The College of Hawai‘i was founded in 1907 (now known as the University of Hawai‘i.) Two years later, in 1909, the university fielded its first football team.
The “Fighting Deans,” as Hawai‘i athletic teams were known then, defeated McKinley High School, 6-5, under head coach Austin Jones in its inaugural game. The historic game was played before 2,500 fans at O‘ahu College (now known as Punahou School.)
In 1926, the Rainbows made the newly built Honolulu Stadium, a 24,000-seat facility in Moiliili, their home field. UH played its first game at the stadium on November 11 against the Town Team. Hawai‘i lost that game, 14-7, before 12,000 fans.
For 48 years, the affectionately nicknamed “Termite Palace” housed the Rainbows and their fans until the construction of Aloha Stadium in 1975.
The Aloha Chapter of the Shriners sponsored the Shrine Bowl Classic, pitting Hawai‘i against mainland teams. For the 11th annual Classic, teams in the three-game series included San Jose State College, the University of Hawaii, and Willamette. The game guaranteed a $5,500 payout – enough to cover teams’ travel expenses, plus a small profit for the athletic departments.
“Today, 24 hours before the Shrine battle, staunch supporters of the Rainbow football machine will express utter confidence in their warriors at a mammoth rally to be held in Hemenway hall.”
“All week Hawai‘i students had been anticipating this occasion together with the arrival of Willamette University. For even as they were on the high seas, awesome tales of Willamette’s football power reached Hawai‘i.”
“While aiming for their third success in the Shrine games, the Rainbows realize that they will be thoroughly scouted by San Jose, their opponent in the Police Benefit December 12. But the desire to maintain an undefeated intersectional record for the season and the prestige gained by a victory over Willamette will add to the lust for conquest.” (Ka Leo o Hawai‘i)
On November 26, hundreds of supporters gathered at a noisy rally at Salem’s Southern Pacific railroad depot to see the Willamette delegation off. At 10:30 am, the train rolled south toward the Port of San Francisco. (Southworth)
On the San Jose side, while Ben Winkleman was listed as the official coach, advisor-coach Glenn Scobey ‘Pop’ Warner, retired after several decades of successful college coaching, did all the coaching. (Hamill)
Twenty-five members of the San Jose State College football team, and twenty-seven football players from Willamette University, plus their head coaches and assorted friends and family members, boarded the Lurline at the Port of San Francisco. On November 27, the Lurline left from San Francisco’s Pier 35 and glided under the 4-year-old Golden Gate Bridge.
On the 28th, the Lurline left the Los Angeles-area dock in San Pedro with 783 passengers. Folks on board did what people on cruises do: enjoy the view, try not to get seasick, and discuss what they’ll see when they get to their destination.
The Shriners met and greeted the teams. They furnished the players with cone-shaped straw hats which mimicked the conical ones the Shriners wore. University of Hawai‘i coeds supplied flowered leis, while Hawaiian tunes played and hula girls swayed.
Both the Willamette and San Jose contingents checked into the opulent Moana hotel in Honolulu, one of only two hotels on Waikiki Beach at the time. Their nine-day stay in a double room on the “American plan” cost $54 per person.
Three days after arriving, the Willamette Bearcats played what was slated as the first in the three-game series. Their opponent was Hawai‘i, with profits from this opening Shriner’s game designated for disabled children. The game started at 2:30 pm December 6.
24,000 had shown up to watch the Shriner’s game, the largest crowd in the stadium’s history. Since the 1920s, Shriner football games had been the biggest and most popular sporting event in Hawai‘i. Spectators for this Willamette-San Jose game comprised a tenth of Honolulu’s current population. (Southworth)
Hawai‘i won 20-6. The next scheduled games were San Jose vs. Hawai‘i on December 13 and San Jose vs. Willamette on December 16.
Plans changed …
“… they had planned this picnic for us, or gathering, with the University of Hawai‘i, and they were supposed to come by at 9:30 in the morning. And so, we’d had breakfast, and we were out, enjoying the sunshine, looking, you know, and waiting for that bus to come, and the bus didn’t come.”
“While we were sitting out there, we saw planes fly over. They were just silver specks up in the sky. And then somebody got up and walked through the hotel and went out on the beach and they said, ‘Hey, there’s maneuvers going on out here.’” (Ken Jacobson; Southworth)
“We didn’t realize we were seeing the start of World War II for the US; mostly we just heard noise.” (Wayne Hadley; Southworth)
The police declared a state of emergency beginning that evening, enacting martial law and ordering everyone off the streets. The military closed and censored regular channels of communication.
The teams volunteered to assist the Army, essentially temporarily conscripting them. Their first task was guarding the perimeter of an ammunitions stash.
The US Army Corp of Engineers had been bombed from their headquarters the previous day, and moved their ammunition storage to the fenced Punahou School in the hills above Honolulu. The military instructed the players to call out, “Halt, who goes there! Stand and be recognized!”
Women from the Willamette group volunteered as nurses’ aides at Tripler Army Hospital. They helped overworked staff with a group of children hit by shrapnel on their way to Sunday School the morning of December 7, 1941
The women kept the children company until their families could locate them, assisting with meals and reading to them. The women also made beds, helped change dressings, carried food trays, and bathed and took temperatures of the wounded.
On December 7, the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, the SS Coolidge had been traveling to San Francisco when it was diverted to Honolulu to pick up injured soldiers.
The Coolidge, a former luxury cruise liner, arrived in Honolulu on December 17 with evacuees from the Philippines. Officials quickly assembled a small on-board hospital to transport soldiers wounded at Pearl Harbor to California medical centers. Two Navy doctors and three Navy nurses would care for 125 patients.
On December 19, the Coolidge was ready to leave Honolulu. The football groups received only two hours’ notice. “The day that we got to come home, they had scheduled a trip to Pearl Harbor so we could see the damage that was done, and they were gonna take us out there for a sight-seeing, and then instead they said we were going home.” (Jacobson; Southworth)
Willamette’s players had to sign a form promising to assist with evacuation of wounded soldiers from the ship, if necessary. Two players were assigned to one patient deep in the bowels of the ship. The players acted as orderlies, carrying patients to the operating room, feeding them, and changing dressings. They also chatted with patients to boost morale.
Frank Knox, the Secretary of the Navy, later wrote the following to Carl Knopf, president of Willamette: “On board, as passengers, were the football squads of Willamette University and San Jose College, in Honolulu for games with the University of Hawai‘i at the time of the Japanese attack.”
“These men, under their respective coaches, volunteered in case of emergency to rescue and place in the ship’s boats the seriously wounded men. They drilled at their assignments.”
“In addition, they volunteered and did feed such wounded as were unable to help themselves. They promoted good morale among the patients in many ways. I consider the services rendered by these young men to be very commendable.” (Knox; Southworth)
On December 25, 28 days after they’d originally left San Francisco, the Coolidge sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. To most, it felt like a miracle from God. The Willamette group burst into tearful song, California, Here I Come! As it turned out, they’d arrived just one day later than their originally-scheduled return. (Southworth)
None of the athletes for either squad was injured that day. The teams volunteered to assist the Army and volunteered to assist the wounded on their ship’s return to the mainland. Most of the San Jose State and Willamette players would serve in the military. Many would see combat over the next 3-years. (Marqua)
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