History has made little mention of the fact that a football game was played between the University of Hawaii and Willamette University of Salem, Oregon on Saturday, December 6, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7.
The Shrine Bowl round robin football games had been in existence since the 1920’s. They were the biggest and most popular sporting event in the Islands during this period. Crowds normally ranged from 20,000-25,000 spectators.
The three teams consisted of the University of Hawaii Rainbows, the San Jose State Spartans, and the Willamette Bearcats. The first game was scheduled for Saturday, December 6, between Hawaii and Willamette before a crowd of 24,000 fans.
Willamette was a small college of 800-900 students, did not have a stadium, and had a squad of only 28 players who had to play both offense and defense because of the limited number of players on the team. However, Willamette’s Coach Roy “Spec” Keene had wisely used the opportunity to play in Hawaii as a recruiting tactic to obtain quality players at the small school.
As a result the Bearcats had a talented squad that had won the conference championship with a record of eight wins against only two defeats and had outscored opponents by a score of 218-7 with several shutouts.
An additional incentive for Willamette to accept the invitation to travel to Hawaii was a guaranteed payout of $5,500. This would cover the travel expenses for the trip plus leaving a small profit for the athletic department plus the immeasurable attention to the small school getting a trip to Hawaii beginning on November 26 and an anticipatory return date before Christmas.
On November 26, hundreds of supporters assembled at the Southern Pacific railroad station to send the team off to Hawaii via San Francisco. The next day the Willamette and San Jose State teams and boosters departed the Bay City on the S.S.
Lurline, a luxury passenger ship.
After an initial stop in Los Angeles to pick up some more passengers the vessel took to the open seas. This resulted in most of the team becoming seasick which adversely affected their playing on December 6 and many remained nauseous and lost weight.
As a result Hawaii prevailed by a score of 20-6. The events of the morning of December 7, quickly banished the football game to a memory.
The team had been staying at the opulent Moana Hotel in Honolulu, which was only one of two hotels erected on Waikiki Beach at that time. The entire population of the Hawaiian Islands was around 250,000 residents.
Said hotel was located about twelve miles from Pearl Harbor so the team initially was unaware of the attack that began at 7:55 at Pearl Harbor and did the devastating damage that took the lives of over 1,200 Americans and sunk several more naval vessels.
Plans for a picnic on the beach were quickly abandoned and the Willamette football team was commandeered into voluntary military service as civilians.
They became armed with the bolt action Springfield M 1903 rifles and were assigned guard duties at the Punahou High School in the hills above Honolulu where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had relocated their ammunition supplies.
Bradley County Army Veteran George Allen, now 94, was stationed at Pearl Harbor in December, 1946. He and another GI were on K-P duty peeling potatoes outside the barracks that fateful Sunday morning. They were fired upon by a Japanese Zero fighter although they were located about 1.5 miles from the bay. Fortunately the fighter missed them.
Private Allen related that “the entire attack only lasted an hour and 10 minutes and shortly thereafter they were relocated to the hills above the city of Honolulu."
A complete blackout occurred and rumors of an imminent Japanese invasion freely circulated. The players continued on guard duty for about ten days.
Two hospital ships arrived to transport the survivors which included many badly burned sailors back to the mainland. Permission was obtained to take the Willamette team back to Oregon on the S.S. Coolidge, a former luxury cruiser on the condition that the players agree to assist with the evacuation of the wounded military personnel if it became necessary to abandon ship due to Japanese naval attacks.
Zigzagging across the Pacific to avoid torpedo attacks the trip took seven days to get to San Francisco rather than the normal four days.
The rescue ship sailed into San Francisco on December 25, some twenty-eight days after they had originally left on what was intended to be a joyous trip for a football game but ended in the enemy action which initiated World War II against the Japanese and shortly thereafter against Germany when Adolf Hitler declared war on America.
Nearly all of Willamette’s football players entered the military service. Fortunately only one was killed.
The entire Willamette football team was included into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame on September 13, 1997, as the “Pearl Harbor Football Team.”
* * *
Jerry Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org