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UCLA's first win over USC was a battle, but don't dare call it war

In 1942 the Bruins, led by Bob Waterfield, beat USC for the first time in nine tries, 14-7. Within months, many faced far more serious battles in World War II.

November 13, 2012|By Chris Foster, Los Angeles Times

UCLA's first football victory over USC saved Milt Smith's life.

Smith was a receiver for the 1942 Bruins, who defeated the Trojans, 14-7, to advance to the Rose Bowl. Two years later, he was among thousands of soldiers who were critically wounded during the Battle of the Bulge.

Medics declared him a hopeless case and were about to move on, Smith told people, when someone spotted his engraved Rose Bowl watch and shouted, "This is one guy we've got to save!"

Smith spent 18 months recovering but saw a lifetime of UCLA-USC games before his death in 2010.

UCLA halfback Ed Tyler, one of the few living players from the 1942 team, recalls the Bruins' celebrating that inaugural win into the night. "It wasn't very athletic," he says of the party. "That was the greatest year of my life."

Which came during some of the darkest days the world had known.

Over the next few years, players from both teams were spread around the world, engaging in bloody struggles with hallowed names like Normandy, Okinawa and the Battle of the Bulge.

The Bruins lost to Georgia in the Rose Bowl, then left to save the world from tyrants.

"Mickey Rooney knew one of the guys and was really attached to the team," Tyler says. "He and Ava Gardner rented the Coconut Grove ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel and threw us a big party after the [Rose Bowl]. I got to light Ava Gardner's cigarette.

"That was the end. By spring, everyone was off to war."

The game

There was never a doubt about beating USC, at least among those playing for UCLA.

"We felt all along we were going to nail them," Tyler says.

The Bruins were 0-5-3 against the Trojans heading into the 1942 season. The series started in 1929, and USC so thoroughly dominated the first two games that UCLA took a five-year hiatus from the rivalry.

When it resumed, UCLA teams still couldn't get it done, even with stars such as Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington.

But 1942 was different.

"We had Bob Waterfield," says Mike Marienthal, a UCLA guard that season.

Waterfield was a budding star — as was his girlfriend, actress Jane Russell. The two eloped to Las Vegas in 1943 and were married for 25 years. Waterfield was the NFL's most valuable player as a rookie in 1945 and, by then, Russell was a sensation at the box office and as a pin-up.

But as the 1942 season approached, Waterfield and Russell were just a couple of kids from Van Nuys High.

"The three of us would go down to Muscle Beach, and he and Jane would get in some fight and I would end up giving her a ride home," says Tyler, who also attended Van Nuys. "We were just country folk from Van Nuys."

It didn't take long for Waterfield to grow up in 1942.

"Against California, Waterfield took the ball on a naked reverse," says Marienthal, 89. "It wasn't the play that was called. He just did it. He stood in the end zone and held up the ball to show us."

But Waterfield wasn't a solo act. The Bruins had talent: Jack Lescoulie was an All-American guard, Al Solari was an honorable mention All-American at running back, and receiver Burr Baldwin was a future All-American.

And USC was on their minds.

A group of Bruins went to Newport Beach for a party that year and ran into some USC players. Smith and a USC player got into a fight, and both were arrested.

"My mom went down to bail them out and he refused to let her unless she bailed out the USC player too," says Barbara White, Smith's daughter. "There was respect."

That was no doubt true on some level, but Tyler, 92, says, "It was no different than it is today. We hated 'SC."

The Bruins were 6-3 and ranked 13th going into the game. USC was having a poor season at 4-4-1.

"We had a lot of confidence," Tyler says. "We had Waterfield. He could do it all — run, pass, kick, play defense. He was the No. 1 quarterback on the West Coast."

Waterfield completed only two of six passes in the game, but one went for a 42-yard touchdown to Baldwin. That and a touchdown run by Ken Snelling built a 14-0 UCLA lead.

The defense did the rest.

"We didn't score a lot, but we controlled that game throughout," Tyler says.

Afterward, the team followed Waterfield and Russell to the Glen.

"That was a place where we went to drink beer," Marienthal says. "It was quite a night. A highbrow place for a bunch of lowbrow guys."

The Rose Bowl lay ahead, but Marienthal says, "We all knew we were going to war and, boy, did we go."

The war

During halftime of the '42 UCLA-USC game, a Japanese midget submarine, captured after the Pearl Harbor attack, was paraded around the Coliseum.

Reporter Nadine Mason wrote in The Times: "Rooting sections, football teams and the roaring crowd that filled the Coliseum were all fighting on the same side of a big war."

There was a war bond drive the week before the game. Singer Rudy Vallee and comedian Joe E. Brown did a show on the UCLA campus. The competition between the two schools raised more than $2 million.

"You could never forget there was a war," Tyler says.

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