Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Lucky Hellcat and the Tragedy that Followed

Call it the “Law of Unintended Consequences”. Today’s Navy/Associated Press news photo of a damaged Grumman F6F Hellcat making an emergency landing on a carrier was originally presented to the American public with a caption couched in terms of light-hearted bravado:

“PLANE NO. 13 LUCKY - Number 13 proved to be this Navy Hellcat pilot’s lucky number as he makes a safe landing on a carrier, trailing smoke. His plane was damaged in aerial combat with the Japs over Wake during the attack on that Jap base, Oct. 5-6. More than 30 Jap planes, the Navy claimed, were shot down in aerial combat and 31 more destroyed on the ground. (Associated Press Photo from U.S. Navy. 10/15/43)”

My original title for this post, “Hellcat Oops” was intended to answer the post several weeks ago entitled “Helldiver Oops”…I figured that, to be fair, I had to give the fighter jocks the same ribbing as I gave the bomber drivers. After all, the pilot shown here just pulled off a pretty impressive feat of airmanship: bringing home a wounded bird, and then executing a carrier landing – itself an admirable accomplishment even in the best of circumstances when everything's working great – all while his windscreen was completely obscured by a thick coating of black engine oil.

Note the nice thick coating of engine oil on the Hellcat's windscreen.
All that light-heartedness came to an abrupt end, though, as I dug into researching the story behind this photo, and the immense (and largely unremembered) tragedy that occurred as a result of the actions on the day and mission that this photo was shot, consequences that did not become known to the American public for another three years.

Although it isn’t identified in the cutline, the carrier in this scene is the USS Yorktown (CV-10), which was a part of Carrier Air Group Five (CVG-5). On board the "Fighting Lady", as the ship was nicknamed, were two Hellcat squadrons, VF-5 and night fighter squadron VF(N)-76; the lack of a radar pod on the outer starboard wing suggests that Lucky 13 is from Fighter Squadron Five.

Wake Island had been attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the same day that Pearl Harbor was struck, an assault which culminated on the capture of the island by the Japanese forces on December 23, 1941. On the island at the time were a large number of U.S. civilian construction workers employed by contractor Morrison-Knudsen. During the battle for the island, 52 U.S. sailors and Marines were killed, along with 70 of the civilians, but the toll that the Japanese paid for the island was much higher, with 700 to 1,000 lives lost. When the fighting was over, 1,603 Americans were captured, of whom 1,150 were civilians. All of the military personnel were shipped off to POW camps in Asia, but some of the American civilians were kept on Wake by the Japanese as slave laborers to build up the island's defenses.

The caption pasted to the back of the photo
In the October 5-6 raid by CVG-5, the Japanese forces on the island were caught napping, and 31 aircraft, all of the Nell and Betty bombers based there, as well as some of the fighters, were destroyed on the ground. (The Naval Aviation News dated December 1, 1943, has a one-page piece on the Wake raid - jump to page 19 of this 36-page pdf file - and one of the photos there of the attack can also be seen here.)

Unbeknownst to the attacking U.S. forces, at the time of the raid, there were still 98 American civilians alive and enslaved on the island. The two-day air raid was so intense that the Japanese commander of the island, Rear Admiral Shigimatsu Sakaibara, became convinced that an Allied invasion was imminent. He had the American prisoners marched from their compound to the north end of the island, where they were lined up along an anti-tank ditch, bound and blindfolded, and then mowed down with gunfire from three platoons of Japanese soldiers. The bodies were unceremoniously buried in the ditch where they fell. The following day, reports surfaced that one of the prisoners had actually escaped the execution, and had been seen on the island. To confirm this reported sighting, Sakaibara had the bodies dug up and counted: sure enough, there were only 97 dead. The lone survivor, who has never been identified, managed to hide out for three weeks, before being discovered and recaptured. At some point during this time, he was able to carve an inscription into a large rock near the site of the killings which read, "98 US PW 5-10-43". Sakaibara personally beheaded the man.

Over the next two years, inquiries from the Red Cross regarding the condition of the prisoners were completely ignored. In August 1945, when word reached Wake of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Harbor, the bones of the murdered Americans were exhumed from the ditch and hastily re-buried in a single small grave in an American graveyard that had been established during the initial battle for the island. When Sakaibara finally surrendered Wake to the American forces on September 4, 1945, his staff members explained away the missing contractors by saying that they had been placed in two bomb shelters during the October 1943 raid, and that one shelter had received a direct hit from an American bomb, while the Americans in the other had overpowered a guard and escaped to the north end of the island, where they all died fighting. During interrogation, all of the Japanese officers stuck to this story.

Sakaibara and fifteen of his staff officers were nonetheless arrested by the Americans and sent to Kwajalein to stand trial for the deaths of the POWs. During the process, three of the Japanese officers committed suicide and left behind notes that contradicted the cover story, indicating that the POWs had in fact been directly murdered. Presented with this evidence, Sakaibara confessed to ordering the murders, and took responsibility for his actions. He and Headquarters Company commander Lt. Cmdr Tachibana were sentenced to death, although Tachibana's sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison. On Guam on June 19, 1947, Sakaibara and five other Japanese war criminals paid the ultimate price for their crimes by hanging. Sakaibara's last statement was "I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure."

Most of the families of the 98 did not learn of their fate until January 1946, some even later than that. Today, on Wake Island, the inscription carved by the lone escapee is a memorial known as POW Rock.

A listing of the 98 men who were murdered on Wake can be found at this link.

A detailed account of the Massacre on Wake Island can be found at this link.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. You are doing a wonderful service with your blog.