Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veteran's Day


Joe Goicoechea of Boise, never joined the service, but fought at Wake and was was POW for the duration of the war. Jake Putnam photo
A Different Veteran's Day StoryBy Jake Putnam

Boise--On this Veteran's day 91 year-old Joe Goicoechea of Boise has mixed feelings. He never joined the Marines, but fought with the leathernecks shoulder to shoulder on Wake Island back in 1941. 


The Boise native manned a machinegun fending off elite Japanese marines for two weeks from December 8th till the 23rd. During those frantic days he was wounded, captured then held as a prisoner of war. 

While the attack on Pearl was a clear cut victory for the Japanese; the invaders were stopped dead in their tracks for the first time by U.S marines and construction workers on the windswept, white coral island.

Construction workers like Goicoechea readily volunteered for action and fought fiercely  with the Marines when the invasion came a week after Pearl Harbor. To this day the darkest memory for many Boise residents is observance of December 8th, the invasion of Wake and the fate of 98 laborers, cat skinners, carpenters, iron workers cut down in cold blood by the Japanese.

By 1939 the U.S. Navy started building an airport and submarine base on the island and MK Contractors from across Idaho were brought in to help bolster Island defenses. MK bosses sent the call across the Gem State for laborers, iron workers, and heavy equipment operators.

“There was a lot of recruiting in Idaho and the west because MK had offices here,” said Goicoechea, of Boise. With the Depression still lingering good paying jobs were hard to find.

“They offered us $120 per month and we thought we were millionaires,” said Goicoechea. “We didn’t have to pay taxes, we got room and board all we had to bring was our personal gear and we had the chance to learn a trade, none of us bargained for a fight against the   Japs.”

The MK’ers dug revetments, runways, and fortifications with urgency. Goicoechea and his high school buddies worked long hours. “I learned a trade there and I loved it, I learned how to be an ironworker, most everyone was older than me. I was just 19, most of the guys were as old as my dad, but had worked all the big projects of the time like Boulder Dam.”

The 1,146 Construction workers took orders from MK’s Dan Teters while the 449 Marines got their marching orders from Major James Devereux. Major Paul Putnam took charge of the Marine Fighter Squadron. Captain Harry Wilson commanded the 71 sailors but overall command of the Island fell under Commander Winfield Cunningham.

Wake was important because our heavy bombers could easily strike the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. For the Japanese a base on Wake made Hawaii and the West Coast vulnerable. The Pentagon wanted to set up a defensible picket line in the Pacific to keep the Japanese from striking range.

On Sundays workers played in a softball league, went to church and visited the camp library but for the most part there were few distractions on the island. They lived in barracks and ate at the company mess hall; many sent paychecks home.

“Late that summer the Marines came in and started putting up the 3-inch antiaircraft guns and they asked for volunteers to take instruction on the guns so evenings after dinner, I did that and I’d go over there and practice on the .50 caliber machine gun”. Goicoechea and his Boise buddies took ROTC and even spent weekends in the Idaho National Guard. Abruptly the practice sessions ended on December 6th.

“I was on Peale working on a bomb-proof generator next to the Pan-Am offices and we heard that Pearl had been hit but we didn’t give it much thought,” said Joe Goicoechea."But across the lagoon the alarm sounded after the radio shack picked up a dispatch from Pearl saying that Hickam Field had been bombed."


Minutes later the Marines sounded general quarters across the three small atoll islands. The Marines took up arms in full battle gear and the construction volunteers followed. They didn't have to wait long.

“Then about 10 or 15 minutes to Noon,” recalled J.O. Young from Nampa. “We thought we saw our planes coming in. We ran outside looking toward the airstrip and could see the bombers coming in and then the strip started to explode and the planes were flying right toward us. As they come close above the roar of the engines we could hear a steady "tut-tut" and realized that they were machine-gunning us.”

36 Japanese Mitsubishi Nell bombers roared across Wake in three distinct V-formations. “They came in with the sun and you couldn’t see them, the sun was so bright and the white sand we could barely see them until they were right on top of us and they leveled Wake. They fighters came in so low I could see their faces and the big red meat ball on the side of the plane. Those pilots just played hell with us,” said Goicoechea.

The twin engine bombers dropped fragmentation bombs spewing razor sharp shrapnel and coral everywhere, buildings burned, cars, trucks equipment burned and in seconds scores were wounded, smoke bellowed and confusion reined. Survivors remembered the smell of burning oil and blood.

On Peale, not far from Goicoechea, the bombers blew up the Pan Am Building killing 10  workers. Enemy fighters strafed equipment, trucks and anything that moved. The three and five-inch guns emplacements were favorite targets for the Zeros and the bombers but survived. The marines were unscathed by the attack, they rallied, manned guns and fought back.

“As the smoke cleared after the first wave I could see we suffered quite a few casualties,” said Goicoechea. “Our hospital was hit and quite a few were killed there. That was the day I was knocked around a bit.” Goicoechea ran to a gun emplacement and was helping the Marines load the 5-inch guns when an explosion nearby knocked him and a Marine corporal Ken Marvin off their feet. Both survived, suffered shrapnel wounds from the coral and though bloodied they kept on fighting.

“The pounded us all afternoon and then high-tailed it home, thats the way it was for the next two weeks, every afternoon,” recalled Goicoechea. 


Before each raid, a few battered American Wildcat fighters met the enemy and proved they were up for the task, they fearlessly tangled with enemy fighters and bombers. A few enemy aircraft were shot down and transports were strafed. 

  At 3-am on December 11, the Japanese invasion task force moved in for the kill. Offshore a light Japanese cruiser, six destroyers, two troop carriers along with two armed merchant ships made a run for Wake's beaches under the cover of darkness.

Marine gunners stalked them to 4,500 yards then opened up with spotlights and the 5-inch naval guns. Their aim was deadly blasting a Japanese destroyer in half with a ball of fire and it sunk so fast that there were no survivors. The defenders also damaged a cruiser and sunk three destroyers. The force turned tail; it was the first retreat of in the Pacific and the first U.S. victory of the young war. “We were mad as hell and all we wanted to do was fight,” recalled Goicoechea.

For two and a half weeks the outmanned Americans fought back and had turned the tide but they were low on ammo and needed medical supplies. The air raids continued. At 2:15 am on December 23 the Marines spotted another Japanese assault force. Wake radioed Pearl: "Enemy apparently landing." It was the final showdown on Wake.

The Marines, assisted by construction volunteers opened up on Japanese Patrol Craft 33 and their 5-inch gun hit the powder magazine of a landing ship the explosion turned night into day and fighting intensified and gave hope to the defenders.

Over on Wilkes island a company of 100 Japanese landed and overran a gun position at Battery F. Just a dozen Marines fixed bayonets and counterattacked. They drove the surprised enemy back toward a skirmish line held by 24 Marines; who counterattacked into the enemy flank, causing the Japanese to panic. The 37 U.S. Marines completely gutted the elite Japanese company, killing 94 and capturing two.

Everywhere the fighting was desperate; a Japanese marine charged Cpl. Alvie Reed with a bayonet both fell on the battlefield. A few feet away Platoon Sergeant Edwin Hassig shot a charging enemy soldier between the eyes at point blank range.

On the main island of Wake more Japanese troops charged ashore. With no infantry in reserve, the Marine aviators and construction workers fought where they stood; "This is as far as we go," yelled Major Putnam to his airmen, and they met a platoon enemy marines with raised hands.

On other parts of the atoll the U.S. marines had turned the tide and controlled their sectors only to learn that the command post had surrendered. As noon broke under a blazing sun; the Japanese captured all 16-hundred people on the island.

In two weeks the island’s brave fighter squadron shot down 21 aircraft, damaged 51 others. Island defenders sunk four warships and damaged eight others, and killed more than 850 Japanese sailors and more than 200 soldiers of the landing force.

“It’s always an argument over who talked to Hawaii that day recalled,” Goicoechea, “Commander Cunningham or Major Devereux , I think Devereux told Cunningham he was the commander of the Island and it was up to him to make the decision to surrender, but I thought we had ‘em.”

The captured Americans were marched to the airstrip with bayonets at their backs and forced to their knees in long rows. They were stripped naked in the hot sun eye to eye with Japanese machine-gunners for two days and nights.

On Christmas day Goicoechea said they were allowed to bury their dead and moved out of the sun and wind. They were marched to the north end of the island and jammed into their old barracks. In January they were shipped off to Japan and China as slave laborers. But the Japanese kept 98 construction workers behind to fortify the Island.

By 1943 the Pacific war by-passed Wake. It had no strategic value and it was cut off and used for target practice by the U.S. Pacific fleet. The USS Yorktown arrived offshore on October 5th, 1943 and during a two day exercise dropped 340 tons of bombs on the atoll. The group’s cruisers and destroyers blasted the island with 3,198 eight-inch and five-inch projectiles. The raid flattened the island and 31 Japanese planes were destroyed on the ground.

Commander Sakaibara thought that that the taskforce offshore would send landing craft and worried that the 98 workers would rise up and fight; so he issued an execution order.

When Wake fell to U.S. Forces in September of 1945 Commander Sakaibara claimed that the American raid of ’43 killed the civilian construction workers but his own men confessed to the execution. He was hung after the War Crimes Tribunals on Guam in June of 1947.

The families of the 98 didn’t know of the execution until January 1946. With the help of Senator Larry Craig, Joe Goicoechea was awarded the Purple Heart five decades after he took up arms for his country. He is retired from MK and lives in Boise.

World War II magazine, Idaho Press Tribune, J.O. Young, Joe Goicoechea, MK survivor, Marine Corps Association, Leatherneck Magazine.

1 comment:

RICHARD BALDWIN COOK said...

Jake, My great- uncle, Howard Cook was a Wake Island survivor. I would like to get in touch with any survivors, and ask them about my great uncle. Your post mentions two survivors, Joe Goicoechea of Boise, and J.O. Young from Nampa.

Would it be possible for you to put me in touch with either of these gentlemen or with their families - or pass along my request to them, letting them decide whether to communicate with me?

My e-mail: cookrb1@gmail.com

Thanks for any help.

Richard Baldwin Cook

PS, Joe, I am a descendant of General Israel Putnam and have researched thr Putnam line. You and I could be cousins.

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