I opened my eyes, realizing vaguely that some change in the sound of the four big recip engines driving the aircraft had jarred me awake. Still half asleep, I took a casual glance out the window, expecting to see the Pacific 20,000 feet below, deep blue water glinting in the final rays of the setting sun.
Suddenly, I was wide awake. Instead of deep blue water lying thousands of feet below, I saw angry green waves topped by white froth not more than a hundred feet below the aircraft.
Running in a crisscross pattern visible in the fast fading light, angry looking waves 5 or 6 feet high battled an 8-foot swell running at right angles to them. It was no sea for a watery crash landing, I thought as I saw we were descending fast, apparently headed for the drink.
My ears attuned to the sound of the engines, I twisted my neck and pasted my face tight against the window so that I could see as far forward as possible in hopes of spotting land up ahead somewhere.
No luck. Not a speck of anything dry did I see.
I started to turn to the young lieutenant sitting next to me to ask him if the pilot had made an announcement while I was asleep, but right at that moment there was a sudden jar beneath the aircraft. It lifted slightly and then dropped. A familiar sound met my ears, the sound of wheels touching down on solid asphalt. I breathed a sigh of relief.
But incredibly enough, as I continued to stare out the window I could see nothing except angry green waves, now frothing at the same level as our landing gear. But at last, a thin slit of sandy beach appeared, slowly widening as I felt the engines reverse. A minute later I glimpsed the edge of a narrow runway.
I eased back in my seat and thought it over for a minute, then I turned and asked the lieutenant, “You ever landed here on Wake before?”
I smiled as he answered. He looked as shook up as I had felt just a moment before. “Uh-uh,” he told me, looking very relieved. “Not much of a runway, is it?”
And it wasn’t. Later, after I had checked in and found myself a bunk in the intransit quarters, an old tin World War II quonset hut, I took a stroll out along the runway. It was no wonder I hadn’t seen it as we descended. It was as narrow as they come, extending far out into the sea, a narrow strip of rubber-streaked asphalt with virtually no land on either side of it.
That night, by the light of a full moon which was fast setting, leaving me little time to do anything, I strolled the island. It was a short stroll. Wake was an atoll, a few scraps of sandy soil barely holding its head above the sea, stretched around a shallow lagoon. With the other two or three bits of land that made up the atoll, the whole thing, totaled two or three square miles. But I could see nothing of the other bits, and I covered the one I was on in less than half an hour.
The year was 1958, but the signs of the raging battles fought during World War II were still everywhere. Shallow pits in deep sand looked like, and no doubt were, the remains of craters from bombs the Japanese had rained down upon the island. Other shallow depressions contained bits and pieces of decaying wood, sun-rotted sand bags, and twisted pieces of rusting iron.
“Gun emplacements,” I told myself, trying to picture what it might have been like to man one of them.
Offshore, poking eerily out of foaming waves by the light of the moon, loomed the rotting hulk of a Japanese ship of some kind. Here and there along the crests of low sand hills I could just make out the fading outlines of interlacing trenches and signs of heavier gun emplacements that wind and rain were fast eradicating.
In one place I came across an area strewn with heavy timbers, some of them badly splintered or snapped in two. A few of them were still bolted or nailed together. Piecing the debris together in my mind I came up with a wooden tower, perhaps an aircraft spotting tower downed by Japanese bombs. A close look at a timber in the moonlight revealed that it was riddled with bullet holes.
As I finished my circumnavigation of the small sandy atoll I came across something that puzzled me for a while, a straight trough perhaps a hundred feet long made of boards nailed together at right angles. It was close to the intransit quarters and in good repair, but it made no sense at all to me until I inspected it closely in the rapidly fading moonlight and saw that an iron pipe ran down its center and that the boards were painted with aluminum paint. A solar hot water heater, I decided. Daytime only, of course. Low tech, but doggone clever. Typical Yankee ingenuity.
We spent less than 12 hours on Wake, taking off early in the morning while the approaching day was still a faint yellow threat low down on the eastern horizon. And we made only one slow turn across the atoll before we headed for Guam, our final destination, but it was enough for me to see a pitifully small chain of sandy islands dotted around a shallow lagoon.
I guess everybody has seen the film, “Wake Island,” and everyone has read about the fight for the tiny island, or been told about it in history class, but that silent stroll around the island taught me something I had to learn firsthand.
Looking at that chunk of windblown sand I wouldn’t give you 10 cents an acre for it. There’s nothing there. Nothing. Except one thing: Pride.
A lot of Americans fought and died on that small pile of sand, holding out against overwhelming odds for a long time, slowing down the Japanese advance, and even managing to sink that ship out there with a small gun. Go there some day if you can. Look around. Ask yourself how you would feel if you were put there, in a place where there was no escape and no possible hope of relief, only a job to be done against incredible odds.
The Greatest Generation? Yeah! The Greatest Generation!