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They thought they'd have a story to tell. And they did, although it would read like something from Stephen King — surreal, fraught with peril and laden with moral lessons.

In November 1941, 25 members of the San Jose State College football team, and 27 football players from Willamette University, plus their head coaches and assorted friends and family members, set sail on a luxury liner to what was then the Territory of Hawaii.

The two teams had scheduled three games involving each other and their hosts, the University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. But that plan soon was derailed as the Spartans of San Jose State and the Bearcats of Willamette became witnesses to one of the most historic and terrifying events of the 20th century — the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of Dec. 7, 1941.

These young men from Oregon and California, some in their late teens, most in their early 20s, left California on one of the great ocean liners of the day. They came back 28 days later stowed in steerage (below sea level), sharing an overloaded ship with civilians from Hawaii and badly wounded soldiers.

The ride was no bargain — attacks at sea were a real possibility — but it was their best option.

"To get aboard, to get passage, we had to sign a paper saying we'd help the wives and children," said Jack Galvin, a San Jose State player in 1941. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday and lives near Sacramento.

"We had heard about Japanese subs, and being below the water line, we figured if the submarines hit us, we'd be dead, so we slept on deck the last three days," said Chuck Furno, a sophomore halfback for Willamette in 1941. Also 90, he now lives in Vancouver, Wash.

"It affected the trajectory of all their lives," added Debra Fitzgerald, an attorney in Alaska whose father, James Fitzgerald, was one of the Willamette players. He died in April in Santa Rosa at 90.

"Not only the bombing, which was shocking and dramatic," she added. "What had a more lasting impression was having to care for the wounded (soldiers) on the way home. My dad was 21; they were all just kids."

The "kids" were forced by circumstances to grow up quickly:

Seven San Jose State players would remain in Hawaii after their teammates went home, and an eighth Spartan player would be talked out of staying literally at the last minute.

One Spartan, center and co-captain Robert Hamill, would see action in three wars (World War II, Korea, Vietnam), plus the Berlin Airlift in 1948.

Another San Jose player, square-jawed, German-born Hans Wiedenhoefer, had a Forrest Gump-like experience. He was also at Iwo Jima on the day six soldiers hoisted an American flag atop Mount Suribachi for a world-famous photograph.

Willamette freshman Glenn Nordquist, on "volunteer" patrol in Hawaii with World War I-era gear and weaponry after the attack, would have an epiphany, quit football and become a minister. In 1951, he would meet with Mitsuo Fuchida, a former Japanese pilot who had led the first wave of planes dropping bombs at Pearl Harbor.

The ship the San Jose and Willamette groups sailed on to Hawaii, the S.S. Lurline, would become part of war lore. Starting a week before the bombing and continuing for three days, the Lurline's assistant radio operator intercepted Japanese radio signals coming from out in the Pacific northwest of Hawaii.

On Dec. 7, the teams were staying at a hotel near Waikiki beach, 12 miles east of Pearl Harbor, where nearly 2,400 U.S. servicemen were killed, 1,177 of them aboard the U.S.S. Arizona.

Beginning just before 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, the surprise assaults on the island of Oahu by two waves of Japanese planes drew the United States into World War II.

None of the athletes for either squad was injured that day. Most of the San Jose State and Willamette players would serve in the military. Many would see combat over the next 3? years.

San Jose's Kenneth C. Bailey would be killed in action. Willamette's Ted Ogdahl would be seriously wounded at Okinawa. He was shot as he and his fellow Marines attempted to take a beach, fell in the sand and was "bayoneted by Japanese," said one of his sons, Wally. The Marines retook the beach; Ogdahl survived. "He pretended he was dead, which wasn't very hard, 'cause he was close," said Wally Ogdahl, a lawyer in Salem, Ore.

Three days after the Lurline arrived in Honolulu, the only game that would be played in the series was held. On Dec. 6, the Bearcats, not acclimated to the 80-degree temperatures after leaving Oregon in near-freezing conditions, lost to Hawaii 20-6.

"I blame it on the trip," said Furno. "We hadn't been on land too long. It was a pretty rough crossing. Some of the guys lost a lot of weight. I could stand on the dock and get seasick."

"I think I ate only one meal that I was able to keep down the whole time on the ship," added Willamette's Ken Jacobson, 90, who lives in Dallas, Ore.

The crowd of 24,000 included men in uniform, many of whom were stationed at Pearl Harbor.

Gloria Goodman, whose husband, Marv, played for Willamette, said in a 2003 interview: "The boys on the team wondered how many (servicemen) watched them on Saturday and then died on Sunday."

In 1941, Ben Winkelman, who had played at the University of Arkansas, was in his second year as head coach of the Spartans. He had a young squad, none of whom had been on the team in 1938, the last time San Jose sailed to Hawaii, and few remained from 1939, when the Spartans were 13-0, the only unbeaten season in school history.

Most of the Spartans were between 19-21. The oldest was Vernon Cartwright, who might have been looking forward to celebrating his 26th birthday in the South Pacific — on Dec. 7.

The Bearcats also had a young team, and won eight of nine games before their trip.

In "Fitz," a 13-minute film made in college by former Santa Rosan John Fitzgerald Trefry, his grandfather, James Fitzgerald, says the promise of the Hawaii trip was what brought him to Willamette.

"I was recruited by a number of colleges," Fitzgerald said in "Fitz." "A coach ... told me I might want to transfer to Willamette. I remember my question went something like this: &‘Why in the world would I do that?' He said, &‘because we're going to have a bowl game in Honolulu next December.'"

Fitzgerald, the other Bearcats players, head coach Roy "Spec" Keene and a small entourage that included Oregon state Sen. Douglas McKay and his 18-year-old daughter, Shirley, left by train from Salem on Nov. 26.

The two teams boarded the Lurline at the Port of San Francisco. San Jose's group included Sebastian Squatrito, the team's manager and a sports reporter for the Daily Spartan newspaper. On his return nearly a month later, he was pigeon-holed by the anxious head of the journalism department to produce a story. Squatrito's response: "The games were canceled, so there was no story."

The ship they sailed on was a story in itself. The Lurline, the length of two football fields (632 feet), had been ferrying passengers on a Hawaii-to-California route for eight years. Under the direction of Captain Charles "C.A." Berndtson, the Lurline would later be shown in a closing scene in "From Here to Eternity," the 1953 film that won six Oscars, including Best Picture.

On Nov. 27, the Lurline left from San Francisco's Pier 35. (Though unknown then, it would be another 6? years before the Lurline would again sail to Hawaii for cruises. It would be painted battleship gray and serve as a troop transport for the duration of World War II.)

The Lurline glided under the Golden Gate Bridge, an engineering marvel that had been completed just 4? years earlier, and entered the Pacific Ocean heading south along the coast.

On the 28th, the Lurline left the Los Angeles-area dock in San Pedro with 783 passengers. They 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.

Debra Fitzgerald recalls seeing a picture of her dad's team aboard the ship. Their youthful enthusiasm was hard to miss.

"They were all wearing these silly hats," she said, humorously describing her father as looking like "a thug" in the 1941 Willamette football team photo.

(Though scowling while seated front-row in the picture, "thug" seems ironic, considering James Martin Fitzgerald would go on to become a judge in Alaska, serving in state and federal courts there for nearly 50 years before retiring in 2009 to live in Santa Rosa.)

More than 5,000 miles away, a convoy led by six Japanese aircraft carriers, with no civilians and, more importantly, no notice, was already three days away from its port, moving southeast toward a cluster of islands in the middle of the Pacific — the Territory of Hawaii.

For the men who worked on the Lurline, a strange and ominous story was unfolding.

In "Infamy — Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath," author John Toland writes that on Sunday, Nov. 30, when the Lurline was two days at sea after leaving Los Angeles, the ship's first assistant radio operator, Leslie E. Grogan, intercepted low-frequency radio signals — presumably from station JCS in Yokohama, Japan — coming from northwest of Honolulu.

Grogan heard the signals the next two nights. He went to the intelligence office of the 14th Naval District in Honolulu after the Lurline arrived on Dec. 3. He reportedly told his story to Lt. Cmdr. George Warren Pease. There is no record of the information going any further than Pease, who died in 1945.

Unaware that the heart of the Japanese Imperial Navy was more than halfway to Hawaii, the Lurline's passengers disembarked in Honolulu. The Willamette and San Jose State parties checked into the Moana Hotel for some rest and relaxation.

Following Willamette's loss to Hawaii on Dec. 6, plans were made for San Jose State's games against Hawaii (Dec. 13) and Willamette (Dec. 16).

On the morning of Dec. 7, many of the San Jose State and Willamette players had planned picnics and a bus trip around the island, including a visit to Pearl Harbor. As they ate breakfast at the Moana, some could see what they thought were aerial maneuvers just off-shore.

In a 2006 ESPN film telling Willamette's story, Shirley McKay recalled seeing planes flying low over the water. "That's just a practice, Shirley," said her father, Sen. McKay, a World War I veteran who would become Oregon's governor and then Secretary of the Interior under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"We were watching these planes fly over the water, dropping bombs," Jacobson said. "I remember saying, &‘Look how real they are. Those shells are really bringing up water.'"

Robert Hamill's daughter, Teddi Tate, said her father told her: "They were sitting on the lanai of the Moana Hotel having breakfast and watching the giant spouts of water going up in the ocean. He told his team he thought that the Navy was having maneuvers. Then all hell broke loose."

James Fitzgerald quickly understood this was no practice. "It was a lot of smoke and noise in the air from the direction of Pearl Harbor," he said in his grandson's film. "I saw overhead these planes flying; they had a red ball under one wing. I knew they were Japanese."

San Jose State's Wellington "Gray" McConnell and Spartan teammates Allen Hardisty and Charlie Cook had been out that morning on a drive with three University of Hawaii coeds. They had a disturbing view of the bombing, watching from a hilly area overlooking Pearl Harbor.

"Planes were diving. We could see the battleship Oklahoma capsizing. It was horrible," McConnell said in a 1991 San Jose Mercury News article.

Word spread of the losses at Pearl Harbor. That night, a state of emergency was declared; rumors were rampant of possible follow-up attacks.

Police in Honolulu, working with the U.S. military, sought volunteers to help secure the island. They had a ready source of able-bodied men — two visiting football teams.

Curt Wiedenhoefer said his father, Hans, told him that "one of the commanders basically inducted the football teams," each player pairing off with a soldier and a Honolulu police officer to go on patrol. They were given weapons from World War I.

Paul Tognetti was a sophomore quarterback for San Jose State and one of the seven Spartans who would stay on after his team went home. In "An Era of Change: Oral Histories of Civilians in World War II Hawaii" (University of Hawaii-Manoa), Tognetti told interviewer Joe Rossi in 1992: "So I was there with my little riot gun and hoped nothing would come in. And martial law was declared. Everybody had to be off the streets. And the marines were on the waterfront, and anything that moved, their machine guns went all night."

Earl Hampton, a freshman on Willamette's team who had "never even seen the ocean" before the trip, said the real fears for him began after sundown.

"When it hit me was that evening," said Hampton, 89, who lives in Salem, not far from the Willamette campus. "There were military guys on the beaches digging trenches and putting in barbed wire. They gave us rifles with bayonets and told us that if the Japanese came back, we were going to defend the island. Hell, we couldn't have defended anything."

San Jose State's Bert Robinson later said that there was a degree of humor in this rag-tag bunch of patrolmen.

"Looking back, it was kind of funny," he told the Mercury News in 1991. "Some of us were just naive kids. We had never even shot a gun. ... We were probably more dangerous to ourselves than to any lawbreaker."

The San Jose State players worked with the Honolulu police force, while Willamette's players guarded Punahou High School, where ammunition had been moved after "the U.S. engineers got bombed out of their headquarters," Jacobson said.

For 10 days, not much changed. The scheduled Dec. 13 and 16 games were forgotten.

Their break came with the arrival of the S.S. President Coolidge, an ocean liner which had been taken over by the military and arrived with wounded men from the Philippines.

Servicemen injured during the attack on Pearl Harbor were placed on the Coolidge for transport to hospitals in California.

Willamette coach Keene negotiated with the military for the two groups to watch over the injured men on the Coolidge in exchange for passage home.

"There were a lot of burn victims," said Curt Wiedenhoefer. "Each one of (the players) had a soldier to stay with."

Not everyone was eager to go. Fred Lindsey and Ken Stanger, friends from Fremont High in Sunnyvale, joined the Honolulu police force. Also staying were Tognetti, Joseph Allen, Chet Carsten, Jack Lercari and Bill Donnelly. (Donnelly would die of a ruptured appendix 13 months later.)

At a 50th reunion before a San Jose State game in 1991, Lercari said the wages were an incentive to stay. "I had been making 36 cents an hour working on a farm at home," he told the Mercury News. "We were offered $166 a month to stay. Good money at that time."

Tognetti, 91, who lives in Honolulu, said in his oral history interview: "After about a week, the word got around, &‘Hey, any of you guys want to stay here?' And some of us got together and said, &‘Hey, let's stay here.' And we joined the police force."

At the dock, though, an eighth player, John Brown, was talked out of staying by Hamill.

The Coolidge departed Honolulu on Dec. 19, in a convoy led by the cruiser Detroit and included destroyers Reid and Cummings and a transport ship, USS Hugh L. Scott. Twenty-eight days after the Lurline had left San Francisco, the weary Willamette and San Jose State groups again sailed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

"We sang &‘California, Here We Come,' and that was very moving," Shirley McKay tearfully said in the ESPN film. "It was very touching."

It was Christmas Day.

Willamette's group returned by train to Salem. The San Jose State group was put aboard a Greyhound bus. It stopped halfway down the peninsula in San Carlos. There, Jack Galvin got off and walked to his folks' home.

"I had to walk from the Bayshore highway to my house," he said, "which is quite a walk, especially when you're carrying a heavy suitcase."

The players, their friends and family, those who had witnessed unspeakable horrors, would return to Salem and San Jose. Their lives wouldn't be the same.

Those who were accepted, enlisted. San Jose State's Kenneth C. Bailey, who graduated in 1942, would be killed during the war. Bailey's parents sent a letter to the SJSU Alumni Association, which sparked the idea of creating a chapel on campus at San Jose State. The chapel pays tribute to 2nd Lt. Bailey and the others who died during the war effort.

Bailey's teammate, Hamill, would serve in World War II, as well as the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and the Korean Conflict. He was a base commander in Vietnam in that war. He died in 2002, three days shy of his 84th birthday.

Furno, Fitzgerald and Wiedenhoefer served in the Pacific theater. Furno flew P-38s over Mindanao. Fitzgerald flew bombing missions near Espiritu Santo, the largest island in the nation of Vanuatu. This was also where the ship that brought the men home from Hawaii — the Coolidge — met its end, sinking after hitting a submerged mine in 1942.

Wiedenhoefer fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. He reached the island's highest point, Mount Suribachi, not long after six soldiers had hoisted an American flag, an iconic image taken by Joe Rosenthal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo.

Five of the seven Spartans who stayed behind made it back to the mainland, and most of them went into education.

Lindsey and Stanger both became teachers and coaches. Born a week apart in 1920, they died within a year of each other, Lindsey in 2004 at 83, Stanger in 2005 at 84.

Lercari turned to coaching and teaching at Camarillo High School in Ventura. He died in 2009 at 89.

Allen returned to his hometown of Red Bluff, serving on the fire department for more than 50 years. The fire department training center is named in his honor. He died in 2006 at 87.

Twenty years ago, each team had its own gathering to mark the 50th anniversary of the event that changed their lives.

In San Jose, 17 Spartans still living at that time were honored at halftime of a game against Hawaii on Nov. 16, 1991.

The next month, 17 Bearcats returned to the scene of all that horror: Hawaii. But it was a peaceful visit, and, added Debra Fitzgerald, "they finally got their bus tour."

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