Just a few hours after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they also attacked Wake Island, a strategic atoll 2,300 miles west of Honolulu.
Aided by civilian contractors there building docks and fortifications, U.S. Marines held Wake for 15 more days before Japanese soldiers overran the island on December 22, 79 years ago. When it fell, they took more than 1,600 prisoners of war, including 1,100 civilians. By the time the war ended in 1945, the Japanese had interned more than 14,000 American civilians from Wake Island, Guam, the Philippine Islands, and other American territories or possessions.
Among the civilians captured at Wake Island were Charles and Leroy Myers of Chico, a father-and-son team heavy equipment operators. Leroy’s civilian status changed shortly after the initial attack on the island, when the U.S. Navy inducted him as a Seaman 1st Class.
Regardless, both men soon found themselves aboard a ship bound for Japan where their captors forced them to work building a dam near Sasebo, on the island of Kyushu.
Leroy Myers told the Modesto Bee in 2013 his story of the abuse and cruelty inflicted upon these POWs by the Japanese. Indeed, civilian POWs represented a facet of the collateral damage of war. They endured beatings, torture, malnutrition, dysentery, and other sicknesses while continuing to work on the dam. When Charles Myers fell seriously ill and could not work, the Japanese threatened to execute him unless Leroy did the work of both men. Leroy did.
Back in Chico, Sylvia Myers lost their family home to foreclosure when the checks to her husband and son stopped coming due to a dispute between the Navy and their civilian contractor employer, Leroy said. Worse yet, because the Japanese prohibited letters to or from home, she never knew whether they were dead or alive. Likewise, only after they returned to the States when the war ended in 1945 did they learn she had died a year earlier.
After Congress passed the War Claims Act of 1948, Charles and Leroy Myers each received 44 months of compensation at $60 per month (Leroy’s monthly pay as a civilian contractor had been $230). The compensation came from Japanese assets seized during the war. In 1981, the civilian POWs also began receiving veterans benefits including health care.
Charles Myers died in the 1950s, his life no doubt shortened by the physical abuse administered by the Japanese. Leroy bought a ranch near Chico, and later lived in Modesto until his death in May of this year.
Ultimately, they were among the fortunate ones who went to Wake Island to make war preparations, and survived to receive war reparations.