When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America was at last forced to officially enter World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially declared war on the Japanese and in his famous radio address to the American people, he professed that December 7 was a day that would live in infamy. Americans and Japanese alike, still remember Pearl Harbor Day, but how many remember the gallant, fighting Marines who served on a tiny atoll in the Pacific by the name of Wake Island?
Prior to the war, Wake Island, located 2300 miles west of Honolulu, was an unincorporated territory of the United States, which was placed under the jurisdiction of the Navy in 1934. It was also a Clipper stop on Pan American Airlines’ famed Trans-Pacific run, and in 1939, the U.S. Navy began construction of an air and submarine base, which was half completed at the time of the attack. Because of the construction of the base, approximately 1200 civilians were on the island, working for the American construction firm, Morrison-Knudsen, in addition to the Navy personnel and Marines who had been sent to defend the island.
The first attack came at noon on December 7, 1941, when 36 Japanese
bombers initiated the first bombing of the island. The bombings by the Japanese continued until December 23, when under continuous shelling, the Americans, under U.S. Navy Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, were finally forced to surrender. Although the Japanese finally took the island, they incurred heavy losses. Three cruisers and one transport sustained heavy damage, two destroyers and one patrol boat were sunk, while 820 Japanese soldiers were killed, with another 333 wounded. In contrast, American military casualties included 120 killed, 49 wounded, with two missing in action.
Initially, Japanese strategists assumed that the tiny island would be overwhelmed in a matter of hours. However, they underestimated the fighting spirit of the military personnel and civilians stationed on the island. For sixteen days these brave men fought against overwhelming odds, but demonstrated both to the Japanese and to their fellow Americans back at home that the Americans could and would put up a courageous fight.
During the first air raid, Pan American’s facilities were destroyed, and ten civilian employees of the airline were killed. When the assault on the island was first launched, the Americans had twelve aircraft. By December 21, they were down to two planes and by the 22nd of December, none was left in the fleet. In addition, the Japanese used the technique of pattern bombing which caused heavy damage to practically every installation on the island. On the final day of the siege, over 1000 Japanese went on shore and the fighting that ensued continued for six hours.
The Marines’ struggle to hold on to Wake Island came at a time when American installations in the Pacific were being both attacked and captured and the heroics of the fighting Marines on Wake did much to lift the spirit of the American people. Even when it looked as though America’s chances of winning the battle for Wake were few, it has been said that when asked by radio if there was anything they wanted, the Marines replied: “Yes, send us some more Japs.” This became a popular slogan during the war, much like “Remember the Alamo”.
After the surrender, the Japanese rounded up all of the civilians and enlisted men and forced them to march to the airfield. There they were stripped and bound with wire and made to stand in the hot sun for two days with no food and very little water. Back on the homefront, besides worrying about the safety of their loved ones, the families of the civilians were left without the regular financial support that the construction crew had been sending prior to their unintended involvement in the war. Twenty-six civilians died during the sixteen-day siege of Wake.
On January 12, 1942, approximately 1200 American prisoners of war were loaded on board the Japanese passenger ship, the Nitta Maru, for the twelve-day voyage to China. Twenty of the wounded passengers were dropped off in Japan while five of the Americans were beheaded while aboard ship. The prisoners arrived at Shanghai on January 24 and were immediately taken to Woosung camp, twelve miles away. On December 5, 1942, they were transferred to Kiangwan War Prisoners Camp, four miles
from Woosung, where they were forced into hard labor. Several of the prisoners died as a result of the harsh treatment in the camp.
The Japanese retained 98 of the civilians at Wake to operate heavy equipment, but it was later learned that these civilians were executed on October 7, 1943, when it was thought by their captors that they had been in radio contact with U.S. naval forces. After the war, Admiral Sakaibara, who had ordered the execution, was himself hung on the island of Guam, on June 18, 1947.
In May of 1945, the prisoners were sent to Fengtai camp outside of Peking and were then moved to Fusan, Korea for eventual shipment to Hokkaido, Japan. It was here that the 1st Cavalry Division of the United States Army liberated them, 44 months after they were first captured. Two hundred and thirty-one Americans either died in the camps or on board ship.
The Japanese who remained on Wake Island after the Americans’ surrender endured hardships of their own, as American attacks on the Japanese fleet in the Pacific, as well as the bombing of Wake, made receiving regular shipments of supplies an impossibility. Seven hundred Japanese soldiers died as a result of the American bombing of the island, while another 1300 died as a result of sickness and malnutrition. Wake Island was finally returned to the United States on September 4, 1945, when Rear
Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara surrendered the island to Brig. Gen. L.H.M. Sanderson of the United States Marines.
Paramount Pictures’, Wake Island, represented the first attempt by Hollywood to accurately portray American troops in action. Director John Farrow wanted to make the film as accurate as possible, including the location. The film was shot entirely on location off of Salton Sea, in the California desert. Morrison-Knudsen Co., the construction crew on Wake Island at the time of its capture, was hired to recreate the island’s facilities prior to the beginning of the siege. Because of the fact that Japanese Americans had been interred in California, Chinese and Filipino citizens were hired to portray the Japanese soldiers in the film.
To further enhance the reality of the film, the Marine Corps. loaned six of its F4F-3’s to the film’s crew, while five Ryan SCW’s were used to simulate the Japanese ASM “Claude” fighters. When the look-alike Japanese planes flew over the area on their simulated bomb runs, residents had to be warned not to be alarmed and to also avert the possibility of the planes being fired upon. In addition, thirty tons of explosives were used for bombs.
The film did not use the real names of the men whom the actors portrayed, and while it did tend to fictionalize a bit, most of the portrayals prove to be quite accurate.
Major Caton, portrayed in the film by Brian Donlevy, is the real life character of Major James Patrick Sinnott Devereux. While Major Devereux was in captivity, his wife died of diabetes on July 22, 1942. Friends attributed her death as being hastened by her husband’s captivity, as she had received no direct contact with him since his capture. The film’s Commander Roberts, played by Walter Abel, is the real life character of Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham. Shad McClosky (Albert Dekker) is the construction crew boss, who in real life was Dan Teters, an employee of Morrison-Knudsen. Teters, along with Commander Cunningham, escaped from prison camp in China in 1944, only to be recaptured and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. The United States subsequently awarded Dan Teters with one of its highest honors, the Bronze Star.
The film’s Lieutenant Cameron, portrayed by Macdonald Carey, was the real life character of Capt. Henry T. Elrod. Capt. Elrod single-handedly attacked a fleet of twenty-two Japanese planes, shooting down two of them. In addition, he became the first man to sink a major warship with small-caliber bombs, which were dropped from a fighter-type aircraft. For Captain Elrod’s heroics during the heat of battle, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the first given to a Marine
airman during World War II. While the characters of Smacksie Randall (William Bendix) and his buddy, Joe Doyle (Robert Preston) are purely fictional, they do add comic relief to an otherwise dismal situation.
The film received much critical acclaim and was nominated for Best Picture at the 1942 Academy Awards as well as receiving nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. William Bendix also received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as the likeable Smacksie Randall. Several historians have attributed the rise in U.S. Marine Corps. enlistments at the time to Wake Island. The film was also used as a training film for Marine recruits at Quantico in August of 1942. All in all, Wake Island is a fitting tribute to the soldiers and civilians who valiantly defended Wake.
The United States has maintained possession of the island since its surrender by the Japanese in 1945. In 1975, Wake Island was used to house Vietnamese refugees prior to their being transported to the United States. It is now under the direct control of the United States Air Force, where the U. S. National Weather Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration operate research facilities. In 1957, Japan Air Lines built a memorial on the island, which is inscribed: “May Peace Prevail on the Waters of the Pacific Forever”. On December 7, Americans should
remember not only those who fell at Pearl Harbor, but also those who served so bravely at Wake Island.
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