Building For War: The Epic Saga Of The Civilian Contractors And Marines Of Wake Island In World War II, by Bonita Gilbert
This book reads in many ways like a Greek tragedy. The reader likely comes into a work like this aware in some respect that disaster is looming, even while the people involved–some of whom are engaged in a lot of shady business involving nepotism and personal shenanigans–but still the people involved do not realize that they are in harm’s way until it is too late. There are a lot of different aspects of this book that blend together. For example, the author spends a lot of time discussing the morale of the workers on Wake Island and how they kept up at hard work despite the vagaries of travel and the isolation of the area and the difficulties they had in getting mail in and out of the island. There is a lot of political discussion about not only the politics of appropriations for construction on Wake Island but also the politics of ensuring that Boise, Idaho got a lot of workers on an island that found itself in Japanese sights for the expansion of the Co-Prosperity Sphere, and which led to a predictable if lamentable defeat despite the bravery of the people on the island in resisting Japanese attacks.
This book is a bit more than 300 pages long and is divided into thirteen chapters in three parts. The book begins with a preface, acknowledgements, maps, and introduction. After that the author talks about the plans and preparations made for building on Wake Island, which was not exactly a high priority for the United States during the late depression (I), including a discussion of Wake Island’s location (1), the opportunity allowed to build there (2), the role of Honolulu in the work in the Pacific (3), and the pioneers sent to start work (4). After that there is a discussion of the building of the base on Wake Island (II), which included efforts to speed up work (5), increase what was on the island (6) while dealing with natural disasters, making Wake Island attractive bait for the Japanese (7), and rushing things to completion as the threat of war finally became obvious (8). Finally, the author talks about war (III), with a discussion of the shattered illusions of security (9), the shock waves of Japanese assault (10), the fear felt by those at home as war came to Wake Island (11), the hope of their successful defense (12), and the attrition they suffered in captivity (13), after which there are appendices on postwar Wake Island (i) as well as the civilian contractors (ii), notes, works cited, and an index.
In many ways, though, this book should not be considered to be an epic saga. Most of the book’s material discusses the efforts of the civilian contractors on Wake Island to build a port as well as other facilities on what had been a rocky and barren atoll in the Pacific. This atoll, of course, had (and has) major strategic significance because of its location, but is still an atoll. The same strategic location that made it worthwhile for Americans to work to build on it is what made it a target for Japanese attacks for the same reason, to use it as a base from which to control a part of the Pacific Ocean. And while there are some epic stories of endurance given the resistance the garrison and contractors of Wake Island provided against the Japanese, there is not a lot said, comparatively, about the experience of those Americans who were in captivity who made it through alive at an impressive rate when compared with other American POWs. And there is tragedy here too, related to the fears of the Japanese about what would happen if and when the Americans came back to take over the island, something that in the end did not happen until the very end of the war, as Wake Island was bypassed for other areas and the Japanese ended up suffering extreme privation as a result of their isolation and lack of food.