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Love, War and Football: A Curious Relic from WWII Prison Camp Returns to Cal Athletics

March 20, 2014
by Martin Snapp
An old football

In an office at Cal Athletics sits a special historic artifact—a football autographed by the 1938 Golden Bears football team, co-champions of the Pacific Coast Conference.

The ball is flat and the laces are gone, but you can still make out the signatures, including that of team captain (and two-time first-team All-Pacific Coast Conference halfback) “Vallejo Vic” Bottari. It was presented to a boy named Bill Phillips on Jan. 22, 1939, on the occasion of his 13th birthday, by his uncle “Pink” Pinkerton, who played on both the offensive and defensive lines.

But its gridiron history, as impressive as it is, isn’t what makes the ball so remarkable. It’s what happened to it afterwards.

The ball instantly became Bill’s most treasured possession, and he kept it close by him wherever he went, including Manila, where his family moved a few months later when his father was sent to the Philippines to build a string of telegraph relay stations there.

When war broke out two years later, his dad joined the Navy and was given a new assignment: to destroy the same wireless stations he had just built to keep them from falling into enemy hands.

Manila fell to the Japanese in a matter of weeks. In early February, the Imperial Army rounded up all the enemy aliens in the city, including more than 3,000 Americans, and interned them at the University of Santo Tomas, which was converted into a prison camp.

Bill smuggled his precious football past the guards by hiding it in his duffle bag, and it remained hidden beneath his bunk for the duration of the war. “I don’t know if they never saw the ball, or if they saw it and decided it wasn’t worth confiscating,” he says. “My dad made a radio and hid it in the gooseneck pipe under the sink, which they would have shot him for if they discovered it. But they never found that, either.”

A crowded camp

The camp was horribly overcrowded, so those internees who could afford it, which included Bill’s family, built bamboo shanties in the courtyard where they could rest during the day. The guards made everyone sleep in the packed dormitories at night.

“At first, Japanese civilians were in charge,” he says. “They knew they were going to lose this war and would have to live with these people afterwards, so they did everything they could to be nice. But after Japan began to get defeats the military took over, and things became very different for us internees.”

“For the first six months, they had let us buy our own food. But when the military took over that went out the window, and food supplies were reduced dramatically. By January of 1945 we were living on less than 700 calories a day, and we were losing people from starvation and disease.”

Meat began to disappear from the communal kitchens in August 1943, and by the end of the year there was no meat at all.

During the first few months of incarceration, they picked the weevils out of the rice, says Bill. “But after the meat disappeared we ate the weevils, too, because they were our only source of protein.”

Sanitation facilities were hopelessly inadequate—only 13 toilets for the 1,200 men who lived in the main building—and the misery was aggravated by the brutality of the guards. One shot Bill’s best friend in the face right in front of him. In all, roughly 10 percent of the captives died at Santo Tomas from January 1942 to March 1945.

But for Bill, there was one very bright spot amid the misery. “Shortly after we arrived I saw a girl and said to myself, ‘Wow! There is a really attractive girl!’ I fell in love with her at first sight, but it took six months before I was able to get next to her and start a conversation.”

Her name was Ellen Thomas. For the next three years they went on dates every night, which consisted of holding hands as they strolled around the compound. Bill, whose job was working on the chow line, regularly stole food to give to her. “My dad saved my mom’s life,” says their daughter Kristyn.

As the months turned into years, the situation became more and more desperate. Bill’s mother stopped eating completely at times to save food for the children.“We didn’t think we could last more than a few more months,” he recalls. “But we never, never lost hope. We knew we were going to be rescued and get out of that place.”

They could hear American planes getting closer each day, and by December 1944 the bombers were making strikes near the camp.

“One of the fellas dropped a pair of goggles into the camp with a note attached that read, ‘Roll out the barrel! The party’s going to start!’”

But the closer the American army got, the more sinister the situation in the camp became. On February 3, 1945, the Japanese built machine gun nests at both ends of the courtyard, fully intending to massacre all the internees the next day.

Bill be­came a Cal sports hero and was dev­ast­at­ingly good-look­ing…but curi­ously, he nev­er dated. Asked why not, he answered, “Be­cause the love of my life is a girl named El­len Thomas.”

“But one of our guards got word to MacArthur, and he organized a flying column to rescue us,” says Bill.

It took only a few hours. Tanks from the First Cavalry and the 37th Tank Battalion reached the compound on the evening of February 3.

“We could hear them coming, wondering what the sound was, and then the lead tanks crashed through the gate.”

The internees had barricaded themselves in the main building, hoping to avoid the crossfire. Then they heard a loud knock, and a voice with an unmistakable American accent called, “Are there any Americans in there?”

They joyfully rushed out to greet their liberators, who shared with them everything they had on them: corned beef, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, and coffee.

“The next day there were a lot of sick internees,” Bill says. “That stuff went right through us. We had been eating almost nothing but rice for months.”

Their joy was short-lived. On February 7 enemy troops outside the compound started shelling Santo Tomas. The artillery barrage continued for four days, killing more than a dozen American soldiers and internees.

“The people who lived in the southwest corner of the building took the worst of it,” Bill says. “On one particularly bad night it kept us up all night. We were in the southeast corner huddling at the back of the building, and aid workers would go into the parts of the building that were being shelled and try to save people. Sometimes they could; sometimes they couldn’t.”

One of the fatalities was Bill’s mother’s best friend. “I saw my mother walking down the hall with her hand on her friend’s stretcher, and I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘She’s dying.’ Particularly after the joy of liberation, to have a night like that was really, really tough.”

Within weeks Bill—with the football—was on his way back to the United States. It was a bittersweet occasion because it meant saying goodbye to Ellen. He didn’t know if he would ever see her again.

When he left Santo Tomas his legs were bowed from malnutrition, and he never grew taller than 5-foot-9 (his sons, Scott and Mark, are both strapping 6-footers). He weighed only 107 pounds.

But by the time he entered Berkeley High that fall he had gained 49 pounds and made the football team as starting quarterback. He graduated from Berkeley High in 1948 and attended the College of the Pacific for a year before transferring to UC Berkeley in 1949. He lettered in water polo in 1949 and swimming in 1951.

He was a campus sports hero and devastatingly good-looking, with a classic swimmer’s physique, wavy blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and a killer smile. But curiously, he never dated.

A reporter from the national magazine of his fraternity, Chi Psi, asked him why not. He answered, “Because the love of my life is a girl named Ellen Thomas.”

Bill Phillips
Bill Phillips in his Cal letter jacket

Shortly thereafter, in Ithaca, New York, where Ellen was attending Cornell, her boyfriend, who was also a Chi Psi, read the story and slammed the magazine down in disgust. That was the end of that romance, and it prompted Ellen and

 Bill to reconnect. The next summer, when Ellen got a job as a camp counselor in Estes Park, Colorado, Bill moved there to be near her. On her days off they went mountain climbing together.

“We must have climbed most of the 14,000-foot peaks in the state,” he recalls.

They were married on January 27, 1951, and had three kids: Scott, now a geophysicist at Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory; Kristyn, a psychologist in education in Lake Tahoe; and Mark, who owns his own freight shipping company.

Bill’s college career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army. He spent two years as a first lieutenant in Niagara, New York, before returning to Cal and earning another water polo letter.

He received his B.A. in 1955, a credential in Education in 1956, an M.A. in 1957, and an Ed.D. in 1962—all from Cal. In 1956 he was hired to coach the swimming and water polo teams at San Francisco State. Four years later he returned to Berkeley to take the same jobs at Cal.

He retired from coaching in 1963 and moved to San Diego, where he worked as an exercise physiologist at San Diego State until 1991, when he finally called it a career. But he always stayed in shape. On September 25, 1974, at the age of 48, he won the Mission Bay Triathlon, the first modern triathlon in history, finishing a six-mile run, five-mile bike race, and 500-yard swim in 55 minutes, 44 seconds—a full minute and a half ahead of his nearest competitor. “I’d never worked on the bike, but I was a reasonable runner and a fairly strong swimmer,” he says. “Fortunately, swimming was the last leg. After only 50 yards, I caught up to everyone fast.”

In 2005 Bill was rummaging through some boxes in the basement when he came across the football and decided to donate it to Cal.

He sent it off with a brief letter that downplayed his prison camp experience. There was nothing about death or deprivation, only the minor detail that the ball’s laces were missing because he’d used them to keep his shoes tied during his internment. The letter ended, “I hope you can do something with it. If not, I have no problem if you decide to toss it. Better you than me.”

The ball did not get tossed, but it did get misplaced. It was only rediscovered thanks to the recent renovation of Memorial Stadium, which required everything to be packed up during construction.

“I found the ball when we unpacked the boxes for the Hall of Fame room,” says Assistant Athletic Communications Director Scott Ball. “Apparently, it was hidden in the back of one of the display cases, along with the letter from Mr. Phillips detailing its provenance.”

Asked whether he ever considered throwing the football out, Ball exclaimed, “That’s never gonna happen! You see something like this, and if you have any appreciation of history, it’s going to have a permanent place of honor.”

Martin Snapp is a regular contributor to California magazine, writing the Alumni Gazette each issue.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story mistakenly asserted that the 1938 Golden Bears were the last Cal football team to win the Rose Bowl. In fact, the distinction belongs to the 1937 team, which won the 1938 Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day of that year. The 1938 team were co-champions of the Pacific Coast Conference with USC. The Trojans represented the PCC in the 1939 Rose Bowl.

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