Originally published Feb. 28, 1995, in Cavalcade: The Homefront.
For a good part of World War II, the folks on the home front believed Fred Schafer was dead.
Schafer worked for Morrison-Knudsen building a military base on Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean. The island was the halfway point for air traffic flying from Hawaii to the Far East.
The island was attacked at the same time the Japanese assaulted Pearl Harbor — Dec. 7, 1941.
Many were killed — including Schafer — according to a casualty list that was shipped out to
the States on a ship.
The State Department sent a letter to his next of kin in Nampa. Schafer’s death notice was published. A memorial service held. His family and friends grieved.
Meanwhile, Schafer was held as a prisoner of war. With other Wake Island survivors, he was shipped to a camp in China and then relocated several times.
Later, he was taken to Japan where he worked in shipyards and at other jobs.
During their captivity, prisoners tried to get messages to their families to let them know they were alive. Schafer wasn’t successful until Japan surrendered.
When the war ended, Schafer and other survivors participated in a recording. That recording was heard by a friend, who told the family that Schafer was indeed alive.
His family was cautiously optimistic.
The report was confirmed in a newspaper story and when news of a ship with Wake survivors was coming to San Francisco, his mother went to California to find him.
The ship never docked to release its passengers at the port city. Instead, it was diverted to Washington.
In Seattle, Schafer was put in immigrant holding because he had no identification papers. His mother, however, was able to track him down and convinced a judge to release him without proper papers.
They returned home.
For the ex-prisoner his hometown seemed unchanged on the surface — same streets, businesses and farms.
But Nampa had changed.
“All the people weren’t here anymore. They’d all gone to war. Some of them hadn’t come home yet. A few that you knew were still here,” he said. “You had to make new friends.”
City residents also enjoyed a new found wealth.
“The most amazing thing that really struck me, when I got home was the kids in the ice cream shop all had 20 dollar bills.”
“It was amazing to know that things did step up when I was gone,” he said.
Schafer also had changed. “I didn’t even talk to people when I got back,” he said. “It was something I just didn’t want to talk about.”
He did eventually talk about his experiences.
“I can tell you the night it all happened ... I was at my (future) father-in-laws place... We were playing cards. I’ll never forget that night.
“He finally pecked away and pecked away. We were standing there ’til right around 12 o’clock and I told him quite a bit about what happened.”