Monday, September 17, 2012

A Wake Island Helmet - Part Five "The Legacy of the Forgotten 98"

NOTE:  This is the last installment of five part series which began here:
News of the War's end came to Wake Island on August 15, 1945.  On August 18, Sakaibara ordered all of his officers to his headquarters.  According to War Crimes Trial testimony from Commander Tachibana, Sakaibara announced that, "I have just heard over the radio from Melborne that all criminals of war, whether they were ordered or were the officers who gave the orders, will be punished."  At that point it became obvious that they would be held responsible for the massacre of two years earlier.  A few days later, in another meeting, Sakaibara and his officers agreed on a cover story to tell regarding the murdered 98 civilians.  An American force was coming to take the surrender of the island

The mass grave on Wake lay forgotten for two years, but now Sakaibara decided to confuse the Americans in any investigation that might occur.  He ordered the dead Americans moved.  His men clumsily extracted the bones from the ditch and moved them to the U.S. cemetery that had been established on Peacock Point after the battle.  The remains were dumped into a small single grave.  The cemetery was roped off, and wooden crosses were erected and painted in preparation for the expected arrival of U.S. forces.
A Japanese Soldier bows at the mass grave of the
98 civilians.  Nat Archives
In accordance with the terms of surrender, Japanese garrisons were required to hold an official surrender ceremony.  Wake Island was no different.  The USS Levy, with a party of Marines, arrived off shore on September 4, 1945.  Rear Admiral Sakaibara (he had been promoted to Admiral near the end of hostilities) sat with Brigadier General Lawton Sanderson and signed his 1,250 man garrison over to the United State Marines.

Col Walter L.J. Bayler, reputedly "the last Marine off Wake" in December 1941,
is the first to set foot on the island in 1945.
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 133688
Admiral Sakaibara signs surrender papers on board the USS Levy


US Marines raise the Stars and Stripes over Wake Island on September 4 1945

When questioned about the last 98 Americans left on Wake, each of the Japanese retold an identical rehearsed story.  The Americans had been placed in two bomb shelters to protect them from their countrymen's bombs.  One of the shelters had received a direct hit and all the occupants had been killed.  Those in the other shelter panicked, killed a guard and fought their way out of their compound.  They had been cornered on the beach at the north end of Wake Island and all had fought to the death.

"I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure"

Soon after the Japanese surrendered Wake Island on 4 September 1945, Captain Sakaibara and fifteen of his officers and men were arrested and sent to Kwajalein to stand trial for the murder of the 98 POWs.  Two men committed suicide en route and left statements that implicated the admiral and others.  While being held during the trial, Lieutenant Ito also killed himself and left behind a signed confession.  After being confronted with this statement, Sakaibara finally confessed that he had ordered the murder of the 98 Americans and stated that all responsibility should rest on his shoulders.  The trial concluded with a sentence of death for Captain Sakaibara and Lieutenant Commander Tachibana.

Eventually, a reprieve was granted for Tachibana, whose sentence was commuted to life in prison.  Sakaibara, however, was transported to Guam to await his fate.  There, on 19 June 1947, he was executed by hanging along with five other Japanese war criminals.  Sakaibara's last statement was filled with Japanese stoicism: "I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure."

According to Judgment at Tokyo by Tim Magna:

For some, the hanging of one of these six men had been a horrible tragedy and perhaps even a mistake.  Rear Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara had enjoyed the reputation of “gentleman soldier” and protector of the common man.  Hailing from a wealthy family near Misawa in Tohokhu province, some 450 miles north of Tokyo, Sakaibara never forgot his roots.  Forever poking fun at the fast-paced Tokyo lifestyle, the rear admiral touted the value of rural living, the integrity and honesty of those who lived in Japan’s rugged north country, and Tokyo’s need to recognize their great contributions to the war effort.  Contemplating a postwar political future, he would be following in the footsteps of his politically influential family in northern Japan.  That future was linked to championing the rights of returning veterans and other have-nots.  Misawa had indeed had a heroic reputation as an important navy town and base for years.  Sakaibara had assisted in the training exercises held there for the Pearl Harbor attack plan in late 1941. His future seemed golden no matter who won the war.  But what some in his command called “The 1943 Incident” changed all that.

These events, Sakaibara admitted in his trial, had taken place in an atmosphere of near starvation and impending doom.  The defense counsel especially emphasized that point, asking the commission to understand and respect the pressures and strains on Sakaibara at the time of the incident.  But the commission was not in a forgiving mood. In the chaos of retreat or not, innocent civilians had been murdered.

Unfortunately for Sakaibara, several members of his former command expressed surprise on the witness stand when asked about the desperate situation on Wake in 1943.  These men insisted that Sakaibara and his defense team’s description of a starving, chaotic Wake was an exaggerated one.  There had been no unexpected miseries, confusion, or sense of peril, they said.  Sakaibara’s fate was sealed.

True to form, defendant Sakaibara offered a very literate final statement to the commission.  In contrast to so many of his colleagues on trial in Tokyo, on Guam, or elsewhere, Sakaibara, albeit with carefully picked words, admitted he was guilty of rash and unfortunate actions.  He appeared especially convincing when he noted that he wished he had never heard of Wake Island.  But his most memorable comments involved his own view of morality in war.  A nation that drops atom bombs on major cities, the rear admiral explained, did not have the moral authority to try so many of his countrymen.  With Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind, Sakaibara claimed there was little difference between himself and the victors over Japan.  With that statement a legend grew, particularly in his home town, of Sakaibara, the victim of American revenge.

As late as the 1990s, some people there, not necessarily of the World War II generation, still bowed in reverence to Sakaibara family members out of respect for the “sacrificed” gentleman soldier.
An unidentified Japanese war criminal ascends the gallows in Guam in 1947
The war was over, the murders had occurred more than three years previously, and the public had already been outraged with the news of similar massacres in the Philippines and in the European Theater.  No national acknowledgement of the Wake Island massacre ever materialized.

In Section G of the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu there is a large, flat, marble gravestone.  At 5 by 10 feet it is the largest in the cemetery.  On it are listed the names of 178 men.  This common grave holds the remains of all the unidentified military and civilian burials repatriated from Wake Island in 1946.  Many of these men were killed during the siege, and circumstances did not allow proper burial and identification.  Of these names, 98 represent the men who were murdered by the Japanese in October 1943.  After several years of unsuccessful attempts to separate the remains and identify them, they were interred together during a ceremony at the Punchbowl in 1953.
A large marker at the Punchbowl Cemetery marks the resting place of the 98
and other unidentified American remains from Wake Island
Photo by author
"98 US PW, 5-10-43"

I visited Wake Island for the first time in 1994.  The bland black-and-white newsreels of the Pacific War that had burned into my psyche did not prepare me for the Technicolor paradise that I encountered at the Wake Island Launch Center air terminal.  A large sign declares "Wake Island Airfield, Where America's Day Really Begins."  Indeed it does, as Wake is on the west side of the International Date Line.  It was difficult to imagine Wake as the desolate hell that it was in 1941.

I drove past the end of Wake Island, across the causeway to Wilkes Island, to a point on the map that said "POW Rock."  A shiny new sign read: "POW Rock, no vehicles allowed beyond this point."  A coral gravel walkway led to the shore of the lagoon where a four-foot-high dome of coral thrusts its way up among smaller boulders.  Here an anonymous American chiseled a brief but poignant message that has come to symbolize the sacrifice of all 98 men.  As the afternoon sun tinged the lagoon with a warm yellow glow, and the surf crashed in the distance, I traced a roughly chiseled inscription in the rock with my finger.  "98 US PW, 5-10-43." 

Morrison-Knudsen had installed a bronze tablet that lists the names of the Ninety-Eight nearby.  This tablet and boulder with its simple inscription has become the island's memorial for a mass murder that took place nearly 70 years ago.
A bronze tablet list the names of the murdered 98

The sun helmet is also a memorial to all Wake Island defenders, but specifically to those men who autographed it for their comrade, Glen Binge.  The fragile cardboard and cloth headgear's survival is testimony to the perseverance of those men who came home, and a cenotaph for those men who died at the hands of a brutal enemy.

The Glen Binge Wake Island helmet.  Courtesy the Glen Binge Family

An earlier post announces the discovery of the massacre site at Wake Island:


  1. Thank you. I am the daughter of a POW.
    Sharon Johnson Emerson

  2. That was fantastic reading. I was on Wake for two years and often went over to the rock to just sit and wonder. Your story filled in some blanks for me. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. I was on Wake Island in 1968. I have a few pictures that I took while there. Is anyone interested? E-mail