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In 1941, the Willamette and San Jose State football teams went to Hawaii — but the Pearl Harbor attack changed their plans

They set sail for paradise to play in football games to benefit charities but instead became witnesses to the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II.

Scrimmage for War Author: Bill McWilliams Published by: Stackpole Books Pages: 387 Price: $34.95

The little-known story of the Willamette and San Jose State football teams’ journey to Honolulu to play scheduled games against Hawaii and each other in 1941 is told in a new book, “Scrimmage for War: A Story of Pearl Harbor, Football and World War II,” which was published Sept. 19.

Bill McWilliams came across the story while researching another book, “Sunday in Hell: Pearl Harbor Minute by Minute.” During countless hours of scouring records, McWilliams found references to the Willamette and San Jose State football teams returning to San Francisco on the SS President Coolidge on Dec. 25, 1941.

Twenty-seven Willamette players and 25 San Jose State team members made the trip. On Dec. 6, Willamette faced Hawaii in the Shrine Bowl Game, which had become a traditional contest for the host school in 1921. Hawaii won the game 20-6 and was scheduled to play San Jose State on Dec. 13. The Spartans and Willamette were to play Dec. 16 before sailing home Dec. 19.

Those plans were canceled in the wake of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.

Both visiting teams found themselves stranded as all civilian transportation to and from Hawaii was banned. No civilian communication was allowed from the islands, so the players’ loved ones had no idea of their status.

“The two teams weren’t only isolated physically, but they couldn’t communicate with people back home,” says McWilliams, who graduated from Army West Point in 1955. “Their family and friends didn’t know if they were OK or not.” 

Players on both teams were mobilized under force of martial law and performed wartime duties for which they had no training. Their tasks included stringing barbed wire and digging and manning firing positions with active-duty military members on Waikiki Beach. 

Two days later, Willamette players began 24-hour sentry duties around Punahou High School, which had been taken over by Army engineers the day after the attack.

San Jose State players began working with the Honolulu Police Department and federal authorities. Their duties included rounding up Japanese, Italian and German citizens and enforcing wartime blackout orders.

When the teams were finally given clearance to leave the island and return home by ship with only two hours’ notice Dec. 19, seven of the San Jose State players declined the chance to depart and instead joined the police department, for which they would earn $160 a month. Willamette football coach Roy “Spec” Keene refused to let any of his players stay because they were unable to speak with their parents first.

The return trip was on the SS President Coolidge, which was escorted by a Navy destroyer and a cruiser to protect the civilian ship from possible Japanese submarine attacks.

Like many of those their age, players from both teams enlisted in the military to serve in World War II.

McWilliams, who served 27 years in the Air Force as a fighter bomber pilot, tells the stories of 12 of these men from their time before, during and after World War II. 

“The anger over the attack on Pearl Harbor swept the country, and players from both teams were caught up in that,” McWilliams says. “They were motivated to participate because of what they saw and were involved with on the island.”