Some of Wake Island’s Heroes

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BY DUANE A. VACHON – This is a short article about some tall men on a small island that we should never forget.

The American presence on the island that fateful morning consisted of 449 United States Marine Corp personnel.  The U.S. Navy had 68 personnel on the island and the U.S Army had 5 individuals posted to Wake.


As well as the military presence on Wake, there were 1,150 civilian contractors on the island that fateful morning.  They were employed by Morrison-Knudsen out of Boise, Idaho to build a seaplane base, airfield and to dredge a channel into the lagoon to allow access to a submarine base they were building.

On December 8, 1941, just a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor (which was on the other side of the International Date Line) several bombers from Japanese bases on the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island.

In that attack, 23 Marine personnel were killed and 10 civilian employees of Pan American Airways were killed as well.

Initially the Japanese task force was repulsed, the first Japanese defeat in the war.  The Japanese kept the atoll under constant attack and a U.S. relief force from Hawaii failed to arrive.

On December 23, the Japanese struck with a very powerful force and in five hours the island forces were forced to surrender.  There were over 1600 Americans captured, most of which were sent to China and Japan.  The Japanese held the island until September 4, 1945 when it was liberated by American forces.

One of the many atrocities committed by the Japanese on the island occurred late in the day on October 7, 1943. Lieutenant Commander Tachibana, following the orders of Admiral Sakaibara,  had 98 civilian POW’s moved to an anti-tank trench on the northern tip of the island.

They were bound hand and foot, blindfolded and told to sit on the edge of the trench.   Tachibana ordered his men to mow down the civilians with machine guns and rifles.  They were shoved into the trench and covered with coral sand.

That was not to be the end of the indignity for these civilians. The day after this atrocity one of the enlisted Japanese soldiers said he saw one of the prisoners escape.  Tachibana had the corpses dug up and counted.  The enlisted man had been right, one of the prisoners had escaped.  The man who had escaped was captured and Admiral Sakaibara personally beheaded him.

Wake produced more than its share of heroes:

There were 12 Navy Cross’s awarded

Robert O. Arthur, William Scoot Cunningham, Carl R. Davidson, James Patrick Sinnott Devereux, Herbert C. Freuler, Robert M. Hanna, James Frank Hesson, Charles C. Hill, John Roberts Himelrick, Lewis Smith Parks, Paul Albert Putman, Lawton E. Shank.  Dr Shanks is the only civilian to ever receive a Navy Cross.  It was downgraded from the Medal of Honor because he was a civilian.

There were four Distinguished Flying Cross’s  awarded

Robert E. Altman, Collin Purdie Kelly, Norman P. Michelsen, Frank Cunningham Tharin.

There were five Silver Star’s awarded

Howard D Comin, David D. Kliewer, John A. McAlister, Wesley M. Platt.  (John A. McAlister was awarded two Silver Stars).

One Medal of Honor was awarded

Henry Talmage Elrod.

When your travels next bring you to Honolulu, take some time to visit the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.  While you’re there, visit section “G”.

There you will easily find the largest marker in the cemetery.  It contains the names of 178 men, 98 of them civilians murdered by the Japanese on October 7, 1943. Take a few minutes and thank these men for their sacrifice.

I would like to thank Doug Sterner the curator of the Military Times Hall Of Honor for his assistance in gathering the information regarding the medals of valor awarded to the Wake Island defenders.





  1. Civilian construction employees who assited the Marines in defending the Island were awarded a ribbon by the Navy after the war.

    CJ CA

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