Given Up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand at Wake Island

Given Up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand at Wake Island

by Bill Sloan

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback - Reissue)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days


A gripping narrative of unprecedented valor and personal courage, here is the story of the first American battle of World War II: the battle for Wake Island. Based on firsthand accounts from long-lost survivors who have emerged to tell about it, this stirring tale of the “Alamo of the Pacific” will reverberate for generations to come.

On December 8, 1941, just five hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes attacked a remote U.S. outpost in the westernmost reaches of the Pacific. It was the beginning of an incredible sixteen-day fight for Wake Island, a tiny but strategically valuable dot in the ocean. Unprepared for the stunning assault, the small battalion was dangerously outnumbered and outgunned. But they compensated with a surplus of bravery and perseverance, waging an extraordinary battle against all odds.

When it was over, a few hundred American Marines, sailors, and soldiers, along with a small army of heroic civilian laborers, had repulsed enemy forces several thousand strong––but it was still not enough. Among the Marines was twenty-year-old PFC Wiley Sloman. By Christmas Day, he lay semiconscious in the sand, struck by enemy fire. Another day would pass before he was found—stripped of his rifle and his uniform. Shocked to realize he hadn’t awakened to victory, Sloman wondered: Had he been given up for dead—and had the Marines simply given up?

In this riveting account, veteran journalist Bill Sloan re-creates this history-making battle, the crushing surrender, and the stories of the uncommonly gutsy men who fought it. From the civilians who served as gunmen, medics, and even preachers, to the daily grind of life on an isolated island—literally at the ends of the earth—to the agony of POW camps, here we meet our heroes and confront the enemy face-to-face, bayonet to bayonet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553585674
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/29/2008
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 270,222
Product dimensions: 4.30(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bill Sloan is a Pulitzer Prize nominated freelance journalist and the author of a dozen books. During his ten years as an investigative reporter/feature writer for the Dallas Times Herald, Sloan covered many of the major events and personalities of the twentieth century.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Place at the Ends of the Earth

In the four-plus centuries since they were first discovered—and promptly forgotten again—the tiny specks of land identified on maps as Wake Island have been described in many unflattering terms.

After finding and circling the atoll in October 1568, Spanish explorer Alvaro de Menda-a de Neyra dismissed it as "useless." The barrier reef surrounding it, coupled with the fierce, unpredictable local currents, made a landing too risky, he decided. In disgust, he sailed away without going ashore, despite the fact that he was short of food and water, had been searching for land for days, and many of his crew were sick with scurvy.

The next officially recorded sighting of Wake didn't take place until 1796, when a British merchant ship, the Prince William Henry, came upon it by accident. The ship's captain, Samuel Wake, knew nothing of Menda-a's earlier visit, so he christened the little landmass "Wake" in honor of himself. But he, too, wanted no part of the reef and the currents, and he departed without ever setting foot on the island that still bears his name.

To understand the treacherous conditions surrounding Wake, picture a towering underwater mountain—a long-extinct volcano—with only the uppermost tips of its crater protruding above the sea. Completely surrounding it about a hundred yards offshore is a jagged coral reef formed over tens of thousands of years. Until a channel was blasted through the reef in the mid-1930s, it continued to make Wake one of the most inaccessible points on the globe.

Much of the reef lurks less than two feet below sea level, and except in a man-made opening, only very small, flat-bottomed boats could safely pass over it. To compound the danger, the ocean's depth just beyond the reef suddenly plunges thousands of feet down the almost perpendicular sides of the submerged prehistoric mountain. This creates perpetually rough seas that send huge waves pounding shoreward.

Even in relatively modern times, ships found no safe anchorage at Wake, and—like those of Menda-a and Samuel Wake—any vessel that ventured near it inevitably did so at its peril. In all likelihood, the reef and the tides claimed numerous small craft over the centuries. But their most notable victim was the German passenger ship Libelle, which crashed on the reef and broke to pieces in March 1866 after being blown off course en route from Honolulu to Hong Kong. The Libelle's anchor and other remnants of the doomed ship were found on Wake seventy-five years later.

On October 15, 1941, some seven weeks before the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, Major James P. S. Devereux arrived on Wake to take command of its small Marine garrison. Devereux's feelings about the place were remarkably similar to those expressed by Menda-a 373 years earlier. The major referred to Wake as "a spit-kit of sand and coral without any reason for being." Many of Devereux's men added their own appraisals: "uninviting," "lonely," "barren," "oppressive," "desolate," "flat and ugly," and "nothing but sand and rocks," to list a few of the milder ones. But Tech Sergeant Charles Holmes, a career Marine from the rolling prairies of North Texas, may have summed it up better than anyone. On first impression, he said, Wake struck him as "the most isolated place in the world."

Unlovely as it was, however, PFC Wiley Sloman was actually glad to be there when he finally made it ashore on November 1, 1941. He would have much preferred to stay at Midway, where he'd been stationed previously, but under the circumstances, he was glad to be anywhere as long as there was land under his feet.

On his way out from Pearl on the U.S.S. Castor, the ship had hit some really nasty weather, and almost everybody on board was seasick except Sloman, who wasn't bothered at all by the rough seas. Not only had he been around plenty of salt water and ships as a kid growing up on the Texas coast, but his great-grandfather had traveled around the world as captain of a three-masted sailing ship, and Sloman figured maybe he'd inherited some of the old man's seaworthiness. But his healthy state turned out to be small comfort when he was assigned to torpedo watch during the worst part of the storm. Then, after reaching Wake, the Castor had sailed around the atoll for four days waiting for the ground swells to ease off before anybody could go ashore.

Sloman grabbed a spot on the first motor launch to leave the Castor, but he quickly learned that the easy life he'd enjoyed on Midway was a thing of the past. He barely got off the launch before they handed him a jackhammer and put him to work cutting holes in the coral to mount corner posts for the Marines' tents. "From then on until the war started, we didn't get much rest," he said. "On Midway, it was good duty, and we were usually through by noon. On Wake, reveille was at 5:00 a.m., and we worked our tails off all day."

Wake Atoll is actually made up of three small islands grouped around a shallow lagoon that was once the crater of the extinct volcano. V-shaped Wake proper, the largest of the three, is separated by narrow channels from Wilkes and Peale islands, just to the west. Together, they form a rough horseshoe shape with its open end pointing west. Peale forms the tip of the upper or northern leg of the horseshoe and Wilkes forms the tip of the lower or southern leg.

Wilkes Island took its name from Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, captain of the U.S. Navy sloop Vincennes and leader of an expedition that visited Wake briefly in 1841. Peale Island was named for Titian R. Peale, a well-known naturalist of the day, who was along on the same expedition. Wilkes's and Peale's opinions of the place were pretty typical, it seems. Peale found it to be "very unpleasant," and Wilkes dismissed it as "unfit for human habitation."

Beyond shimmering-white beaches studded with coral boulders, a low bank rises toward a few slight ridges. Much of the interior is covered with a dense, junglelike growth of brush, vines, and scrubby trees. Most of the native trees grow no more than twelve to fifteen feet tall, and, in 1941, the stately palms that proliferate naturally on most tropical Pacific isles were notably absent. Even in the interior, the terrain remains predominantly flat. The highest point of land is only about twenty-one feet above sea level. On an average of every fifteen years or so, tidal waves sweep across Wake during typhoon season. When they do, every inch of the atoll is subject to flooding.

All three islands put together constitute less than three square miles of land area—about 2,600 acres—in the vast reaches of the western Pacific. Wake is just over 2,000 miles due west of Honolulu. Midway lies nearly 1,200 miles to the northeast, and Guam is almost 1,400 miles farther west. The closest significant points of land are the Marshall, Mariana, and Caroline islands, which were mandated to Japanese control after World War I. In 1941, these islands bristled with hostile armaments and were anything but friendly territory. Major Japanese air bases on Kwajalein Atoll were just over 600 miles away; the giant Japanese naval installation at Truk was only slightly farther.

Except for multitudes of seabirds, including one totally wingless variety, and a particularly bold species of rat (which probably came ashore originally as refugees from some doomed ship), Wake has no native population. For all but the past seventy or so years of its history, the atoll has been totally devoid of human habitation. In addition to its remoteness, its reefs, and its currents, Wake is a "desert island" in the truest sense of the term. It has no natural source of fresh water. When the first permanent residents arrived in the mid-1930s, installing desalinization equipment for seawater and building systems to catch and store rainwater were among their most urgent priorities.

Yet despite all its drawbacks, Wake generated interest in Washington as early as Spanish-American War days, both as a possible site for a trans-Pacific cable station and as a stopping point for U.S. naval units bound for the Far East. Since the British still had a vague claim to the island, and Japanese fishermen also showed up from time to time, U.S. military leaders took steps to solidify Wake's status as American territory.

On Independence Day 1898, an American fleet carrying troops to the Philippines stopped off at Wake. Major General Francis Greene located a break in the barrier reef and went ashore, where he tied a small American flag to a tree limb and claimed the island for the United States. The following January, the U.S. Navy gunboat Bennington visited Wake, and its captain, Commander Edward Taussig, installed a more permanent flag and formally declared Wake a U.S. possession.

Within a few years, the cable station idea was scrapped, after Wake's lack of fresh water came to light, and the cable route was altered in favor of Midway and Guam. By this time, as a result of the U.S. victory over Spain, the United States had acquired a Pacific empire that stretched from Hawaii to the Philippines. Some military planners toyed with the idea of establishing a chain of strategic forward bases to protect these new holdings. If it ever happened, Wake was ideally situated to become part of that chain.

Still, Wake was destined to remain virtually untouched by the outside world—and virtually unknown to the American public—for another three decades. In Washington, the acquisitive imperialism that dominated political thinking during the Spanish-American War era gave way to rigid, head-in-the-sand isolationism following World War I. The size, strength, and influence of America's military diminished steadily through the 1920s and early 1930s. Military leaders lost most of their fiscal clout with an increasingly isolationist Congress. The lawmakers balked at appropriating money for anything related to arms, least of all new bases on faraway islands, and the Great Depression that descended on the country in 1929 made the situation infinitely worse. Domestic recovery was the battle cry, and to hell with vague threats in Europe and Asia.

Then, in 1933, Hitler came to power in Berlin, FDR was inaugurated as president in Washington, and the national political pendulum gradually began to swing back in the opposite direction. But the about-face from isolationism to military preparedness would be an agonizingly slow process—especially for the War Department, the Navy Department, and the admirals and generals.

By the early 1930s, the U.S. Navy had shrunk to little more than a third its size at the end of World War I, and much of what was left of it was old, rusty, and obsolete. The new president, who had served as an assistant secretary of the Navy in 1917 and 1918, was shocked when he discovered its deplorable condition. The Army hadn't fared much better, and the U.S. Marine Corps was barely a shadow of what it had once been.

"When I entered the Marines in June 1939, there were just 16,300 men in the Corps," recalled Corporal John Johnson, who came to Wake as a nineteen-year-old machine gunner from Missouri and later fought with Wiley Sloman on Wilkes. "That was less men than the New York City Police Department."

The change in national attitude would take years to run its course—a delay the depleted military could ill afford. Not until war was painfully imminent would the public and the politicians finally embrace the need for all-out mobilization.

In the meantime, occasional subterfuge by America's military establishment would be essential if the country was to avoid total calamity, or so the military minds in Washington believed. One of the major beneficiaries of that subterfuge—as well as one of the major victims of the delay—was to be Wake Island.

The first small step toward turning Wake into a formidable Pacific fortress came with almost no fanfare and little public notice. On December 29, 1934, while much of Washington was shut down for the Christmas-New Year holidays, FDR signed an executive order placing Wake under the direct jurisdiction of the Navy Department. The Navy, in turn, quickly declared the atoll a bird sanctuary and announced a stringent set of rules to protect its feathered throngs.

It was all a ruse, of course. The Navy's real interest was in airplanes, not birds. A little over two months later, on March 11, 1935, Pan American Airways announced plans to establish the world's first regularly scheduled passenger service from California to the Orient via its soon-to-be-famous "China Clipper" route. One day later, the Navy gave the airline permission to build docking, fueling, and lodging facilities for its Clippers and their passengers on three remote Pacific islands: Wake, Midway, and Guam.

Japan protested loudly when the news broke. The militarists in Tokyo strongly suspected what most private American citizens of the period would never have guessed—that Wake was quietly being groomed for future military use. It was, after all, closer to Tokyo than it was to Honolulu. It was also much nearer to Japan's home islands than Midway, Johnston, or Palmyra, other links in a defensive chain envisioned by Washington as a protective westward shield for Hawaii. While being a mere three- or four-hour bomber flight from the big Japanese bases at Truk and Kwajalein made Wake a prominent target, it also gave the atoll enormous offensive potential. Wake wasn't nearly as exposed or vulnerable to attack as Guam, which was in the middle of the Mariana Islands and encircled by Japanese bases—a fact that had already caused U.S. planners to write off Guam as an immediate loss if war came.

To Japan, all these factors made any U.S. attempt to tamper with Wake's centuries-old status as vacant specks of coral in the middle of nowhere a threat to be reckoned with. Pan Am's Clippers would be the first planes on Wake, true, but the Navy's own PBYs would be next, and the Army's B-17s wouldn't be far behind.

In Tokyo's view, a fortified Wake would be nothing less than a dagger aimed at the very heart of its empire—and thus a target of the highest priority. News of the deal between the U.S. Navy and Pan Am prompted Japanese naval strategists to revise their war plans. Wake would now have to be seized within the first few days of conflict.

Quietly, unobtrusively, an ominous sequence of events had been set in motion. The attack on Pearl Harbor was still more than six and a half years away. But the clock was ticking.

In the second half of the 1930s, most Americans were blissfully unaware that relations between the United States and Japan had been on a downward spiral for decades. Their mental images of the Japanese were still drawn more from the characters in Madame Butterfly—tragically beautiful geishas and funny little slant-eyed men who bowed a lot—than from current reality. Few of them realized that expansion-minded warlords had seized control of Japan's destiny prior to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Fewer still knew that Tokyo had been actively preparing for hostilities with America for the better part of three decades.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Given up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand at Wake Island 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
By Bill Marsano. One reason World War II dramas keep filling books is that half the war has been mostly forgotten--the Pacific part. It was a full-scale war all by itself, and although the U.S. did most of the heavy fighting, these days we remember little more than Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, and maybe Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima in a pinch. The problem, as in real estate, is location, location, location. The European theater was full of famous cities and works of art and people we knew, or thought we knew. At least had heard of. The Pacific was nothing but millions of square miles of ocean, empty except for Hawaii and large numbers of small islands and smaller tribes. Two of the smallest, least habitable islands were deemed of enormous by both Japan and the U.S., and much blood and treasure were expended on their defense and conquest. The first was Wake, a coral atoll in the middle of nowhere--perfect as a stopover for the old Pan Am Clipper flying boats, but little more. When war began it was populated by about 500 US servicemen--mostly Marines--and about 1000 civilian construction workers. The buildup was too late, the garrison too small (about 60 percent understrength), the guns too old--so naturally, when the Japanese attacked, the troops fought back like lions. For a while it was the biggest morale-building story of the war. And the only one: The Japanese had stunned us a Pearl Harbor, conquered the Philippines, taken over Guam--and here was this tiny force on a tiny island giving them hell. Indeed they actually beat back the first invasion attempt, sinking some Japanese ships and seriously damaging others. Bombed repeatedly for more than two weeks, the garrison, joined by nearly half the civilians, held out bravely and fought amazingly well. The second invasion attempt was by a truly enormous force; it succeeded, but only after the defenders had punished it severely. Even today questions remain. Could Wake's defenders have held out longer, even won? Who was responsible for the surrender order, so bitterly resented by most of the Marines? What did the relief fleet sail from Pearl Harbor--and then turn back? I won't go into that here--that's Bill Sloan's job. It is good to have him bring this battle and these heroes back to us. He plods a bit in the beginning and his writing is only workmanlike, but that's OK--he doesn't get in the way of the story or the men who played their parts it it. And once the shooting starts the story achieves its own momentum. As suggested above, there's controversy to spare in the Wake Island story, and Sloan does a good job of handling it fairly, and he had also interviewed many of the dwindling band of survivors. This is a worthwhile read. In the end, Wake was of strategic importance to no one. The Japanese won it and probably wished they hadn't. US Navy ships heading elsewhere used to pound the hell out of it in passing, but we didn't bother trying to get it back. It was useless as a base of operations and almost impossible to supply--by war's end, the Japanese garrison was near starvation. Oh. The other small wretched island? That was Midway. About six months post-Wake the Japanese tried to take that, too, also without having much considered what good it might do them. In the subsequent Battle of Midway, Japan lost the war in about 10 minutes. The US would still have to win it, however, and that would about three more years.--Bill Marsano has been reading about WWII since he was too young to fight in it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AN outstanding about the Battle of Wake Island and the Marines, Navy and even civilians that fought there. This book will make any American howling mad, at the heroic defense and then the rash decision of Commander Cunnigham (USN) to surrender the garrison (not knowing what was happening from his bunker) while the Marines were rolling up the Japanese and had the second battle won. Cunningham was a US Navy officer inexplicably put in charge of the island a few weeks before WW2 broke out for the US. I fully concur with all the reviews  posted prior to this one.I never rate anything 5 stars, but, this book came very close to earning that mark from me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MFowler More than 1 year ago
American's entry into WW II was not an auspicious one - the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by the equally devastating attacks in the Philippines and Guam, showed just how unprepared the country was for total, global war. The same could be said for Wake Island, three small specks of sand and coral a lot closer to Japan than the United States, defended by a relative handful of US Marines, US Navy and Army personnel and civilian construction workers. And yet - against almost impossible odds, and with largely outdated equipment, the Marine soldiers and aviators beat back successive Japanese air attacks and completely repelled the first invasion attempt, giving America its first good news in those dark days. Bill Sloan does an excellent job of reliving the desperate Battle of Wake Island through the eyes of the few remaining living survivors, placing the reader squarely in the middle of things as the Marines make do with what they have, improvise for what they don't, and proceed to give the heretofore invulnerable Imperial Japanese Army and Navy a very bloody nose before finally being forced to lay down their arms against the overwhelming odds. Perhaps even more valuable is Sloan's critical assessment of the command structure and commander's actions at Wake, both Navy and Marine, and how better communications among the units might have led to a very different outcome. All-in-all, a volume that should be included in the library of every serious student of WW II.
XWSO More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book and learning about the personnel that fought and died on the island. Interesting details on the Cunningham/Deveraux leadership issues.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
There seems to be three types of books when it comes to the Wake Island saga: the personal account, the scholarly analysis, and the journalistic story. Bill Sloan's book is the latter, a tapestry comprising personal stories, academic research as well as critical historical as well as tactical analysis. Sloan introduces the characters as the story evolves, piecing together many of the inconsistencies found in earlier published works. Sloan is highly critical of CDR Winfield Cunningham's role in both the command of the garrison as well as his responsibility for the garrison's surrender. Also criticized is the more heralded MAJ James Devereux, whose shortcomings are also realized. This is an exceptional book which shall serve as a valuable anthology of some less heard stories of Wake's survivors and dead alike. Truly an homage to these men, so many of whom we are in the midst of losing today, whose gallantry will hopefully not be lost to the fickle memory of American History. REVIEW EVERY BOOK YOU READ, AUTHORS DESERVE YOUR THOUGHTS, OPINIONS AND CRITIQUES!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A detailed account of the fall of Wake Island and the ill fate that met the few military and numerous civilian inhabitants. Through years of research and interviews, Sloan recreates the events before, during, and after the Wake invasion by following the lives of several men assigned to Wake Island including VMF211 and the Civilian contractors. A bit of history you won't get in the classroom.