Images of a Forgotten Era

A rare memorabilia collection recalls the glory of military football
September 11, 2011

When military historian Wilbur Jones was writing his 2009 book, Football! Navy! War!: How Military "Lend-Lease" Players Saved the College Game and Helped Win World War II, he did more than half his research in a small room off the carport of retired newspaper editor John Gunn, in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Gunn, who had been a colonel in the Marine reserves, had scavenged yard sales, swap meets and Internet auctions for more than 20 years to build an exhaustive stockpile of sports memorabilia that he kept neatly organized on dusty shelves and in cardboard boxes. The centerpieces of his collection are relics from college football's World War II era, when it was taken as gospel that the game's emphasis on teamwork and physicality developed more effective soldiers, and military teams made up of collegians—among them Iowa Pre-Flight, Randolph Field and Bainbridge Naval—played major-college schedules and included such players as Otto Graham and such coaches as Bear Bryant and Bud Wilkinson. The North Carolina Pre-Flight team was coached by former Michigan center and future U.S. president Gerald Ford.

On Sept. 9 more than 8,000 pieces from the John Gunn Sports Collection will go on display at Randall Library on the campus of UNC Wilmington, which houses one of the nation's largest hoards of sports publications. The exhibit will highlight such events as the 1944 Mosquito Bowl on Guadalcanal, a 0--0 tie between Marine teams that was broadcast throughout the Pacific theater, and the 1945 military football championship between Fleet City Naval Receiving Station and El Toro Marine Corps Air Station that drew 90,000 fans to the L.A. Coliseum. One program contains a poem by sportswriter Grantland Rice paying homage to football players turned soldiers.

Most comparable resources remain in private collections, so access to Gunn's archive had for years been sought by researchers such as Jones. When Gunn, now 79, moved into an assisted living center in Pensacola, Fla., in 2007, Jones, a Wilmington resident, persuaded members of the Gunn family, who were unaware of the collection's significance, to donate it to the Randall Library—out of the garage and into the open, where it belongs.

THEY SAID IT

"It just doesn't take much thought."

ANDY RODDICK The 2003 U.S. Open champion, on why he thinks he could be a successful tennis commentator after his playing days.

PHOTOTHE COMMERCIAL APPEAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM (RODDICK) EIGHT PHOTOSJOHN GUNN SPORTS COLLECTION/COURTESY RANDALL LIBRARY UNCW (POSTERS)

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