Joe Goicoechea was a Boise freight handler hoping for a better paying job when he signed on to go to work at Morrison-Knudsen construction company.
He got a better job. It paid $120 a month, solid money for a 19-year-old in the summer of 1941.
The global construction firm with its headquarters in Boise, known for constructing Hoover Dam, shipped Goicoechea to Wake Island in the Pacific to join 1,000 civilian employees building an airstrip for the U.S. military.
A vigil is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday and the funeral for 10:30 a.m. Thursday, both at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
But teen-age Goicoechea (pronounced Goy-ka-CHEE-uh) got more than a bigger paycheck.
Within hours of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Goicoechea and other civilian and military personnel were under attack from superior Japanese forces invading the island.
Civilians joined a contingent of military hoping to rebuff the attack. Some, like Goicoechea, had training with weapons. They held out from Dec. 8 to Christmas Eve, when Goicoechea and hundreds more were taken prisoner.
His imprisonment lasted nearly four years.
Goicoechea, believed to be the last surviving Idaho resident of that the MK expedition, died Dec. 30 at age 95. Just two other veterans of the MK project are thought to be still living, said Dan Goicoechea, Joe’s son and Idaho’s chief deputy state controller. One is in California and one in North Carolina.
During those 46 months of inhumane captivity, he persevered while many of his comrades died of dysentery and disease, never surrendering his spirit and faith in God to his captors.
Gov. Otter’s proclamation for Joe Goicoechea Day
HE ALMOST DIDN’T MAKE IT
Goicoechea was wounded in the fight to defend Wake Island, when a shell went off near him. He was captured after that.
“Dad was beaten so badly with a rifle butt that his eye came out of his head,” Dan said. “(He) bled from his eyes and ears and no one could believe he was alive.” The eye was saved, but it troubled him the rest of his life.
A mom knows when her son is dead.
Eladia Goicoechea, Joe’s mother
Joe Goicoechea witnessed beheadings by his Japanese captors. He stole bits of fabric to secretly help make an American flag. When prisoners were not being watched, many would secretly say the Pledge of Allegiance, Dan said.
Goicoechea was first shipped to a prisoner of war camp in Shanghai, where he spent a bone-chilling winter in tropical clothing and no shoes. Then he was in POW camps in Japan until his release in 1945.
“The worst was at the end,” Dan said.
His father’s leg was cut by a sword and became infected. “One of the Japanese doctors smuggled sulfa drugs to my Dad to try to keep him alive,” Dan said.
Other prisoners stole food to share with Goicoechea. The Japanese found out. “My Dad was beaten for three days and never gave their names up,” said Dan.
WAITING FOR NEWS
Back home, the Idaho Statesman printed a story about Goicoechea’s capture.
Then no news. For months. Then years.
Joes’s mother, Eladia, began daily walks from her home to a small downtown Boise Catholic Church to attend 5 a.m. mass. She stood 4-feet-11 and walked barefooted, carrying a lighted candle as a sacrifice, hoping it would save her son.
“She knew if the candle didn’t go out, he was alive,” Dan said.
“Don’t tell me my son’s dead,” she’d tell people. “A mom knows when her son is dead.”
On the day he came home, she was at the Boise Depot to meet him on the train.
After the war, Goicoechea worked with MK and related companies for more than two decades as an iron worker.
Goicoechea’s experience shaped him in several ways, Dan said. He had seen what was possible, despite all the odds and obstacles.
“We were never allowed to say can’t, ever, Dan said.
Their father’s other rule was this: “You stick together and you buck each other up,” Dan said. “You never, never ever give up.”
Joe Goicoechea funeral
A vigil is planned at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Funeral services are at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Sacred Heart, 811 S. Latah St.
Gov. Butch Otter will proclaim Thursday as Joe Goicoechea Day. The proclamation recounts his experience at Wake Island, “during those 46 months of inhumane captivity he persevered while many of his comrades died of dysentery and disease, never surrendering his spirit and faith in God to his captors,” the proclamation reads.