Early in my book project I came to realize that I couldn’t rely on memory-based sources to augment the factual account of the Wake Island story. This came as a surprise to me as a history instructor who has often used oral histories to give voice to people without a written record. However, as I met Wake survivors and talked with them about their experiences, I found that their stories often conflicted with each other or with the historical record. I decided to focus as much as possible on written primary sources – letters, diaries, and other contemporary accounts – that could help me tell the Wake story without the distortions of memory and baggage of hindsight. I never stopped listening, though. The survivors’ recollections infuse the story with color, sensation, emotion, and vivid details. As I write in my acknowledgements, their contributions enriched the book immeasurably: “I do not quote them, but they are right around the corner, on the next bunk, or just coming up the road on Wake.”
Most of the historical accounts and memoirs about the Wake Island saga focus on the two-week siege and final battle for Wake, and then the long, dark days and years as prisoners of war. Building for War spends more time on the buildup to war and the Wake construction project during 1941. I found that the fellows enjoyed talking about the “good times” including, for many, first-class passage on a luxury ocean liner to Honolulu and the camaraderie, hard work, good pay, and great chow on Wake Island. Only in hindsight did they know what was coming.
Nearly all of the good historical accounts of the Wake saga written in the last few decades incorporate first-person interviews for individual perspectives of events during the siege and battle of Wake Island in December 1941. Military personnel remember their battle stations, duties, and sequence of events with better accuracy than civilians, perhaps because the record can confirm locations strategy, tactics, and outcome. Hundreds of the civilian contractors volunteered to aid the Marine-led defense of Wake but they were not sworn in and there was no record of who served when and where. After liberation from POW camps at the end of the war, Navy Commander W. S. Cunningham, Major J. P. S. Devereux, and general superintendent Nathan “Dan” Teters separately compiled lists of commendation for civilians who aided the defense. However, some who carried burned and bloody bodies to the hospital, toiled on night details sandbagging the big guns, or quietly stepped up whenever needed, remain nameless. Others have claimed heroic deeds that cannot be corroborated.
Many Wake survivors remained close in the decades after the war and met annually at conventions and other events where they could talk openly about their shared past. The Survivors of Wake, Guam, and Cavite officially disbanded in 2004, but some of the living survivors and families still meet for coffee and come together every fall for a reunion in Boise. Over the years as they shared their individual perspectives on common events that occurred decades earlier, the survivors had to “agreed to disagree” on the details. In a horrific situation such as Wake Island in December 1941, some images are indelibly imprinted; other images are processed over time and just as indelibly imprinted. Often in the remembering and retelling, what “they” did gradually becomes what “we” did and before long, it is what “I” did.
We all do it: we rearrange the furniture in our minds, then swear it was always so. Memory is not a photographic record of the past; it is a tool for us to process and learn from the past, to manage our emotions, and to justify our actions. I am no scientist and really have no idea how memory works, but the “rearranging” seems to happen without our conscious control yet with our fundamental interests in mind. Like the piers of the ruined bridge, the foundations of past events remain, but we build the bridge anew.
My father has been gone nearly twenty years now and never talked much about Wake or the war. When I started the book project about six years ago, I was eager to find out anything I could about where he was in all of it: did he step up and help? Did he hide in a dugout? Some of the fellow remembered him on Wake (and some remembered my grandfather too) but I never found out what Ted did – or didn’t do – in December 1941. I finally let go of that and took hold of something else.
One of the first survivors I met was Joe Goicoechea from Boise, who told me sure, he remembered Ted Olson: he bunked right next to him in the barracks in Camp 2. Joe laughed and told me how Ted and his buddy Roger Smalley would roughhouse and wrestle in the hall. The vision of my serious, stoic father as a carefree young man, laughing and roughhousing with a pal, was like a gift to me. We build what bridges we need with what we’ve got.