RETURN TO WAKE ISLAND

SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

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Wake Island is a tiny coral atoll with a coastline of 12 miles just north of the Marshall Islands. American Brigadier General Francis Greene visited Wake Island in 1898 and raised the American flag while en route to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. In 1935, Pan American Airways constructed a small village, nicknamed “PAAville,” to service flights on its US – China route. In January 1941, the United States Navy constructed a military base on the atoll. On 19 August, elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, totaling 449 officers and men were stationed on the island, commanded by Navy Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham. There were also 68 U.S. Naval personnel and about 1,221 civilian workers.

On 8 December 1941, the day of the Attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7 in Hawaii - on the other side of the International Date Line), 27 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M medium bombers flown from bases on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the 12 F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft belonging to United States Marine Corps. The garrison, supplemented by civilian volunteers, repelled several Japanese landing attempts.

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Wake Island Cartoon – Ralph Lee – 1942
Department of Defense Photo (USMC)

An American journalist reported that after the initial Japanese amphibious assault was beaten back with heavy losses on 11 December, the American commander was asked by his superiors if he needed anything. The commander sent back the message, “Send us more Japs!” This alleged reply became a popular legend.

Without any support or resupply, the isolated U.S. garrison was eventually overwhelmed by a reinforced and greatly superior Japanese invasion force on 23 December 1941. American casualties numbered 52 military personnel (Navy and Marine) and approximately 70 civilians killed. Japanese losses exceeded 700 dead, with some estimates ranging as high as 1,000. Wake's defenders sank two Japanese destroyers and one submarine, and shot down 24 Japanese aircraft.

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Wake Island Movie Poster

Early in the war, with a string of Japanese victories over American forces, the American press heralded the battle for Wake Island as a great moral victory. Like the Alamo where all the Texans were killed, but “Remember the Alamo” became a battle cry, the fact that the undermanned U.S. Marines and Navy defenders held out for two weeks against overwhelming Japanese forces made the defeat seem like a victory. In fact, John Wukovits wrote a book about Wake Island entitled “Pacific Alamo.” Paramount studio began work on a movie while the battle was still being fought.

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Actor Brian Donlevy playing Marine Major James Devereux

The 1942 film, directed by John Farrow, made the battle a sentimental story for the Marines, with William Bendix loving a small dog named Skippy later killed by the Japanese. What would infuriate Americans more than the death of little Skippy? Among the Marines was a Pole whose wife was killed by the Germans in Warsaw and an American fighter pilot whose wife was killed by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was excellent propaganda and showed the Marines as clever fighters using their skills, while the Japanese were depicted first as devious and underhanded when a Japanese envoy landed at Wake and told the Marines that he brings a peace proposal from the Emperor; and later as murderous, brainless killers during the attack. The story was not historically accurate, but it did much to motivate the American desire to destroy the Japanese Empire. The film succeeded in its primary propaganda purpose of stirring patriotism. Wake Island was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture. Farrow won the 1942 New York Film Critics Circle Award for best director.

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Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara Surrenders Wake Island
Sakaibara was hanged on 18 July 1947 as a war criminal

After their victory, the island's Japanese garrison was composed of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 65th Guard Unit (2,000 men), and the Imperial Japanese Army’s 13th Independent Mixed Regiment (1,939 men). Many of the American prisoners of war were moved off the island. That was lucky for them because on 5 October 1943, American naval aircraft from the aircraft carrier Yorktown bombed Wake Island. Two days later, fearing an imminent invasion, Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the execution of the 98 captured American civilian workers remaining on the island, kept to perform forced labor. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and executed with a machine gun.

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The Wake Island Monument

One of the prisoners (whose name has never been discovered) escaped the massacre, apparently returning to the site to carve the message 98 US PW 5-10-43 on a large coral rock near where the victims had been hastily buried in a mass grave. The unknown American was recaptured, and Sakaibara personally beheaded him with a katana. The inscription on the rock can still be seen and is a Wake Island landmark.

The United States chose not to retake the island but to cut off the Japanese occupiers from reinforcement, which would mean they would eventually starve. During WWII, this was called “Island-hopping.” General MacArthur preferred this military strategy employed by the Allies in the Pacific War against Japan during World War II. The idea was to bypass heavily fortified Japanese positions and instead concentrate the limited Allied resources on strategically important islands that were not well defended but capable of supporting the drive to the main islands of Japan. American submarines patrolled the waters around Wake Island hoping for the appearance of Japanese shipping.

The Japanese garrison withered on Wake Island for two years, suffering the occasional U.S. bombing, but no land invasion. About 1,300 Japanese soldiers died from starvation, and another 600 were killed in American air attacks. On 4 September 1945, the Japanese garrison of 2,200 men surrendered to a detachment of United States Marines after their government had formally surrendered. The Japanese officers responsible for the murder of the American prisoners were tracked down and executed. Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara’s last words were:

I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure.

THE WAKE ISLAND PROPAGANDA LEAFLETS

There was a great number of American propaganda leaflets aimed at “by-passed islands” targeting the troops on many of the smaller islands that the American ignored on their advance toward Tokyo. I have eight such leaflets in my files coded between 1032 and 1043. Some of their titles are: “Wait Comrades, do not die”; “In the American prisoner of war camp in California”; “The Iwo Jima battle experience” and “First bombardment of the homeland.” Each leaflet explains the benefits of surrender and living to rebuild Japan after the war. Many of these were probably dropped on Wake Island, but they do not specifically mention it.

The Americans might have had some intention of invading Wake Island at one time. There are numerous propaganda leaflets that target the Wake garrison and clearly meant to demoralize the troops. In this short article, we will depict eight leaflets aimed directly at Wake Island. The reader should understand that I could depict about a dozen but there is a lot of repetition among the messages. These leaflets are wonderful propaganda; they don’t threaten or cajole; they don’t brag about the overwhelming superiority of American forces and attack the Japanese leaders. Instead, they show great sympathy for the plight of Japanese soldiers on Wake Island. They mention their bravery, they know of their illness and let a Japanese hospital ship visit Wake, and they even offer to open talks about possibly supplying food to the island. These leaflets are filled with kindness and are very different from the kind of propaganda used against an armed enemy on the battlefront.

All of the leaflets that we will depict were prepared by the Office of War Information (OWI). This organization had headquarters in San Francisco and Honolulu, and most the actual printing was done in its forward base on the island of Saipan with the full support of the US Navy. All of the leaflets we will mention are from OWI archives.

I have found a good dozen leaflets directed at Wake Island with code numbers from 1040 to 1059. There are certainly other leaflets; these are just the ones I found in a quick search of my files. Most of the leaflets are illustrated although a few are all-text. I will just depict those that had interesting images and mention the titles and theme of some of the other leaflets.

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OWI Leaflet 1040

Leaflet 1040 depicts a map of the pacific from Japan to Australia. It clearly shows that the combat has passed Wake Island. The purpose of the leaflet is to show the Japanese garrison that the combat zone is now close to Japan and their loyalty and resistance is of no value to the Japanese Empire. Some of the text is:

THE COMBAT ZONE IS FAR AWAY.

You men on Wake surely know that, more than a year ago, the combat zone shifted from this island which you are defending to far distant areas…You on this island can do nothing but sit and stare in silence…Of what possible use is Wake, just one of hundreds of islands which dot the pacific Ocean?

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OWI Leaflet 1044

Leaflet 1044 is entitled “Method of using Rubber Boats.” Because the Americans wanted the Japanese soldiers on Wake Island to surrender, they dropped rubber boats so the troops could row out to sea and be picked up by the American Navy. These leaflets were dropped with the boats to explain their use. One side of the leaflet has detailed instructions on the use of the rubber boat accompanied by simply explanatory sketches:

1. First, orally inflate the boat using the rubber tube. Attach the rubber tube to the valve on the inside of the boat, turn the valve to the left, and orally inflate slowly. When the boat is completely inflated, turn the valve to the right and leave it in that position. You will then have a fine boat! It takes a healthy person about 15 minutes to inflate the boat orally.

2. When the boat is finished, set out! What about the waves and the wind conditions? Take off your clothes and make a sail out of them.

3. Put your hands through the straps on the two rubber oars and row with them. They will also act as a rudder. The small rubber cup is very handy for bailing out the bilge.

4. When the waves are rough, you can steady the boat by taking hold of the handles on the top. Work them skillfully so that the boat will not turn over. Even though there is a heavy swell, keep courage and go on, humming the song “UMI NO TAMI NARA OTOKO NARA.” You can be sure that the boat will not sink.

5. Directly ahead, you can see lights. That is the rescue ship. If you keep on course until you reach the ship, all will be well.

According to a Japanese source, the soldiers would be humming an old traditional Japanese fisherman's song and should have been written UMI NO TAMENARA OTOKO NARA. It does not translate to English well, but means something like, “A brave man will not be afraid of fishing in rough seas.” A second source, a Japanese TV-producer with interest in naval history said that the title was “The Pacific March” and that the lyrics were written in a contest sponsored by a Japanese newspaper with support by the Imperial Navy in 1939.

The other side of the leaflet depicts photographs of rescued Japanese soldiers with explanatory captions. See leaflet 1059 below.

a. Life line lowered from American ship.

b. Step by step, up the ladder to hope.

c. Having washed away the mud of battle, they breathe a sigh of relief.

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OWI Leaflet 1045

Leaflet 1045 is entitled “Isolated Wake – Marooned.” There is a photograph of Wake Island on the front and the text says to the Japanese troops that while they wait for Japanese ships to rescue them, none will appear. The Japanese Navy does not have the ability to feed or resupply the bypassed islands. Some of the text is:

Because of the capture of Iwo Jima and Okinawa by the Americans, the Japanese forces scattered around the Central and South pacific are now completely cut off from the homeland. What does the Imperial Headquarters intend to do about the hundreds of thousands of men who have been left behind, trembling in fear of starvation and disease?

You may be hoping for a second Takasago Maru [Hospital Ship], but that may be a dream. At a time when the homeland is being bombarded, they won’t be thinking about Wake. You who have been marooned on the island of Wake! Now is the time to make up your minds!

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OWI Leaflet 1048

The American Navy allowed a Japanese hospital ship to stop at Wake Island. It was believed this might boost the morale of the soldiers stationed there so this leaflet was prepared to explain that this would not happen again. The image on the front depicts the ship and a picture of it taken through a submarine periscope that proves it could have been easily sunk. Text on the front is:

AMERICAN SHIP ALLOWS JAPANESE HOSPITAL SHIP TO GO THROUGH

Guam, 6 July: Fleet Admiral Nimitz’s headquarters announced that yesterday, the American destroyer USS Murray encountered a Japanese Navy hospital ship at a point 400 nautical miles north of Wake Island.

The ship was immediately boarded and inspected in accordance with international law, and was then released. The ship was carrying 974 Army and Navy personnel, some wounded, some suffering from tuberculosis, and others suffering extreme malnutrition. A Japanese doctor of the ship’s company said that15% of the sick and wounded would not survive the voyage to Japan.

The back of the leaflet tells the Japanese troops on Wake that they may believe another hospital ship will come to get them but that is just a dream. There are hundreds of thousands of wounded, sick and starving Japanese on other islands in the pacific. Why would another ship come to Wake when there are so many suffering Japanese elsewhere. It ends:

Was it not a lucky happenstance that this unique Takasago Maru came to Wake?

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OWI Leaflet 1049

Leaflet 1049 depicted a Japanese mother and baby, Mt Fuji (the Symbol of Japan) and dead soldiers on the field of battle. The title of this leaflet is “A Comrade’s Cry.” It is in the form of a letter from a Japanese soldier who has surrendered. The test says in part:

A Comrade's Cry

Like you, I have eaten seaweed. I know how weeds taste. I have been exposed to bombing and shelling. I escaped from an isolated island in the MARSHALLS where I suffered the worst tortures of starvation and despair. As a result of the kindness of the Americans, which was greater than you can imagine, I made a complete recovery although I had been just a step this side of death.

Now, even though I am a prisoner of war, I spend the nights and days without feeling any discomfort. However, even now, while I am receiving this fine treatment, I cannot help feeling uneasy when I picture to myself the sight of you recklessly throwing away your precious lives by starvation on an isolated island...

By all means, reconsider the fact that there is a way of escape before you die of starvation.

Japanese expert Professor Byron Earhart says about this leaflet:

One leaflet combines the theme of homesickness with fear, a picture set against the backdrop of cherry blossoms and Fuji, with a Japanese mother and child in the forefront, and dead Japanese soldiers behind this pair. Americans have joked that WWII GIs fought for the homespun values of "mom and apple pie." This leaflet seems to appeal to the Japanese values of "mom and Fuji."

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OWI Leaflet 1051

OWI Leaflet 1051 depicts a child and a destroyed building. The text is a letter from a Japanese soldier in America “To everyone on Wake.” The purpose is to induce a feeling of helplessness. Some of the text is:

FATHER, BROTHER; COME HOME

To Everyone on Wake: From a Japanese soldier in America – I can well understand your feeling as you wait and pray for the great offensive of your forces to start even one day earlier, for their comeback, and thus your willingness to hold out until you die of hunger on your isolated island.

Yet please understand our feelings, as we must tell you that the chance will never come for such a comeback…It will not do for you to die. With the feeling of having been reborn, let us go forward arm in arm, for the sake of a new Japan!

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OWI Leaflet 1054

Leaflet 1054 depicts the starving Japanese soldier in a loincloth. You can plainly see all of his ribs. It is meant to counteract any morale boost given the garrison by the recent arrival of a hospital ship. The photo’s caption is:

Japanese Soldier Rescued Just Before Death from Starvation.

The back is all text. Some of the text is:

A HOSPITAL SHIP CAME BUT....!

You should know well how sad was the condition of your comrades who were recently returned to JAPAN on the TAKASAGO MARU.

On 5 July the American destroyer, USS MURRAY, inspected the TAKASAGO MARU while it was on its way back to Japan, and permitted it to continue its homeward voyage.

At that time, a Japanese doctor on board said, "Of the 974 sick and wounded officers and men who have been taken aboard, fifteen percent will, because of tuberculosis and extreme malnutrition, probably not survive until we reach Japan....

OWI Leaflet 1056 is an all-text message to the Commander of the Wake Island Japanese forces from the US Commander of the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. It complements the Japanese forces on their courage and loyalty but points out that they are starving and will continue to starve. It states that surrender is the only viable option. The American commander apologizes for his actions and says in part:

My duty requires that I prevent supplies from reaching your forces. However, I deeply regret the suffering that this causes to you and your men…

OWI Leaflet 1057 is an all-text message to the Commander of the Wake Island Japanese forces. The text is the same as in Leaflet 1056. I will translate an additional paragraph where it appears the Americans might be willing to feed some of the starving Japanese troops:

If you wish to explore mutually satisfactory methods of relieving the sufferings of your subordinates, place in the center of the main runway a marker in the shape of a cross 50 feet each way, made of brush or other dark material so that it will be clearly distinguishable. Further instructions will then be dropped to you.

OWI Leaflet 1058 is an all-text message to all the unit commanders of the Wake Island Japanese forces. It tells the unit commanders of the messages sent to the Japanese island commander. It says that the Japanese commander has not responded. It mentions that the islands of the pacific are piled high with dead Japanese bodies and they need not sacrifice their lives in ritual suicide or starvation. The letter ends:

Unit commanders: We say again that we do not wish to see the piled-up corpses of you and your men fill the island of Wake!

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OWI Leaflet 1059

This leaflet depicts three photographs of Japanese troops being rescued at Okinawa. The photographs are the same that appear on the back of leaflet 1044 that gave directions for using the rubber boats dropped on Wake by American aircraft. In this leaflet the Americans ask the Japanese to find a way to flee the island and get to the American Navy. Some of the text is:

Have you gone down to the beach and looked out to sea?

The ship is moving about quietly. This is not an observation ship; it is a rescue ship which has come for you. On the ship the food, the clothing, and the medicines you need have been made ready. There are also medical officers aboard. Everyone is waiting for you to come aboard safely as soon as you possibly can…

When you get out to sea we will do our best to rescue you. Wave your shirt or pants as a signal, and the rescue operations will be started immediately…Come on now! Take courage and come out to the ship!

This concludes our very brief look at the American propaganda prepared for use against the Japanese garrison of Wake Island. Some other Japanese-held islands received similar treatment, but the Wake Island campaign seems to be the most intricate and detailed.

Readers that would like to discuss this article are encouraged to write the author at sgmbert@hotmail.com.