Wake Island was first attacked on December 8, 1941 by Japanese aircraft from the airstrip at Roi in the Marshalls. Defending the island were 449 Marines, 69 Navy and 6 Army personnel as well as more than 1,100 civilian contract workers. The first Japanese invasion force was repelled on December 11 but the second invasion on December 23 was successful. Within 4 hours the Americans surrendered and became POWs. The majority of them were moved to Japan and Shanghai on the Nitta Maru in January of 1942 while others were sent to Japan later. October 1943, the remaining 98 civilians held captive were machine gunned to death. The Japanese island commander was tried for war crimes and executed after the war.
Former Marine Corporal, Ralph Holewinski, who fiercely defended Wake Island before becoming a POW, recently shared his reflection on his wartime experience.
How did you become a Marine?
I was born in 1921 and graduated from high school at the age of 16. I could not get a job at any place. So when I was 18, I signed in for Marine Corps. I went to San Diego for training and was there for a year and a half. We were then sent to Wake Island in November of 1941.
What was the mood around you during that time? Did you anticipate that the war between the U.S. and Japan would soon start?
Yes, it was talked about all the time that we would probably be fighting with the Japanese.
How did you learn about the Pearl Harbor attack?
We just got through eating breakfast on December 8 (December 7 at Pearl Harbor) when they sounded an alarm and said that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The Army had a communication system, radio and so on, set up. They said that it was no drill and that we really were bombed.
But did you immediately know the extent of the damage at Peal Harbor? In other words, the grave prospect of a total war between the two countries that was to come?
No, we didn’t know at that time. So we talked mostly that the war wouldn’t last long. I thought maybe it would be over with before my time in Wake was up. Then around noon, bombers came over. We hadn’t had education on types of planes yet. So when we saw them come out of the sky, the guy next to me said, “They are (our) B-17s.” I said, “No!” The bombers blew up everything at our airfield.
So it was only a few hours after you had learned about the Pearl Harbor attack that the Japanese bombers came over to Wake Island.
Yes, only 4 hours.
A couple of days later, the Japanese ships shelled us. On December 11, a Marine Lieutenant told me to go help the gun position near the beach because nobody was carrying ammunition. At first I didn’t like it. Shells were exploding everywhere on the island. But then I was glad that he did send me because we saw one Japanese ship get hit, blew up, and in a minute it was gone. We pushed back the first Japanese invasion.
（See Naval historian Kan Sugahara's essay for more detail)
On the 23rd, the Japanese came back. One ship came very close to the shore. And then another ship came alongside. All through the night, they were shooting us. I was at the 3 –inch gun shooting back at the Japanese ships. Then in early morning, the Japanese troops landed. They came so close that we got off from the gun platform and I started shooting a rifle. We kept shooting back. Around 9 o’clock in the morning planes came over and strafed us. I was wounded and the guys on both sides of me were killed. And at 10 o’clock, we surrendered.
You explained so matter-of-factly. But I read a book in which the scene at the Lieutenant Hanna’s 3-inch gun, which you manned, is depicted as follows:
For more than two and one-half hours the beleaguered men at Hanna’s gun kept the enemy at bay….No one expected to survive—too many Japanese soldiers and too few Americans occupied a small radius of action. “That was a foregone conclusion,” Lieutenant Hanna said after the war. “I assumed I wasn’t going to make it. We weren’t going anywhere. You’re feeling that you don’t have any chance, so you might as well make as much of it as you can.”
Corporal Holewinski harbored similar thoughts, but he pushed them out of his mind as quickly as he could. If he was a dead man, at least he intended to behave honorably during his final moments and take as many Japanese with him as he could.”
Pacific Alamo, New American Library, 2003
It was a fierce battle. What do you remember most?
A Japanese soldier came within 20 feet and stood up. I shot him with my rifle and he fell down. Another one stood up and was looking at his buddy just fell down. So I shot him, gunned down. I got hit by a shrapnel from a grenade in my back. I didn’t know I was hit, but felt blood running down in my back. Then a Japanese airplane flew over and started strafing our position. I got hit in my one leg. The civilian next to me got hit and his body went up and down, he got so many bullets in his chest. Another civilian got killed, too. Then the airplane went by again and I was struck in both legs this time. The plane made a circle and came around again. I put my head down pretending I was dead.
I understand that you sustained four bullet wounds to your body before you surrendered. What was it like? You must have only been 19 or 20 years old. What went through your mind?
I was 20. Really, it was hard to explain. While we were fighting on the ground, I wished I had signed on more life insurance. I wondered if my folks would know where I was killed. But I wasn’t really scared.
So, within a very short period of time since the war started, you, a young man of 20, came to accept the fate that you would be dying on this small island in the Pacific?
Yes. It was really easy--protecting my folks and my sister from Japanese invaders getting to America… Well, I guess it was easier to feel that way at that time.
Do you remember how you felt when you surrendered and became a POW?
All I remember was that I thought, “Now I am not going to die.” When I surrendered, I only had three shells left in my rifle.
I was wounded so severely that the Japanese could not send me to Japan on the same ship the majority of Wake Island POWs were sent. I was shipped to Japan later on the Asama Maru, a diplomats exchange ship.
How was the condition of the Asama Maru? Was it a Hellship?
Oh, it was very nice. We had a swimming pool and everything.
How many were in your group?
There were 20 of us who left Wake on that ship. After arriving in Japan I was sent to an interrogation camp in Ofuna.
How were you treated there?
We were not allowed to talk amongst ourselves. We were given a bowl of rice twice a day. I must say that the guards were not friendly. After about a month, I was sent to Zentsuji camp which was a propaganda camp. We got a loaf of bread there everyday.
Did you have to work there?
No, I didn’t have to work. I had a bandage on my back for 2-3 years. They finally took the machinegun bullet out of my back, but there was drainage I had to take care of. So the Japanese would not let me go to work. Overall treatment at Zentsuji was good. Then I was sent to Tanagawa, where submarines were being built.
Then I went to Umeda camp in Osaka. Our Hancho got
me a detail in the kitchen. There was a very funny episode. We had a
Japanese civilian who was in charge of workers and he was not liked by
us. The camp gave me some laxative pills. One day I took those pills and
put them under the rice he was going to eat. And he ate the rice. Next
morning we went to work and he wasn’t there. The other Japanese guy said
that he was sick for the first time in 33 years! He didn’t make it to
work. He was having a stomach problem. I thought, “Oh, it worked!” In
fact, the company, Mitsubishi, had just given him a watch for his
30-year service without absence.
There was another episode I often remember fondly. We went by train to work every day. On this particular day, when we got into the train we saw at one end a group of young Japanese girls, age of around 20 years old. There were about 15-20 of them. We were surprised that the Japanese guards were letting us ride on the same car with these girls. And after the door was closed, we moved toward the girls and the girls kind of eased toward us. Our guys were hugging them and kissing them and it all spread around until we reached our station.
Did the Japanese girls let you do that?
Yeah, it was an enjoyable trip. But the next day we didn’t get in the same car with the girls. We were all disappointed.
Then they took us up to a camp in Northern Japan to the western side. Around the 18th of August, 1945, a Red Cross representative came into the camp and told us that the war was over and that we were going home. On the 7th of September, they rode us on a train and we went to Yokohama Harbor. We flew from the Atsugi airfield to Guam and from Guam to Hawaii. I was among the first group of POWs who came back to the United States. I married the next year— my wife was a nurse in the Marine Corps— on the one year anniversary of my being released from Japan.
Was it easy to put your POW years behind you?
Yes, it was in a way. I don’t remember being hit or beaten while I was a POW. I know there were very few that didn’t get hit or beaten. But I don’t think I ever was, partially, I think, because they knew that I had an injury in the back. They had respect for wounded soldiers.
You did not go back to the service.
No. In 1947, I ran for Sheriff in my hometown, Gaylord in Otsego County, Michigan. I was the youngest Sheriff ever elected in Michigan. I served as Sheriff for 34 years.
Did your POW experience have any influence on you as a law enforcement officer?
A little. I was always hungry in Japan so I made sure that prisoners in the county jail had decent meals. My previous sheriff used to open a can of soup and hand it to them as a meal. We didn’t do that. My wife did the cooking most of the time for prisoners in the County jail.
Thank you very much for your time, Mr.
Mr. Holewinski passed away on August 22, 2010.
The Story of Wake Island (researched with Japanese sources)
Kan Sugahara, Naval historian
Wake Island lies some 1,600 NM to the southeast of Tokyo and 2,000 NM to the west of Hawaii. If a war broke out between the United States and Japan, the island would become the forefront of the United States against Japanese mainland. Conversely, if the island fell into the Japanese hands, which meant that the United States would lose an important strong point in the Pacific Ocean.
In 1941, as the situations between the United States and Japan deteriorated, the United States rapidly strengthened the defense of the island; sending the USMC 1st Defense Battalion, enforcing the coastal defense, building an airfield, and immediately before the outbreak of the war, transported 12 Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters by the Enterprise.
Japan also realized the need for capturing the island after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Then the 6th Destroyer Squadron consisting of the flagship light cruiser Yubari, six destroyers Oikaze, Hayate, Mutsuki, Yayoi and Mochizuki; two transports Kinryu Maru and Kongo Maru; two patrol-ships No.32 and 33; two squadrons of the special landing parties of 560 troops, and the supporting unit of two light cruisers Tenryu and Tatsuta, and other vessels participated in the invasion.
Prior to the invasion, the offensive actions of bombing the US garrisons on the island were repeatedly carried out with some thirty land-based medium bombers stationed at the Marshal Islands for three days from December 8 to December 10, and inflicted considerable damage to the defenders. However, four F4Fs, and the guns at Peacock point and Wilkes Island were undamaged. The invasion forces, however, thought that bombing had destroyed all F4Fs, and determined that no air support was required. This might be because, prior to opening the hostilities against the United States, the Japanese Navy carried out a map-exercise, from which they learned that the invasion of Guam Island would not be so easy, but that of Wake Island should be accomplished with a single blow.
The Japanese invasion forces that left the Marshal Islands on December 8 approached Wake Island about 23:00 on December 10, and landing on the island was ordered. In those days, the methods employed in landing were to lower the landing craft on the water with ropes and wires from a transport first, then the landing parties clambered down the Jacob’s ladders to the craft. On this day, the visibility was 5 NM, easterly winds of 28 knots, and the sea was raging with large swells. Under such conditions, lowering the landing craft from the transports was not an easy task, and the landing had to be delayed till after the sunrise. At 03:25, the Japanese surface forces began bombardment against the island. As there was no counter attack from the island, the transports were ordered to get closer to the shore. When they reached about 2,000 to 4,000 yards from the shore, at 04:00 four batteries on the island opened fire fiercely all at once. The Hayate was hit and sunk at 04:03, and the Oikaze and Yayoi sustained some casualties. The F4Fs’ persistent strafing caused considerable damage to the Tenryu and Tatsuta. Thus the invasion forces were compelled to abandon the invasion attempt, and withdrew. At 05:42 during the retreat, the Kisaragi sank by bombing.
The first invasion attempt thus came to a deadlock. It is very ironical to say that when the dramatic victory of the Japanese naval air power was demonstrated at Pearl Harbor and off the coast of Malaya Peninsula, at a remote island in the mid Pacific Ocean, the Japanese surface forces including three cruisers were completely at the mercy of merely four tiny fighters!
The Combined Fleet ordered the 1st Air Fleet on their way home after devastating attack at Pearl Harbor to detach the 2nd Carrier Division with two aircraft carriers Soryu and Hiryu, and dispatch them to assist the invasion of Wake Island. The invasion forces were reinforced with the destroyers Asanagi and Yunagi, and one squadron of the special landing parties of 310 troops, and they made preparations for another attempt scheduled on December 23.
On the morning of December 21, prior to invasion, the 2nd Carrier Division dispatched eighteen dive-bombers (Vals), eighteen Zeros, and two Attack-bombers (Kates) to attack the island, but the Zeros could not engage in combat with the harassing F4Fs, and strafed and bombed the ground installations. On the following December 22, thirty-three Kates and six Zeros again bombed the island. This time, however, the number of escorting Zeros was not sufficient. The last two F4Fs scrambled to intercept the Japanese bombers skillfully eluded the Zeros and shot down two Kates. However, they were also damaged and could not make it back to the airfield. Major Paul A. Putnam, after having lost all his F4Fs, with his about twenty pilots and mechanics, entered under the command of a Navy Commander, Winfield S. Cunningham.
Around 01:00 on the early morning of December 23, three squadrons of special landing parties of about 800 troops successfully landed on the island, but encountered the fierce counter attack of the Marines and pined down on the beach. The situations came to a deadlock temporarily. A Japanese death squad of 70 troops separated from the main force landed on the west side of Peacock point, and advanced to the north along the airfield. They captured the Marine Battalion Commander Major James P. A. Devereux, and then Commander Cunningham. The Japanese troops outnumbered the US defenders on the island, in addition, they were completely surrounded by the Japanese surface forces. At 09:25, the entire US forces on the island surrendered and the battle came to an end. The Japanese sustained the causalities of some 220, whereas those of the US forces were some 50.
The Americans were very much impressed by the news on the brave and strenuous efforts made by the US forces on Wake Island, and it was said that the Americans who had lost the battle uplifted their spirits much more than the Japanese.