Search for closure, accurate account of Wake Island massacre continues
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — On Oct. 7, 1943, following two days of blistering attacks from fighters off the USS Yorktown, the Imperial Japanese marched 97 American civilian contractors to the northern end of Wake Island.
After almost two years of mistreatment and forced labor, they were bound, blindfolded and forced to the ground, facing the majestic turquoise water that surrounds the coral atoll. Then the machine guns sounded.
These fathers, brothers, sons — now referred to as the Wake 98 (one contractor had been killed earlier for stealing food) — came from places such as Klamath Falls, Ore., and Wahoo, Neb. Their story had been almost forgotten, until recently.
Newly discovered human remains on the nearly uninhabited World War II battleground have brought their story back to light, reopening painful memories for family members, but also giving hope that their loved ones’ remains might finally be identified.
“It’s been a lifetime of sadness,” said Molly Pratt, a California resident who was too young to remember much of her father, Art, but said she gets sick to her stomach every time his name is mentioned because of the brutal way he died.
“I always will wonder how things would have been if he had come home,” Pratt said.
Today, Wake Island, which sits between Hawaii and Guam in the North Pacific, is a virtual ghost town, partially reclaimed by thick jungle brush, littered with pillboxes and abandoned Japanese fortifications. It’s home only to a small contingent of contractors and members of the U.S. military.
The weather is humid and temperatures hover in the 80s. The beaches are covered with rocks and coral that has the power to quickly wear down shoes and tires “to ribbons,” as Art Pratt used to say. Sharks lazily patrol its shores.
Tourists are not welcome on the 2½-square mile U.S. territory — unless they have a family connection.
As Bonnie Gilbert walked the north beach of the island in late November, the place where most all of the Wake 98 were massacred and buried in a mass grave, she carried all of the men and their families “in her pocket,” she said. Her father, Ted Olson, survived the island atrocities, along with dozens more contractors there. Gilbert, who has just finished writing a book about the island and the people taken prisoner there, has been the greatest champion of the Wake 98 in recent years. Before her father died in 1994, he didn’t talk much about the horrors he and the others witnessed at the hands of the Japanese. But six years ago, Gilbert began to research the island and what happened there. She found a harrowing story, but also incomplete and incorrect records.
“There never was a real clear accounting,” she said, of the Wake prisoners who survived and the ones who perished. “All of the lists were in dispute.”
Gilbert, who lives in Idaho, pored over records, books, manifests, diaries — anything she could find. She connected with family members of the Wake 98 and came up with what she believes to be the proper lists of those who perished.
After the war, whatever human remains could be recovered from the island were taken to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, called the Punchbowl, in Hawaii and were buried with dignity. Identification was futile at the time, so the men were buried as a group, according to Lee Tucker, a spokesman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, and a plaque was placed in the ground with the names of all of the 178 servicemembers and civilians who perished on Wake.
More bone fragments were discovered on the island in the ’90s, Tucker said, and a handful of sets of human remains have been discovered, most since 2000, after typhoons and weather lashed at the beachheads.
In June 2011, a recovery team from the joint command re-excavated the area of the Wake 98 massacre.
More remains were recovered, Tucker said, and were sent to their lab in Hawaii for identification.
Adventure turns deadly
In 1941, the nation’s economy was stagnant, in the final throes of the Great Depression, and the world was at war. Young men were enticed to Wake Island by adventure and U.S. government contractor dollars.
Art Pratt was a cowboy, according to his children, running pack mule teams for the U.S. Forest Service, nabbing dinner with a single shot. He was head wrangler on a California dude ranch before going off to Wake. It was this passion for horses that propelled him to take a job as a mechanic on the island for contractor Morrison Knudsen Corp.; he had hoped to use the money to buy a ranch in Montana for his wife, Marion, and their five children.
Pratt sent postcards and gifts to his family right up until the Japanese attack, his son Terry recalled.
“Dad told Mom not to worry about the stories of the Japanese starting anything,” he said. “He said that there wasn’t anything on the island that [they] needed and they had a whole lot of Marines [there] in case anything did happen.”
Sherie Rogde’s father, Gary, and his neighbor and future brother-in-law, Willie Haines, were 24 and 23, respectively, when they left for the island.
Haines worked at a gas station in their native Idaho, and Rogde worked numerous odd jobs. Haines’ sister, Phebe, was dating Rogde when the men left for Wake Island.
They knew the Japanese were stirring up trouble in the region when they left for the Pacific, according to Rogde, now 95, but thought the risk of an attack was low.
“December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and we were at war,” Terry Pratt recalled. “My first thought was, ‘Boy, it’s a good thing Dad wasn’t still there in Honolulu.’ Mom said the Japanese had attacked Wake Island the same day.”
As the Japanese attacked Wake, some contractors fought, while others supported the Marine defenders of the island. Some hid in the brush. Against all odds, the fighters repelled the invaders for about two weeks. Art Pratt repaired damaged aircraft after the first attack, according to survivors. Rogde said that he was tasked with digging mass graves to bury those who died in the Japanese onslaught, and that he ran food to people under blackout conditions. Haines had done some machine gun training with the Marines before the attack, so he aided in the fight.
“You don’t have to worry about what Willie did on Wake,” Sherie Rogde quoted her father as saying. “He did his part and more to fight the Japanese.”
The Japanese finally took the island and exacted vengeance, beheading anyone who did anything they disliked. They disrobed their prisoners and kept them outside without food or water, Gary Rogde recalled. After two days, they were told that the emperor had spared their lives but had sentenced them to 100 years of hard labor.
Most of the prisoners were spread throughout the expanding Japanese empire and forced to work in deplorable conditions. Rogde was taken to Sasebo, where he helped build Soto Dam. He was injured in a rockslide, Sherie Rogde said, and without medical care, was saved only by the maggots that helped keep the infection down on his wound until he was rescued. It was here, in Nagasaki prefecture, that he saw the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb from afar.
Marion Pratt grew frail and weak while trying to care for her children with no husband, and was forced to put them in a home for kids for two years while she worked, Molly Pratt said. Marion Pratt, like the Rogde and Haines families in Idaho, was left to wonder what had happened to her husband.
When the war ended, an unknown man came to the door bearing the bad news. It was Terry Pratt’s job to then tell his younger sister that their father wasn’t coming back.
“Neither [family] knew anything about the fate of Dad or Willie until my maternal grandparents received notice that Willie had been killed in 1943,” Sherie Rogde said.
Searching for closure
Gilbert’s lists of the deceased are complete, and her book is done. Although she never uncovered whether her father fought the invaders or hid before he was shipped to Japan and imprisoned, she had become emotionally invested.
Gilbert came to know many of the families of Wake 98 and survivors of the onslaught. When the remains were uncovered in June, she felt compelled to try and track down as many family members as possible and lobby them to submit DNA samples to JPAC in hopes that a match could be made using modern technology.
Maybe, she said, she could bring peace to one or more of these families who had suffered so much.
Gilbert has found about a dozen families, who have each submitted samples. Tucker said no matches have yet been made. So Gilbert’s search for closure continues, and she, like Terry Pratt before her and some of the other families of the Wake 98, made a pilgrimage to the island.
She walked north beach, the wind whipping her face. “I was deeply moved there,” Gilbert said from her home shortly after returning.
The visit reinforced her mission to help identify the remains, “so long buried in the coral on Wake Island, and to honor the deceased.”