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Athletics Through The Heart of War 80 Years Ago

October 30, 2020

This fall marks a new chapter of athletics at Bowdoin. First years are restricted from practicing with their upperclassmen teammates, and all athletes are required to wear face masks, even as their sweat soaks the fabric. To many, this new athletic experience has been one of the most challenging endeavors they have seen in their respective sports.

However, this fall is not the first dramatic change in the history of Bowdoin Athletics. During the early- to mid-1940s, Bowdoin’s athletic program was planning and exercising its seasons in the midst of World War II. According to then-President Kenneth C.M. Sills’ reports, Bowdoin had to suspend the football and hockey teams for the 1942 to 1946 seasons due to the lack of eligible available athletes.

Courtesy of Bowdoin Special Collections and Archives
TALK IT OUT: Football Coach Adam Walsh (right) and Charles Lovejoy '50 chat during practice.

“The College, composed very largely of those under 18 and those not accepted for service, has kept alive competition in baseball, track, swimming, tennis and basketball,” wrote President Kenneth C.M. Sills in his 1941-42 President’s Report.

As women were not admitted into Bowdoin College until 1971, all of these were men’s sports, and therefore, many athletes were drafted into the war. Despite this challenge, Bowdoin was still able to compete with other colleges by building teams that were solely comprised of non-military students. This was not the case for many of the school’s opponents.

“At one important New England swimming meet, Bowdoin was the only college to be represented by a team composed wholly of civilians,” Sills wrote in his 1943-1944 President’s Report. “A team that did very creditably indeed in competition with others drawn from military and naval units.”

Even though Bowdoin did not field athletes from the military, service members were often seen around campus after the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, which officially opened on April 15, 1943. Navy and Army units were using classrooms to train in radio engineering and meteorology, while the indoor facilities and fields provided an outlet for Naval and Military officers to compete against Bowdoin student-athletes.

“The gymnasium and swimming pool have been used constantly; and many a man now in the Army or Navy has written gratefully of the physical training given here at Bowdoin, which has been fully as rigorous as that demanded by the armed services,” boasted Sills in his 1943-44 President’s Report.

Most of this rigorous competition came from track and field races hosted by Bowdoin’s fraternity houses. At the time, Bowdoin’s fraternities were the centers of intramural athletic competition. Since select housing in dormitories and fraternities was reserved for military personnel, Bowdoin students would often organize events that enabled them to compete against Naval and Military members.

After the war, many outstanding athletes at Bowdoin shined in their respective sports, like Matthew D. Branche ’49.

Courtesy of Bowdoin Special Collections and Archives
SMILE: Athletic superstar Matthew Branche '49 (left) poses with his coach, Jack Magee (right).

Branche was a four-sport varsity athlete in track, basketball, tennis and football. He excelled in high hurdles, low hurdles and the high jump, placing first in all three events at the Maine State track meet in 1948. Branche was not only a World War II veteran but was also one of the first people to be recognized was a great African American athlete at Bowdoin. He has since been inducted into Bowdoin Athletics’ Hall of Honor.

Bowdoin’s athletic program faced many challenges during the 1940s as a result of  World War II. They were forced to restrict two athletic teams from competing. They struggled with rostering full teams due to the numerous enlistments of their top athletes. But, through it all, Bowdoin’s athletic department created a space for students and service members to escape from the war that raged around them through the love and competition of sports.


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