OSG Book Club: Brian Curtis Discusses "Fields Of Battle"

By Phil Cantor
Nov. 07, 2016

Curtis' New Book Tells Stories of The 1942 Rose Bowl
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It's Monday and that means another round of the OSG Book Club...

This time, it's a sit-down with Brian Curtis- who, this week, is releasing his 7th and 8th books... The 8th one is "Living Out Loud" with Craig Sager and Craig Sager II discussing living your life while you're in the fight of your life... 

His 7th book is the one we're talking with him here about at the HQ... A unique situation for college football to say the very least- and how World War II was front and center of the before, the during, and the after. And we thank him for doing the interview while nursing a heck of a cold!

Why this one…?

This is my 7th book. In 2013, it had been a couple of years since I had done (book title) on the families of September 11th, and I was looking for a story to kind of jump out at me. I came across a newsletter form the Rose Bowl stadium and it had a section about “upcoming events.” And it had a little “Did you know” fact in there and the “diod you know fact” as that the 1942 game was played in Durham, North Carolina.

As a former sports writer and author myself, I was struck by the fact that I had never heard anything about that before. So, the more I dove into the story and found more connections between war and football, and the more I found out about the players and coaches- I was hooked.

So, it became a feature for Sports Illustrated in August of 2013, and then this book…

Do you think you’re an old soul at heart…???

Yes, I think I am- in both my personal life and my professional life. I think there’s something romantic about the time of World War II and about that generation since we all studied about it in high school. I studied about it more in my time in college, but didn’t really have an understanding of who these men and women were. So this book went from a book idea to a passion project for me as we try to honor these men…

How difficult was it to fill in the gaps because we’re talking about an event from seventy-plus years ago and having to tell that story going forward from there…?

More difficult than I thought…

When I went through the rosters from the two teams from that 1942 game, in the end of all the research that was done, there’s one player from that Duke University team that’s still alive- Jim Smith. He’s 94 years old and lives in Louisville. For Oregon State there’s a gentleman who was on and off the team who was student body president, Andy Landforce, who is 99 and still lives in Corvallis, Oregon- so everyone was almost gone. And I spent a great deal of time trying to track down the sons and daughters.

Unfortunately, despite having success doing that, they would tell me that: ’Brian, we’d love to help you, but Dad never talked about that time,’ or that ‘Dad never talked about war. He never talked about college.’ So there were many obstacles and challenges, but among diary entries, archival research, newspaper entries and what little the families did know, I think we did a good job in telling the story of the five or six men that I chronicled.

When that moment happened of discovering that one person that could bring a part of the story together that really could bring it home, describe what that moment was like for you… and how cool was that to get that connection…?

I originally talked to Jim over the phone and I was thrilled to death when it actually turned out to be him. There’s a lot of “Jim Smiths” in the world as you might imagine…

Shortly thereafter, I flew up to Louisville, and I actually wrote about this in the book about how nervous I was to actually meet him because here’s the one guy out of the 80 or so that could provide me with the story- and he was great! As a matter of fact, I still stay in touch with him often. And as difficult as it was, Jim could only tell me about his side of the game. And then he could only tell me his side of the war of the 80.

So, while Jim was enormously helpful and changed my life by becoming my friend, he still was only one part of it and could only share so much.

With these people of the “Greatest Generation” leaving us, though, I think there’s an added importance to tell these stories otherwise they get lost to future generations…

It’s true and think about this…

I just focused on one game and the players in that game. I could only tell the stories of 5 to 7 of those 80 in the book. I was in Oregon this past weekend and I said that there were too many stories that didn’t even make the book. So, if you think about these hundreds of thousands of young men who have these incredible stories of courage and bravery and sacrifice and then having personal stories that were never told- when they died it went with them.

There’s so few of them that are left with us and then there’s the pressure of getting it right…

I had multiple historians, retired military members, professors, and others fact check the book. And by the time we got to the end of the book, I didn’t get something right. But it’s about the effort to get it as accurate as possible.

What’s one story that ended up on the cutting room floor- so to speak- that struck you the most…???

There were, probably, 40-50,000 words that could have been added to this particular story, but then there’s the thought of bringing in too many characters to the story.

There’s a gentleman named Martin Chaves and he was the captain of that Oregon State team in the Rose Bowl. He was set to enter the Army Air Force and his last act, so to speak, as a civilian was to play in the Rose Bowl. He plays, trains, and then starts doing missions in North Africa and later in Great Britain- battling Germans in the air.

I found a story where Martin’s plane was actually shot down over Great Britain. He’s able to parachute out and lands in the field of a farmer. The farmer comes out with a gun and points it at him thinking Martin is a German pilot. He starts talking to the farmer, but the farmer won’t put the gun down. So Martin does the only thing he can think of- and that’s to start singing the Star-Spangled Banner. The farmer thinks to himself that he must be an American soldier if he’s singing the words and knows all the words to the song. So, singing the Star-Spangled Banner actually saves his life in the field.

Now, with all the contemporary storylines around the singing of the National Anthem, it’s all come full circle with me. There’s another gentleman who played in the game who served in World War II and, later, his country asked him to serve again in Korea. He was one of the “Chosin Few” which is another remarkable story in itself about Americans.

There are so many of those stories and I hope to tell them over the years to come…

What do you think about those sportscasters today that still use the war-based analogies having to do with sports and telling those stories and showing of highlights…?

They still use it today. It’s not just when we were younger. You’ve got people “fighting at the line of scrimmage” and “this is going to be a war out there.” You know, a lot of these players certainly weren’t nervous about war. But many of them believed that war was just like football. They found out after one day, how different it was being in a battle over there. And I talk about it at the beginning and the end: “War isn’t like football.”

To your point, I think we’re doing a disservice to our veterans saying things like that. I know that we’re not doing it maliciously, but I think there’s a better way to describe two teams clashing on the field.

When you look at the list of folks who have commented about the book like a Senator John McCain and a Bobby Bowden, what’s it like to have that kind of weight thrown behind a project like this…?

One of the hardest things to do, as an author, is seek endorsement quotes…

That’s something that happens 6-10 months before the book is released. You have to first, strategically, think about ‘Who do I want to ask?’ In a lot of cases, the people you want are busy or they don’t like it and don’t want to comment. But when I got Senator John McCain- and even James Bradley- it’s such a gratification to me. Besides, obviously, helping the book sell or even give it exposure… the fact that they were willing to take the time and provide a great quote…? It’s just very humbling for me.

It’s a long and arduous process. It’s about giving them the foreword and the early drafts of the book and, in this case, Senator McCain has been so supportive. I think he sees it as a testament to his fellow veterans.

What’s the biggest takeaway you got from putting this book together…?

I think the realization of just how young these soldiers were…

When we think about World War II, I think part of our vision is guys that are in a movie like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or other movies that we attribute to being 27 to 29 years old with a wife at home as these men are fighting soldiers. But really a lot of our soldiers were 17 or 18, never married, no kids, and some of them had no business being in a war- either because of physical or mental limitations- but they really had no choice.

So, I think one of the takeaways was just how young and vulnerable some of these soldiers were…

As a follow-up, I keep putting myself and my contemporary athletes in their position. If there was a war on that scale, would I personally be ready to jump in? I look across the sports landscape and see coaches like a Bill Belichick. Would he walk away? Would a Tom Brady walk away? Would Nick Saban walk away? After 9/11, which I think is the closest analogy for our generation, Pat Tillman did. But would you see hundreds and hundreds of college and pro athletes give that up and go fight?

And that’s what I admired about this generation in 1941 and 1942…

So, then, my last question is: When it comes to the creative process in putting a book and a jigsaw puzzle like this together, what’s the biggest misconception that people might have to get something like a project like this done…?

I think for a book like this, it’s harder in many ways to put it together than some of my other books. This one is research-intensive. Specific to this project, a lot of my main subjects were gone. When someone writes a book on Lincoln or Jefferson, by no means am I saying it is easy. But there’s a lot of source material there to create a new narrative.

And it’s also about drafts… this was not a book I wrote once. The publisher and I go back and forth. And, then, I’m with my editor: ‘Let’s fix Chapter 6. Let’s put in more of this and less of this.’ But I am very proud of this book along with the book of the families of 9/11… these are, probably, my two favorite projects to work on and the most meaningful…

((ed. note- the HQ would like to thank Brian and Steven Boriack at Flatiron Books for setting this up to the interview could happen. And, if Flatiron is looking for new authors, the HQ would love to talk about it...))