This Day In History: The Japanese Murder 98 American Prisoners on Wake Island (1943)

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On this day in 1943, a war crime was committed in the Pacific War.  On this date, 98 American prisoners of war were killed  in cold-blood by the Japanese Imperial Army.

Early in the war the Japanese had launched a Blitzkrieg across the Pacific and seized many islands and atolls. One of the Japanese main targets was Wake Island. This was one of the key points in the American defenses in the Pacific Theatre and the Japanese army attacked the island in December 1941. However, the Americans on the island put up a tough fight and unlike elsewhere the Japanese faced a lot of resistance. The Japanese could not wrest the small island from the brave American defenders and they were forced to send in more men and equipment to take the island. Eventually the Japanese with their overwhelming numbers were able to capture the island. Many Americans died during the defense of the island and their bravery has been recognized since.  The USpersonnell who survived the battle were taken prisoners and they were kept captive on the island. The Japanese army did not recognize the Americans as POWs and they treated them terribly. The US prisoners should have been treated with dignity according to the Geneva Convention but instead they were beaten and starved. By 1943 the tide of war was turning against the Japanese and the American’s were retaking islands all across the Pacific. Increasingly Wake Island which was garrisoned by a large Japanese force was targeted by US air-raids. The Japanese were increasingly anxious and fearful and their supplies were running low.

OFFICIAL U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO 133087
The Japanese Commander who ordered the execution is show signing the document at a surrender ceremony in 1945.

The commander on Wake Island Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara,  came to the belief that the American prisoners were a danger to the Japanese. He believed that they were in secret contact with the US military and they were providing them with the information that they needed in order to target Japanese targets on Wake Island. This was despite the fact that the Americans did not have any access to telecommunication equipment and had no means of contacting US forces. As a result of his suspicions he orders the execution of the Americans prisoners, claiming they were trying to make radio contact with U.S. forces.

It may be quite possible that the Rear Admiral only made up the story about the prisoners in order to justify their murder. He may have had them executed because if the island was invaded they could have helped the Americans and also they may have been murdered in order to conserve the Japanese stockpile of food, that was running low.

The execution of the 98 remaining American prisoners on Wake Island, who were blindfolded and shot in cold blood, remains one of the most vicious episodes of the war in the Pacific. It was not an isolated incident as many more American and allied troops were also killed in cold blood or treated brutally in prison camps.

The Japanese surrendered on Wake Island only at the end of the war in 1945.

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