Watching the Wake Island episode of Oliver North’s 2005 series “War Stories” last week, I was reminded of Brigadier General John F. Kinney’s heroic escape story. Very few POWs attempted escape from Japanese camps in WWII, and fewer still succeeded. For those interned in Japan proper escape was inconceivable, but in Japanese-occupied territories outside the homeland there was a slim chance of success. Physical escape was the least of the challenges: safe movement and connection with friendly forces on the outside would be the deciding factors. The Wake saga contains two sad failures and two remarkable success stories – and probably more.
The two failed escape attempts occurred in the spring of 1942. Two months after their internment at Shanghai War Prisoners Camp at Woosung, China, a group of five POWs including Wake’s Commander W. S. Cunningham and contractor superintendent Dan Teters dug under the electric boundary fence and made their escape in the dark of night. They didn’t make it far: they were captured by Chinese soldiers in the Yangtze delta country and turned over to Japanese forces. The men were tried, sentenced, and imprisoned for the duration of the war. (Cunningham made a second failed attempt a couple of years later.)
On occupied Wake Island where some 365 American prisoners remained in the spring of 1942, two contractors, Elmer Mackie and Donald Sullivan, carefully planned their escape in a whaleboat, stashing food, water, and gasoline to get them to safe waters. They got away on the night of April 25, but were never heard from again. Less than two weeks after their escape Japanese officials announced that the two had been captured and executed – and that no Wake prisoner dare try again.
The two successful escape stories occurred independently within a day of each other late in the war. Hundreds of Wake POWs and other Allied prisoners had been interned for over three years at Shanghai War Prisoners Camp, first at Woosung and later at Kiangwan. By the spring of 1945 Allied advances in the Pacific and Asia convinced the Japanese to close Kiangwan camp and move the POWs to Japan. They herded some nine hundred prisoners onto a freight train for the long journey that would take them through North China, Korea, and finally by ferry to the Japanese islands where they would be dispersed into POW camps. Knowing the route through China would afford the only opportunity to escape and link up with friendly forces, several prisoners had quickly made preparations before leaving Shanghai and, once rolling north in the crowded box cars, hatched their plans.
These great escape stories are told by Brig. Gen. John F. Kinney, USMC, in Wake Island Pilot: A World War II Memoir, co-authored with James M. McCaffrey (Potomac Books, 1995), and by William Taylor in Rescued by Mao: World War II, Wake Island, and My Remarkable Escape to Freedom across Mainland China (Silverleaf Press, 2007). Both men lived into their 90s but have passed away now, Kinney in 2006 and Taylor in 2011. On Wake Island in 1941 then-2LT John Kinney was a Marine pilot and Bill Taylor was a carpenter’s apprentice for the contractors. Their remarkable escape stories bear many similarities, including preparation, plans, and outcome.
Knowing they would encounter Chinese villagers in their push into the countryside, both men sought out fellow prisoners who knew the lay of the land and they acquired what they called “pointy-talky” cards with key phrases and questions paired in Chinese and English. Kinney’s co-conspirators included two North China Marines who had experience with the Chinese rail system and fellow Wake Island pilot Lt. John McAlister. Their escape plan called for each Wake Islander to pair up with one of the North China hands to maximize their chances of success. By contrast, Taylor made his preparations alone, consulting a Chinese friend as well as recently captured American pilots at the Kiangwan camp for their knowledge of the Chinese landscape. Once on the prison train, Taylor found a willing escape partner in contractor Jack Hernandez. In their separate boxcars, both groups quickly recognized that the optimal – the only – escape route from the train would be via small, partially restricted windows in the upper corners while distracting the guards.
On the second night of the trip, the Kinney group squeezed through a window in pairs, leaping off the moving train into the rolling hill country outside Nanking. As often happens, the best-laid plans went awry, and Kinney lost contact with his partner at the jump. Within minutes guards and dogs were on his trail and he fled alone into the night, leaving his entire kit behind.
The Japanese guards were on heightened alert following the first escape and Taylor knew he must seize the moment if he had any hope of success. The following night he and Hernandez, aided by a lookout in their boxcar, broke out of their corner window and jumped. Both men fell hard, but Hernandez broke his leg and knew he could not run. As barking dogs closed in, Taylor made the “difficult decision to go it alone.”
The ensuing stories are testaments to courage on all sides. The escapees* ultimately made contact with Chinese Communist forces who helped them connect with American units in China, and they came home weeks before the war was over. In dire circumstances we call on all our inner resources, but an adage that Bill Taylor used throughout his ordeal is one we would all do well to remember: “the best way to overcome fear is by direct action.”
*Kinney reconnected in China with Lieutenants McAlister, Richard Huizenga, and James McBrayer, plus Ensign Louis Bishop who joined the escape at the last minute. They returned to the United States on July 9, 1945. Taylor returned July 27, 1945. Hernandez was recaptured by the Japanese, but survived.