October 7th, 1943: Japanese execute nearly 100 American prisoners on Wake Island
On this day in 1943, Rear Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara, commander of the Japanese garrison on the island, orders the execution of 98 American POWs, claiming they were trying to make radio contact with U.S. forces.
In late December 1941, the Japanese reinforced existing forces on Wake Island, part of a coral atoll west of Hawaii, in massive numbers after being unable to wrest the island from a small number of American Marines, Sailors and Civilian workers earlier in the month. The Japanese strength was now overwhelming, and most of those Americans left alive after the battle were taken by the Japanese off the island to POW camps elsewhere. Ninety-eight remained behind to be used as forced labor. The Allied response was periodic bombing of the island--but no more land invasions, as part of a larger Allied strategy to leave certain Japanese-occupied islands in the South Pacific to basically starve in isolation.
Expecting a landing, and fearing the prisoners would rise up as a “fifth column” against their captors when it came, the commander, Admiral Sakaibara had the 98 prisoners machine-gunned en masse on the beach. One of them managed to survive and escape the slaughter, but was recaptured shortly after, and is supposed to have been personally beheaded by the admiral. It’s said that unidentified man carved a (misdated) testimony to the crime on a nearby coral rock known as “98 Rock”: “98 US PW 5-10-43″.
As it turned out, the landing never did come. The U.S. Navy bypassed Wake Island, allowing it to languish under a blockade as it advanced elsewhere in the Pacific, and received Sakaibara’s peaceful surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although the Japanese had hastily exhumed the murdered POWs and reburied them in a cemetery as the end of the war approached, the cover story on the “Wake Island Massacre” soon cracked. For this day’s affair, Sakaibara was convicted of war crimes by an American tribunal, and hanged in Guam on June 18, 1947.
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