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.

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

  1. im the grandaughter in law. Of betty thompson and she had just received some information on a john corak. Who my father michael corak says that my grandpa michael corak had a second cousin ehos name was john. I was wondering if any one has any information about John Corak please let me know. Thank you so much.

  2. my father was at Wake Island. I do not known of his life then ,he was a civilian working as a truck driver sometimes . he was a prisoner in Japan . Marshall G. sturdevant . The books tell of who died on Wake , but how a list of who came home.

  3. I found your website because I was searching for info about Wake Island and Steve Fortuna who I worked with and got to know 50+ years ago. Info for Ray Goldstein and his wife – MSgt. Stephen Fortuna is mentioned in “A Magnificent Fight” p268, awarded a Bronze Star, “Given Up for Dead” p193, temporarily blinded by a bomb hitting sandbags of a bunker, “Facing Fearful Odds” p432, same as prior more detail. Search google books to read more. If it’s possible you can send my email address to Ray for more info about Steve.  Thank you for your fine website, Dave.

  4. Hi Denise,
    Thanks so much for responding!  Betty has done a wonderful job on the newsletter over the years.  I know that my father and the other Wake Island fellows really appreciated receiving it and keeping up with the news between reunions. I received my last one quite a while ago and assumed that she had quit working on it.  Please give her my best and I look forward to seeing the next edition.

  5. Hi Steve,
    My name is Denise Thompson ans my mother in law is Betty Thompson.  She has put out the wake island newsletter for 37 years.  She put out the first newsletter with the direction of Frank Gross in 1975. She still does this today with the last one done January.  She very much enjoys this!  Due to health issues since january she hasn’t put another one out but will be doing another one by the end year. She has such wonderful memories of the survivors through letters and phone calls.  To this day she still speaks
    to the ones still alive.
    I just thought I would share this with you. When i mentioned your name to my father in law he said he knew your name.

  6. Hi Ray,
    I found Steve Fortuna’s name listed in the back of Colonel James Devereux’s book “The Story of Wake Island” (1947).  He was listed as part of the Marine Detachment and as “still in service” at that time.  I don’t recall seeing his name elsewhere, in books or in my father’s records of the Wake Island Defender’s reunions.  Sorry, I haven’t been much help.  If I come across anything else, I’ll email the information to you.  Thanks for inquiring.
    Steve Winslow

  7. My wife’s uncle was a survivor of Wake Island, but I cannot find any reference to him in the books I have recently looked at. His name was Steve Fortuna. Do you have any information?

  8. Thanks for creating and sharing this video, Tim.  Sgt. Bourquin has a great memory and terrific story to tell.  I enjoyed going to the Wake Island Defenders get-togethers and listening to many of them share their part of the story. Most were astounding– and often heart-wrenching.  I’ll post a permanent link to the video on this website.  And you’ve reminded me that I need to keep working on my site, improving the links to other sites, and continue to share the Wake Island story with others.

  9. We just finished a project that we are very excited to share.  Sgt. Robert Bourquin (USMC, ret) is one of the last surviving veterans of the WWII battle for Wake Island. At age 91 his memories of both the battle and the years as a POW are crystal clear and poignant. You can check out a short clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_profilepage&v=TIW4OfU5HQ0.
    The full hour and forty minute DVD is available at http://www.makealegacyvideo.com.

  10. Kevin,
    I have never come across Sgt. Edward Rook’s name in any of my Dad’s records, nor do I recall ever hearing his name mentioned.  You’ve probably used Google or another search engine to find information on him, which I just did and found just a little information — he was from Texas etc.  His name is also found in the appendix to “The Story of Wake Island” by Colonel James Devereux, under the roster of Marine personnel who were still in the service at the time his book was published in 1947.  Like my father, he chose to remain in the service after the war.  Sorry, I can’t add any more information.  Thanks for looking over this website and for inquiring.

  11. Harold,
    Thanks for sharing information on your uncle.  My father ended up with multiple ailments by the end of the war.  He was struck in the lower back by a Japanese soldier’s rifle butt and ended up suffering kidney damage, which eventually had to be removed.  His remaining kidney served him well until his death at 87 — he would always say it was because of all the beer he would filter through it over the years.  As he described in his memoirs, and like almost all other POWs, he suffered from the effects of severe malnutrition, including beriberi.  He too, probably weighed around 100 pounds in August, 1945, and was certain that he would not have lived much longer had the war not ended.  Like your Uncle, he would always say that while he and his fellow POWs in the camps where he was held were treated poorly, he had it much better than most of the prisoners of the Japanese held in China, Burma and elsewhere.  For an unforgettable account of the abuse and horrible conditions that many POWs were subjected, I recommend the book “Prisoners of the Japanese” by Gavin Daws.

  12. Thank you for sharing all of the information from your father.  Though I have no relatives that were on Wake during the battle (civillian or military) I found a letter to my grandfather from a Sgt. Edward Rook sent from Wake just before the war started.  My grandfather never mentioned Rook and I was wondering if you had ever heard or seen the name in your fathers papers.

    Thank you.

  13. My Uncle William Bill Marable was one of the construction workers who took up arms against the Japanese on Wake Island . He survived and after I discharged out of service I was honored to hear him and my father discuss some of their horrors of WWII in the Pacific and of my Uncles POW days AND TORTURE by the Japanese. He finally was recognized by the U.S.Government in the early 80’s and recieved some VA benefits and a discharge. He said he was 200pounds when captured and 90 pounds when surrender came had been tortured but not as bad as some (his words)

  14. Patricia,
    It’s wonderful to see that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the men who were on Wake Island are still reading about and researching what happened to them. I think it’s the greatest honor that we can give them after almost 70 years. 

    Thanks for sharing your comments.
    Steve

  15. Hi Steve

    Thank you for all the info about Wake Island.  My grandfather was one of the MK workers there; he died in Camp 19 in Japan.  My son’s Eagle Scout project is a memorial to the Battle of Wake Island that will be in Veteran’s Memorial Park in Boise; hopefully by this fall.  He had the pleasure of meeting with some of the Wake survivors here in Boise – what an amazing bunch of men.

  16. Wendy,
    Thank you, and you are more than welcome to share these pages with anyone who might be interested.

    Steve

  17. Barbara,
    Thanks for both of your comments about Wake Island POWs.  It looks like there are a lot of descendants of the civilian POWs who are looking for more information about their relatives.  I have many books about the Battle of Wake Island and the servicemen who became POWs that I inherited from my father, but I don’t have anything that focuses on the civilians.  I am pretty sure that the some of the civilian POWs who were employees of Morrison-Knudsen used to hold reunions, I assume many in the Boise, Idaho area but I can’t find any record of the group or their meetings by searching online.  At one time they may have produced a newsletter, but it may have been prior to the internet.  I’ll share a couple of things that I have found on-line that might help you in your search for more information about your grandfather’s experience –both stories by civilians.  First is an oral history by James Allen found here.  The other is Bill Taylor’s book “Rescued by Mao: World War II, Wake Island, and My Remarkable Escape to Freedom Across Mainland China” As you’ve probably found out there are quite a few fairly recent articles on line about him if you search for his name along with “Wake Island POW civilian.” 

    I hope that someone reading your comment here will be able to provide more information.  I’ll forward it to you if it’s posted here and I think it might help you.  Good luck in your search!

  18. I am glad to know that Wake Island civilian POWs are remembered as well as the Marines. Thank you for this blog and your father’s memoirs. Are there any surviving civilian former POWs that would like to contact me? I want to write my grandfather’s story. Although my grandfather, Samuel Swift, was in his thirties during the war and returned home with beri-beri, he lived a good life until his 90th year. He carved shells during his captivity and made jewelry out of them.

  19. Gabe,
    Thanks for taking the time to look through Dad’s personal Wake Island story.  It sounds like you have done quite a bit of research already and I would be interested in reading your article when you’re ready to publish it.  I make it to Hawaii every few years and I’ll look you up if I make it to the Arizona Memorial.

    Steve

  20. Glad to read the information you sent and God bless your Dad. For quite some time I have been writing an article about Wake. I knew Admiral Cunningham… we both lived in Memphhis.I had spent almost 2 weeks on 2 visits at Boston University that hold both the Cunningham & Devereux papers. There are mmany letters from the civilian workers.I did have the pleasure of talking to Joe Taylor who wrote; “Rescued by Mao.”

    I have used a researcher in the DC area for the past year who has uncovered interesting (unpublished)information at the Nat’l Archives etc. Exactly where I will be published,I don’t know.

    Good to hear from you and by the way I am a volunteer at the ARIZONA Memorial,

    Gabe Brady

  21. Bob,
    It was good to talk with you on the phone this morning and to be able to compare notes on the Holland Family.  My plans are to post some family tree information on both my father’s and mother’s family soon.  Thanks for sharing the information you’ve researched so far.

  22. My wife Marilyn Holland is second cousin to your dad.  Last Saturday we just learned of your dad’s involvement in WW2.  We are doing family research.  Your grandfather died on Dec 2, 1941, and your grandmother Anna Holland was alone only to have the war start 5 days later and then have her son captured a few weeks later.  Has anyone spoken about her?  Please contact me ———.  PS, I am retired Navy and upset because I did not meet your father.

  23. James,
    I hope my father’s memoirs about Wake Island and being a POW added something to the stories you heard from your father and uncle.  I know that the experience shaped Dad’s life and made him who he was, and consequently affected my sister and me as we were growing up, and who we are now that we’re older and have children and grandkids of our own.  In a way, that experience is still part of all the descendants of the men who were on Wake Island almost 70 years after it happened.  His relationship with his fellow Wake Island Defenders grew more important as he got older.  He was very proud to have been associated with those men, including the civilians like your father and uncle who helped in the defense immensely and then suffered the same horrible POW experience for almost four years.  Thanks for your comments, and best wishes to another child of a Wake Island survivor!

  24. I thank you posting your fathers memoris of life on Wake Is..my father Albert Vasquez, as well as my uncle Patrick kimball were both civillian employee’s on wake. For years I heard stories about there time as pows, but was never told about all of the suffering they went through. I know one thing he was proud of being there and of his time serving along side his marine comrads on his gun crew. He instilled upon my brother and me his love for this country and when I went to nam in 1965 he told me how proud he was and to remember just to think positive and I will make it home, and I did. He is gone now and I miss him but he is always in my heart. I thank you for your website as it brought back memories of a man who taught me to always be proud.

  25. Terry,

    Thanks very much for responding and sharing your father’s story.  I attended several of the Wake Island Marines’ reunions and west coast “mini-reunions and I recall some of them mentioning how much they appreciated the civilians and particularly respected the civilians like your father who got involved in the battle.  In San Diego in 1996, I enjoyed talking with a Wake Island civilian named Myers (I can’t recall his first name) who attended the Defenders reunion that year.  He shared a lot of sad stories about the conditions in the prison camps in more detail than I ever heard from the Marine survivors, including my father.  I also heard a lot of compliments from the Marines about Bill Taylor, who returned to Wake and was interviewed with a few of the Marines in the History Channel Video “The Alamo of the Pacific.”  Your father was in good company, and as one of the men who helped keep the Wildcats flying, he played a critical role in the defense of the island.  He sounds like an outstanding man who volunteered to do everything he could to help in the defense.  Like the Wake servicemen, he has my deepest admiration. 

    Thanks again, Terry, and I would appreciate hearing more details about your father, your relationship with him before the war, or with any others involved with Wake Island if you feel like sharing them.

  26. This time of year my thoughts also travel back to 1941 and to Wake Island .  My Father Archie Hayes Pratt was a civilian laborer on Wake when it fell. The Civilian Chaplain who survived his internment in china,told me that Dad, when the battle started volunteered to help keep the remaining aircraft flying. He was an excellent mechanic and helped scavenge parts from damaged aircraft and helped build up others, so the air war could continue. When the last aircraft was destroyed he then attached himself to an anti aircraft gun crew, He was one of the 98 killed by their captors after working as slave labor until 1943.

  27. I still have mixed emotions when I read them.  It was a tragic, life-altering experience for all those guys and I get sad thinking about it, but I also smile or laugh out loud when I read his observations on his companions and human nature in general.  I think his ability to look at himself and his companions honestly and objectively helped him make it through the ordeal and live so long.

  28. Kim,
    Thanks for all your nice words. Compared to what our parents and grandparents went through I think most of us baby boomers had it pretty easy.  And for me, remembering and reading about what they did years ago makes me appreciate today’s servicemen and women even more.

  29. Even though I’ve read Dad’s memoirs more than a few times this posting was very difficult for me to get thru.

  30. Bob Winslow was on my mind this Dec 7th.Saying “Thank You” falls short of what he and all our Veterans mean to me. I hold them very near and dear in my life and thanks to you Steve for bringing them to life all these years later.

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