The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II
My father was a marine at Okinawa.
He was drafted in 1944 during his freshman year at Dartmouth College. He told me he had actually been taken by the navy but had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps because he did not want to die on board a ship. Knowing even as a kid a smidgen of the history of the marines in the Pacific, that struck me as the strangest logic I had ever heard. But he was suited to the corps. He was tough, an excellent football player at guard in high school despite being only five foot nine and 165 pounds, once separating his shoulder and having his coach pop it right back on the sidelines.
He never talked about Okinawa except for little odds and ends: being in a foxhole at the end of the campaign with a little guy from Brooklyn who prayed a lot, dying for a bottle of booze, coming down with something, and getting shot with a needle bigger than his body. My sister, Annie, and I sometimes marched around the apartment with my dad, the cadence sounding like hup-a-left hup-a-left hup-a-left left right left. He made it fun, as other marines who had been at Okinawa did to avoid the irreversible scars that lay underneath. I did ask him once if he had used his rifle there. He said he had. I asked him if he’d hit anything. He said he’d had no idea and hadn’t been about to find out.
That was all he said, going outside to smoke a cigarette when the subject of Okinawa came up. It was his private space; to ask further would have been to violate it. I know he had seen things he could not bear, so at odds with his humanity and pacifism. He hated guns. But he did what he did because there was no other choice. Duty back then was not up for discussion. I will not embellish. He was not wounded. I can’t say for sure how much action he saw. But I know he was there, and that’s enough for me and should be for the rest of us. He was a hero because he was in the war. He was not a war hero.
When I embarked on The Mosquito Bowl in 2017 with the eighty-two-day Battle of Okinawa in World War II integral to the book, it was not because of my father. It was not some search-and-discovery story. I had no idea what regiment or battalion and company he had been in and had never searched for information.
As I was doing a book proposal, I looked up the military records of the men I might be writing about. Because many of them had died at Okinawa, I wasn’t sure I could do the kind of reporting that was necessary. My other nonfiction books had been based on being there, so-called immersion journalism. This was the opposite. I wanted the men to come alive as flesh and bone before their deaths. I went back and forth on whether I could really get to their core and do them the justice they deserved. As I conducted my inner debate, the irony of researching the careers of others but not my father’s seemed crazy. I wanted to respect his privacy, but I realized I had to know.
I hate the use of the word destiny as a force that leads you to something. The only destiny I can guarantee is that I will eat the last cookie in the jar late at night and then lie to my wife, Lisa, about it.
A significant part of The Mosquito Bowl deals with the 4th Regiment of the 6th Marine Division, which fought at Okinawa. Because online records can be spotty, I assumed I would never find his name. But Ancestry.com makes it effortless, and records are remarkably accurate. It took me minutes.
There was my father, Harry G. Bissinger, on a muster roll attached to the 1st Battalion of the 4th Regiment of the 6th Marine Division as a private. It was a rifle company.
In other words, he was in the very same regiment and battalion that are so central to The Mosquito Bowl. Because many of those I wrote about were great college football players and my dad was a great sports fan, I have no doubt that he knew of them and maybe met some of them.
It was that discovery that made me realize I had to do it; it was destiny, after all. I would be writing exclusively about other marines, but I knew that I would be writing about my dad.
He left us far too soon, dying at the age of seventy-five roughly six weeks after 9/11, invaded by leukemia that devoured him four months after diagnosis. I so terribly wish he was here for so many reasons, a man of incredible charisma, charm, and humor who wasn’t above taking a drink or two or three because that’s the way his generation rolled. He was one of those rare people you always wanted to be around. For all his ebullience with others, he was so very hard on himself. He rarely took pride in anything he did despite all of his accomplishments, one of which was being a marine.
I so terribly want to tell him how proud I am of his duty on those killing fields. The book is my way of doing it.
2: Everybody’s Watching
5: Land of the Free
6: The Army Way
7: The Letter
10: Football Is War
11: Separate and Unequal
12: Remember the McKean
13: Sunday Sheet
15: Forget Me Not
16: Committed to the Deep
17: The Patrol
18: Pen Pal
19: Not a Damn Thing
22: March of the Crabs
23: The Mosquito Bowl
24: Bound for Hell
26: April Fool
27: Abandon Ship
28: The Tortoise
29: The Little Girl
30: Return to Sender
31: A Thousand Ants
32: At All Costs
33: Crazy for Revenge
34: Carry On
35: Last Stand
36: Regret to Inform
38: Three Stars
39: Counting the Days
40: Cessation of Hostilities
Notes on Sources
About the Author
Also by Buzz Bissinger
About the Publisher
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