Editor’s note: The day before Pearl Harbor, there was a remarkable scene in Tacoma’s Stadium Bowl. Texas A&M — two years after winning the national championship - squared off against what’s now Washington State University in game dubbed the Evergreen Bowl. Most of the players would go on to serve in the military during World War II. In 2004, The News Tribune tracked down the surviving members of those teams. Those men have since passed away. This is the story they shared.
When Rodney Giske woke up late on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and groggily pulled back his privacy curtain, he vowed he wouldn't drink again anytime soon. The night before, at a party for the Washington State College football team in Tacoma, the 19-year-old tasted alcohol for the first time. Maybe it was the pain of that afternoon's 7-0 loss to Texas A&M at Stadium Bowl, or the fact that he didn't know what he was doing, but he drank a bit too much and now he was paying the price.
Everything seemed surreal as he gazed around the Spokane-bound train. He didn't recognize some of the people sitting in the seats reserved for his teammates. New passengers filled the seats of players who decided to spend a few extra days in Tacoma. Giske yanked the curtain closed.
As the morning passed and the cobwebs cleared, he heard passengers in the front of his car buzzing about something. The noise grew to a rumble as it moved toward him.
“We've been attacked,” a passenger said. “Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.”
A few hours down the tracks, Roy Bucek and his Texas A&M teammates were getting the same news.
A&M was a military school and the Cougars had a large ROTC program, but the magnitude of the news wasn't setting in. Some players had never heard of Pearl Harbor. Bucek wasn't sure what to think. Giske just sat there pondering the news.
If your first taste of alcohol was an uncomfortable step toward manhood, what about war?
That night when the A&M players were ordered to hang their clothes around the curtains of their sleeping compartments to seal in the light, it finally sank in for Bucek.
“I was scared as hell,” he said. “We were going to war.”
Most of the 83 men from those teams would serve in World War II. One would die, some would be wounded. None would ever again be as innocent as they were playing football on a sandy field in Tacoma.
FIELD OF CRUSHED SHELLS
Dick Fry, a Washington State University sports historian, said the Cougars played in Tacoma in 1941 for the same reason they sometimes play in Seattle today: money.
In four games in Pullman, the Cougars averaged fewer than 12,000 fans per game. A game in Tacoma against mighty Texas A&M, the 1939 national champs, promised to sell more than twice that many tickets. The fact that nine Cougar players, including Giske, were from Stadium or Lincoln high schools also didn't hurt.
The game, promoted as the Evergreen Bowl, was a colossal event for Tacoma and city officials hoped to make it an annual occurrence.
The game sold out so fast that 500 extra bleacher seats were brought in the week of the game and standing-room-only tickets were sold after kickoff. An article detailing the arrival of the team trains got front-page treatment in the Dec. 5 issue of The News Tribune, overshadowing a smaller story about a break in relations between the United States and Japan.
A pregame parade included two mountain lions, the Cougars' 120-piece band and, at the request of the game's chairman, every WSC fan in town who owned "a honky-horned car."
The matchup was worthy of national attention. The Cougars were 6-3 and shut out four of their last five opponents. Only an early-season home loss to Washington kept them from taking Oregon State's spot in the Rose Bowl.
The Aggies were 8-1, Southwest Conference champs and had already accepted a Cotton Bowl invitation.
The game, legendary New York Herald-Tribune sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, was too close to call.
Giske didn't think so. As he walked into the stadium where he played in high school, he was bothered by the heckling coming from the A&M contingent among the 25,000 fans.
“As you probably know, folks from Texas have loud mouths,” Giske said. “I'm not saying that because I'm prejudiced, I'm saying it because they really are a bunch of loud-mouths.”
So Giske turned to an A&M fan and bet him $50 the Cougs would win.
“I had to pay up,” he said. “That hurt.”
Aggie left end Jim Sterling said he’d never forget the playing surface.
“It was sand and crushed shells,” Sterling said. “We were all scratched up. I was pulling shells out of my pants all game.”
Tacoma Stadium, as Stadium Bowl was then known, was famous locally for its coarse field. St. Martin's College had previously ruined its only set of uniforms on the field. The Cougars knew what to expect and practiced for the game on dirt, rather than their grass field.
The advantage wasn't enough.
The Cougars had a touchdown nullified by a penalty early in the game and, according to newspaper accounts, dominated the first half until the final moments.
“Everybody in the stadium knew they were going to pass,” said Giske, who vividly remembers the game's deciding play. “Everybody except Jay Stoves.”
Stoves, the Cougars' safety, was out of position as Leo Daniels threw a 38-yard pass to Cullen Rogers for the game's only score.
FEAR AND WAR
When the game’s surviving player talked to The News Tribune in 2004, most of the memories of specifics about what transpired on the field had faded.
“The most important thing about that game was what happened the next day,” Bucek said.
The Aggies had a four-day train ride from Tacoma to College Station, Texas, so they had plenty of time to think about the attack on Pearl Harbor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's request that Congress declare war.
Bucek isn't proud of the directions their minds wandered.
“We were out on the West Coast and we knew there were a lot of Japanese people living in California,” Bucek said. “We were afraid they would mobilize and attack us again.”
It's fair to say the Aggies were sheltered — before 1963, Texas A&M admitted only white males — and it wasn't the first time they'd been angry at a race of people.
A year earlier, some Aggies weren't happy to line up against black UCLA running back Jackie Robinson. An A&M player said he would knock Robinson out of the game by the end of the first quarter and he delivered on his promise.
“It was wrong for us to think that way,” Bucek said.
Cougar players didn't have as much time to stew in the train, but when they arrived in Pullman, the campus was buzzing.
“When we got back and everybody was talking on campus, that's when it sunk in for me,” said Earl Brenneis, a 19-year-old reserve for the Cougars in 1941. “We were at war.”
THOUSANDS OF AGGIES
Soon after the United States entered the war, Gen. Douglas MacArthur wrote, “Texas A&M is writing its own military history in the blood of its graduates. ... Whenever I see a Texas man in my command, I have a feeling of confidence.”
More than 18,000 A&M graduates served in World War II, including 12,000 officers. The Aggies' participation was more than West Point and the Naval Academy combined.
Every member of the 1941 football team served in World War II.
Washington State, like A&M, was a land grant college, which meant it had to have an ROTC program and two years of mandatory military classes.
Still, not every WSC football player was in ROTC in 1941. Cougar coach Babe Hollingberry made sure that changed.
Known for his motivational pregame speeches, Hollingberry talked to the players about their duty to their country.
“He was instrumental in making sure we were all signed up,” Brenneis said. “At the end of the school year, we all jumped on a train and headed off to the war.”
Brenneis served in the infantry in the Pacific.
Giske tried to sign up, but was rejected because of a knee injury and a perforated eardrum. WSC canceled its 1943 and 1944 football seasons, but Giske returned to school, at least briefly.
“Women outnumbered men 45 to two and that wasn't for me,” Giske said.
Instead, he spent the war years fishing on the West Coast and in Alaska for as much as $1,000 per week.
Others weren't as fortunate.
One of A&M's biggest stars in the Tacoma game was halfback Derace Moser, who accounted for most of the Aggies' 168 passing yards.
Moser, the roommate of Sterling and Bucek, was the only player in the game to be killed during the war.
His bomber crashed during a training flight in Florida, killing everybody aboard.
Bucek nearly met a similar fate. He kept a heavy wool coat with a hole in the shoulder to remind him how fortunate he was to survive.
On a frigid night in late December, 1944, Bucek was trucked into the Battle of the Bulge to replace an officer who was killed.
“One of the most beautiful things I've ever seen was the tracer fire in the sky that night,” Bucek said.
It would be one of the last things Bucek saw with both eyes. A few nights later, he found himself hunkered behind a tree in the snow while German soldiers shot at him.
“I couldn't see them, but they could see me,” Bucek said.
When it was all over, Bucek had 18 holes in his body, 17 of which were relatively minor. The other changed his life forever. A piece of shrapnel pierced his left eye and lodged in his cheekbone, where it remained for the rest of his life.
“It took me quite some time to get over that,” Bucek said. “When you lose part of your body, it's an emotional strain. You look at other people and they are whole and you are not. I lost a lady friend because of it. Psychologically, I was in no shape to get married.”
It took a few years, but Bucek recovered. He married and opened a chain of restaurants and a meat plant called Oakridge Smokehouses.
Late in his life he was still operating the mail-order portion of the business.
Sterling served in the infantry, mostly in El Paso, Texas. After the war he owned a ranch and a company that built prefabricated buildings. Brenneis and Giske retired and lived in Chehalis.
When these men recall their playing careers, they can remember bigger and better games than the one they played in Tacoma on Dec. 6, 1941. Nonetheless, the game marked the most pivotal moment of their lives, the last day of peace before the world changed forever.