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Seeking Fortune at Wake Island, Civilian Workers Found Fame Instead

WWII

Seeking Fortune at Wake Island, Civilian Workers Found Fame Instead

Foreshadowing the citizen soldier armies that augmented regular armed forces, civilian construction workers played a key role in the Wake Island story.

Foreshadowing the citizen soldier armies that augmented regular armed forces, civilian construction workers played a key role in the Wake Island story.

by John Wukovits

Foreshadowing the citizen soldier armies that would so ably augment the regular armed forces and fuel the American military to victory in World War II, the civilian construction workers played a key role in the Wake Island story.

$200 a Month Plus Overtime

Benjamin Franklin Comstock, Sr. and his son, Ben, Jr., Iowans raised in the heartland of America, futilely scoured the Midwest and West in search of carpentry work. In early 1941, the struggling pair read an ad in an Omaha newspaper seeking construction workers for Pacific island military projects. The promise of $200 per month plus overtime enticed the Comstocks to sign a standard nine-month contract, even though it meant they would have to leave the United States.

Hans Whitney’s path also led to Wake Island. Born in 1911, he hopped trains as a teenager to see the United States. He saw the relatively brief stint at Wake Island, with its attractive wages, as the vehicle for achieving his hopes.

“I dreamed of being an independent citizen, depending on the whims of no man for a job,” claimed Whitney. “I had visions of a young businessman driving to work. Saw his wife and kids in a good home, well dressed and well fed, enjoying life to the full.” Wake Island would be his ticket to the great American dream.

The Noise of Land Crabs and Gooney Birds

The Comstocks and Whitney gathered in San Francisco, where they boarded a luxury liner for Hawaii. A leisurely cruise across the Pacific offered food and entertainment on a scale with which none were accustomed, and they received more of the same in Hawaii. “This is the life!” proclaimed Whitney of those magical days.

The three construction workers heard in Hawaii that Wake Island’s hot, rainy climate taxed the endurance of most men, but they dismissed the negative chatter. “I figured I could stand nine months of it,” Whitney explained. “Then, a little business of my own and maybe get filthy rich.”

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A slow 2,000-mile trip to Wake Island ended on October 12, 1941, less than two months before war’s opening. The dismal-looking island presented little of the enchantment provided by Pacific isles of lore, with their sandy beaches, gorgeous palm trees, and exotic birds. Wake offered sandy beaches, but instead of exotic birds, the island resounded to the movement and noise of land crabs and gooney birds. Instead of palm trees, scrawny scrub trees rose no more than 20 feet high. Suffocating heat greeted the men with an oppressive stickiness.

Sudden Changes Ahead

“Suckers! Suckers! Suckers!” yelled a reception party of civilians already at Wake Island. Whitney wondered what he had walked into, then again reminded himself, “Oh well, I can stick it out for nine months, to heck with them.”

Whitney relaxed when he noticed the amenities provided for the workers. A mess hall dispensed the finest of foods, including all the steaks, potatoes, and ice cream a man desired. A fine hospital, a theater, and decent living quarters offered a modicum of comfort.

When rumors of Japanese aggression filtered in, the workers ignored them. Their world abruptly changed when the Japanese military suddenly unleashed its potent assaults.

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