Like many of his generation, my father did not open up with the family about his wartime experiences. We knew he had been captured on Wake Island and spent the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, but little else. He had some mysterious, recurring illnesses and strange scars that we knew were related to that time, but I waited until long after his death to start asking questions. My quest to find out “what happened to Dad” turned into a full historical account of the Wake Island saga, but I won’t ever know what really happened to Ted Olson between 1941 and 1945.
Japanese troops captured Wake Island on December 23, 1941, after a punishing two-week siege and the final battle. Ninety-two Americans had died, leaving 1,716 survivors. All survivors – military and civilian – were taken prisoner of war and herded to the air field, stripped of clothing and valuables, hogtied, and surrounded by machine-gun toting guards. “Lots of us thought we would be shot and ideas and rumors were flying thick and fast,” contractor Frank Miller later wrote in his diary. After a heated argument among the Japanese officers, the gunners were ordered to stand down and a proclamation was read, announcing the capture of Wake by the Japanese Empire and the decision to spare the lives of the prisoners. None could imagine what the future held, but many a bet was lost on trying to predict it. Every day eyes scanned the horizon for the anticipated navy rescue that never came.
On January 12, 1942, the Nitta Maru steamed away from Wake, carrying 1,235 of the prisoners, including my father. The hellish voyage was broken by a brief stop in Yokohama where a few of the captives were allowed topside for propaganda photographs and radio broadcasts, then resumed its course to the Japanese-held coast of China. There the prisoners were marched to the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp at Woosung, a cold, bleak, and dismal compound. Relief measures for prisoners and notification of families would be slow and sporadic at best: Japan was not bound by the Geneva Conventions, though authorities announced intention to cooperate “in spirit” of the accords. The U. S. State Department, members of congress, and military agencies doggedly pursued prisoner rosters. In early summer some families received notification that their loved one was alive; many families had to wait and some would never hear.
The Woosung prisoners were permitted to write their first letters in June 1942 and families received Red Cross directives for how to address letters and send parcels to the prisoners. We still have Ted’s only letter written from the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp, which his mother received months later when, unbeknownst to her, he was long gone from the camp. Ted was in the first draft of prisoners to be shipped from Woosung in September 1942 to an urban camp in Japan where he and the others worked as slave laborers in the massive Yawata (Yahata) Steel Works. Ted remained in this camp, designated Fukuoka 3, for the duration of the war, until liberation in the fall of 1945.
The Japanese refused to give civilian internee status to the civilians from Wake Island, including the American contractors and Pan American Guamanian employees, because of their participation in the defense of Wake. They would not be considered for repatriation or special treatment, but were subject to the same or worse conditions as their military counterparts and tens of thousands of other allied internees. In her book Unjust Enrichment: How Japan’s Companies Built Postwar Fortunes using American POWs, Linda Goetz Holmes develops the argument that exploitation and brutal treatment of American and allied POWs during World War II was part of Japanese government policy that benefited Japanese corporations, many of which are familiar names in the modern business world.
While many of the captured POWs were forced to work in Japan’s corporate industries, mines, and shipyards, others slaved away at other projects, depending on location, military needs, or arbitrary whims of their captors. The use of captured prisoners of war as slave labor reaches far back into ancient history across the globe. Compensation and apologies have not historically been part of the process.
The tracks of the Wake Island POWs branched many times during the course of World War II. The majority of the Woosung prisoners remained in occupied China, with the camp moving to nearby Kiangwan in late 1942. When that camp closed in May 1945, the internees were sent by rail and ship to Japan and dispersed into the Japanese POW camp system where several hundred of their fellows were already interned. (See The Center for Research: Allied POWs under the Japanese for information on the camps and prisoners.) The last 265 American civilian prisoners to leave Wake alive in September 1942 had been sent directly to Japan where most were put to work building a dam at Sasebo and dozens died. The remaining Wake 98 were killed on the island. Altogether 250 of Wake’s 1,145 civilian contractors died before war’s end.
Each prisoner had to draw on his physical and emotional resources to face the years of forced labor, corporal punishment, torture, disease, and near-starvation rations. Bad luck and good fell indiscriminately. I will never know how my father made it through, but I’m glad he did.