This Day in History: October 7th- Wake Atoll
This Day In History: October 7, 1943
On Wake Atoll in the South Pacific, there is a gravel path edged by white coral leading away from the road and toward the water. On the shore of the turquoise lagoon, the highest coral boulder bears a chiseled inscription. It reads: “98 US PW, 5-10-43.” This is a self-written epitaph of a mass murder committed near this spot during one of the bleakest periods of human history.
Wake Island is located halfway between the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippines. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the Battle of Wake Island occurred simultaneously. Approximately 500 of the Americans on the island at the time were military personnel, the remaining 1,300 or so were civilians, most working for the construction company Morrison Knudsen.
When Japan gained control of Wake Island, they sent most of these contractors and all military personnel to POW camps. By September of 1942, only 98 Americans, all civilians, still remained on the island. The Japanese, in complete defiance of Geneva Convention restrictions, worked the contractor POWs relentlessly on war-related projects.
The monotonous hard work was broken by stepped-up U.S. bombings and the arrival of the new island commander Rear Admiral Shigimatsu Sakaibara in December of 1942. One of the Americans was caught stealing food in the summer of 1943, and after an investigation of sorts, Sakaibara presided over his beheading.
The U.S. Navy was increasing its submarine patrols around the island, convincing the island commander that an attack was imminent, though in truth no attack was in the works as the atoll served no strategic or tactical purpose. Bombings were employed merely to deprive them of supplies, their airfield and port facilities. That was enough.
But Sakaibara was certain the U.S. carrier task force, which had done considerable damage to Wake Island’s infrastructure, included a landing force. Fearing the POWs would rise against their captors to aid their countrymen, he decided to be proactive and remove them from the equation.
On the late afternoon of October 7, 1943, the prisoners were blindfolded with their hands and feet tied. They were lined up along a tank ditch they had been forced to dig facing the ocean. Then they were blasted with machine gun and rifle fire. After they were dead, their bodies were tossed in the ditch and hastily covered with coral sand.
One man had escaped in the chaos. The mass grave was torn apart, and the bodies recounted to confirm it. He was hunted like an animal, re-captured three weeks later, and personally beheaded by Admiral Sakaibara.
When it became apparent the Allies were going to win the war, the Japanese quickly dug up the bodies once again and moved them to the U. S. Cemetery on the island. Wooden crosses were erected, and everything was made to look lovely.
A sad story was concocted about their demise – one group died in a bomb shelter killed by an American hit. The group in the other shelter panicked, killed a guard and fought the Japanese to the death on the beach.
The Japanese surrendered Wake Island on September 4, 1945. Admiral Sakaibara and 15 of his men were charged with the murder of the 98 POWs. Two of those charged committed suicide before they could be brought to trial and left statements that implicated Sakaibara, and others. Confronted with the letters, Sakaibara admitted to ordering the killings. He was executed in Guam by hanging on June 19, 1947 with five other war criminals.
There is a common gravestone in the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu that holds the remains of all the unidentified men who perished on Wake Island. Some were killed during the original siege, and the 98 killed on the beach also rest here. In 1953, they were all interred together after unsuccessful attempts to separate and identify them. The stone lists 178 names and is the largest in the cemetery.
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