One wet winter evening in 1944 Canadian Major Dennis Whitaker, a former CFL quarterback, found himself sitting in an English pub beside a U.S. Special Services lieutenant.
The conversation turned to football and the American told Whitaker he’d been sent enough equipment from the States to field six football teams.
Several rounds later, the idea of a morale-boosting international match took hold. A challenge was issued, a toast proposed and each man went his separate way into the London blackout.
The football equipment was loaned to the Canadians and an order placed with a London silversmith for a trophy — an eight-inch-high sterling silver teapot to be awarded to the winner.
The match was dubbed the “Tea Bowl,” a nod to their British hosts.
Whitaker scoured the ranks for players and formed a Canadian Army team, named the Mustangs. Relieved of regular duties they began six weeks of hard training.
The Mustangs features a number of CFL players and three from Sarnia: Ken Withers, Charles Living and Nick Paithouski.
Living was a star snap and inside wing for the Sarnia Imperials, and prior to enlisting played for the Toronto Argonauts.
Paithouski grew up in Sarnia’s south end and was playing pro for the Regina Roughriders when he signed up.
The Tea Bowl took place at London’s White City Stadium on Feb. 13, 1944 before more than 30,000 servicemen and civilians wrapped in scarves and fortified with rum to ward off the cold.
The game was broadcast on radio across the British Isles while RAF Spitfires guarded the airspace around the stadium from German Luftwaffe attack.
After a scoreless first half, the Canadian Army Mustangs took charge to claim the Tea Bowl, defeating the U.S. Army Central Base Station Pirates 16 to 6.
Stung by the loss, the Americans called for a rematch. Their new team, the Blues, featured former NFL Philadelphia Eagles all-star quarterback Sergeant Tommy Thompson and a contingent of University of Iowa Cornhuskers.
The rematch, played on March 19, 1944, this time before a crowd of 50,000, was dubbed the Coffee Bowl. Riding Thompson’s strong arm the U.S. won 18 to 0.
But the outcome of the games was irrelevant. What counted was the camaraderie, the friendly competitiveness and the sense of shared purpose.
And so it was that when the Allied forces joined together less than three months later for the D-Day landings in France, many of the footballers were present.
The U.S. 29th Division landed at Omaha Beach, and the casualties were heavy among those who had played in the Coffee Bowl.
Sarnia’s Charles Living was killed when his Lancaster bomber was shot down over Germany the following year.
Teammate Nick Paithouski survived the war and was presented with the Bronze Star by U.S. President Harry Truman, an honour bestowed on very few non-American servicemen. Paithouski returned to Sarnia in 1984 to be inducted into the Sarnia-Lambton Sports Hall of Fame.
And Denis Whitaker, who helped organized the Tea Bowl, went on to become a Brigadier General and one of Canada’s foremost military historians.
When he died in 2001, among the souvenirs found at his Oakville home was a tiny silver teapot – a memento from one bright moment in a dark winter of war.
Tom Slater is a local historian and the author of the Sarnia War Remembrance Project