Duke Magazine
War and Roses
by Michael Penn
Bookmark and Share |
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.
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."

 


 



return to page one of this article