- Historic Sites
The Siege of Wake Island
An eyewitness account of the World War II battle in the Pacific.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
Time passed. The sky lightened. The steady drumming of machine guns came from all sides. I looked through the small screened vent at ground level and was surprised to see the long tube of our gun No. 1 stripped of camouflage, ready for action. None of the marines was in sight. Fortunately for us unarmed civilians, the Japanese landing parties avoided the strong rip-tides off Peacock Point, and passed a hundred yards to the west of our position on their way to the airport.
The sun was up now. A plane dived directly on us, passed close—scarcely a hundred feet overhead—and, miracle of miracles, nothing happened. Then we noticed a significant lull in the firing of the machine guns. I risked a glimpse top-side. Overhead a multitude of planes of all types were flying low over the island. Our two naval rifles, stripped of their camouflage, were naked and cold-looking in the early morning sunlight. They were glaring targets, but the Japanese airmen ignored them. I couldn’t figure it out.
After the hours of incessant gun fire, the sudden absolute quiet was awesome. We whispered in muted tones, or kept quiet, admonishing others to do likewise by sign language. Except for the soft murmur of a quiet sea lapping at the coral pebbles on the beach, Peacock Point was absolutely still.
At long last a man appeared in the clearing in the rear of our guns. It was Sergeant Warren. Approaching the magazine, he called: “You people can come on up. It’s all over. The island’s surrendered.”
I don’t know just what I did expect, but I hadn’t expected that. The thing that must not happen, the thing we dreaded most—more than mutilation or death—had happened. In a benumbed state of mind, I automatically took out the small notebook in which I had been keeping a diary, tore it into small fragments, and scattered them among the powder canisters. Loosening my belt, I removed the only weapon I possessed—a clasp knife with a four-inch blade—and tossed it behind a rack of shells. I crawled outside, and, unutterably weary, stood on unsteady legs.
Slowly, we made our way to the range finder. The skirmish line had broken up, and men were coming out of the brush from all directions. Some of the marines were busy opening tinned food. “Eat all you can,” Lieutenant Barninger admonished, “it may be a long time to the next meal.” He turned toward us. “You civilians get away from the battery. The Japs may class you as guerrillas if they find you here.”
“Let’s go up on the road and see what it’s all about,” I said to Johnny Clelan.
Johnny and I shook hands all around with the marines, and started up the trail. We came out on the road, and walked in the direction of the contractor’s camp.
The rounded dirt-covered crests of the four high-explosive magazines loomed ahead. A Japanese flag floated on top of one of them. Someone had left a half-full number ten can of pineapple rings in the middle of the road. We hooked several rings of the fruit over our fingers and walked toward captivity eating nonchalantly.
Two Japanese soldiers were standing on either side of the road in front of the first of the magazines. My initial impression of them was that they carried unusually long rifles and bayonets. A second glance revealed that the rifles were of ordinary size, but that the men holding them were very small. Both were wearing split-toed sneakers, which gave them a cloven-hoofed appearance. Round canvas-covered helmets came low over their heads and necks.
Beyond the sentries, a considerable group of nearly naked Americans were lying or sitting in the middle of the road. As we approached, the sentries grunted, making upward thrusts with their bayonets. We raised our hands over our heads. One of them stepped forward and pulled at my shirt, pointing at a heap of clothing by the side of the road. We stripped down, being allowed to retain only our under-shorts, socks, and shoes. Then we were herded in with the other prisoners, most of whom were trussed up with telephone wire cut from nearby communication lines. Their legs were tied together at the ankles. Their crossed wrists had been tied and drawn up between their shoulder blades, the lashings then looped around their throats in such a manner that any effort to release their wrists, or to relieve their arms from the twisted, cramped position, automatically resulted in cutting off their wind—an ingenious lash-up which rendered them perfectly inert. Many men wore dirty, blood-soaked bandages.
Japanese sentries with fixed bayonets stood guard over us. On top of a nearby high-explosive magazine, a sailor trained a light machine gun in our direction. The Japs were highly elated. Planes roared overhead. One of them—a biplane with pontoons—meandered over at an altitude of forty or fifty feet. The sailor on the magazine stood up, yelled “ banzai,” and waved his cap.
I looked out to sea. Hard by the reef, standing so close to each other that it seemed the bow of one overlapped the stern of the other, rising and falling with the ocean swells, Japanese men-of-war completely ringed the island. Not until years later, after V-J day, in fact, when I flew over Yokohama harbor en route to Guam, did I see so many ships assembled.
1 Wake is west of the International Date Line. Thus it was December 7 at Pearl Harbor.
2 Unfortunately, Wake Island was not equipped with radar.