Harry Morrison, president of MK, had just returned from Washington, D.C. with the good news that the company had been awarded a substantial portion of construction under the National Defense Program, building air base facilities in the South Pacific. Midway and Wake Islands were mentioned in passing.
The story moved to page 2 in the Statesman on March 20, 1941, when it was announced that 150 workers, many of them from the Boise area, would sail from San Francisco for Wake Island. The company would be sending men “from engineers to dishwashers” to help build the air base.
Another page 2 article a couple of weeks later told that “several Canyon County young men (had) been given draft deferments to go to Wake Island where they would be employed by Morrison-Knudsen Construction.”
Over the course of the next few months there followed many articles about individual men on their way to build the air base in the South Pacific.
On September 19, 1941, the newspaper ran a story about the impressions of O.O. Kelso, from Caldwell. Headlined, “Idahoan Finds Wake Island ‘Crazy Place,’” it quoted Kelso as saying “rocks float; wood sinks; fish fly, and we have a bird here that runs but can’t fly.”
It got much crazier. On December 8, 1941, the day after that “Day of Infamy” at Pearl Harbor, there was a report the Japanese had taken Wake Island. This caused great concern in the Boise area, of course, because of the MK project there.
The family of 19-year-old Joe Goicoechea was on tenterhooks. He was among the civilian employees of MK on Wake Island. His dream job there—paying $120 a month—would turn into a nightmare as he and other Morrison-Knudsen employees took up arms alongside soldiers. They held off the attackers from December 8 until Christmas Eve, when he and hundreds of others were taken prisoner.
The Japanese forced the prisoners to build bunkers and fortifications against an American counter-attack. That flightless bird that O.O. Kelso mentioned, was hunted to extinction by the Japanese when the blockade by American forces brought their garrison to the point of starvation.
Goicoechea and others captured ended up spending 46 months in captivity, which included a starvation diet, inadequate clothing against the cold, and torture.
There were 1,100 Morrison-Knudson men on Wake Island on December 7, 1941. Only 700 made it home. Forty-seven died defending the island. Ninety-eight were executed by the Japanese. About a third of the men died in captivity under harsh conditions.
Joe Goicoechea made it back to Idaho. He lived until January, 2017. The Idaho Statesman reported upon his death that Goicoechea was thought to be the last of the Morrison-Knudson men who had experienced the battle on Wake Island and subsequent imprisonment to die.