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.