Author’s note: Because of my interest and involvement in soccer (I played in college and in West Germany when I was stationed there with the U.S. Army in the 1960s), I met German-born Dr. G.K. “Joe” Guennel, the “father of Colorado soccer,” when I was living in Colorado Springs in the early 1970s. We subsequently became good friends after I moved to Denver to become the public relations director for the Denver Dynamos, Colorado’s first professional soccer team.
Near the end of his life, Joe gave me his writings, artwork, and photographs in hopes that I could complete his autobiography during his lifetime. Sadly, that did not happen as he died in 2013 and the book, “Life is a Game,” was not published until 2022. The following excerpt was written by Joe after he had been drafted into the U.S. Army and was stationed at the University of Missouri as a member of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). — Flint Whitlock
CHAPTER 2: HOW SOCCER CHANGED MY LIFE
At the end of basic training, I was recommended to attend OCS (Officer Candidate School) at Fort Benning, Georgia. I had already gone through the hoops—chaplain, my platoon lieutenant, Lieutenant Whitmer, company captain, Captain Eckert, and OCS review board. At Benning I would have been commissioned a second lieutenant and become an infantry platoon leader, and I knew that platoon leaders topped the killed-in-action lists. I was saved when a team of interviewers came through. They were interviewing for the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). None of us had heard of it.
During World War II, the U.S. Army ran the largest college education program in the nation’s history. During its short existence, counting its reserve component (ASTRP), the program sent more than 200,000 soldiers to some 227 colleges to take sped-up courses in various branches of engineering, medicine, dentistry, personnel psychology, and thirty-four different foreign languages. Massive arrivals of young ASTPers almost overnight changed many college campuses into Army posts. By Christmas 1943, some 140,000 young men were on campuses across the nation.
Both the chaplain at Camp Wolters, Texas, and my lieutenant during basic training thought that I was “officer material” and advised me to accept the ASTP offer—why risk the infantry? We were supposed to be commissioned as officers when we finished that specialized training.
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I took their advice, was accepted, and was assigned to the ASTP at the University of Missouri in Columbia. ASTP offered curricula in medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, engineering, and foreign languages. Since I already knew German, I was assigned to the language program to learn Italian.
That Columbia campus environment was a whole new deal. It was like night and day coming from the desert of Texas to the Garden of Eden that was Missouri.
But the war was never really very far from our thoughts even though we were thousands of miles away from the battlefronts. The fighting in the Pacific had been going on since early 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In November 1942 American forces had invaded North Africa to join the British and fight the Germans and Italians in the desert, and the war in the Atlantic had been going on for quite some time, even before the U.S. was “officially” involved.
In the summer of 1943, after North Africa had been secured, the U.S. and British armies invaded Sicily, and Hitler’s ally, Benito Mussolini, was kicked out as the leader and temporarily imprisoned. In September 1943, the U.S. and Britain invaded mainland Italy with landings in the southern part of the Italian peninsula. Italy declared its neutrality and “officially” dropped out of the war while secretly forming an alliance with the United States and Great Britain.
With the war seemingly swinging in favor of the Allies, I remember that the autumn of 1943 were halcyon days. I was far removed from the fighting and hoped that the war would be over before I was sent off to take part in it. Besides, it was college football season. I recall going to the Missouri-Oklahoma game, which was a biggie in those days. And there were lots of young ladies all over campus who seemed to be attracted to men in uniform. We were definitely B.M.O.C.—Big Men on Campus.
And something new was in the works.
I was really enjoying the ASTP courses and was doing well. It was pretty good living. There were two women’s colleges in Columbia and hardly any other male students at the U of M, so we had our pick of the co-eds. Very little about the experience was “military.” It didn’t even seem like there was a war on.
There was a women’s field-hockey field near the Sigma Chi fraternity house (a.k.a. Barracks 17) where I shared a room with three other guys—George German of Colgate, Tom Shottelkotte of Cincinnati, and Karl Wilser of New York and CCNY. Wilser and I were in the Italian section, whereas the other two were taking German. (Imagine—a guy named German learning German!) We stayed in shape by playing baseball and touch football after classes.
One evening several European-born guys showed up with a basketball and tried kicking it into the cage-like field-hockey goals. I joined them and soon the touch football games were replaced by soccer-like scrimmages. I guess my football-playing buddies simply were curious, wondering what game those foreigners were playing.
By November 1943 the band of would-be soccer players had increased to eighteen guys, thirteen of whom had never even seen a soccer game before, but they were pretty good all-around athletes.
I was surprised that the Americans, although they were natural athletes, took to soccer and became fairly proficient after only four or five weeks’ exposure to this new game. There were no soccer balls available, the basketballs were too large and heavy, and the volleyballs too light and flighty. Back in 1934, shortly after I had come to the States, I had bought a soccer ball via the Sears catalog, so I wrote to my mom and had her send me that ten-year-old relic, which was patched inside and out, both the bladder and leather covering.
It was in November 1943 when the guys suggested that I try to organize a game against some over-the-hill team in St. Louis—they wanted to test themselves, to find out how good they were at this game! At that time, St. Louis had arguably the best soccer programs in the country.
“Life Is A Game”
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I myself wondered what it would be like to play in a real game, on a real soccer field, with lines and goals and referees who would whistle to enforce the rules—whatever they were (I really didn’t know). Except for a few of the Europeans, none of us had ever played in such a game. Even our goalie, Coleman Thomka, had never been in front of a real eight-foot-by-twenty-four-foot goal before!
So I, in my ignorance and naiveté, and now the de facto coach, wrote a letter to the two big St. Louis newspapers—the Globe-Democrat and the Post-Dispatch—to see if anyone wanted to play us. I assumed that St. Louis soccer was ethnic immigrants playing their game and those ethnic clubs would have recreational teams, like over-the-hill guys playing for fun and exercise. I remembered that my hometown club in Germany had an alte Herren (old gentlemen) team for men over fifty. That was the caliber of team I was shooting for.
A sportswriter named Dent McSkimming of the Post-Dispatch passed my letter on to a St. Louis soccer honcho named Walter Giesler. McSkimming was apparently excited to learn (or to think) that a soccer team had finally been started at the state’s top university. But the Missouri winter intervened, precluding any games and forcing us to practice in the gym. However, by early February we were back on the field-hockey field and my guys wanted that game.
Giesler must have kept my letter, because he contacted me and scheduled us for Sunday, February 20, 1944—not against some old guys—but against St. Louis Country Day School—a private fifth-through-twelfth-grade prep school. They were the St. Louis high school league champions and were undefeated. I was nervous, scared, worried that we would be embarrassed by a bunch of school kids.
We were in the Army, had no telephone access, had to rely on the U.S. Postal Service, and had to attend classes until 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. I suggested to my team that we not show up and that I would apologize to the newspapers and Giesler and blame the Army for not letting us play that game, but I was turned down flat by all seventeen guys. They wanted to play that game. I was stuck, in trouble, and really scared.
The Army apparently had a rule that only a certain percentage of the troops could be absent at any given time. It turned out that three of my guys were ineligible for weekend passes, so I went to the lieutenant—I think his name was Woodward—and he blew his stack, telling me that we needed Army permission for such an endeavor. He sent me to an old colonel—Colonel McIntire. The same spiel: “You are in the Army. You need Army permission. The Army is responsible if soldiers get hurt. You will not play any game, anywhere, without Army permission, period.”
Now I was in deep trouble. I held another team meeting and made the same suggestion about the Army not letting us play. My seventeen guys again were unanimous. They insisted that we play that game. “What can the Army do to us,” they said. “Throw all eighteen of us in the brig? Court-martial us?” Yes, they probably could, I thought.
The three ineligible guys still needed passes. I went back to Woodward. He already knew what the colonel had told me and advised me to comply. But to my great surprise he was sympathetic, empathized with my predicament, and said he felt for me and was sorry that he couldn’t help me. He got up, shook my hand, and slid a pad of passes to the edge of the desk and told me he knew nothing about passes, that it will be the word of an officer against mine, a lowly private first class, in the court-martial that was sure to follow. I slipped the pad into my pocket, saluted, and left.
ON THE 15th OF FEBRUARY an article appeared in the Post-Dispatch announcing the game—3:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 20, at Fairground Park. Not only did it say that we were representing the U.S. Army but also the University of Missouri! It also mentioned that four European-born soldiers were on our team but no Missourians.
I should mention that Fairground Park in North St. Louis was no ordinary city park. Its 130 acres were the site, during the Civil War, of a Union Army encampment known as Benton Barracks. It also at one time had a zoo, a huge municipal swimming pool, and a horse-race track.
On the Friday before the game, a staff sergeant named Tony Antimi from Pittsburgh showed up and wanted to join the team. He was not an ASTP student; he was cadre—a member of the ASTP administration. He had soccer boots with him. Wow—he must be good, I thought. Anyone who carried soccer boots with him while in the Army had to be a soccer nut, a proficient player. That he was left-footed was a huge bonus; he was the only lefty on the squad. He would be our “ringer.”
I was busy, things were happening fast, and I still had to attend classes until 4:00 p.m. every day. The question of uniforms was raised. Simple. No big deal. We all had white gym shorts and T-shirts and I borrowed twenty pairs of blue-and-gold baseball socks from the athletic department.
There was no solution, however, for the footwear problem. Except for Antimi, none of us had soccer boots. The only question was: Army boots versus sneakers? We agreed that Army boots were sturdier, gave us some protection against our opponents’ kicking us, and the heels would serve somewhat as cleats to reduce slipping and sliding. The question of shin guards never came up; I guess nobody had ever heard of them.
After Saturday inspection, the team left campus and headed for St. Louis by train. We stayed at the YMCA for fifty cents and took in a vaudeville show Saturday night. On Sunday morning another Dent McSkimming article appeared in the paper and we passed it around at brunch. It contained our names and line-ups; Antimi, our secret star, was not mentioned.
Then we squeezed into four taxis and headed for Fairground Park. We could hear the roar of a crowd; our driver told us that the preliminary game was on.
I told the driver to stop. We all got out of our cabs and had a conference on the curb. Really scared now, I told the guys, “We can’t go through with this. Let’s simply turn around and go back to the railroad station and take the train back to Columbia.” I told them that tomorrow I would write a letter of apology to Giesler and the newspapers. No way, José, the guys told me. “So what if we lose five or ten to nothing? Let’s finish what we started.” I swallowed hard and said okay.
We got back in the cabs and arrived at the field and went into a building next to the field to change. But, except for Antimi, we had no cleated soccer boots, only our smooth-sole Army boots. We had our picture taken, all nineteen of us. McSkimming, Giesler, and the referee, Howard Blaisdell, met us behind the bleachers where we were warming up with Army calisthenics. I had left my beat-up 1934 Sears soccer ball in the locker room; the Country Dayers warmed up with a dozen shiny new balls.
My whole master plan for the game was to employ numbers, a whole squad rather than just eleven players. I figured that by running guys in and out, a la ice hockey, especially in the second half when our opponents would be (hopefully) worn down, I could make up for our lack of skill and finesse, but the ref informed us that the rules didn’t allow for substitutions; if somebody got hurt, we’d have to play with ten men. If more than four got hurt, we’d forfeit the game. I gulped again.
We took our positions on the field that was surrounded by 4,000 spectators. It was a sunny but cold and damp day, and the all-male crowd looked threatening and hostile in their dark overcoats and hats, all standing and stomping their feet to keep warm.
Country Day, in their striped jerseys, won the coin toss and elected to kick off. They rolled down the field, passing the ball from player to player before a kid named Joe Glik, their star player, blasted a shot at our goal that just missed. We hadn’t even touched the ball.
I rushed to the ref and called for time-out. “There’s no time-out in soccer,” he told me flatly. No subs and no times-out! Another devastating blow, I told myself. I’ve had it with soccer. Only eighty-eight minutes to go and it will be all over. We’ll lose ten or twenty to nothing and I’ll never kick another soccer ball again. I’ll stick to baseball.
I told my players not to let Glik or anyone else into our penalty area, but Country Day scored several minutes later and suddenly it was 1-0. Except for Antimi, our players were sliding on the frozen grass in their smooth-soled Army boots like they were wearing house slippers on ice.
Through some miracle, we somehow kept those striped dervishes from scoring again and, later in the first half, Antimi lofted a ball over their goalkeeper’s head to tie the game. Neither team scored in the second half and the game ended 1-1. I was stunned. It felt like a victory!
On Monday, February 21, 1944, a third Post-Dispatch article appeared. McSkimming flaunted his journalistic skills describing the game with such phrases as “a couple of runaway railroad engines meeting head on,” and “milestone…introduction of the kicking game into the schools” and “the spirit of the players was refreshing” and “a fair and just outcome” and “evenly matched.”
He also used some less laudatory terms, such as “mistakes” and “awkward” and “not of high class.” His statement that we “were handicapped in that they used regulation Army shoes” didn’t do reality justice. We had no choice. Having to play in GI combat boots instead of cleated soccer boots was a significant handicap.
The overwhelming surprise in his article was a paragraph with a bold-face header: “Pfc. Guennel Proves Star.” Unbelievable! There I was with the skills that I had acquired before I was fourteen and which surely must have diminished during the ten years that I didn’t play soccer, and I’m called a star? Of course, I’m ten years older and stronger, bigger, faster, but to have been called a “star” was simply astounding. Our ringer Antimi was hardly mentioned.
McSkimming’s article continued, “Of all the Missouri U. boys on the field, only Pfc. Joe Guennel displayed unusual skill. In fact, without Joe’s steadying influence, the all-soldier team could hardly have averted a rout. Guennel, organizer of the team, started at center halfback, shifted to left fullback when he found Country Day boys tearing holes in his defense, and later returned to center half to help with the attack when it seemed that the soldiers were close to getting the winning goal.” I was floating on a cloud.
About a week or so later I received a letter and seven game photos from Joe Glik. In his letter he mentioned that Bill Watson, a Scotsman and the Country Day coach, told him that I could play “on any teams in this town.” Wow. That was heady stuff. And Giesler had proudly told me that St. Louis provides most of the players for the U.S. Olympic and National teams on a regular basis. He thought that I was supposed to be able to play at that high level? Unreal.
I started dreaming and planning. My life would change. I would concentrate on soccer after the war, would play with and against top-level teams, get expert coaching. Yikes! A week ago I had sworn off soccer, would never kick a soccer ball again, and now soccer was my obsession, my dream, my ambition to make the Olympic and/or National teams, and I was confident that I could and would succeed. That one game—my first real soccer game—changed my life and altered my plans for the future.
And, moreover, who could have dreamed that Dent McSkimming in 1951, Walter Giesler in 1962, and I in 1980 would be inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame? In 1944 there was no U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame to dream about.
But in 1944 there was a war going on, full steam. And I was about to become part of it.
Joe subsequently became an interrogator of captured German soldiers and, once the war was over, interrogated many of the high-ranking German generals and Nazi political figures who would go on trial during the Nuremberg War-Crimes Tribunal. He had hoped to be one of the interpreters at the tribunal, but that was not to be.
Returning to the U.S., he earned his doctorate in paleobotany and formed the first soccer team at Indiana University before moving to Colorado in 1962, where he started the first soccer programs for children.
Flint Whitlock is an award-winning writer and historian who has authored or co-authored 16 books and scores of published magazine articles on topics mostly related to American military history. After serving in the Army, he worked as public relations director for the Denver Dynamos of the now-defunct North American Soccer League, and later as a copywriter, art director, and creative director for several major Colorado advertising agencies. He lives in Denver with his wife, Dr. Mary Ann Watson, a clinical psychologist and retired professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver.