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Chapter closes on veterans convention
Purple Heart finally given to Wake Island survivor
as WWII group meets for the last time

By Tim Woodward

Images by Gerry Melendez / The Idaho Statesman
Copied from the Idaho Statesman
Edition Date: 09-08-2003

Not one of his old friends recognized Ted Reilmann when he showed up at their convention last week.

Joe Goicoechea gets a hug from Ken Marvin on Friday during the final Survivors of Wake, Guam and Cavite reunion at the DoubleTree Hotel Riverside. The men fought alongside each other, and Marvin was instrumental in helping Goicoechea receive the Purple Heart this year. “It´s terrific to see him,” Goicoechea said.

They've met every year since World War II, but this was Reilmann's first time — and his last chance.

It was the final convention of the WWII Survivors of Wake Island, the last time the former Marines and Morrison Knudsen construction workers who gallantly defended the island would ever see each other. A closing chapter in the war, and in Boise's history. Most of the MK workers were from here. 

"Nobody wants to be president or vice president anymore because we're all getting too old," Boisean Joe Goicoechea said between war stories at the DoubleTree Hotel Riverside. "And so many of the guys are dying off."

Of the original 396 MK workers, he said, 306 have died. Four hundred of the 445 Marines are gone.

It took decades for some of them to be able to talk about what they experienced. Asked why he didn't attend until now, Reilmann joked that "my wife was afraid I'd meet some other woman and not come home." But his sons who accompanied him from Holton, Ind., tell a different story.

"He never wanted to talk about the war," Michael Reilmann said. "It wasn't till last year that he decided to go to one of the conventions. It was in Arkansas, and the day before he fell and broke his hip. With this being the last one, we were getting him to Boise no matter what."

With the understatement typical of WWII veterans, Ted Reilmann said that the war "wasn't anything you wanted to talk about. It wasn't enjoyable."

Ted Reilmann listens to a fellow veteran during the convention Friday. It was the first time Reilmann could attend and a chance to see some of his old friends. 

Those who do talk about it more than confirmed that the Japanese expected to take Wake Island in a matter of hours, but the Marines and MK workers held them off for two weeks. Many of them died.

"Their bombers came out of the clouds and bombed our runway," said Ivan Carden of Lodi, Calif. "A lot of guys were on the runway when it happened. I ran out to help, but it was too late. They just slaughtered our guys."

Lloyd Nelson of Roseburg, Ore., manned an enemy-spotting searchlight on the beach.

"It turned out to be the most dangerous job I had. The light was a target. I was lucky. The Marine I was working with was killed with a bayonet," he said.

Goicoechea survived a bomb attack that broke bones in his head and face. It took 10 years of paperwork and bureaucratic stonewalling, but Friday night he received a Purple Heart for it — 62 years late.

Wake Island fell on Dec. 23, 1941. The Americans who defended it against an overwhelming force spent almost four years as prisoners of war in China and Japan. They are quick to say that those who weren't there can never know how bad it was. They were used as slave laborers, beaten, tortured, starved.

"Mark Stanton refused to eat because the food was so horrible," Carden said. "He lasted about a month."

"For days, the only thing we got to eat was rancid whale blubber," Nelson added.

"I went in at 194 pounds and came out at 105."

They had their first convention in Boise the year the war ended. They were just kids then, many of them movie-star handsome. The faded photos in their wallets prove it.

Now they're old men "still breathing," as Goicoechea put it, "but maybe not for much longer."

Theirs was the second reunion of aging gentlemen I attended in as many weeks. The first was for the Idaho National Guard's 116th Engineers Battalion, activated for "one year" late in 1940. Pearl Harbor extended that for the balance of the war plus six months. They spent five years in combat in the Pacific.

Then there were 144 of them. Now, there are fewer than 20.

They've been called the greatest generation, and who are the rest of us to argue? They suffered in ways we can't imagine, and not only did they not complain but didn't think it was worth bringing up.

The numbers pointedly remind us that they also make up a vanishing generation. The next time you see one of them, thank him for what he did. Every last one is a hero, and we don't thank our heroes enough.