Was WAKE ISLAND Surrendered Prematurely?

Article excerpt

The diaries of the US Naval aviator in command of the Wake Island garrison lend further credence to the controversy that Marine Major James Devereaux overestimated the strength of the Japanese invasion


Commanding Officer, 14th Naval District, Adm. Claude C. Bloch, would write in his own hand the following on Cmdr. Cunningham's 28 November-23 December 1941 fitness report: "This officer was sent to Wake Island to command on 27 November 1941. He performed his duties in an outstanding manner and, in conducting the defense of Wake Island, lived up to the best traditions of the Navy. He is physically qualified for any duties ashore and afloat of Flag Rank."

Cunningham's Commanding Officer, Adm. Bloch, would rate Cmdr. Cunningham "within the top 10%" for reactions during emergencies, performance at battle station or in battle duties, assuming responsibility when specific instructions are lacking, exercising judgment, inspiring subordinates to work to the maximum of their capacity, maintaining discipline among those under his command, and military conduct. Admiral Bloch would conclude the fitness report by stating, "I have not seen or heard from this officer, since he left Pearl Harbor for Wake in November 1941. In making this report I have been largely governed by my belief, that the outstanding service of Cmdr. Cunningham should be recognized."

During the first few weeks of captivity, most of the Americans on Wake still believed the United States would rush to their rescue. They expected to awaken any day to see the US Navy ringing the atoll, but each day they were more and more disappointed. John Rogge, the civilian construction worker from Idaho, served as Cunningham's orderly after the surrender and lived in the cottage with him that served as their prison. Cunningham and the other officers spent hours discussing the recent surrender and what they should or should not have done. Rogge heard Capt. Platt blame himself for not somehow sending word to Devereux of his success on Wilkes. Platt believed that if he could have done so, he could have shifted his men to Wake, where the combined forces might have eliminated the rest of the opposition. According to Rogge, Cunningham hated yielding the atoll, but did not place all the blame on himself. Cunningham and Platt agreed that the relief force "turned chicken."

The grueling years of imprisonment were about to begin. On 12 January 1942, it was announced that the prisoners would be leaving on the ocean liner Nitta Mam to begin their confinement in prisoner-of-war camps. Three hundred civilians were kept on the island as a labor force in clear violation of international agreements. Two hundred of these civilians were later transported to imprisonment, but 98 were found murdered on the island after the war. The 98 civilians had been lined up and shot in 1943 when the Japanese feared an American invasion was imminent.

The captives were ordered to pass through two lines of the ship's crewman. Cunningham described the scene this way: "I had barely picked up one of my bundles when a Jap struck at my hands and tore it from them. It was like a signal. The double line erupted in hate and, as we ran the gauntlet, we were dealt kicks, blows and slaps by men who had no part in our capture. Near the bottom of the last ladder, we were all sprayed with a disinfectant, but in my case it was hardly effective, since I was wearing a topcoat."

Winfield and 29 other officers were herded into the ship's mailroom. They were lucky. It was near the engine room, so it remained warm. The enlisted men and civilians were confined in the cold cargo spaces in the hold. In the months ahead, they were to find out that keeping prisoners half-starved was a studied policy. The Mita Maru's crew were masters at it. Winfield said, "In all our long record of semi-starvation as prisoners-of-war, the twelve days we spent in the voyage from Wake were, at least in my estimation, the worst. …