Remembering Wake Island, World War II, and Prisoners of War

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of World War II for the United States occurred sixty-nine years ago today.  My father, Bob Winslow, was a private with the Marine Corps First Defense Battalion on Wake Island, a 2½ square mile horseshoe-shaped ring of coral about 2,000 miles west of the Hawaiian Islands.  Wake is closer to Japan than Hawaii and it was another Japanese target for the day along with other American territories, including Guam and the Philippines. 

Wake was hit by Japanese bombers a few hours after Pearl Harbor. The bombing was the first stage of what was to become a two-week battle.  The Japanese expected a quick and easy victory but the Americans held on and fought a “magnificent fight” finally forced to surrender on December 23. There were 528 American military personnel and 1,200 civilian employees of Morrison-Knudsen, a construction company from Boise, Idaho building the air strip and other fortifications on the island.  One hundred twenty Americans and 820 Japanese were killed in the battle.

After the surrender almost all of the Americans were sent to China and eventually to Japan and remained prisoners until the end of the war in August, 1945.  Some of the American civilians were retained on Wake Island and were executed before the end of the war; several American servicemen were executed on board the ship that transported them to the Far East.  The “lucky” ones avoided execution and labored in prison camps for almost four years under harsh conditions, starvation and disease. 

There have been over a dozen books on the battle of Wake Island and the prisoner of war experience that followed. There are several interesting and inspiring aspects of the story: the vastly outnumbered and outgunned Marine pilots who fought in the air above Wake; the sinking of the first Japanese ships of the World War II by the Marines; how the Americans courageously repelled the Japanese landing force; the strange circumstances of the Marines’ surrender. I’ve listed a few of the books from my father’s library in this BIBLIOGRAPHY and hope that it will encourage readers to find out more about the Battle of Wake, World War II, and the mostly forgotten American prisoners of war.
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Video of Grumman F4F Wildcats similar to those flown in the Battle of Wake

During the last several years of his life, Dad wrote memoirs about his experience as a Marine before the war, during the battle of Wake and as a prisoner of war.  I’ve posted them here: A Marine’s Memoirs.  He was an entertaining writer and I think that most readers will enjoy his unconventional perspective, even though they may disagree with it at times. 

Events from almost 70 years ago are actual memories for only the few “Wake Island Defenders” and civilians who are still alive.  For the rest of us, our collective memory of the Battle of Wake Island and of World War II is fading fast, soon to be relegated to history books and the recesses of the World Wide Web.  For the younger generations, WWII is something they briefly studied in a history class in high school, and may be occasionally reminded of when watching a movie like “Saving Private Ryan.”

Wake Island Defenders- 1996 ReunionMy father taught history in high school after a 30-year career in the Marine Corps and noted that a recent survey of American high school graduates found that half of them had never heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and had no idea that Japan and the United States were enemies in World War II.  Commemorating Pearl Harbor Day, although it seems to attract a little less attention as time goes by, helps our kids, and us, to understand and appreciate those events and the remarkable sacrifices made by his generation.

51 thoughts on “Remembering Wake Island, World War II, and Prisoners of War

  1. Russ Stell: My father Ben Manning and Eugene Lutz were best friends. He passed away years ago, at Villa Desiderata Retreat House in Mount Henry Illinois. I believe he was the one who bestowed the nickname of Ugh on my father because that’s what he always called him. The last time I saw him in person, he visited our home in Belleville, Il. in the 60’s when I was just a kid. He and my father always kept in touch after we moved to Orlando in ’71. When my father passed away in ’81, he and my mother continued to stay in touch. When she died in ’86, I became his pen pal. I didn’t want him to think he had been forgotten. He did become a priest and he also sent hand drawn Christmas cards. The last one I received depicted him parachuting for his 80th birthday. He was such a wonderful man. The rectory still holds a Memorial Scholarship Spaghetti Dinner Fundraiser in his honor every year for his dedication to education. It awards $1000 scholarships to college and trade school first year students towards their tuition. Fantastic legacy. I hope this bit of information helps.

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