Sunday, August 5, 2012

Massacre Site Revealed?

            I have visited Wake Island off and on for almost 20 years.  My most recent trip was in July 2011.  That will unfortunately be my final sojourn to the island.  The US Air Force now operates Wake Island since the Army's mission ended there several years ago.  One of the most gratifying magazine articles that I have written was an account of the murder of 98 American civilians on the island in 1943.  Published in Naval History Magazine in 2000, it was the first thorough treatment of that atrocity.  Since then, I have been contacted by scores of people who were related to victims, or are acquainted with family members of the murdered 98.   One family member never knew the details of his father's death until he found my article.  We were both in tears before that phone call concluded.  You can see a bootlegged web version of the article here:

An anonymous American POW chiseled this message on a large boulder at Wake Atoll.  It has now become the memorial to the 98 American civilians murdered by the Japanese on Wake Island. (photo by author)

            In March of 2011 a spring storm blew into Wake Island from the sea.  Storms like this are not unusual.  However, after this storm Mr. Sakchai Piemvimol, from the Wake Island Environmental Office found something extraordinary while inspecting the shoreline for erosion.  A large segment of a human skull sat in shallow water on the reef flat, only a few feet from the shoreline.  The tide was out, and no waves disturbed it where it lay. A closer examination revealed more bones, over two hundred, on the reef and the corral gravel beach.  Mr. Dominic Leffler, the Wake Island Environmental Coordinator, photographed the site and had all the visible bones collected before the next tide further scattered the remains.

Massacre Beach.  When walking on this peaceful beach it is hard to imagine the cruelty an suffering that occurred here in 1943. (photo by author)

            Finding human remains at Wake is not unusual.  Occasionally, construction or infrastructure improvement projects disturb unmarked graves.  Typically, they are Japanese soldiers who were killed or died of disease during the long bombing campaign against the island from 1942 to 1945.  The location, and quantity of the remains found in 2011, convinced Mr. Leffler that these were not Japanese.  Especially ominous was rusted metal wire still wrapped around one of the leg bones.  He carefully packed them and sent them to the Joint MIA/POW Accounting Command (JPAC) in Honolulu for evaluation.

            The initial examination by forensic anthropologists at JPAC confirmed that the bones are Caucasian.  There were no complete skeletons and several different individuals were represented in the collection.  A JPAC recovery team deployed to Wake in June 2011 and spent thirty days excavating the site for other remains and any associated artifacts that might lead to identification. 

WAKE ISLAND (June 8, 2011) - U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Darnell Kramer, left, and Dr. Denise To, both with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, screen sand recovered from a rocky beach on Wake Island where the team is searching for remains of U.S. personnel that are missing from World War II.
(JPAC photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Adelita C. Mead/Released)

            Was this he site of the infamous Wake Island Massacre that occurred in October 1943?  It is near where the event was thought to have happened, and the jumbled nature of the bones suggests a hasty mass burial.  The Japanese moved the murdered men's remains in 1945 from the anti-tank ditch in which they had been buried to the US cemetery at Peacock Point.  In their haste to prepare for the arrival of American forces and surrender of the island, it would have been very easy for them to overlook some bones.

            Unfortunately, the archaeological record was destroyed when the surf washed the bones from the coral sands.  Any sub-surface statigraphy that may have suggested a trench or ditch, was lost during the storm.   Dr. Greg Berg, the JPAC archaeologist who headed the mission to Wake, is unwilling without further evidence to officially declare this the massacre site.  Dr. Berg is currently working with veterans and survivors groups to find relatives of the Wake Island 98.  DNA samples from family members may help to identify some of the men whose remains were found in 2011.  

            To this author, to Dominic Leffler and others on Wake Island, this spot on the beach has new meaning.  Workers on the island have already erected a make shift memorial there to 98 murdered Americans.

Additional photos of the JPAC operation at Wake Island can be found at:

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