In the closing weeks of the 1941 college football season, the San Jose Spartans and the Willamette Bearcats of Oregon, went on the road. They were kids, out to enjoy 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. Willamette first met the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii on Saturday, December 6, falling by a score of 20-6. The Warriors were then scheduled to play San Jose State on December 13 followed by a Spartans- Bearcats matchup, on the 16th.
An outing like this was once in a lifetime. An unforgettable trip and so it was, just not for the reason anyone 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 81 years ago 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. 81 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. Many years later she joked about it all: “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 notice. With only two hours to spare it was time to go. The civilian liner SS President Coolidge was commandeered to transport gravely wounded service members. This would be the kids’ ride home as well 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 since 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 99 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.