Nov. 12, 2011
By Rich Bertolucci, UCLA Associate Director of Sports Information
On February 17, 1943, 1st Lt. Ernest F. Case and crew lifted off from an unknown airfield in Europe and headed toward the Mediterranean Sea. Their target was the island of Sardinia, 200 miles off the western coast of Italy. Their mission: to bomb airfields that had become strategic strongholds of the German Luftwaffe. They had flown this route more than a dozen times since New Year's Eve; still it was no less dangerous.
They would not return.
During the raid, Case and his crew encountered antiaircraft fire that blew off part of the plane's rear fin, forcing it to lose altitude. The B-26 crashed, but not before Case, the crew's captain, waited for his men to parachute out. Then, the 22-year old airman climbed onto the wing of his "Widowmaker" and jumped. Though Case was injured upon landing, Margie Green Case did not become a widow that day.
A sophomore quarterback in 1941, Case suffered a broken hip and several broken ribs when he escaped his diving plane. The injuries, at that moment, were the least of his challenges.
Ernie Case was eventually captured by the enemy and taken as a prisoner of war.
Signed in June of 1944 by President Roosevelt just a few weeks after the invasion of Normandy, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act offered major benefits to the veterans of World War II. Nearly eight million veterans would continue their education by attending college or graduating from high school, refinance a farm, buy a home or collect unemployment benefits from the first GI Bill.
The GI Bill was a direct benefit to former college athletes who had played intercollegiate athletics prior to Dec. 7, 1941, enlisted in the armed services and returned to campuses across the country to finish what they started. They could play their sport and attend college at the government's expense. Many, such as Burr Baldwin and Jerry Shipkey would do just that at UCLA. Others, like Mike Marienthal, would return to campus as student-coaches because their injuries prevented them from playing.
In 1946, bolstered by the GI Bill and the return of several key war and athletics veterans, the UCLA Bruins became a preseason favorite to win the Pacific Coast Conference and advance to the Rose Bowl.
Returning to play for the Bruins in 1946, in addition to Baldwin and Shipkey, who had both played football prior to the war, were players like Al Hoisch, a 1942 letterman at Stanford, and 20-year old sophomore Ernie Johnson, who played for St. Mary's Pre-Flight in 1945.
All told, the '46 Bruins would enjoy the services of 70 players who had been honorably discharged from the armed services. There were also 33 returning lettermen and six offensive starters coming back from either the 1945 team or seasons prior. Because of the war, eligibility rules were relaxed, freshmen were allowed to play and servicemen were granted an extra year of athletic eligibility.
As Gene "Skip" Rowland would say years later, "We had guys who knew how to command, knew how to take charge, and they knew how to lead."
Fall practice began uneventfully, except that one returning starter, guard Lynn "Buck" Compton, turned in his uniform. Compton had earned a varsity letter on the 1942 team that won UCLA's first conference championship, defeated USC for the first time and advanced to the Rose Bowl before falling 9-0 to Georgia. A war hero in his own right who had led the invasion of Normandy as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne, Compton decided to pursue a dream and attend Law School at Loyola. He also had a new wife who wasn't crazy about his athletic career, including his dream to play professional baseball.
But the Bruins would fill that void adequately with one of their new servicemen -- Les Steiner. Steiner had played the previous season for St. Mary's Pre-Flight, which had defeated the Bruins 13-6 with former Stanford All-America Frankie Albert calling the signals.
Apparently, Steiner already knew one player on the Bruins' squad, who remembered the bitter loss in 1945.
"I showed up to practice and ran into Ernie Case," said Steiner. "He said, `what are YOU doing here?' It was a funny moment."
Nevertheless, Case took control of the team and quickly earned the respect of his teammates. At 26, he was one of the oldest players on the roster, and every player knew his "war story." The previous season, "still suffering from his war wounds," he had started all nine games and the Bruins registered a 5-4 record. He also had a wife and two small boys at home.
The season began with Case tabbed as the clear starter. Sixty-five years ago, the rules of college football mandated that quarterbacks call their own plays. Coaches were not allowed to send in plays so it was up to the signal caller on the field to read defenses and adjust his offense accordingly. Case, in his fourth varsity season, aided by his training as an Army pilot, was unfazed by the shifts and tricks of defenses on the field.
A 5-10, 170-pound lefthander, Case was part of a backfield that included future UCLA Hall of Famers Cal Rossi (175 lbs) and Rowland (175 lbs). Hoisch (145 lbs) was also part of this group. For the majority of the season, this lineup would start most of the games and generate the most points and excitement.
On Sept. 28, the Bruins traveled to Oregon State College for both teams' season opener. In the first quarter, Case connected with Rossi on a 79-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. Points cascaded from there. Case and Rossi hooked up again in the half for a 49-yard score.
The 50-7 final score served notice that the Bruins were, in the least, a quality team with an improved quarterback. Their victory over the Beavers that season would be the hosts' only setback. As the season unfolded, UCLA would prove to be a team of great resolve and fearless character led by a tough quarterback who had seen far worse violence than some hard hits on a football field.
The Bruins gained confidence after their blowout victory against OSC -- marching to triumphs over Washington (39-14) and Stanford (26-6). Case received plenty of praise.
"Case is a [great] quarterback," wrote respected columnist Dick Hyland. "He called plays beautifully and executes them perfectly. He is the spark of [this] Bruin team."
Indeed, the head coach also picked his quarterback as the most valuable player after the Stanford game.
"... Ernie not only called plays like a professional, he passed for a 70% average, threw one touchdown toss, [punted] well and converted two extra points, besides playing a bang-up defensive game," said Bert LaBrucherie.
Through three games, Case ranked fifth nationally in total offense: 471 yards on 45 plays. He also ranked second nationally at 10.47 yards per completion.
In a prime example of their resolve, the Bruins traveled for the third time in four weeks, visiting Berkeley to play another formidable opponent. The Bears had outlasted a tough St. Mary's team 20-13 the previous week. The previous season, the Gaels, with All-America Herman Wedemeyer calling plays, advanced to the Sugar Bowl.
The Bears had a reputation for physical play and tough defense under coach Frank Wickhorst, and they didn't disappoint. Late in the first quarter, Rossi, the Bruins most dangerous back, broke his leg and was lost for the season. Case also had to be removed from the game after getting banged up on a big hit - but not before leading the Bruins on a pair of crucial drives.
Early in the first quarter after a Cal punt, the Bruins retained possession at their own 32-yard line. Rossi gained six yards at left end, fumbled and recovered it himself. On the next play, Bob "Moose" Myers, on a trap play, cut inside left end and rumbled 43 yards to the Cal 19. Rossi gained another 13 yards to the six before Myers got the call again and scored over center.
The two teams slugged it out for the next two quarters. There were penalties, fumbles and even a blocked lateral.
Midway through the third quarter with Cal driving, Case intercepted a pass by Bears' left half Paul Keckley and downed it at the Bruins' 14. But the Bruins gave it back when Hoisch fumbled and the Bears took over at UCLA's 16-yard line. Four plays later, UCLA stopped Cal on downs and took possession at its own nine.
On the first play of this possession, Shipkey rumbled 79 yards "leaving a string of tacklers in his tracks" before being forced out of bounds at the Cal 12. From there, Meyers and Shipkey bulldozed the Cal line with Shipkey finally scoring from two yards out. Entering the final quarter, the Bruins held a 13-0 lead.
Early in the fourth period, Cal blocked a UCLA punt and Case recovered it on the Bruins' 15. The Bears scored on an 11-yard pass play, but Roy Kurrasch blocked the extra point.
On the next possession, the Bruins ran on two plays, before Case gained 12 yards on a fake reverse. The hit caused him to be escorted from the field. Backup Benny Reiges substituted in and finished the game without incident. He even made an interception late in the game to end a Cal possession.
Despite the victory, the Bruins fell to fifth in the national rankings. The offense was ranked third nationally, averaging 420 yards per game. Through four games UCLA was ranked fifth in rushing and 12th in passing. They had five backs with more than 150 yards rushing, led by Rossi, who had 165.
Despite their injuries, the Bruins continued to steamroll through their schedule. Rossi, out for the season, was replaced by Johnson. Case, who had a broken nose, was replaced on defense by Reiges. Baldwin also had a broken nose, but played on. UCLA beat Santa Clara (33-7), St. Mary's (46-20), Oregon (14-0) and Montana (61-7) before the game against USC.
At 8-0 overall, the Bruins had tied the school record for most victories in a season set in 1935. They were an offensive beast, scoring more than 35 points per game and averaging more than 400 yards. Both figures were school records to this point.
Entering the USC game, the Bruins were 6-0 in Pacific Coast Conference play and the Trojans 5-1. If the Bruins won or tied, they would advance to the Rose Bowl and finish their conference season 7-0 -- a first in school history.
Heavy rains during the week flooded the Coliseum field, but on game day, no water fell from the skies. Steiner, ever the speculator, actually believed some USC players flooded the field before the game to neutralize the Bruins' speed.
"We knew they hosed down the field the night before the game," he said. "We had our sources."
One paper reported that on the night before the game "a flock of Trojans [was] discovered standing in the driving rain watering the field with a fire hose."
Nevertheless, the Bruin coaching staff had already formulated a "kick-and-wait-for-the-breaks" strategy. Sixteen times the Bruins punted: four times on first down, four times on second down and eight times on third down.
Although the players would disagree with LaBrucherie's game plan at halftime, it produced the necessary points for a victory and Rose Bowl berth.
The Bruins scored first on the 12th play of the game when Bill Chambers sliced through the USC line and blocked Mickey McCardle's attempted punt. Don Malberg scooped it up and ran 16 yards for the touchdown. The extra point was missed, but the Bruins owned a 6-0 lead.
USC struck in the second quarter, passing for a 43-yard gain on a fake punt. The play gave them a first down at the UCLA seven, where they scored in two plays. Another missed PAT tied the game at six.
At halftime, Case led a contingent of players, imploring LaBrucherie to "open it up," according to Steiner. But the coach held to his strategy and it worked.
In the third quarter, Case punted for the 13th time, and McCardle, perhaps looking to make something happen, fielded it at the five-yard line. Immediately, the 143-pound Hoisch hit him and the ball squirted out, recovered by UCLA's Wes Mathews at the Trojans' five. The Bruins were in business.
Myers gained one yard off left guard. On the next play, Hoisch advanced to the one-foot line and "would have been over had his name been Durante." On third down, Case followed his line into the mud and scored the winner. For good measure, he also converted the extra point for the final 13-6 margin.
In their final game of the season, the Bruins blanked Nebraska 18-0, handing the visitors their first shutout of the season. UCLA gained 440 yards of total offense, 321 yards on the ground. Rowland gained 128 yards and averaged nearly seven yards a carry. Case completed six of 12 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, but missed three PATs.
The Bruins had earned their second Rose Bowl berth in five years.
Against Illinois in the 1947 Rose Bowl, UCLA fell 45-14, but set a couple of notable records. Hoisch returned a kickoff in the second quarter 103 yards, a mark that still stands. Case threw for 165 yards, another Rose Bowl record, and scored eight points to become the first UCLA player to score in a postseason bowl game.
As battered physically and bruised mentally as Case might have been following the 1946 season, he had endured far worse in the Winter of 1943 in Sardinia and Italy. Eventually, he was transported to mainland Italy and spent some time with many other POWs from Allied forces. By now, Case had recovered well enough from his injuries to walk. He remained in captivity until Sept. 25, 1943. On that day, the U.S. 5th and British 8th Armies attacked his POW camp in Chieti. Ernie Case and a fellow POW seized an opportunity.
"They [the Italians] were pretty rattled," he was quoted in a press clipping a few months later. "... they took their eyes off us and we escaped."
Under fire, Case and his friend made their way through two barbed wire fences before disappearing into the countryside.
On the lam for a month, Case and his buddy meandered through the Italian countryside and survived the elements, subsisting on bread and water from local sympathizers. When they reached a Canadian camp in Trivento, they had traveled more than 77 miles on foot.
By now it was the late fall of 1943 and the ground war in Europe was well underway. Buck Compton and Easy Company had caused their havoc to German encampments in Normandy on D-Day and Allied forces were methodically advancing on German strongholds all over Europe.
Case had returned to the U.S. and was working as an administrative officer at Mather Field, awaiting his honorable discharge. He would also be awarded the Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars and the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster.
After receiving his honorable discharge and following the end of the war in Europe, Case, like many of his teammates and contemporaries, eventually returned to civilian life. At 25 with a lifetime of experiences behind him, he chose to return to campus and finish what he'd started a few years prior. So did Baldwin, Rossi, Malmberg, Mathews, Paul, Marienthal, Hoisch and many others. Theirs were the stories of honor, courage, leadership and patriotism. And then they gathered on the football field and exhibited those same characteristics in one of the most historic seasons in UCLA history.
A longer version of this story appeared in the December 4, 2010 edition of the UCLA football program. If you have any additional information regarding this story, please email Rich Bertolucci at firstname.lastname@example.org.