The Atom Bowl

Wow.

One of the most bizarre episodes in the entire occupation of Japan took place less than two months later, on January 1, 1946, in Nagasaki.

Back in the States, the Rose Bowl and other major college football bowl games, with the Great War over, were played as usual on New Year’s Day. To mark the day in Japan, and raise morale (at least for the Americans), two Marine divisions faced off in the so-called Atom Bowl, played on a killing field in Nagasaki that had been cleared of debris. It had been “carved out of dust and rubble,” as one wire service report put it.

Both teams had enlisted former college or pro stars for their squads. The “Bears” were led by quarterback Angelo Bertelli of Notre Dame, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1943, while the “Tigers” featured Bullet Bill Osmanski of the Chicago Bears, who topped pro football in rushing in 1939. Marines fashioned goal posts and bleachers out of scrap wood that had been blasted by the A-bomb. Nature helped provide more of a feel of home, as the day turned unusually chilly for Nagasaki and snow swirled.

More than 2000 turned out to watch. A band played the fight song, “On Wisconsin!” The rules were changed from tackle to two-hand touch because of all the glass shards remaining on the turf.

Press reports the next day claimed some Japanese observed the game—from the shells of blasted- out buildings nearby.

Something to think about while watching your New Year’s bowl games. Or the far superior Fiesta Bowl on Thursday.

32 comments on this post.
  1. Todd:

    Way to bury the lede.

    Nagasaki Bears 14
    Isahaya Tigers 13

  2. Bill Murray:

    Why was the team with the player from the Bears called the Tigers and not the Bears?

  3. Leeds man:

    In the spirit of the season, and the thermonuclear theme. Season’s Greetings.

  4. Thom:

    Maybe this explains why my father, who was in Japan (with the US Navy) shortly after the end of the war but would never tell me anything about it, did not like football.

  5. Anonymous:

    Or, one, could just, you know, refrain from fanboying an inferior sport.

  6. DocAmazing:

    I’d be curious to know how many of the football players succumbed to lung cancer in the next two decades. Fallout and nuclear blast residue are not the most salubrious things to suck into one’s lungs.

  7. Warren Terra:

    Clearly the issue hear is the relative merits of football as a spectator sport, rather than for example American attitudes in 1946 to the destruction they had wreaked using atomic weapons.

    For that matter, my subjection is that when i was a small boy in the late 70s / early 80s, in a nice liberal urban area, people were still pretty gung-ho about atomic weapons, at least compared to what i later perceived; thedifference
    could of course be a matter of what is revealed to children rather than one of changing attitudes.

  8. Charlie Sweatpants:

    “The rules were changed from tackle to two-hand touch because of all the glass shards remaining on the turf.”

    As usual, history is weirder than anything fiction could invent.

  9. Catamite Rex:

    You could rewrite it as the Zyklon Bowl, a soccer game between Nazi teams in Warsaw. And people might not actually believe it.

  10. Jeffrey Beaumont:

    Had not the “Great War” been over for almost 30 years?

  11. DrDick:

    And to think that my father just missed that. At the end of the war, he was a CB based in Nagasaki, but shipped home just before Christmas 1945.

  12. DrDick:

    My father was at Nagasaki for several months as a CB doing construction, but does not seem to have had any repercussions from it.

  13. Domino:

    The Fiesta Bowl will be perfect when Kansas State wins a close one against Oregon before Chip Kelly bolts to the NFL before the sanctions are brought down.

  14. Richard:

    And the two quarterbacks in the game lived to 78 and 81 years old with no lung cancer

  15. Leeds man:

    Oh God, another field hockey fan.

  16. Incontinentia Buttocks:

    Apparently the opening salvo in the War on Christmas!

  17. Incontinentia Buttocks:

    This. Other than the close-one bit.

  18. Jonathan:

    To quote Mitchell & Webb, “Do you think we might be the baddies?”

  19. The Dark Avenger:

    This covers why it was safe to play football in Nagasaki when they did:

    The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced their share of residual radiation, but it didn’t stick around long, for two reasons. First, both bombs were detonated more than 500 meters above street level so as to wreak maximum destruction (surrounding buildings would have blocked much of the force of ground-level explosions). That limited surface contamination, since most of the radioactive debris was carried off in the mushroom cloud instead of being embedded in the earth. There was plenty of lethal fallout in the form of “ashes of death” and “black rain,” but it was spread over a fairly wide area.

    Second, most of the radionuclides had brief half-lives–some lasting just minutes. The bomb sites were intensely radioactive for the first few hours after the explosions, but thereafter the danger diminished rapidly. American scientists sweeping Hiroshima with Geiger counters a month after the explosion to see if the area was safe for occupation troops found a devastated city but little radioactivity. Water lilies blackened by the blast had already begun to grow again, suggesting that whatever radioactivity there had been immediately following the blast had quickly dissipated.

    U.S. military authorities touted these findings to an apprehensive world as proof that A-bombs really weren’t so bad. A rumor widespread among Japanese civilians–evidently based on comments made by an American science writer in an interview published shortly after the bombings–held that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be uninhabitable for 70 or 75 years. To quell such talk, American military leaders held a press conference at which they suggested that the explosions had been massive but otherwise ordinary, denied any lingering danger, and predicted there would be no further deaths.

  20. Bill Murray:

    I was guessing hurling

  21. Chuchundra:

    Yeah…not the same thing.

  22. DocAmazing:

    Women’s field hockey. Two groups of women dressed like Catholic schoolgirls running up and down a muddy field with sticks. What’s not to love?

  23. Leeds man:

    You are an evil man.

  24. Uncle Smokes:

    Certainly the Fiesta Bowl is to be watched–and not used.

  25. Barry:

    “Water lilies blackened by the blast had already begun to grow again, suggesting that whatever radioactivity there had been immediately following the blast had quickly dissipated.”

    Please note that plants can take radiation levels which would wipe out people.

  26. The Dark Avenger:

    Barry, did you miss this part?:

    American scientists sweeping Hiroshima with Geiger counters a month after the explosion to see if the area was safe for occupation troops found a devastated city but little radioactivity.

  27. Left_Wing_Fox:

    Irrelevant data is still irrelevant, even if the conclusion remains sound.

    I have to admit, reading that line reminded me of the abundance of wildlife in and around Pripyat after Chernobyl drove out the people.

  28. The Dark Avenger:

    Have either of you gentlemen found out how much was known about the effects of radiation on plants at that time?

    I think you’re missing the bigger picture: outside of what their Geiger counters could pick up, they were really dealing with the unknown here. The only other data point they had was the Trinity test.

    That took place in a desert relatively free of plants and probably exposed to much more radiation because of the detonation being much closer to the ground, and desert plants grow slowly most of the year, so it really wasn’t very useful as a guide to what the possible after-effects would be in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  29. Origami Isopod:

    Of course not. A plurality of Holocaust victims were, in modern terms, white.

  30. Finally Back in Milwaukee Links « Gerry Canavan:

    [...] * January 1, 1946: two Marine divisions faced off in the so-called Atom Bowl, played on a killing field in Nagasaki tha… [...]

  31. Left_Wing_Fox:

    What they believed at the time is relevant to why it’s there, but doesn’t change whether the data is relevant today, making the correction useful.

    I think at this point we’re just trying to nitpick each other to death, but at least there’s interesting information coming out of the exchange ;)

  32. LFC:

    Yes indeed. Surprising to see this error in The Nation (or one of its blogs).

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