Last Man Standing

When my book was published ten years ago, there were thirty-one living civilian survivors of Wake Island. Fifty-three more had passed away during the five years it took me to research and write the book. I was honored to know many of them and able to contact most of the others still living to give them copies of the book. I my Acknowledgements I thanked those who shared their experiences with me. “These men and others whose stories I have read enriched this book immeasurably: I do not quote them, but they are right around the corner, on the next bunk, or just coming up the road on Wake.” By January 2022 we counted only three known living survivors of Wake Island. With the passing of Ed Schmidt in May and Pat Aki earlier this month, Pearson Riddle, Jr., has become the last living survivor. Given the harrowing experiences during the siege and battle of Wake Island and forty-four grueling months as prisoners of war, it is astonishing that they and about thirty of their fellows lived well into their 90s and a few even past 100 years of age. Here are brief profiles of the three Wake survivors who made it to the year 2022.

Julius Edward Schmidt, who went by “Ed,” was born December 15, 1923, and died May 16, 2022, at the age of 98 in West Virginia where he lived with family. Ed was 17 when he left Columbus, Ohio, to work with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Idaho. He was recruited by Morrison-Knudsen, who assumed he was 18, and arrived on Wake Island on the last day of September 1941. He was hired as a general laborer and had barely two months of work before the sky fell. For the rest of his life, he dreaded his birthday because he turned 18 years old on December 15, 1941, during the defense of Wake. After the Japanese captured Wake, Ed was in the large group of POWs shipped off to Shanghai War Prisoners Camp in occupied China in January 1942. When the Kiangwan camp closed in May 1945, the prisoners were taken by train to Korea and shipped across to Japan. Ed was liberated from POW camp Tokyo 5-B Niigata in September 1945. After the war Ed returned to Columbus where he was briefly married before enlisting in the Army, serving in Germany and later in Korea during the Korean conflict. After leaving the Army he attended the University of Utah, where he received his degree in accounting. He worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 25 years before retiring in Kalispell, Montana. He is survived by his three daughters.

Born on February 20, 1924, on the island of Kauai, Patrick Kahaumea Aki was also a youngster of 17 when he got to Wake Island in August of 1941. One of eleven children, Pat moved to Honolulu after graduating high school and was hired by Hawaiian Dredging (one of the CPNAB partners) as a messman for Wake. Within a few weeks he was able to transfer to the waterfront crew and worked as a tugboat deckhand through the fall. Following the siege and battle of Wake Island, the victorious Japanese retained about 365 civilian POWs, including Pat, until September 1942 when all but the unlucky 98 were shipped to Japan. Pat endured the deprivations and brutality of the infamous Sasebo Camp 18 and several subsequent POW camps and was liberated from Fukuoka 6-B Mizumaki. After returning home to Hawaii Pat joined the US Air Force and was stationed in Japan, where he met and married his wife. In retirement he gave generously of his time and participated in numerous interviews about his wartime experiences. In 2017 we were honored to have Pat and fellow survivor Leroy Myers (who passed away in 2020) attend the final Wake reunion in Boise in 2017. Pat passed away on August 7, 2022, in Mililani on Oahu at the age of 98.

And that leaves one man standing: 100-year-old Pearson Riddle, Jr., of North Carolina. Riddle was born October 15, 1921 and had a tough youth in the rural poverty of the Great Depression. After graduating high school, he joined the CCC, moved out west, and learned to operate heavy machinery. Riddle was sent to Hawaii to work for the US Navy and went from there to join the Wake work force as a general laborer. He arrived in August on the same ship as Pat Aki, the USS William Ward Burrows. After capture Pearson, like Ed Schmidt, was on the hell ship Nitta Maru destined for Shanghai War Prisoners Camp in January 1942. In August 1943 several hundred of those POWs were sent to camps in Japan where Pearson ended up in Tokyo 5-D Kawasaki. Malnourished and ill, he slaved away in the steelworks. When that camp was destroyed by Allied bombing in May 1945, he was sent north to Sendai 7-B Hanaoka from which he was liberated. Pearson weighed just 97 pounds and would suffer lifelong health problems from his POW years. He moved from California to Alaska in 1947 and had a career building bases all over the word. He lives now in Burnsville, North Carolina, a true survivor.

In 2016 I posted my (abridged) Wake rosters at the website and continue to revise them as new information and dates of death become available. Despite my best efforts I have been unable to confirm DODs for 28 men, most of whom are now presumed dead due to their projected age. May all of our Wake men rest in peace. [Note in the gallery below the second row photos are, L-R, Ed Schmidt circa 1950, courtesy Pieper Family; Leroy Myers and Pat Aki, 2017, courtesy Seth Randal; Pearson Riddle, Jr., 2015, courtesy National WWII Museum]