Fields of Battle: Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl, and the boys who went to war

by Father James Gross


“Fields of Battle” by Brian Curtis. Published by Flatiron Books. 320 pages.

When looking for something to read for recreation, two of my favorite topics are sports and American history. If a book intertwines both of those subjects, I can’t resist.

I first learned about Fields of Battle from a recommendation in a Sports Illustrated article. In this moving story, college football serves as the backdrop to the reality of the horrors of World War II and the uncommon valor of soldiers, sailors, and airmen whose prior ambitions revolved around academics, athletics, and wooing their sweethearts. Brian Curtis includes large helpings of patriotism and nostalgia while not shying away from the life-altering effects of combat in both the European and Pacific theatres.

Duke University and Oregon State College (now University) met in the 1942 Rose Bowl, but the game that year did not take place in Pasadena, Calif. The team from Oregon State enjoyed one of its most successful seasons in their brief history, defeating their archrival Oregon Ducks and capturing the Pacific Coast Conference title with an 8-2 record. The reward was an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl—a game affectionately nicknamed in our day “The Granddaddy of Them All.” Students and faculty alike on the Corvallis, Ore. campus were abuzz with excitement, daydreaming of warm, sun-splashed California and its Hollywood stars. However, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 brought the world of college sports to a standstill.

Due largely to pressure from military officials, the Tournament of Roses committee declared that Pasadena would not host a bowl game that season. However, that did not mean a game could not be played at all. Eventually Oregon State found an opponent in Duke University who would also host the contest. This meant a lengthy train trip from the Pacific Northwest to Durham, N.C., a destination that for many of the small-town Beaver teammates felt like halfway around the world. Providing a temporary diversion for a country’s sports fans embroiled in the buildup to war, the matchup remains one of the most tightly contested and entertaining games of the series.

The second part of the book highlights the changes that the two schools made in cooperating with the war effort (with Oregon State becoming a de facto “Military Academy of the West”) and the honorable records of service of many of the young men who entered the war. Among the most notable of these was the head coach at Duke, Wallace Wade, a Tennessee native who became a storied coach at Alabama before the era of Paul “Bear” Bryant, and who signed up on the cusp of his 50th birthday to fight as an artillery commander. At one point Wade’s unit was only miles away from the unit in which his son, Wallace Jr., served. Curtis quotes several former players who commented that Wade’s tough-love demeanor and strenuous conditioning drills prepared them well for the rigors of basic training. Visitors to Duke University will note that the football venue is named Wallace Wade stadium.

Another striking story involves a standout Oregon State player named Chiaki (Jack) Yoshihara, a Japanese American who found himself a target of segregation, lived for a time in an internment camp, and was barred from traveling to North Carolina with his team. The modern reader may be shocked to learn how difficult life was for many in the United States who were of Japanese and German descent, bearing no personal responsibility for the actions of the regimes in their homelands.

Would our sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews display the same level of valor as did the students of Duke and Oregon State who fought and died 75 years ago for the preservation of our liberties? This book left me both admiring the sacrifice of our ancestors and praying that we never need to find out.