Wake is a small tropical coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean consisting of three islands (Peale, Wake and Wilkes) enclosing a shallow, central lagoon and surrounded by a narrow fringing reef.
From reef to reef, the atoll is approximately 5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. The atoll lies just west of the International Date Line and is about 2,460-miles west of Hawaiʻi, 1,600-miles east of Guam and 700-miles north of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands.
The location of Wake Island made it a strategic location for both the US and Japan. It was recognized that if war broke out between Japan and the US, Wake could: provide for a defensive outpost; enable long range reconnaissance deep into enemy territory; enable the disruption of shipping; serve as staging ground for offensive operations and be utilized as an emergency air station. (Butowsky)
In August 1941, Marine and civilian workers began to construct barracks, defensive fortifications and an airfield. Wake Island was being transformed from a desolate expanse to a formidable military garrison.
In response to receiving coded messages indicating that Pearl Harbor was under attack, at 0650 on December 8 (December 7th Honolulu time,) 1941, a “call to arms” rang out across Wake. Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake was targeted by the forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Wake was defended by about 500-military personnel (about one-quarter of its intended size.) In addition, there were about 1,200-civilian workers on the atoll.
The atoll's defenses included three artillery batteries, each with two 5-inch guns; three anti-aircraft batteries, each with four 3-inch guns; eighteen 50-caliber machine guns; and thirty 30-caliber machine guns, with an insufficient amount of military personnel to operate all of the weapons. (LOC)
Despite the earlier preparations, none of the defensive installations were sufficiently completed by the time of the Japanese attack. (The facilities were estimated to have been only 65-percent finished.)
The first attack was successfully repelled. A secondary attack occurred on December 11, but a small force of American soldiers managed to once again fight the Japanese off.
The island finally fell on December 23, 1941; more than 700-Japanese were killed during the attacks, while only 52-US military personnel lost their lives.
(A sad side story notes that on October 7, 1943 when the Japanese saw subsequent invasion of Wake, Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the execution of the 98-American civilian’prisoners. They were taken to one side of the island and shot with machine guns.)
(One prisoner escaped and carved a memorial into a large rock “98 US PW 5-10-43;” it’s still there. This prisoner was caught and also executed shortly after. After the war, Sakaibara and his subordinate, Lieutenant-Commander Tachibana, were sentenced to hang for this massacre.)
The result of losing the Battle of Wake Island in 1941 was 1,616-Americans being captured and most in turn being evacuated then to Japan and even China. Among the survivors was William Lorin Taylor, a 24-year-old civilian construction worker who was signed on with Morrison-Knudsen Company for a nine-month construction job.
In January 1942, Taylor and hundreds of other civilian and military prisoners were shipped to mainland China in the cargo hold of an ocean liner. After 10-months at a POW camp on the Yangtze River, Taylor was moved to a larger camp nearby, where he spent the next 2 1/2 years.
Taylor and the other prisoners were aware that if US troops invaded Japan and China, the Japanese would likely kill their prisoners, and themselves, before surrendering. Fearing he would die if he didn't escape, Taylor was always on the lookout for a chance to flee. One finally came, when he and his fellow prisoners were loaded onto trains bound for the coast and, eventually, Japan. (Griggs)
“It was May 9, 1945, in Shanghai, China. We were being herded into railway cars like animals. The talk was that we were being transferred to POW camps on the mainland Japan, camps that were notorious for their malicious treatment of prisoners – starving them, beating them, and working them to the bone.”
“I felt that this was not a good move for us. This period of transit was my best – maybe my only – opportunity for escape and perhaps survival. So I made a critical decision in that railway car. Then I pulled out my pliers and got to work”. (Taylor)
"At about eleven o'clock that night, I started working on the window with my pliers. There was a bedroll hung from the roof of the car and this partially shielded the upper half of my body as I worked on the window. Every half hour the guard would count us off.”
“One time when he came in, he shined his light twice on me. He must have become suspicious because the second time, he let it linger on me for awhile. I knew I was in a pretty tight spot and that he was watching me pretty closely, so I just pretended I was getting enough fresh air and then turned around and sat down. When I sat down, the guard turned his light off.” (Taylor)
Aided by fellow prisoners who kept an eye on the guards, Taylor and another man (Jack Hernandez) climbed out the window of a cramped railway car about 1 am and leapt out. The train was moving about 40 mph, and Taylor injured his ankle in the fall. He was lucky; Hernandez broke his leg. Hearing search dogs, Taylor reluctantly left his friend behind and hobbled away alone. (Later, he learned Hernandez had survived the war.)
“I was captured three times. I'm not an especially brave person. And I don't think I really did anything special. I had luck and help.” (Taylor)
Skirting villages, sleeping in wheat fields and aided by kindly peasants, Taylor made his way across China. Once he was captured by Chinese soldiers sympathetic to Japan, but escaped moments later, fleeing on a zigzag course to avoid gunshots.
The next day he was found by Communist Party troops, who he quoted as saying: “You're OK now, we are friends with the Americans.” They ferried him to safety and, eventually, he had a meeting with their leader, Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
The two men had a brief conversation through an interpreter, during which Taylor praised the Chinese people and told Mao he would never forget their kindnesses. Three weeks later, Taylor was back home. Twelve days after that, US dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
Taylor later wrote a book, ‘Rescued by Mao: World War II, Wake Island, and My Remarkable Escape to Freedom Across Mainland China.’ “He was an impressive man,” said Taylor. Of the Communists, he said simply, “They saved my life.” (SF Chronicle)
After the war, Taylor, a devout Mormon, was asked to move to North Las Vegas to be the bishop of the Fourth Ward. He supervised the building of the Fourth Ward Chapel and served as bishop until 1960, when he became president of the Las Vegas North Stake. He also served as Mayor of North Las Vegas from 1961-1968.
Taylor has Hawaiʻi ties. In 1982, he moved to Hawaiʻi, where he continued his construction trade and built 90-homes on Maui (he reportedly lived in Upcountry.) Involved in Boy Scouts wherever he lived, he was board chairman for the Maui Council for Eagle Scouts.
The Boy Scouts of America presented him with the Silver Beaver Award for his work with scouts in Las Vegas, Maui and Provo. The Department of Navy awarded Taylor the Legion of Merit with a V for Valor.
He retired to Utah, his birth state, in the early 1990s. Folks referred to him as the “Flag Man.” (He watched as the Japanese took down the American flag and stomped on it back in 1941. He never forgot that moment; he placed flag poles and American flags at many of the homes in his neighborhood and other homes. (Daily Herald)) William Lorin Taylor was born May 18, 1917; he died May 25, 2011.
The image shows William Taylor with Mao Tse-tung.
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