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Beaver Book Club: Fields of Battle

“Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl, and the boys who went to war.”

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First of all, welcome to the first installment of Beaver Book Club: a new series where we examine works of literature by or about the great Oregon State athletes and coaches of years past. In this inaugural piece, I wanted to look at Brian Curtis’ 2016 book Fields of Battle about the 1942 Rose Bowl and what became of the members of the Oregon State and Duke football teams that played in it.

In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor bombing in December of 1941, Americans became afraid that the annual Rose Bowl game in Pasadena would become a target for another attack. It didn’t seem safe to play the game in California, but the American public saw it as a sign of weakness to cancel the game all together. As a result, the Pacific Coast Champion Beavers and their previously selected opponent, the undefeated Duke Blue Devils, reached an agreement to play the game on Duke’s campus in Durham, North Carolina. This was the first and only Rose Bowl to be played outside of Pasadena. Even after Oregon State’s 20-16 win, the lives of the members of both teams intersected in curious and incredible ways in the following years as the United States entered World War II.

Curtis went to great lengths to scour historical records from both schools to tell the tale of what went into hosting the game in a frightening time for the country, as well as what happened after. It’s rather remarkable the detail he was able to weave into his writing considering nearly every player, coach, and administrator involved has since passed away. Some of the stories Curtis follows throughout the book are somewhat heart warming, some are tragic, and all give a remarkable look at what would be a turning point in American history.

Aerial shot of Duke University hosting the 1942 Rose Bowl game.
Photo via North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

One of the more gut wrenching stories detailed in Curtis’ book is that of Oregon State’s Jack Yoshihara. The son of a Japanese immigrant, Yoshihara played a few different positions for coach Lon Stiner’s OSU squad during the 1941 season. During a practice in Corvallis in preparation for the Rose Bowl, Yoshihara was forcibly removed from the field by government agents and eventually placed in an internment camp in Idaho. He never got to play in the Rose Bowl. Yoshihara spent his entire life recovering from this injustice. Yoshihara was eventually awarded his degree by OSU in 2008 at the age of 87. He passed away a few months later.

There’s also the story of running back Gene Gray. Gray caught what would be the winning touchdown in the Rose Bowl, taking it 68 yards on a pass from Bob Dethman. Ironically, those same arms that caught what became one of the most important passes in OSU football history, would be lost in a plane crash in Panama in the years following the war. Gray somehow survived the crash and returned to Oregon where he lived until his death in 2004.

The 1942 Oregon State Rose Bowl team
Photo via Oregon State University Special Collections

Then there’s the tale of Frank Parker of Oregon State and Charles Haynes of Duke. While they played on opposite sides on the football field, they fought together at points on the European front during the war. Parker actually saved Haynes’ life one fateful night in the Austrian mountains after Haynes had nearly bled out from a gunshot and Parker rushed him to a medic down the hill. Both eventually returned to the U.S. after the war and lived very different lives.

I can definitely personally recommend this book for people who consider themselves American history buffs as well as football buffs. There’s quite a bit of detail going into how the game was played successfully in the early 20th century, which starkly contrasts to how it’s played now. For the people who enjoy reading about military strategies and the lives of the armed forces, there’s plenty in there about that too. Curtis’ book, in my opinion, is one of the better books in recent history about America’s game in a time where America’s future may have been its most uncertain. If you’re interested in giving it a read, you can buy it on Amazon here, but I’d recommend getting it from your local bookstore if possible.

Unfortunately, many of those men who left their lives and football careers behind to serve in the armed forces never made it back. Some did, but found the burdens of war too heavy and struggled with it for the rest of their days. As this post goes up on Memorial Day, it’s important to remember those who made that sacrifice with their bodies, their innocence, and their lives to fight injustice all over the world.