Discipline, Camaraderie, and Luck: A Tale of POW Survival
Gregory J.W. Urwin
[On October 18, 2004, Professor Urwin delivered the Bancroft Memorial Lecture at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis.]
As late afternoon shadows lengthened across Washington, D.C., on December 24, 1941, 20,000 to 40,000 homeward bound office-workers and holiday shoppers converged on the White House. There they waited for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to appear on the south portico, push a button, and light the National Christmas Tree.
When Roosevelt finally emerged from the White House, at his side stood British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, who had flown across the Atlantic in a dramatic display of Allied solidarity. The United States Marine Band, resplendent in bright red coats and crisp blue trousers, played several Christmas carols.
Inaugurated by FDR in 1933, the tree-lighting ceremony had always been a festive occasion, even in the depths of the Great Depression. But this year, the crowd’s mood was somber. For the first time in a generation, Americans would mark Christmas with their nation locked in a world war. Just seventeen days earlier, Japanese carrier planes had surprised the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory. Although the Roosevelt Administration concealed the full extent of American casualties for both political and security purposes, most Americans realized that their armed forces had suffered a major setback. The Japanese had already seized Guam and launched campaigns to capture Malaya, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
Seven thousand miles from Washington – on the far side of the International Dateline – it was already December 25, and a group of U.S. Marines had just completed a gloomy Christmas vigil of their own. Unlike their musical comrades at the White House, these weary Leathernecks did not make a handsome appearance. Some wore remnants of khaki uniforms torn and soiled by sixteen days of continuous combat. Others were stripped down to their underwear. Instead of a holiday crowd of admiring fellow citizens, they sat surrounded by scowling Japanese guards armed with rifles and machine guns. These Marines constituted the major portion of the garrison of Wake Island, an American advanced base 2,000 miles west of Pearl Harbor that had capitulated to the Japanese Navy on December 23.
In Washington, the Navy Department confirmed Wake’s fall a few hours before the Christmas Eve festivities at the White House. President Roosevelt undoubtedly had Wake’s defenders in mind when he urged the holiday crowd to pray for “our sons and brothers, who serve in our armed forces on land and sea, near and far – those who serve for us and endure for us.”
In view of the catastrophes that were befalling Allied forces in the Pacific, Americans should have been devastated by the loss of Wake Island. Ironically, the most commonly reported responses to this latest defeat took the form of defiance and pride. Even in stricken Pearl Harbor, servicemen greeted each other with a new battle cry: “Remember Wake!”
To the American people, Wake Island represented the only bright spot in the disastrous opening of the Pacific War. For more than two weeks, an isolated detachment of Marines fended off a numerically superior enemy and kept Old Glory floating over a bomb-cratered strip of American territory. The Wake Island campaign also produced a humiliating moment for the Imperial Japanese Navy. Early on December 11, the base’s defenders repulsed a hostile landing attempt, routing an enemy fleet with artillery fire and aerial attacks in Japan’s first notable tactical defeat in the war.
Although Americans mourned Wake’s capture, they took renewed hope and dedication from the performance of those abandoned Leathernecks, whom the press immediately likened to the defenders of the Alamo or George Armstrong Custer’s troopers at the Little Bighorn. If such a small band of Marines could give the Japanese so much trouble, Americans reasoned, just wait until their country mobilized its full strength for the fight. No one appreciated the public’s mood with greater acuity than America’s top Marine, Major General Commandant Thomas Holcomb, who wrote: “Wake Island began this war magnificently for the Marine Corps, and America found that the old soldierly virtues are still embodied in its fighting men. True, the enemy now mans the guns on that small atoll. But under the water off shore lie the rusting hulks of the price he paid for the horseshoe islet and its tiny garrison. Many of his fighting men did not return from Wake. Out of such actions as this a people’s strength and ultimate victory must come. America remembers Wake Island and is proud. The enemy remembers Wake Island and is uneasy.”
With the cooperation of the Navy Department and the Marine Corps, Wake became a conspicuous part of America’s wartime propaganda. In September 1942, Paramount Pictures released Wake Island, the nation’s first combat film of the war. The movie was essentially an updated version of Custer’s Last Stand, with Marines taking the place of the doomed frontier cavalrymen, and Japanese soldiers standing in for the Sioux. Wake Island served the American war effort long and well, inspiring thousands of young men to enlist in the Marine Corps and those they left behind to purchase war bonds.
Yet even as Hollywood elevated Wake’s defenders to a show business version of Valhalla, the garrison’s battered survivors waged a different sort of war hidden from the gaze of their countrymen. When Wake Island surrendered, its garrison entered a prolonged struggle as prisoners of the Japanese military, an institution that viewed captured servicemen with contempt and usually treated them cruelly. The siege of Wake Island lasted only sixteen days; the Americans captured there would languish in captivity for forty-four months. But they bore that ordeal with the same fortitude they displayed in combat, and the small victories they won in various prison camps were just as inspiring as the battlefield feats that dominate the Wake legend.
America’s jarring entry into World War II on December 7, 1941, stranded 1,672 Americans on Wake Island. Less than a third of that total were servicemen. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the ill-fated commander of the Pacific Fleet, had hoped to garrison Wake with 1,851 Marines, but he was able to place only 449 Leathernecks on the atoll before time ran out. Of these, 378 belonged to the Wake Island Detachment, 1st Defense Battalion. Marine defense battalions were designed to hold island bases against air and sea attack. The Wake Island Detachment possessed a full battalion’s complement of heavy weapons (six 5-inch seacoast guns, twelve 3-inch antiaircraft guns, and forty-eight machine guns), but just about a third of the personnel required to man them. The remaining sixty-one Marines were attached to fighter squadron VMF-211, which flew twelve Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats. In addition to the Marines, sixty-eight Navy personnel were on hand to operate the atoll’s newly activated seaplane base. The U.S. Army Air Forces had also stationed six radiomen on Wake to help guide flights of B-17 bombers winging their way from the West Coast to the Philippines. Counting a sailor from the submarine Triton, sent ashore on December 1 for emergency medical treatment, the freshly christened naval air station contained a total military contingent of 524 officers and men.
The 1,146 employees of Contactors Pacific Naval Air Bases – all of them civilians – comprised the majority of Wake’s American population. High salaries had lured these men out to the Central Pacific to turn a sleepy atoll into an advanced naval installation. Some of these men had seen military service in World War I or had received various degrees of military training elsewhere. When they found their construction site abruptly transformed into a battlefield, more than 300 Contractors volunteered to assist the Marines as auxiliaries, providing extra hands to help man cannon and machine guns, move ammunition, cook and distribute food, perform emergency construction work, and carry out other necessary tasks. Most of the civilians, however, hid in the brush and tried to survive a deadly contest for which they had no training.
Within hours of bombing Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Navy pounced on Wake Island. Twenty-seven land-based medium bombers from the Marshall Islands surprised the Americans at 11:58 A.M., December 8, 1941, Wake’s first day at war. The Japanese caught eight of VMF-211’s fighters on the ground. In a matter of seconds, they destroyed seven Wildcats and damaged the eighth. For the remainder of the siege, the Americans never had more than four airworthy Grummans to oppose the waves of medium bombers, flying boats, and carrier attack planes that the Japanese hurled at Wake.
Expecting feeble resistance at best, elements of the Japanese Fourth Fleet attempted to seize Wake Island on December 11. On the alert this time, Marine gunners and aviators checked the poorly planned and clumsily executed landing attempt, forcing the Japanese to retire in haste and shame. The accurate gunnery exhibited by the garrison’s three 5-inch batteries, combined with repeated bombing and strafing runs by VMF-211’s four surviving Wildcats, cost the Japanese two destroyers and at least 340 slain. No Americans perished in this action.
A greatly reinforced Japanese invasion force returned to Wake twelve days later. Landing before dawn without a preliminary bombardment, enemy troops established a beachhead on the atoll’s main islet. In the face of fierce Marine resistance, the Japanese managed to cut off key American strongpoints. After six hours of desperate, close-infantry combat, the garrison’s leadership decided the situation was hopeless and surrendered.
Although the siege of Wake Island ended in a Japanese victory, the invaders paid a high price for a meager prize. During their sixteen-day stand, the dogged Leathernecks and their comrades sank two destroyers and one submarine, damaged a light cruiser and several other ships, downed twenty or more aircraft, and killed as many as 1,000 would-be conquerors. American losses were surprisingly light – 124 dead, just 49 of them Marines and sailors. The other 75 fatalities were civilians, some of whom took no part in the fighting. The 1,593 Wake Islanders still alive at the time of the surrender (including 35 Guamanian employees of Pan American Airways) became prisoners of war. Knowledge of the enemy’s heavy casualties imbued the defenders of Wake Island with a sense of victory that contributed to the consistently high morale they would retain through their long imprisonment.
Once the defenders of Wake Island laid down their arms, they faced an even greater test of courage and stamina as they strove to survive for three-and-a-half years as prisoners of the Japanese Navy and Army. The Japanese believed that it was a warrior’s duty to fight to the death regardless of circumstances. Anyone who allowed himself to become a prisoner was a coward who dishonored himself, his family, and his country. Such weaklings deserved no respect, consideration, or kindness. This attitude explains why so many Japanese, including civilians, chose death over capture during World War II. It also explains why the Japanese treated their prisoners so atrociously.
These were the odds against which the Wake Island defenders fought their longest battle. Yet while they were unarmed and relatively defenseless, they achieved something that excelled their combat record: their prisoner-of-war mortality rate was significantly lower than those recorded by most (if not all) other groups of white Allied troops confined by the Japanese.
Between December 1941 and August 1945, Japanese forces captured approximately 95,000 American, British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand servicemen. More than 28 percent of these Allied troops, including roughly 38 percent of the Americans, perished before hostilities ceased. By contrast, the 1,593 Americans and Guamanians taken on Wake Island sustained a relatively low death rate of 15.3 percent, with only 244 of their number dying in enemy custody. Moreover, the 474 servicemen captured on the atoll fared much better than Wake’s American community as a whole. Only 27 Marines and sailors (5.7 percent) perished between the atoll’s capture and Japan’s surrender.
Why did Wake’s survivors fare so well? How could so many withstand forty-four months of Japanese brutality and neglect? In some important respects, the Wake Islanders simply enjoyed more luck than most other Allied POWs in the Pacific Theater. At the same time, however, these Americans made much of their own luck, and they were as responsible for their own survival as any set of mitigating circumstances.
Throughout most of the Wake defenders’ imprisonment, they benefited from advantages that fate usually denied other Allied POWs. To begin with, almost all the Wake Islanders entered captivity in good physical condition. From the moment they landed on the atoll, the Contractors and Marines engaged in heavy labor six to seven days a week, racing the clock to erect base facilities and fortifications. Few diversions were available to diminish the effects of this body-building regimen. The Navy banned women, hard liquor, and narcotics from the atoll. When war finally came, the Wake garrison and its civilian auxiliaries were lean, tough, and healthy.
The Wake Island Campaign was mercifully short, lasting only sixteen days. The American garrison also emerged with surprisingly light casualties. Beyond the 124 dead, only 19 Wake Islanders suffered wounds serious enough to require extended hospitalization. The Marines and their auxiliaries also received ample rations throughout the siege. Contractors volunteered to cook and distribute two hot meals a day to every strongpoint and gun position. Thanks to the brevity of the fighting, to adequate nourishment, and to lulls that permitted the garrison to maintain proper sanitary standards, the men’s health remained reasonably sound.
The Wake Island experience stands in stark contrast with what happened in the Philippines, where the Japanese snared more American POWs than anywhere else. When American and Filipino forces began their three-month defense of the Bataan Peninsula in January 1942, General Douglas MacArthur placed them on half rations, reducing each man’s daily caloric intake from 4,000 to 2,000. In February, the Bataan garrison dropped to 1,500 calories per man, and in March, that token amount was slashed to 1,000. By that time, men who normally weighed 175 to 200 pounds were walking skeletons of 135 to 145 pounds. Thousands of these weakened soldiers contracted malaria, dysentery, and other diseases. In some units, as many as 70 percent of the men grew too feeble to carry a rifle. Bataan’s inevitable surrender on April 9, 1942, brought no relief to its exhausted defenders. Depending on their point of capture, Fil-American personnel were forced to walk 70 to 140 miles to a railroad station just northeast of the peninsula. Approximately 10,650 POWs died on the infamous “Bataan Death March,” many of them deliberately murdered when illness, fatigue, hunger, dehydration, or sunstroke brought them to their knees. Another 17,600 Bataan survivors died at Camp O’Donnell over the next seven weeks, a direct consequence of the privations heaped on them in the Death March.
Fortunately for the defenders of Wake Island, their atoll was not large enough for a death march. In fact, the Wake Islanders’ first two weeks in captivity amounted to a grace period that prepared them for the ordeal that lay ahead. Initially, the Japanese confined the newly captured Americans on the atoll’s airstrip, denying them shelter and adequate food and water, but after two days the POWs were moved into barracks built before the war by the Contractors. Although the new accommodations were crowded and bore some battle damage, they contained saltwater showers and flush toilers. Best of all, the Japanese permitted Contractor chefs to feed their fellow prisoners two hearty meals a day. The nutritious food came from stockpiles of American canned goods scattered across the atoll. Wake’s defenders did not realize it at the time, but they enjoyed a comparatively easy transition to prison life.
In January 1942, the majority of Wake’s POWs (1,187 in all) boarded a former Japanese liner, the Nitta Maru, and sailed to Shanghai, China. Although the Americans suffered sadistic handling and the Japanese guard detail executed five of them during the twelve-day voyage, the move to the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Japanese did the Wake survivors an enormous favor by keeping most of them together. Unlike many other groups of Allied POWs, the Wake Islanders entered captivity as a cohesive unit. These men had worked together for months – in some cases, years – before the war. The experience of combat further strengthened the bonds that already existed among them. Now they would experience prison camp and the worst days of their lives in the company of their friends – men who knew them, cared for them, and would support them if they got into trouble. Scholars who study the phenomenon of unit cohesion believe that a soldier is less prone to behave badly if surrounded by a “primary group” of people he knows, likes, and trusts. On the other hand, a man is more likely to think only of himself in times of crisis if he is cast among strangers.
The Wake Islanders derived other benefits from their stay at Shanghai. Whereas other Japanese prison camps were located in disease-ridden jungles, Shanghai possessed a fairly healthy climate with a temperature range similar to that of Washington, D.C. Shanghai ranked as the fifth-largest port in the world and was possibly the most prosperous city in the Orient. Its sprawling International Settlement housed 10,000 British, American, Dutch, French, and Russian civilians, many of them affluent businessmen, diplomats, and journalists. These Allied nationals eagerly helped locally held POWs in ways the Japanese would not. In particular, members of Shanghai’s British and American Associations donated large amounts of cash and personal property to supply the Wake Islanders with extra food, sunglasses, summer hats, musical instruments, sports equipment, safety razors, old magazines, and a 3,000-volume library. For Christmas 1942, an American restaurateur named Jimmy James treated each POW to a hot turkey dinner, complete with potatoes, gravy, candy, nuts, and powdered milk. “It was the best Christmas dinner I have ever had, before or since,” remembered Technical Sergeant Charles A. Holmes of the 1st Defense Battalion, “and the most appreciated one. After that, every man in the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp worshiped Shanghai Jimmy and we don’t understand to this day how he talked the Japanese military into letting him send the dinner in to us. It was a miracle as far as we were concerned.”
Even after the Japanese interned or repatriated the Allied nationals, inmates at the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp continued to receive considerable outside assistance. Neutral Switzerland maintained a fully staffed consulate general at Shanghai. The Swiss diplomats took an abiding interest in the plight of Allied POWs and applied delicate pressure on the Japanese to improve the treatment of their charges.
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) presented itself to the Japanese government as the protector of prisoners of war and civilian internees in East Asia. The Japanese, however, permitted ICRC delegates to operate in only three cities behind Japanese lines – Tokyo, Manila, and Shanghai. Shanghai’s Red Cross delegate, a Swiss named Edouard Egle, was as clever and courageous as he was compassionate. A master of logistics, Egle scoured a city plagued by wartime shortages to send the Wake Islanders extra clothing, books, and recreational gear, as well as regular shipments of food. “If it had not been for the International Red Cross,” declared an appreciative Pfc. Floyd H. Comfort, “I guess we all would have starved to death. . . . The International Red Cross furnished us with two truck loads of food a month.” Egle also ensured that the infirmary at the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp was the best-equipped POW health facility in East Asia, including a modern operating room and dental parlor.
This outside aid would have done the Wake defenders no good had their jailors been as cruel as the men who controlled Japan’s other prison camps. Compared to their fellows elsewhere, many guards at Shanghai were models of restraint. Some were even friendly. This was especially true of the camp’s second commandant, Colonel Satoshi Otera, who assumed that office in October 1942, and held it to within a few months of the war’s end. Although Otera sometimes ordered group punishments and often tolerated the excesses of his one truly abusive subordinate, he normally did not go out of his way to add to the misery of his charges. He enjoyed watching the POWs play softball and conversing in French with Major James P. S. Devereux, the commander of the Wake Island Detachment, 1st Defense Battalion. Otera presented award certificates to prisoners who performed faithfully in the camp galley and carpentry shop. More substantially, Otera allowed the Wake Islanders to receive at least two-thirds of the food and other material aid delivered by the Red Cross. In other East Asian camps, little or none of this assistance ever reached the prisoners for whom it was intended. But of all the Japanese personnel at Shanghai, none commanded more respect and affection from the POWs than Dr. Yoshiro Shindo, the camp medical officer. A young man educated in Europe, Shindo went to extraordinary lengths to safeguard the health of Allied prisoners. He had the POWs inoculated against typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. He brought POW doctors precious drugs – such as quinine -- and medical instruments. He even intervened with his superiors to exempt sick men from onerous work details, a practice that earned him at least one beating.
By Japanese standards, the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp was a model of its type, the most humanely run POW installation in East Asia. By American standards, however, the place was a hellhole. The Wake Islanders endured more deprivation there than they imagined possible, and these were men who had experienced the Great Depression. Conditions were not so bad at Shanghai as at other camps, but inmates still died there from malnutrition, overwork, physical abuse, and disease. Furthermore, the Wake defenders did not discover that they were luckier than other POWs until after the war. And even though certain circumstances improved their chances for survival, luck alone did not guarantee they would live to see Japan defeated. The defenders of Wake Island had to work hard to exploit the opportunities that fate threw their way.
The Marine officers who accompanied the Wake Islanders into internment deserve much credit for keeping so many of their men alive. The officers established a high standard of military discipline and insisted on the observance of military etiquette. The familiar code and rituals provided enlisted men with a psychological buffer against the strangeness and daily indignities of prison life. Fireman 1/C William O. Plate, a sailor in the Wake garrison, described the impact this had on POW morale: “We had our own officers, our own non-coms, and we had our own military discipline regardless of the fact that we were POWs. We knew that anything that we did, if we collaborated with the enemy, if we did anything that was unmilitary . . . , that we would get . . . disciplinary action after we got back to the States. And I think this is one of the things that held our men together, held our camp together – tighter, and gave us a sense of respectability even though we were prisoners.”
The person most responsible for fostering this spirit of order, pride, and self-respect was Wake’s senior Marine, Major James P. S. Devereux. In the prewar Marine Corps, Devereux earned a reputation as a humorless martinet, and most of his enlisted subordinates disliked him for his aloof manner and nitpicking command style. They joked behind Devereux’s back that his initials, J. P. S., stood for “Just Plain Shit.” Once war came, however, Devereux converted that hostility into respect with his capable defense of Wake Island and then by his unflinching efforts to keep his men from deteriorating into an ungovernable mob in prison camp. “I think anybody would recognize that you must maintain discipline within a group,” Devereux explained, “even if you are prisoners.” He demanded that the men keep themselves clean and act like Marines, sailors, or soldiers. “Our morale was good,” Devereux contended, “because I insisted on military courtesy. If I went to one barracks where the men were, they all stood up.”
Devereux and his officers planted the foundations for a viable community structure in the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp by giving their subordinates a sense of security, purpose, and identity. “It was by maintenance of discipline as a military organization that we were able to keep our morale through the years of our captivity,” Devereux declared. On the chance that Allied paratroopers might liberate the camp and allow its inmates to reenter the war, the major had his headquarters clerk secretly maintain an updated table of organization, assigning a battle station to every Marine under his command. “This is a unit,” he would tell his men. “This is the 1st Defense Battalion, Wake Island Detachment.”
Devereux relied on more than just pep talks to keep his Marines in line. He was not afraid to talk tough or act tough. The major let it be known that he was keeping a list of insubordinate and disobedient Marines who would be court-martialed on their return home. Eventually, that list grew to roughly 100 names. (The threat of court martial turned out to be a bluff.) Pfc. Joseph E. Borne recalled hearing Devereux declare that “he only wanted the good Marines, the people that behaved like Marines, and he was going to bring them back – even if he sacrificed the other half.” When a non-commissioned officer reported he could no longer control his men, Devereux snapped: “You pick up a pick handle and use it, and don’t forget I said that, because you have to maintain discipline.”
Devereux’s conduct told his subordinates that they were not abandoned. They had officers and comrades concerned about their welfare. Each individual knew he was part of a group and could draw on its collective strength when he needed it. Pfc. Grover E. Thaire testified to the effectiveness of the major’s approach: “I was quite proud of the man. Major Devereux was all ways concerned about us.”
Watching the Marines and other Wake servicemen, the Contractors soon recognized the value of discipline and followed Devereux’s lead. “With the . . . Marines we set the pattern among the civilians,” Devereux explained. “They were under their own people [foremen] in their own barracks. . . . Their senior civilian constructor, Dan Teters, had been in the Army during World War I . . . and he was able to handle these people all right.”
In combat and other stressful situations, officers can lead only as far as their men will follow. The cooperation of the enlisted Wake Marines was essential to almost everything the officers accomplished. The other ranks maintained a high degree of self-discipline, and they usually responded well to orders from above. “I would say there was very little difficulty – or no difficulty in maintaining discipline among the Wake Island Marines,” claimed Sergeant Donald R. Malleck. “I think the Major & our other officers were respected enough to ensure this. . . . It was quite evident they had our well being in mind – it was also evident that discipline was . . . beneficial to our cause.” Malleck modestly neglected to point out the essential role that he and his fellow non-coms played in this scenario. “Marine officers of that day . . . depended almost entirely on the senior NCOs to run things,” claimed Technical Sergeant Holmes. “Of course . . . the officers usually got the credit . . . but it was the ‘old salty’ NCOs that really got the job done.” Pfc. James C. Venable, a member of Holmes’ antiaircraft battery, agreed, “There was never any question about it. Discipline was maintained by our own NCOs.”
The Wake Island Marines also acted on their own to institute “buddy systems” –interlocking networks of mutual support – to improve their prospects for survival. “In order to survive, you couldn’t be an island,” stated Pfc. Borne. “You had to help other people.” These buddy systems became the basis for the many types of group assistance available in the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp. They formed the glue that held the community together. If a man stumbled, he knew somebody would help him get back up. If a POW saw someone going down, he felt honor bound to aid a comrade in need.
Other POW groups failed to develop comparable buddy systems as quickly as the Wake Islanders. Their officers, if they acted at all, were often lax in asserting their authority. Deprived of strong leadership, the men surrendered to their baser instincts and participated in dog-eat-dog reigns of terror. An Army fighter pilot captured in the Philippines described the grim realities of life at Cabanatuan: “That was one place where I learned that a human being is a marauder. I believe he would steal from his own mother if he was starving hard enough. You couldn’t keep food around because they’d steal it. . . . They didn’t mind seeing a guy die. They just wanted the food. Everybody was concerned about themselves.”
In camp after camp, the strong preyed on the weak, stealing the rations of those too sick to defend themselves. The death rate did not level off at such places until after the weak died. At Shanghai, the POW population remained stable because the strong looked after the weak.
When a Wake Marine fell ill, his buddies commonly pooled small quantities of their own rations to give him double servings. These voluntary assessments continued until the sick man recovered. In a postwar affidavit, Staff Sergeant Bernard O. Ketner proudly revealed that his fellow POWs voted in the spring of 1945 to give the food from their final Red Cross shipment “to the men in the hospital who were sick.” Some POWs risked beatings or worse to steal from enemy food stores for their ailing friends. Pfc. Jesse E. Nowlin sketched the dynamics of his buddy system: “We looked out . . . for each other in spite of the fact . . . the first order of business was to look out for yourself. I know that we collectively at times helped people with our food who were in serious trouble. . . . There was a lot who were saved by our collective . . . physical as well as moral support. . . . And I don’t know why it didn’t happen elsewhere.”
A buddy system also gave welcome morale boosts to Marines who were not suffering from physical maladies. On June 26, 1942, Corporal Henry Durrwachter scribbled in his diary: “Yesterday was my birthday and believe it or not I had a party. There wasn’t much to it as we only had bread and sugar to eat for cake. I thought it was swell of the fellows to remember. They gave me a couple of packs of cigarettes and a ring made out of a quarter. It made me feel fine to think I had friends like that.”
Corporal Robert McCulloch Brown, who served in Devereux’s command post during the siege, would choke up and his eyes glisten with tears when he described the POW community the Wake Marines built: “I don’t know of any other unit cohesion that works as well as this did. In the very bitterest days we had . . . by and large, this group got through what they went through, with the number of casualties en route, by . . . one of the greatest cases of friendship the world has ever known. When your buddy’s down you picked him up – when you were down he picked you up. It happened all the time.”
The sailors and soldiers captured on Wake readily joined the Marines’ buddy systems, while the civilians established support networks of their own. On May 11, 1942, Contactor Emmett Newell confided to his secret diary: “James White came down with T.B. Glenn [Newell’s brother] & I put in .50 cents to buy him extra food – milk, eggs etc.” December 22, 1943, found Newell and other Contractors performing a similar mission of mercy: “Eddie Cook is a T.B. suspect. We’re taking up a collection to get him food. Got him 2 lbs. [of] peanut butter.”
In addition to strong leadership, solid discipline, and the deepest sort of camaraderie, the defenders of Wake Island possessed an edge in morale denied to other large groups of Allied POWs in East Asia. That edge was the Wake Islanders’ sense of victory. They were the first Allied troops to shatter the myth of Japanese invincibility by repelling the enemy’s landing attempt of December 11, 1941. The memory of that glorious day sustained the spirits of many Wake Marines during the forty-four trying months that followed. Whenever Japanese guards harassed him or his buddies, Sergeant Walter A. Bowsher would repeat this defiant litany under his breath: “We’ve already whipped you. Now you can do your damnedest – you can’t hurt us. . . . We’ve had our victory.”
The Wake Islanders’ belief in their superiority sought its chief outlet through humor. The POWs strove constantly to outsmart their guards – whether by committing sabotage or innocent pranks. Of all their escapades, none evoked fonder memories than the story of “Mortimer Snerd.”
The assistant interpreter at the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp was a gullible, semi competent young man named Kazunori Morisako. To the POWs’ delight, he bore a close resemblance to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s moronic dummy, and the Americans took to calling him “Mortimer Snerd.”
With that, Morisako became the friendliest Japanese in camp. Any POW who greeted him with “Hello, Mortimer,” received a gift of extra cigarettes accompanied by a warm salutation in fractured English: “Today I say it is a fine day hello – I presento tobacco.”
This humorous charade lasted two weeks. Then one day Morisako entered the prisoners’ compound with a cross look on his face. When a POW called out, “Hi, Mortimer,” the interpreter slashed him across the face with a riding crop. Morisako stalked through the camp until he found the Marine who had lied about Mortimer Snerd. As he whipped the man about the head and shoulders, the interpreter screamed hysterically: “Many days I go downtown Shanghai. I look in many movie books. Mortimer is the fencepost man! Never forever do I present tobacco again.”
The welts Morisako dealt out that day healed quickly, but the Wake Marines never forgot how they crushed the interpreter’s ego. That memory helped them brighten many dark moments with laughter.
The Japanese operated the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp from January 24, 1942, to May 9, 1945. During that period, only nineteen men from the main group of Wake Islanders died there. Twelve were civilians, six were Marines, and one was a sailor. Two of these POWs died by accident. On February 17, 1942, a playful Japanese guard carelessly pointed his rifle at a Contractor and the weapon discharged, striking the American in the neck. On August 15, 1942, a sailor was electrocuted as he tried to reach through a highly charged fence to retrieve a softball that had rolled outside the compound. Three civilians succumbed to cancer and might have died even if they had been free. In fact, just fourteen of these Wake Islanders could be considered legitimate victims of the poor diet, primitive quarters, and arduous work that the Japanese imposed on them. One unnecessary death is a tragedy, but in view of what happened elsewhere in Japanese-held territory, Shanghai turned out to be a good place for a captured American to be.
The Wake Islanders sent to Shanghai were lucky, but their luck did not last forever. As the war drew to an end and Allied aviators began pounding the city and its environs, the Japanese decided to close the camp and transfer its occupants to the security of Japan. Three drafts of Wake Islanders had already been shipped to the home islands to work in enemy war industries, the first leaving China in September 1942, the second in August 1943, and the third in November of that year. The remaining POWs departed Shanghai in May 1945. They reached Japan in late June, where they were divided into smaller groups and scattered among several camps.
Though many were now separated from their officers and friends, the Wake Islanders did not forget the survival lessons they mastered in Shanghai. They continued to practice elementary hygiene and observe military discipline. If they ended up in the same camps as their buddies, they remained loyal to them. If they landed among strangers, they made new friends, thereby extending the lifeline of mutual support to non-Wake Islanders.
In a final stroke of luck, the atomic bombs abruptly ended the Pacific War less than two months after most Wake Islanders reached Japan. Had hostilities lasted longer, there is no telling how many would have lived through the winter of 1945-46. Three and a half years behind barbed wire had sapped the Americans both mentally and physically. Men were beginning to lose hope. Moreover, almost all the Wake Marines ended up on the northern island of Hokkaido, a region noted for its long, harsh winters. For emaciated men accustomed to a warmer climate, waiting for a Hokkaido winter felt like sitting on death row.
When Emperor Hirohito went on the radio to announce Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, he literally gave the defenders of Wake Island a new lease on life. By mid-September, those gaunt, enfeebled Americans were on their way home. They had won the hardest battle of their war. They had survived, and they did it without sacrificing their dignity. They learned that military training and discipline not only conditioned people to kill, but it also taught them how to live. “I think that my Marine Corps training had disciplined me to accept life,” remarked Pfc. James Venable. “I never lost confidence that I would make it through – I was always confident about the future. . . . I just knew I was going to make it back.” Pfc. Marshall E. Fields found strength in the Marines around him. “I knew the men that I was with,” he explained, “and I knew they were all good fellows before, and I could say that I was just fortunate to be in an outfit like that where you would trust them.”
Major Devereux later summarized his role in prison camp in these words: “I considered it my duty to stay with my men as long as I could, to maintain discipline and morale . . . and to keep as many of them as I could alive until the war was over.” Corporal James R. Brown credited the spirit that Devereux fostered with helping the Wake Marines to preserve both their lives and their pride. “It was that kind of a morale,” Brown declared, “that brought most of them back with their morals.”