The December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Base by Japan created concern in the United States for the safety and security of the entire mainland West Coast. Among the many usual events disrupted was the annual Rose Bowl football game, traditionally played every January 1 in Pasadena, California. The Rose Bowl committee initially announced the game would proceed as scheduled, but that decision was superceded a week later when U.S. Army brass reasoned that a packed stadium would present an attractive bombing target and opted to cancel the contest outright. After considering several alternate locations, including Chicago's Soldier Field, officials finally decided to transplant it to the other side of the continent, in Durham, North Carolina.
Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) earned its way into the 1942 Rose Bowl by virtue of finishing atop the Pacific Coast Conference. As was the custom, the Pacific Coast champion picked its Rose Bowl opponent. The Beavers invited Duke University. Oregon State had wanted to challenge the University of Minnesota, the nation's top-ranked team, but current Western Conference policy barred its members from post-season football play, thus opening the door for second-ranked Duke, undefeated champions of the Southern Conference. The Blue Devils accepted the bid a week before the Pearl Harbor disaster.
Then came the day of "infamy" and Lieutenant General John DeWitt's subsequent order that all major sporting events in southern California be scratched as a precautionary measure to safeguard against possible additional Japanese assaults. Accordingly, Oregon State coach Lon Stiner dismissed his players; some went home for the holiday season while others withdrew from school to enlist in the war effort. And that was thatOSC's first-ever opportunity to play in the prestigious Rose Bowl was dashed by circumstances beyond control.
The situation was simply unacceptable to the OSC athletic director, Percy Locey. Several cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Oklahoma City, and Spokane, offered to host the game at their facilities. Though appreciative, Locey had his own idea about an alternative sitehe contacted Duke with a unique proposition: Oregon State was willing to travel to Durham; would Duke be at all interested in hosting the game? It didn't take long for Wallace Wade, the Duke head coach, to agree. He was still smarting from the 1939 Rose Bowl when his "Iron Duke" team, miraculously unscored upon the entire season, lost 7-3 in the last minute to the University of Southern California. (The disjointed Wade refused to shake hands after the game with USC's coach Howard Jones, and then later compounded the insult by making some disparaging remarks about the state of California.)
When informed that the game would be held in their own stadium, many of the Duke players balked, realizing that instead of a visit to glamorous southern California, they would be spending much of their holiday break practicing on campus and missing what might be their final Christmas with family and friends before heading overseas to fight the menacing Axis Powers. However, when Duke's coaching staff appeased the team by allowing some days off to go home, the players acquiesced. The game was on!
Duke students and fans, much like the football team, experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. Elation over Duke's opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl was numbed by the shock of the Pearl Harbor attack and the looming perils of world war. Still, many Duke supporters had planned on riding the "Blue Devil Special" to California. For only $181.81 fans received a round-trip railway ticket with Pullman accommodations, hotel fare, admission to the game, and even a side trip to the Grand Canyon! When the strange news reached Durham that the game had been relocated there, though the thrill of the Blue Devils playing in the Rose Bowl still existed, attending the game in the local stadium instead of sunny Pasadena dulled the affair's luster a bit.
Across the continent, the Oregon State faithful, as well, were forced to change their plans. Hundreds had booked round-trip train tickets south for $17.50 (sleeping berths were available at additional cost), with reserved game seats in the 50-yard-line section awaiting at $4.50 each. The Tournament of Roses parade was scrubbed altogether.
Borrowing bleachers from neighboring universities, Duke increased its stadium capacity from 35,000 to 55,000 to better accommodate what was then the premier event of the college football season. Within just three days, the contest was sold out (after which scalpers demanded up to $15 per ticket). Duke rolled out the red carpet for its guests from Corvallis. OSC team captain Martin Chaves was named honorary mayor of Durham for the day and his teammates were draped with southern hospitality.
Game day was wet. "I've never seen so much rain in all my life," recalled one of the Duke players. To the boys from Willamette Valley it was just a "misty day." Both views were skewedfor the most part, the skies emitted a steady, cold drizzle. Regardless of the weather's true intensity, the soggy playing conditions were much more typical for the visiting Beavers than for their hosts.
Mixed emotions aside, and despite the inclement weather, 56,000 spectators and a horde of East Coast sportswriters (only one Far West writer came to Durham) packed the drenched stadium for what most of them thought was going to be a three-hour respite from America's intense war mobilization effort in the form of an almost certain Rose Bowl victory celebration for the darling Blue Devils at the expense of the unheralded Oregon Staters.
The game featured an intriguing match of opponents. Pre-season prognosticators had picked Oregon State to finish near the bottom of its 10-member conference. But after a split of their first four games, the upstart Beavers swept their final five opponents to finish at 7-2 and ranked #12 in the nation. Five of Oregon State's seven wins were shutouts. In fact, the stingy OSC defense allowed just 33 total points all season. The Blue Devils, on the other hand, stood unblemished at 9-0 and ranked #2 nationally, having outscored its opponents by an average of 30+ points per game. The potent Duke offense was directed by quarterback J. Thompson Prothro, Jr., who coincidentally would one day become a coaching legend at Oregon State (where, by that time, he was "Tommy" Prothro). Based on game scores, the defense was every bit as formidable as OSC's. There were no common opponents to use as a comparison.
The OSC coaches, though able, were a bunch of Rose Bowl rookies. Conversely, Duke's head coach owned an impressive Rose Bowl résumé. Wallace had played for Brown University in the 1916 game, and then coached the University of Alabama in three Rose Bowls (achieving two victories and a tie) before guiding Duke to the 1939 classic. With the powerful Blue Devils operating on their own turfno matter rain or shineit was obvious the Beavers faced a steep uphill battle. Accordingly, oddsmakers declared the home squad a solid 3-1 favorite.
The game was one of the most exciting in Rose Bowl history. If the OSC players felt any initial underdog jitters, they were effectively erased when Duke fumbled away the opening kickoff. The first half scoring was a showcase between potential Rose Bowl MVPs. Oregon State drew first blood on a nifty 15-yard scamper by do-it-all Don Durdan, who on this day would run, pass, and kick himself into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Duke answered during the second quarter when its star Steve Lach scooted untouched into the end zone on a reverse. At halftime, the score stood at 7-all. In the third period, OSC again jumped ahead by a touchdown, and again Duke matched it. Before the busy quarter ended, Oregon State would score another touchdown when reserve halfback Gene Gray caught a 40-yard pass from quarterback Bob Dethman, then galloped another 28 yards to pay dirt. OSC missed the ensuing PAT attempt, setting the stage for a narrow Duke victory if its explosive offense could reach the end zone just one more time. Should the game's crazy flip-flop pattern of scoring continue, it meant that Duke would score next.
Duke's two touchdowns was an important benchmark. On the one hand, it matched the team's lowest output of the season; conversely, the 14 points was already more than what Oregon State had allowed in a single game all season. Clearly, something had to give: would the Beaver defense collapse or would the Duke offense sputter? OSC's fourth quarter defense bent, but it didn't break. Those in the know were probably figuring on a Duke comeback. Duke penetrated OSC territory three times in the period, but each time (twice by pass interceptions) the Beavers shut the door on the Blue Devils. As the game clock expired, all that Duke had to show for its superior fourth-quarter field position was a relatively meaningless safety. As it turned out, both Duke and OSC scored the most points allowed by each all season. In the only Rose Bowl game ever played away from Pasadena, Oregon State upset the Blue Devils 20-16. Just like its Rose Bowl appearance two years prior, Duke's bid for a perfect season was spoiled.
The media, as well, found OSC's solid win a tough pill to swallow. Sid Feder, an AP sportswriter, concluded: "Probably never in the quarter century history of the Tournament of Roses had such a completely overlooked betting underdog jumped up to beat the big fellows. Oregon State came East to the wonderment of most of Dixie as to why the Westerners were going to show up at all." Indeed, NBC radio play-by-play announcer Bill Stern was typical of the East Coast snub. During his game broadcast, he referred to the "Blue Beavers" from "Ohio State" wearing "scarlet" uniforms. Actually, neither team was afforded a great deal of respect by the opposing sports media. When Oregon State was in the process of finding a suitable substitute for Minnesota as its Rose Bowl opponent, the Los Angeles media, apparently unimpressed with Duke, instead supported bringing seventh-ranked Missouri (8-1-0) of the Big Six Conference west to face the PCC champ.
Unlike today, no revised national rankings were issued following post-season play. Certainly, the Rose Bowl triumph was rich enough to elevate the Beavers a few notches above their #12 spot, but just how generous the pollsters would have been is forever left to speculation. It's especially difficult to figure a new set of rankings because at that time just a handful of bowl games existed. Hence, most of the teams ahead of Oregon State did not play beyond the regular season; of those that did only two (besides Duke) lost their bowl games. Who knows?
Most of the 80 or so players who suited up for the 1942 Rose Bowl game would wear U.S. military uniforms before World War II ended. Some enlisted; several were drafted; others signed up for V-7 and V-12 programs, equivalents of the present-day Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). A few of the game's participants would meet again over the next four years, far from Durham.
Oregon State's Frank Parker and Duke's Charlie Haynes fought practically side by side in Italy, assigned to different companies of the same battalion. When Haynes was gravely wounded in the Arno River Campaign during the autumn of 1944, it was Parker who helped carry him to an abandoned farmhouse, where medics were able to mend Haynes.
Wallace Wade, the Duke coach for whom the stadium is now named, accepted hot coffee and food from Stan Czech of OSC during the Battle of the Bulge in 1945. The pair huddled together for warmth in a frigid Belgium winter and conversed over their scanty meal. Before long, they realized their link to a damp North Carolina afternoon four years earlier. Wade returned from military service to coach five more seasons at Duke (1946-50) before retiring. Similarly, some of the 1942 Rose Bowl players, athletic eligibility pending, rejoined their respective football teams after the war. For Oregon State, the war curtailed the 1943 and 1944 football seasons.
Gene Gray of OSC, whose 68-yard touchdown pass reception and run in the third quarter broke a 14-14 deadlock and proved to be the winning play, recorded more than 30 bombing missions over Germany, only to have both his arms amputated as the result of a post-war plane crash in a Panama jungle.
Duke's Jim Smith served on the destroyer USS Bright, struck by a Japanese kamikaze at Okinawa. Smith later expressed how important it was to play the 1942 Rose Bowl in the midst of America's turmoil. He saw the game as a symbolic gesture to not just the United States but the entire world: "We're still a nation, we're still here, we're still going about things."
Four of the 1942 Rose Bowl players would not survive the war. Duke lost Walter Griffith, killed in the Pacific Theater less than a year after the game; Al Hoover, who died in September of 1944 when he smothered a Japanese hand grenade to save comrades near him during the Battle of Peleliu Island; and Bob Nanni, shot on Iwo Jima in March of 1945. Oregon State's Everett Smith drowned during an amphibious landing in the South Pacific.
The 1941 Duke and Oregon State teams have scheduled joint reunions at various times over the years. In 1991, both squads were invited to the Rose Bowlthe first time many of the Duke players saw the stadium where they were supposed to have played half a century earlier. The 1942 Rose Bowl is still the only time the two schools have met on the football field. Considering the historic, emotional, and patriotic propensity of the game, perhaps it should forever remain that way.
Today a small bed of roses surrounds a plaque near Wallace Wade Stadium on the Duke campus, a tender remembrance of how two college football teams demonstrated America's pride and determination to carry on in the homeland during a tumultuous and uncertain time.
Sources: Tom Bennett, OSU Alumni Association; Chuck Boice, OSU Alumni Association; Hal Cowen, OSU Sports Information Office; Mike Dodd & Jill Lieber, USA Today; George Edmonston, Jr., OSU Alumni Association; Pete Fiutak, College Football News, Inc.; Ron Green, Jr., The Charlotte Observer; James Howell, 1941 NCAA Division IA Football Power Ratings; William King, Duke University Archives; Soren Sorensen, College Football 1941 Division I-A Chi Square Linear Win-Difference Ratio; Jeff Welsch, Corvallis Gazette-Times.
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