BOISE -- Seventy-one years ago Friday, the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor.

It was called a date which will live in infamy. However, the number of people who remember it best is dwindling. One among those is Idaho native James Byrne.

An ad in the paper changed James Byrne's life

I saw an ad in the paper about Morrison Knudsen wanting people to go overseas, said Byrne.

The company would not hire him without his parents' permission because of his age. The 17-year-old got his parents to sign off, and went to work in Hawaii. December 7, 1941 is still clear in the 90-year-old's mind.

I could look out and see the ships go up and come down due to the explosions, said Byrne, who watched it unfold while hiding under a Caterpillar. Some of the people underneath that machine with me were crying, 'Where's our army? Where's our navy?' But I didn't have any idea what was going on.

When he came out from under the Caterpillar, he said it was utter devastation. Byrne said at the time, he didn't understand the significance of what happened that day. A few days after the attack, they asked him to load up some trucks.

When they asked me to load this truck, I went with a guy to load up and there were all these blue bags, and they smelled funny. And we were throwing them into this truck. They were going to take them to the other side of the island. I didn't know what was in them. But one of the guys told me, 'that's the bodies off the ships that were hit by the bombs.'

At about age 19, he enlisted in the US Navy and went to served in Iwo Jima. When he was leaving Japan, he realized how lucky he was to survive.

When we left Iwo Jima, they called, 'all hands on deck, burial at sea,' Byrne said. We sat there thinking how fortunate we were that we weren't in that sack being tossed over the side, which could have happened.

It has taken Byrne years to talk openly about what happened and what he saw. He writes much of it down, so his family will have these memories of an American hero.

Read or Share this story: