On this date in 1943, after Japanese-occupied Wake Island was subjected to a withering bombardment from the United States Navy, garrison commander Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the summary execution of 98 American prisoners of war.
It was strategically situated halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines. That’s why the Japanese wanted it — and that’s why the Americans wanted it back.
Caught in the middle were 1,600-plus Americans captured when Wake fell in December 1941, 1,100 of them civilian contractors of construction conglomerate Morrison Knudsen there to build a naval base. Most of these, and all military personnel, were shipped to POW camps in China early in 1941; only 700 contractors would survive their four-year sojourn in Japanese captivity.
By September 1942, only 98 Americans remained* on Wake Island — all contractors, the last remnants of the prison labor force who had been forced to lattice the island with defensive fortifications against the expected American invasion.
U.S. forces bombed Wake Island repeatedly during World War II — rare respites from the monotony of forced labor — but the most intense attack was an orchestrated naval bombardment and aerial attack beginning Oct. 5. Shigematsu Sakaibara feared it was the prelude to a long-anticipated landing attempt. And he wasn’t the only one: reporting the attack, the New York Times tried to read the tea leaves of the official pronouncements:
The fact that Wake was attacked yesterday by surface bombardment as well as aeriel bombing probably indicates that a major reduction of Wake is now intended. The atoll, which is the closest Japanese base to Pearl Harbor with the exception of a few islands in the Marshalls group, is a key stepping stone on Japan’s fastest aeriel route to her other central Pacific possessions in the Marshalls and Gilberts southwest of Hawaii.
[o]ccupation by United States forces of Wake Island, which is 1,033 miles from Midway, has been predicted for some time, but there is no indication that such an operation is probable immediately.
Sakaibara, unfortunately, didn’t have a Times subscription.
Expecting a landing, and fearing the prisoners would rise up as a “fifth column” against their captors when it came, Sakaibara had the 98 prisoners machine-gunned en masse on the beach. One of them managed to survive and escape the slaughter, but was recaptured shortly after, and is supposed to have been personally beheaded by the admiral. It’s said that unidentified man carved a (misdated) testimony to the crime on a nearby coral rock known as “98 Rock”: “98 US PW 5-10-43”.
As it turned out, the landing never did come. The U.S. Navy bypassed Wake Island, allowing it to languish under a blockade as it advanced elsewhere in the Pacific, and received Sakaibara’s peaceful surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although the Japanese had hastily exhumed the murdered POWs and reburied them in a cemetery as the end of the war approached, the cover story on the “Wake Island Massacre” soon cracked. For this day’s affair, Sakaibara was convicted of war crimes by an American tribunal, and hanged in Guam on June 18, 1947.