BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. October 7, 2013, will be the 70th anniversary of the massacre of 97 American civilians (one contractor had been killed earlier for stealing food) by the Japanese occupiers on Wake Island.
On October 7, 1943, following two days of blistering attacks from fighters off the USS Yorktown, the Imperial Japanese marched 97 American civilian contractors to a trench facing the majestic turquoise water that surrounds the coral atoll. After almost two years of mistreatment and forced labor, they were bound, blindfolded and forced to the ground. Then the machine guns sounded.
These fathers, brothers, sons — now referred to as the Wake 98 (one contractor had been killed earlier for stealing food) — came from places such as Klamath Falls, Ore., and Wahoo, Neb. Their story had been almost forgotten, until recently.
This massacre was done on the order of the island’s commander Admiral Sakaibara. One assumes as an Admiral he was educated and would have known right from wrong. History suggests that the Japanese culture of the time developed all kinds of justifications for the murder of innocent civilians. Sakaibara personally beheaded an American civilian.
Wake Island was not the worst Massacre nor the most infamous of Imperial Japan’s military’s tendency to favor the expediency of a mass killing over a humane plan for those suddenly put into their care. On the beach at Bangka in 1942, Japanese soldiers machine gunned 22 shipwrecked Australian military nurses. There was only one survivor, Vivian Bullwinkle. I had the honor to meet and spend time with Vivian in 1992 when she traveled to Banka Island to unveil a shrine to the nurses who had not survived the war.
The 98 men were what were left of the 1,150 civilian contractors on Wake Island who were transported on what became known as Hell Ships to POW camps in Japan and China. An interesting side note, recently an organization who were placing a memorial stone at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific were not allowed to use the words “Hell Ship”, it was thought that would not promote peace and healing. I couldn’t help but think at the time what the reaction would be if someone started editing the words describing the Holocaust.
These men had been employed by the Morrison-Knudsen Company, to build an airfield, seaplane base, and submarine base and to dredge a channel into the lagoon to allow access for U.S. submarines. The 98 men who remained on Wake were forced as slave labor for the Japanese, in violation of the Geneva Convention, to work at various military projects on all three islands of the atoll.
The Wake Island fellows have had a rough time, in more ways than one. Not only were they terribly mistreated by the Japanese and had their history edited by our Veterans Affairs. Our American Congress has failed endlessly to pass the legislation to provide reparations to the civilian survivors or widows of Wake and other areas in the South Pacific. Ironically, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are all paying their POWs since Japan will not.
Although the US has recently contributed millions of dollars to Americans imprisoned by Germany, our government has no interest in providing just compensation to those who suffered in the Pacific Theatre.
The families of the 98 men murdered on Wake would have been eligible to receive $1 a day for missed meals, $60 a month for civilian status, and I think $7500 for their death. However, I am curious whether any family member of the 98 ever filed a claim since the information was withheld for so many.
Let’s remember these men were American heroes. They were doing a tough job to help defeat the Japanese Empire. Instead of using their skills to avoid the draft and stay at home, out of harm’s way, they volunteered to go where they were needed and they finally paid the ultimate price to defend our country.
As a result of the way the remains of these men were disrespected by the Japanese, they were unable to be individually identified. They are now in a mass grave in section G of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific located in Honolulu, Hawaii.