In the age of COVID-19, we’ve all become accustomed to sudden and unexpected changes of plans. The world of College football is no exception.
Millions of college football fans eagerly await the playoffs, just around the corner. Now it appears, some games may not happen. Wisconsin and Minnesota have played every year, for 113 years. For the first time since 1907, the game’s been canceled. If Ohio State misses one more game, the team won’t be eligible to play in the Championships. The Mountain West and C-USA conferences have seen the most cancellations and/or postponements in all of college football, with three apiece.
It must be particularly frustrating for the San Jose State crowd, locked down after the best start, since 1955.
And yet, there’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. The San Jose Spartans flew 2,400 miles west to defeat the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii, 35-24.
In December 1941, the Spartans were scheduled to play three games in the Aloha state. San Jose and the Willamette Bearcats, of Oregon. They were college kids. On the road to enjoy a few days in paradise and to play the game they all loved. What could be better than that?
The two teams departed November 27 aboard the SS Lurline, along with an entourage of fans, dignitaries and coaching staff. Hawaii defeated Willamette 20-6 on Saturday, December 6. The Warriors were scheduled to play San Jose State on December 13. Then the Spartans were to play the Bearcats December 16 before sailing home, on the 19th.
An outing like that was once in a lifetime. Unforgettable. The trip would be that and more, but not for the reason anyone expected.
A great sucker punch came out of the southeast on December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes attacked Hickam Air Field and the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, lying at peace in the early morning sunshine of a Sunday morning. The sneak attack carried out 79 years ago today destroyed more American lives than any foreign enemy attack on American soil, until the 2001 Islamist terrorist attack, of September 11, 2001.
The President of the United States would address a joint session of Congress the following day requesting a declaration of war, against the Empire of Japan.
Back on the mainland, the families of players stranded in Hawaii, received no word. There were no communications. None could know with certainty, that brothers and sons were alive and well. Hawaii was locked down, under Martial Law.
Meanwhile, the visiting teams were mobilized to perform wartime duties. San Jose state players began working with Federal authorities and the Honolulu police department to round up Japanese, Italian and German citizens, and to enforce wartime blackout orders.
Willamette players were assigned WW1-vintage Springfield rifles and tin hats, and ordered to string barbed wire, on the beaches. Two days later, the Punahou school was taken over by Army engineers. For the next ten days Willamette players stood 24-hour guard, around the school.
If you think you’ve heard the name Punahou it probably involves the school’s most famous alum, future President Barack Obama.
Shirley McKay Hadley, a Willamette student accompanying her father, then serving as state Senator, joked many years later, “They were lucky they didn’t shoot each other.”
Female members of the entourage, were assigned nursing duties.
Spartan Guard Ken Stranger delivered a baby, on December 7.
On December 19, players received two-hours notice. It was time to go. The civilian liner SS President Coolidge had been commandeered to transport gravely wounded service members. This would be the kids’ ride home complete with Naval escort, to protect against Japanese submarine attack.
Seven San Jose players stayed behind and joined the Honolulu police force , for which each was paid $166 a month. Willamette coach Roy “Spec” Keene refused to let any of his players stay behind. None had been able to speak with their parents, first.
Nearly every member of both squads went on to fight for the nation. Willamette Guard Kenneth Bailey was killed over Bari Italy in 1943 and awarded the Purple Heart, posthumously.
Bill McWilliams served 27 years in the United States Air Force, as a fighter bomber pilot. He’s written a book about 12 of these guys, who went on to fight the conflict, of the “Greatest Generation”.
The book came out in 2019 and it’s still in print, if you’re interested.
It looks like one hell of a story.
Andy Rogers played for the Willamette squad that day and went on to serve for the duration of the war, with the 3rd division of the United States Marine Corps. Mr. Rogers is 98 today and lives in Napa Valley, California. The only living member of either traveling squad who would have played that day, in the game that never was.