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Sgt. J. Edward ‘Swede’ Pearsall: The Surrender of Wake Island
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On this day (December 8th) in 1941, Japanese forces attacked Wake Island. After the Americans surrendered, Sgt. Pearsall and his fellow Marines were taken as prisoners of war, and spent 3 ½ years at a prison camp in China during WWII.
Sergeant John Edward ‘Swede’ Pearsall served in the Marines as a part of the 1st Defense Battalion, D Battery on Wake Island in 1941.
Wake Island is located 2,458 miles west of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. knew a Japanese attack was coming, so men were stationed on the island to protect it.
On December 8th, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked Wake Island. The Battle of Wake Island lasted for a little over two weeks until American forces surrendered in order to protect civilian lives.
After the surrender, Sgt. Pearsall and his fellow Marines were almost executed before the Japanese decided to take them as prisoners. They would eventually be taken on a prison ship to Yokohama Harbor, and then transported to Wusong China, where they would spend three and a half years in a prison camp.
At the camp, conditions were brutal. They had little water to drink or bathe with, were beaten often, were not adequately fed, and were forced to do physical labor. During the interview, Pearsall had this to say about the camps:
“Starvation, I found, was the toughest thing. The beatings you took. Almost daily, you took beatings from the Japanese, but you kind of became punch-drunk, so to speak. You expected them and you lived with them. But starvation you don't live with. When you're hungry, you're hungry 24 hours a day. You go to sleep hungry. You wake up during the night hungry, and you're hungry all day. Starvation is one of the toughest things we found to face. The work and labor that they made us do was tough, but the food was totally inadequate for the work and to sustain life. Myself, I went from a 200 pound Marine. When the war ended, I weighed somewhere around 85 pounds, so that when the war finally came to end, there wasn't much left of us. We couldn't have sustained life, under the food we were getting, much longer.”
Finally on Easter Sunday, 1945, American forces arrived and liberated the camp, saving Sgt. Pearsall and his fellow prisoners. Upon arriving home, Pearsall was awarded the Purple Heart.
To learn more about J. Edward Pearsall and the Battle of Wake Island, check out Son of Wake Island. It's written by J. Edward Pearsall's son, David Pearsall, with the help of his father and the other surviving defenders of Wake island.
Sgt. Pearsall is on the right in the picture provided at the top.
Photos of Sgt. Pearsall with the other surviving defenders of Wake Island on their reunion trip in 199
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll be hearing from Sgt. John E. ‘Swede’ Pearsall. Pearsall served as a Marine on Wake Island. Exactly 81 years ago, on December 8th 1941, the Japanese attacked the island, and forced the American defenders to surrender 15 days later. Pearsall was taken as a prisoner of war, and spent 3½ years at a Japanese prison camp in China.
My full name to the Marine Corps is John Edward Pearsall.
I enlisted in October 31st, 1939. After the war in Europe had broken out previous to that date, I decided that we were going to get into war. I might as well enlist in the Marine Corps. At the time, I had just graduated from high school and wasn't positive on what career I wanted to pursue, but felt that we would eventually get into a war. So I enlisted in the Marine Corps.
I went to boot camp in San Diego. From there, we were transferred to Pearl Harbor. Because the situation with the Japanese was deteriorating, our battalion was split up with the outer defense of the Hawaiian Islands, comprising Johnston Island, Palmyra, Wake and Midway. Our battalion was made up of a thousand men, and 200 were sent to each one of the four islands with 200 remaining back in Pearl Harbor.
I came to Wake Island in August, 1941, with the first detachment of Marines coming to the island, comprised of 200 Marines.
Wake Island, when we first came, I thought was a beautiful island. We enjoyed the fishing. We had fantastic fishing, the swimming. But basically we were a work battalion. Our job was to try to prepare the island's defenses, sandbagging in our positions, refueling B-17s coming through here, flying to the Orient. We were basically a work battalion, trying to prepare for a war that we knew was coming.
The morning, Major Devereux was informed by communications that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, I was just prepared to eat my breakfast. I had buttered up a plate of pancakes and was in the mess hall when the alarm went out. The alarm consisted of the whistle from the power station right near us. As I was going out of the mess hall door, I heard the bugler calling us. The bugler wasn't familiar with Call to Arms, and as I was going out the mess hall door, I heard Pay Call blowing on the bugle. I dashed down to our tents. We had five-men tents that we were living in at the time. My first duty was to issue out ammunition. I slept with five cases of .30-06 ammunition under my bunk. My first job was to issue out ammunition to the four other men and myself in the tent. Then we proceeded up to a formation called by Major Devereux and were informed, "This is not a drill. This is a real thing. Pearl Harbor has been bombed." Then by truck, we proceeded out to our various position, my position being with a three inch antiaircraft that we'd previously sandbagged in and so forth on Peale Island.
I was in my position manning the generators. My responsibility was supplying the power and operating the generators that supplied the power to our three inch antiaircraft.
I saw the bombings take place, but because the bombers came in at a low altitude of 1800 feet, coming in out of clouds, our three inch antiaircraft was not very effective on that initial bombing. We put some shells up. We put some, but they were totally ineffective because of the low altitude the Japanese came in on.
Because we were anti-aircraft, we were not involved with the five inch shore batteries that would be the initial weapons that we repelled that landing with. Three o'clock in the morning of December 11th, I was going to a bathroom, but I knew, because I was in communication with the command post because I had sort of a command post as operating generators. I knew that ships had been sighted. I had gone out to go to the bathroom and suddenly a shell went right over the outdoor latrine that we had at our gun positions. That let me know in a hurry that something was up.
Devereux probably made one of the best decisions any commander in the field has ever made. The Japanese started to shell us at three o'clock in the morning, still dark. Because I was in communications with what was going on, the commanding officers, the lieutenants in charge of the five inch shore batteries that we had set up, three shore batteries of five inch guns on the different three points of the islands. The lieutenants at those positions wanted to open fire immediately, but it was unfortunate. The five inch guns were World War I shore batteries. The Japanese ships initially were completely out of range, running up and down with a cruiser with, certainly, heavier guns than we had, but out of range of our five inch guns.
Major Devereux made the decision not to open fire until the complete convoy of ships that were coming ashore to land were within range of our five inch guns. It's probably one of the best decisions any officer in the field had ever made. If that decision hadn't been made and he hadn't stopped those lieutenants from opening fire, I'm sure the Japanese would've got ashore on December 11th.
What happened was the Japanese kept continuing shelling the island, out of range. They felt that there was nothing moving on the island. Everybody one of us was stayed undercover. The Japanese moved their landing forces, their ships, within range of our five inch guns. At that point, Major Devereux ordered the five inch guns to open fire.
I've since questioned some of his things that he has said and some of the things that he's done since the war. When he served in Congress, when he voted against veterans bills and so forth, I questioned, when I contacted him regarding a company safe that I buried just before we surrendered. I questioned some of those things, but as the island commander, I don't question his ability at all.
Cunningham certainly was the senior officer present, but as far as the operations, Major Devereux was in complete command of the defense battalion, which I was a member of. And the overall decisions on the island were made by Commander Cunningham, but the direct defense of the island was the responsibility of Major Devereux.
I was on Peale Island defending. Our three inch anti-aircraft unit was completely wiped out during one of the bombing raids, as a antiaircraft unit. Our director had been blown up. Our defense CO was killed. We were totally ineffective as an antiaircraft, so we became, as all Marines are, infantry.
On December 23rd, when ships were sighted around midnight, I was placed down at the bridge between Wake Island and Peale Island, to defend the bridge in case the Japanese would attempt to cross over to Peale Island. The Japanese were attempting to land out on the reefs to the north of the island. During the night, we could hear their voices, we could hear their talking, and we could see lights out on the reef. But they were unable, because the reef is so far out from the island proper that they were unable to get ashore at that time.
When daylight came, I looked over to Wake Island from Peale Island, looking to the south, and to my amazement, the American flag was down and the Japanese flag was on our water tower. I knew that they had gotten ashore on Wake Island and that we were in for trouble.
My commanding officer, battery commander Captain Godbold, came down to the position I was manning, protecting the bridge, and informed me that I was to take my squads and move over to the command post where Devereux was located, and take a position as infantry, defending and making the last stand on the 23rd, defending Devereux's command post. As I went around the island by truck, going over to where the command post, I looked on the horizon and counted over 25 ships. I knew at the time that things were looking pretty bleak for us few Marines on the island left to defend the island.
After defending the positions that we were set up in, for some hours, Japanese bombers came in, strafing us and dropping bombs. They were the planes off the carriers that had really bombed Pearl Harbor. We could look up in the sky and see at least a hundred planes strafing us at various times. Our VMA-211, our Air Force, had been completely wiped out. We didn't have a flyable plane left, so we were at the mercy of these dive bombers, with no defense against them except a few 50 caliber machine guns. We were running out of ammunition, so the only thing we had to fight with, as far as I was concerned, was a 1903 Springfield bolt action rifle.
Devereux finally made the decision that the situation had gotten deteriorated to such a point, and one of the problems was the communication. He was not able to communicate anymore, because as soon the Japanese came ashore, they cut our communication wires. All we had was sound-power phones with wires stretch across the ground. He lost contact with the other islands and almost complete contact, except with the immediate troops surrounding his command post.
The decision was made by Commander Cunningham, because of the over 1100 civilians that were on the island, that the situation had deteriorated to such a point that they could not continue to sacrifice those civilian contractors workers, because was just a hopeless situation. Had he allowed the battle to continue, certainly a lot of us and a lot of the civilian contractors workers would've been killed. The decision, as I understand it, was made by Commander Cunningham, giving the orders to Major Devereux that the island was to surrender.
Immediately after we were given orders to surrender, also an order was to destroy our weapons. The only weapon I had left was a 1903 Springfield rifle. I took the bolt out of my Springfield rifle and very disgustingly threw it out in the woods. I smashed up my rifle and then proceeded up to the command post, which we were making defensive. Shortly, Japanese soldiers that were surrounding the area ... Major Devereux came out of the command post with a white flag, and the Japanese that surrounded us ordered us to remove all our clothes, and they marched us up to a road alongside the command post.
They took wire that served as our communication wire that was laying on the ground and proceeded to tie us hand and foot, and lined up 50 of us alongside the road. Shortly, machine guns were set up behind us. A Japanese officer climbed on a mound alongside that road, withdrew his sword, and about that time, it started to rain, a typical Wake Island rain squall. Machine guns set up behind us were then covered, and the Japanese officer got off the mound, and things quieted down. As I look back now, back on Wake Island, I again walk that same road. It's just like the day when we were sitting there, when we surrendered. It brought back memories. I thought about how cool, calm, and collected we were, nobody screaming, 50 of us, realizing that an execution faced us.
The rain stopped. The Japanese removed the tarps that they had covered their machine gun with, and the Japanese officer went up on the mound and again withdrew his sword. Suddenly, coming down the road from the south, another Japanese officer came on the scene. The two officers got into a real argument. What had happened, we found out, the commander, Japanese admiral and commander of the landing party, had made the decision changing original orders that prisoners of war would be taken. The first officer that was about to give the command for us to be executed had orders that take no prisoners. New orders came out, and we understand the reason for this was that there were 1100 civilians, contractors people, on the island, and they thought they were just military.
We were untied. We were still naked. Along the way to the airport, we came across areas where other marines had surrendered, so a few of us were able to pick up an item or two of clothing. Now, I'm going back to December. In December, it's a little different than the weather is at this time. The nights were very cool. So as we laid on that airport that first night, it was fairly cold. Then the next day, the sun came out and, of course, got very hot. But in December, nights were very cold.
We were on the airport for two days and two nights. Then we were all marched over to what was known as Camp 2, which was a civilian camp where the civilian workers stayed. We were all placed in some of the still standing barracks in Camp 2. We were kept in those barracks until they evacuated us on the Nitta Maru, on January of 1942.
Unfortunately, the Japanese wanted us to show them how our guns operated. During the interim before we were evacuated, they would take details out and I was on three inch antiaircraft. They would force us to show them how to operate the guns. It was then we decided this is against the rules of war, so we did our best to sabotage. I was instructed, along with a detail, to set up a three inch gun on Peale Island. While we were doing all this, one of us removed the firing pin. As we went back to camp that night, we threw the firing pin out in the wind, in the woods, making the gun completely inoperable. We had some 50 caliber water-cooled machine guns. The Japanese not knowing we didn't hook up the water cooling mechanism, they requested us to fire the guns. The barrels, without the water cooled mechanism, melted, again making the guns useless for future use of the Japanese. After this sabotage work we did, they quit forcing us to go out and show them how to operate our guns.
Approximately January 12th, 1942, the Nitta Maru showed up. It was a former luxury liner of the Japanese. We were hauled by lighter and by tugboat out to the Nitta Maru. Amazing part of the situation is the landing force Japanese troops that initially captured us and held us prisoner from the time we surrendered until January, treated us fairly well. The Japanese do respect military. We had given them a terrific battle, and they did respect us for that reason. But when we went aboard to Nitta Maru, we were placed under a whole new Japanese forces, a Japanese navy.
As we went aboard the ship, we run the gauntlets, so to speak. The Japanese were standing in line, marching us aboard, and just beat us unmercifully with clubs and rifle butts and so forth, for no reason at all, but just to show us, I guess, what our future life was going to be like as prisoners of war. As I proceeded down the hallway, the Japanese struck me from behind with his butt, and knocked me down. One of the things we learned was never get knocked down, because once you get knocked down, the Japanese would then beat you unmercifully. But it was unfortunate. I got knocked down, and the Japanese soldier began beating me with his rifle. I rolled away from him as best I could, over to the opening in the hold of the ship that we were being held in, and fell 14 feet down to the bottom of the hold. I was injured, my back, from the beatings and everything else, but it was very unusual and unfortunate for another marine. The beating I'd taken coming aboard to Nitta Maru was later to save my life when we were in Yokohama.
We proceeded on the prison ship to Yokohama Harbor, which was our first stop. While we were anchored in the harbor, a Japanese officer came down into the hold along with a number of soldiers, and immediately ordered some men out of the hold. I was the first person picked to follow the Japanese officer. Because of the beatings and having fallen 14 feet into the hold of the ship, I was hardly able to stand. A Japanese soldier beat me and tried to force me up the ladder, up out of the hold of the ship, but I just couldn't make it and I fell back down on the deck. But it was unfortunate for the man laying next to me. He was chosen. They took five prisoners out of the hold of that ship and brought them up on deck. It was later that we were to find out after the war, during the war crimes trials, that those five men were all beheaded by the Japanese. The Japanese lieutenant read a statement to the men before they were executed. "You have killed many Japanese in your battle on Wake Island. For that, you are representing your military. For this reason, you are now going to your place in heaven."
They were executed and their bodies badly mutilated by bayonets and pushed over the deck of the Nitta Maru, into the ocean. We did not learn about this brutal execution until after the war and during the war trials, war crimes. The Japanese who was witness to the execution gave the whole complete story to the war crimes war trial committee.
Our next stop was Wusong, China, which was to be our home for the next three and a half years. The first winter in China was brutal. We came off of Wake Island with strictly summer uniforms, suddenly being placed in a winter climate. But fortunately, us being near Shanghai, we got Red Cross help and our life became a little more bearable. We didn't have enough water to drink, let alone bathe with, at first, but the Red Cross did a tremendous job in supplying us with soap and showers and so forth. So life became a little more bearable. But the Japanese found that they could put us to work, and we moved 100,000 yards of dirt all by hand. As it were, years went on. We became very discouraged. The starvation, I found, was the toughest thing. The beatings you took… Almost daily, you took beatings from the Japanese, but you kind of became punch-drunk, so to speak. You expected them and you lived with them. But starvation you don't live with. When you're hungry, you're hungry 24 hours a day. You go to sleep hungry. You wake up during the night hungry, and you're hungry all day. Starvation is one of the toughest things we found to face. The work and labor that they made us do was tired and tough, but the food was totally inadequate for the work, and to sustain life. Myself, I went from a 200 pound Marine. When the war ended, I weighed somewhere around 85 pounds, so that when the war finally came to end, there wasn't much left of us. We couldn't have sustained life, under the food we were getting, much longer.
I guess we were Americans. We knew that somehow, in some way, we would get back to good ole USA and that we would win the war. Some of the people, some of the prisoners' morale got low, but most of us ... But as the years progressed, I'll admit, our faith went downhill. But suddenly B-29s showed up on the horizon, in the spring of 1945, and our morale went up, of all of us, went up tremendously. And we knew the war wouldn't last too much longer.
Then on Easter Sunday, 1945, American landing were being taking place at Okinawa. The Japanese were smart. They placed our camp between two airports. Suddenly, at treetop level, P-51s came in and wiped out 121 Japanese planes at the two airports. It was the most tremendous boost to our morale to finally see American planes and knowing that the war was progressing in our favor, finally. Certainly, news was limited in our camp, but we had an idea things were turning around. Certainly, seeing those P-51 shooting down the Jap bombers as they tried to take off from the two airports was a tremendous boost to our morale.
When we returned to Wake Island, we knew it would be an emotional occasion, but I was determined that I was going to come back to experience, certainly, these emotions, but to see a part of an island that certainly was very much a part of our lives as a young man, as a member of the Marine 1st Defense Battalion, and to relive some of the experiences that we lived at the outbreak of the war, and the duty we had here before the war on the island. We loved the little island. The weather was perfect. The fishing was good. The duty was tough. We had a lot of work to do preparing for war, but we enjoyed the island before the war started. I wanted to come back to, again, relive some of those experiences, certainly, that are very emotional, but also to see our little island out in the Pacific. I just wanted, again, to relive those experiences and to walk these shores of our little island and to again visit the gun positions again, certainly to try and again recover the company safe that I buried before we surrendered.
The reason for us being here at this time was to help the civilian contractors workers to dedicate a monument to those civilians that died on the island. About, approximately, 100 feet from the Marine Corps memorial that was placed back in 1954 and all the new memorial to the civilian contractors workers, approximately, 100 feet from there was our command post, and just beyond that, the road that we were placed on as prisoners of war and almost executed by the Japanese. But the coming of the rain at that time and seeing the TV people that were TVing the memorial dedication ceremony covering their cameras with plastic, suddenly brought back memories that the rain came when we were lined up along the road just 100 feet away. I looked over at that same spot at some 40 years ago, after the surrender in December 23rd, 1941. And memories came back. Just unbelievable memories of that day when it started to rain, and the rain actually saved our lives and gave us time till orders were changed. It was just an unbelievable experience to have the rain, the cameras being covered. Just brought back memories and just upset my whole system, just to experience this almost somewhat the same identical conditions that happened on December 23rd, 1941. It brought back just memories that you can't believe. Suddenly, tears came to my eyes. Suddenly, it was very emotional. I thought back of those days and that day, 1941, December 23rd, when the Japanese were preparing to execute us and the rains came in time to save our lives.
None of us are getting any younger. Coming back at this point, at our age and our physical condition, was probably the last chance we'll ever see again to revisit and go over the memories that Wake Island holds for us. Certainly, it's very emotional. It's true. An experience I had today at the memorial was very emotional to me. I'm sure other people that weren't here and didn't experience the things we did wouldn't realize what the ceremony out there meant to those of us that survived the prison camp and the Battle of Wake. But it was something I wanted to do, I was bound and determined to do, to, for last time, come back and visit our little island that meant so much in our lives, as a young man.
We were walking on the beach of Peale Island. Wake is comprised of three islands. Peale Island was the island that my battery that I served under was station. Yesterday, we walked the beaches where our battery was located, not only our battery but the five inch shore batteries were located. I was in three inch antiaircraft. That was the area where our first batteries were located and where we first started our defense of the island. It was important to walk those beaches again and relive what it was like for us, back after Pearl Harbor and when bombers start coming in, and to relive the fear and certainly the overcoming of that fear so that we could again act and do the job we were set out to do as Marines and try to defend the island in the best way we knew how.
I was walking with Roger Banford. Roger Banford was just a young kid, you might say, when the war broke out. He'd lied about his age. 16 years old. He served in the same battery that I did. Roger and I, of course, went through the war and the prison camp together. So we really, again, were reliving what it was like some 40 years ago when we served in the three inch antiaircraft battery that we were attached to, and to walk on those same spots that we were on when the war broke out.
When we get together and we have reunions and so forth, a lot of times, we talk basically about the humorous things that happened in prison camp life. We very seldom talk about the things, the beatings, the worst conditions. Certainly, as Americans, we're kind of different, say, than ... We were lived with British and Italians and so forth. We're kind of a happy-go-lucky lot. We pulled many tricks on the Japanese and did many things that were humorous. When we get together for reunions, it's amazing. We remember the humorous side of being a prisoner of war, and there was some humor to it. There weren't all times bad. We did many tricks, and we talk about the tricks we used to pull on the Japanese, how we used to steal food and different things to subsist with. That's the reason for getting together. We don't see each other very often. We're from all over the United States. We seldom see each other. We have our reunions, and it's the time to relive a different life than you'll normally live, that we live now. Certainly, our life and the battle on Wake Island and life in prison camp, it was a totally different existence and experiences we had then. It's just a joy to get together and to rehash some of our old experiences.
Wake Island played important part of history. I know my father was a doctor, went to War, World War I, and operated a field hospital in France. As a young man growing up, I didn't ever hear my father talk about it. Today, in our experiences here and the press that's covering our experiences that we had on Wake Island as prisoners of war is all being documented for my children and my grandchildren and for history. My father had tremendous experiences that he could have talked to me about, but I have no documentation. As a doctor in the field hospital, in France, in World War, I would love to hear about my father's experiences, but today we had sons and daughters and people who were on Wake Island are here today and reliving some of the experiences their fathers went through when they served on Wake Island. I think this is tremendous for these people, the sons and daughters and relatives, to come back and relive some of the experiences we had here on Wake Island, and to talk about it. Certainly, the people doing the documentation are doing a fantastic job for history, because we're not young anymore. Our memories are getting bad, and if we don't do it now, it will never be preserved for history. Certainly, the part that Wake Island played at the beginning of the war was important in history and should be documented.
That was Sgt. ‘Swede’ Pearsall.
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