In December 1941, the San Jose Spartans and the Willamette Bearcats of Oregon, went on the road. They were college kids, enjoying a few days in paradise and a chance to play, the game they 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. The Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii defeated Willamette 20-6 on Saturday, December 6. The Warriors were scheduled to play San Jose State on December 13, followed by a Spartans- Bearcats matchup, on December 16.
An outing like that was once in a lifetime. An unforgettable trip and so it was, only not for the reason any of them expected.
On December 7, 1941 a great sucker punch came out of the southeast. 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 quiet Sunday morning. The sneak attack carried out 80 years ago yesterday destroyed more American lives than any foreign enemy attack on American soil, until the Islamist terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.
The President of the United States addressed a joint session of Congress on December 8, requesting a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.
Back on the mainland, the families of players now stranded in Hawaii, received no word. There were no communications. None could know with certainty, that brothers and sons were alive or dead. Hawaii was locked down, under Martial Law.
Meanwhile, the visiting teams were mobilized to perform wartime duties. San Jose state players were sent to work with Federal authorities and Honolulu police to round up Japanese, Italian and German citizens, and to enforce wartime blackout orders. Willamette players were assigned World War 1-vintage Springfield rifles and tin hats, and ordered to string barbed wire on the beaches.
If you’ve heard of Punahou High School it probably involves the school’s most famous alumnus, the former US President Barack Obama. 80 years ago today all hell, was about to break loose at Punahou high.
United States Army Corps of Engineers troops began to appear at the Punahou gates at 1:00am, on December 8. By 5:00am, Dole Hall Cafeteria Manager Nina “Peggy” Brown was ordered to prepare breakfast, for 750 men. For the next ten days Willamette players stood 24-hour guard, around the school.
Many players had never so much as handled a gun. Now in the darkness every shadow carried the menace, of an enemy soldier. Wild gunfire would break out at the sound of a stealthy invader which turned out to be nothing, but a falling coconut. Shirley McKay Hadley was a Willamette student in 1941 accompanied by her father, then serving as state Senator. She joked it all, 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, a defense 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 as 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 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.