Wake Island is a coral atoll located in the North Pacific Ocean, just north of the Marshall Islands. The island is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States with no permanent residents, just members of the U.S. military and civilian contractors who manage the facility.
During the second World War, the island held a great strategic importance. The island was under the occupation of the United States Navy before it was wrestled out of the Americans by the Japanese with an attack that happened just few hours after the infamous Pearl Harbor attack on December 8, 1941. After the Japanese lay siege on Wake island, they sent most of the captured civilians and military personnel to POW camps in Asia, but retained some of the civilian laborers and tasked them to reinforcing the island’s defences.
Over the next several weeks, transport ships would come and take away POWs to various camps in Japan and China. On the last day of September in 1942, all but 98 of the prisoners were loaded aboard a freighter and sent to Yokohama. The remaining POWs were to continue their work on construction projects.
The U.S. forces meanwhile continued bombing the island periodically. On October 5, 1943, when an American naval aircraft raided Wake Island, the Japanese Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara somehow came to the conclusion that an invasion was imminent. Two days later, he ordered the execution of the 98 captured American civilian workers who had been kept to perform forced labor. In the waning afternoon light of October 7, 1943, the prisoners were taken blindfolded to the northern end of the island, made to line up along a ditch facing the sea and then executed with a machine gun. The bodies were dumped unceremoniously into the ditch and covered with coral sand. Unknown to the Japanese, one of the prisoners had escaped during the confusion of the massacre. He returned to the site later, and carved the message 98 US PW 5-10-43 on a large coral rock near the mass grave signifying the date of the massacre and the number of POWs killed.
When the Japanese discovered the escape, the POW, whose identity has never been found, was re-captured and Admiral Sakaibara personally beheaded him with a katana. The inscription on the rock can still be seen on Wake Island and today serves as a memorial to the American POWs.
After the war was over, a speckled granite memorial stone inscribed with the words, "The 98 Rock / Inscribed by an unknown P.O.W.," was attached to the The 98 Rock. A bronze plaque nearby lists the names of the 98. The remains of the murdered civilians were exhumed and reburied at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in section G.
Admiral Sakaibara and his subordinate, Lieutenant Commander Tachibana, were later sentenced to death for their war crimes.
Names of the 98 POWs. Photo credit
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