Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Citizen Soldier Wins the Navy Cross


By Mark Hubbs
I had intended to post this blog on April 29, the birthday of the hero in this story.  However, travel away home distracted me.  Here is the story of Dr. Shank.
Lawton Ely Shank is one of America’s forgotten heroes.  The Indiana doctor is the only civilian, and, to my knowledge, the only Army Reservist to receive the Navy Cross.
The Navy Cross
Lawton Shank was born in the little town of Angola, Indiana in 1907 to Lyle and Lulu Shank.  After medical school he worked in a local hospital where he met his future wife.  He was only married for four years to the former Ruby Ricker before he left the hospital to work for Pan American Airways.  This was near the end of the Great Depression, and we can only surmise that the airline offered pay and travel they he could never expect to enjoy in small town Indiana.
Shank's first assignment was in Canton China, the terminus of the Pan American’s China Clipper route.  In early 1941 he was reassigned to tiny Wake Atoll on at the Pan American layover station in the mid-Pacific.  Pan Am maintained a four star hotel on Peale Island at Wake Atoll.  The China and Philippine Clippers of the Pan Am fleet made over night stops at Wake during trans-Pacific flights to Asia.  The wealthy passengers paid dearly for their seats on the clippers and demanded the finest lodgings during layovers at Wake.

The Pan American China Clipper at the seaplane dock on Peale Island, Wake Atoll c.1937.
 From: http://www.flysfo.com/web/page/sfo_museum/exhibitions/aviation_museum_exhibitions/K3_archive/china_clipper/03.html#top
War clouds were gathering in the Pacific.  The US military began to fortify several islands in the Pacific to serve as a first line of defense should Japan flex its military muscle.  A consortium of several construction companies formed the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases (CPNAB) to construct naval and airbases and Wake and other remote locations.  Civilian construction contractors, mostly employed by the Morrison-Knudson Company - part of the CPNAB,  began deploying to Wake Atoll soon after Shank arrived on the island.  Although his Pan Am duties included caring for sick passengers and workers at the Pan Am Hotel, the doctor was also "loaned" to CPNAB to care for their workers until a physician could be hired and brought to the island.  Within a few months, over 1,000 CPNAB workers were busy building a new submarine, seaplane and airfield on the atoll.
Dr. Shank left his Pan Am job and Wake Island for home in July 1941.  Remarkably, he was back in just three months later, this time on the payroll of the CPNAB.  As the threat of war intensified, the military presence on the island also grew.  By November, over four hundred Marines and sailors were assigned to Wake. 
The predictions were correct and war came on December 8th, 1941.  Within a few hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese bombers from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Island flew 600 miles north to bomb Wake.  Wake is east of the International Date Line, so it was a day later than Hawaii.  This was the first of a series of almost daily air and sea assaults from Japanese forces. 
Dr. Lawton Shank, "Lew" as his friends called him, was the only medical doctor on the atoll.  Almost 1,600 hundred men, civilian and military, would rely on him in the days to come.  He and his small staff were ill prepared for war.  Scores of men were killed and wounded on the first day, and the makeshift hospital that was established to care for them was bombed on the second day.  The care that Dr. Shank provided for his patients, usually under fire in the worst conditions possible, earned him the respect of every man who knew him.  Below is the citation for the Navy Cross awarded posthumously to Dr. Shank after the war.

To All Who Shall See These Presents Greeting:
This is to Certify that The President of the United States of America Takes Pleasure in Presenting
Citation: The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Dr. Lawton E. Shank, Civilian (U.S. Army Reserve), U.S. Civilian, for extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy as Physician to American Contractors, Naval Air Station, Wake Island, while associated with the naval defenses on Wake Island on 9 December 1941. At about 1100, while in the camp hospital, during an intensive bombing and strafing attack in the course of which the hospital was completely destroyed and several persons therein killed or wounded, Doctor Shank remained at his post and supervised the evacuation of the patients and equipment. With absolute disregard for his own safety, and displaying great presence of mind, he was thus enabled to save those still living and to establish a new hospital in an empty magazine. Doctor Shank's display of outstanding courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. Born: April 29, 1907 at Steuben County, Indiana Home Town: Angola, Indiana

An American ammunition bunker near the north end of Wake Island.  This is probably the bunker that
Dr. Shank used to shield his patients. Photo by author.
The garrison endured daily air attacks and on December 11th repelled a naval and amphibious assault with its heavy seacoast guns. A larger, more determined invasion force arrived two days before Christmas and the well-trained force of Japanese Special Landing Force troops finally overwhelmed the garrison after heavy fighting. In the dawning hours of 23 December 1941, the Japanese captured 1,621 Americans with the fall of the atoll.
All but 360 of the Americans were transported to POW camps in China three weeks after the surrender.  Lew Shank stayed behind to care for those me who were put to work building island defenses for the Japanese.  In September, 1942 another 260 Americans were transported to Japan from Wake Island.  Lew Shank volunteered to stay behind and provide medical care for the remaining 98 POWs.  Dentist James Cunha, and a surgical nurse named Henry Dreyer also stayed to assist Dr. Shank.  Lew Shank was mentioned and praised by many men who knew of his dedication during the battle and during those first few months in captivity.  However, all that we know of Lew and the other 97 POWs left on Wake Island in September, 1942 comes from testimony during war crimes trials that occurred after the war.
Dr. Shank and 97 other American Civilians were murdered by the Japanese on October 7th, 1943. 

The beach where Dr. Shank and 96 other American civilians were murdered by the Japanese in October, 1943. 
Photo by author.
When the war was over, the murders had occurred more than three years previously.  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.  However, Wake Island commander Winfield Scott Cunningham did not forget the heroism displayed by Lew Shank and recommended the doctor for the Navy Cross.  The posthumous award was issued on May 6, 1947.
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.  Dr. Lawton "Lew" Shank lies mingled among them.
The memorial stone marking the unknown dead of Wake Island at the Punchbowl Cemetary, Honolulu. 
Photo by author.
Dr. Shank's parents lived long after World War II.  The family added a memorial to Lew Shank on their headstone in Angola, Indiana.  From: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=31644842
For more details about the ordeal of American POWs at Wake Island, see a series of previous blog entries that start here:    http://erasgone.blogspot.com/2012/08/a-wake-island-helmet-part-one-dodging.html




1 comment:

  1. Hi Mark. I have been following your Wake Island posts with intense admiration for all those soldiers risking their lives for others. How brave they were. Thanks for this post about Dr. Lawton E. Shanks so tragic.