1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad 1997: Ricky Lee Green

1943: 98 American civilian contractors on Wake Island

October 7th, 2008 Headsman

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.

Wake Island came under Japanese attack immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor raised the curtain on the Pacific theater — and was overrun in two weeks.

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.

Still,

[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.

* The identities of the 98 are known, and are listed online here as well as on a plaque at the site.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Innocent Bystanders,Japan,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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28 Responses to “1943: 98 American civilian contractors on Wake Island”

  1. 1
    thomas knowles Says:

    my grandfather was there, he was taken to a slave labor camp in shanghai, when he returned after the war he could barely walk, by the severity of the starvation which was imposed on him. ive heard stories of it, i just wish that more people would realise how the government treats its own people, they sent no force to rescue them, they left them for dead.

  2. 2
    Phyllis Brown Says:

    I am thankful for your family that your grandfather returned home, my grandfather was one of the unfortunate ones who died there. The search for answers has been an ongoing undertaking by a large portion of our family.

  3. 3
    Gary E. Capehart Says:

    As a baby boomer and Marine, I grew up with endless accounts of heroic American sacrifices in WW II. As such there never was any hesitation when my sister an Air Force nurse 68-71 and I 71-74 volunteered. But today who volunteers? I cannot express the gratitude I have for your deceased heroes.They did make this the land of the free and they were at home here and there the brave. God Bless their memory. Thank-you, Gary and Suzy

  4. 4
    Karen Hansen Easton Says:

    My Step Grandfather Martin T Kelly was one of Forgotten 98″. He worked for Morrison & Knudsen and went over to Wake Island the summer of 1941. I remember when we received a telegram in Portland in 1946 that he was killed. My Grandmother was invited to attend the Memorial Services at Punchbowl Nat’ Cemetary in 1953 but was unable to attend. She received, thanks to Sen Morris, a “Widows Pension” . He was much loved by my Father and Grandmother.

  5. 5
    Wayne Street Says:

    My uncle, Joe Mittendorf, was one of the 98. He operator equipment, I have all of his letters up to Dec. 2, 1941. He helped the marines man a .50 cal. machine gun. I also applied for his metals and received 4 plus a purple heart, Actualy I have letters to and from him from 1938 thru Dec. 1941. I also have the blue book and a Wig Wag dated July 15, 1941. When you read the letters, you find out that he was a very intersting man. My address is wstreet38@yahoo.com

  6. 6
    ExecutedToday.com » 1947: Shigematsu Sakaibara, “I obey with pleasure” Says:

    [...] The most lastingly notable of the six was Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, who was hanged for ordering (and perhaps in one instance, personally conducting) an infamous mass execution on Wake Island that has already appeared in these pages. [...]

  7. 7
    Pat Gaskell Says:

    My father Ira Hawkins Boothe was one of the 1400 contractors on Wake Island during the Japanese invasion. He died on April 13, l943. I have no history of where he died or how. Was he a prisoner of war until that date.?
    He is now buried at the Punchbowl in Honolulu. I have no history on him because I was only 6 when this happened. Any infomation would be appreciated. His homtown was Romulus, Alabama. He was only 28 when he died. Please inform me if you are able to find any information where he was killed.

  8. 8
    Tom Browder Says:

    I have worked for the Defence Department for 28 years as a civilian. I have been inspired by the actions of the Navy, Marines and the civilian contractors on Wake Island for many years. The contractors were the making of the first layer of the foundation of the Navy Seabees. Something has troubled for years. The 98 Rock needs protection from the elements. The typhoons and exposure to the sea and weather it will disappear for future generations. I have contacted my Senator and he wrote me the Department of Interior is investigated it. I believe the rock should be move to the Punch Bowl in Hawaii with the 98. I would like to here comments especially from relatives of the contractors. If we can bring rocks from the moon we can move a rock from Wake. e-mail me for comments

  9. 9
    Tom Browder Says:

    e-mail tomb12345@live.com

  10. 10
    Lorraine Mager Buchko Says:

    I am trying to find information about my grandmother’s brother, Raymond Mathiasen, who died 8/9 /43. He was a civilian contractor on Wake. Raymond was reburied In the Punchbowl on Oahu, HI.

  11. 11
    Raymond E. Drozd Says:

    TO THE RELATIVES TRYING TO RESEARCH DECEASED LOVE ONES, I WOULD RECOMMEND LOOKING UP SOME OF THE P.O.W. SITES ON THE INTERNET, STARTING WITH THE 1ST DEFENSE BATTALION, USMC. THE BULK OF CIVILIAN CONTRACTORS WENT WITH THE MARINES TO POW CAMPS IN CHINA, AND THEN LATER IN THE WAR, JAPAN AND KOREA. I RECALL ONE WEBSITE CALLED “DOGBERRY PATCH” WHICH HAS THE WAKE CIVILIAN POW ACCOUNTS. ALSO, THE IDAHO HISTORICAL SOCIETY (MORRISON-KNUDSEN WAS BOISE BASED) HAS MATERIAL AS WELL. GENERALLY, ONE WEB SITE LEADS YOU TO ANOTHER. I WISH YOU ALL LUCK.

    TO THOSE RELATIVES WHO HAVE DECEASED FAMILY BURIED AT THE WAKE MEMORIAL SITE AT THE PUNCHBOWL (HAWAII), A QUESTION; DO THE FAMILIES HAVE ANY HISTORICAL DOCUMENTATION FROM THE U.S. GOVERNMENT INDICATING HOW THEY IDENTIFIED THEIR LOVED ONES REMAINS?

    I AM RETIRED MILITARY AND AM ATTEMPTING TO ACCOUNT FOR 8 INDIVIDUALS WHO, I BELIEVE, WERE NOT EXHUMED ON WAKE, AND REPATRIATED TO HAWAII POST WAR. ANY GENERIC INFORMATION YOU HAVE WOULD BE APPRECIATED.

  12. 12
    Sam Harper Says:

    Uncle Bill was a “cat skinner” for MLK on Wake, and was also sent to Japan! He survived but was a mess, weak and sick for a good long time! How does one find a certain BLUE BOOK that has this info?

  13. 13
    Patti Herger Says:

    My grandfather was a heavy equipment operator and was prisoner during the whole wwar. My father said grandpa wouldn’t talk about it when he came home. The only thing I have is a newpapers article showing a pic of grandpa and grandma after he returned and the Western Union telegram from an uncle to another uncle saying he’s alive in Jap prison camp and is headed home.

  14. 14
    Attack on Wake Island (1943) - Aircraft of World War II - Warbird Forums Says:

    [...] he was lucky. The men the Japanese kept on the island they executed before we could take it back. ExecutedToday.com 1943: 98 American civilian contractors on Wake Island Massacre on Wake Island Battle of Wake Island – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Wheels [...]

  15. 15
    Teresa (Deering) Branstetter Says:

    My grandfather was one of the 98 civilians executed on Wake Island. His name was Karl Cox from Asotin,Wa. Since my both my grandmother (his wife) and my mother Shirley (his daughter) are deceased it is hard to get any info on exactly where my grandfathers remains are buried. Any information concerning this or stories only about the 98 Civilian POWS murdered on Wake Island would helpful with my research. These men faced the horrible and inhumane treatment that was given to them day after day until they were brutally executed will forever remain HEROS to me and will never be forgotten.

  16. 16
    ExecutedToday.com » 1944: Six Jesuits in Palau Says:

    [...] After a few months’ confinement, all six were summarily executed. Their remains have never been recovered; they were allegedly exhumed and burned shortly before Allied occupation, a bit of evidence-destruction similar to Wake Island. [...]

  17. 17
    Never Forget Says:

    I just heard this story from a 90 year old Japanese man who was on the opposing forces of the Americans during that time. His story and how the author describes is exact. He was not on the Island during the execution of the 98 civilians, but arrived 3 months later and that after the war he was an interpreter at the tribunal on Guam.

    I was not around during that time but I do appreciate hearing about life experiences from elders. I have a few more details on his experiences if anyone is interested nunes808@yahoo.com

  18. 18
    Harold Marable Says:

    William (Bill) Marable was from Arkansas worked CCC in Idaho and was on Wake Island. He took up arms and fought with the Marines. I had the honor of listening to him after I discharged out from the military. He was very proud of the Marines on Wake Island and till his death held the Marine Corps in Very high esteem.He was finally recognized along with others by our Government and recieved a Discharge and VA benefits. Iwish I could go there just to see the island

  19. 19
    Florida Guy Says:

    “5-10-43″ is not misdated for Oct. 5, 1943. That’s the international way, as in “fifth of October, 1943.”

  20. 20
    Bonnie Gilbert Says:

    A recent (spring 2011) discovery of skeletal remains on Wake has JPAC (Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command) seeking family members of the 98 and Wake war dead for DNA sampling. Family members of Wake deceased, please contact JPAC at http://www.jpac.pacom.mil. My father Ted Olson was also on Wake (survived) and I have done a lot of research on the civilian contractors. I’m aiding the JPAC effort to locate families, can also send the DNA kits, and have add’l info on the men.

  21. 21
    Phil Braun Says:

    Some from Wake Island (via dying in Fukuoka Camp #1 as POW’s) were moved to St. Louis.
    http://home.comcast.net/~winjerd/Images/JfsnBrks.jpg
    http://home.comcast.net/~winjerd/Hansen.htm
    http://home.comcast.net/~winjerd/POWCamp1.htm

  22. 22
    JoAnn Parrish Says:

    I am waiting to hear from DNA for my uncle Lacy Franklin Tart. He was one of the 98.I am so thankful something is finialy being told after 70 years of searching.

  23. 23
    Reaping the Whirlwind | Too Old To Work, Too Young To Retire Says:

    [...] of Nanking Unit 731 Bataan Death March Massacre of Civilians on Wake Island Comfort Women Alexandra [...]

  24. 24
    Bob Gottlieb Says:

    I just recently located my grandfather Henry Gottlieb who was a civillian contractor on Wake. He is buried at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. I will be the first in my family to visit the grave and since I am probably the last it is very fitting for me to visit and pay my respects to a man I never knew. I knew very little of my fathers side of the family…big family secrets and all. All I was ever told was that he died in a Japanese POW camp. Only last year did it occur to me to search under his name and Wake Island and was amazed with what pulled up. I will be in St. Louis on Nov. 11, 2012 to honor the Grandfather I never knew and hopefully lay to rest decades of animosity and family infighting. Please don’t take family secrets to the grave. It makes it so difficult for those who remain to understand what happened. Someone has to offer the love and forgiveness and I guess that’s me…its time.

  25. 25
    Tom Hayhurst Says:

    What was the reserve corsair squadron that came to wake Island at the end of the War? They were from Haveloock, NC. I do not believe they saw combat, but their mission was to protect while activated. Can anyone help me?

  26. 26
    Bonnie Gilbert Says:

    I posted earlier here (Oct 2011) about the JPAC mission which is still ongoing, seeking family members of the men who died on Wake in WWII. I want to let readers know that my book on Wake Island is finally published: Building for War: The Epic Saga of the Civilian Contractors and Marines on Wake Island in World War II, Casemate Publishers. Please visit my website at http://www.bonitagilbert.com for book info, photos of Wake from my trip there last year, and blog posts. Stay strong, Wake Family!

  27. 27
    terrance p. downey Says:

    We flew into Wake Island..18 april l970..
    enroute to Republic of Vietnam…I visited
    the Wake Island Obelisk on the beach that day..
    I always wondered why there was no U.S.NAVY Destroyer standing by to
    evacuate the troops…during December, l941.
    Surely the Navy had a ship in the area.
    101st Airborne Division
    Combat Veteran.
    11B10 Vietnam l970-71

  28. 28
    Edwin D.Wolfe Says:

    My Grandfather, Hollis Edwin Bledsoe was there, as a contractor, He I believe was sent to China then later Japan, as a P.O.W…. We just buried him in 2013, Chico,CA with honor’s.

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