The history of World War II and the bravery of the American service members who fought for our nation and its allies are familiar parts of our collective national history, but an often overlooked part of this legacy is the service of the civilian workers on Wake Island who were swept into the war.
The civilian workers, including many Idahoans, working for Morrison Knudsen Company building infrastructure on the island when it was attacked the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor immediately became soldiers. Their service cannot be forgotten.
In Veterans Memorial Park in Boise, a memorial honoring Americans who served on Wake Island gives the following account: “Five hours after bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Wake Island, a tiny island midway between Hawaii and Japan. The United States was constructing a runway essential for planes to refuel on their way through the area. There were 449 Marines, 68 Sailors, 6 Army Air Corps, and 1146 civilians employed by the Boise-based Morrison Knudsen Company on the island. Approximately 250 of the MK workers were from Idaho. For 15 days the military and civilians bravely defended the island from the Japanese forces. Wake Island fell to the Japanese on December 23, 1941.
Following the battle, 98 civilian construction workers were kept on Wake Island to labor for the Japanese. When their work was complete, they were forced to dig their own graves before being executed. The remaining defenders of the island, both military and civilian, were taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese and held for 44 months. These brave heroes endured exceedingly harsh conditions, serving as slave labor for the Japanese government in Japan and China. Many died in captivity. In 1981 the civilian MK employees were granted Veteran status in recognition of their service in the War of the Pacific . . .”
Those who survived and returned home have enriched our communities. Idaho became home to annual reunions of Wake Island survivors and their families. Many of these gatherings have been organized by Alice Ingham, whose husband was on Wake Island. This year, will be the last gathering in Boise in September of the Survivors of Wake-Guam-Cavite, Inc. The organizers have noted that, “Sadly, the number of living Wake Island survivors have declined rapidly in recent years . . . We would like to honor all of our Wake men—the living, the deceased, and those who never made it home from the war—with this final reunion.” The last worker from Idaho, Joe Goicoechea of Boise, passed away this past year.
I submitted a Congressional Record Statement in the official record of the U.S. Senate to help honor those who served on Wake Island. I also co-sponsored S. 450, the Pacific Defenders of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act. This bipartisan legislation, which was introduced by Senator Joe Manchin, III (D-West Virginia), would award a Congressional Gold Medal to those who fought in defense of Guam, Wake Island and the Philippine Archipelago and who died or were imprisoned in the related efforts.
I thank all those who have helped keep the memories of those who served on Wake Island alive. As the memorial in Boise so aptly notes, “The workers signed up for a job; they ended up fighting in a war.” And, fight they did. They held the island for weeks against overwhelming odds, and became lasting examples of courage and resolve. Thank you to those who served on Wake Island and their families for all they have given to our country.