Sunday, December 21, 2008

Wake Island/Takasago Maru

Few people have heard of Wake Island, unless, like me, they are hardcore WWII history fanatics. Wake Island was a tiny American outpost in the Pacific well over 1,000 miles from any other American possession. So, after Pearl Harbor, the island’s garrison was very much on its own. They made a legendary, heroic stand. First, they repulsed a Japanese invasion attempt on December 8, 1941 before being overwhelmed by a vastly superior Japanese force on December 23.

Few people know that, in the immediate aftermath of battle, the Japanese selected five Americans and beheaded them in their anger after the losses they had suffered. While most of the garrison endured 45 months of hellish conditions in Japanese POW camps, 95 civilian contractors were kept on the island, forced to help construct a Japanese airstrip.

In October of 1943, after an American air raid, a Japanese commander ordered all of the Americans killed. Very few people, except hardcore war history geeks like me, know what happened after that.

The Japanese committed about 4,000 troops to defend a 2.5-square mile island. They didn’t know it, but they were in for an experience, possibly more dreadful than any battle. Because of the success of the American submarine campaign, the last supply ship to reach Wake Island during the war got there on New Year’s Day 1944. 4,000 men, stuck on almost a desert island with no resupply. It must have been utterly humiliating for those men to realize they were destined to occupy an island the US Navy used as a practice bombing range. I once saw an interview with a Japanese ho survived the experience; he said that they were on *one**quarter* rations and that he lost one third of his body weight. By the end of the war, 600 of those Japanese soldiers died as a result of American bombing raids while 1300 of them starved to death. In July of 1945, the Japanese sent a hospital ship, the Takasago Maru, to Wake. An American ship stopped and searched the Takasago Maru and discovered, surprisingly enough, it was not carrying any contraband. They did find that it was carrying 974 patients from Wake Island, most of who were suffering from malnutrition. Of the 1200 Japanese soldiers still on Wake at the end of the war, 200 of them had to be carried off in stretchers. This is just a tiny footnote in the history of the Pacific War. However, I believe it sheds a great deal of light on the Japanese military mentality in 1945, and what the Pacific War would have been like had it not ended so abruptly in August 1944 as a result of the dropping of the two atomic bombs.

After that last supply ship, as a practical matter, every day the Japanese garrison had an eating contest. First one to find something to eat wins. The popular story is that any American pilot shot down over Wake could count on being on the menu that night.

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