Building for War — Review

Bonita Gilbert. Building for War: The Epic Saga of the Civilian Contractors and Marines of Wake Island in World War II. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2012. Print.

When I was a boy, I remember my father once getting a new book that he was unusually excited about. My father was a reader and belonged to the Book of the Month Club and the Readers Digest Book Club, so we were always getting new books. But this stood out to me because he was enthusiastically awaiting the publication of this particular book. I am pretty sure he picked it up at a bookstore the day it arrived there.

The book was Wake Island Command written by Commander W. Scott Cunningham, the Commanding Officer of the Naval Air Base on Wake Island at the beginning of World War II. The story of the defense of Wake Island is inspiring. Though Cdr. Cunningham ultimately had to surrender the island, Wake Island held out against a much larger Japanese force for nearly three weeks, diverting Japanese resources needed elsewhere. Wake would rightly be called the Alamo of the Pacific.

However, my father was disappointed with the book. Cdr. Cunningham retold the story that had been recorded a number of times. He included additional information about why the Navy’s rescue force turned back when only a day’s sail from the island and why he believed he had to surrender. But there was—once again—virtually nothing about the civilians on Wake Island. There were about 500 servicemen there, mostly Marines, but there were also nearly 1200 civilian construction workers as well. Dad was hoping to find out more about the fate of the civilians there, but Wake Island Command had very little on them.

You see, my father had a first cousin who was a construction worker on Wake. That young man, Frank Miller, Jr., would eventually be taken to Japan as a prisoner where he died in a slave labor camp on the island of Kyushu. Even twenty years later, very little was written about the men taken captive by the Japanese and forced to work under appalling conditions. These were non-combatant construction workers, but the Japanese treated them even more harshly than most of the military POWs.

Finally, there is a book that tells their story. Bonita Gilbert, daughter and granddaughter of two of the men who worked on Wake Island, has done a lot to put together the story of these workers in her book Building for War.

By most estimates, Wake Island is the most solitary island in the world, six hundred miles to the nearest land (in the Marshall Islands). Gilbert gives some background to the American interest in and claims on the island. The first permanent structure there was a Pan American Airways terminal built in 1936 for the Philippine Clipper flights. It was one of the stops in this famous trans-Pacific air route from San Francisco to Manila. (The first plane to do this run was named China Clipper, but because the war had started in China in 1931, the route never actually went to China.)

The book then explains how the Navy became interested in the island’s strategic location and finally persuaded a reluctant Congress to build a base there. A consortium of contractors including Morrison-Knudsen and Bechtel were hired for construction work on a number of Pacific Islands including Wake, Midway, Johnson, Palmyra, and Oahu. This consortium became known as Contractors, Pacific Naval Air Bases, or CPNAB. We learn a lot more about the history of CPNAB and about a number of the men who ended up working on Wake Island beginning in January 1941.

Running parallel with the story of the construction work and the lives of the men and Marines on Wake Island are political details. We can see how things were leading to war, especially after General Tojo took over the Japanese government in October 1941.

Japanese planes out of the Marshall Islands, which had been given to Japan by treaty after World War I, attacked Wake Island four hours after Pearl Harbor. The attack was recorded at December 8 in the United States because both Wake and Japan are on the other side of the International Date Line from Hawaii, but to the Japanese it was the same day.

Gilbert is a good story teller. She uses many quotations from news sources, letters, and diaries to project what it was really like on this bare coral atoll–wind-blown magnolias and morning-glory vines, no palm trees. We can say now that the story of the Wake Island construction workers has been told.

The book tells a lively and sobering story, and it is told from the perspective of the construction team. While she naturally describes the fighting, she does not reinvent the wheel, so she does not go into great detail on that. Books like Cunningham’s or, especially, Facing Fearful Odds by Gregory Urwin do that in much greater detail.

Although she draws out what she can, she also does not go into great detail about the captivity of the workers under the Japanese, except while they were still on Wake Island. There are individual testimonies and books on POWs that do more of that. Probably the two best readable books on the overall Japanese POW experience of allied prisoners are George Weller’s First into Nagasaki and Gavan Daws’ Prisoners of the Japanese. Both books include testimonies of Wake Island civilian prisoners. Many testimonies and archived documents are available online at The Center for Research–Allied POWs under the Japanese at mansell.com.

Still, Building for War makes a major contribution to the story of the Wake workers. It does mention in passing the smaller groups of CPNAB workers captured on Guam and the Philippines (Cavite). It also presents the most accurate list of the 250 CPNAB employees who died during the war: 34 who died in the attacks on Wake, 4 who died on Wake Island in 1942 (3 executions, 1 natural causes), the 98 executed en masse on the island in 1943, and 114 who died in Japanese slave labor and POW camps.

Unlike some of the “official” records, it does include my father’s cousin. For that reason alone, but mainly for telling the story of the CPNAB workers, my father would have loved to have had a chance to read this book.

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