- Historic Sites
The Defense Of Wake
Their High Command abandoned them. Their enemy thought they wouldn’t fight. But a few days after Pearl Harbor, a handful of weary Americans gave the world a preview of what the Axis was up against.
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
The Japanese had Wake, but for most of the occupying forces it proved to be their burial ground. Tokyo’s plan to use Wake as an advanced aerial reconnaissance station was wrecked by the disaster at Midway the following June. As the war swirled through the South Pacific, Wake became lost in a backwater of the conflict. Able to be supplied only by submarine and subjected to repeated attacks from American bombers and surface ships, the garrison at Wake slowly, inexorably perished. Some 750 Japanese were killed by American gunnery, and 1,500 starved to death. Near the end of the war, daily rations were cut to thirty-seven grams of rice, and the men who stayed alive could summon only enough energy to work one hour a day. The Japanese commandant, Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara, was a cruelly effective officer who once had a man beheaded for pilfering liquor. As his command was dying, Sakaibara was faced with the problem of what to do with the 98 civilians who had been left behind to labor for the Japanese. By 1943 there was nothing for them to build, and they were eating rations Sakaibara needed for his own men. On October 7, after trumping up an excuse he himself could not have believed—that the civilians were in contact with American units and leading the bombers to Wake—Sakaibara had all of them rounded up with their hands tied behind their backs and blindfolded. The men were marched to the north side of Wake Island, lined up in a long row on the beach, and machine-gunned. After the war Admiral Sakaibara was tried as a war criminal and hanged.
One Japanese guard querulously told the men captured on Wake, “You don’t act like prisoners.”
The four hundred Marines who were taken prisoner at Wake began their long endurance of the terrible capriciousness of captivity. One captor would offer cigarettes and as much camaraderie as the situation permitted, and the next a bayonet in the rib cage. Usually it was a bayonet. The prisoners were shipped to Shanghai by way of Yokohama aboard the freighter Nitta Maru. Between Japan and China five men were brought up on deck, where a lieutenant read to them in Japanese from a piece of paper while the crew formed up in a semicircle. It was just as well the Americans did not understand what the lieutenant was saying. In some kind of crazed Bushido ritual of revenge, they had been selected at random to atone for the deaths of Japanese troops on Wake. The Japanese forced the Americans to kneel down on mats and cut off their heads with samurai swords. Then they bayoneted the bodies and tossed the mutilated corpses into the sea.
For almost four years the Marines were shuttled in a dismal odyssey between various prison camps in southern China. To give the men something to do to break the monotony of hard labor and tedium, Devereux turned prison cells into classrooms. He established classes in English, mathematics, and history and started up a vocabulary club. He was particularly strict with his junior officers. He had seen many a veteran of World War I coasting through the rest of his military career on decorations won at Belleau Wood and Soissons. He told his officers to maintain and develop their skills and not to expect a free ride after the war was over because of their service on Wake. Always a stickler for decorum, Devereux insisted on the proper observance of all forms of military courtesy. When he entered a room, all personnel had to rise for their commanding officer just as they had done at Wake. He continued to put enlisted men on report for minor infractions even though the reports weren’t going anywhere. Soldiers in captivity measure out their victories in the tiniest of margins, and the battle to maintain pride in themselves as an existing military unit was clearly won when a Japanese guard querulously told them, “You don’t act like prisoners.”
By May 1945 the war had got too close for the Japanese prison keepers, and they put their charges on a train for Fengtai, near Peking. En route Lts. John McAHster and John Kinney, joined by two Marine officers from the North China Station and a Flying Tiger pilot, worked their way out of a boxcar and jumped free. They groped about in the countryside until they made contact with elements of the Communist Chinese 4th Army, who led them to an airfield where an American C-47 flew them home.
During their imprisonment the remaining Americans received little news from the outside, although a homemade radio built by Lieutenant Kinney brought them tantalizing snatches of information on the progress of the war. It was not until they were shunted from a camp in Pusan to the home islands of Japan that they realized their suffering must soon be over. In the summer of 1945, while being shipped by train across Japan to work scrabbling for coal in a mine in Hakodate, they stopped briefly outside Tokyo. The guards told them anyone caught looking outside the window would be shot, but Pfc. Henry Chapman decided to risk it. He saw a dull-eyed Japanese woman standing by the tracks holding a dead baby in her arms. Behind her Tokyo was a smoldering trash heap.
On September 5 the war was over for both captives and captors as the prison guards at Hakodate were disarmed.
The next day, Major Devereux had the members of the Marine 1st Defense Battalion fall in and led them in close-order drill.