In January 1945 the U.S. Army decided that it wanted to give its troops in Italy a taste of a back-home tradition—football on New Year’s Day. And that’s how the Spaghetti Bowl came to be.

In the game, a team from the Fifth Army took on members of the 12th Air Force at a stadium in Florence, Italy. Though the game was, according to LIFE’s report in its Jan. 26, 1945 issue, “only three hours’ jeep ride from the front,” it looked an awful lot like what football fans were experiencing that same day at the college bowl games back home:

The audience of 25,000 GIs, WACs and Army nurses got hot dogs and a complete USO show between the halves. They cheered two pretty Bowl queens and booed when the drum majorette tried to cover her legs from the cold. They were serenaded by two 36-piece bands. They chanted “We want a touchdown” at the Fifth Army’s team, which called itself “The Krautclouters.”

The Army team, which included one player with NFL experience—Cecil Sturgeon, who had played offensive tackle with the Philadelphia Eagles before the war—won the exhibition 20-0. The Spaghetti Bowl was not a unique occurrence, as the military staged a number of footbell games in Europe for the entertainment of its soldiers abroad. On the same day as the Spaghetti Bowl, the Army also had three other games going: the Riviera Bowl in Marseille, the Coffee Bowl in London and the Potato Bowl in Belfast.

The photos of the Spaghetti Bowl were taken by LIFE’s estimable Margaret Bourke-White, and they capture the pageantry that was meant to replicate the joys of the American football. But the reminders of war remained close by. LIFE said that the “the game was played under the cover of P-38s because the Luftwaffe had promised to come to the game too” and noted that the festivities were a respite from the grim task of fighting through the winter in the snowy mountains of Northern Italy. The story termed that mission the war’s “forgotten front” because its chief strategic purpose was to occupy German forces that would otherwise be slowing down the more glorious mission: the Allied drive into Germany.

The issue of LIFE in which the Spaghetti bowl appeared featured on its cover a wounded soldier. That is a reminder of the reality from which the football game served as a distraction.

An aerial view of Berta Municipal Stadium in Florence, Italy where the Spaghetti Bowl took place, January 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Drum majorette Peggy Jean Roan, a USO entertainer, performed during a football game between the 5th Army and the 12th Air Force teams.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A member of the Women in the Air Force rode on a float made by decorating a jeep with a propellor during the Spaghetti Bowl in Florence, Italy, 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A crowd of 25,000 at the Spaghetti Bowl, a football game between the 5th Army and the 12th Air Force, in Florence, Italy, 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Teams from the 5th Army and the 12th Air Force competed at the Spaghetti Bowl in Florence, Italy, Jan. 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A crowd of 25,000 at the Spaghetti Bowl, a football game between the 5th Army and the 12th Air Force, in Florence, Italy, 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Teams from the 5th Army and the 12th Air Force competed at the Spaghetti Bowl in Florence, Italy, Jan. 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Edward Shanks, a fullback for the Army football team, posed with drum majorette Peggy Jean Roan, a USO entertainer, at the Berta Stadium in Florence, Italy, during the Spaghetti Bowl, 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A scene from the Spaghetti Bowl, a football game between the 5th Army and the 12th Air Force, in Florence, Italy 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Entertainment during the Spaghetti Bowl football game in Florence, Italy, 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A crowd of 25,000 at the Spaghetti Bowl, a football game between the 5th Army and the 12th Air Force, in Florence, Italy, 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Peggy Jean Roan of the U.S.O. entertained during the Spaghetti Bowl, a football game between the 5th Army and 12th Air Force in Florence, Italy, 1945.

Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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