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

The Warrior No One Forgot

Templer KnightPeople have admired chivalrous conduct for thousands of years, long before we invented a word for it.  It does not confine itself to mounted warriors wearing armor and confronting a determined enemy.  Chivalry was a code employed by a culture of warriors, which extends to the notion of good men skilled in warfare willing to place their lives and fortunes “on the line” in defense of innocents, in defense of the realm, in defense of religious beliefs.  The code was already in writing by the time of Charlemagne and is chronicled in La Chanson de Roland, which tells of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D.  Historians have restored the code, which appears in summary form below:

  • To fear God and maintain His church (community)
  • To serve the liege lord in valor and faith
  • To protect the weak and defenseless
  • To give succor to widows and orphans
  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offense
  • To live by honor and for glory
  • To despise pecuniary reward
  • To fight for the welfare of all
  • To obey those placed in authority
  • To guard the honor of fellows
  • To eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit
  • To keep faith
  • At all times, speak only truth
  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise once begun
  • To respect and honor women
  • Never refuse a challenge from an equal
  • Never turn one’s back upon a foe

Of these eighteen tenets, 12 relate to chivalrous behavior, as opposed to combat.  For people like me, they remain relevant and elemental in the behavior of true ladies and gentlemen and closely align themselves with the New Testament’s I Corinthians, 13.

If I speak in the tongues of men or angels but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all that I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; Love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others; It is not self-seeking, nor easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.

Love never fails.  But where there are prophecies they will cease.  Where there are tongues, they will be stilled.  Where there is knowledge, this too will pass away.  For we know in part, and we prophecy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought like a child.  I reasoned like a child.  But when I became a man, I put away the things of childhood.  For now, we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but we will see face to face.  Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three alone remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

During the early and late Middle Ages, the code of chivalry was incorporated into rites of knighthood, standards of behavior expected of those who served the interests of others, more than their own interests[1].  They also included strict rules of etiquette and behavior.  The codes were so exemplary that poets, lyricists, and writers incorporated them into their tales.  Since most people were illiterate, wandering minstrels communicated these ideals throughout the land.  In the post-Roman period of England (c. 500 A.D.) Arthurian myths strengthened notions of personal fortitude and courage in the face of adversity, of honor, honesty, valor, and loyalty.

I believe these two things: (1) King Arthur was not a myth; (2) No organization in the world today better emulates the chivalrous code than the United States Marine Corps.  This is what I believe, but I do not exclude any other of western civilization’s stalwart military or public service organizations.  I only intend my statement to emphasize the frequency of such laudatory qualities within the brotherhood of the US Marine Corps.

The stories from antiquity, mythical or otherwise, serve as teaching moments.  There may not have been a greater general in all antiquity than Julius Caesar, but he was a flawed man (professionally and personally) whose mistakes were devastating to Rome and its people.  King Arthur too was an illustrious leader, a man whose human frailty led to his demise and that of his Camelotian kingdom.  Not too many years ago, the American people spoke of the Kennedy White House as Camelot, but revealed history tells us that Jack Kennedy and his lovely bride were troubled people whose personal behaviors destroyed them, their legacy, which deeply troubled their citizen-admirers’.

The bane of humankind is our moral frailty.

Historians have claimed that the Arthurian stories were legend or myth because there are no written records to validate them.  Nor is there any physical evidence that he ever lived —until recently.  British archeologists believe that they have uncovered the burial tomb of a man named Arthur that dates back in time to around 500 A. D[2].  Perhaps King Arthur was a myth, but I doubt it.  King Arthur is the warrior from antiquity that no one ever forgot.  His existence may not be as well documented as that of Jesus of Nazareth, but the evidence that does exist is enough to convince me that such a man did exist —but more to the point, his is a story that can help us discover who we are, and how we might use the lessons of time to improve ourselves; how we might better serve our families, our communities, and our nation.

Arthurian 001Many tales were written about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, most of which were romantic constructs that incorporated supernatural or mythical beings, which were clearly imaginative inventions.  Three hundred years earlier, however, Nennius[3] records Arthur as a historic figure in Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), an account unfettered by flights of fancy.  The Britons, of course, were tribal Celts who occupied all of Britain before being pushed into Wales by the Romans, Angles, and Saxons.  Arthur was one of the last Britons[4] to make a successful stand against the Anglo-Saxon invasions, a conflict that continued through the rise and progeny of King Alfred the Great (847-99).  If Nennius correctly records the events of the time, given that present-day England was divided by squabbling tribes in the post-Roman period, then Arthur would not have adorned himself in shining armor.  He would wear the attire of a Celtic chieftain, which most likely incorporated the clothing and armor of late-Roman style.  There would have been no great castles, but something more on the order of wooden stockades incorporated with then-existing Roman fortifications/settlements.

Historic facts about this period of Romano-British England are more fascinating than the fanciful tales because history is more plausible.  Monk Nennius never told us where Arthur was born, but he did list his battles —notably his last battle at Badon, which occurred near Aquae Sulis (present-day Bath).  The significance of the battle was that the Britons prevailed over the Anglo-Saxon horde, pushing them back to the British Saxon Shore.  We know this from the Anglo-Saxon’s own records of the time, and from archaeological evidence.  That the Britons had a powerful, unifying leader, seems undeniable.

Was there such a place as Camelot?  Yes-and no.  Colchester, England is the site of the earliest Roman settlement, although evidence suggests that the settlement existed before the arrival of Romans in 55 B.C.  It was then called Camulodunon, which also appears on coins minted by the chieftain Tasciovanus between 20-10 B.C.  It would be easy to make this association, but Colchester is far removed from Aquae Sulis and there is yet another possibility.

In the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, there is a 7th-century work titled The Song of Llywarch the Old.  It contains one of the oldest references to King Arthur, composed of a series of poems attributed to a poet named Llywarch, who praises the exploits of a chieftain named Cynddylan, who died fighting the Anglo Saxons in 658 A.D.  Cynddylan, according to Llywarch, was the direct descendant of Arthur, which implies that Arthur once ruled the kingdom that Cynddylan ruled.  It was the kingdom of present-day Powys, Wales, which at the time covered the area described above, in the south and west-central England and east-central Wales.  The Anglo-Saxons eventually defeated the Britons, pushing them into the Welsh mountains where a modern-day county still retains the old kingdom’s name.  The Romans called this area Viroconium.

When Rome abandoned Britain in 410 A.D., most of their settlements were abandoned and Britain fell into the so-called Dark Ages.  Romans and their mixed-blood descendants, however, continued to occupy Viroconium.  It had been the fourth largest town in Romano-Britain after Londonium(London), Lindum Colonia (Lincoln), and Eboracum (York).  While the Anglo-Saxons quickly overran the largest cities (above), Viroconium was far distant from the invasive Germans and remained free and evolved into the Briton’s most important city in the early Dark Ages.  These ruins still exist with archeological evidence that the town went through a process of reconstruction around 500 A.D.  We know the town today as Wroxeter, which is 25 miles northwest of Worcester, my lovely bride’s hometown.  Ancient manuscripts tell us that Arthur ruled over the Briton’s most important city —which would have been Viroconium.

Still, Arthur is not a Welsh name.  The ruler of Viroconium around the time of Arthur was named Owain Ddantgwyn (pronounced Owen Thant-gwyn), which sounds nothing like Arthur.  During the early Middle Ages, British warriors were given honorary titles of real or mythological animals thought to represent their prowess in battle.  One of these was the Welsh word “Arth,” meaning Bear.  In Viroconium around 500 A.D., its ruler Owain Ddantgwyn was known as the Bear, hence, Arth.  Scholars today connect the Welsh word for bear with the Latin word for bear, Ursus, which then became, in later years, Arthur, a king, and a person who actually did exist.

The tales of King Arthur are entertaining, but the history of the real warrior is more fascinating.  Our admiration for such a fellow continues because, among other things, he helped create the code of honor that serves as our guide for achieving and maintaining nobility.

Knights in the sense of the Middle Ages never existed in the United States, of course —Americans eschewed the notion of kings or of men born into families of nobles.  Instead, we Americans believe that every person can obtain nobility by acting nobly.  The Knight’s Code of Honor that I borrowed (above) is a nifty tool for helping us achieve nobility —as a guide for the way we live our lives.

cropped-marine-recon-002.jpgAs for knights —we do have them, but we call them by another name.  Their standards are high, their tolerance for failure is low, they do remarkably brave things almost on a daily basis while never seeking recognition.  They are guardians of the weak, they succor the suffering, and live according to a unique code of honor.  These knights demand fairness, serve justice, always persevere, and they keep the faith.  In fact, it is their motto: Semper Fidelis.  We call these modern-day knights United States Marines.

“Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for a friend.”

—John 15:13

Remarkably, much about the US Marines is modeled on the warrior that no one forgot.  Personally, given who I am, I hope no one ever does forget.

Sources:

  1. Anderson, G.  King Arthur in Antiquity.  London: Roufledge (2004)
  2. Phillips, G.  The Lost Tomb of King Arthur.  Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016
  3. Dumville, D. N.  Sub-Roman Britain: History and legend.  1977

Endnotes:

[1] Our observation that chivalrous codes did exist does not suggest that every individual who took such oaths always observed them.  Every person has strengths as well as weaknesses; some of us have destructive character flaws.  In ancient society, and today, there are plenty of scurrilous fellows who took oaths for only one purpose, to advance themselves, and then violated them on a more-or-less on-going basis.

[2] Read: The Lost Tomb of King Arthur, by Graham Phillips, Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016.

[3] Nennius was a Welsh monk of the 9th century.  Nennius, who lived in Brecknockshire, present-day Powys, was a student of the bishop Elfodd of Bangor, who convinced ecclesiastics of his day to accept the Continental dating of Easter.  Much of Nennius’ effort was based on earlier works, notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which was written by Gildas between 500-579 A. D.

[4] Popular writers suggest that Arthur Pendragon was descended from a Welsh and Romano-British line, which given the history of Rome’s presence in Britain, and the areas in which they settled (Aquae Sulis (Somerset)-West Mercia (Wroxeter/Worcestershire)), the suggestion is credible.

Before He Was a General …

Julius Caesar was a Marine.

SPQR 001Before the Empire, Rome was not a sea-faring nation and the early Republic did not have an effective navy.  This changed with the First Punic War (264-241 BC) against the maritime city of Carthage.  Rome was nothing if not serious about its military and naval prowess.  By 256 BC, Rome had a navy of 330 ships, the most popular of which included the two-deck quadrireme (with two banks of oars) and the quinquereme, which were galleys with five decks and three rows of oars.  These were not “row boats” as a modern person might imagine them.  The quinquereme required 300 men (mostly slaves) to propel it through the water.p

After the end of the Second Punic War (202 BC), Rome discarded its standing navy in favor of relying on ships provided under contract and treaty with noted maritime cities.  In time, Roman coastal settlements and their overall economy suffered as a result of pirates operating with impunity in the Mediterranean Sea (Mare Nostrum) and this provided an impetus for Rome to reestablishment its naval legion [1].

Julius Caesar was born into a minor aristocratic family that claimed descent from the mythological son of Aeneas, supposedly the son of Venus. According to Pliny the Elder [2] the cognomen Caesar originated with an ancestor who was born by caesarean section, but there are three additional explanations for the origin of this name: (1) An ancestor was known for having a thick head of hair; (2) he had bright gray eyes; and/or, (3) he killed an elephant in battle.  Julius Caesar issued coins featuring images of elephants, which suggests that he favored the third possible origin of his name.  In any case, the Caesar family were not particularly influential.  Julius Caesar’s father was Gaius Julius Caesar, a man who reached the level of praetor, the second highest of the Roman Republic’s elected magistrates.  He governed the province of Asia through the influence of his prominent brother-in-law, Gaius Marius.  Caesar’s mother was Aurelia Cotta, a very influential family that produced several consuls.

Julius was educated by Marcus Antonius Gnipho, a noted orator and grammarian from Gaul, and although not much is known about Julius’ youth, it has been said that he was educated in the art of war by a former primus pilus, or the senior centurion of the first cohort in a Roman legion.  His military tutor would have instilled in him the expectations of a Roman military or naval officer.  What we do know is that Caesar’s formative years were turbulent.  Between 91-88 BC, Rome experienced the so-called Social War, which had to do with the policy governing Roman citizenship and social status.  At the same time, Mithridates of Pontus [3] threatened Rome’s eastern provinces.  Domestic confrontations existed between the optimates (upper class) and populares (advocating reforms in the interest of the masses).  Rather than representing political parties, these two groups were loose confederations of like-minded individuals.  Caesar’s uncle, Gaius Marius, was a popularis, while Marius’ protégé Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was an optimas.  Rivalry between these two groups led to civil war.

Both Marius and Sulla distinguished themselves during the Social War and they competed for overall command of the war against Mithridates. Initially, command was given to Sulla, but it was later passed to Marius.  Upset, Sulla led his army to Rome (the first time a Roman general ever threatened Rome with his army), reclaimed his entitlement of command, and forced Marius into exile.  Once Sulla departed Rome to campaign, Marius returned at the head of a makeshift army.  He and his ally Lucius Cornelius Cinna seized the city, declared Sulla an enemy of Rome, and through his army took revenge on Sulla’s supporters.  Marius died in 86 BC, but his supporters remained in power.

In the next year, Julius Caesar’s father died suddenly, so at the age of sixteen years, Julius became head of the family.  In 84 BC, Julius was nominated as Flamen Dialis, high priest of Jupiter.  The position not only required a patrician [4], it also required that the position holder marry a patrician.  To satisfy this requirement, Julius broke off his engagement to Cossutia, a wealthy equestrian [5] plebeian, and married Cinna’s daughter, Cornelia.

Once Sulla defeated Mithridates, he returned to Rome to finish his civil war with Marius’ followers.  He re-took Rome in 82 BC and had himself appointed as dictator [6].  Sulla wasted no time destroying statues and other symbols of Marius.  He also ordered his body exhumed and thrown into the Tiber River.  By this time, Cinna was already dead, killed by his own men during a mutiny.  The proscriptions of Sulla, issued daily, ordered hundreds of his political enemies killed or exiled.  Thugs were hired to track down these enemies and kill them.  Sulla then targeted Julius Caesar, a nephew of Marius (and son-in-law of Cinna).  By Sulla’s decree, Caesar was stripped of his inheritance, Cornelia’s dowry, and his priesthood [7].  Caesar, however, a young man with integrity, refused to divorce Cornelia.

Roman Gally 001Instead, Caesar went into hiding —which he accomplished by presenting himself to a tribune for enlistment into the naval legion, formed when Sulla decided to rid Mare Nostrum of pirates.  Caesar had traveled at great danger to himself to the port city of Ostia Antica.  Questioned carefully, as all candidates for legion service were, Julius admitted that he was a wanted man by order of the dictator, Sulla.  After presenting his papers to the tribune, an endorsement under the seal of Marius, he was quietly accepted for service aboard a galley.  Because of his relationship to Marius, it is likely that young Caesar was appointed to serve as hastatus posterior, the lowest centurion rank, which would have placed him in command of eight to ten marines (also, milites) [8].

After four months of serving aboard ship as a tesserarius (watch commander) on coastal patrol, Julius Caesar was anxious for combat.  What young officer doesn’t want to test his courage —prove his own worth?  He would get his wish at the pirate fortification at Methymna on the island of Lesbos.  Julius felt he was ready; he felt that his men were ready.  It has been said that young Caesar inquired of his centurion the number of enemy inside the fort and he was told that the number of enemy didn’t matter; whether there were five men, or five hundred men, these Roman Marines were going to take that fort with the number of men at their disposal —about one-hundred in total.  The conversation, if it occurred, provides an interesting insight into the mindset of the Roman legionnaire.  Winning a battle was important, of course, but it was secondary to honorable service as Roman soldiers.

Caesar, who wisely remained wary of Sulla, stayed in Asia with the legions for several years.  After serving aboard the Roman galley, he fought under Marcus Minucius Thermus [9] in Asia, and Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus [10] in Cilicia [11].  By every account, young Julius Caesar was an exceptional officer whose self-confidence and arrogance knew no limitation.  As stated earlier, Caesar’s military career began during Sulla’s anti-pirate campaigns and he served with distinction during the siege of Mytilene, for which he was presented with the civic crown.

Young Julius CaesarIn 79 BC, Sulla resigned the dictatorship, re-established consular government, and retired to private life.  He died in the next year, aged 60 [12].  Learning of Sulla’s death, Caesar felt safe enough to return to Rome —but he was a citizen without means, having forfeited his inheritance and his wife’s wealth.  For a time, Caesar turned to the law and served as a legal advocate.  In this profession, he was quite efficient and well known for his oratory, passionate advocacy, and ruthless prosecution of corrupt officials.  Striving for perfection, Julius traveled to Rhodes to study rhetoric under Apollonius Molon, who had been Cicero’s teacher.  En route to Rhodes, however, Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates and held prisoner for ransom in Pharmacusa.

Held as a captive for 48 days, Julius Caesar maintained an air of superiority over his captives.  He participated in their games, exercised with them, and when he was tired of listening to their babble, he would command them to silence.  He also recited poetry to his captives and ridiculed them and mocked them for their lack of understanding.  For their part, the pirates found young Caesar entertaining.  When they demanded twenty talents of gold [13] for his release, Julius demanded that they require fifty.

Once the ransom was paid and Caesar was released, he returned to Rome, raised a fleet of ships, and pursued his captors with utter determination.  He had them imprisoned in Pergamon and demanded their execution.  The governor of Asia refused, however, preferring instead to sell them as slaves.  Julius Caesar would have none of this —so he returned to the seacoast and had them crucified, as he had promised he would do while he was still in captivity.  The pirates apparently thought he was joking with them; he wasn’t.  Although, as a demonstration of mercy, Julius Caesar had their throats cut before crucifixion.  He left their bodies to rot.

There are many lessons to be learned from history.  This one may offer modern leaders a worthwhile perspective in how to deal with brigands, pirates, and terrorists.

Sources:

  1. Froude, J. A. Life of Caesar.  Gutenberg e-Text, 1879.
  2. Goldsworthy, A. Caesar: Life of a Colossus.  Yale University Press, 2006.
  3. Thorne, J.  Julius Caesar: Conqueror and Dictator.  Rosen Publishing, 2003

Endnotes:

[1] Pirates, as with brigands, took advantage of weak military control wherever they could, thriving on the fringes of warfare along neglected coastlines.  Rome initiated several campaigns against Mediterranean pirates over its long history, the first of which likely occurred between 80-67 BC.  Beyond booty, pirates also kidnapped citizens and held them for ransom.  If the ransom was not paid, then the pirates would sell their captives into slavery.  In 67 BC, for example, the Legate and former consul Pompey was charged by the senate with ending piracy.  By commandeering Greek-made galleys and organizing them into thirteen fleets, Pompey managed to scatter (not eradicate) the pirates in less than two months.  In his war against pirates, Pompey took 20,000 prisoners, impressed 90 ships, and recovered enormous treasures.

[2] Gaius Plinius Secundas (23-79 AD) was a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher; he was a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and a friend of Emperor Vespasian.  Pliny the Elder died while attempting to rescue a friend and his family by ship during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

[3] Also known as Mithridates the Great (reign from 120-63 BC), he was of Persian origin and king of Hellenistic-era Pontus, a large area surrounding the Black Sea.

[4] Originally, the word patrician suggested the ruling class of families in ancient Rome.  It was a significant distinction in the Roman kingdom and early Republic, but less so by the time of the late Republic and early Empire.

[5] The Roman equestrian order ranked second to the senatorial class.  In modern parlance, a male equestrian would be a knight.

[6] A dictator of Rome was a magistrate entrusted with the full authority of the state to deal with a military emergency or to undertake a specific duty.  Generally, dictators were appointed to no more than six months in office.  Sulla’s appointment included no such restriction.

[7] Eventually, Sulla lifted his retribution against Julius Caesar, mostly through the intervention of Caesar’s mother’s family, which included allies of Sulla.  Even afterward, however, Sulla remained wary of Julius Caesar.  He could see “many Marius’” in him.

[8] Roman military ranks only generally equate to modern military structures.  Formalized rank came as a result of reforms instituted by Marius, but the term “commander” was generally applied only to consuls (politicians of high standing), dictators, and occasionally to praetors.  Beneath the commander was the legatus(legate), a general rank officer appointed for three-year terms.  This distinction is important because the legions were always subordinate to the proconsul (or governor) of the province to which they were assigned.  Legates were generally drawn from the Roman Senate.  Below the commander and legate were tribuni militum (military tribunes) organized in six ranks.  The senior of these (tribunus laticlavius) (also, second-in-command) would in time become a senator, the others served as equestrians (knights) and were generally equivalent to modern-day majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels.  The third highest officer in the legion was the praefectus castorum, also equivalent to modern-day colonel, but more on the order of a senior chief warrant officer elevated from the enlisted ranks (centuri).  Each legion was divided into ten cohorts (each cohort roughly equivalent to a battalion).  The senior-most cohort centurion was also called Primus Pilus (first centurion or also, tip of the spear).  Each cohort consisted of three manipula; each of these had two centuries, each ranging from 60-160 men.  Each century was commanded by a centurion (roughly, captain) and assisted by junior officers called Optio (roughly, lieutenant).  Within cohorts, centurions were ranked as follows, from senior-most following primus pilus: Primus prior, pilus posterior, princeps prior, princeps posterior, hastatus prior, and hastatus posterior.

[9] Soldier and statesman, Thermus directed efforts against Mytilene on the Island of Lesbos, suspected of harboring pirates.

[10] A staunch supporter of Sulla, Isauricus was appointed proconsul governor of Cilicia with the responsibility of clearing out pirates within his province.  His command lasted from 78-74 BC, which included the naval and land forces.

[11] The south coast region of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

[12] Sulla’s dictatorship is generally believed to have destabilized the Roman Republic to such an extent that it eventually caused the collapse of the republic.

[13] A talent is a weight of measure of roughly 67 pounds.  Twenty talents would equate to 1,340 pounds; 50 talents would roughly equal 3,350 pounds of gold.