After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the American people instantly began to dread the fight ahead. The heroic defense of a tiny island in the Pacific, attacked only hours later, helped to boost morale by proving that it might be possible to defeat the powerful empire of Japan.
But it was not without cost.
After the surprise assault on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese swept across the western Pacific and attacked American military installations in China, the Philippines and Guam. They also set their sights on a tiny speck of coral 2,000 miles west of Honolulu known as Wake Island.
A small contingent of U.S. Marines and a handful of soldiers and sailors occupied Wake Island, along with approximately 1,200 civilian contractors who were constructing military bases. Darwin “Dar” Dodds was a 22-year-old Idaho native sent to the area in 1941 by the construction company Morrison-Knudsen.
“We heard that the salary there was about three times what it was in the states,” Dodds told retired Lt. Col. Oliver North, a FOX News contributor. What Dodds didn’t know was that his short contract would become a four-year ordeal that included a struggle for survival as a prisoner of war under the Japanese.
Although the island was the western-most American possession in the Pacific, there was little concern about an attack before the war began.
“Even the Marines … weren’t concerned. If there was going to be any trouble in the Pacific, everybody assumed it would be the Philippines or somewhere in the Far East,” said John Wukovits, military historian and author of “Pacific Alamo: The Battle for Wake Island.”
But, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese combined fleet, saw the tiny atoll as a strategic stepping-stone to the American held islands of Midway and Hawaii. Within hours of learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the inhabitants of Wake Island saw the first bombs dropped by Admiral Yamamoto’s fleet.
Joe Goicoechea, another Idahoan working on the island recalled the confusion: “The bombs were dropping all around you. Your head was rattling. I mean rattling.”
During the two-week siege that ensued, many of the civilians volunteered to help the sorely outnumbered Marines. “They didn’t have enough men to fire the machine guns and the anti-aircraft and the five inch guns. They had to depend on the civilians,” Dodds said.
On December 23, 1941, after a legendary stand, the remaining American defenders had no choice but to surrender as 1,200 Japanese troops stormed Wake Island. The American civilians and the Marines now faced death.
“Of course, we thought … they were just going to take us out and shoot us,” Lt. John Kinney of Squadron VMF-211 remembered.
“Finally, this little Japanese interpreter got up on the platform and announced something like, 'Tokyo has demanded that we not kill all of you,'” recalled Dodds.
As their struggle as POWs began they didn’t know that their fierce defense had already become an inspiration to an uncertain American public.
The Japanese knew the well-trained Marines and highly skilled civilians would be useful as slave labor. As they prepared to ship the men to China, Dodds and Goicochea learned that some of their co-workers would not be making the trip. In the end, the Japanese decided to leave 98 Americans behind on Wake Island to help complete work on the base facilities.
The POWs slated to leave the island were rounded up on January 12, 1942, to board the transport ship Nita Maru. Dar Dodds should have been heading home. “My contract on Wake Island was up that very day. They put me on the Nita Maru, which was a hell ship,” he said.
The American prisoners were taken to Japanese occupied China where they joined 203 other Marines captured in northern China. Though their captors beat them day in and day out they never lost hope. Lt. Kinney remembered the torture: “They had clubs and they beat you with the clubs. They beat almost everyone.”
[Ed. Note: Click in the box on the above right to listen to a rare recording of Marine Cmdr. James Devereaux describing his imprisoned troops' enduring pride.]
Meanwhile, the 98 civilians ordered to remain on Wake Island endured bombings as the Americans took aim at the Japanese garrison, which was now under the command of Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara. On October 6, 1943, Sakaibara became incensed by the continuing U.S. attacks and took his revenge on the 98 American prisoners.
“He took them down to the beach and had them all gunned down,” said historian John Wukovits.
Those Wake Island defenders shipped to camps in the Far East suffered from slave labor seven days a week and rampant disease. Of the 1,462 taken into captivity, 231 died.
Those still alive inside Japan became inadvertent targets of Allied bombers once the Japanese Empire began to collapse. Goicochea recalled: “I was in Tokyo and we were totally blown out. I don’t know how many B-29s … but big explosions came down.”
On August 15, 1945, word came that the emperor of Japan had ordered his troops to surrender. After 1,323 days of captivity in unimaginable conditions, the war was over and the POWs could look forward to going home.
Recalling how he survived, Dar Dodds said: “I made up my mind, I’m going to get home to that wonderful country. So, I did.”
Click in the video box near the top of the story to watch a clip from this weekend's episode of "War Stories with Oliver North, The Battle for Wake Island" and tune in Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT on the FOX News Channel.