A long-forgotten football force in 1943 rolled over teams from USC and UCLA with military precision—which was hardly a coincidence.
With an aggregate score of 82-7, the two collegiate teams were beaten by a contingent of football players undergoing military training at Riverside’s March Field—now March Air Reserve Base—during World War II.
A representative of the Army Air Corps’ 4th Air Force, March Field was a major West Coast soccer powerhouse, winning 21 games and losing just 5 between 1942 and 1944. Former college stars performed, as well as a few pros.
During these war years, athletic teams in various sports were formed at dozens of military bases, large and small, scattered throughout Southern California for recruiting purposes and to build teamwork among the players, soon to face serious frontline challenges.
The football victories at March Field against USC and UCLA were not very surprising since there were thousands of college students in the military at the time. Some colleges discontinued athletic programs during the war.
That might have been a viable alternative for UCLA, which won just one game in 1943 and lost twice to rival USC.
On October 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 more. Nelson, who became a real estate agent in Redlands after the war, mailed one of those passports to Woody Strode, who played at UCLA the year before the war and had a successful acting career after the war.
March field coach Major Paul J. Schissler was praised for keeping the scoring low against UCLA. “He attracted subs from so far down the bench that he had to ask their names,” according to a United Press article in the Oct. 13 Pomona Progress bulletin.
USC didn’t have better luck losing to March Field in front of 30,000 at the Coliseum. The 0:35 on November 13 was described as the worst loss in 54 years. The Trojans lost only twice that year – both against military teams – but won the Rose Bowl.
March Field did not discriminate against playing Inland Empire teams, defeating the University of Redlands 40-0 and Pomona Ordinance Base 72-0. The Flyers lost only once that year — to the University of Washington — and surpassed their opponents by 292 to 65.
The challenge for Schissler — a former Oregon State and National Football League head coach — was to rely on players who could at any moment be shipped off to a combat zone or become victims of training accidents. Former Texas fullback Sgt. Harry Short died in a Kern County bomber crash on October 28, 1942, just 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 the University of Washington.
The Flyers nearly beat the NFL’s Washington Redskins in a show at the Coliseum on August 27, 1944, led by Hall of Famer quarterback Sammy Baugh, in front of a crowd of 55,000.
The 1944 March Field Team was 7-2-2, outscoring their opponents by 222 points to 81 and being ranked 10th nationally.
And athletics in those WWII military camps wasn’t limited to soccer. There were also extended boxing, track and field, basketball, and baseball competitions.
Military baseball teams in Pomona, San Bernardino, Victorville, West Riverside, Ontario and Banning and a steel workers team from Kaiser Steel and March Field competed in the 1943 Victory League.
This baseball program gave African American players a chance to show off their talent at a time when they didn’t have a chance to play in white professional leagues.
The top pitcher for the March Field baseball team was Pvt. Joe Fillmore, who was a key player for the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League. On April 14, 1943, he tossed March Field to a 6–5 win at USC, his team’s 10th win in 11 games.
Fillmore, a native of Los Angeles, was relieved on April 30 when March Field lost 8-14 to Santa Ana Army Air Base, led by New York Yankees All-Star Outfielder Joe DiMaggio. About 5,000 fans packed Evans Park in Riverside to see DiMaggio hit three including a home run.
A week later, Fillmore notched a 3-1 all-game win and three hits in Santa Ana. In that May 5 game, DiMaggio was beaten by Fillmore with bases loaded in the 5th inning, the Los Angeles Times reported the following day.
DiMaggio was often the main attraction at these games, including two in which Santa Ana defeated San Bernardino Air Depot.
Most notable was May 29, 1943, when DiMaggio’s team came into Perris Hill Park in San Bernardino and won 5-1, benefiting from six errors by the Air Depot team. The 1,200 fans watched DiMaggio get a single in four at-bats.
At the end of the war in 1945, soldier-athletes returned home or to their schools, and military teams’ athletic activities were severely curtailed.
An exception was the Naval Hospital in Norco. In 1947, Navy personnel still recovering from war injuries played the first-ever basketball game between two teams in wheelchairs. In the years that followed, the expanded possibilities for athletes with physical limitations began.
There is a note worth mentioning about the post-war career of Schissler, who would go on to own and operate minor league soccer teams in Southern California.
In 1951, at the Times, Schissler was instrumental in developing the NFL Pro Bowl football game, the postseason All-Star game sponsored by the newspaper at the Coliseum for many years. In 1958 he began serving as the first director of the now defunct Riverside International Raceway for three years. He retired in 1961 and died in Nebraska in 1968.
Thanks for help with this article to Jeff Houlihan of the March Field Air Museum and Ruth McCormick of the Riverside Public Library, who wrote an article about Fillmore that will appear soon in the Fall issue of the Journal of the Riverside Historical Society.
Joe Blackstock writes about the history of the Inland Empire. He can be reached at [email protected] or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out previous columns at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory