BOISE -- Four men older than 90 gathered in Boise Friday with their families for an annual reunion. It was 71 years ago and they were all around 19-years-old and signed on with Morrison Knudsen to build an army base on Wake Island in the South Pacific.
"They were paying pretty good then during the Depression years, $120 a month," said Joe Goicoechea, who went to work on Wake Island. "We were going to become millionaires!"
A couple months after 1,100 civilians arrived (about 250 were from Idaho), they were bombed by the Japanese military.
"It was about four hours after they bombed Pearl Harbor that they hit Wake Island," said J.O. Young, a Wake Island survivor.
Even though they had no military training, they helped the 250 Marines on the island try to repel the attack.
"You didn't think anything about it," said Young. "You were there. You had a job to do, and you did it."
"Everybody tried to do their best," said Goicoechea. "When you're not trained for it and all, it was pretty hard. But we had a lot of casualties."
"We had always heard that there would be no prisoners," said Young. "So we were just going to fight until we were no more."
But with their energy and supplies exhausted, they were forced to surrender. The Japanese did take prisoners. Ninety-eight workers were left on the island to finish work on the base that would serve the Japanese military. They were murdered after its completion.
"A couple of them went to high school with me here," said Goicoechea.
The men who survived, like Joe and J.O., would spend the next four years in brutal POW camps.
"Some of the fellas were beat up constantly," said Young.
"It was cold," said Goicoechea. "We had very little clothes. We had a hard time."
But in 1945 when the war ended, they finally came home. Young talked about who he saw from the ship as he arrived back in the U.S. "There was a little blonde in a red dress waving, and I finally decided that was my girl, Pearl. On the 9th of November we just celebrated our 67th anniversary."
Only 600 of the original 1,100 civilians made it home. Some family members of the survivors, who have since passed away since, were also at the reunion.
A monument to those who fought on Wake Island was dedicated at Veterans Memorial Park last year. It was mostly thanks to the work of a high school student whose great-grandfather died in that battle.