Wake Island, August to December 1941

Between World Wars I and II, Marines transported to faraway places in the Western Hemisphere to subdue the uprisings of uppity brown or black folks often traveled on the USS Chaumont, a troop ship named after a World War I engagement in France. According to the troops who survived these voyages, the letters of its name stood for “Christ Help All Us Marines On Navy Transports.”

In August 1941 we traveled to Wake Island on a clone of the Chaumont, a cargo vessel hastily modified amidst rumors of war to carry troops as well as cargo with very little thought given to amenities for its passengers. The temporary tiers of bunks in the holds of the USS Regulus were so stifling and claustrophobic that most of us slept on deck under the stars, and the weather cooperated. The limited galley facilities, designed for feeding a ship’s crew of a dozen or so, were overwhelmed by the task of serving several hundred Marine chowhounds. After surviving the interminable line for breakfast, the troops would immediately line up for the noon meal, and after finishing that paltry serving, line up once again for supper. During daylight hours, there was always a chow line on the USS Regulus.

But Private Winslow didn’t stand in chow lines; I was on mess duty again. The Army and Air Force equivalent to Navy and Marine Corps mess duty is Kitchen Police (KP) for several days, often administered as a punishment, so I have been told. One problem with punishing an erring private with a session of KP is the possibility of anonymous retribution by someone who believes he is being punished unfairly. Should I pee in the pea soup? Should I add insects au gratin to the chowder? Ask any Army or Air Force veteran. They will tell you tales.

In contrast, the Navy and Marine Corps, in my day, considered a month of mess duty to be a normal assignment for lower ranking enlisted men, provided that it was administered fairly, supposedly only once each calendar year. In my case, I had doubts about the fairness. My recollection is that I had more than my share of mess duty while a fortunate few somehow skated with none. My first assignment after graduating from boot camp was a month of mess duty in the boot camp mess hall, where Chief Messman Curly Taylor tried to flim-flam his fellow messmen into contributing to a fund for stainless steel tables to make our work easier, so he said. As previously noted, con-artist Curly and I would both wind up in Dog Battery, 1st Defense Battalion after surviving our thirty day tour of boot camp mess duty.

Wake Island, August 1941. There are no harbors, so after our ten day voyage from Pearl – slowed by towing a Pan American barge loaded with supplies and equipment – we disembarked on other barges that were towed into the one narrow inlet that led through the reefs, where we scrambled onto the makeshift dock and moved into nearby strong-back tents that had been abandoned by the civilian contractors after they built their wooden barracks across the island.

Wake is a coral atoll shaped like a squished boomerang, surrounded by an extensive coral reef. The land is divided into three separate islets by narrow channels leading from the central lagoon to the sea. The largest and central islet is Wake; the southeasterly one is Wilkes. The northeastern arm of the boomerang is Peale Island; all three islets named in honor of various British and American explorers and naval officers who visited the atoll and found it wanting during the era of Pacific exploration.

On the Peale side of the channel separating Wake from Peale stood the Pan American hotel, where passengers on PanAm flights to and from the far East laid over for the night in mid-twentieth-century sub-tropical luxury. The periodic landings of the famous China Clipper in the lagoon were an eagerly awaited event for the inhabitants of Wake; the Clipper brought our mail. The PanAm hotel was manned by young Chamorro men from Guam, cheerful and happy-go-lucky lads who would wind up in the same fix as the rest of us – prisoners of the Japanese.

We Marines were still armed with bolt action Springfield .03 rifles and outfitted with soup-dish World War I helmets. The new Garand M1 semi-automatic rifles and sensibly designed helmets that other units were getting had not trickled down to the Wake Detachment of the First Defense Battalion. We did have newly issued pith helmets as protection against the sub-tropical sun, but so had Kipling’s British Tommies in 19th century India.

In contrast to our obsolescent individual equipment, our three inch antiaircraft guns were almost state of the art with lessons learned from the ongoing Battle of Britain incorporated into their fire control systems, with the significant exception of radar, which was still sitting on the docks at Pearl Harbor, due to well-founded fears that if Wake fell to the Japanese, so also would the secrets of this marvelous new invention.

While we worked from dawn to dusk filling sandbags on Wake, the Luftwaffe continued to rain bombs on Britain, Hitler’s and Mussolini’s troops were on the march in Europe and Africa, and the Japanese were celebrating their conquest of China’s coastal areas by sending settlers by the thousands to their new mainland territory of Manchukuo, formerly Chinese Manchuria.

The 1937 bombing and strafing of the American gunboat Panay on the Yangtze River by Japanese planes had stirred up a diplomatic hornet’s nest until it was “solved” by monetary reparations and profuse apologies from the Japanese government, but the systematic butchery of more than a quarter of a million men, women and children in Nanking by the Japanese army in the same year, which appalled even German army observers, created scarcely a ripple of international attention.

The welfare of Chinese people was probably not a burning issue in a nation where the “Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924 had respectively banned further immigration of Chinese laborers and prohibited the immigration of any person born in Asia; the latter measure so popular that only six senators voted against it. It was not until 1943, when Chinese and Americans were fighting side-by-side against the Japanese in Burma and elsewhere, that these two blatantly racist measures were repealed.

A 2005 Google search turns up no record of an official US response to the Nanking “incident,” as the Japanese call it, only a brief note that President Roosevelt leaked the story to the press and subsequent articles appeared in the New York Times, Readers Digest and Time Magazine, “which were greeted with skepticism from the American public. The stories smuggled out of Nanking seemed almost too fantastic to be believed.” For good reason, the massacre has been called the “forgotten Holocaust.” The late Iris Chang’s best-selling book The Rape of Nanking may keep it from being completely forgotten.

Among us Wake troopers in the waning months of 1941, such lofty affairs of state were of interest only to the few who listened to short wave radio news or devoured the latest edition of the two-page Wake Island WigWag, which capsulized the latest national and international news. Those of us who kept up with such news believed that war with Japan was imminent. In a letter to my sister I wrote jokingly, I thought, that any day now she would see headlines in the local paper announcing that Japanese bombers had wiped out Wake.

The young are by nature optimistic and think little of tomorrow, so we troopers ignored the warnings of war, worked our asses off, and guzzled our quota of formaldehyde-laced beers during our scarce free time. To relax after a long day of wrestling sandbags, the gamblers among us played jaw-bone poker and blackjack. In one of my rare outbreaks of forethought, I had made an allotment of about half of my monthly pay to my parents before sailing for Wake, so my participation in this bimonthly ritual was severely curtailed.

Much, perhaps too much, has been written about the defense of Wake Island. I have seven books about this brief minor engagement on my bookshelf, and I don’t have them all. As in all histories that rely upon the unreliable memories of men, some of what has been written about Wake is accurate but much of it is balderdash. Even the most magisterial of the Wake chronicles, Gregory Urwin’s Facing Fearful Odds, is not immune.

Greg’s book contains the testimonies of several Wake Islanders that we worked seven days a week and my ancient memory cells are 97.5 percent sure that our Catholic commanding officer gave us Sundays off even after he stepped up the work schedule.

There seems to be a human tendency to exaggerate the difficulties of a difficult experience, especially if doing so makes one’s experience seem more heroic. And so it goes, with many of the stories told by Wake Islanders, but not, I hope, with this one. I was not then, nor am now, a hero.

Except when necessary to fill in gaps in the narrative, this version of the Wake story will be that of a rear rank private who is only aware of events taking place within a radius of about a hundred yards around him. Look elsewhere for grand strategies, heroic sagas and momentous outcomes concerning the defense of Wake Island.

The 1100 or so civilians working for Morrison and Knudsen out of Boise, Idaho who were building the airstrip and other island defenses had comfortable wooden barracks and good food. Across the island, we Marines had inherited the squad tents, outdoor privies and showers that had originally housed the civilians, along with a miserly stateside food ration allowance per Marine that was completely inadequate in our overseas environment. Our Commanding Officer, Major Devereux, when asked by the Civilian Contractor Honcho Dan Teters if the civilians could help out in the ration department, famously responded, “Marines do not accept charity.”

More than a few of our enterprising troopers ignored their commanding officer’s pious declaration and found their way to the contractors’ camp for “charitable” leftovers. The rest of us filled our daily quota of sand bags and grumbled about the chow as Marines have always done, but this time with good reason.

To drown our sorrows we beer-drinkers guzzled our weekly quota of two canned beers per man. Canned beer was a recent beverage break-through made to order for thirsty Marines stranded on an island in the middle of the Pacific. The infant beer-canning industry had “solved” the problem of preserving beer in corrosion-susceptible steel cans by treating it with a miniscule amount of formaldehyde, which the human body can tolerate in small dosages. But small dosages were not for the confirmed beer drinkers among us. Those of us who added our non-drinking buddies’ beer quotas to our own wound up with unforgettable formaldehyde hangovers.

Some of us had a craving for the hard stuff that only the officers and senior civilians legally possessed on Wake. My only bottle of hair tonic – 40 percent alcohol – disappeared one day. (Yes, I had hair in those days!) I immediately fingered my hairless alcoholic buddy Rudy Taylor, who cheerfully confessed to the crime and asked if I had any more stowed away.

Senior NCO’s and officers and some helpful civilians had access to fishing equipment and boats, and augmented our meager mess hall fare with catches of shark, tuna, and other fish. From necessity and not by design, we all became fish eaters several days a week.

Thanksgiving Day in Marine mess halls in those days was customarily a day of culinary splendor when the mess sergeant could bask in the sated smiles of his satisfied customers. The menu was traditional: turkey with all the trimmings, mince and pumpkin pie for dessert, and seconds all around, a glorious feast.

On Wake Island in 1941, our Thanksgiving Day menu was ox-tongue and rice, which engendered the closest thing to a mutiny that I have seen in thirty-one years of Marine Corps service. We pounded on tables and raised our voices in incredulous disagreement with this dastardly gastronomic insult. In response to the uproar, Major Devereux and other officers and senior NCOs emerged from their separate mess cubicles and in due course quelled the incipient rebellion. Muttering obscenities under our breaths against the “powers-that-be,” we consoled ourselves with our magnificent Thanksgiving Day dessert of canned peaches.

Dog, Easy, and Fox Batteries, the three-inch AAA gun components of the First Defense Battalion, had each contributed troops to the Wake Island detail, but there were not enough of us to man each of the 12 guns we had on the island. And so it was with the 5 inch guns and the machine gun batteries.

In essence, the Wake detail was a glorified working party, although we also constituted skeleton crews of gunners, fire control operators, communicators, and so on. In total numbers, we were between a third and fourth of a complete defense battalion. The remainder of the original First Defense Battalion was split between its headquarters in Pearl Harbor and detachments on Johnston and Palmyra Islands. We understood that we were preparing the gun positions for another full fledged defense battalion to take over and that we would eventually rejoin our original units after we had fortified the island.

While the civilian contractors worked on the airstrip, ammo bunkers, and other tasks that required the laying of concrete and the use of massive machinery, we troopers in the 3 inch AAA detachment filled sandbags from dawn to dusk six days a week for the 3 inch gun emplacements.

During our precious leisure hours I explored the wonderland of the reefs with facemask and snorkel and fished with hand lines near the garbage dump. One day I butchered one of my catches, a five foot shark, with a Bowie knife and watched in amazement as its heart continued to beat for at least an hour on a coral outcrop. Another time I fled in terror upon meeting a huge manta ray at the edge of the reef, not realizing until reading up on denizens of the deep many years later that this shy beast was probably more terrified than I was.

Our 3-inch commander was Captain Brighte D. Godbold, a southern gentleman with a buttery deep south accent you could cut with a knife, unchanged in lo these many years, as I discovered as we exchanged reminiscences during our Kansas City reunion in 2004; General Godbold still spry and alert at 94.

As was customary in pre-world war II days, we saw very little of our officers, except for weekly inspections and parades. When we did see them at other times, it usually meant that there was a problem. I had such a problem, which came about from our refueling operations for B17’s headed for the Philippines where they would eventually be destroyed on the ground due to the unforgivable incompetence of General Douglas MacArthur.

Once again I was escorted into the presence of Major Devereux, this time because I had committed the dreadful offense of backing my truck into an airplane, causing enough damage for the plane to remain on the island for repairs after its squadron mates had left. Lieutenant Cy Emrich testified on my behalf that because my heart was pure the accident should be forgiven, and Major Devereux fortunately took heed and all was forgiven except for a memorable chewing out. Platoon Sergeant “Big” Wright once told me that for a man who means well, I sure did get myself into a lot of trouble, and that may be the story of my life.

Second Lieutenant Emrich returned to Pearl Harbor before the Japanese attack and thus missed all the excitement on Wake. After the war, a group of us Wake Islanders awaiting transportation back to the states on the island of Guam received a memorable and heart-warming visit from Lieutenant Colonel Cy Emrich. Rapid promotions are common in wartime, but from second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel in less than four years meant that here was a real comer. If he had not been prematurely struck down by some mysterious tropical ailment he brought back from the South Pacific, Cy Emrich would have eventually become Commandant of the Marine Corps, in my humble opinion.

Wake was, and still is, a nesting place for sea birds of all sizes and descriptions. We called them all “goony-birds,” an apt description for their waddling awkwardness on the ground, but certainly not for their awesome grace in flight. There was also a bounteous festival of rats, half the size of the ordinary stateside version, which someone with more knowledge than I once described as Polynesian rats, presumably descended from deserter-rats from ships that had visited Wake in the past. They were ubiquitous. They crawled over our bodies in the night. They fought an unceasing battle with hermit crabs, which were also ubiquitous, to force their tender rear ends out of their temporary shells and become a tasty rat-snack.

On December Sixth I received word that my father had died in Eugene, and once again I entered the sanctum sanctorum of the first sergeant’s office to ask for leave. Somewhat to my surprise, this time my request received tentative approval, subject to the availability of air transportation to and from the States.

While waiting for the mills of the gods to grind out the necessary paperwork for emergency leave because of my father’s death, I was posted on sentry duty on Wilkes Island, bedded down in a squad tent, when not on watch, among the rats and hermit crabs whose squealing and clicking claws kept me awake most of the night when I was not walking post.

The next day, Monday, December 8th, just as our guard detail was sitting down to breakfast in the mess hall, bleary-eyed and hungry for hotcakes, we were rudely interrupted by NCO’s and officers rushing into the mess hall to order us to our tents to pick up rifles, helmets and field packs and stand by to man our guns.

Greg Urwin tells us that the “demented medley” of Field Music Alvin Waronker’s bugled Call to Arms “threw the entire camp into confusion.” I beg to differ. We had become so accustomed to Waronker’s “demented medleys” that we paid absolutely no attention to them. He would even screw up the three simple notes of “chow call.” I have often wondered why a man with absolutely no musical ability chose to become a Marine Corps field musician, let alone how he managed to survive any kind of screening process. Was it because musicians were assumed to be ineligible for duty in a combat area? Well, that didn’t work!

We boarded trucks and headed for our guns across the island. When we arrived at our positions, we broke out 3 inch shells from their wooden cases and laid them next to the gun platform, ready for action. We heard from Big Wright through the sound power phones that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. We sat at our positions and waited. Noon came. Chow trucks arrived. We took our mess gear out of our packs and left our positions to line up for chow.

Emerging from a rain cloud over our airfield we suddenly saw airplanes, many of them, in tight formation, and almost immediately after someone said those must be our planes, we heard the explosions of their bombs. We rushed to our gun and managed to fire five or six desperate un-aimed shots at the invading aircraft as they disappeared over the horizon. We missed them all.

And so our war began.

Next Chapter: The Battle of Wake

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