Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Wake Island Helmet - Part Two, "Babe Hoffmeister Was Murdered This Morning"

Part Two of  "A Wake Island Helmet."  See part one at:

With the exception of a handful of senior military officers and contractors held indoors, the captives remained three days and two nights on the rocky runway after the surrender.  Leal Henderson Russell of La Grande, Oregon, wrote in his otherwise optimistic diary: 23 December—". . . Rocks hard, rain, wind, no cover and few clothes.  Bread and water. Very uncomfortable night." 24 December—"Still on the rock-pile.  Very hard on the unclothed men and those who are ill.  Many have dysentery. . . Men hard to control while food and water being passed out.  Act like wolves. . . ."

Leal Russell's signature on the sun helmet. Courtesy Glen Binge Family.

Tensions of the previous days relaxed a bit on Christmas morning.  One contractor remembered that they were allowed to retrieve clothing, food, and tobacco from their dugouts. Russell recalled that the POWs were allowed to bury their dead and were fed well for the first time.  They were marched to the north end of Wake Island and put into the barracks they had used before the beginning of hostilities.  Several 40-man barracks were packed with 150 men each, but the men had shelter at last.  He recorded on 27 December: "Japanese treating us with reasonable consideration."  Rodney Kephart, the young carpenter from Boise remembered: "We slept so well even the screaming of the Japs didn't disturb us - that was indeed a welcome Christmas present."

The only known photo taken of US POWs on Wake Island.  Notice the white sun helmets. Nat Archives Photo.

Three weeks after the fall of Wake, the POWs awoke to see a large vessel, the Nita Maru, standing off the southern shore.  She had arrived to transport the POWs to camps in China. "About 350 including the key men were selected and were supposed to stay," wrote Russell.  He became the ranking civilian POW when the Nita Maru sailed away.  Another of the Morrison-Knudsen men, recorded in his diary on 12 January, "All but 360 of the contractors have been sent to Japan today. [He incorrectly assumed the destination was Japan.] Also the service men except 21 Marines who are too badly wounded to go." 

The Nita Maru.  She was later converted to an escort carrier by the Japanese and was sunk by an American Submarine.  She took 1,250 men to the bottom with her.  You can read more about her here:
"You're already identified as dead and buried!"

 Forty-seven year old Glen Binge was like many other men on Wake.  The promise of well paying work during a bleak economy lured him far from his Galesburg, Illinois home.  It would be almost four years before he would see his children again. Binge arrived at Wake on October 27, 1941 on a nine-month contract.  He came ashore with 175 other men from the USS Curtis (AV-4) a seaplane tender, which shuttled men and equipment between Honolulu and Wake Atoll.
Pre-War photo of Glen Binge from his local newspaper announcing his capture at Wake Island.

Sometime after January 12th, Binge began to have men sign his helmet.  Binge's sun helmet was not unusual.  Hundreds of the white sun helmets were issued by the CPNAB to its Wake Island men.  The Marines issued similar sun helmets that were tan and bore the Globe & Anchor emblem on the front.  There is evidence that many men recorded names of comrades, or had their mates sign their helmets as mementos, but the Binge helmet is the only one known to have survived.  It has been a family treasure for sixty years, but its existence has only been brought to light outside of the family in the past year.

All of the American names inscribed are from those men who remained on Wake after the departure of the Nita Maru.  The 360 contractors who remained were chosen because of their skills in operating heavy equipment.  They would continue the military build-up of Wake Island with the same supplies and equipment that they had used for the U.S. Navy.  This time, however, the new architects of the island defenses were the Japanese.

Logan Kay and Fred Stevens remained hidden in the scrub brush of Wake Island.  They scavenged for food and moved every few days to avoid the Japanese.  On March 10th, after living in the bush for seventy-seven days, the fugitives stumbled upon 56 year-old Ted Hensel of Burbank, Washington.  "You can't be living men.  You're already identified as dead and buried!" Hensel retorted.  "You two look terrible.  Better give yourselves up.  The Japs won't hurt you.  They're treating us fine."  Hensel persuaded the ragged, starving men to surrender.

Ted Hensel drew a map of Wake Island to go with his sigtature.  Courtesy Glen Binge Family.

"A warning to some who still feel that they have some rights here."

Leal Russell paints a relatively optimistic picture of his life as a POW.  His keen eyes recorded the daily coming and going of bombers, fighters, and ships from Wake as well as the weather and day-to-day activity of the Japanese garrison.  He seemed to be very interested in his captors and cultivated cordial relationships with some, even arranging dental work for one of the Japanese with the U.S. contractor doctor.

Russell surely was aware of the suffering that was going on around him and indeed that he was probably experiencing himself.  His tone is up beat in the diary, however, and he refrains from recording adversity except in extreme cases.  One such case was the execution of one of his men who had broken into the Japanese canteen and gotten drunk on stolen alcohol.  On 8 May, Russell wrote:

After breakfast I found that they had arrested Babe Hoffmeister who was out of the compound during the night. Okazaki told me later he had broken into the canteen. . . I also heard he was drunk. It is apt to go very hard on Babe as he had been repeatedly warned.

Two days later the Japanese gave Hoffmeister a hasty trial.  He was found guilty, blindfolded and marched to his grave.  Logan Kay recorded:

The Japs made Hoffmeister crouch on his hands and knees.  A Jap officer took his sword, laid the blade on his neck, brought it back like a golf club and then down on his neck, severing his head with a single blow.

Of the execution Russell wrote: "May 10th—Julius 'Babe' Hoffmeister was murdered this morning.  Nearly all foremen and dept. superintendents were called to witness it.  Possibly it will serve as a warning to some who still feel that they have some rights here." 

The next morning, with Babe's murder fresh on their minds, the Japanese evacuated 20 Marines and sailors, who had been recuperating from wounds, from the atoll.  One of these men was PFC Richard L. Reed of South Whitney, Indiana.  Reed was the only Marine to sign Glen Binge's helmet.  Reed and the other recovering GIs sailed away on the Asama Maru, bound for camps in China.  Only the civilian contractors remained to toil for the enemy.

PFC Richard Reed was the only Marine to sign the helmet. Courtesy Glen Binge Family.

The Japanese did not observe the Geneva Convention restriction on using POW labor for war-related projects, and the workers worked at various military projects on all three islands of the atoll.  Extensive antitank ditches—protected by slit and communication trenches—were dug on the outer and inner periphery of all three islands.  Barbed-wire entanglements and land mines provided protection on potential landing areas.  Inshore from the narrow beaches, an elaborate system of concrete defenses provided interlocking fire at almost any point on the atoll.  An estimated 200 concrete and coral pillboxes, bunkers, bomb proofs, and command posts were constructed with POW labor.

One of the many Japanese defensive structures still extant on Wake Island.  Most were made of captured American Portland cement and built with American POW labor.  Photo by Author.

"Rumors fly but even they grow tiresome."

Only the occasional U.S. bombing raid or Japanese holiday (when no work was performed) punctuated the monotonous life of the POWs.  Russell wrote: "Washington's Birthday on Wake Island and still prisoners of the Japanese.  No change at all. We work, we eat, we sleep, and then we get up and do it all over again . . . Rumors fly but even they grow tiresome." The rumors of prisoner evacuation became reality on the last day of September 1942.  Two hundred and sixty five captives, including Glen Binge and twenty-one of his friends who autographed his helmet, were loaded aboard The Tachibana Maru and sent to Yokohama, Japan.  Ninety-eight Americans were chosen to stay and to continue their work on construction projects.

Most of the men were jubilant that they were leaving Wake.  They couldn't know that their lives as POWs on Wake for the previous nine months had been relatively easy, and that true hell awaited them. 

You can see a complete listing of all the names of Glen Binge's Sun Helmet at this link:



  1. I enjoyed reading the articles on this sight. My Uncle Lacy Franklin Tart was one of the 98 on Wake Island. Please continue adding information about Wake and the Hero's of Wake.

  2. My great uncle Lester Theodore Meyer signature is partially visible in the helmet photo above. Is it possible to contact the family with the helmet for a clear photo of Lester Meyer autograph? Thank you, Lisa Beyer

  3. I was on Wake in 1960 and a rusty hull of a Jap freighter was rusting away just off the runway.
    It is not there today

    1. I've see pictures of it. It was cut up for scrap in the early 1960s. During that time a Japanese salvage firm was allowed to come to Wake and remove much of the scrap metal. The Maru you mention, some Japanese tanks, some of the US guns and other relics of the War were sent to Japan for recycling. Too bad.