BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. I now call myself a Kamaina, although my life began as a Hoosier. Maybe it’s days as a Hoosier that has drawn me to write about Dr. Shank. It’s more likely, however, that it was my friend Bonita Gilbert contacting me last week seeking some information on Dr. Shank that prompted me to put pen to paper and share some information on my fellow Hoosier. Bonita is the author of Building For War and my “go to person” for any information about Wake Island.
Lawton Ely Shank was born April 29, 1907, in Angola, Indiana. In 1936 Lawton married Ruby Ricker, a surgical nurse he met while working at a local hospital. In 1940 Dr. Shank went to work for Pan American Airways and was assigned to the Pacific region. Shank sailed for Honolulu on the SS Lurline in July 1940, and from Honolulu he flew to Canton via Pan American Clipper. In early 1941, Shank was assigned to Pan American’s Wake Island station. While Shank’s chief responsibility was to Wake’s Pan American employees and passengers, he also provided medical care for the navy contractors until the arrival of their physician Thomas Barrett in March 1941. Shank left for the mainland in July 1941, it’s not clear if it was a resignation, reassignment, or vacation.
Whatever the case, by the fall of 1941, the construction consortium Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases (CPNAB) operation had grown to over a thousand civilian workers on Wake. Doctor Barrett, several male nurses, and Dentist James Cunha worked steadily to treat everything from sunburn to burst appendix. Records confirm that CPNAB hired Shank that fall and he returned to Wake by Clipper on October 12, 1941, as a physician for the contractors. The U.S. Navy assigned Lt. (j.g.) G. Mason Kahn to Wake in November to serve as physician for the swelling military contingent on Wake. On December 4, 1941, Barrett departed Wake, leaving Shank as the only civilian medical doctor when war came four days later.
The first attack on Wake was on December 8, 1941. Doctors, nurses, and civilian volunteers worked tirelessly as casualties mounted. There were dozens killed and maimed during this initial bombing and strafing. Unfortunately the medical staff was ill prepared for this attack. It became worse the second day when the Japanese bombers returned. They targeted the full hospital that was clearly marked as a hospital, killing many more and destroying valuable supplies.
When the last contingent of prisoners departed Wake in September 1942, physician Lawton Shank, dentist James Cunha, and surgical nurse Henry Dreyer remained, three of the ninety-eight from whom nothing would ever be heard again.
Shank was one of the ninety-eight Americans murdered by the Japanese on Wake Island in 1943. When the last 265 prisoners to leave Wake Island alive were removed in September 1942, Shank volunteered to stay behind on Wake with the remaining prisoners. Shank’s medical skills and stalwart dedication to the welfare of civilians and military personnel went above and beyond his job description and call of duty. After the war, Dr. Lawton E. Shank was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously, the only American civilian recipient, then and now, of this high award.
He was nominated for the Medal of Honor, which was downgraded to the Navy Cross, presumably because of his status as a civilian. He is the ONLY U.S. Civilian ever awarded the Navy Cross.
AWARDS AND CITATIONS
The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Dr. Lawton E. Shank (U.S. Army Reserve), a United States Civilian, for extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy as Physician to American Contractors, Naval Air Station, Wake Island, while associated with the naval defenses on Wake Island on 9 December 1941. At about 1100, while in the camp hospital, during an intensive bombing and strafing attack in the course of which the hospital was completely destroyed and several persons therein killed or wounded, Doctor Shank remained at his post and supervised the evacuation of the patients and equipment. With absolute disregard for his own safety, and displaying great presence of mind, he was thus enabled to save those still living and to establish a new hospital in an empty magazine. Doctor Shank’s display of outstanding courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Action Date: 9-Dec-41
Service: U.S. civilian
Company: Physician to American Contractors
Dr. Lawton E. Shank’s remains are in a mass grave along with 178 others from Wake in section G of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. He is also memorialized at the Circle Hill Cemetery in Angola, Indiana
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. I would like to thank Bonita Gilbert, much of the information in this article was gleamed from her book titled Building For War. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.