Two college football teams boarded the SS Lurline at Pier 35 in San Francisco on the last Thursday in November 1941. The San Jose State College Spartans and Willamette College Bearcats were giddy with anticipation for their voyage west to the Hawaii Territory.
Over 13 days on Oahu, each team would play the University of Hawaii and also play one another. The players planned to swim in the blue of the Pacific and frolic on the sands of Waikiki Beach. Sure, the threat of war loomed over the players, just as it did over the entire nation. But for all the debate in Washington, war remained separate from reality — somewhere out there in the future along with graduation, and finding a job, and finding someone you could build a life with.
Except that, on the last Wednesday in November 1941, Japanese submarines began moving east toward Hawaii.
The picture we see as we look back to that Thursday in November is framed by the security of knowing how World War II ended, bathed in the glow of memory, burnished by the love and respect accorded the men and women whom we bestowed with the title of The Greatest Generation. Most of the San Jose State and Willamette players came home from the war.
One player went to war and never came home.
‘We never thought an attack would occur’
December 7, 1941 marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sterling Cale, who was on the base that day, shares his memories of that fateful day.
The invitation to play Hawaii had been quite a coup for both San Jose State and Willamette. In an era with only three bowl games, the San Jose States of the world never received this type of season-ending trip, one that included a whopping $5,000 guarantee. Maybe San Jose State and Willamette received the invitation because they agreed to accept it. Few mainland schools had interest in spending a week on a ship to play Hawaii. Air travel to Oahu took 16 hours from the California coast and cost a lot of money.
On the night before the Spartans left for Hawaii, they played a tune-up game — and lost — against Moffett Field, a team from the Army Air Base a few miles north of campus. (In those days, Army bases fielded teams that regularly played college teams.) Moffett Field had older, bigger, stronger players and dominated the Spartans.
One player from the military team stepped on the unprotected face of Spartan backup guard Ken Bailey. Face masks in the 1940s were a rarity. Bailey was a scrappy guy on a team filled with scrappers. The great players, like quarterback Frankie Albert, the All-American just up the road at Stanford, didn’t come to the San Jose States.
Bailey was a local kid, from Los Gatos, who played on the line in the fall and wrestled in the spring. Bailey in no way looked like a BMOC. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, and dreamed of being a minister. He once wrote a poem about God, entitled “The Master Builder,” and read it in church. After the service, his parents hung those words on the kitchen wall of their home.
Bailey, then 20 years old, played enough to make the travel roster to Hawaii.
San Jose State coach Ben Winkelman agonized over filling out the entire 25-man roster. He had a premonition about taking his players to Hawaii, wondering aloud to his wife whether he should cancel the season-ending trip his team had looked to all year with great anticipation.
“If I only didn’t have to go with the squad,” Winkelman told the San Jose Mercury Herald. “These are dangerous times and anything can happen.”
He refused to let his wife accompany the team, the first road trip she had missed, and to allow the local sportswriters to make the trip. Schools had often paid the travel expenses of the writers covering the team. The Willamette team shared Winkelman’s churn in the stomach as the Bearcats prepared to take the train south from their Oregon campus to San Francisco. Bearcats coach Spec Keene recruited players by dangling the Hawaii trip in front of them, and the effort had paid off. The Bearcats had lost only one game all season.
But in the days leading up to the trip, Willamette player Wayne Oben would recall decades later, “We expected the trip to be canceled because of war tensions right up until we sailed. But once we got underway and landed there, we never thought an attack would occur. The place was so beautiful, and who would attack such a heavily fortified place?”
The teams boarded the Lurline with great excitement, which lasted until about the time they hit open water. As elegant as the steamship was, the weeklong cruise to Hawaii was less the lap of luxury than the fetal position of distress. Willamette’s Ken Jacobson would remember keeping down only one meal during the entire voyage.
The teams arrived on Oahu on Thursday, Dec. 4, wobbly nearly to a man with seasickness, and Willamette had to play Hawaii only two days later. Willamette lost, 20-6, before a record crowd of 24,000 at Honolulu Stadium. Among the fans were the 25 San Jose State players and Coach Winkleman. They charted the game and scouted their next two opponents, Hawaii on the following Saturday, Dec. 13, and Willamette on Dec. 16. Also in the stands were many military personnel, presumably including some of the men and women who would not live another 24 hours.
The day that changed everything
Sunday dawned beautifully at the Moana Hotel, 12 miles up Waikiki Beach from Pearl Harbor. The teams planned to eat breakfast at the Moana, and then take a 9:30 a.m. bus tour of Oahu, the local hospital and Pearl Harbor. The hotel staff made 75 box lunches for the trip, but their buses never arrived.
The Moana Hotel stood far enough away from Pearl Harbor that the players and coaches couldn’t see the attack. But when spent anti-aircraft shells landed in the water within yards of the Moana, waiters told the teams those were whales. And then, a woman ran into the hotel lobby screaming hysterically; she tried to take her husband to work at Hickam Field, an Army air base, and instead they saw American planes being attacked.
“It was horrible, but it was fascinating, too,” one of the players, Gray McConnell, told the San Jose Mercury News in 1981. “We saw these geysers of water spouting up from the Honolulu ship channel to the west. At first, we thought they were waterspouts. Then, we realized they were bombs because we began to see the planes.”
Three San Jose State players had made dates with three Hawaii coeds for a Sunday picnic. When the girls arrived at the hotel in a Buick, their nerves already were shot. They just wanted to go home. Traffic had turned chaotic, but the girls knew the back roads, and the six of them went to one girl’s house in a tony neighborhood in the hills above Pearl Harbor. They watched planes dive at the ships and the conflagration that hours before had been the USS Arizona. Through the flames and smoke, they watched the USS Oklahoma slowly capsize into the mud.
Back at the hotel, some Spartans players started walking down the beach toward the attack. They came upon some American soldiers who ordered them to turn around.
“You can’t tell us what to do,” one of the Spartans said. “We’re civilians.”
“Fix bayonets!” the soldier ordered his colleagues.
The Spartans turned around.
‘We were going to defend the island’
The haze of time camouflages what it felt like to live amid the horror and fear and isolation of Honolulu after the attack. The teams went to Oahu to play two football games, hang out on the beach and go home for Christmas with their families. Instead, they found themselves marooned, a short distance from the charred evidence that reminded them every day how they remained within the deadly reach of America’s wartime enemy. San Jose State player Vernon Cartwright would recall decades later, “We didn’t think we would get back for years.”
The Territorial Governor declared martial law. The entire island went under a blackout. The coaches quickly volunteered their players for whatever duty the authorities thought they could handle. Within short order, some of the Spartans had been appointed policemen by the city of Honolulu; others were issued rifles and helmets from World War I and stationed as guards at Punahou School, the makeshift home of the Army Corps of Engineers (and the future alma mater of President Barack Obama), which had been bombed out of its previous home.
After a weekend at the luxurious Moana, the players on guard duty began sleeping on box springs on the concrete floor of the typing room at Punahou. Their lives were happening on the fly. They had a lot of responsibility and very little training. Take the time that the players stacked their ancient rifles outside their quarters. One of the rifles fired, sending a bullet through the ceiling and into the sleeping area. Luckily, it was unoccupied. One of the newly appointed policemen mistook a curtain waving in a window for someone flashing Morse code to a Japanese sub.
“They gave us rifles with bayonets and told us that if the Japanese came back, we were going to defend the island,” Earl Hampton, a Willamette freshman, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in 2011. “Hell, we couldn’t have defended anything.”
The players did do some constructive work: they helped dig trenches and lay barbed wire. One of them, with blue cellophane over his flashlight beam, helped deliver a baby. They performed six-hour shifts of guard duty. They served as cops. They signed for a salary of $165 a month, settling in for what they thought would be several months of duty before they could get home.
The Lurline had departed for its return trip to the mainland the day after dropping the teams off on Oahu. Two days later, in the middle of the Pacific, the crew began painting the ships’ porthole windows black, and the Lurline zigzagged its way to California. Among its passengers was a former UCLA halfback, an honorable mention All-American, who had played semipro football in Hawaii that fall for $100 per game. His name was Jackie Robinson.
“Sure, I was scared,” Robinson said upon returning to the mainland. “But I finally got into a poker game and forgot all about it.”
On Dec. 16, nine days after the attack, two American ships, the SS President Coolidge, a passenger liner, and the USAT Hugh L. Scott, a troopship, arrived in Honolulu from Manila, now on the brink of being overrun by the Japanese.
Traveling to the mainland would be treacherous. The authorities knew Japanese subs patrolled the California coast. Yet military officials in Hawaii and Washington, D.C., realized the most severely wounded patients, not to mention tourists and the families of the military personnel, needed to travel to the safety of the mainland. The Coolidge and Scott were outfitted to do the job. The Navy assigned 125 wounded to the Coolidge, the larger of the two ships. Eight local nurses volunteered to serve on the Scott, which would transport 55 patients.
Keene recognized the opportunity. He lobbied the Navy to use the players from both teams as hospital orderlies for the wounded in exchange for getting them back to San Francisco. He got the approval on Dec. 19, just two hours before the ships would leave. The coaches and players rushed to the pier, but only 18 Spartan players boarded the Coolidge. The other seven decided to remain in their new jobs as Honolulu policemen. That monthly salary, roughly the then-average American wage, felt awfully grownup in a 20-year-old pocket.
The ships departed in the early evening and headed north before they turned east. They strayed 65 miles outside of the normal shipping lanes, wary of the Japanese submarines. The players took one look at their shipboard accommodations, hammocks hanging in steerage, assessed that a torpedo would pretty much go right through them, and decided to sleep on deck.
Despite the worry and fear that surrounded the teams during their time in Hawaii, the players were mainly shielded from the impact of what had happened on the morning of Dec. 7, when nearly 2,400 service personnel died and the United States was launched into the war. Pearl Harbor itself had remained off limits. But when the players boarded the Coolidge, each assigned to assist a specific patient, they confronted the horror of war. They saw the bodies of sailors, boys their own age, burned and covered in disinfectant. The players rode the same winter seas back to the mainland, only this time with portholes painted black and kept shut and amid the smell of burnt flesh and putrefying wounds.
Four days out, orders aboard the ship changed. The passengers had to wear their life preservers at all times.
Christmas Day dawned gray and drizzly on the West Coast, as the Coolidge and Scott both glided beneath the four-year-old Golden Gate Bridge to safe harbor. The Coolidge left Oahu with 125 wounded men. It arrived in San Francisco with 124. A Navy man died on Christmas Eve. The ambulances lined up to take the wounded. The civilians came to cheer, and maybe glean a sliver of information about someone they knew at Pearl Harbor.
The San Jose Mercury Herald published a large photo of the Spartan players on the Coolidge after it docked. After nearly a week of nausea and fear at sea, the relief and smiles on the players’ faces would have lit a forest of Christmas trees. And somehow, after such a long, harrowing experience, two of the players still adhered to the protocol that a ship’s arrival necessitated wearing a coat and tie.
One of them was Ken Bailey, the bespectacled, would-be minister from nearby Los Gatos. For Bailey, like everyone else on board, it would be a Christmas he remembered for the rest of his life.
‘Dear Family …’
Bailey graduated from San Jose State in the spring of 1942 and enlisted in the Army, foregoing his last year of football eligibility. Because he had been a guard in Hawaii, he became the first in his unit to go on guard duty at Camp Lee, near Richmond, Virginia. He also made the Camp Lee football team. On a roster that included players from such collegiate powers as Alabama, Ohio State, Tennessee and Texas A&M, Bailey earned a starting job.
This was one of many letters he wrote home, first from Camp Lee, where he had just completed basic training. Bailey had taken a shine to Army life, and Army life to him.
Dec. 10, 1942
This being on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor (or nearly), I wanted to put into this one game all the football that I would have played if I had finished my last year at State.
I started the game and played all but three or four minutes of it. Over the loudspeaker they announced the colleges from which we came, and there are a lot of people who have heard of San Jose State who never did before. I was determined to keep pace with all the boys from the big-name universities, and by golly, I did! I got a swell hand when they finally took me out in the last quarter.
His team’s initial victory earned Camp Lee a game on Jan. 3 against a team of all-stars that included the 1941 NFL Rookie of the Year, former Virginia All-American back Bill Dudley, who was about to enlist in the Army Air Forces. The tickets — $1.10 for civilians, 40 cents for soldiers and children — sold well. For a guy to go from having trouble starting at a small college to playing against the NFL Rookie of the Year — well, you can imagine.
Jan. 1, 1943
We have a team that averages 213 pounds per man and I am one of the shrimps. Funny thing, whenever I feel small in a game, I do better. I am really hoping to justify the players’ faith in me and the good wishes of a large number of friends who are going to see the game. I don’t know what there is about this game of football that does so much to me, but I feel more poised, able to face my duties with more self-confidence, because of playing.
The all-star team dominated Camp Lee, winning 24-7, as Dudley rushed for 164 yards and two touchdowns on only 13 carries. It would be Bailey’s final football game. In 1943, he became a quartermaster, or supply officer, and was assigned to the Transportation Corps. Bailey accompanied Army shipments aboard Navy ships to Europe.
New York, N.Y.
June 2, 1943
(T)he important thing is I feel that I’m really doing something important to win this war. I know you will be more worried now, but you must realize I can take care of myself. It’s much more satisfying to be in a really vital position.
In November, Bailey and his cargo boarded the USS John L. Motley, which traveled to Bari, Italy, a critical, newly won Allied port. Bari would serve as a supply point for the Allies as they tried to fortify their tenuous hold on the continent of Europe. Bailey last wrote home on Dec. 1, to tell his family he arrived in Italy. He signed nearly every other letter from home, “Love, Ken.” This letter, he signed, “Love, Kenneth.”
On the following evening, Dec. 2, 1943, German planes attacked Bari and sank 28 ships, including the Motley, which exploded when a bomb hit its ammunition. Hundreds of military personnel and Italian civilians died. The exact number isn’t known, in part because the Allies had a cache of mustard gas on at least one of the ships. Mustard gas had been outlawed as a weapon after World War I. But the Allies believed Hitler might use it, and if he did, they would use it in return.
Four weeks later, in Palo Alto, the Bailey family received a telegram from the Army: Kenneth, who had been reported missing, had been killed in action. He was 22. Between the element of surprise and the amount of damage inflicted, the attack on Bari bore an eerie similarity to the attack that propelled the United States into the war. As a young college football player, Ken Bailey had been stranded on Oahu because of Pearl Harbor. Two years later, almost to the day, Bailey would be killed in an attack that historians refer to as “Little Pearl Harbor.”
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