On Memorial Day, I always think back to 1989, when as a newspaper reporter, I was privileged to meet a great group of heroes:
Memory Of WWII Still Vivid For Vets
(Part I of the Wake Island Story)
‘Considering the power accumulated for the invastion of Wake Island and the meager forces of the defenders, it was one of the most humiliating defeats the Japanese Navy ever suffered.’
—Masatake Okumiya, commander, Japanese Imperial Navy
By Steve Pollock
The Duncan (OK) Banner)
Sunday, August 13, 1989
MARLOW – It all came back to them this weekend – the stark terror of facing death while kneeling naked on a sandy beach the stinking hold of the prison ship; the brutality of the Japanese; the obliteration of youthful innocence.
They fought and bled for a two-and-a-half-square-mile horseshoe of an atoll in the midPacific called Wake Island. They were United States Marines and they did their duty.
There were 10 men of that Wake Island garrison at the Marlow home of John Smith this weekend. With Smith, they talked, drank and smoked their way through the weekend, laughter masking deeper emotions of brotherhood, camaraderie and painful memories.
In the Smith kitchen, their wives continued the latest of an ongoing series of therapy sessions, attempting to exorcise some of the demons of the last 44 years of their lives with the hometown heroes.
In 1941, with war inevitable, the U.S. government began construction of a series of defensive Pacific Ocean outposts, including Wake, designed to protect against Japanese aggression. They were a little late.
Little Wake atoll, with some 1,616 Marines and civilians huddled on its three islands, was attacked at noon, Dec. 8, 1941, several hours after Pearl Harbor.
The Marines knew war was possible, but “didn’t think the little brown guys had the guts to hit us,” one of them said.
Jess Nowlin’s hearing aid battery is getting a little weak as the afternoon wears on, but his memory and sense of humor are still sharp.
He said the Marines were going about their business when they heard the drone of approaching aircraft.
“We thought they were B- 17’s out of Pearl coming in to refuel. They weren’t. They broke out of a cloud bank at about 1,800 feet, bomb bay doors open. They tore us up,” Nowlin said.
The Japanese attacked from sea and air, but the Marines held out until Dec. 23; only 400 remained to defend 21 miles of shoreline from 25 warships and a fleet of aircraft. Surrender was inevitable.
Through a haze of cigarette smoke, Robert Mac Brown, a veteran not only of World War II, but of Korea and three tours of duty in Vietnam, remembers the post-surrender scene on the beach.
“We were stripped naked and they hog-tied us with our own telephone wire. A squall came through, but lasted only about 10 to 15 minutes. One of my clearest memories of the whole operation is of watching the water run down the bare back of the guy in front of me,” Brown said.
Japanese soldiers lay on the sand in front of the prisoners, swinging machine guns back and forth. The click of rounds being loaded into chambers was ominous. Fingers tightened on triggers.
“There was an argument between the landing force commander and a guy with the fleet. They screamed at each other in Japanese, arguing about whether to kill us or not,” Brown said.
The Marines made their peace and prepared to die.
The argument to make prisoners of the Marines and civilians won the day. The prisoners were allowed to grab what clothing they could to cover themselves.
And then a living hell began which would only be ended by the birth of atomic stars over southern Japan nearly four years later.
Taken off the island on small ships, the prisoners were forced to climb up the side of the Nittamaru, a former cruise ship pitching about on rough seas.
As the men walked back through the ship and down to the hold, the crew beat them with bamboo sticks, in a gauntlet of brutality.
Packed in the stinking hold, several hundred Marines and civilians had only one five-gallon bucket per deck to hold human waste. For the 14 days of the Nittamaru’s passage from Wake to Shanghai, they could barely move.
The cold of Shanghai was felt through their thin tropical khaki. It was January 1942. Robert Brown was to have married his girl on January 12. She married someone else.
“I thought you were dead,” she later told him.
From Shanghai, through Nanking, Peking, Manchuria and Pusan, Korea, the group journeyed in packed cattle cars to their eventual destination, a coal mine on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, where they dug in the shafts alongside third-generation Korean slave labor.
They were slaves themselves until August 1945.
“Thank God for Harry S. Truman and the atomic bomb,” several survivors said, as the others echoed that prayer.
They went home to heroes’ welcomes, but the public ”’never fully appreciated or understood what we did,” Nowlin said.
They’re much older now — in their 60’s and 70’s — and it was a family reunion of sorts; they claim to be closer than brothers. They don’t miss their “get-togethers” for anything in the world; Robert Haidinger traveled from San Diego with a long chest incision after recently undergoing a major operation.
As they gazed through the Oklahoma sunshine, they didn’t see the cow bam beyond the lovegrass rippling in the August breeze; it was a Japanese destroyer was steaming close in to end their lives all over again.
“It was awful, terrible; I wouldn’t have missed it for anything; you couldn’t get me to do it again for a billion dollars,” Nowlin summed it up.
The men: Tony Obre, Fallbrook, Calif; Robert Haidinger, San Diego, Calif.; Robert Murphy, Thermopolis, Wyo.; Dale Milburn, Santa Rosa, Calif.; George McDaniels, Dallas, Texas; Jess Nowlin, Bonham, Texas; Jack Cook, Golden, Colo.; Robert Mac Brown, Phoenix, Ariz.; Jack Williamson, Lawton; Paul Cooper, Marlow, and John Smith, Marlow.
The cost of the defense of Wake Island, from Dec. 8 to 23, 1941: Americans: 46 Marines, 47 civilians, three sailors and 11 airplanes; Japanese: 5,700 men, 11 ships and 29 airplanes.