March Field football team regularly overwhelmed WWII foes  – San Bernardino Sun

A long-forgotten football power in 1943 steamrolled over teams from USC and UCLA with military precision – which was hardly a coincidence.

By a combined score of 82-7, the two college teams were beaten by a collection of football players then in military training during World War II at Riverside’s March Field – today’s March Air Reserve Base.

Representing the Army Air Corps’ 4th Air Force, March Field was a major football powerhouse on the West Coast, winning 21 games and losing only 5 in 1942-1944. Performing were former college stars as well as some who had played professionally.

During those war years, at dozens of large and small military bases scattered across Southern California, athletic teams were assembled in various sports for recruiting purposes and to build teamwork among players soon to face the serious challenges ahead on the front lines.

The March Field football wins over USC and UCLA were not very surprising as thousands of college students were then in the military. Some colleges shut down athletic programs during the war.

That might have been a real alternative for UCLA, which won only one game in 1943 and lost twice to rival USC.

On Oct. 9, 1943, March Field beat the Bruins, 47-7, at Wheelock Field at Riverside City College.

Former Alabama All-American quarterback Jimmy Nelson scored two touchdowns for March Field and passed for three others. Nelson, who after the war became a real estate agent in Redlands, sent one of those passes to Woody Strode, who played at UCLA the year before and after the war had a successful acting career.

March Field coach Major Paul J. Schissler was praised for holding down the score against UCLA.  “He was pulling in subs from so far down the bench he had to ask their names,” said a United Press article in the Pomona Progress-Bulletin on Oct. 13.

USC had no better luck when it lost to March Field before 30,000 in the Coliseum. The 35-0 drubbing on Nov. 13 was called its worst loss in 54 years. The Trojans lost only twice that year – both to military teams — but did win the Rose Bowl.

March Field didn’t discriminate against playing Inland Empire teams, crushing University of Redlands, 40-0, and the Pomona Ordinance Base, 72-0. The Flyers lost only once that year – to the University of Washington – while outscoring opponents, 292 to 65.

The challenge for Schissler – a former head coach at Oregon State and in the National Football League – was to rely on players who at any moment could be shipped out to a combat zone,or fall victim to training accidents. Former Texas fullback Sgt. Harry Short died in a Oct. 28, 1942 bomber crash in Kern County, only a few days after playing for March Field in San Diego.

The team was still a football powerhouse in 1944, defeating UCLA, 35-13, as well as University of Washington.

The Flyers nearly beat the NFL’s Washington Redskins, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh, in an exhibition at the Coliseum on Aug. 27, 1944. The pros won, 7-3, with the only touchdown coming in the final minutes of the game before a crowd of 55,000.

The 1944 March Field team was 7-2-2, outscored its opponents 222 points to 81 and was ranked No. 10 nationally.

And athletics at these World War II military camps weren’t limited to football. There were expanded boxing, track and field, basketball and baseball competitions as well.

Military baseball teams in Pomona, San Bernardino, Victorville, West Riverside, Ontario and Banning, and a steelworkers team from Kaiser Steel, as well as March Field, competed in the 1943 Victory League.

This baseball program gave African American players a chance to show their talents at a time when they had no chance to play in White professional leagues.

The top pitcher for March Field’s baseball team was Pvt. Joe Fillmore, who was a key performer for the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League. On April 14, 1943, he pitched March Field to a 6-5 win at USC, his team’s 10th victory in 11 games.

Fillmore, who was from Los Angeles, pitched in relief on April 30 when March Field lost, 14-8, to the Santa Ana Army Air Base led by New York Yankees’ All-Star outfielder Joe DiMaggio. About 5,000 fans crowded Evans Park in Riverside to watch DiMaggio get three hits, including a home run.

A week later, Fillmore pitched a 3-1 complete-game, three-hit victory at Santa Ana. In that May 5 game, DiMaggio was struck out by Fillmore with the bases loaded in the 5th inning, reported the Los Angeles Times the following day.

DiMaggio was often the main attraction at these games including two in which Santa Ana defeated the San Bernardino Air Depot.

The most notable was May 29, 1943, when DiMaggio’s team came to Perris Hill Park in San Bernardino and won, 5-1, benefitting from six errors by the Air Depot team. The 1,200 fans saw DiMaggio get a single in four at-bats.

War’s end in 1945 saw soldier-athletes return home or to their schools, and the athletic activities of the military teams were greatly reduced.

One exception was the Naval Hospital at Norco. In 1947, Navy personnel still there recovering from war wounds or injuries played what was the first-ever basketball game between two teams in wheelchairs. This launched the expanded opportunities in subsequent years for athletes with physical limitations.

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