Women of Wake

A few weeks ago my good friend and Wake Brother, Floyd Forsberg, sent me a large box containing hundreds of photocopies of Wake-related records that his mother had saved during World War II. Ruth Forsberg was an officer in the Los Angeles-area wartime organization, “Women of Wake,” and retained the group’s minutes, correspondence, and other documents. Recently Floyd took on the daunting effort of organizing and photocopying the records and I am grateful to him for sharing the fruits of his long Montana winter project with me. It must have been bittersweet for Ruth to pack up these papers seventy years ago and for Floyd to unpack them decades later: Ruth’s husband and Floyd’s father, Floyd F. Forsberg, was one of the 98 killed by the Japanese on Wake Island.

The Women of Wake were Los Angeles-area wives, mothers, relatives and friends of the Wake Island civilian contractors who hailed from Southern California and had disappeared behind the curtain of war in December 1941. A few of the women gathered informally in the early weeks of the war for mutual support and their numbers increased rapidly. Within a few months they were taking minutes of their weekly meetings and elected their first slate of officers with Mary H. Ward as president. While the Wake Island workers came from many states, nearly 400 were from California, and more than half of those from the LA area.

The women agreed that their primary objectives were to locate the missing men, to pursue their repatriation from Japan, and to secure compensation for the men and their dependents based on the terms of their contracts. While some families received confirmation of their loved one’s POW status and even letters by the end of 1942, several hundred of the Wake men would remain unaccounted for until the war’s end. The Women of Wake enlisted the help of union leaders and congressmen as they lobbied for repatriation and compensation, writing hundreds of letters, getting press coverage, and widening their reach. All too often they “met with buck-passing and evasion by all government agencies approached.” (In 1943, the women embarked on a letter-writing campaign for repatriation, advocating “FOUR JAPS FOR ONE YANK,” an exchange of four Japanese-American civilian internees for every one American civilian POW. Never mind that the Japanese-Americans were also American civilians.)

The Forsberg archive sheds some new light on the group’s actions and conflicts during the war. The absence of precedent, the complexities of family composition and dependency, and the time-consuming process of legislation rendered some families nearly destitute in the first two years of the war. Cut off from incomes, many of the women were “unable to find work, as war plants were not hiring inexperienced women workers indiscriminately as they [did a year later.]” The Pacific Island Employees Foundation, a charitable organization in Boise, ID, funded by the CPNAB contractors for the aid of the families of captured employees, endeavored to identify the needy and provide financial aid. The documents also reveal some friction between the PIEF and the Women of Wake, both organizations pursuing some of the same goals, but via different paths. Time and again, Harry Morrison, president of Boise-based Morrison-Knudsen Co. (the CPNAB partner that sponsored the Wake project), bridged the gap. Morrison’s personal connections with and concern for the men and their families was the impetus for the Foundation and his correspondence with the LA-based organization reveals a firm commitment to the welfare of all.

Mary Ward comes across as a much more complex and controversial figure than I had thought. From the sparse records previously available I saw Mrs. Ward as the essential link between the Women of Wake organization and the first postwar survivors’ organization, “Workers of Wake,” stepping seamlessly from the presidency of the one to the other. (Ward was reelected president of the latter for over ten years until the organization divided over her support, later reorganizing as the Survivors of Wake, Guam, and Cavite.) While her leadership was indeed pivotal in the early women’s organization, Ward was increasingly absent from meetings, moved frequently and was occasionally out of contact, and would ultimately abandon the group midway through the war. In June 1943, representing the newly incorporated Women of Wake, Ward made first trip to Washington D. C. to lobby for amendment of the then-current, woefully deficient compensation law, PL 784. Representatives of the Contractors and Florence Teters, wife of Wake’s captured General Superintendent, were also in D. C. doing the same, and the much-improved PL 216 was passed at the end of 1943. Mary Ward had found her calling.

Born in about 1901, Mary had a son (Johnny Holmes, a Marine aviator during the war) by a first marriage, and was remarried in the late 1920s to champion rodeo rider, Leonard Ward, who was working on Wake Island in 1941. Little is known about her personal or professional life, but she was clearly an able organizer, speaker, and writer. After the 1943 D. C. trip, however, she rarely appears in the minutes and correspondence of the Women of Wake. The group carried on with the solid commitment and leadership of other officers.

With the U. S. victory over Japan in August 1945, the liberated POWs began returning home – and gradually the sad news of wartime deaths was also revealed. Some of the men were eager to organize and work toward further compensation and coverage. To my surprise, the documents reveal that two rival groups formed: the “Defenders of Wake” in Southern California, building on the work of the Women of Wake, and the “Workers of Wake” in Boise with Mary Ward as president pro-tem. The documents reveal a terse exchange between the LA women’s group and their ex-leader, but for most, the divisiveness was soon over as the reunited families faced the future.

For 250 Wake families, however, there was only a gaping hole: their men were never coming home. Ruth Forsberg and Marion Pratt, two steadfast officers of the Women of Wake, would learn that their husbands were among 98 men massacred on Wake Island in 1943; others were killed in action or died as POWs. I thank Mrs. Forsberg and her son, Floyd, for preserving the record of this group of wartime women who fought for their men against all odds.