Ghost Team of Island X
By David Sears
Originally published by Naval History Magazine, February 2015, Volume 29, Number 1
In a prelude to the real contest against the Japanese on Iwo Jima, the 4th Marine Division fielded an all-star football squad in late 1944 that routed its interservice rivals by a combined score of 164 to 6.
John Lardner, a sports columnist–turned–combat correspondent, encountered no Marines en route to Iwo Jima who didn’t believe the forthcoming battle would be “bloody and disagreeable.” The island was closer to Japan than any yet stormed. As many officers pointed out, Iwo was small—five miles long by two and a half miles wide at most. “You can’t run the ends up there,” one major repeated over and over. “Every play is between the tackles.”
Iwo Jima indeed proved a long, casualty-strewn campaign whose daily advances were measured in scant yard gains and grueling defensive stands. Remarkably, in light of the major’s imagery, Marine units fought included more than a few squad, platoon, and company leaders who had played hard-nosed, two-way football at the high school, collegiate, and even professional levels.
Just weeks before Iwo, a team of these players/leaders displayed their athletic prowess. On the island of Maui as they prepared to invade “Island X,” the 4th Marine Division fielded a “Ghost Team” (because of security, division affiliation could not be revealed) that routed opponents during an undefeated six-game season. Until the very last seconds of their final game, the Maui Marines, as the squad was officially known, never called a time-out because of injury. They would display that same endurance individually on Island X, but at high cost.