Fires rage in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (Oregon State Archives-Highway Division Records)
ubject of numerous news stories and a short documentary broadcast on ESPN's "NFL Films Presents," the dramatic experience of the 1941 Willamette University football team is a story worth retelling.
When news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was broadcast on radio Sunday, some of the first fears for Oregonians were for the Willamette University football team and fans in Honolulu. They had traveled to Hawaii for a series of post season games known as the Shrine Bowl against the University of Hawaii and San Jose State. The first game was played Dec. 6th before a crowd of 24,000. Although the Bearcats had suffered a 20-6 defeat, many of the Oregonians were looking forward to several days of post-game festivities. The Willamette team and fans from Salem were waiting outside the Moana Hotel for a bus tour to take them on a sightseeing tour of the island and a picnic. They were planning to see Pearl Harbor. As black oily smoke filled the air the team and their supporters realized they were witnesses to a momentous event.
Uppermost in everyone's mind was how and when they would get home. They finally left Hawaii on December 19th aboard the SS President Coolidge. A luxury ocean liner, the Coolidge had arrived in Hawaii with evacuees from the Philippines. Now it was commandeered to transport gravely wounded servicemen. Willamette coach, Roy "Spec" Keene and Douglas McKay** persuaded the captain to take the team and their followers back to the mainland in exchange for assisting with the wounded. There were approximately 1,200 people on board the ship that was designed to carry 800. The normal four day trip took seven days because of the zigzagging route required to avoid Japanese submarines. On Christmas Day the Willamette football party returned safely to San Francisco. It was the last time they would all be together.
Virtually everyone from that year's football team enlisted in the service. They went on to careers as teachers, business people, and lawyers. One became a federal judge. The team was inducted into Willamette's Athletic Hall of Fame. The honor acknowledges the team's football exploits - an 8-2 record with six shutouts, the second leading scoring team in the country - and its extra service in a time of chaos and disbelief.
** At the time McKay was a state senator from Salem, he would later be elected Governor of Oregon and served as Secretary of the Interior in the Eisenhower administration.
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