Alamo of the Pacific, Part II

Wake Island Prisoners of World War II

—By James W. Wensyel

Early on the morning of December 8, 1941[1], Wake Island hummed with activity. For months, the wishbone-shaped Pacific atoll of three small islands–Wake, Wilkes and Peale–less than 10 miles long and barely above sea level, had been the site of construction work. Working feverishly to complete an airstrip and defensive fortifications were 449 U.S. Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion, commanded by Major James P.S. Devereux; Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-211, equipped with 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats, led by Major Paul A. Putnam; 71 Naval personnel; a five-man Army radio detachment, commanded by Captain Henry S. Wilson; and 1,146 American civilian construction workers of the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases Company, managed by Dan Teters –all under the overall command of Commander Winfield S. Cunningham.

War with Japan was imminent, and an airstrip on Wake, about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, would allow American heavy bombers to strike the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. And, if Guam were lost to the Japanese, Wake would be one of the closest American outposts to the Japanese mainland. Each day work began early and finished late. There were no other diversions on the tiny, barren atoll, and the defenders all realized that war could begin at any time.

Around 7 o’clock that morning an Army radio technician on Wake picked up a radio alert from Hawaii: ‘Hickam Field has been attacked by Jap dive bombers. This is the real thing.’ Devereux shouted for his bugler, Alvin J. Waronker, and soon the clear notes of ‘General Quarters’ sounded across the atoll.

At 8:50[2] the Marines raised the American flag on its staff, something Marines did every morning all over the world, and Waronker began to sound ‘To the Colors.’ In the past he had had trouble with the bugle call, never getting it quite right, but this time he did not miss a note, and for several minutes all activity stopped as each man stood at attention and saluted the flag. Devereux recalled: ‘The flag went up, and every note was proud and clear. It made a man’s throat tighten just to hear it.’ Not long after the flag raising, 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 Nell bombers crossed Wake in three V-formations. Soon their fragmentation bombs, accompanied by a steady drumming of machine-gun fire, tore the island to pieces. For Wake’s defenders, the war had begun.

Japanese land-based aircraft from Roi in the Marshalls, later joined by aircraft from approaching Japanese carriers, pounded the atoll day after day. Before each attack, a dwindling number of American Wildcat fighters rose to meet them. At 3 a.m. on December 11, a Japanese invasion task force commanded by Rear Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka, consisting of a light cruiser, six destroyers, two troop carriers and two armed merchantmen, confidently approached Wake’s beaches. Marine gunners let them close to 4,500 yards before their 5-inch naval guns opened fire. Their patience was rewarded with the sinking of one Japanese destroyer and damaging of the cruiser and three additional destroyers. Kajioka retreated, now knowing that Wake would not be taken without a fight.

By the 21st, the last of the Wildcats had been destroyed in dogfights over the atoll. With nothing left to fly, Putnam’s aviators were assigned duty as riflemen. Japanese airplanes now roamed over the island at will, pounding American positions in preparation for a renewed attempt to seize the atoll.

In the dark, rain-swept early morning hours of December 23rd, Kajioka returned, his fleet bolstered by four heavy cruisers and various other warships, including landing craft, to assault Wake’s beaches with more than 900 well-trained infantrymen of the Special Naval Landing Force. At 2:35 a.m., the first Japanese landing barge ground ashore. Soon a desperate battle was being fought across the atoll between groups of men fighting with rifles, bayonets, grenades and fists. The Americans fought hard, but more Japanese landed and pushed them toward the island’s center. Teters’ civilian construction workers, many of whom had manned anti-aircraft guns earlier in the fight, now took up rifles and grenades to fight beside the American servicemen.

At dawn, Devereux and Cunningham, separated but talking over the single phone line between the islands, took stock of the situation. The American flag still flew from a battered water tower, the highest point on Wake, but Japanese flags fluttered everywhere else. Reports from the three islands were discouraging; there were simply too many Japanese and too few Americans. Cunningham radioed Pearl Harbor: ‘Enemy on island. Issue in doubt.’

Meanwhile, enemy planes continued bombing and strafing while Japanese ships, beyond the range of the few remaining shore batteries, shelled pockets of American resistance. Devereux, unable to contact his remaining strongpoints, had no idea what was happening a few yards beyond his own command post. Later he would reflect: ‘I tried to think of something …we might do to keep going, but there wasn’t anything …We could keep on expending lives, but we could not buy anything with them.’

Cunningham, as the ranking officer, made the inevitable decision to surrender. The naval commander phoned Devereux to tell him the depressing news. The major gulped, then quietly agreed, ‘I’ll pass the word.’

Devereux and Sergeant Donald R. Malleck, who carried a white cloth tied to a mop handle, then walked across the island, ordering surviving Americans to lay down their weapons. Stunned defenders threw away rifle bolts, destroyed delicate range-finding instruments, drained hydraulic fluid from recoil cylinders and then surrendered. Eighty-one Marines, eight sailors and 82 civilian construction workers had been killed or wounded.

The Japanese, however, paid a heavy price for their victory. The fight for Wake Island had cost them two destroyers and one submarine sunk, seven additional ships damaged, 21 aircraft shot down and almost 1,000 men killed.

Enraged by their losses, the Japanese treated their prisoners —military and civilian— brutally.  Some were stripped naked, others to their underwear.  Most had their hands tied behind their backs with telephone wire, with a second wire looped tightly from their necks to their wrists so that if they lowered their arms, they would strangle themselves. Personal valuables were taken, and wounds ignored.

The prisoners were then jammed into two suffocating concrete ammunition bunkers. Later they were herded to the airstrip and made to sit, naked, on the blistering hot concrete. When the Japanese set up machine guns nearby, most of the prisoners expected to be executed. That night, bone-chilling winds replaced the heat. The prisoners sat there, still waiting for food, water or medical treatment. The unfortunate prisoners remained sitting on the airstrip for two days. Finally, they were given food, much of it spoiled by the heat, and water, contaminated from being placed in unclean gasoline drums. Piles of assorted clothing seized earlier were placed before them; an individual had little chance of finding his original clothing. Marines found themselves in civilian dress, civilian workers in Marine khaki. Private First Class Carl Stegman, Jr., was dressed in a bloodstained shirt, ill-fitting Marine trousers and a pair of sneakers.  Lieutenant John Manning would begin his captivity in a pair of Marine trousers and two oversized, hip-length rubber work boots.

After returning his prisoners’ clothes, Kajioka, resplendent in white dress uniform and gleaming samurai sword, read a proclamation to the assembled prisoners. When he concluded, a Japanese interpreter informed the Americans that “the Emperor has graciously presented you with your lives.”  To which a resolute Marine croaked, “Well, thank the son of a bitch for me!”

During the next 10 days the prisoners were given small amounts of food taken from the remaining stores on the island. They cared for their own wounded with whatever supplies they could obtain.

On January 11, 1942, Kajioka informed the prisoners that they would soon be transferred. This was alarming news because although they had been poorly treated by their captors, both sides had come to some accommodation with one another. Now all that would change.

The next day most of the prisoners were taken to the merchant ship Nitta Maru.  Before boarding, however, they were forced to run a gantlet of cursing and spitting Japanese sailors who struck them with clubs, fists and heavy belts. Crowded into the ship’s hold, they next confronted a Japanese officer who shouted the rules that would govern them.

Thousands of miles from home, crammed into Nitta Maru‘s dimly lit hold, with several buckets for toilets, no heat or ventilation and confronted by brutal guards, the prisoners’ future was bleak. Even so, they were luckier than the 380 prisoners the Japanese kept on Wake to rebuild the island’s defenses. Those unfortunates would slave away until October 1943, when, in retaliation for the strikes on the island by a U.S. Navy task force and fearful of an Allied invasion, the Japanese garrison murdered them all.

It took Nitta Maru six days to reach Yokohama, Japan. During that time the prisoners never left the ship’s hold and were given only tiny amounts of food.  Not understanding Japanese was no excuse for prisoners who failed to instantly obey their captors’ shouted orders. Beatings were commonplace.  In one instance a Japanese guard thought he saw PFC Herman Todd talking without permission.  The private was ordered to jump up and grab an overhanging beam. As Todd hung suspended above the deck, a Japanese bayonet was thrust at his stomach while a Japanese petty officer beat him with a pick handle.

Once they had reached Yokohama, eight American officers and 12 enlisted men were sent to a prison camp in Japan while the remainder of the men continued on to Shanghai, China.  On the voyage to China, Lieutenant Toshio Sato, commander of the Japanese guard detachment, selected five Americans, three seamen and two Marines, at random, blindfolded and bound them, and took them on deck. There, surrounded by 150 Japanese sailors, the Americans were made to kneel. Sato then read to the Americans in Japanese: “You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed … as representatives of American soldiers.”  The bewildered, frightened Americans understood none of his speech.  Perhaps it was just as well, for when Sato finished speaking the five unfortunates were beheaded.  Their bodies were then used for bayonet practice before being thrown overboard.

After landing at Woosung the prisoners were forced to march five miles to what the Japanese called the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp —seven gray, ramshackle single-story buildings with no fresh water or plumbing and limited electricity. To deter escape, the camp was surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences and four constantly manned guard towers.

The prisoners were housed in large, open rooms called sections. Within each section 36 men slept shoulder to shoulder on wooden pallets. Although the temperature seldom exceeded 20 degrees, most of the men wore ragged garments and many had no shoes. There was no heat. In the cold, crowded rooms disease spread quickly. Enforcement of prison rules was simple —if any man in a section misbehaved, all were punished.

At Woosung the Japanese commissary routinely issued food for only 300 prisoners. Rations provided only about 500-600 calories per man per day.  Each of the Wake prisoners would lose at least 60 pounds during his captivity at the prison.

The Americans would never forget Woosung.  The bleak loneliness, bitter cold winds whistling through their flimsy huts, wormy stone-studded rice and dawn-to-dusk work made a lasting impression.  The excesses of the Japanese guards only added to their misery. Although a few of them adopted a live-and-let-live attitude toward the Americans, most of the guards were brutal.

The worst of the Japanese at Woosung was Isamu Isihara, a civilian interpreter who enjoyed beating the helpless Americans.  Although he was a civilian who had once driven a taxi in Honolulu, Isihara wore a samurai sword and insisted that the prisoners treat him as an officer.  Without reason or warning he would fly into a rage, and the prisoners dubbed him the ‘Beast of the East.’

Sergeant Bernard O. Ketner later recalled: “I was severely beaten by Isihara. He struck me four times … with a saber.  Later … the sentry held a bayonet against my abdomen [while] they beat me with their fists … I was kicked in the testicles twice.  Isihara spit in my face and called me a white American son of a bitch.  I was then thrown into the brig for four days, two of which I was given no food.”

When the former British governor general of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, refused to salute him, Isihara tried to behead Young with his sword.  Finally, Japanese military officers took the sword away. Instead, Isihara resorted to a leather riding crop with a leaded handle that could be used as a blackjack.

Commanding the Woosung prison camp was Colonel Goichi Yasue, notorious for his violent and unpredictable temper.  He organized the prisoners into 10-man’shooting squads,’ explaining that if “one-man escapes, the other nine die.”

Yasue, whom the Marines called ‘Useless,’ died in March 1942, and was replaced by Colonel Satoshi Otera, dubbed ‘Handlebar Hank’ by the Marines for his moustache. Otera, more concerned with his personal comforts than with his duties, could also be very harsh. In one instance he discovered a hole in a 100-pound bag of sugar and in retaliation denied all of his prisoners food for 72 hours.

The Japanese captors’ attitude toward their prisoners was based on Bushido, the code of the samurai warrior. Bushido taught blind loyalty to the emperor and a disregard for death. A soldier should die before surrendering. Those who surrendered to the enemy surrendered everything, even their lives. Thus, the prisoner became the slave of his captor, to be spared or killed as the captor wished.  As an interrogator explained to the prisoners, “You gave up everything when you surrendered. You do not even own the air that is in your bodies—you are the slaves of the Japanese.”

At Woosung life became a war of wills.  Devereux recalled: “The main objective of the Japanese … was to break our spirit, and on our side was a stubborn determination to keep our self-respect whatever else they took from us.  That struggle was almost as much a part of the war as was the battle we fought on Wake Island.”

Colonel William H. Ashurst, Commander of the Marine Detachment captured at the U.S. Legation at Tientsin, his executive officer, Major Luther A. Brown, and Devereux ensured that their fellow Marines would never succumb to their captors.  Ashurst and Brown, using Brown’s battered copy of the Army field manual, The Rules for Land Warfare, repeatedly confronted Japanese officers with their violations of the Geneva Convention of 1929, prescribing proper treatment of prisoners of war.

Devereux insisted on the same military discipline found at a stateside Marine base. He also insisted that the Marines exercise every day, despite their weakening bodies. Some hated him for maintaining such practices, but later, when they saw that they were winning the mental battle with their captors, most respected him for leading the way.

Despite the terrible conditions inflicted on them, American prisoners saluted their officers, maintained their chain of command, and walked with pride and dignity. They held their own religious services and, using fellow prisoners as instructors, began a series of classes —including history, English, photography, beekeeping and navigation.  They leveled a field for softball and soccer and began a vegetable garden.

Occasionally they scored small victories against their captors that encouraged them to fight on.  Put to work repairing roads, the prisoners instead widened or deepened potholes or loose-packed the dirt so the holes would soon get worse. Assigned to clean weapons, they polished the metal until it was too thin to be safely fired, lost parts, hid bearings, loosened bolts or substituted incorrect parts.

Survival was never easy.  Soon after their arrival at Woosung, the prisoners began to die of illness, untreated battle wounds and malnutrition.  Others died more violently. In June 1942, a young Japanese sentry playfully pulled the trigger of his rifle, and Lonnie Riddle, a civilian construction worker, fell dead at his feet.  Two months later Seaman Roy K. Hodgkins was electrocuted while trying to recover a softball from beneath an electrified fence.  Later, Marine Corporal Carroll W. Boncher died when he accidentally fell against the same fence.

After nearly a year at Woosung, the Americans were moved to another prison camp at Kiang Wang.  By now they were hardened to days with little or no food, brutal guards and backbreaking work, but it all became even worse upon their arrival at Kiang Wang, which Devereux called “the worst hellhole in our captivity.”

At Kiang Wang, Japanese engineers ordered the Americans to build what they described as a playground complex for Japanese children.  The prisoners were forced to engage in a year-and-a-half’s labor to complete the complex, which they called the “Mount Fuji Project.”  Divided into six-man work teams, the prisoners first cleared an area 600 feet long by 200 feet wide, all by hand. Each team had a few crude spades and perhaps a mattock.  They were forced to remove the soil in large woven baskets slung on their backs.

When they had cleared the large area, they began to build an earthen mound 45 feet high, a miniature Mount Fujiyama.  As it grew, the prisoners laid a narrow-gauge railroad track up its slope.  Then they pushed small mine cars, loaded with dirt and stone, to its summit.

When American officers realized that the ‘children’s playground’ really was to be a large rifle range for the Japanese army, they protested, citing Article 31 of the Geneva Convention forbidding prisoners of war to work on military projects.  Otera, however, dismissed their complaint with a sharp retort, “Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention.”

By the summer of 1943, as a result of their sparse prison diet and 12-hour workdays, the prisoners were living skeletons, plagued by dysentery, tuberculosis, pellagra, influenza and malaria.  Month after month of hunger, cold, pain, bone-weary fatigue, loneliness and despair were severely trying the prisoners.  Despite the privation, there was only one rule –survive.

Many prisoners remembered that only the occasional delivery of packages of food, medicine and clothing from home, and the personal, and dangerous, intervention of two men saved their lives.

Loved ones heard little from the prisoners but continued sending them packages and letters.  Most mail got as far as the prison camp but never reached the intended recipient.  Japanese guards pilfered the packages or kept them in supply rooms for months before delivering them to the prisoners.  By September 1943, an estimated 1,000-1,500 pieces of mail had reached the prison camp, but only 719 of them had been given to the prisoners.  Christmas mail arrived on December 23, 1943 but was not delivered until April 12, 1944.  Mail that did reach the men, however, kept them apprised of the war’s progress.  Although Japanese censors read each letter and would not deliver obvious reports of Allied victories, some cleverly disguised messages slipped through.  In one case, the prisoners learned of the American victory at Midway Island. ‘Uncle Joe and Uncle Sam met at the halfway house and had one hell of a fight.  Uncle Sam won,’ read the letter.

Critical to the Americans’ survival was the intervention of Edouard Egle, a Swiss representative of the International Red Cross.  Because they saw their Shanghai War Prisoner Camp as a model for the world, the Japanese allowed Egle far greater access to the American prisoners there than other camps.  Egle was a very competent, compassionate man.  Between 1942 and 1945, he constantly risked Japanese retaliation by insisting upon providing medical and dental help for the prisoners and by supplying them with food and medical packets.  Although Japanese guards looted the packets, enough got through to help the Americans survive.

Egle also provided clothing for the ragged prisoners (critical during the bitter-cold winter months), some heating stoves, books, seeds and livestock for the prisoners’ farm.  Learning that four American doctor-prisoners, aided by a kindly Chinese doctor, had set up a small hospital in the prison compound and were performing surgery with razor blades, closing incisions with common thread or fishing line, and treating dysentery with grains of burnt rice scraped from cooking pots, he provided them with medical instruments and other desperately needed supplies and equipment.

In March 1944, with the prisoners’ situation desperate, Egle personally delivered six food parcels and a pair of coveralls, a cap and a pair of boots to each prisoner.  For some of the men it was their first change of clothing in two years.

The prisoners also remembered the kindness of an American civilian, ‘Shanghai Jimmy’ James, a Minnesotan who, at the outbreak of the war, owned four American-style restaurants in Shanghai that the Japanese somehow allowed to continue operating for some time.  At Christmas 1942, Shanghai Jimmy provided a Christmas tree with trimmings, cigars, cigarettes and a hot turkey dinner for the Woosung prisoners, a tremendous boost to both health and morale.  He continued to send food, medicine and other help to the prisoners until he, too, was interned in the prison camp.

In the spring of 1945, the Americans’ lot improved.  The prisoners received a shipment of food and medical packets, and the Mount Fuji Project finally ended.  More important, their captors saw that the war was winding down.  The Allies’ drive across the Pacific was nearing Japan, and American warplanes had begun bombing Shanghai. The Japanese now knew that the war would soon end, and the Allies would be the victors.  The guards now made the occasional friendly gesture to their prisoners.

Japanese frustration at the course of the war and at the prisoners’ continuing resistance, however, still made life hazardous and uncertain. The Kiang Wang prison was located between two military airfields.  American airstrikes against these facilities endangered their countrymen.  Sometimes Japanese guards, angered at the bombing, took out their frustration on the prisoners.  On January 20, 1945, for example, when prisoners cheered U.S. North American P-51 fighter planes shooting down a Japanese plane, furious guards bayoneted three of them[3].

While listening to a clandestine radio, the prisoners learned that the Allies were nearing Japan. Then Boeing B-29s, en route to bomb Japanese installations around Shanghai, appeared overhead.  On another occasion, American fighter planes buzzed the prison compound, so low that the prisoners reveled in the pilots’ waves of encouragement.  The Americans were getting too close for the Japanese, who were not about to release the Kiang Wang prisoners. On May 9, 1945, they loaded them aboard a train for a five-day trip to Fengtai, eight miles southwest of Peking. During the long train trip from Kiang Wang to Fengtai the only successful escape occurred. Five Americans —two Marines captured from the legation at Tientsin, two Wake Island Marines and one Marine pilot— jumped from the prison train.  Finally found by Chinese Communist troops, they walked for 42 days through more than 700 miles of occupied China before reaching friendly territory and freedom.

The Fengtai prison, a large brick warehouse surrounded by a moat, barbed wire and guard towers, held more than 1,000 prisoners in an area 200 yards long by 146 yards wide. Prisoners slept on Fengtai’s hard concrete floor and used a single spigot for water.

Fortunately, the Americans’ stay in Fengtai was brief.  On June 19, they again were crowded into boxcars for another hard ride, this one to Pusan, Korea, where they were held in shacks, stables and warehouses until a ship could be found to carry them across the Tsushima Strait to Japan.

At dusk on June 28, the prisoners boarded a small coastal steamer for the hazardous 12-hour trip across the strait to Shimonoseki, on the southwestern tip of Honshu.  At Shimonoseki they were crowded into another train.

Seeing the mass destruction American bombers were wreaking everywhere on the Japanese homeland while riding on the train, one Marine exclaimed, ‘I never saw such destruction in all my life.’  They were in Osaka during a B-29 raid and, while changing trains in Tokyo, narrowly escaped death or injury when an angry civilian mob attacked them as their Japanese guards looked the other way.

At Osaka some of the prisoners were diverted to a prison camp at Sendai.  Most of them, however, continued to the northern tip of Honshu, where they were ferried across narrow Tsugaru Strait to Hakodate, site of the group’s final prison.

Hakodate’s guards were brutal.  A Marine recalled: ‘The Japanese required every prisoner to stand up and bow or salute every member of the guard whenever they passed by.  If the prisoner was … slow … the guards beat him.  Prisoners were beaten because they could not understand the Japanese language….’

Most of the prisoners worked 12-hour shifts in a coal mine; others worked in a lumberyard.  Some Marine prisoners labored in an iron mine seven days a week, with a daily ration of three small bowls of rice and soybeans or a small teacup of soup made from weeds.  Civilian foremen beat prisoners to encourage better production or, it seemed to the Americans, for the fun of it.  In one instance, three Japanese civilians were beating Marine Sergeant Bernard H. Manning when PFC Norman H. Kaz interfered. Japanese guards then beat Kaz senseless before tying him to a pit timber at the bottom of the mine shaft.  Then, for two weeks he was beaten every day, emerging with a pair of black eyes, a broken nose and several teeth knocked out.

After they had been at Hakodate for several weeks, however, the Americans noticed that the attitudes of their guards and civilian supervisors changed. The brutal interrogations and beatings ended, prisoners were fed a bit better, and their captors even began to smile cordially at them. One day a Japanese guard explained to one of the prisoners, “Very soon we will all be friends again.”

In late July 1945, Japanese officers treated American officers to a formal dinner at which they offered many toasts to their guests, bowed often and professed friendship with the Americans.  Finally, a senior Japanese officer stood and proposed a toast to “everlasting friendship between America and Japan.”  The other Japanese smiled, nodded and waited for an appropriate response from the Marines.

The American officers sat quietly for a long moment, the gaunt, haggard men looking uncertainly at each other. Then, Major Luther A. Brown, for so long a thorn in his captors’ side, stood, looked about and said matter-of-factly, “If you behave yourselves, you’ll get fair treatment.”

There were other encouraging signs.  On August 15 a mine official suggested that Leonard Mettscher work in another part of the mine because it would be “less dangerous there.”  And on the same day, the prisoners’ work ended early, an unprecedented gesture.  From scraps of a Japanese newspaper they also learned that the Soviet Union had entered the war, attacking Japanese-held Manchuria.

The next day the prisoners woke to find their prison unguarded. Fearful of reprisals by local civilians, the Americans stayed inside the camp.  Later that day, Japanese boy-soldiers, so small that the tips of their bayonets stood high above their heads, appeared at the camp’s perimeter, apparently more intent on protecting the prisoners from civilian assault than in preventing their escape.  That night the prisoners’ rations were increased.

On the 17th they learned about the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  On the 23rd several Marines scaled the prison’s fence and ventured around the nearby village.  Seeing them, young Japanese guards begged them to return to the safety of the camp. The following morning, a Japanese army colonel assembled the prisoners to announce that Japan had surrendered to prevent further bloodshed.

The prisoners now decided to wait for the U.S. Army’s arrival rather than wander around the countryside of a defeated nation.  On August 28 and 30, B-29s parachute-dropped 55-gallon drums crammed with food, medicine and clothing to the war-weary prisoners, a sure sign that their rescue was near.  Many of the men, so long deprived of adequate food, became sick from the feast that followed.

On September 1, Hakodate’s prisoners used colorful cargo chutes to fashion an American flag and, using a Japanese bugle, for the first time in three years, nine months and 21 days Marines sounded ‘To the Colors’ as they hoisted their makeshift flag above the prison camp.  Cautiously, more adventuresome Americans now began to explore the area outside their prison.  On September 9, during the last airdrop of clothing and provisions, a parachute bearing a fuel drum packed with supplies malfunctioned, killing a Marine and two Army prisoners.  They were the last Wake Island prisoner casualties of the war.

Several days after these final tragic deaths, troopers from the 1st Cavalry Division reached Hakodate. For the prisoners there the long war was at last over.

This article was written by James W. Wensyel and originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of World War II magazine.  For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine!

Endnotes:

[1] Date/Time variation is accounted for by the International Dateline.

[2] Colors are raised each morning at 0800, without variation.

[3] It is certain that had the situation been reversed, the Americans would have done the same.

Alamo of the Pacific, Part I

Some Background

wake-islandWake Island is so small, it was probably one of those statistical anomalies that Alvaro de Mendana ever found it in 1586.  As was the custom back then, Mendana claimed the island for Spain, and may have even planted a flag —but since no one lived on the island, it was probably a ho-hum moment.  I imagine the ship’s crew was disappointed, too.  Then, in 1796, England’s Samuel Wake, of the merchantman William Henry, stumbled upon the atoll and named it after himself.  Again, owing to the absence of humankind, no one’s feelings were hurt.  Then on 20 December 1840, USS Vincennes brought the explorer Charles Wilkes and the naturalist Titian Peale to the atoll where they conducted a series of surveys and lent their names to the other two islands of the atoll (now consisting of Wake, Wilkes, and Peale).

Wake Island (a US unorganized territory) (something it has in common with Washington, D. C.) is one of the most isolated places in the world.  Discounting Air Force/Space Force personnel stationed at Wake Island, the nearest human population to Wake Island is in the Marshall Islands, 592 miles away.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, an American troop ship bound for the Philippines stopped at Wake, and because Major General Francis V. Greene regarded Wake Island as a war trophy, hoisted the Stars and Stripes over the island and proclaimed it a territory of the United States.   At the Treaty of Paris (ended the Spanish-American War) Spain relinquished all claims of sovereignty over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, all islands in the West Indies, and all islands within approximately 116 degrees of latitude and 127 degrees longitude east near and including the Philippine archipelago.

The treaty was amended at the Treaty of Washington three years later adding several additional islands located southwest of the island chain of Palawan that had been omitted from the original treaty; no other specific islands or locations of any kind were included —and since Wake Island did not fall within the boundaries of either treaty, it technically remains within the auspices of the Spanish crown.  Nevertheless, possession being nine-tenths of the law, the United States retains possession of the Wake Island atoll.

Advanced Bases

Commercial shipping after 1850 became increasingly dependent on coal-fired ships.  Twenty years later sailing ships were becoming a thing of the past.  The consequences of coal-fired ships is quite extraordinary.  There would be no commercial advantage to coal-fired ships if there were no dependable coaling stations at strategic locations throughout the world.  Without coaling stations in the Pacific Rim, the United States would not have been able to compete with other western nations for a share of Asian trade.  The economic advantages of coaling stations thus becomes self-evident.

The actual location of these coaling stations (no doubt in consultation with the US government) was a decision left in the hands of the shipping companies, and this too makes perfect sense.  Shipping companies, after all, determine their own shipping routes, in turn governed by trade relationships.  Commercial interests could lease land for coaling stations, but they could not guarantee the security of the stations, coal, employees, or ships.  Only governments can do that … through treaties enforced by navies, of course.  It was this situation that led the United States to its interests in the Pacific Rim.

Over time, an international naval presence prompted occasional uprisings by local natives, some of which were provoked by competing nations (Germany, for example).  In any case, coaling stations morphed into advanced base structures.  Protecting America’s advanced bases became a focus of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps.  Marine security forces (initially as Marine Barracks) eventually evolved into Marine Defense Battalions of the Fleet Marine Forces, which included coastal artillery.

Modern academics, particularly those in liberal colleges and universities, tell us that American Imperialism is a shameful thing because it involves policies aimed at extending political, economic, and cultural influence over areas beyond its boundaries.  The argument is simplistic.  Every nation seeks to influence areas beyond their borders and do so in a myriad of ways: military conquest, gunboat diplomacy, negotiating treaties most favorable to themselves, economic penetration, and intervention when necessary to protect their interests and investments.  No matter what the academics say, imperialism is not a uniquely American idea.  Global trade is the fuel of the world economy and has been for several hundred years and it is natural to seek trade relationships favorable to one’s own country.  In defense of America’s global trade policies (going back in time, of course), European and Asian nations were happy to parcel up large sections of China for their own purposes; the United States was alone in arguing for an “Open Door” approach, which recognized Chinese sovereignty and sought to protect its administrative integrity.  Protecting US advanced bases wasn’t so much an example of imperialism as it was common sense.

In the 1930s, the development of aircraft capable of flying across the Pacific Ocean produced a similar set of circumstances for the United States.  Lacking the ability to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean, commercial aircraft companies considered mid-Pacific coaling stations as one solution to their refueling problem, and it made sense that these (mostly) island locations could also provide mechanical repair services and offer some respite to passengers and crew. 

Japanese Interests in the Pacific

Anyone who can argue with a straight face that the Japanese mounted a sneak attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii is simply unaware of the history of America’s advanced bases in the Pacific.  Let’s look at it.

During the First World War (1914-18), Japan participated as an ally of the Entente Powers[1] and played an important role in securing the sea lanes in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans from Imperial Germany’s naval domination.  Taking advantage of Germany’s preoccupation with the European war, Japan seized German possessions in the Pacific and in East Asia.  Japan accomplished this without a large-scale mobilization of its military and naval forces (this would occur later, in the 1920s).  The story of Japanese preeminence in the Pacific is a long one, and somewhat complicated, but it is enough to note here that Japan used World War I as a springboard for expanding its sphere of influence throughout the Pacific, in China, and in Southeast Asia.

In the early 1920s, particularly after observing the comportment of Japanese diplomats at the Washington and London Naval Conferences, American strategists correctly predicted Japanese behavior over the next two decades.  From 1933-40, Japan became a threat to the peace and stability of the entire Pacific rim.  America’s isolated advanced base structure was jeopardized by Japanese militarism.

In January 1941, the United States began construction of submarine and aviation facilities on Wake Island, which lies some 2,400 miles west of Honolulu, Hawaii.  Designated U. S. Naval Activity Wake, the atoll became an American outpost from which Navy and Marine Corps aircraft could patrol the likely approaches to the US territory of Hawaii.  Ultimately, as history teaches us, Wake Island protected nothing at all.  The Pacific Ocean is vast.  Wake Island is very small.  Navy and Marine Corps aircraft were limited in their fuel range.

Summary of the Battle

Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack and the Battle for Wake Island were simultaneous operations.  For Hawaii, the battle was over in a few hours.  At Wake Island, the battle raged for sixteen days.  At 0800 on 7 December 1941, the Marines raised the American flag over Wake Island.  It is something Marines do every morning.  Fifty minutes later, 36 Japanese bombers on their way to Pearl Harbor pummeled the Island’s facilities.

The Japanese returned to Wake in force on 11 December 1941, meeting for the first time the spirited resolve of the American people and their military.  The battle, when joined, involved 499 Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion and VMF-211 Detachment (12 pilots, 38 enlisted mechanics), 71 sailors of the Naval Activity Wake, and 6 soldiers.  The island also contained 1,146 civilian construction workers.  In terms of armaments, the Marines manned six coastal artillery pieces, 12 anti-aircraft guns, and 12 fighter/bomber aircraft.  Over the next 16 days, the Marines lost all of their aircraft in aerial combat, suffered 52 killed, 49 wounded, and 2 men missing in action.  Of the total contingent of military personnel, 433 became prisoners of war.  In addition to these military losses, 70 civilian workers were killed, and 1,104 were detained as prisoners of the Japanese.  180 civilians died while in captivity.

The Japanese invading force included two aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, eight destroyers, two patrol boats, two troop ships, one submarine tender, three submarines, and 2,500 Japanese infantry troops.  Japanese losses included two destroyers sunk, two patrol boats sunk, heavy damage to two troop ships, the loss of 30 aircraft, 484 troops killed in action, 125 wounded in action, and 2 missing in action.  Japan’s first invasion attempt had failed.

For the first few days, it seemed as if the Marines might successfully defend the island against the Japanese, but the Americans at Wake suffered Japan’s relentless aerial bombings and strafing.  An American naval relief force from Hawaii was considered, but after the devastating losses at Pearl Harbor, US high command finally decided that the Marines and sailors at Naval Activity Wake were on their own.  The US could simply not afford the loss of another capital war ship, and certainly not one of its few aircraft carriers.

When the second Japanese landing force arrived on 23 December, it overwhelmed Wake Island defenders.  The Marines kept up their stout defense for five hours, but the Naval Activity Commander, Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, decided that it would be prudent to surrender all hands.  In total, 1,616 Americans were taken prisoner and transported to Japan and China.  The Japanese retained nearly a hundred civilians on the island to perform labor.  On 5 October 1943, the Japanese marched these men to one side of the island and executed them with machine gun fire.  One civilian escaped and carved a memorial to his into a large rock, which read, “98 US PW 5-10-43.”  The message remains today.  Unfortunately, this escaped civilian was later recaptured and executed.

(Continued next week)

Endnotes:

[1] From the French word for friendship, understanding, or agreement, this was an alliance between the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and Great Britain; it formed a counterweight to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy during the same conflict.  Unlike the Triple Alliance, the Triple Entente did not provide an alliance of mutual defense.

Death Rattlers

VMFA 323 Patch 001Somewhere between the first and fifth of August 1943, three young lieutenants, naval aviators all, swooped down upon a somewhat large rattlesnake resting in the area adjacent to the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, captured it, and took it with them to their newly commissioned squadron ready room.  The well-fed snake measured about seven feet in length.  Few people understand why lieutenants do anything.  Observing the antics of a lieutenant, most people roll their eyes and think to themselves, “But for the grace of God …”

In this case, however, the lieutenants were on a mission.  It was to find a nickname for their recently commissioned aircraft squadron.  With all squadron pilots assembled, it was unanimously agreed that Marine Fighting Squadron 323 (VMF-323) would be henceforth known as the Death Rattlers.  Its patch and nickname continue to exist today, as of this writing, for 77-years.  In 1943, VMF-323 was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-32, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  The squadron’s first commanding officer was Major George C. Axtell, Jr[1].

VMF-323 began combat training almost immediately after its activation.  This squadron, as well as others being formulated, were desperately needed in the Pacific.  In September 1943, VMF-323 was transferred to one of the Air Station’s outlying fields, a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility at Oak Grove.  Its first aircraft was the Vought F4U-1 Corsair[2].  In 1943, VMF-323 was one of eight Marine Corps Corsair squadrons.

F4U Corsair USMC 002In January 1944, VMF-323 was transferred to El Centro, California and reassigned to Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group (MBDAG)-43.  In California, squadron pilots worked to master instrument flying, gunnery, bomber escort, overland navigation, dogfighting, section flight tactics, field carrier landings, and strafing.  Field carrier landing training was a prelude to actual carrier landing qualification training.  When this training period was concluded, VMF-323 moved to Camp Pendleton, California. For Major Axtell, training new officers was a never-ending task since no sooner had he molded his pilots into skilled aviators, they would be transferred to another squadron and Axtell would have to begin the task of bringing along a newer pilot.  Axtell, a qualified instrument pilot before taking command of the squadron, insisted that all of his pilots develop that skill set.  Axtell believed that instrument flying would build self-confidence in his pilots and prepare them for future battles—which proved prescient.

VMF-323’s first casualty occurred on 17 March 1944 when Second Lieutenant Robert M. Bartlett, Jr., crashed his aircraft two miles south of the airbase while on a routine night familiarization flight.  In April, VMF-323 took part in two large-scale joint service air interception exercises.  On 25 May Second Lieutenant John A. Freshour and his passenger, Lieutenant Commander James J. Bunner, USN were killed when their Douglas SBD (Dauntless) crashed into a power line near Camp Pendleton’s airfield.  That month, Axtell focused his pilots on the art and science of dive-bombing and forcing his pilots to avail themselves of an intelligence reading room and a classified material library.  Major Axtell, young as he was, was a task-maker because in addition to learning, practicing, and becoming proficient in aviation skills, he also demanded that his pilots attend aircraft recognition classes and lectures on a host of technical topics —including the geography of Palau’s Islands, Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, and other island areas these pilots could be assigned to.  A third pilot was lost when Second Lieutenant Glen B. Smith crashed at sea on a routine training flight.

On 7 September 1944, 30 pilots, 3 ground officers, 90 enlisted men, 24 aircraft, and repair parts boarded the USS Breton (CVE-23) as the squadron’s advanced element.  Its rear echelon of 20 officers, 167 enlisted men remained behind for further training.  VMF-323 would be assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.  Ten days later, the squadron catapulted the squadron to its destination at Emirau.  During takeoff, Second Lieutenant Gerald E. Baker crashed into the sea and was killed.  Upon arrival at Emirau, Axtell reported to the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing for duty.  For the next 30 days, VMF-323 conducted local flight training within a fifty-mile radius of the field.  Training included gunnery, dive-bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 24 October, Commander Task Group 59.6 ordered VMF-323 (Forward) to Espiritu Santo, a rear area supply base in the New Hebrides Islands.  On the same day, the Commanding General, FMFPac (Air) placed VMF-323 under his administrative control.

By 31 October, VMF-323 (Fwd) was fully located at Espiritu Santo and busily involved in setting up the squadron for air operations.  Between 9-28 November, the squadron participated in another round of familiarization flights, gun proficiency, bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 29 November, the squadron’s rear echelon arrived and rejoined the squadron.  MAG-33 attached the squadron on the same day.  Ordnance experts from MAG-33 began installing airborne rocket launchers almost immediately, necessitating additional training by squadron pilots and ground crews.  It was complicated; pilots needed to learn about glide angle, range, proper lead, rock effectiveness, safety, and the characteristics of various rockets.  Added to the already busy training routine was close air support of ground troops.  Unbeknownst to the squadron’s officers, they were being prepared for battle on the island of Okinawa.  As the pilots were practicing air combat maneuvers, the enlisted men were spending more time on the rifle range: Every Marine is a Rifleman.  Expected to develop proficiency with their sidearm, pilots went to the range, as well.  Finally, the squadron’s ground defense crews practiced with anti-aircraft machine guns.  There would be no gravel crunchers to provide security for VMF-323.

On 23 February, MAG-33 issued classified orders to the Commanding Officer, VMF-323: they would fly their 32 Corsairs to Okinawa in echelons.  Combat operations began on 10 April from Kadena airfield.  Weather conditions made Flying conditions poor.  When the dawn combat air patrol (CAP) launched at 0515 hours on their first day, First Lieutenant James L. Brown failed to join the flight.  Initially listed as missing in action, he was later declared killed in action.  On the next day, the airfield came under attack, but there was no damage or casualties.  The Death Rattlers’ first combat kill came that very morning, 11 April.  First Lieutenant Vernon E. Ball was readying for takeoff when a Japanese bomb hit the runway in front of his aircraft.  Ball calmly steered his aircraft around the bomb crater and took off.  Once airborne, Ball observed fellow squadron mate Al Wells shoot down the Japanese bomber responsible for cratering the runway.

On the afternoon of 12 April, a fourteen aircraft CAP noted the approach of Japanese aircraft from the north.  The Death Rattlers split into three divisions.  Six aircraft were diverted northwest from Ie Shima, flight leader Major Arthur L. Turner with Second Lieutenant Obie Stover as his wingman.  The second section was led by First Lieutenant Dellwyn L. Davis, with Second Lieutenant Robert J. Woods as his wingman.  The third section was led by First Lieutenant Charlie Spangler, with Second Lieutenant Dewey Durnford as his wingman.

The Marines were flying at 15,000 feet, 71-miles northwest of Ie Shima when they spotted a multi-engine Japanese bomber about eight miles distant and at an altitude of around 11,000 feet.  According to the Squadron’s official account:

Spangler and Durnford peeled off, followed by Davis and Woods.  Spangler closed from five o’clock and opened fire at 800 feet.  First, he knocked out the tail gunner and the top of the rudder, and then flamed the port engine.  Durnford was closing from seven o’clock, whereupon the Betty[3] turned on him, apparently trying to give the side blister gunner a shot.  Durnford opened fire at 200 feet, directing his fire at the cockpit.  Davis flamed the starboard engine from 100 feet and the Betty spiraled down in flames, exploding when it hit the water.

Meanwhile, a second six-plane element was directed to the Motobu Peninsula.  Captain Felix S. Cecot was flight leader with Second Lieutenant Leon A. Reynolds as his wing.  Captain Joe McPhail led the second section with Second Lieutenant Warren W. Bestwick.  Second Lieutenant Glenn Thacker flew with Second Lieutenant Everett L. Yager.  The enemy approached at about 18,000 feet.  The Marines climbed to 23,000 to gain an overhead advantage.  McPhail reported— 

I spotted some F4Us chasing Zekes[4]; I called out their position and rolled over.  Bestwick was on my wing.  On the way down, four Zekes appeared right under us at about 19,000 feet, flying almost abreast in two-plane sections.  I started firing at the rear plane on the right, at about 400 yards, above and behind.  My first burst was off, and the Zeke saw the tracers.  He made a couple of small turns, and then I started getting hits.  Pieces started coming off around the cockpit, and then he blew up.  The other three scattered.  I then pushed over and came home alone, being unable to find my wingman.

Berwick’s report stated …

Captain McPhail shot at the rear plane on the right.  His Zeke crossed under the rest of their formation and exploded in flames.  I picked the second plane of the first section and fired a long burst and saw it explode.  By that time, the first plane of the second section had broken off to the right and down, so I continued my run and fired a 20-degree deflection shot from behind.  This plane also exploded.  While looking for Captain McPhail, I saw my first Zeke spiraling down smoking, but I didn’t see my second Zeke after firing on him.

Lieutenant Thacker had followed Bestwick on the original pass going after the fourth Zeke in the formation.  He made an attack run on the Zeke and his guns knocked pieces from the fuselage, causing it to smoke.  The Zeke, however, rolled, pulled up tightly, and escaped.  Thacker claimed a probable kill as a result of his action.

At the same time, Captain Cecot dove from 23,000 feet to 5,000 to fire at a Jack[5].  The Jack rolled, Cecot fired at his belly and saw it smoking.  He was unable to observe further damage.  He too claimed a probable kill.

The remaining section, composed of lieutenants John Ruhsam and Robert Wade, were returning to Kadena because Wade’s landing gear could not be retracted.  Just south of Motobu, a Zeke dove out of the sun and made a pass at Wade’s plane.  Wade lowered his flaps and made a tight run.  The Zeke shot past, rolled, and dove to the deck.  Wade followed him down and was almost in firing position when Ruhsam opened fire with a 30-degree deflection shot and the Zeke burst into flames and crashed.

During this flight, all squadron pilots involved encountered Japanese aircraft for the first time.

VMF-323 flew a variety of close air support and bombing missions over the next few days, the seventh and last mission of 22 April was a record-breaker.  The last mission was an eight aircraft formation led by Major George C. Axtell, the squadron commander.  The flight departed Kadena at 1500 hours and did not return until around 1915.  During this flight, VMF-323 downed a record 24 (and three-quarters) enemy aircraft.  The squadron’s records reflect that the action was fast and furious.

Major Jefferson D. Dorah, Jr., squadron executive officer, burned five planes and exploded a sixth, all within twenty minutes.  Major George B. Axtell shot down five planes within fifteen minutes.  Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Jeremiah J. O’Keefe also shot down five planes, one of which tried to ram him after it caught fire.

FA-18 Hornet 001Flying combat aircraft is a dangerous vocation.  This was true in 1945, it is more so now as our young men fly high-performance aircraft with exceptionally complicated technology.  Every moment of a training or combat flight is a teaching moment.  Bad things can happen to machines, and it is the human pilot that must respond to each “sudden” and sometimes catastrophic failure.  In April 1945, VMF-323 pilots learned about fire discipline.  Some used up their ammunition too quickly, wastefully, which at the moment the last round was fired, rendered that bird as combat ineffective.  Other pilots dropped their external fuel tanks too soon, which threatened their ability to return safely to base.  They learned from their mistakes, of course … or they died because of them.

VMFA-323 is the home squadron of my good (and long-time) friend Pablo, who occasionally comments here.  Pablo has been an aviator for more than 50 years.  That is … fifty years of accident-free flying.  He is a certified instructor pilot, a certified glider pilot, and certified to teach glider flying.  He is also a much-sought-after aviation safety instructor/lecturer.  He will attest to the risks associated with aviation and most likely agree that these innate risks, when combined with high anxiety combat maneuvering, makes military flying the most challenging vocation anyone could ever ask for.  It should not surprise anyone that there are aircraft mishaps, and that good young men and women die in them.  Given the operational tempo of our military air wings, what is surprising is that there are not more mishaps.

As Brigadier General Chuck Yeager (USAF) once said, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C. Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 2000.
  2. Pitzl, G. R. A History of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 1987.
  3. Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.

Endnotes:

[1] Lieutenant General George B. Axtell (1920-2011) was a World War II flying ace, recipient of the Navy Cross, and the youngest commanding officer of a Marine fighter squadron.  General Axtell served through three wars and retired from active service in 1974.  In addition to command of VMF-323, he also commanded VMF-452, VMF-312, Marine Carrier Air Group-16, Marine Air Control Group 1, Marine Aircraft Group 12, Force Logistics Command, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic.  In addition to the Navy Cross, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit with combat valor device, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and seven awards of the Air Medal.

[2] The Corsair was developed by the Chance Vought Aircraft Company, designed and operated as a carrier-based aircraft and entered service in the Navy-Marine Corps in 1942. It quickly became one of the most capable fighter-bombers in the US arsenal and, according to Japanese pilots, the most formidable American fighter in World War II.  The Corsair saw service in both World War II and the Korean War.  It was retired from active service in 1953.

[3] Betty was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine land-based bomber.

[4] Zeke was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

[5] Jack was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (lightning bolt), a Japanese Navy aircraft