(WWII) WAKE ISLAND FALLS TO THE JAPANESE

From E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division website, WWII
Forwarded by p38bob

There is a reference to “primitive walkie talkies” in the official Marine Corps history of the battle of Wake. I have a vague memory of Gunner McKinistry and a fellow Marine trying out two of these contraptions and tossing them back into the storage bin in disgust when all they could get was static.

They were primitive, indeed, and to my knowledge were never used on Wake Island, probably because of their “primitiveness.” The only communication the Island Commander had with his troops and outlying outposts were telephone land lines, inexplicably strewn atop the coral and sand for all to see, including the invading Japanese. When the Japanese cut these lines in the early morning of December 23, 1941, they effectively ended any coordinated defense of Wake.

Very early on that morning, we heard the rattle of machine gun and small arms fire and the booms of five inch and three inch guns coming from the direction of Wilkes and the south shore of Wake. We had moved to the north shore of Wake several nights before and, cursing our ineffectiveness, lay low in our gun pit while several Japanese dive bombers zoomed almost as ineffectively overhead, waiting for the “word,” as Marines always do, in combat or elsewhere. (A traditional greeting between Marines begins, “Hi, Ol' Buddy, what's the word?”)

Our land lines had not yet been cut, so the “word” finally came from Major Devereux - Deploy the AAA gun crews as infantry to participate in the last-ditch defense of the island. On Wilkes and the south shore of Wake the Japanese had landed and the fighting was fierce. Our last fighter plane had crash landed on the beach and our aviators were now infantrymen and artillerymen. Fighter pilot Captain “Hammerin' Hank” Henry Elrod would receive a posthumous Medal of Honor for his nearly single-handed exploits against Japanese landing parties with a three inch gun that had been converted into a beach defense weapon.

Marines defending Wilkes had won their part of the war. They had successfully fought off, killed, or captured all members of the Japanese landing force who had landed, or tried to land, on Wilkes. When Major Devereux crossed the channel separating Wake from Wilkes with his white surrender flag, it took several minutes of intense negotiation to convince Captain Wesley “Cutie” Platt, the senior officer on Wilkes, that he and his men should lay down their arms and surrender to the Japanese, because on Wilkes they were winning their war with the Japanese!

Down the line a bit on Wake Island proper, Second Lieutenant Arthur A. Poindexter led a roving beach patrol consisting of mess cooks, supply clerks, sailors, and civilians which under his leadership managed to inflict numerous casualties on the landing force. One of his troopers later referred to him as “either crazy as a bedbug, or the bravest guy alive.” Why he only received a Bronze Star for his “deeds of derring-do” on this fateful day is still a good question, 64 years later.

Enter Dr. Shigeyoshi Ozeki. Dr. Ozeki was a Japanese medical officer who participated in both the successful landing and its aborted predecessor. His recently discovered testimony raises questions about the nature of the assault on Wake.

Here is how he recalls the final battle: “Of the entire force which was to go ashore on that morning, only the officers and a few men with LMGs would be issued ammunition. The remainder of the assault group would be going ashore with empty ammo pouches, empty chambers, and nothing between them and the enemy but fixed bayonets.

“There were two reasons for taking away the men's ammunition. The first was that if the men had bullets they would lay down in the sand and attempt to shoot at the enemy instead of closing in. The attack would stall and we would be driven back into the surf. The second reason was that the command didn't want the enemy to know they outnumbered us 2 to 1“. (This miscalculation probably resulted from counting the 1100-odd civilians as members of the island's defense force. Only the Marines were armed, and there were only 449 of them.) “One did not doubt the wisdom of one's superiors in the Imperial Japanese Navy, where independent thought and reasoning were not cultivated. Besides, the NLF was trained using proven battle techniques time-tested through years of combat in China. The bayonet charge was sure to turn even the most stubborn enemy to terror-stricken flight.”

Unfortunately, none of Wake's defenders seemed to have ever been to China! If true, Dr. Ozeki's assertion that Japanese charged the beaches on Wake with fixed bayonets and no ammo does much to explain the relatively small number of casualties inflicted upon the defenders. At the end of the final day of battle, Major Devereux counted just 26 dead, including 12 civilians, compared to an estimated 350 enemy KIA.

There are two small mentions of Dr. Ozeki in the 725 pages of Greg Urwin's Facing Fearful Odds, neither of them relevant to his statements about the Japanese landing force. Bill Sloan, in the most recently written book about Wake (2003) Given Up For Dead, places Ozeki on the island and describes his activities there, almost word for word as I have done, but not one word about the Japanese Landing Force not issuing ammunition to its riflemen. I assume that Sloan has the same testimony by Dr. Ozeki that I do, because he has used some of it that is identical with mine, but has chosen for whatever reason to omit this controversial item from his book.

When I asked retired Colonel Poindexter several years before his death about Dr. Ozeki's account, he wrote me that it was “quite astounding, but thinking back on it, the part about the Jap riflemen not having ammunition for their weapons adds up. I have often wondered how our people avoided being annihilated.”

While Lieutenant Poindexter and his men were avoiding being annihilated on that final day, across the island we anti-aircraft crewmen were being mustered in a clearing next to the lagoon in response to Major Devereux's order to become infantry and help repel the Japanese attack. We formed into ranks as skirmishers under the leadership of Sergeant Raymon Gragg, a former sea-going Marine with the heavily-muscled neck and shoulders of an Olympics-level wrestler, which he had been. We knew that Japanese were on the island, but had yet to see one, but each of us had our Springfield rifles and sufficient ammo to give the invaders some headaches and most of us were eager to get into the action, some more so than others.

As we were forming into skirmisher squads and waiting for further “word,” Private Rufus B. Austin, perhaps in emulation of fire-breathing Civil War predecessors from the great state of Alabama, decided to single-handedly attack the invasion force. We sat on him for a while until he cooled off. Rufus had followed another southern tradition in lying to the recruiting sergeant about his age. He and several other southern lads with us on Wake had yet to discover which end of the safety razor was the business end. I think Rufus had just turned 16.

Just as we were beginning to advance towards the fire fight we could see and hear going on across the island, the final “word” came, and it was not good. Surrender? Marines don't surrender! At first we didn't believe it, but it was confirmed, and then confirmed again. Surrender. Infamy. Disgrace. Some of us wept. I took the bolt out of my trusty 1025827 Springfield and threw it one direction into the lagoon and the rifle itself in another direction. My fellow Marines followed suit.

Sergeant Gragg tried to blow up the nearest three inch gun by stuffing blankets down the tube and firing a shell, without success. The blankets flapped skyward like awkward misshapen birds and finally settled in the lagoon. Sergeant Gragg then tried to disable the gun by tossing live hand grenades down the elevated barrel, but that didn't work either. The three inch guns were still in basic operating order when the Japanese finally rounded us up later in the day, but completely useless as anti-aircraft weapons without a fire control system, which we managed to destroy.

Someone in the three inch director crew decided that the best way to incapacitate the director was to fire several rounds from a .45 caliber pistol into it, which destroyed the director but also wounded by ricochet Sergeant Robert Box, one of our “more civilized” younger NCO's in my humble private's estimation. Fortunately, his wounds were not serious.

The reality of our situation really hit home when Major Devereux, escorted by Japanese troops, appeared at our position in a vehicle flying a white flag. It was all over. Or was it just beginning? Or both?

We were herded by Japanese soldiers towards the airstrip, where we were stripped of outer clothing, including boots, and had our hands tied behind our backs with communications wire looped around our necks so that any downward pressure on our hands choked us. We were then marched towards a revetment that had been previously gouged by civilian bulldozers in the coral and sand next to the airstrip. We were forced to kneel on the bank of this big ditch while several Japanese machine gun crews spaced a few yards apart behind us chattered excitedly as they locked and loaded their weapons.

I had read about Japanese atrocities against Chinese in Asia, and I had no doubt that we Americans were about to be added to the list. We waited for the inevitable under the hot sun. My blood had run too cold for me to sweat.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an apparition that seemed to live up to the caricatures of Japanese men that had been appearing in American magazines and newspapers for the past several years. I turned to get a better look and saw a diminutive but stocky Japanese man dressed in white shorts, knee-length white socks and white shoes, with eyeglasses, of course, bow-legged, of course, caparisoned with an appropriate gold-filagree-billed white cap, and armed with a ceremonial sword, who had just begun a loud and seemingly furious argument with the Japanese officer in charge of the detachment manning the machine guns.

I turned halfway around to get a better look without arousing any opposition from the guards, who seemed as interested as I was in the ongoing dialogue. I could not understand a word of it, but realized that my life, and every other American's on the island, depended upon the outcome. The commander of the landing party was going to do what all good Japanese soldiers did to surviving enemies defeated in combat, massacre them. It was not necessary to understand the Japanese language to understand that. But apparently someone higher up in the chain of command had decided that we were worth more alive than dead for propaganda purposes, and that it was time for the Japanese to be seen as merciful winners. The only obstacle was the landing force commander, who had other plans for us.

Several eternities passed during the fifteen minutes or so that it took for the landing force commander to back down and agree to spare our lives. The white-clad Japanese officer returned to his vehicle and was driven away, the machine gunners behind us muttered what sounded like curses as they began packing up their weapons, and I started breathing normally again. I discovered many years later that the “angel in white” who saved our lives was Rear Admiral Kajioka Sadamichi, commander of the invasion fleet.

We were marched back to the airstrip and herded into the ammo bunkers alongside, still hogtied with comm wire. Here we had a chance to loosen each other's bonds, some to the point that we were not really tied up at all. A few hotheads wanted to overpower the few Japanese soldiers who were guarding us. Wiser heads prevailed with the argument, “OK, then what?”

We were soon marched out again, this time to the airstrip where we joined the rest of the 1600 survivors of the battle of Wake. We were untied and herded onto the landing field, where we sprawled on the white coral to toast, half naked, in the sub-tropical noonday sun, no water, no food, no heads, our “encampment” ringed with barbed wire and machine guns. We grouped ourselves together by unit or profession; civilians at one end of the strip, Marines at the other.

When the sun went down we exchanged one discomfort for another and huddled our semi-naked bodies together for warmth against the cold winds blowing in from the sea. It was not until noon the next day that water came, in unrinsed fifty-five gallon drums that had originally contained gasoline. It was awful stuff, but by this time we were thirsty enough to drink from a hog wallow, so we swilled down as much of it as we could stand.

For days afterward, everything tasted or smelled of gasoline, including the meager rations of gruel and bread that we received before we were moved into the former civilian barracks on Christmas day, where the Japanese allowed our Marine and civilian cooks to get back into action, and we began receiving two meals a day.

Just before the move, the Japanese had gathered up all the discarded clothing they could find and dumped it at the airstrip. None of us found our original clothing. I wound up in civilian khaki with shoes that almost fit, and there was no longer any way to tell who was civilian and who was Marine by their attire. We were a motley crew, indeed. At least 350 civilian members of this motley crew had actively participated in the defense of Wake, and dozens of them had died or been wounded in the act. Many of them begged Major Devereux to enlist them as Marines, a request he denied on the grounds that he had no authority to do so. As far as the Japanese were concerned, we were all “horios,” prisoners of war, civilian, soldier, sailor, or Marine alike. After the surrender,

Dr. Ozeki had assisted the American Naval doctor and civilian surgeon in tending to the wounded on both sides. His compassionate treatment of American patients is recalled with gratitude by Marines who were under his care. Former Marine Wiley Sloman, recovering from a serious head wound, recalled before his recent death that Dr. Ozeki granted his request for American food to replace the rice and seaweed that he couldn't eat. Wiley had been left for dead on Wilkes until a “clean-up crew” after the surrender found him and brought him to the hospital.

The Americans on Wake were not what Dr. Ozeki expected: “The Americans who surrendered to us were not the savage brutes we had expected to encounter. We had been instructed that in hand-to-hand combat to never allow an American ‘gorilla’ to come within arm's length as they were all trained boxers and one solid punch was enough to break a man's neck.” It made me laugh to hear from one of the POWs that they were told to stay clear of US because we were all black belts in Judo and Jujitsu. Many of the Americans with whom Dr. Ozeki conversed were undoubtedly civilians, who outnumbered the Marines three to one. Marines and civilians had been stripped and reattired willy-nilly in each other's clothing and Dr. Ozeki's remarks indicate that he considered all Americans on Wake to be Marines.

Shortly after the surrender, Dr. Ozeki selected then PFC Edwin Borne to drive a truck around the island picking up wounded Japanese soldiers, later collecting wounded Americans. For the next several hours, Borne ferried the doctor around the island on various other errands. The selection of POWs to drive vehicles was a necessary evil. In pre-World War II Japan most lower-ranking Japanese soldiers or sailors had never ridden in a motor vehicle, let alone operated one. American POWs captured in the Philippines, where Japanese army discipline was notoriously poor, would watch in grim satisfaction as Japanese soldiers mangled captured vehicles and themselves in “kamikaze” attempts to master the mysterious enemy machines.

In a rare post-war reconciliation, Dr. Ozeki met several years ago with his former part-time chauffeur, Eddie Borne and two of his former patients, Wiley Sloman and Walter T. Kennedy in Nagoya, Japan. This event apparently received a lot of “good press” in Japan, but has divided the dwindling ranks of Wake Island Defenders. Some believe that it is time to let bygones be bygones with the Japanese; others are adamant that it can never happen in their lifetime.

Regardless of the policies of his government, past and present, Dr. Ozeki proved himself to be a humanitarian on Wake Island. To revile him merely because he is Japanese is no different than the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reviling all Americans, and they do not. We should also forgive, but not forget. As time marches on, it is beginning to be a moot point. Dr. Ozeki is no longer with us and there are only a few Wake Islanders left on both sides of the debate, so perhaps the issue will soon fade away into the sunset, as it should.

After we were crowded into the civilian barracks on Wake by the Japanese, the Japanese soldiers became much more amiable and willing to try out their few English words. Along with Dr. Ozeki, they had discovered that Americans were human after all and not the “gorillas” they had feared to find on Wake Island. In an amazing display of naiveté, Japanese “technicians” took our three inch gun crews, including me, back to our gun positions and requested instructions on their operation. There were con-artists among us, including me, so in short order, small integral mechanisms such as firing locks wound up buried in the sand or in the depths of the lagoon.

I have wondered about this for more than 60 years. Did the Japanese really believe that we would cooperate with them? One explanation for this apparent simple-minded trust may lie in the Japanese Bushido attitude towards surrender. Death before surrender, says Bushido. Surrender is such a despicable act that once one surrenders, one loses all honor and becomes so depraved that moral scruples are out the window, so why not betray one's country's secrets to its enemies? I can think of no other explanation for the Japanese technicians' strange belief that we would show them how our weapons worked.

On January 12th, most of us embarked on the Nitta Maru, a former passenger ship that had been converted into a troop ship. We left behind the seriously wounded and about 350 civilians. The Naval Landing Force which had taken Wake was an elite assault force, the Japanese equivalent of American Marines. They appeared to respect the courage and military skill of the defenders, even though we had violated the warrior code of Bushido by surrendering, and there had been no serious mistreatment of POWs on the island. This would soon change.

As we came over the side of ship up the Jacob's ladder from the landing barge below, we ran a gauntlet of kicks, blows and screaming epithets from members of the ship's crew. The small bundles of possessions that some of us carried were confiscated or thrown overboard. We were shoved and kicked down the ladders into two large cargo holds which measured less than four feet from top to bottom. Except at the hatchways, it was impossible to stand up straight. Guards were posted at the hatchways. We soon discovered that attracting their attention in any way was a drastic mistake.

Newly posted guards asserted their authority by testing judo throws or punches on the handiest prisoners. For the remainder of their watch they randomly cuffed and whacked prisoners who caught their eye. Since we were forbidden to change positions or move about under pain of death, those nearest the guards received more than their share of punishment. I had foresightedly scuttled as far away from the hatch as I could and missed my share of the fun. It took some of us longer than others to learn the first rule of survival in a prison camp: Be as inconspicuous as possible. Notice that in the REGULATIONS FOR PRISONERS reproduced below, death sentences are prescribed for such dire crimes as “individualism” and “egoism.” The Japanese sure knew our weak spots.

We spent the next 12 days miserably huddled in the cargo holds of the Nitta Maru. Twice a day we received a bowl of watery rice gruel, garnished occasionally with bits of pickled daikon (Japanese radish) or small half-rotten fish, heads and all. By the time the trip ended we no longer turned up our noses at our Oriental menu and had begun to consider fish eyeballs a delicacy. As we moved into the colder waters of the northern Pacific, our thin cotton blankets were no longer adequate, and we shook and shivered and huddled together for warmth.

The thirty officers making the trip fared somewhat better in a small compartment that had once been used for a mailroom. They, too, received their share of beatings from sadistic guards. On 18 January, the ship arrived in Yokohama, where thirty of the prisoners, including the squadron commander of VMF 211, Major Paul Putnam, were removed and taken to a prison camp at Zentsuji, where they would join their fellow POWs from Guam. Most of them were officers or men who for one reason or another the Japanese apparently believed possessed more technical information than other prisoners.

The Yokohama layover provided a propaganda bonanza for the Japanese. Senior officers were interviewed and photographed by Japanese reporters, who insisted that they smile for the cameras. An article in a Japanese newspaper boasted that the prisoners “were admiring the bushido treatment they received on the boat” and that “the Japanese exerted every effort to thresh out American individualism. Now they are very cooperative with the Japanese.” These pictures eventually made their way back to America, where they appeared in Time Magazine. Down in the hold, we had no idea what was going on and had no chance to smile for the cameras.

On January 20 the ship set sail for Shanghai and further lessons in bushido. Two days out of Yokohama, the commander of the fifty-man prisoner-guard detachment, Captain Toshio Saito, mustered his men and available ship's company on the main deck and called for five prisoners, apparently selected at random, to be brought forward. One of the Japanese crewmen present recalled the scene in post-war testimony to the War Crimes Commission:

Captain Saito took his position on a box or a barrel which was approximately three feet in width. He drew his sword and held it at his right shoulder to indicate that the executions were to begin. Saito took a piece of paper from his pocket. the following message was read by Saito to the five prisoners of war (who were blindfolded) in front of him in Japanese and was substantially as follows: “You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed - for revenge. You are here as representatives of your American soldiers and will be killed. You can now pray to be happy in the next world - in heaven.” After reading the death warrant Saito folded the paper and I believe he placed it in his pocket. Each of the victims was made to kneel by the guards standing sentry over them. They were blindfolded with hands tied behind them.

I recall of the five victims, two of them had their heads completely cut from their bodies. Their heads rolled to one side. Three of the victims were not totally decapitated. At Saito's orders, a different warrant or petty officer “stepped up to the plate” for each prisoner. The ship's crew enthusiastically applauded each blow, even when botched and the head was not chopped off properly, requiring the swordsman to make a second chop or even a third. When all five heads were finally chopped off, other men were handed the swords for the sport of trying to cut the corpses in two with a single stroke, samurai style. But none of them were samurai; they were just hackers, slashing away in a welter of blood.

When they had had enough, Saito had the bodies propped against a sake barrel so that his guards could stick them for bayonet practice. When the bayoneters had had enough, the carcasses and the chopped-off heads were thrown overboard. That night, Saito invited some guests to celebrate the satisfactions of the occasion. (Gavan Daws, Prisoners of the Japanese, p. 49)

From the testimony of Japanese witnesses and participants, it is clear that Saito acted without authority in the time honored tradition of gekokujo, which can be loosely translated in this case to mean a “heroic” act by a subordinate in defiance of higher authority. He could be reasonably certain that if and when his actions became known to higher authority, reproof, if any, would be mild, completely eclipsed by admiration for his warlike Bushido spirit. The beheadings were obviously not meant as a warning to other prisoners, who may have suspected the worst, but did not discover what happened until after the war.

Saito's apparent motive was to “harden” his men for combat by forcing them to participate in a bloody slaughter. This was common practice in the Japanese army, which had access to Chinese prisoners, but uncommon in the Navy due to the lack of available victims. Retired Commander Glenn Tripp, USN, then a third class petty officer, was a close friend of two of the sailors executed on the Nitta Maru. He claims that a Japanese warrant officer who spoke a little English told him that the five men had been beheaded and that the story was common knowledge among the prisoners.

General Devereux does not mention the incident in his book, published immediately after the war. It seems inconceivable that he would have left this event out of his book had he known about it. In his 1961 memoir, Admiral Cunningham states that he did not learn of the atrocities until after the war. It is also inconceivable that the admiral's yeoman, Glenn Tripp did not pass on his knowledge to the admiral while they were together in prison camp. Sorry Glenn, your memory is playing tricks on you.

Four of the five petty officers involved in the Nitta Maru massacre were tried and sentenced to life at hard labor by the War Crimes Tribunal after the war; a fifth was acquitted. After about nine years of imprisonment, they were paroled. Saito, who survived the war, strangely enough could not be found and was never brought to justice. Commander Cunningham has remarked, “How [Saito] could remain uncaptured through all these years in an island kingdom noted for its effective police control is a final mystery well worth pondering.” (W. Scott Cunningham, Wake Island Command, p. 161, 162))

We arrived in Shanghai in the middle of a winter drizzle. We were marched off the ship onto the Whangpoo River docks and then several miles to our new home at the Woosung prison camp. The route was roundabout and longer than necessary, apparently to impress as many Chinese citizens of the occupied city as possible with the spectacle of once proud American Marines reduced to misery and degradation by the conquering forces of Japan.

Upon arrival at the Woosung barracks, we stood at a semblance of attention for several hours in the frozen mud, shivering and shaking in our bits of summer clothing as the Camp Commandant, interpreted by a barely intelligible interpreter, made an interminable speech followed by an interminable interpretation tabulating the multitude of camp rules and regulations and the dire punishments for infractions thereof, the most common of them being, “you will be shoot.” We were also informed that all camp activities, from reveille to taps, would be governed by the “voice of the cornet.”

The Woosung camp was an abandoned Chinese cavalry camp, consisting of seven unheated wooden barracks which had been hastily surrounded by an electric fence. Already interned there were a handful of British and American servicemen who had been rounded up in Shanghai in the early days of the war. The food was of slightly greater quantity, but no better quality, than our fare aboard the Nitta Maru. A bowl of rice now appeared along with the watery soup that was a staple of the POW diet. We were warned not to drink the water, but there was abundant green tea. It was weak, but it was hot, and helped to diffuse the cold. I drank nothing but green tea during my entire time in Shanghai.

We each received two flimsy blankets, but they were insufficient to counteract the icy drafts blowing through the cracks in the walls of the unheated barracks. We tried to keep warm at night by sharing blankets and sleeping three or more together spoon fashion. We soon developed the skill of rolling over together in unison in order to keep our blanket cover intact when one of us developed a cramp and had to change position.

In early February the North China Marines arrived, bag and baggage, decked out with full uniforms, overcoats and fur-lined hats. To them we raggedy-ass survivors of Wake must have looked like fugitives from a hobo camp. No such thing as a uniform, everybody needed a haircut, and because we had to share the few razors among us, many of us were unshaven since surrender. To us, the newcomers looked like visitors from another more hospitable and barely remembered planet. One of the Wake Island civilians shouted out, “Hey, are you guys Russians?”

This was the beginning of a quandary which, because it had no satisfactory resolution, led to hard feelings on all sides that in some cases have persisted to this day. Two hundred North China Marines arrived with a full issue of winter clothing. Four hundred Wake Island Marines and eight hundred civilians had none. It would have required the judgment of a Solomon to decide, first, what exactly could be considered surplus in the baggage of the North China Marines, and second, how to distribute that insufficient surplus to twelve hundred needy men. In the absence of Solomon, no action was taken by either Japanese or Marine Officers to resolve the disparity. In the end, there was indeed some voluntary sharing, not nearly enough from the standpoint of the Wake Islanders; all that could be expected in the view of the North China Marines.

Our chief interpreter at Woosung was Isamu Ishihara, whose activities soon earned him the sobriquet, “Beast of the East.” One of my first encounters with this completely humorless martinet occurred outside the barracks, where several of us were taking our daily exercise with blankets wrapped around our shoulders to ward off the cold. Ishi came marching around a corner of the building and immediately exploded, “You stupid individualists! (His supreme insult) How come you wear blankets?”

One of us replied, “But Mr. Ishihara, because it's cold!.”

Ishi's reply: “It's winter time! You supposed to be cold!”

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