The Moveable Feast

Wake Island Wake Island is variously described as V-shaped, horseshoe-shaped, or wishbone-shaped. I like the last best, and so it seems appropriate to recall Thanksgiving on Wake Island in 1941. Thanksgiving fell on November 20, 1941, on Wake, other islands, D. C., and two-thirds of the states. For the third Depression year in a row, President Franklin Roosevelt had proclaimed Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November instead of the traditional last Thursday of the month in order to extend consumer holiday spending in a tough economic climate. This year thirty-two states agreed; the others scoffed at “Franksgiving” and waited another week for their turkey. The civilian construction workers on Wake Island welcomed the early holiday, noting that by virtue of Wake’s location west of the international date line, they were the first Americans to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner.

The day offered many options for relaxation and sport before the big feast was served in the mess hall. In a letter home, R. E. Forsythe noted that the main attraction was deep-sea fishing, with parties leaving at 7 AM and 2 PM, carried by tugboat to a large barge anchored offshore. Others went shell hunting along the shore, swam, played horseshoes or tennis, listened to records, and wrote letters home. Some squeezed in rehearsals for the upcoming stage show. A baseball game in the afternoon drew many spectators. Joe McDonald typed a letter to his folks on November 20, 1941, describing the “really excellent” dinner, considering that “most of it came out of cans and what didn’t had to be shipped in refers for several thousand miles.” Twelve hundred men sat down to “Turkey with all the fixin’s, Roast Beef, Vegetable salad with fresh tomatoes, fruit cup, shrimp salad, celery, olives and other appetizers, mince pie and ice cream for dessert and coffee.” Well rested and well fed, the men gathered in the outdoor theater for the evening’s picture show: The Hurricane.

Pete Hansen began what would be a running six-day letter the day before Thanksgiving, noting as always the days on his contract – 258 gone, 34 to go – and telling about the inspirational talk given by a visiting army chaplain that evening. God, said the chaplain, would bless them for their sacrifice: work with all your might and don’t count the days. Pete took the talk with a grain of salt: for one, he didn’t “care about the hero stuff; I’m glad we have made some sacrifice, I think everyone should, but I will also be glad when it is all over.” Pete lamented that, instead of working “with all our might,” the work was painfully slow despite having lots of material. “We work hours and days on the simplest things . . . the cost must be enormous.” And with “no work tomorrow, the day will seem so long.” As for not counting the days: out of the question. Pete couldn’t help “count the days I am away from you.” But Pete enjoyed the Thanksgiving day (“cool and dry”) and the good dinner. He held the shadow of war at bay, writing to his wife “I don’t see how Japan could have the nerve to start any trouble . . . so we will thank God for the blessings we have and have no thought of any trouble from that source.”

While the civilians whiled away the Thanksgiving holiday and filled their bellies with fine foods, the Wake Marine detachment worked through the day on their big gun emplacements at the three points on the atoll. Any visions of turkey with all the fixin’s were dashed when their mess served up Thanksgiving dinner of “ox tongue, rice, and hardtack.” Perhaps some of the marines found a way to trade their beer for a slice of civilian pie later that evening.

In eighteen days life on the wishbone-shaped atoll would be turned upside-down and Thanksgiving, for all it was and wasn’t on November 20, 1941, would recede in memory like a dream.

(Forsythe quoted in Idaho Daily Statesman, November 29, 1941; McDonald letter courtesy of Joseph F. McDonald III; Hansen letter courtesy of Mary-Anne Collins; Marine Thanksgiving source: Gregory Urwin, Facing Fearful Odds, 147)