Wake WWII Volunteers

[See below for additional information on the Medal of Freedom] When war came to Wake Island suddenly and without warning on December 8, 1941, some of the civilian workers immediately volunteered to aid the defense of the island and many more stepped forward as the siege continued. Sixteen days later the island surrendered after a massive Japanese land invasion and final battle and survivors were taken as POWs. Japan’s designation of the Wake civilians as POWs instead of internees was based on the assumption that they aided the prolonged defense of the island, the capture of which had been far more costly to the Japanese than to the Americans.

We will never know the names of all of those who volunteered, but we do have 254 names of civilians who were cited after the war for actively contributing to the defense of Wake Island (no civilians were inducted into the service on Wake). This represents just 21.3 percent of the civilians who were on the island during the siege and battle. After liberation in 1945, Wake commanders and officers compiled lists of civilian volunteers, acknowledging that they included only names that had been recorded before capture or could be recalled after years in prison camp, and that many others whose names they could not recall or were unknown to them also aided in the defense. That said, it may be assumed that roughly half of the civilians stayed in their dugouts, taking care of themselves and their buddies as best they could while awaiting the navy rescue that never came.

I have combined information from several key sources into a database of Wake civilian volunteers, corrected for name errors, and abridged it to create a PDF file to share of names, commendations, medals, and services rendered. While many other written and oral sources provide additional names and contributions, I have confined this list to the official citations and recommendations, with the addition of a notarized statement by a gun captain from Battery D. The Civilian Volunteer Citations list is below, followed by the sources with links to the documents. Please contact me if you have any questions, corrections, or comments. [Ten days after publishing this post I have been unable to locate or confirm any Medal of Freedom recipients. Further research has revealed a letter from the Navy Board of Decorations and Medals dated August 1, 1946, stating that the Medal of Freedom recommendations were “not entirely appropriate in this case.” The Board suggested that the Navy’s Civilian Awards Board use a “certificate or commendation of similar nature” and, if none were available, the Secretary of the Navy might authorize a Navy Expeditionary Medal with a Wake device similar to that awarded to Wake’s military personnel. I am unaware of either a certificate or other award specific to the group of civilians recommended by Commander Cunningham, but will keep looking. (The Navy Cross and Bronze Stars were awarded.)]

Our deepest gratitude goes out to all the men who contributed to the heroic defense of Wake Island in 1941. It is my honor to share this list of Civilian Volunteer Citations

Work descriptions in the right column derive from information in the cited sources: VMF-211 indicates the 13 civilians who attached to the Marine Aircraft Group and were awarded the Bronze Star for their heroic service; 1DB indicates the 56 civilians cited for direct aid to the 1st Defense Battalion; “Bat D” are the 14 men who served as a gun crew in the undermanned Battery D; and the commendations and remaining descriptions are provided in the Greey document, which lists groups of civilians for distinguished, meritorious, or commendable Service and the type of non-military work they provided (this appears to be the list upon which Cunningham’s recommendations for Medal of Freedom are based). There are 248 civilian contractors listed, followed by 6 Pan American Airways employees listed on the last page.


Cunningham medal recommendations-1 Captain Winfield S. Cunningham, USN, to the Secretary of the Navy, 2 May 1946. This is a set of three letters of recommending the Navy Cross and Bronze Star Medal awards and special citations.

Cunningham medal recommendations-2 This lists the Medal of Freedom recommendations for 173 contractors and 6 PAA employees.

Devereux recognition of service Col. James P. S. Devereux, USMC, to the Board of Awards, Navy Department, 13 September 1946. Here are the first three pages of the letter, including a list of civilians who served with the 1st Defense Battalion and special mention for several of them. (I did not append the last ten pages containing mailing addresses for the men or their next-of-kin.)

Greey commendations Comdr. E. B. Greey, CEC, USNR, to Bureau of Yards and Docks, 14 December 1945. This contains detailed lists of civilians who provided non-military service, with graded classifications of service and types of work performed, from food truck drivers to night work details.

Bowsher Roster Walter A. Bowsher, Jr., “To Whom it may Concern,” notarized 14 December 1979. Sgt. Bowsher was captain of Gun #3 in Battery D on Peale Island, which was manned by the all-civilian crew listed in this statement.


  1. How can we find out information regarding my Grandfather that was a prisoner of war on Wake Island? His name was Dirk John Vanderwilt. We can never find his name on any of the lists that I seen related to Wake Island.
    Thank You Karen Doty Rackham

    • Thanks for the comment. Vanderwilt is listed in Wake Rosters, which you can link to on my home page near the top. There is no photo for him in the Blue Book (as is the case for over 400 others), but if you scroll down to “Wake CPNAB Roster” you will find him listed alphabetically. I do have additional information on all of the civilians on Wake Island in WWII, including your grandfather, and I will reply to your email address right away.

  2. Thank you, Bonnie. As you stated, all of the names were not recorded. My father is honored by those who knew and loved him. It is enough.

    • Thanks for your comment, Theresa. I also honor your father, though I didn’t have the opportunity to know him personally. Many additional civilian volunteers were identified over the last seventy years in letters, interviews, memoirs, and books. While it’s important to recognize those who actively aided the defense of Wake Island, all of the Wake men endured the terrible and traumatic experiences of war. Those experiences reshaped their lives and, in turn, shaped the lives of us, their families. We honor our fathers best by remembering.