the Marines into heroes. The Army went nuts. They said the Marines were there for one or two battles. We won World War I. And it continued.
The Marine would - what they would do is they would find newspaper reporters, and they would say, do you want to join the Marines and be a correspondent? And many did. They would go to boot camp. And then they were embedded. And some of the most - for that time, the footage that some of these guys took of some of the battles, first time dead bodies were shown, was both enlightening and horrific. And the purpose was to show a very laissez faire American public just what was going on because I think in many ways the Pacific War just was forgotten in the shadow of the Atlantic.
DAVIES: Yeah, still probably not as well-remembered that as it should be. You know, the American armed forces that you say when the war began was about 334,000. It grew to 12 million. So a draft was instituted. You know, we think of everybody rushing to sign up after Pearl Harbor, but in fact, you had to get people, not all of whom were excited about it. You write in the book that this draft was not exactly fairly administered or...
BISSINGER: No. I mean, it's like in life. There's politics involved. You know, politicians would go to Roosevelt and saying, hey; you know, can we make doctors exempt? Can we make this exempt? How about people in the movie business? How about typewriter repairmen? And on and on and on. So you had to draft roughly 20 or 21 million people to get to 12 million. So it does question all this great generation stuff. The men who served, it was a great generation. But, you know, a lot of people, they didn't want to go. Who would want to go? So think of that - 21 million to get to 12 million.
DAVIES: Right. And among the most striking in avoiding service were the people who were at the service academy to the Army at West Point and in the Navy at Annapolis. What was going on?
BISSINGER: There were many mind-boggling elements in the book, including the relentless horror that these men faced and how they died. And I get quiet because it affects me - so young. But I found out in the course of doing this that if you wanted to play football and avoid the draft and have a three - year exemption, the best place to go was West Point. And I had to read that several times. I said, wait a sec, West Point? You're training officers...
DAVIES: Desperately needed for the war, you would think.
BISSINGER: No. And I could never - Dave, I could never figure out - and I thought about this - why were the Army teams of 1944 and '45 their best in history and one of the best in the history of college football? I couldn't figure it out. I figured they would all be gone - because you had this three-year exemption, and they recruited like crazy. And their pitch was, do you want to play for Army or do you want to get drafted? Well, I think I'll play for Army. They had one guy, Barney Poole, because of the rules that existed - Barney Poole played college football for eight years - eight years. He played three years at West Point. Then he purposely flunked out so he didn't have to fulfill the military requirement. Then he played at Mississippi State for two years. He had already played at Mississippi State. And then he went to the New York Giants.
DAVIES: You know, the football game in the title, the Mosquito Bowl, is actually a very small part of the book, but you kind of use football and its role in some of these players' life is sort of an organizing principle here.
BISSINGER: Yeah. I mean, the Mosquito Bowl - look. Part of the problem was there was no record of the game. I know it was broadcast on radio, but those tapes are long gone. So the actual description of the game itself is short. But I always knew that. I used the game to branch out - it is the glue to explore the lives of some of these men, the America they came from, to get into things like the draft and inter-service rivalry, which all affected them, and then move forward into their playing football, which really is a small part of the book, into the Marines and into the morass and horror of Okinawa.
DAVIES: You know, the group of men that you follow in some detail, maybe there's six or eight of them. They were in college football. That was actually bigger than pro football at the time, wasn't it?
BISSINGER: At the time, college football was huge. I mean, pro football was basically for convicted felons. You know, basically - no one at that time - and this is hard to believe - college coaches told their guys, don't play pro football. It's a waste. It's a waste of time. Get an education. And I can tell you, these guys worked hard because I saw their letters. I saw their transcripts. You know, if you flunked a course, you were out. College football was it. The Army-Notre Dame game was like nothing. It was always played in New York, 70,000 filling Yankee Stadium. So to be a football star - and these players who played in the Mosquito Bowl - three were All-Americans. Seven were captains ranging from Brown to Notre Dame to California. I think 18 were either drafted and would be drafted by the pros. I mean, you were talking immense talent.
So the idea of these two regiments filled with great football players playing against each other, throwing in front of 1,500 people and everything simulated like a real game, I said, I've got to get a piece of this because the upshot was - and it's just so tragic - of the 65 who were in that game, 15 were later killed. And when I read that, I said, I have to try to do this, if nothing else, as a memorial and a constant reminder of what war is like and what these men faced and what they went through without complaint. And the most immense sense of duty I've seen, except for maybe 9/11 and the firemen at 9/11, same thing. We will sacrifice ourselves at any cost.
DAVIES: You write about six or eight of these college football stars in some detail. Let's take one of them, David Schreiner. Tell us about him.
BISSINGER: David Schreiner was a Wisconsin farm kid, but he was from a small town. But his family was wealthy. His dad was a stockbroker and a merchant. If you had to build an all-American, you know, if we went to our computer and said, I'm going to build an all-American football player, it would have been him. He was about 6'2". He was really handsome. He was incredibly self-effacing. But he was a hell of a football player. He played offensive end and on defense. And some will say he was certainly the best end of the past 25 years, not in history, but just a superb football player.
And look. He could have been, you know, because of who he was, because of his stature, he was a two-time all-American, he easily - you talk about the draft - he got an offer, you know, this could be a phys-ed teacher somewhere. You know, you don't have to go in this thing. And he said, no, I want to go in the officer reserve program. And I want combat. That's what I want because if you join the Marines, the odds of combat were a lot bigger. Dave wanted combat, and he got combat as a first lieutenant.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Buzz Bissinger. His new book is "The Mosquito Bowl: A Game Of Life And Death In World War II." He'll be back to talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "IOWA TAKEN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Buzz Bissinger. His latest book focuses on a group of Marines who fought in the Pacific theater in World War II, many of whom had been college football stars before the war. The book is "The Mosquito Bowl: A Game Of Life And Death In World War II."
Were football players sought after by the Marines? Do you know?
BISSINGER: I actually think it was the other way around. I mean, I think that football players, given sort of their macho-ism and, frankly, their sense of violence, wanted to join the Marines. Interestingly, you know, the Marines are part of the Navy. And this was fascinating to me. The Navy felt - the Navy saved college football in World War II. The Navy felt that football - this - I'm not making this up. Football was the single best source of combat training because it teaches discipline. It teaches teamwork. It's about violence. It's about playing through pain and, you know, all the other cliches that we associate with war. The Army wanted no piece of it. But you could join an officer training program in the Navy and go to a college and be allowed to have extracurricular activities, including football.
DAVIES: So let's talk about the football game that's referred to in the title. There were these two regiments of the 6th Marine Division, the 4th and the 29th, that had all these college football stars, some in each. These were all Marines. They're on the same side in the war. Was this a friendly rivalry, or was it a blood feud or something in between?
BISSINGER: I think in between. I mean, it was a little bit friendly. But these guys are Marines, you know? You know, so it's pride. This is the 4th Regiment. We are loaded. We got a guy named John McLaughry who played at Brown and the New York Giants. We got Dave Schreiner. We got a lot of good young players. We got captains. Excuse my language - we're going to kick the 29th's ass. And the 29th's - no, you're not. We would beat you any game, any day you want to play. And they argued. It was pretty friendly. There were no punches thrown, at least I don't think there were. But morale was flagging. They were on Guadalcanal. They're training. They'd been there a long time. Training gets boring. I mean, it gets boring. And, you know, dynamiting rivers to catch fish gets boring, or finding a wild boar and eating it gets boring.
DAVIES: So they - so this idea of a football game gets talked of. And it was played Christmas Eve, 1944. Describe the physical...
BISSINGER: And I think that was a beautiful, symbolic time. Christmas Eve of 1944, let's do something special. You're a long way from home. And not only did they play each other, they had a field that they built out of dirt and coral, regulation field. They built...
DAVIES: Coral is really hard and sharp.
BISSINGER: Oh, yeah, coral's sharp. And a lot of guy - that's how most guys got hurt because it blows up with infection because it's Guadalcanal, and it's hot. They built goal posts. It was broadcast on radio all over the Pacific. They had a PA system. They had programs. They announced the players. Fifteen hundred Marines came, drunk. No one cared. Gambling, no one cared. Guys lost a lot of money. And they - it started out as touch, but these are Marines, so it pretty much devolved into tackle. And I think they beat the stuffing out of each other for 60 minutes and loved it.
DAVIES: No pads, no helmets.
BISSINGER: No. I mean, I think at that point, the quartermaster didn't know he had to supply helmets and pads...
BISSINGER: ...To men fighting in the Pacific. But the point to me was they loved it. This was the last time that I think they were allowed to be boys. They were allowed to be boys doing something they loved, and they loved football. Because three months later, they were at Okinawa about to participate in something they couldn't have possibly imagined. They were men again. And it struck me - they were boys. I look at their pictures. I've a picture of Dave Schreiner next to me as I wrote. And this isn't just set here. I would look into it. He was a boy. He had so much life ahead of him. And to know what happened to him, to know what happened to others, it's such a tragedy.
I know wars have to be fought. I know this war had to be fought. I understand that. But the word that comes to mind is waste. This was a life that was wasted, the same for the other 14 players who died, the same for the 4,000 Marines who died and the 5,000 Navy seamen who died and the 4,000 Army soldiers who died - just a waste.
DAVIES: Guys are all younger than your sons.
BISSINGER: Oh, yeah, they were - my father was 19.
BISSINGER: Nineteen, you know, holding a rifle, 19, trying to kill people. These guys were in their early 20s. And by the way, they're 23, 24. They were in charge of 50 or 60 kids - kids. And they're in charge of them. And that's responsibility for life and death. But, you know, we talk a lot about America. There were flaws in America. There was racism in America. As you pointed out, a lot of guys were getting out of the draft. But these men were magnificent. And a lot of the book is about their magnificence and the heroism and the tragedy.
DAVIES: We are speaking with Buzz Bissinger. His new book is "The Mosquito Bowl: A Game Of Life And Death In World War II." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "FROM THE VERY FIRST TIME")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest is writer Buzz Bissinger. His latest book focuses on a group of Marines who fought in the Pacific theater during World War II, many of whom had been college football stars before the war. Marines from two rival regiments met at a football game in 1944 on the island of Guadalcanal while they were waiting to participate in the long and savage battle for the island of Okinawa. That battle would inflict terrible casualties on American and Japanese forces and on Okinawan civilians. Bissinger's book is "The Mosquito Bowl: A Game Of Life And Death In World War II."
What did you learn about what happened at the game? Who won?
BISSINGER: Well, it was sort of prophetic in its own way. The final score is they beat the crap out of each other. Someone - I think the 4th tried to field goal in the last play of the game, which was blocked. The score was 0-0. No one could score. They wanted to have a rematch. But the commander of the 4th Regiment, Alan Shapley, said, no way. He said, look, guys. If you're going to get killed or hurt, I want it during combat. I do not want it during a football game. So the game was over. Training began again - January, February. By the middle of March, they've shipped out from Guadalcanal on their way to Okinawa.
DAVIES: You know, these guys who had been All-Americans and college football stars who were now, you know, Marines with other Marines - were they recognized? Were they treated as celebrities?
BISSINGER: Yeah. I mean, people would know who Schreiner was. People who'd know - another guy I write about, Tony Butkovich, was an all-American at Purdue. He was a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Rams. I mean, he had the goods. Dave Schreiner was a second-round draft pick. They knew who these guys were. You know, it's like anything in life; the athletes hang together. So they were all known. They were popular. You know, Irish George Murphy had been the captain of Notre Dame. So they were well-known. They were big stars in college when it really - when it meant more than today to be a big star.
DAVIES: So they had this football game. And in the spring of 1945, all of these men that you've been following are going to head out for the assault on Okinawa, you know, the last island that the U.S. forces need to take before launching an assault on the mainland of Japan. One of the interesting little descriptions here is what it was like to be on a troop carrier. Give us a sense of that.
BISSINGER: That may be the worst part of war. Well, you know...
DAVIES: You're at sea with...
BISSINGER: You're at sea. The sea is rolling. Some guys don't even know how to swim. They're not used to this. They're not used to the ocean. They're not used to waves. So guys are vomiting all over the place. So you would go down to chow, and you'd have to go down a series of steps or a ladder. And guys would be vomiting on the ladder because they were vomiting breakfast. And then, the guys on the ladder would vomit. And the most important thing I found out is if you're going to be on one of these ships and it's four or five to a bunk, take the top.
BISSINGER: Vomit travels downhill. That's probably the most important strategic thing that I learned. The problem is when you get up, you hit your head on a pipe. But, you know, vomit this, vomit that - it was awful. It was - you know, saltwater showers, very little fresh water. But, hey; you're in the military. That's how it goes, guys.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Buzz Bissinger. His new book is "The Mosquito Bowl: A Game Of Life And Death In World War II."
So give us a sense of Okinawa, its significance and the size of the American force assembled for it.
BISSINGER: Well, the American force - I'm sure this is right - it was the largest number of ships ever assembled. I think it was about 1,700.
BISSINGER: And the Japanese, they were obviously on shore on Okinawa. And they looked through their binoculars, and they called it the typhoon of steel. And when you see pictures, it's amazing the Japanese just didn't say, all right, that's it; we're going home. And they certainly did not. So you had that. The American forces combat was about 180,000. But there would be obviously other people there to work the ammo dumps and the supply dumps and things like that. So probably, the actual size of the force was about 500,000. And, you know, they figured the Japanese are going to be tough. They're always tough. They've gotten better as the war has progressed. But we're going to get them. We outman them. We outman them. We out-plane them. They had no planes left, and they had no ships. But the Japanese were brilliant strategically.
DAVIES: Right. And this is - it's a big island, like 60 miles long.
BISSINGER: Yes. Yes.
DAVIES: And it's not ethnic Japanese who are the natives there, right?
BISSINGER: Right. That's correct.
DAVIES: They had been conquered by Japan.
BISSINGER: That's correct.
DAVIES: And there were, like, 150,000 or so civilians? Or, no, more than that.
BISSINGER: There were more and a lot...
DAVIES: Over 400,000.
BISSINGER: A lot were evacuated. But 150 - you know, I just - let that settle in. They were caught in the middle. And the Americans, once again, pleaded with them, do not go out at night because the order was if you hear anything at night, you shoot at it, which makes sense because the Japanese were constantly ambushing. They like to work at night. And you don't get over that. I mean, when I was doing the book, I spoke to a Marine veteran who was crying 75 years later. So 150,000 civilians - as many as 150,000 died in 82 days.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Buzz Bissinger. His new book is "The Mosquito Bowl: A Game Of Life And Death In World War II." He'll be back to talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Buzz Bissinger. His latest book focuses on a group of Marines who fought in the Pacific in World War II, many of whom had been college football stars before the war. The book is "The Mosquito Bowl: A Game Of Life And Death In World War II."
All right. So the Japanese are dug in on this island. They know that their job is to extract as high a price as they can from the Americans...
DAVIES: ...Try and hold them off. An amphibious assault is planned for beaches on the western end of the island. It turns out to be a walk because the Japanese decided not to defend the beaches. Where were they? What were they doing?
BISSINGER: Well, the Americans, you know, go ashore - no one there. Then they say, maybe they left. Maybe they just say, all right, that's it. We're done - no one there. Some guys had a picnic. They're walking around. This is a piece of cake. We had no idea where they were. And the Japanese had basically hidden in what they call - a line across the island called the Shuri Line. And they dug in, and they had hid. We didn't see them. And then early in April, there were some Army units that were getting the snot kicked out of them. And then bit by bit, we realized that they were dug in, and they would have to be attacked.
DAVIES: Describe the defenses 'cause this is pretty remarkable - how they were dug into mountains and where they would (inaudible) the artillery.
BISSINGER: I mean, they would dig into mountainsides. They would dig into tunnels. They would camouflage them, or you had these huge artillery guns that would pop out and then pop back in so you could not see them. They had a series of foxholes around the mountains. You could go from one mountain or one hill to the other. They built trails so you could go back and forth. The command post was several thousand feet deep.
DAVIES: The Japanese command post?
BISSINGER: Yeah. The Japanese command post was several thousand feet deep below the ground. And you certainly couldn't get at them. And they lived there for 82 days. And by the end, you know, you could not imagine the indescribable conditions because then you had casualties. You had men who had had legs amputated without any anesthetic, crying, screaming. But the Japanese - if their goal was to kill as many Americans as possible, they succeeded. They lasted for 82 days. Now their army, there's - as many as 107,000 died. That's what they think.
DAVIES: Wow. So some Army units went in and kind of got chewed up because the Japanese were well dug in and well defended. And then the Marines came in to try and take them off, including the ones that you had followed from the 6th Marine Division.
BISSINGER: Well, the 6th Marine Division actually thought, man, this is a piece of cake. The Marines were assigned to take the north. And there's been all sorts of speculation that Buckner really sort of wanted to marginalize the Marines because they wanted this to be an Army win.
DAVIES: Keep them out of the action, out of the...
BISSINGER: They wanted this to be an Army win.
DAVIES: Buckner was an Army guy.
BISSINGER: Yes. Buckner was an Army general. But he was an Army guy. And there was an Army unit, the 27th, that got decimated. And finally, Buckner made a concession - bring in the Marines, which I don't think he wanted to do. They were up north. There was no opposition north. So here are the Marines. We're done. We're going to go back to Guam and party and cases of beer. And then the word comes in, no, you're going south. You're going south. And they were pissed. And there's this wonderful moment in the book - they're on a small road. They're going south. The Army's going north. And all sorts of epithets - you know, I won't repeat them, but, you know, we're saving your ass once again, and you're putting us into harm's way. And we're not going to forget it. And they both - it just amplified the hate between the two. And so the Marines went south into chaos and hell and blood and death.
DAVIES: Right. In the last part of the book, you describe in quite some detail what some of these soldiers - that, you know, in many cases, former college football players...
DAVIES: ...What they went through - many of whom met their end there, many of whom were very seriously wounded.
DAVIES: We can't discuss all of it, but give us an example of what they faced in one of these battles.
BISSINGER: Well, they really didn't know what they were getting into. And then they moved south. And then - it was really kind of early to the middle of May. And they're trying to seize a hill called Sugar Loaf Hill. And they realize that there's actually three hills - there's Sugar Loaf, and there's two others. And so that means the Japanese have mutually supporting fire. So they can shoot from one hill, both hills. And, you know, they called it Death Valley. And they called it Death Valley 'cause there's only one way to get them, and that's to go to them. And it took eight days to secure Sugar Loaf Hill. Well over a thousand men were either wounded or died. They were left out in the open. And I think there were some brutal command decisions made that resulted - one of the guys I write about was told, you have to go secure Sugar Loaf. They were being decimated. His commanding officer went to the captain and said, don't make them do this. There's no way. There's no way. They're going to get destroyed. Well, you know, an order is an order. And he took his men up. And they were getting decimated. And, you know, he was trying to get his men down the hill and, you know, was shot in the head.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things you write is that napalm came into use...
DAVIES: ...During these island combat campaigns. You know, it was not dropped from the air like it was in Vietnam, but it was fired from flamethrowers that were handheld or more powerful ones that were mounted on tanks. Were they used here?
BISSINGER: Yes, they were used. And I - this was the first time they were really used frequently in Okinawa. And they were very successful 'cause the only way to get in the hills - you know, if you see an opening, you fire in. And you know, you're not using portable flamethrowers, which can be iffy and often don't work. They're mounted on tanks. That means the stream of napalm is much stronger, much longer. Napalm sticks. Napalm can go around corners. If you get it on you...
DAVIES: 'Cause it splashes.
BISSINGER: ...And you try to wipe it off, you get it on your hands. And it was the one thing the Japanese were terrified of. They weren't terrified by much. But when they would see that flame of fire, I'll be honest, they would come out of the hill and surrender and often were blown away because it was called horse collaring. The Marines would be on top of the hill, so as they came out, they were obliterated. It was very, very successful. And by the way, that's what was used in Tokyo, was napalm bombing.
DAVIES: Why is this story important?
BISSINGER: Well, to me, it's important because I think there's no such thing as writing too much about World War II. But more, I wanted people to get the sense of what war really is. I think we glorify war, particularly through the movies, even when it's good. "Saving Private Ryan" is a wonderful film, but it still doesn't get at just how horrific it is. And I wanted to do justice and honor to these men. And I wanted to remind us of the America that we once had, and I hope and pray we can have again. We had it on 9/11. These firemen would risk everything. But I was blown away. It's a word I've used. Their - you know, duty to them was just going. They didn't fight for patriotism. I don't think any of them really knew what the war was about, really. I don't think they knew much about Japan. They'd certainly never been there. They fought to protect each other. And in the Marines and certainly in the military, that's why you're creating family.
And these men were brothers. I know that's been said. These men were brothers. And their willingness not to flinch, to fight, to be in a foxhole and see the man next to you who you love get blown away with a bullet in his brain. But you keep going. You don't shed tears. You'll shed tears later. And they were magnificent men, of which my dad was one. And that's what I wanted to get across. I think it's a timeless story, and I think there's a certain - there's a lot in the book. I didn't want to sugarcoat anything, but I think there's a beauty and a love and a poetry. Maybe this sounds weird to me - it was kind of a love story, both uplifting and tragic as love often is.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of your writing has been about people in present times. You do immersive journalism about people you can speak to directly. This is really a work of history. How is it different?
BISSINGER: For the first three years, I kept saying, what the hell am I doing? I mean, it's different. I do immersion journalism. I'm there as events are unfolding because I think it's a great way for me to write to be visceral, to write cinematically because I'm present. And I did that in "Friday Night Lights" about high school football. I did it in "The Prayer For The City" when I followed Ed Rendell when he was mayor in the 1990s. I didn't have that. I knew going in that there was only one survivor of the game. And I did interview him. And he was a wonderful guy, Dave Mears, who died about six months later. So I really debated. Well, if no one's alive, how are you going to get at these guys? How are you going to get at anything? Well, then I realized that their families had kept everything. They had kept documents. But I had to read a ton. And you're reading a ton to maybe get a single tidbit here, a single detail there.
Now, I must say, I love the research. You know, writing is writing. There's a good day. There's a bad day. There's a good day. There's two bad days. I loved the research. It was the ultimate hunt-and-peck. You just sit there and you go, can I get something? Can I get something? And then you get a little strand of something. And then you pull on the strand, and it gets bigger and bigger.
And I must say, the amount of military records that are online is phenomenal. A ton has been put online. And I went through tens of thousands of pages, and it was really fun, as I say. Oh, man, that's cool. I can get this. I can get this. There's this depiction I was looking for. It's different. You can't be as cinematic because I'm not going to make things up, you know? I'm not going to make up what happened during the game. Maybe some journalist - I mean, who the hell is going to know? Everyone's dead. But - you know, so you get frustrated. And there were moments where I said, God, I wish they were alive. I wish I could expand upon this. I wish I could get more of the game. But you can only do what you can do in a circumstance like this.
DAVIES: I'm wondering, talking to descendants, I mean, children, grandchildren and - were they resistant at all? Did they...
BISSINGER: The ones I talked to were not. The ones I talked to really wanted - whether it was their father or grandfather, uncle, they wanted them memorialized. They want people to remember. They want people to remember what our country went through, what the 6th Division went through, what the Navy went through, what the Army went through in the entirety of that war. They want them remembered because they're not remembered. I know they're remembered on Veteran's Day and Memorial Day and certain holidays. But, you know, the dead are forgotten. And I don't want these men to be forgotten. That's the least - they deserve to be remembered.
DAVIES: Do you think your dad might have been at the game?
BISSINGER: God, I hope so. I've thought about that for five years. I don't know. Knowing my dad, I know a couple things. He loved sports and he liked to drink and he liked to gamble. So that's three for three. So if anyone would've been at that game, it would have been my dad. I think about it all the time. And I say, man, wouldn't that be incredible if he was at that game? But it was incredible enough when I saw his name on that muster roll, same division, same regiment. And this was not why I did the book. This was not searching for my father. But it did put me over the top. And the other thing was, is that there's a picture of the game. There's a picture of two players shaking hands right before the game - Dave Schreiner is one; Tony Butkovich is the other. They looked like my dad. They were young.
BISSINGER: And I said, Jesus, that's my dad. I mean, that's what my dad would have looked like then. And that really - was really moved by that. And there was a real poetry to that.
DAVIES: Well, Buzz Bissinger, thanks so much for speaking with us again.
BISSINGER: Well, thank you. It was great.
GROSS: Buzz Bissinger's new book is called "The Mosquito Bowl: A Game Of Life And Death In World War II." He spoke with Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
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Correction Sept. 26, 2022
As Buzz Bissinger correctly reported in his book, Barney Poole played at the University of Mississippi, not Mississippi State, as Bissinger mistakenly says in this interview.