The Barbed Wire Bowl

Stockton, California. Can you imagine a more pleasant place to be a prisoner of war? If you must be one. The summers are long, the winters fairly mild, and during the 1940s, at least, the captors seemed eager to teach prisoners the American way of life. One key ingredient—as every American schoolchild knows—was football.

Several weeks ago, a researcher from Germany contacted me with a question. On January 13, 1946 (yes, World War II had already ended), two teams of German POWs (see photo at left) met head-to-head in a game of American football at Stockton’s Ordinance Depot. The organizer of the event was Kenneth Barager, commanding officer of Camp Stockton. According to newspaper accounts, five thousand spectators watched Kiernan’s Krushers (named after John M. Kiernan, Jr., the commander of another, smaller POW camp at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds) “kaper” around Barager’s Bears for a 6-0 win (Stockton Record, Jan. 14, 1946). Observers called the game the “Barbed Wire Bowl.”

To the prisoners, this was a first. Aside from practice, none had ever played American football before. Some became lifelong fans of the sport. But at least one newspaper reporter saw in the game an epic struggle between Nazi totalitarianism and democracy. “There is no dictator on a football field…,” he wrote. “There were no robots. Instead, there were forty-four men learning the meaning of cooperation, coordination, and fair play” (Stockton Port Scope, Jan. 17, 1946).

My researcher has already made contact with three German players in the game who are still alive and family members of others who have died. At present, he is looking for films of the game and would like to correspond with any Americans who were present.

Can anybody reading this blog help out? Feel free to send me an e-mail or post a comment.

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