Friday, September 28, 2012

The Army from the Bog

Most of us have seen photos of the famous "Tollund Man" at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. Another bog man, although not quite as famous, is "Lindow Man" who resides at the British Museum in London.  Similar ancient iron age bog people have been discovered in swamps and peat bogs all across Northern Europe.  Some, such as Tollund and Lindow man, are remarkably well preserved.  The natural tannic acid in the humus rich bogs and a anaerobic environment help to preserve skin and tissue. 

The well preserved face of Tollund Man

Some of these leather like mummies date back over 2,000 years and many show signs of ritual sacrifice or execution.  Until recently most have been discovered inadvertently by folks digging for peat.  Some historians and archaeologist suggest that preservation in a bog was not an honor.  A body which does not corrupt does not release a soul to the afterlife. 

Lindow Man on display at the British Musuem in London

See more on Tollund Man here:

See more about Lindow Man here:

A Danish archaeological team has discovered an entire "army" in a single bog.  To this point 240 individuals have been recovered out of about 1,000 who were thought to be interred in this bog about 2,000 years ago.  All are men between the ages of 13 and 45 years. Many of the bodies show clear signs of trauma from animals and from bladed weapons. The evidence of trauma, ages and sex and associated artifacts and weapons found in context, suggest that these were warriors, likely fighting during the Teutonic Wars.  The presence of animal bite marks is curious and my indicate that they were not buried immediately, and were possible brought from the battlefield to this bog after the fight.  Animals may have gotten to the bodies before they were collected or during the time they were transported.  What the animal bites do conclude, is that they were not thrown into bog immediately after death as part of some ritual, but at some time post mortem.  Were they brought here and thrown into the bog as some form of sacrifice or to dishonor them, or were these men placed in the bog to preserve and honor them?

Skull found during excavation of the bog, via Skanderborg Museum

This discovery will reignite the theories of bog interment.  Hopefully some useful data will be recovered from these individual to tell us more about their violent end.

You can see more about the Army From the Bog here:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How a Remote Army Post in the Pacific helped to launch the Internet

 Few people have ever heard of Kwajalein Atoll.  The ring of 98 tiny islands, about 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, has 1,100 square miles of ocean in its lagoon - the largest lagoon in the world. 


The mightiest amphibious invasion force (up until that time) in World War II assembled off its shores in February 1944.  The battle that followed was one of the most successful American operations against the Japanese of the War - but few remember it.

Marines of the 4th Division mop up after taking Roi-Namur Island at Kwajalein Atoll, February 1944.

Although it is public knowledge, Americans are generally also unaware that most of the significant testing on our anti-ballistic missile defenses was conducted at Kwajalein over the last fifty years.  The remote islands, and giant lagoon, are an ideal spot to receive target missiles from other locations and to launch interceptor missiles to defeat them high in the atmosphere.  An amazing array of very powerful radars and sensors are in place to detect, track and target incoming test missiles.  Those same radars are used by NASA and other agencies to monitor space debris and missile tests. 

24 January 1962 – The Kwajalein ZEUS Acquisition Radar (ZAR) received its first signal
returns from an ICBM, the initial test of the ZAR against a real target.
Courtesy USASMDC Historical Office

11 January 1971 – The first salvo launch was made from Meck Island, Kwajalein Atoll.
The test involved two Spartan missiles. One missile successfully intercepted an RV, the other a space point.
Courtesy USASMDC Historical Office
The US Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) is managed by the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command on Redstone Arsenal, at Huntsville Alabama.  A host of laboratories and command centers, spread all over the United States, analyze the data that is gathered during these test activities.  With today’s computer and fiber optic connectivity, integrating all of the test data from radars, optical sensors, cameras and the missiles themselves can be done swiftly.  Fifty years ago it was a time consuming challenge that worked across antiquated and non- standard computer servers, at multiple locations, none of which could communicate with one another.
Some very smart people at the Pentagon developed a system that could bring all of those various mainframe computers in line, speaking a common language. The result was the direct ancestor of the internet.
Charles Herzfeld of the missile defense program at the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) wanted an interconnected chain of computers where each operator could communicate with the others, with as much ease as a telephone.  You can read the full story of how Charles Herzfeld developed the Arpanet at this link.   
ARPA’s Charles Herzfeld (center, in white shirt) and other military researchers visit the Kwajalein Atoll for missile defense tests. The problem of processing the trials’ data would help lead to the creation of the Arpanet.

So, now you know how a remote Army test site in the central Pacific helped lead to the development of Internet technology.  You’ll know the truth the next time some politician claims that he invented it!

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:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Lost King is Found

A Lost King is Found
NOTE: The final installment of the Wake Island series will be presented on my next blog entry.
Every English monarch has a known burial place.  All save one, that is.  The burial place of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, has been lost to history - at least until now.
A stained glass in Leicester honoring Richard and his queen
In 1485 Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field.  Richard was killed and his enemies stripped and desecrated his body.  He was the last English monarch to be killed in combat.  The Greyfriars, who were sympathetic to the Yorkist cause, brought his body to Leicester where he was buried under the choir of the Greyfriars Church.  You can read more about Richard and Henry in this earlier blog entry that was presented on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field:

In the late 1530s, Henry VIII seized and broke up the Greyfriars Friary during the dissolution of the monasteries and the break from the Catholic Church.  All Greyfriars property was sold off by the Crown.  Over time the exact whereabouts of the Greyfriars church became lost.

Earlier this month I was excited to learn that my old alma mater, The University of Leicester, was leading a project to determine the exact location of the old Greyfriars Church.  They even had a wild hope that they might discover the lost remains of Richard III.  Two exploratory trenches in a parking lot in Leicester England revealed the walls and floors of a medieval church.  Greyfriars had been found.  With the walls located, the architectural layout was relatively easy to determine. 
The parking lot in Leicester where Greyfriars was thought to be. 
Medieval floor tiles recovered from the Greyfriars site.
Dr.  Richard Buckley tells about the intent of the search and what he hopes to find in this short video.

Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley with a piece of tracery which once held a window.

Is seems that the wild hope my not have been so wild after all.  On September 12th the university announced that a fully articulated male skeleton was found under what would have been the choir area of the church. (The remains were first discovered on September 4th, but the university completed a cursory examination before they announced the find.)  The skull showed signs of lethal trauma from a bladed weapon and an iron arrowhead still remained embedded in one vertebra - plain indicators of death in battle. Furthermore, the skeleton showed clear signs of scoliosis, a spinal condition that Richard was known to have suffered. 

Only extensive laboratory scrutiny and DNA analysis can determine if Richard has actually been found.  I’m proud of the University of Leicester’s archaeology department.  Hats off to Dr. Buckley!  He exhausted all of this historical research before he ever stuck a spade into the soil.  He knew exactly where to dig.  The excavation proceeded quickly and found results swiftly.  The site is sure to yield other data, just as important, about the Greyfriars and their medieval role in Leicestershire.

I’ll be pay close attention to this project.  Should the university make any determination regarding the identity of the remains, I’ll post them here.

Official University of Leicester web site on the project

September 12th announcement about the discovery of remains:

Graphic Art Slide Show inspired by the Greyfriars Project

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Wake Island Helmet - Part Four "The Forgotten Ninety Eight"

The Forgotten Ninety-Eight

Glen Binge with his sons soon after his release from Japanese POW camps in 1945. 
He, nor any of the other survivors, knew the fate of their comrades who were left on Wake Island.
Courtesy of the Glen Binge family.


The day-to-day record of POW life at Wake ended when Russell clambered aboard the Tachibana Maru.  The routine of the remaining 98 did not change, however.  Only increasing U.S. bombing raids and the loss of one of the ninety-eight interrupted the monotony.  An American was caught stealing food in July 1943.  After a brief investigation, a Japanese lieutenant wielded the sword that removed the head of the unknown American.  Captain Shigimatsu Sakaibara, the new island commander who had been whisked ashore by an Imperial Navy bomber from Kwajalein in December 1942, presided over the murder.
Captain Shigimatsu Sakaibara, later promoted to Admiral.  The fate of the 98 Americans rested in his hands.
National Archives and Records Administration
The U.S. Navy also was tightening a noose around the atoll. Extensive submarine patrols harassed all shipping coming in and out of Wake.  This increased attention aggravated the island commander.  Sakaibara and his subordinates were certain that an invasion was imminent. In reality, the United States had no intention of forcing a landing on Wake.  As with most Japanese-held islands that did not have a tactical or strategic role for further campaigns, they were merely isolated from their source of supplies and left to wither on the vine.  Bombings were designed only to deprive the enemy of the use of their airfield, seaplane base, and port facilities.

POW Rock.  In May 1943 some anonymous American chiseled this inscription in a large coral boulder on the lagoon shore of Wilkes Island.
This rock has become a lasting memorial to the 98 POWs.  Photo by Author.

A U.S. carrier task force, which included the USS Yorktown (CV-10), arrived offshore on 5 October 1943.  During the following two days the task force dropped 340 tons of bombs on the atoll, and the accompanying cruisers and destroyers hurled 3,198 eight-inch and five-inch projectiles.  The raid did extensive damage to the infrastructure on the atoll, and 31 Japanese planes were destroyed on the ground.  This was the largest U.S. raid on the atoll up to that time. Sakaibara was certain that the armada assembled offshore included a landing force.  He decided that the troublesome prisoners must be killed to eliminate the threat they might pose during the coming invasion.

An American aircraft over Wake Island during the massive raid in October 1943.
National Archives photograph

 A heavy cruiser’s 8-inch guns bombard Wake, as seen from USS Minneapolis (CA-36), 5 October 1943. The two following ships are (in no particular order): USS San Francisco (CA-38) and USS New Orleans (CA-32). National Archives photograph

The Headquarters Company commander, Lieutenant Commander Tachibana, was ordered by Captain Sakaibara to move the prisoners from their compound to an antitank ditch on the northern tip of Wake Island.  There, in the waning afternoon light of 7 October 1943, Lieutenant Torashi Ito, of the Headquarters Company, had the Americans lined up and seated along the ditch facing the sea.  They were blindfolded with their hands and feet bound.  Three platoons of Tachibana's company assembled behind them and opened fire with rifle and machine gun fire. 

The lonely stretch of beach on the north shore of Wake Island where the 98 Americans met their fate.  Photo by Author

A Korean laborer who witnessed the massacre testified later, "All prisoners, both dead and wounded were bayoneted."  The names of nineteen of the dead men appear on Binge’s helmet.

The Americans then were unceremoniously dumped into the ditch and covered with coral sand.  The indignity suffered by the prisoners was not complete, however.  The following day, a report from an enlisted man that he saw one of the prisoners escape during the confusion of the massacre prompted the disinterment of the bodies.  The corpses were dug up and counted, then hastily reburied.  The sailor had been correct; one American was missing.  The Korean laborer also saw the man flee and recognized him as "Mr. John" his favorite among the Americans.  That man, whose full name has never been discovered, was re-captured a week later.  Captain Sakaibara personally beheaded the lone escapee.  There were two men named John who were among those murdered by the Japanese.  One was John Martin of Pomeroy, Washington who autographed Glen Binge's helmet many months before.  Could he be “Mr. John?”

Next Time, Part Five -

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Wake Island Helmet - Part Three "I ate anything to stay alive"

"I ate anything to stay alive"
Japanese sailors herded the 265 Wake Island men aboard a crowded train when they reached Yokohama.  Soon after they pulled away from the station the train halted long enough for Leal Russell and four others to be taken off for interrogation.  Russell was never reunited with his crew.  He was liberated on September 15, 1945 at Ohashi, Japan.

Fukuoka No 18-B became the new home for the remaining 260.  This camp, near Sasebo Japan, was established to provide slave labor for the construction of Soto Dam.  The work was backbreaking and the rations slim.  Three small bowls of soupy rice per day was the standard fare.  One inmate confessed, "I ate garbage while at Camp 18.  A man will do anything for food if he is really hungry."   

The meager diet was enforced even if additional rations were available.  The Japanese pilfered or withheld Red Cross packages and punished men for "garbaging," trying to steal offal and vegetable peelings from Korean laborers.  One inmate who was six feet four inches tall was reduced to 110 pounds.  "I ate anything to stay alive. . . I ate toads, roots, grasshoppers - you string 'em on a wire and throw them in a fire, then eat 'em like peanuts."
US Sailors visit the Soto Dam in Japan during a ceremony to honor the 53 American POWs
who died during its construction.

A series of heartless commanders and senseless beatings by brutal guards exacted a horrible toll on the Wake Island men.  The slightest infraction of the rules brought extended beatings with clubs and baseball bats.  One survivor was hit repeatedly on the forehead with a rock by a Japanese guard.  "I thought my brains were going to explode," he remembered.

Jesus Garcia, the Guamanian who had worked at the Pan American Hotel, barley escaped with his life.  He was pushed from a guard tower, and then beaten on the head with bamboo club for an hour.
Jesus Garcia signed just above John Niklaus.  Niklaus was the first of the Helmet signers to die. Courtesy Glen Binge Family
The first of the helmet signers to die was John F. Niklaus of Germania, Pennsylvania on January 26, 1943.  Japanese records claim he died of "acute pneumonia."  Julius Larson of Healy, Idaho, was next on February 18th.  James H. O'Neal of Worland, Wyoming followed on February 27th.  The Japanese listed the cause of death for O'neal as "cardiac beri beri."  Acute pneumonia also claimed Andrew Nygard of Long Island, New York on March 13th.
Thirty one year old Lester Meyer of San Francisco, California failed to salute a Japanese guard.  He was beaten with clubs and rifle butts off and on for three days.  He died on April 29, 1943 as a result of this torment.  The Japanese listed Meyer's cause of death as "right pleurisy."

Dick Myers was beaten to death on April 29, 1943. Courtesy Glen Binge Family

The next to die was Ted Hensel on May 5, 1943.  Hensel was the man who convinced Logan Kay and Fred Stevens to surrender back on Wake Island.  Norman Hill of Clarkston, Oregon succumbed to "malnutrition" on June 4, 1943.  The last of the helmet signers to die at Fukuoka No 18-B was Lloyd Kent of Burbank, California who passed away on March 3, 1944.

Thirty-seven year old Oreal Johnson of Boise, Idaho served as the chaplain and lay preacher for the Wake Island men.  He provided a short service for each funeral and sang I Need Thee Every Hour. Johnson and other men of the burial details were rewarded for their loathsome duties with extra food.  The guards enjoyed tossing the rice balls among the starving men to see the melee that would ensure.  By April 17, 1944 when the Wake Island men were moved to Fukuoka No 1, Fifty-three of the original 260 were dead. 

Rodney Kephart and Oreal Johnson survived Fukuoka #18. Johnson served as Chaplain during funerals of fellow POWs.
Courtesy Glen Binge Family

Fukouka No. 1 was a large camp that housed American, Australian, British and Dutch POWs.  Conditions improved to some degree at No. 1.  The rations were still sparse, but some Red Cross packages did get through.  The Japanese guards more often slapped their charges around instead of beating them with clubs.  The biggest difference was the nature of the work.  They built a new airfield at No. 1 and avoided the backbreaking labor that had killed so many men at the Soto Dam. 

The death rate plummeted and no more signers of Glen Binge's helmet met their end after leaving Fukouka N.18-B.  Binge also began to make friends outside his Wake Island family at No. 1.  Gunner William Davis, and Sgt Benjamin Regan, both from London and veterans of the Royal Artillery, added their names to the helmet.  The outside was covered with autographs, so they scrawled their names on the inside of the crown next to where Glen had placed his own mark so many months before.  Dutch soldiers, H. Buys, W.F. Zonneaberg and P. Van Veen signed near their British allies.  By enlarging his network of friends outside of his immediate circle, Binge also broadened his potential access to resources.  This may have contributed to his survival.

William Davis of London England was one of five allied
soldiers who signed Binges Helmet. Courtesy Glen Binge Family
"Can you make us an American Flag?"

During the last year of the war the surviving men who were evacuated from Wake in September 1942 began to be separated.  Labor details were dispatched away from Fukouda No. 1 without regard to the men's original organizations. 

In late August 1945 red, white and blue parachutes began floating to earth above food cartons at Fukouda No.6 near Orio, Japan.  Japan surrendered and hostilities ceased on August 15th.  American bombers began parachuting food and clothing to the starving allied POWs at camps all across Japan.  On the morning of September 1, 1945 several of the officer POWs approached Rodney Kephart with an armload of silk canopies.

"Can you make us an American flag so we can have a official raising of the colors at the same time the Japanese sign the surrender tomorrow morning?" they asked.  The POWs had learned that the official surrender ceremony was to take place the following day.  Kephart was the only man who knew how to operate a temperamental Japanese sewing machine at the camp.  Kephart and another POW, worked sixteen hours straight to have the flag ready in time.  He was too exhausted and overcome with emotion to attend the ceremony.  He lay in his bunk sobbing as his flag was raised over the camp.

Rodney Kephart's flag made from parachutes.
From:   ttp://

Logan Kay and Fred Stevens, the men who hid out for so long on Wake, somehow managed to remain together.  They were liberated on September 19, 1945 at Camp No. 23 at Izuka, Japan.  George Weller, a war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News accompanied the liberation teams and met Kay at Camp No. 23.  Weller recorded Kay's remarkable story and transcribed the diary he kept while on Wake.  Weller and Kay were photographed with a white sun helmet that bore the names of Wake Island dead.  Much like Glen Binge, Kay had saved his own souvenir helmet that bore the names of scores of Wake Island men.  That photograph was published in the Chicago Daily News with the caption "Memento of Terror." It is not known if Scotty Kay's sun helmet has survived.


As the survivors of the hell camp at Fukouka N.18-B began their long journeys home to the United States, they did not know that all ninety-eight of their comrades left on lonely Wake Atoll had been dead for almost two years.



Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hurricane Isaac unearths shipwreck on Alabama coast

NOTE: This blog story is a short respite from the Wake Island series, which will continue soon. 
This wreck is in my home state of Alabama and was uncovered last week during the most recent hurricane.

The 20th century vessel has been buried for decades along the Alabama shore.

Hurricane forces once again unearthed a shipwreck thought to be the remains of the Rachael on the Alabama shore.

The Wreck of the SS Rachael on the Alabama Gulf Coast

The vessel has been buried for decades but is exposed every few years when severe storms hit Fort Morgan, Ala., according to WALA, a local Fox affiliate.

“It’s just something that you really have to go see,” Adriana Mutan told the station. “I mean, I’ve seen so many pictures, heard so many stories, and now I’ve seen it.”

The shipwreck — last uncovered when Hurricane Ike hit in 2008 — attracted gawkers to the shore over the weekend, after Hurricane Isaac passed.

The Rachael was a 150-foot, 20th century schooner that sailed until the 1930s, when archeologists say the crew hit a storm and lost control. The boat was reportedly looted and set on fire.
Experts debunked earlier beliefs that the ship was a blockade runner during the Civil War, noting that the riggings were post- Civil War.

Archaeologist Greg Cook, of the University of West Florida, studied the ship after it washed up in 2008. Cook believes it was built in 1919 in Moss Point, Mississippi, according to WALA.

After Hurricane Camille hit in 1969, researchers identified the ship as the Monticello, CNN reported. The Monticello was a Civil War battleship that sailed from Havana and ran aground in 1862. It reportedly crashed trying to get around the U.S. Navy.

See the complete New York Daily News, including additional photographs

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: