Before There Were SeaBees There Were...

The Civilian Construction Men of Wake Island


The men that history almost forgot

In April of 1942, Paramount Pictures produced “ Wake Island” starring William Bendix, Brian Dunleavy and Robert Preston. It was Hollywood’s very first World War II movie.

The film told the story of “ Wake Island,” a Pacific island outpost that was attacked only hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The severely out-manned and out-gunned Marines held out and fought off almost daily bombing raids, and repelled an invasion attempt only to be overwhelmed by a second one after their sixteenth day of battle. The movie was a huge success not just monetarily, but also for the Marine recruiting program.

The idea for a documentary was considered because the actual events of the last days of Wake in the original 1942 movie were based on conjecture, due to the island having surrendered to the Japanese and all of the combatants having been either killed or captured. For over twenty years, I have had a copy of Major James P. S. Devereaux’s book “ Wake Island,” published in 1947, that gives his account of the battle, as the Marine commander on the island. I realized that the original movie did not do the defenders of Wake justice in portraying their sacrifice and heroism.

During my preliminary research I discovered that there had been over 1,000 civilian construction men on the island. These were the men of CONTRACTOR’S PACIFIC NAVAL AIR BASES, civilian construction men, who had volunteered to build a base on Wake. The concept of Navy construction men, SEABEES, did not exist until after the war started. A great number of these civilian construction men had taken part in the defense of Wake Island either by actually handling weapons or by daily building and rebuilding the defenses of the island. Although, I had known civilians had been on the island, I had not known the extent to which these men had played a part in the defense of Wake or that they had been sent to POW camps alongside the military defenders and spent almost four years as prisoners. Being a student of history, a former Naval aviator and Naval Academy graduate I felt I should have known this, but I didn’t. I felt this story needed to be told. The documentary format was selected, so that people could actually see these men –-the men that history almost forgot.

The documentary was over two years in the making. The film covers: why Wake was important, who these men were and why they went there, as well as what they did, not just during the battle, but before as well. It covers the island commander, Navy Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham; the Marines, Major Devereaux, Major Paul Putnam, Captain Wesley Platt, Lt. Poindexter and Lt. John Kinney to name a few. It, of course, presents the head civilian contractor, Nathan “Dan” Teeters, and several of his men such as Walter “Swede” Hokanson and Dr. Shank.

The documentary does not address their prisoner of war experience. This was at the request of the survivors. At the time they had a lawsuit pending against Japanese manufacturers similar to the one filed by those who had been used as slave labor in Nazi Germany.

My travels to meet Marine and civilian survivors took me to Arkansas, Idaho, California and Hawaii. I made several trips to the National Archives in College Park, MD., and to the National Archives Annex in San Bruno, CA. The Department of the Army now supervises Wake Island and the people there readily lent me their assistance to travel and do filming and research on Wake. Curators at the Air Force museum at Pearl Harbor and the Navy SEABEE museum at Port Hueneme, California, were very helpful. Professor Gregory J.W. Urwin, of Temple University and author of “Facing Fearful Odds: the Siege of Wake Island,” was invaluable.

The defenders of Wake Island, both civilian and military were a pleasure to meet. The youngest man I met was 78 and the oldest was 92. They were all gentlemen and it is with deep sadness that I learned two of them passed away before this documentary was finished. Colonel Arthur Poindexter passed away just four weeks after I interviewed him. Civilian Pete Ingham passed away seven months after his interview.

Lastly, this documentary could not have been made without the assistance of John Stewart of Walther/Stewart and Associates. When I decided to tell this story, he readily signed on, bringing his camera and editing system to help make the story come to life.

It has been an honor to tell this story.

William F. Kauffman

Producer “Those Who Also Served”




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