"A HARD-WORKING BUNCH"
On 22 January 1981, the secretary of the air force decided that the American civilians who had survived the siege of Wake Island should be treated as heroes. Under authority granted by the G.I. Bill Improvement Act of 1977 and the secretary of defense, he decreed "that the service of the . . . Civilian Employees, Pacific Naval Air Bases, Who Actively Participated in the Defense of Wake Island During the Period of World War II be considered active military service in the Armed Forces of the United States for the purposes of all laws administered by the Veterans' Administration."1 The former Contractors reacted to this news with unrestrained glee. "This is incredibly fantastic," wrote one from California. I'm floating on a cloud."2
To attain veteran status, a Wake survivor had only to fill out a special form and attach a brief statement describing his "combat" service. Within a few weeks, applicants began receiving honorable discharge certificates from the U.S. Navy, along with the World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic Campaign Medal, and American Campaign Medal. Soon newspapers all over the United States were running photographs of teary-eyed old men proudly displaying their discharges and medals.3
Yet America's latest heroes could not pretend that they had been called to a rendezvous with history by patriotism. Something else prompted more than twelve hundred Americans to toil for CPNAB at an isolated spot thousands of miles from home. Some Contractors chose exile on Wake Island to evade America's first peacetime draft, but that was not the most common motive.