Hard Hat Poets

Wake Poetry With all we know now about what was brewing in the Pacific in late November 1941, I return with amazement to the scene of the Wake contractors and Marines who found spare time for an “all-out poetry blitzkrieg.” After long days hammering, riveting, digging, and bulldozing, “the boys wore pencils down to the eraser and their fingers to a numb and wallowed for days in iambic pentameter, blank and free verse.” One doesn’t readily associate hard hats with poetry, but it was a fairly common pastime back in the day. As schoolboys, these men had memorized long poems and many penned verses for loved ones back home. Poetry was a much more common tool for them, fun to exercise and allowing an artistic vent. My father (who could recite Robert Service’s “Cremation of Sam McGee with ease) continued the practice all his life, writing verses to commemorate a new baby in the family, a landmark birthday, or to set the stage for a clever gift.

The result of the 1941 poetry blitzkrieg on Wake was a twenty-five page supplement to the Wake Wig Wag, the newsletter compiled by editor Louis Cormier. Cormier prefaced the supplement with high praise for the poems and authors: “A poem by a construction ‘stiff,’ a mucker, a shovel artist, or an office ‘punk,’ – well that’s a work of art! – for it comes from the Heart!” Many of the entries bore only initials or anonymous, but some of the contractors took full credit, including James Connor, Howard E. Cook, Joe Dunn, R. E. Forsythe, C. D. “Curly” Howes, J. B. “Cobbler” McDaniel, Dave Shenkman, Frank Thatcher, Jr., Woodrow Whittenberg, Joe Williamson, and E. J. Wilson, as well as a fair cross-section of Marines.

“Ann Onymous” wrote about living on Wake . . .

The sun does funny things to a man
When he walks in the glare of the shimmering sand,
Or if it’s not the sand about which we beef
It’s the whiteness from the coral reef! . . .

From E. J. Wilson’s “Play on Wake Island” . . .

But of the things that are to do
More fun is had it seems
By going with a friend or two
To where bright colored fishes teem.

Where coral grows in colors bright
And many a varied hue;
Yellow and green and some pure white,
Orange, purple, also pale blue.

With many forms, some branched so fine,
Reminding one of lace;
Some flat, some round with graceful line
Each one is rare, none commonplace.

Our there we don a diving mask
And slowly swim around;
In nature’s wonderland we bask
And the restless Pacific pounds. . . .

And T. B. L.’s “Wake Island Lament” . . .

Ye to Virtue consecrate who never yet did saturate
Your earthly hides with bliss divine,
Born of booze or beer or wine,
Pray hold your tongues and let us be!
Swift speed the hours of revelry,
The wind will blow them all away,

Many yearned for the girls back home, as Winston Tuttle in “Song of a Lonesome Lover”. . .

There’s a moon tonite on Wake Island
But it’s a lonely old moon for me.
I wonder if it shines on the one I love
Who’s waiting back home for me.
I wonder if she is lonely too
As she looks at the stars in the sky
And longs for the day when I’ll return
To her in the sweet bye and bye. . . .

And Willy in the “Post Office Blues” . . .

I’m just standing here hoping, hoping that I’ll hear
From you, my little darling, my baby dear.
I haven’t received a letter from you at present or in the past
So I’m looking in the window watching the mail go out so fast,
But by the time I get my turn there is no mail within.
I see there wasn’t any use waiting, for you’ve forgotten me again . . .

Tongue remained firmly in cheek for many, as in:

I am a Frigidaire
With pulses of ammonia,
I pump the whole damn day
For a piece of old bolognia!

I would like to print them all (well, nearly all) for their color, moods, and cleverness and the pictures they paint so vividly of voyages to Wake, work, turnover, friends, distant family, and fun in 1941. You can almost hear the men laughing as they josh each other, racing to finish, asking “what rhymes with . . .?” in this all-out poetry blitzkrieg on – unbeknownst to them – the eve of war. But for now, I’ll close with the final verse of an entry by “A. Marine.” He writes about the detachment’s “hitch in hell” as they built kitchens, cleaned latrines, killed a thousand bugs, pitched a thousand tents, but had no idea of the gaping hell-hole that lay before them and how true his words would ring in the end:

When the final taps are sounded
and we lay aside our cares,
We will do our final dress parade
on those shiny golden stairs.
The angels will welcome us,
the harps will start to play,
We’ll draw a thousand canteen checks
and spend them in a day.
It’s then we will hear St. Peter
tell us loudly, with a yell,
“Take a front seat, boys from Wake,
‘cause you’ve done your hitch in Hell!”