Bobcat teams hit by war casualties

2013-05-26T00:10:00Z Bobcat teams hit by war casualtiesBy MARY PICKETT mpickett@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Pre-World War II football teams at Montana State College, now Montana State University in Bozeman, suffered a tragic number of wartime casualties that grew into a legend.

George Wallis, who survived 21 missions over Europe as a B-24 pilot, knew several of those men as teammates.

Over the years, different accounts tally up the toll in different ways.

The most recent was an article written by John D. Lukacs in Montana State University’s “Mountain’s and Minds” magazine last fall, which listed fourteen football players from MSC classes between 1935 and 1944 who were killed during the war: Al Zupan, William Coey, Rick Roman, Dana Bradford, Wendell Scabad, Jack Burke, John Hall, Newell Berg, Joe McGeever, Bernard Cluzen, Orin Beller, Johnny Phelan, Karl Fye and Alton Zempel.

Most died in action in Europe and the Pacific. Others died in military service-related accidents in the United States.

Wallis remembers Scabad, Hall, Berg, McGeever, Cluzen, Phelan and Fye as fellow teammates in 1940 or 1941.

Among those former Bobcats, Wallis, who was a starting end on the 1941 team, was closest friends with McGeever, “a big friendly Irishman from Anaconda who always had a big smile on his face.”

McGeever also was Wallis’ Sigma Chi brother who was a tackle on the football team.

McGeever, who rose to the rank of captain, was killed in France on Sept. 11, 1944, Lukacs wrote.

Losing that many men from a smaller college was noted beyond the state.

Popular sports announcer Bill Stern named the MSC players who had been killed as his All-American team in 1944.

The loss of a substantial number of players from a football team to war was the starting point for a fictional football team created by Montana native Ivan Doig for his novel, “The Eleventh Man.”

The state as a whole, too, had high casualties during the war.

The state’s death rate from wartime casualties was the second highest in the country, according to “Montana: A History of Two Centuries” by Michael Malone, Richard Roeder and William Lang.

Only New Mexico had a higher rate.

The deaths of the Bobcat football players continues to resonate today.

“A lot of people know the story and take pride in the service of those kids,” said Bill Lamberty, MSU sports information director.

A plaque in the west lobby of the MSU Field House honors those players, along with another that lists 16 former MSC students who died in World War I.

Among the World War I casualties was Cyrus Gatton, a local boy and graduate of Gallatin County High School, who was considered the outstanding MSC football player of his era, Lamberty said.

Gatton also excelled at baseball, track and basketball at MSC, according to “In the People’s Interest” edited by Robert Rydell, Jeffrey Safford and Piece Mullen.

Gatton, a pilot with the 11th Areo Squadron, was killed in action in Europe Nov. 4, 1918, a week before the Armistice was signed.

The football field where the Bobcats played from the 1930s until the early 1970s was named after him.

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