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Wake Island, 1941-1945

Wake Island has the distinction of being the only time defenders were able to prevent a landing during World War II. The marines and naval personnel on Wake, a refueling station for the Pan American Clipper, would become heroes to the American public starved for good news as the Japanese advanced across the Pacific.

Wake Island was 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, across the International Date Line. Some 1600 civilian construction workers and servicemen were on the island, and they were attacked within minutes of the Pearl Harbor attack by Kwajalein-based bombers. On December 11, the defenders used their World War I-issue five-inch (127 mm) guns to repel a landing force and damage three cruisers and a destroyer.

By December 23, the island had been bombed and shelled for twelve days. Some 120 Americans and 880 Japanese died during the invasion. Public sentiment for the Wake Island garrison was heightened by the first American war movie, Wake Island (1942), which was rushed into theatres within months.

The garrison was broken up. Most were shipped to China, while ninety-eight men were left on Wake to construct defenses for the Japanese. The POWs sent to China were shocked by five random beheadings during the voyage. On October 7, 1943, Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara announced that he had executed the 98 men for radio contact with Hawaii.

The American command left Sakaibara and his 4,400 men to wither on the vine, bypassing Wake. Wake was bombed and shelled repeatedly. The Japanese ate the birds on the island, a rare species, to extinction. New American bomber pilots used Wake as an actual combat training ground as they transited to the front. Only 1,200 men were let alive when the garrison surrendered on September 4, 1945. Sakaibara was arrested and tried for war crimes. He was executed in 1947.

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