Building for War

Building for War coverBuilding for War: The Epic Saga of the Civilian Contractors and Marines of Wake Island in World War II  tells the story of Depression-era civilian contractors who come to a remote Pacific atoll in 1941 to build a naval air station. One of a dozen Pacific projects contracted by the United States Navy, Wake is the most challenging in terms of distance and physical features.

The book follows the contractors’ hard-won progress as they scramble to build the naval base and runways for B-17s while war creeps closer. The project is incomplete when war comes suddenly to the Pacific in December 1941.

The undermanned garrison and civilian volunteers fight back and hold out as the Japanese lay siege to the atoll for two weeks. The defenders finally fall to an overwhelming land invasion and the Japanese take the survivors as prisoners of war.

The civilian contractors who had risked distance and danger for good-paying jobs end up paying the steepest price: their freedom and, for some, their lives.

Writing this book about Wake Island was both a professional challenge and a personal commitment. My grandfather and father, Harry and Ted Olson, were civilian contractors on Wake. The big picture (“Why Wake?”) required traditional research; the intimate picture was revealed in yellowed letters, diaries, photos, scrapbooks, and even business records. Primary sources allowed me to tell the Wake story without the distortions of memory and the baggage of hindsight.

Building for War sheds new light on why the United States was taken by surprise in December 1941 and opens the door on the long-forgotten story of a group of civilian workers and their families whose lives were forever changed by the events on that tiny atoll.