Massacre on Wake Island
By Major Mark E. Hubbs, U.S. Army Reserve (Retired)
A contractor for the U.S. Army on Wake Atoll recently happened upon an obscure memorial to 98 American construction workers who died there in 1943. The simple boulder pictured at right, beyond a plaque listing their names, is the stark remnant of a disturbing World War II incident. Soon after lining up for the photo above, taken during the Japanese surrender of Wake in September 1945, Rear Admiral Shigimatsu Sakaibara— at left, front row—and 15 other Japanese officers and men who had acted under his orders were arrested for war crimes.
I drove my tiny Mitsubishi pick-up truck past the end of Wake Island, across the causeway to Wilkes Island, and to a point on the map that said "POW Rock." I slid to a stop near a shiny new sign that read: "POW Rock, no vehicles allowed beyond this point." Leading away from the narrow road was a coral gravel walkway lined by white coral rocks the size of footballs. The path led to a low rectangular granite block, topped with a bronze plaque. Beyond the block, on the shore of the lagoon, a four-foot-high dome of coral thrust its way up among smaller boulders. I traced a roughly chiseled inscription in the rock with my finger that said "98 US PW, 5-10-43". This simple inscription is the only trace of a mass murder that took place nearly 58 years ago.
Much has been written about the heroic Marine Corps defense of Wake Island during the opening days of World War II. Dr. Gregory Urwin's recent award-winning book, Facing Fearful Odds, chronicles the development of the atoll in the months before the war, and the stubborn fight put up by its Marine, Navy, and civilian defenders. Little has been written, however, about the Americans captured at Wake, and more specifically, about 98 of them who were summarily executed by the Japanese there in 1943.
In the dawning hours of 23 December 1941, the Japanese captured 1,603 men with the fall of the island garrison.1 Among those were 1,150 civilian contractors employed by the Morrison-Knudsen Company, part of a cooperative of eight construction companies called the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases. Headquartered in Boise, Idaho, Morrison-Knudsen was contracted to build an airfield, seaplane base, and submarine base and to dredge a channel into thelagoon to allow access for submarines.2
As resistance ceased on Wake, the U.S. Marines, sailors, and contractors were marched to the runway and seated in rows facing a line of Japanese machine guns. The men were certain that they were to be executed. Indeed, this was the plan of the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops who held them. Only the intervention of Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, who commanded the invasion force, prevented the slaughter. After Kajioka arrived, an interpreter read a proclamation to the prisoners that said, in part: "The Emperor has gracefully presented you with your lives." An unknown voice bellowed from the crowd of Americans: "Well, thank the son-of-a-bitch."3
With the exception of a handful of senior military officers and contractors held indoors, the captives remained three days and two nights on the rocky runway. Leal Russell wrote in his otherwise optimistic diary, one of at least two surviving accounts of the Morrison-Knudsen men's experiences on Wake: 23 December—". . . Rocks hard, rain, wind, no cover and few cloths. Bread and water. Very uncomfortable night." 24 December—"Still on the rock-pile. Very hard on the unclothed men and those who are ill. Many have dysentery. . . Men hard to control while food and water being passed out. Act like wolves. . . ."4
Tensions of the previous days relaxed a bit on Christmas morning. One contractor remembered that they were allowed to retrieve clothing, food, and tobacco from their dugouts.5 Russell recalled that the POWs were allowed to bury their dead and were fed well for the first time. They were marched to the north end of the island and put into the barracks they had used before the beginning of hostilities. Several 40-man barracks were packed with 150 men each, but the men had shelter at last. He recorded on 27 December: "Japanese treating us with reasonable consideration."6
Three weeks after the fall of Wake, the POWs awoke to see a large vessel, the Nita Maru, standing off the southern shore. She had arrived to transport the POWs to camps in China. "About 350 including the key men were selected and were supposed to stay," wrote Russell.7 Lee Wilcox, another of the Morrison-Knudsen men, recorded in his diary on 12 January: "All but 360 of the contractors have been sent to Japan today. [Wilcox assumed the destination was Japan.] Also the service men except 21 Marines who are too badly wounded to go."8 The 360 contractors who remained were chosen because of their skills in operating heavy equipment. They would continue the military build-up of Wake Island with the same supplies and equipment that they had used for the U.S. Navy. This time, however, the new architects of the island defenses were the Japanese.
The short passages in Wilcox's diary are filled with despair and hopelessness; he paints a bleak picture, recording 45 deaths between January and November 1942. Each entry acknowledges a death or burial: "30 March 1942—Geo. Proteau died at 5 A.M. this date. Four days ago his son died [Laurence Proteau]. The old man was very weak and had a bad heart"; "4 May 1942, 12:10 P.M.—Geo. Walker died. He leaves a wife and daughter 4 years old"; "16 July 1942—Buried Bill Miles today at the east end of the runway, in Marine casket." Evidently, Wilcox was a veteran of World War I and a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). In several entries he describes donning his "VFW emblem" to perform "VFW Services" and "VFW Rituals" for fellow veterans who were being interred.9
Russell's diary stands in marked contrast to Wilcox's. Russell paints a more optimistic picture of his life as a POW, mentioning only two of the contractor deaths recorded by Wilcox. As a high-ranking supervisor, Russell was exempt from much of the backbreaking work details to which the rank-and-file were subjected. His keen eyes recorded the daily coming and going of bombers, fighters, and ships from Wake as well as the weather and day-to-day activity of the Japanese garrison. He seemed to be very interested in his captors and cultivated cordial relationships with some, even arranging dental work for "Okazaki" with Dr. Lawton "Lou" Shank, the U.S. contractor doctor. He also describes cooperative fishing forays on the reef with "Okazaki, Shimizu, Brooks, and Jenson."10
Russell surely was aware of the suffering that was going on around him and indeed that he was probably experiencing himself. His tone is up-beat in the diary, however, and he refrains from recording adversity except in extreme cases. One such case was the execution of Julius "Babe" Hoffmeister, who had been an alcoholic in the states before he took a job with Morrison-Knudsen. He signed on specifically to go to Wake Island, because he knew that Wake was a "dry" job site. He had hoped to cure himself so far from civilization. When the first bombing raid occurred in the morning hours of 8 December, Babe stole into the bombed-out hospital, took all the alcohol that he could find, and cached it in several sites around the island. He visited these caches throughout the 15-day siege of the island. Even after his capture, Hoffmeister sometimes would leave the compound to visit his stores. By May 1942, Babe's stash had been exhausted and he broke into the Japanese canteen to find alcohol. He was a harmless drunk, but he loved to sing when he got intoxicated. A Japanese guard found him, drunk in the canteen singing at the top of his lungs. On 8 May, Russell wrote:
Wakened by guards on coming into the barracks. They went inside and I could hear them questioning someone. After breakfast I found that they had arrested Babe Hoffmeister who was out of the compound during the night. Okazaki told me later he had broken into the canteen. They called several of the men in to question them concerning it but I think he was alone at the time. I also heard he was drunk. It is apt to go very hard on Babe as he had been repeatedly warned.11
After a hasty trial, Hoffmeister was blindfolded and forced to kneel at the edge of his grave. An officer of the garrison's headquarters company, Ensign Kiroku Horie, beheaded him where he knelt.12 Russell and several others were forced to witness the event. Of it Russell wrote: "May 10th—Julius 'Babe' Hoffmeister was executed this morning. Nearly all foremen and dept. superintendents were called to witness it. Possibly it will serve as a warning to some who still feel that they have some rights here."13 Next morning, with Babe's execution fresh on their minds, 20 Marines and sailors who had been recuperating from wounds received during the battle were taken from the atoll. They sailed away on the Asama Maru, bound for camps in China. Only the civilian contractors remained to toil for the enemy.14
The Japanese did not observe the Geneva Convention restriction on using POW labor for war-related projects, and the workers toiled at various military projects on all three islands of the atoll. In fact, the majority of their labors were of a military nature. Extensive antitank ditches—protected by slit and communication trenches—were dug on the outer and inner periphery of all three islands. Barbed-wire entanglements and land mines provided protection on potential landing areas. Inshore from the narrow beaches, an elaborate system of concrete defenses provided interlocking fire at almost any point on the atoll. An estimated 200 concrete and coral pillboxes, bunkers, bomb proofs, and command posts were constructed with U.S. assistance. Coral masonry revetments for aircraft, vehicles, and 30 heavy guns provided protection for weapons and equipment.15
Only the occasional U.S. bombing raid or Japanese holiday (when no work was performed) punctuated the monotonous life of the POWs. Russell passed what free time he had with his close friends, Dr. Shank and William Ray.16 Russell wrote: "Washington's Birthday on Wake Island and still prisoners of the Japanese. No change at all. We work, we eat, we sleep, and then we get up and do it all over again . . . Rumors fly but even they grow tiresome."
The rumors of prisoner evacuation became reality on the last day of September 1942. Of the captives, 265, including Wilcox and Russell, were loaded aboard a freighter and sent to Yokohama. Chosen to stay on Wake were 97 Americans, who were to continue their work on construction projects. Dr. Shank volunteered to stay behind to provide medical care. Russell entered in his diary on 12 October: "Much has happened since I last had an opportunity to write. 265 of us were chosen to leave the island. 98 were left including Lou [Shank] and Bill [Ray] who I sure hate to leave."17
The day-to-day record of POW life at Wake ended when Russell and Wilcox clambered aboard the Tachibana Maru.18 The routine of the remaining 98 did not change, however. The monotony was interrupted only by increasing U.S. bombing raids and the loss of one of the 98. An American was caught stealing food in July 1943. After a brief investigation, a Japanese lieutenant wielded the sword that removed the head of the unknown American. Rear Admiral Shigimatsu Sakaibara, the new island commander who had been whisked ashore by an Imperial Navy bomber from Kwajalein in December 1942, presided over the execution.19
The U.S. Navy also was tightening a noose around the atoll. Extensive submarine patrols harassed all shipping coming in and out of Wake. This increased attention aggravated the island commander. Sakaibara and his subordinates were certain that an invasion was imminent. In reality, the United States had no intention of forcing a landing on Wake. As with most Japanese-held islands that did not have a tactical or strategic role for further campaigns, they were merely isolated from their source of supplies and left to wither on the vine. Bombings were designed only to deprive the enemy of the use of their airfield, seaplane base, and port facilities.20
A U.S. carrier task force, which included the USS Yorktown (CV-10), arrived offshore on 5 October 1943. During the following two days the task force dropped 340 tons of bombs on the atoll, and the accompanying cruisers and destroyers hurled 3,198 eight-inch and five-inch projectiles.21 The raid did extensive damage to the infrastructure on the atoll, and 31 Japanese planes were destroyed on the ground.22 This was the largest U.S. raid on the atoll up to that time. Sakaibara was certain that the armada assembled offshore included a landing force. So he decided that the troublesome prisoners must be executed to eliminate the threat they might pose during the coming invasion.23
The Headquarters Company commander, Lieutenant Commander Tachibana, was ordered by Admiral Sakaibara to move the prisoners from their compound to an antitank ditch on the northern tip of Wake Island. There, in the waning afternoon light of 7 October 1943, Lieutenant Torashi Ito of Headquarters Company, had the Americans lined up and seated along the ditch facing the sea. They were blindfolded with their hands and feet bound. Three platoons of Tachibana's company mowed them down with machine gun and rifle fire. The Americans then were dumped unceremoniously into the ditch and covered with coral sand. The indignity suffered by the prisoners was not complete, however. The following day, a report from an enlisted man that he saw one of the prisoners escape during the confusion of the massacre prompted the disinterment of the bodies. The corpses were dug up and counted, then hastily reburied. The sailor had been correct; one American was missing. That man, whose identity has not been discovered, was re-captured and was beheaded personally by Admiral Sakaibara three weeks later.24
The mass grave on Wake lay forgotten for two years, despite several queries from the International Red Cross to Japanese officials. These requests went unanswered. When news reached Wake in August 1945 that the United States had prevailed, the Japanese for some reason felt it necessary to disturb the grave of the POWs once more. Hastily and clumsily, they extracted the bones from the ditch and moved them to the U.S. cemetery that had been established on Peacock Point after the battle. The remains were dumped into a small single grave.25 The cemetery also was roped off, and wooden crosses were erected and painted in preparation for the expected arrival of U.S. forces.26
When questioned about the last 98 Americans left on Wake, Admiral Sakaibara allowed Ensign Horie to explain. Horie recounted the bombings of October 1943. He recounted sadly how the Americans had been placed in two bomb shelters to protect them from their countrymen's bombs. One of the shelters had received a direct hit, however, and all the occupants had been killed. Those in the other shelter panicked, killed a guard and fought their way out of their compound. They had been cornered on the beach at the north end of Wake Island. Unfortunately all had fought to the death. Afterward, all the Americans had been buried near that spot of beach. Other Japanese who were questioned told the same story, almost word for word.27
Soon after the Japanese surrendered Wake Island on 4 September 1945, Admiral Sakaibara and 15 of his officers and men were arrested and sent to Kwajalein to stand trial for the murder of the 98 POWs. Two men committed suicide en route and left statements that implicated the admiral and others. While being held during the trial, which was conducted by a special military commission for war crimes, Lieutenant Ito also killed himself and left behind a signed statement. After being confronted with this statement, Sakaibara finally confessed that he had ordered the execution of the 98 Americans and stated that all responsibility should rest on his shoulders. The trial concluded with a sentence of death for Admiral Sakaibara and Lieutenant Commander Tachibana.28
Eventually, a reprieve was granted for Tachibana, whose sentence was commuted to life in prison. Sakaibara, however, was transported to Guam to await his fate. There, on 19 June 1947, he was executed by hanging along with five other Japanese war criminals.29 Sakaibara's last statement was filled with Japanese stoicism: "I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure."30
Section G of the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu has a large, flat, marble gravestone, at 5 by 10 feet the largest in the cemetery. On it are listed the names of 178 men. This common grave holds the remains of all the unidentified military and civilian burials repatriated from Wake Island in 1946. Many of these men were killed during the siege, and circumstances did not allow proper burial and identification. Of these names, 98 represent the men who were executed by the Japanese in October 1943. After several years of unsuccessful attempts to separate the remains and identify them, they were interred together during a ceremony at the Punchbowl in 1953.
Most of the families of the 98 were not notified of the fate their loved ones until January 1946. Letters from the American Prisoner of War Information Bureau stated only the location and date of death but did not explain the circumstances.31 Other families who may have changed address during the course of the war were more difficult to reach. The family of Archie Pratt did not learn of his fate until 1953.32 Some families already had suspected the fate of the 98, as Admiral Sakaibara's trial and sentencing had made the stateside newspapers. The war was over, the executions had occurred more than three years previously, and the public already had been outraged with the news of similar massacres in the Philippines and in the European Theater. No national acknowledgement of the Wake Island massacre ever materialized.
The Legacy of the Forgotten 98
I had researched and written about Wake Island for three years before I visited the atoll for the first time. I had assisted my customer, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, in complying with historic preservation laws at four Army installations. Of these, three are National Historic Landmarks for the events that occurred during World War II. Besides Wake Atoll, they include Kwajalein and Roi-Namur Islands at Kwajalein Atoll. My work consists of preparing environmental assessments and in complying with the National Historic Preservation Act, which protects the World War II properties at Wake. I finally got my chance for a visit in spring 1997.
The bland black-and-white news reels of the Pacific War that had burned into my psyche did not prepare me for the technicolor paradise that I encountered at the Wake Island Launch Center air terminal. A large sign declares "Wake Island Airfield, Where America's Day Really Begins." Indeed it does, as Wake is on the west side of the International Date Line. It was difficult to imagine Wake as the desolate hell that it was in 1941.
As I stood by POW Rock that first time, I was overcome by sorrow. Here an anonymous American chiseled a brief but poignant message that has come to symbolize the sacrifice of all 98 men. Nearby, the Morrison-Knudsen Company has erected a simple bronze tablet that lists the names of the 98. As I sat on a coral rock and looked at the tablet, I wondered if anyone back home remembers these men. Their parents have long since passed on, but are brothers, sisters, sons or daughters still living who remember their relatives? I wondered how often someone might think of these and honor their sacrifice. How long has it been since someone even uttered their names? Without deliberation, and without ceremony, I read each name from the tablet aloud.
Now, each time I visit Wake Island, I steal off to POW Rock alone in the late afternoon for a quiet time of reflection. I pray for those men whose tragedy has been all but forgotten by the nation for which they died. As the afternoon sun tinges the lagoon with a warm yellow glow, and as the surf crashes in the distance, I read the names aloud. (Click here to view a complete listing of the names and hometowns of "The Forgotten 98".)
Major Hubbs is a Cultural Resource Analyst at Teledyne Solutions Inc. He thanks Mike Timmons of the Chugach Development Corporation, which manages the island under contract to the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, and the command's Paul Fusco. They provide the time and resources to ensure that the POW Rock and other memorials on the atoll are cared for. Thanks also go to Lou Hitchcock of Chugach, the "official, unofficial historian" at Wake Island, who provided many of the resources for this article.
1. CAPT Earl A. Junghans, U.S. Navy, Wake Island 1568-1946
(self-published by author, circa 1946), p. 13. This 24-page document was
compiled by Captain Junghans, the island commander, for use on Wake Island.