Throughout the course of World War II German prisoners of war were commonly sent to the U.S. mainland, to be incarcerated in POW camps. This incarceration did not immediately end upon the conclusion of the war, and during this period enemy POWs underwent time in reeducation camps as they awaited repatriation to Germany. In January of 1946, 44 German POWs would get the opportunity to participate in a uniquely American autumn tradition, competition on the gridiron.
POW camps were a mainstay throughout the U.S. mainland in WWII. Upon conclusion of the war, prisoners were not immediately repatriated to Germany; rather many remaining incarcerated until they could be sent home. Many of these camps were located throughout the South and Midwestern states, but California had a handful of these camps as well.
One, located in Stockton, California would host an event that would become known as the Barbwire Bowl Classic, in which 44 German prisoners of war volunteered to participate in a game that would have thousands of spectators and gain national attention.
The commanding officer of the Stockton Ordnance Depot Colonel Kenneth Barager proposed a football game between POWs located at the stockade and POWs located at a smaller camp known as the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, commanded by John M. Kiernan Jr. Barager hoped that this experience would spread football to Europe upon the POWs returning home. So, after posting an announcement asking for volunteers, those men that showed up were shown an instructional film and demonstration about American football, issued equipment provided by local area football teams, and began their preparation for the big game.
The teams were coached by two former collegiate players. Sgt. Ed Tipton, a former player for the University of Texas would lead one squad, initially naming them Stockton Tech, but later changing their name to the Barager Bears. The other side was led by Sgt. Johnny Polczynski who played his college days at Marquette. Polczynski would call his team the Fairground Aggies, later changing their name to Kiernan’s Krushers.
The game was played on January 13, 1946 in front of an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 fans. Both teams struggled in the contest as they didn’t completely understand the rules. The teams had trouble throwing the ball, so they primarily stuck to the wing formation and T-formation, in an attempt to establish a rushing attack. A couple of fights apparently broke out, and the culprits were sent to the locker rooms for the remainder of the game.
In the 3rd quarter the Krushers QB Hubert Lüngen scored the games first points on a sneak play. The extra point was no good. The game would come down to the wire in the 4th quarter, with the Bears mounting some offense, driving all the way down to the ten-yard line before being stopped on 4th down. The final score was 6-0 in favor of Kiernan’s Krushers.
After the game the teams changed back into their military uniforms and were treated to a banquet at the Officer’s Club, and were sent back to their POW camps with plenty of leftovers. The teams decided to hold a rematch 4 weeks later, but this time Barager’s Bears would win 30-0.