Enclosed in the thank-you note from Francis "Pete" Reynnet was a photo of a pen propped up against Reynnet's military medals from his service in World War II.

But it wasn't just any pen.

Handcrafted by sophomore Riley Swift, the cherry wood writing implement was one of 21 pens handmade by Analy High School woodshop students and given to veterans of the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, a group of about 2,500 mostly Navy sailors who worked in occupied China before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in World War II.

"It was just a little pen that I made, ranking up there with his war medals that he got. It was really, really great," Swift said of the photo Reynnet sent along with his words of thanks.

The gifting of the handcrafted pens came about through Judy Barbieri of Santa Rosa whose father, the late John McAfee, served in the SACO project as a naval storekeeper. He never attended the annual reunions that SACO veterans have been organizing for nearly six decades, but Barbieri began attending to get a better sense of what her father went through during the war.

"It was such a part of my father's history," she said. "They are all like dads to me. They are just wonderful men."

Barbieri served as the SACO alumni group's president last year and organized a reunion in Sonoma County. This summer, the group went to Indianapolis where they were presented with the Analy students' pens.

"I was a little surprised," the 87-year-old Reynnet said. "I really appreciated it. To remember an old guy from 60 years ago."

"It's really a nice piece of work," said Ken Brown, 89, of Laramie, Wyo.

Sophomore Jordan Padilla said it was a meaningful project.

"I thought it was really a great gift," he said. "It was something like a token of our appreciation that we could give to them for what they did."

The SACO sailors and Marines worked largely in areas of China occupied by the Japanese and were taking orders from a joint Chinese-U.S. command.

"The purpose of the group was to gather intelligence and train Chinese troops in guerrilla warfare and more or less to cause trouble for the Japanese," Brown said. "Our group, we would gather intelligence on troop movements, shipping and all kinds of information and we would pass the information on to the Pacific fleet and the 14th Air Force so they could bomb their shipments."

Chinese and Taiwanese officials typically attend the annual SACO reunion and exchange gifts, Brown said.

"They really appreciate us because the SACO group and the 14th Air Force did more to help China than anybody," Brown said.

When they were discharged, they were sworn to secrecy about the operation. That order was lifted in the mid-1970s but even today Reynnet is not eager to give too many details about the work done by the group.

"There were a lot of reasons (for the secrecy) but I won't go into that," he said.

For Analy woodshop teacher Joe Maloney, the project provided an opportunity for an unexpected history lesson.

"It was something to get these students to start thinking outside the classroom," he said. "It was a project that really pulled students out of their selves and seeing what young men were called to do when the nation really needed them."

The thank you letters from the veterans were moving, he said.

"It was really touching," he said. "I'm going to try to keep reading them in class."

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)