As part of the 2018 Savannah Book Festival’s free Festival Saturday, Brian Curtis spoke about his book, “Fields of Battle.” Curtis has written several other bestsellers in addition to contributing to Sports Illustrated and working as a sports broadcaster for CBS College Sports and Fox Sports Network.
The book started as a Sports Illustrated article in the summer of 2013. Curtis was struggling to find his next topic and he was reading a “did you know?” facts section in a Rose Bowl newsletter. It said that the only Rose Bowl game never to be played in Pasadena was played in Durham, North Carolina in 1942. He did some research but little had been written the event.
The game had been moved in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and, within a few years after, its participants were scattered around the world, trading the playing field for the battlefield.
“What I didn’t know at the time when I wrote the article,” Curtis said, “was that of the eighty men who coached and participated in the game, only one is still with us today. If I had written this book thirty or forty years ago, it probably would have been completely different book.”
Curtis began to reconstruct the story of the men “without the men there.” He tracked down family members but many had little to offer, as the men hadn’t ever talked much about the war or their lives before. Curtis, instead, pieced together military files with the help of a military researcher, academic transcripts, and the few newspaper stories there were about the game.
“One of the blessings for me,” Curtis said, “is that I was able to educate the families about their dad and their grandparents. I can tell them where they went to high school. I can tell them what classes they took in college.” He also was able to pass along their full military files including the dates they served.
The story quickly began to revolve around the friendship of Charles Hanes and Frank Parker. Charles Hanes was a beloved, all-American boy whose father was an executive at the American Tobacco Company. He played for Duke during the Rose Bowl of 1942 and shortly after found himself in the army.
He was stationed in the hills of Italy against the Germans and he started to talk to another young man named Frank Parker at an encampment. Hanes finds out that Parker happened to play in the same Rose Bowl but for the other side, Oregon State. Parker had lost his father at the age of eleven in a car accident and he worked all through high school and college just to make ends meet.
Both are leaders of platoons and one day, they led a charge up a hill when bullets start to fly and several strike Hanes. Nobody could get to him to carry him off of the battlefield so he laid bleeding to death in the rain, and then in the snow, for seventeen hours.
Suddenly someone grabbed his arm. Hanes opened his eyes to see Parker who picked up his bloody body and carried him down the hill to the medical tent before turning around to save other men. Hanes was transferred to a medical hospital and made a full recovery.
The two created a friendship but, after the war ended, never laid eyes on each other again until 1991, when Oregon State hosted a fiftieth anniversary of that infamous Rose Bowl. Hanes traveled from Durham to Corvallis, Oregon to see the man who saved his life and began to weep when he saw Parker across the room.
Curtis also discussed the effects of war on these men. “Some of the other players from the game came home and suffered from drug abuse and alcoholism, suffered from drug abuse or committed suicide. We talk about the greatest generation but we think about ticker tape parades and homecomings and these men—who were really boys sent to islands far away—struggle with this their entire lives.”
In September 2016, Curtis assisted Oregon State in putting together the 75th anniversary celebration by helping the university contact all of the families of the men. Sons and daughters came, many for the first time, to Oregon State. “It was probably one of the most emotional and memorable events of my life,” Curtis said, “to see the embrace between the descendants of these former players and the bond that connected them all together.”