Bill Sloan,
Given Up for Dead
(Bantam, 2004)

Everybody knows about Pearl Harbor and the sneak attack by the Japanese that helped usher the Americans into World War II. On the other hand, not that many people know about Wake Island, the heroic stand of fewer than 1,000 U.S. Marines and the civilian contractors who were there to help build it up, which began very shortly after Pearl Harbor and ended two days before Christmas. With Given Up for Dead, Bill Sloan has done his part to rectify this lack of knowledge. With powerful prose and words from the men who served there (and even a few from the invaders), Sloan tells us the story of these men and what they went through. The book is riveting, relatively easy to read and quite thorough.

Wake Island is a sleepy little atoll out in the middle of the Pacific, but it is strategically located. It was originally supposed to be built up during the 1930s, but lack of funding hampered this -- until the coming of Pan Am, who wished to use it as a base for transoceanic travel. The island is mostly coral, scrub and trees, and is pretty desolate. For these men, however, it would become a crucible, and it would also gain the American army its first victory over the Japanese, though it was short-lived. The final defeat is shown to be completely unnecessary, as only a few miscues by the commanders (both on the island itself and back in Hawaii) result in the premature ending of a battle that was actually going fairly well for the Americans.

Sloan has interviewed most of the survivors from this battle, and he references the books written by the two commanders who died in the 1980s. This gives a very vivid view of the battle, right on the ground watching as the 3-inch gun crews manage to blow up two Japanese destroyers who ventured too close to land. We see the maneuvering during the second invasion, as Captain Wesley Platt manages to clear Wilkes Island (one of the three islands that make up Wake Atoll) of all Japanese invaders, just prior to being ordered to surrender. Sloan pulls no punches, with the occasional description of battle that is quite graphic, but he doesn't go overboard. Instead, he makes it real.

The book begins with the history of the Wake Atoll, from its discovery until its use as a military base, culminating in the pre-war years of build-up through Pan-Am and the military. This sets up the rest of the battle, as many of the civilian contractors who were on the island for this construction end up playing pivotal roles in its defense. Some of the most heroic men who died were the civilians who volunteered to do whatever they could to help the Marines who were dying for them. Sure, some of the contractors fled to the jungle and survived on their own for two weeks, though strangely enough we never really hear about them again. Sloan mentions them in passing, but we never know exactly what happened to them. They were presumably killed, or maybe captured. Most of the civilians, however, took part in the defense.

Even more important than a detailed description of the battle, however, is the aftermath. Sloan tells us about the horrifying sea voyage of some of the prisoners, from Wake to Japan and then to a camp near Shanghai, about the desolate conditions on the ship and the brutality of their captors. There is no mention of any deaths on this voyage, except for the five who were beheaded up on the deck for no apparent reason (and Sloan states that the reason for this has never been revealed), so I'm not sure if that's glossed over or if it's just a fact that nobody died. The journey was horrible, though. Sloan also shows a few "good" Japanese soldiers, including Doctor Ozeki, who saved the life of Wiley Sloman, who had taken a bullet in the head back on Wake. None of the men had anything bad to say about him, and he even met with some of the survivors in 1995. Ed Borne even called Ozeki his best friend after years of correspondence with him.

In addition to all of this, Sloan examines the surrender and why it happened. A relief fleet was sailing toward Wake, but it was going too slow because of both the slowest ship's speed and the ambivalence of the new temporary commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Pye, toward the relief effort. Add this to the severed communications between the commanders of the Wake defense and the troops giving the commanders a wrong impression of what was going on and you get a recipe for a premature surrender. Platt had cleared one island and was looking to go help on one of the others. The Marines could probably have held out for two or three more days, but the relief convoy was aborted as soon as Commander Cunningham, commander of the garrison, indicated to the Pacific Fleet headquarters (in a cryptic, though dramatic message) that Japanese troops were on the island and the situation was grim. What could have been a major American victory turned into another defeat.

Given Up for Dead is a book that's hard to put down. The book is well-researched, with most of the sources being interviews or the books written by men who fought there. There are a few details missing, as mentioned above, but overall this is quite the comprehensive work. It will keep any military history reader turning the page, and it is an important book for bringing to light a forgotten battle. Everybody remembers the Alamo, but hardly anybody seems to remember the Alamo of the Pacific.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 16 April 2005

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