Strange But True: The Arab Bowl

New Year’s Day is the traditional date for football bowl games: the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and others. One New Year’s Day, 1944, a most untraditional bowl game was played, perhaps the strangest bowl game ever.

To begin with, the bowl game was not played in the United States, but Oran, North Africa. The spectators were not pennant-waving college students and graduates. They were American soldiers and sailors (many of them recovering from wounds), some French soldiers and a number of Arabs. And the game itself was the first and only touch football bowl game in history.

As 1944 opened, the United States was deeply involved in World War II. Of the millions of Americans overseas, many thousands were in North Africa, which had been freed from Axis control during 1943.

Staging an Arab Bowl game was Sgt. Jim Harrigan’s idea. Harrigan was sports editor of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. He made his plans for the game with Cpl. Zeke Bonura, a former first baseman for the Chicago White Sox. Officers from army and navy headquarters agreed the game was a good idea, but then came all the military red tape and the arguments.

It happened that several units stationed in North Africa had formed a kind of North African Football Conference. The two top teams of this “league” wanted to play in the “Arab Bowl.” Other officers and men wanted a game between the army and navy men instead. Finally, Harrigan and Bonura suggested a compromise. Why not have a football doubleheader? The first game could be played by the Casablanca Rab Chasers and the Oran Termites, for the North African Football Conference championship. The second game would be between Army all-stars and the Navy all-stars. That seemed to satisfy everybody.

Both services wanted to win that game. Staffs at their headquarters looked through service records of men who were in or near North Africa, to find out who had football in high school or college. Several such players received special orders to come to Oran. They had time for a couple of weeks of practice before the game.

January 1, 1944, was a very hot day in Oran. In a rugged opening game, the Casablanca Rab Chasers defeated the Oran Termites for the North African Conference Championship.

And now another problem arose. Neither of these teams would loan their equipment for the “Army-Navy” game. Shoulder pads and jerseys were so hard to get that they were too valuable to lend to strangers.

After hurried consultation with the players, the admirals and the generals, Zeke Bonura made an announcement over the public-address system.

“We have a problem with equipment,” he told the crowd. “Now, we can’t have tackle football without shoulder pads. So this will be a touch football game.” The spectators groaned. “But,” Bonura went on, “blocking will be permitted. Also, we will now present the between-games entertainment.”

There were some loud sounds passing as music, and several service bands came onto the field. Then came camel and burro races, with members of the Women’s Army Corps (called WACs) and the Red Cross nurses mounted on the animals. The selection of the beauty queen was the highlight. Three WACs were entered, but each received so many cheers that the contest was declared a tie. The Arab Bowl had three queens.

The army and navy teams wore the weirdest assortment of uniforms anyone had ever seen. Some players had football cleats, others wore sneakers. Some players wore jerseys, but no two matched. And most players wore brown T-shirts.

Since nobody had pads, the ground game was mostly end runs. A lot of passes were thrown. Nobody was really hurt by the blocking, but the heat caused many substitutions.

Navy scored on a blocked punt and a pass. The kick was good, to make the score 7-0. Army tied the game before the half ended.

The second half was scoreless until the final minute of play. Army’s Eddie Herbert intercepted a pass and returned it to the Navy 20-yard line.

With time for one more play, De Mello place-kicked a perfect goal, and Army won the game, 10-7.

By the next New Year’s Day, nearly all the players and spectators were somewhere else. Many fought in the major battles of 1944. Others were transferred back to the United States. So the Bowl was a one-of-a-kind event. But for the soldiers and sailors far from home, it was a welcome break from the grimness of war and a happy memory for years after.

From Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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3 Comments

  1. The headline didn’t click right away and I thought this was going to be about the Rose Bowl being played in North Carolina after the Pearl Harbor attack.

    You are also the 6th result for Howard Liss!!!!

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