A gripping narrative of unprecedented valor and personal courage, here is the story of the first American battle of World War II: the battle for Wake Island. Based on firsthand accounts from long-lost survivors who have emerged to tell about it, this stirring tale of the "Alamo of the Pacific" will reverberate for generations to come.
On December 8, 1941, just five hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes attacked a remote U.S. outpost in the westernmost reaches of the Pacific. It was the beginning of an incredible sixteen-day fight for Wake Island, a tiny but strategically valuable dot in the ocean. Unprepared for the stunning assault, the small battalion was dangerously outnumbered and outgunned. But they compensated with a surplus of bravery and perseverance, waging an extraordinary battle against all odds.
When it was over, a few hundred American Marines, sailors, and soldiers, along with a small army of heroic civilian laborers, had repulsed enemy forces several thousand strong--but it was still not enough. Among the Marines was twenty-year-old PFC Wiley Sloman. By Christmas Day, he lay semiconscious in the sand, struck by enemy fire. Another day would pass before he was found--stripped of his rifle and his uniform. Shocked to realize he hadn't awakened to victory, Sloman wondered: Had he been given up for dead--and had the Marines simply given up?
In this riveting account, veteran journalist Bill Sloan re-creates this history-making battle, the crushing surrender, and the stories of the uncommonly gutsy men who fought it. From the civilians who served as gunmen, medics, and even preachers, to the daily grind of life on an isolated island--literally at the ends of the earth--to the agony of POW camps, here we meet our heroes and confront the enemy face-to-face, bayonet to bayonet.
"Uncommon courage was a common virtue": this was said of Marines on another island, Iwo Jima. Texas journalist Sloan's excellent research, interviewing and journalistic prose will have readers of this moving book saying it of Wake Island, too: this popular military history is the best account yet of the Battle for Wake Island in December 1941. An almost barren coral atoll in the Central Pacific, Wake was a link in American communications with the Far East and squarely in the middle of Japanese-held islands. So both sides targeted it in the coming war, and soon after Pearl Harbor the Japanese began steady air attacks on the atoll's garrison. That garrison included a minuscule Marine air arm, flying half-wrecked F4F Wildcats, a thin battalion of Marine infantry and artillery, and a large number of civilian construction workers overtaken by the war while building a base. Battered from the air, this motley group actually drove off the first Japanese attempt at a landing, and inflicted heavy casualties on a second and much stronger effort before surrendering. The Wake Islanders can truly be called "heroic," even if Marine Major Devereaux and Navy Commander Cunningham did not coordinate as well as they could have. The Japanese emerge with little credit for either their witless tactics or their harsh treatment of the prisoners, although a Dr. Ozeki saved the lives of several wounded Americans. Wake Island has nearly faded from memory; the survivors interviewed are fading from life; this book is direly needed on any WW II shelf.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 28, 2008
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Excerpt from Given Up for Dead by Bill Sloan
A Place at the Ends of the Earth
In the four-plus centuries since they were first discovered--and promptly forgotten again--the tiny specks of land identified on maps as Wake Island have been described in many unflattering terms.
After finding and circling the atoll in October 1568, Spanish explorer Alvaro de Menda-a de Neyra dismissed it as "useless." The barrier reef surrounding it, coupled with the fierce, unpredictable local currents, made a landing too risky, he decided. In disgust, he sailed away without going ashore, despite the fact that he was short of food and water, had been searching for land for days, and many of his crew were sick with scurvy.
The next officially recorded sighting of Wake didn't take place until 1796, when a British merchant ship, the Prince William Henry, came upon it by accident. The ship's captain, Samuel Wake, knew nothing of Menda-a's earlier visit, so he christened the little landmass "Wake" in honor of himself. But he, too, wanted no part of the reef and the currents, and he departed without ever setting foot on the island that still bears his name.
To understand the treacherous conditions surrounding Wake, picture a towering underwater mountain--a long-extinct volcano--with only the uppermost tips of its crater protruding above the sea. Completely surrounding it about a hundred yards offshore is a jagged coral reef formed over tens of thousands of years. Until a channel was blasted through the reef in the mid-1930s, it continued to make Wake one of the most inaccessible points on the globe.
Much of the reef lurks less than two feet below sea level, and except in a man-made opening, only very small, flat-bottomed boats could safely pass over it. To compound the danger, the ocean's depth just beyond the reef suddenly plunges thousands of feet down the almost perpendicular sides of the submerged prehistoric mountain. This creates perpetually rough seas that send huge waves pounding shoreward.
Even in relatively modern times, ships found no safe anchorage at Wake, and--like those of Menda-a and Samuel Wake--any vessel that ventured near it inevitably did so at its peril. In all likelihood, the reef and the tides claimed numerous small craft over the centuries. But their most notable victim was the German passenger ship Libelle, which crashed on the reef and broke to pieces in March 1866 after being blown off course en route from Honolulu to Hong Kong. The Libelle's anchor and other remnants of the doomed ship were found on Wake seventy-five years later.
On October 15, 1941, some seven weeks before the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, Major James P. S. Devereux arrived on Wake to take command of its small Marine garrison. Devereux's feelings about the place were remarkably similar to those expressed by Menda-a 373 years earlier. The major referred to Wake as "a spit-kit of sand and coral without any reason for being." Many of Devereux's men added their own appraisals: "uninviting," "lonely," "barren," "oppressive," "desolate," "flat and ugly," and "nothing but sand and rocks," to list a few of the milder ones. But Tech Sergeant Charles Holmes, a career Marine from the rolling prairies of North Texas, may have summed it up better than anyone. On first impression, he said, Wake struck him as "the most isolated place in the world."
Unlovely as it was, however, PFC Wiley Sloman was actually glad to be there when he finally made it ashore on November 1, 1941. He would have much preferred to stay at Midway, where he'd been stationed previously, but under the circumstances, he was glad to be anywhere as long as there was land under his feet.
On his way out from Pearl on the U.S.S. Castor, the ship had hit some really nasty weather, and almost everybody on board was seasick except Sloman, who wasn't bothered at all by the rough seas. Not only had he been around plenty of salt water and ships as a kid growing up on the Texas coast, but his great-grandfather had traveled around the world as captain of a three-masted sailing ship, and Sloman figured maybe he'd inherited some of the old man's seaworthiness. But his healthy state turned out to be small comfort when he was assigned to torpedo watch during the worst part of the storm. Then, after reaching Wake, the Castor had sailed around the atoll for four days waiting for the ground swells to ease off before anybody could go ashore.
Sloman grabbed a spot on the first motor launch to leave the Castor, but he quickly learned that the easy life he'd enjoyed on Midway was a thing of the past. He barely got off the launch before they handed him a jackhammer and put him to work cutting holes in the coral to mount corner posts for the Marines' tents. "From then on until the war started, we didn't get much rest," he said. "On Midway, it was good duty, and we were usually through by noon. On Wake, reveille was at 5:00 a.m., and we worked our tails off all day."