The China Bowl: When Army and Navy played football in Shanghai

Society & Culture

The Army-Navy game is one of the most honored traditions in college football. It's usually played in Philadelphia…but not always.

December 1, 1945: Army takes on Navy in Shanghai. Via Johnson County Historical Society

This Week in China’s History: December 1, 1945

The eyes of the world, at least on social media, have been focused on Shanghai, Beijing, and other Chinese cities in recent days as we make sense of the largest public unrest in China for some time. Whether the protests sparked by the Urumqi fire will have lasting impact is too soon to tell. While many of those events unfold in Shanghai, This Week in China’s History looks back to something much less momentous in the city; really, just a diversion.

The 1945 Army-Navy football game was dubbed “The Game of the Century.” Pitting No. 1 and undefeated Army against No. 2 and also unbeaten (but once-tied) Navy — and featuring eventual Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard — the game was played in Philadelphia in front of more than 100,000 people, including President Harry S. Truman. With the national championship on the line, and fans celebrating the end of World War II, it was a spectacular event, but it wasn’t the most remarkable Army-Navy game played that year…or even that day.

This is the time of year when many in the United States turn to football. The Super Bowl, in early February, is among the most-watched events in the world, and a month before that the college football bowl games captivate the attention of millions.

For decades, the biggest bowl game was matched in popularity and spectacle by the annual Army-Navy game. The service academy teams were national powerhouses, and the game was attended by cadets in uniform — after they paraded into the stands — creating an atmosphere like none other. In wartime, the event took on particular poignancy.

Usually, the game is played in Philadelphia, equidistant from West Point and Annapolis — just as it will be this year, next Saturday, when the teams meet for the 123rd time — though it has occasionally been contested in other cities…

Such as Shanghai!

Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, ending World War II. Right away, tens of thousands of American troops were rushed to China, and by November there were more than 100,000. The American presence was strategically crucial. The war ended quicker than anticipated, largely because of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities in early August, and the Americans were meant to help fill the power vacuum catalyzed by the sudden surrender.

The American soldiers were concentrated in major coastal cities like Tianjin, Beijing, Qingdao, and, above all, Shanghai. In the immediate postwar months, these cities were a combustible mix of celebration, desperation, and strategic uncertainty. After years of war, the Americans were eager to celebrate the surrender; for Chinese who had endured war for decades, the desire was even greater. And, even as one war had just ended, more conflict loomed as background: the Americans were instructed to ensure that the Japanese surrendered only to the Nationalist Chinese soldiers of the KMT, not the Communists. The fuse on renewed civil war in China had already been lit, itself a facet of the global Cold War that emerged from the end of World War II.

Historian Adam Cathcart has analyzed images of American GIs and Chinese “jeep girls” to understand this moment, filled with both exploitation and joy. Almost immediately, relations between American GIs and Chinese civilians became violent (more on this in a few weeks), but in the fall of 1945, there was also, in Cathcart’s words, “the giddiness of the early postwar.”

It’s in that context that maybe we can make sense of the China Bowl.

American GIs in Shanghai had an enormous task, trying to provide stability for a city destabilized by years of war and occupation. As difficult as conditions might be, and as high as the stakes were, these men found themselves not at war for the first time in years. And as the American holiday season gained momentum — even while, in China, civil war bubbled up and a global Cold War loomed — the Americans stationed in Shanghai planned a diversion.

In late November, Americans gathered at the Shanghai Race Club, a symbol of colonialism that had been running horse races under Japanese direction as late as August 1945, to work on a different sort of sport. Soldiers and sailors from across the Pacific Theater arrived in Shanghai to play for their service branch in a football game, dubbed the China Bowl.

Though the teams practiced at the Race Club, the game would be played at the Canidrome, a dog racing track in what had been the city’s French Concession. The rivalry between the service branches led both sides to take the game very seriously: Army’s coach had played in the NFL; Navy’s had been a coach at Ohio State and the head coach at Wesleyan (then itself a national football power at the time). The two of them set out to build a roster of the best players in the Pacific theater, nearly all of whom had played major college football at places like Michigan, Purdue, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, and Tennessee.

As the date approached, both sides worked their connections to have top players brought to Shanghai. Bill Daley, an All-American running back at Minnesota, was stationed in the Philippines. Navy’s coach, Swede Oberlander, arranged to have him flown 1,400 miles to Shanghai so he could play. He arrived five days before the game, and made Navy heavy favorites.

When gameday arrived, football wasn’t the only spectacle: preceding the game, a rickshaw derby was arranged among all of the U.S. military offices in the city. In all, 19 rickshaws, drawn by a Chinese puller and occupied by a representative of the American forces, raced 3.5 miles from the Bund to the Canidrome, the streets lined with more than a million spectators, according to press reports.

The game itself was limited to just 10,000 fans: only American military in uniform were permitted in the stands. Albert Wedemeyer, the commanding general of American forces in China, was among those in attendance, along with other top brass, including Nationalist Chinese commanders.

As expected, Navy dominated, scoring twice in the first five minutes and never letting Army inside the 35-yard line. The final score was 12-0, though by all accounts it was not nearly that close. Go Navy! Beat Army! (In the higher stakes game on the opposite side of the globe, No. 1 Army defeated No. 2 Navy 32-13 and was unanimous national champion.)

The next day, it was back to occupation in a city that had been at war, or surrounded by it, for a decade. The Americans supported the Nationalists as they tried to rebuild Shanghai’s economy, enforced an uneasy truce between China’s two would-be governments, and tried to stave off the civil war that everyone knew was coming.

American soldiers would remain in China throughout the civil war, though the number fell to 20,000 in 1948 and just 5,000 in 1949. Only a handful of Marines stayed on after the founding of the People’s Republic, protecting American diplomatic missions.

Football — American-style football — didn’t end with the final whistle of the 1945 China Bowl. A handful of American football leagues have come and gone, but the China National Football League has now expanded to 33 teams in 23 cities. (Go Harbin Tigers!)

As in 1945, there are much more important processes playing out in China, and no one should mistake attention to a football game with ignoring the momentous events playing out all around. But now, as then, the game is a momentary diversion.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.