10/7/1943 - Remember the Alamo! And lots of Americans still do. Remember Pearl Harbor! Ditto that. And of course, memories still fresh, 9/11 is recalled more than on just that day. Remember Wake Island! But few Americans do know anymore of the sacrifices that were made on that distant fly-speck of Pacific coral, some on this day in 1943. So if you belong to that last category, here is a reminder of why you still should still remember that island, or think about what took place there for the first time.
American involvement with the island begins when Lt. Charles Wilkes, in command of 1841's United States Exploring Expedition, arrives on board the USS Vincennes and surveys the previously Spanish discovered atoll, and expands when as a result of the Spanish-American War, formal possession in the name of President William McKinley, takes place in January of 1899 with a flag raising and 21-gun salute. By the time World War II begins for the United States in December of 1941, the little bit of landfall contains a small American military base (450 officers and men of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, 68 U.S. Navy personnel, and 1,221 civilian workers of the Morrison-Knudsen Civil Engineering Company ... Naval Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham in over-all charge ... he of the famous goof message, "Send more Japs!" that occurs during the siege of the island) and a rest stop for Pan American Airways Flying Clippers crossing the Pacific (48 Chamorros from the Mariana Islands are employed at the station ... all but 12 will get off the island after the first air attack by the Japanese).
Seaplane Dock - Wake Island - 1937
Pan American Airways Poster
Cut-off from support after the December 7th surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, the defenders of the island are first attacked that same day (but in the historical records listed as December 8th because the atoll is on the other side of the International Dateline from Hawaii) by 36 Mitsubishi G3M medium bombers (nicknamed the "Nell") that destroy 8 of the 12 F4F-3 Wildcat fighters meant to defend Wake. Repeated softening up attacks follow, and despite the heroic efforts of the aviation personnel of VMF-211 of the United States Marine Corps (Captain Henry Talmage "Hammerin' Hank" Elrod will win a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions in defense of the island, attacking a flight of 22 enemy planes by himself, shooting down two, and being the first American airman to sink a Japanese ship ... he dies when no longer able to fly, he joins his ground comrades in defending a beach at its sands), eventually there are no more fighters to meet the Japanese in the air. Plenty of antagonists remain on the ground however (including the civilian construction personnel), as the Japanese ruefully find out when they try to land on the morning of December 11th. Greeted by the the six five-inch coastal guns of Marine Corps Captain James Devereux, the Japanese destroyer Hayate is sunk by two direct hits from 4,000 yards away that blow up the ship's ammunition magazine (the first Japanese ship to be sunk by American forces in WWII), the light cruiser Yubari is hit 11 times before withdrawing, and the destroyer Kisaragi goes down with all hands when exploding ordinance hits the stern of warship, setting off it's depth charges. Too much resistance left in the occupants of the atoll a bitter surprise, the Japanese withdraw to lick their wounds, but return for a second try on the 23rd of December. The same ships back with fleet reinforcement from the addition of the aircraft carriers Hiryu and Soryu (after their successful attack on Pearl Harbor) and 1,500 Japanese marines, the second invasion results in the Rising Sun going up over the island on that same day when almost out of ammo, the outnumbered defenders finally surrender. The initial butcher's bill for the United States is 122 killed (including 70 civilians), 49 wounded, 2 missing in action (and presumed killed), and 433 military and over a thousand civilians becoming prisoners of war (in the 15-day siege for the island, the Japanese lose 3 ships, 2 transports, a submarine, 8 planes, along with 820 men to death, with 333 more wounded). Battle over, but the deaths unfortunately aren't!
Battle of Wake Island by John D. Shaw
Ruined Fighters - Wake - Elrod Plane is 211-F-11
Kisaragi - 1927
Last Stand On Wake
By 1943, the island has become a Japanese military outpost, with all but 98 of the American civilians transferred to various prisons about the Nipponese Empire ... civilians that are kept as slave labor to take care of any needs the Japanese might have, but mostly work on building bunkers and fortifications to defend the atoll should the Americans decide to take it back. Not a wise move, in addition to being attacked by aviation elements of the U.S. Navy as the war turns against Japan (bombing the island is future President George H. W. Bush's first combat mission of the war), the island also goes under a submarine blockade that soon has its occupants slowing starving to death. On 10/5/1943, aircraft from the USS Yorktown (the second aircraft carrier of the war to bear that name) hit the island ... a raid that unleashes the demons in the soul of the atoll's commander, Japanese Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara.
Civilians March Into Captivity
Attack By Yorktown Bombers
Fearing an imminent invasion and the freeing of the civilians who can document assorted war crimes that have take place by the Japanese on the island since December of 1941, and not happy sharing dwindling food supplies with the American prisoners, two days later, on 10/7, under the watch of armed guards, the 98 American construction workers are marched to the northern end of the island, blindfolded, then slaughtered by a machine gun ... slaughtered save one (whose name is never known), a survivor who crawls away from the carnage and documents the massacre by carving a message on a large coral rock near his friend's mass grave that reads "98 US PW 5-10-43" (though its actually two days later and only 97 at the moment of its writing). Recaptured later that day, the unknown hero joins his friends when he has head cut off with a razor sharp katana wielded by Sakaibara himself.
The "98" Rock
Peace finally comes to the island when the Japanese surrender to a detachment of U.S. Marines on 9/4/1945, giving up officially during a brief ceremony aboard the U.S. destroyer escort, USS Levy, with retribution following closely behind once the executions are discovered. Outed by several Japanese officers that leave written confessions behind before committing suicide in their cells, Sakaibara and his #2, Lt. Commander Tachibana, go on trial in 1947 for their war crimes. Found guilty, Tachibana is sentenced to life in prison, while on 6/18/1947, 48-year-old Sakaibara is hung on the island of Guam, going to rot in Hell proclaiming with his last words, "I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure."
Aboard The USS Levy - Sakaibara Is Seated
Third From Left
At The Gallows On Guam - Not Sakaibara Though!
War over and culprits punished, the remains of the 98 Americans are eventually moved and in 1953 interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, better now known as Punchbowl Crater (in Section C, just off the inner drive), where they reside to this day ... at parade's rest, gone, but not forgotten, and now also remembered by you!
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
Lady Columbia Atop the Court of Honor
Rest in peace!
The Names - Wake Island