Wake Island was attacked on the same day as Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 (December 8th on Wake Island across the International Date Line). A few months later, on August 11th, 1942, Paramount Pictures released the war propaganda film Wake Island.
To help us separate fact from fiction in the movie, we’ll be chatting with Professor Gregory J. W. Urwin from Temple University. Gregory is a military historian who has written two fantastic books about Wake, including Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island, which is a book that many consider to be the definitive account of the battle.
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Dan LeFebvre 02:47
In the opening text, the movie explains that the action was recorded as accurately as possible, but the characters are fictional. I like that because movies don’t usually admit that these days. So the main characters that we see in the film consist of the guy in charge of wake Major kaiten, the government contractor shad McCloskey and the troublemakers private Randall and Doyle. I’m assuming they’re all fake, since that’s what the movie says. So who were the real people on Wake Island?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 03:13
Well, let me run down the roster major Jeffrey artillery, Katyn, played by Brian donlevy represented major James PS Devereaux, who was the commanding officer Wake Island detachment, first defense Battalion, and he got to wake on October 12 1942. A couple months after the first Marines arrived, in fact, and then the person he meets on the plane flying in shad McCloskey that Albert Decker played. He represents the general superintendent for contractors Pacific Naval Air basis, this was a part of a civilian conglomerate, and they were engaged in an 11th hour effort to transform wayk into a naval base. That man was Nathan de Gan teeters. He got to wake long before the Katyn character he arrived on at Wake on January 10 1941, with the first 77 men in his in his workgroup to kind of get things started. The senior naval officer in the movie commander Roberts played by Walter Abel, that represented commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, who was the island commander, he was actually the guy in charge. He was put in charge and Naval Air Station Wake Island after is activated because he was a naval aviator and that was the law back then only naval naval aviators could command Naval Air stations here I did wake right before the war on November 28 1941. The head marine pilot Captain bill Patrick played by Damien O’Flynn, leprechaun represents major Paul a Putnam, the commanding officer of marine fighting Squadron or Vmf 211, who got to wake on December 4 1941, the ace pilot is portrayed in the movie by McDonald’s carry, closest thing that I can think of in the squadron was a captain Henry t rod, who also arrived at Wake with major petroleum on the fourth of December, he will receive a post the Medal of Honor for his valor in the fight for awake. And then we got a two enlisted Marines private Joe Doyle play by Robert Preston, private Aloysius, Casey Maxi Randall way and Bendix. They’re the comic relief and you know they’re played is Brooklyn bums. I interviewed about 80 of the men who defended Wake Island in the real battle and most of them Marines that I that I interviewed. And if the film really wanted to have been accurate, at least one of these guys would have been a southerner. Because a large contingent were Texas boys, refugees from the Oklahoma Dustbowl and things like that Louisianans. What have you? I mean, they, they’re Marines from all over the all over the country. But But southerners if they weren’t a majority, they made up about half of the enlisted men. Oh, wow. Okay. Yeah, I didn’t get that from the movie at all. But I just assumed that those two privates were worth the comic relief. Right. And so I didn’t expect much reality there. Yeah, right.
Dan LeFebvre 06:23
The way the movie sets up Wake islands defenses. It says the Marines landed in June of 1941. there and then by October, there were six five inch naval guns 12 three inch anti aircraft guns. 12 Grumman F4F3 Wildcats and 385 total soldiers of the first defense battalion US Marine Corps. Is that a pretty accurate description of the defenses at Wake?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 06:50
Overall, the first Marines arrived between August 19 and 21st 1941. It took a couple days for them to get off their transport with their heavy weapons and gear because the seas were rough. There were 170 men and five officers. And then more contingents will arrive in in the months between then and the outbreak of the war actually wakes human population as of December 7 1941, it totaled 1742. And they were in three communities. 1218 of these guys were civilians. 1146. So 1100 worked for contractors specific naval air bases, so those were the civilian workmen. Then Pan American Airways, which converted awake into a stop for its specific clipper route, big flying boats that flew between San Francisco and Manila, Manila. pan-am established its presence on wake in 1935 1936. There were 72 people working for Pan American 27 of them were American Caucasians and the rest about 45 were chamorros from Guam who are working as domestics and gardeners and things like that, the military contingent numbered 524 there were 389 members of the Wake Island detachment first defense battalion. So these were US Marines and also some one Navy surgeon and some attached medics. And then the fighter squadron which got their ground crew came in on November 28. And the pilots flew in on the fourth from the USS Enterprise 12 pilot officers and 50 US Marines. And then the US Navy had 10 officers and 58 sailors, 12 sailors, man the small boats that helped to ferry supplies from calling transport ships ashore, we really didn’t have a harbor. And then the rest belong the Naval Air Station Wake Island, which was waiting for the aircraft that would operate from there. And then finally the US Army Army Air Forces had one officer and five soldiers on wake, the United States military was engaged in another one of these 11th hour efforts to fly be 17th to the Philippines and want to get more than 300 there to act as a deterrent to try to frighten the Japanese and they’re not starting a war. And the route that they flew, included a stop at wait. So they station the six army personnel there to man the radio and the homing signal to make sure that these flights got through safely on their way to Port Moresby and then up to the Philippines. I think the movie mentioned that briefly the pan-am connection there with with the civilian side there. So I’m assuming then, the militarization of wake was relatively recent, like the movie seems to imply it doesn’t start until 1941. Because of isolationism, etc. There’s entrenched opposition in Congress to do anything that might antagonize the Japanese, but the military have been planning to do this all along. Secretly they sent naval engineers out with pan-am construction crews to survey the place because they knew if pan-am could operate they’re flying boats. They’re big Martin and Boeing flying boats out of wakes lagoon then a squadron of Navy PBYs that was the long range maybe flying boats they used to scout planes could operate there to check Admiral husband he Kimmel who was commanding the Pacific Fleet on the eve of the war. He wanted to station 1851 Marines on week 760 sailors, two fighter squadrons that’s 36 planes, one squadron of pvy so another 18 planes, half a squadron of dive bombers, nine planes, half a squadron a torpedo bombers, Kimmel did send wake the full allotment of artillery that a marine defense battalion was supposed to have. So those six naval five inch guns and 12 three inch anti aircraft guns, also six giant search lights case, the Japanese attacked at night 80% of the machine guns that a marine defense battalion was supposed to have. So we have 1850 caliber Eddie aircraft, machine guns, 3030 caliber machine guns, but by the time the war breaks out, less than 159 of the Marines, the Marines that were supposed to operate all those weapons were present on wake. So they’re not under gunned but they’re undermanned.
Dan LeFebvre 11:22
Okay, so they sent all the equipment just not all the men.
Gregory J. W. Urwin 11:24
Yeah, well, that was kind of like, you know, it’ll be there when they get there, you know, more or less. Yeah.
Dan LeFebvre 11:29
Well, you mentioned the two guys arriving. And I wanted to ask you about that because in the movie, the civilian contractor, Mr. McCloskey, he arrives on the island, the same time as major Katyn. But even before they get on the island, while they’re on the plane on the way there, we can see they’re butting heads, they don’t really seem to get along. And then of course, that turns into a character arc that gets resolved by the end of the film. Were there any disputes like this that we see between the Marines on wake and the civilians who were there?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 11:56
Well, as I indicated earlier, Dad teeters who’s in charge of the civilian contractors. He got to wait 10 months ahead of major Devereaux and as far as butting heads was concerned, that really didn’t happen. teeters and as contractors, as the civilian workmen were called, they devoted their time to transforming Wake Island into a base for sea planes, PB wise, I mentioned land planes, and submarines. And in addition to building runways and sea plane and submarine channels, and administrative offices and workshops, and a mess hall and barracks that the military would eventually occupied were supposed to eventually occupy. They use bulldozers to create a road network around way. One thing that the movie does convey was that they were on a strict schedule. Military wanted them out of there by the spring of 1942. So they’re moving as quick as they can they put a premium the contractors do on speed. And workers were offered time and a half for overtime. And remember, we’re coming out of the Great Depression. So these guys are hungry for money. That’s why they’re on weight to begin with opportunities for promotion, training and skilled trades close to many workers on the American mainland, you might not get admitted to the electricians union in the States because work is scarce. But if you come out to wake, we will train you and certify you as an electrician or a plumber. What have you. And if you stay that standard contract was nine months. If you if you’re there for four months and you don’t break your contract and demand to be let go get a bonus or raise every month. Deborah’s Marines on the other hand, they were tasked with in placing and fortifying their heavy weapons and other equipments, the search lights the artillery, and establishing command posts to handle defense, battalion communications. What I’m trying to say, to make it succinct is that the Marines and the contractors worked on different parts of the atoll. They weren’t bumping into each other. But the contractors, they were equipped with state of the art construction equipment, bulldozers, drag lines, power tools, dynamite and giant harbor dredge. The Marines had to do all their work with picks and shovels. And that was particularly difficult because wakes geology can be roughly described as a thin layer of sand, maybe a cup a couple of feet of bright white coral sand, covering a rock hard coral shell like hardest concrete quite in the men who, who worked there. So the marine positions when the war comes, they stood largely above ground and had to be protected by sticks and back walls which had to be filled by hand. So the Marines they see the the contractors have all this monitor equipment, you know, and they resented the fact that they’re working with more primitive tools. And they also resented the fact that that the contractors one way to keep them on this isolated a toll, which back then was like living on the moon. They had the best of food, their mess hall operated 24/7 and they were being served steaks and all kinds of protein to keep them working. The Marines their cooks were lousy, according to all accounts, and there were often a supply shortages. snarl ups with the transports coming from Pearl Harbor. So they had to subsist on what they called canned rations. bully beef from World War One hardtack. Or salami, which the Marines called horse****. Just they had that for Thanksgiving and in the country, just having Turkey, but the Marines had something that the civilians craved. Contractors, naval Pacific air bases, or contract specific naval air bases and, excuse me, for bad its personnel on wake. Access to women. Alcohol and narcotics was pretty much the same for the Marines but they got something that the contractors didn’t when their supply ships came through the carry cans a 3.2 beer. So the Marines got some alcohol. Now, why is this pertinent? Well, Admiral Kimmel, you know, he knew he only had a limited number of Marines and there was a chance that Japanese might attack when he didn’t have enough Marines on wake. You know, he’s afraid that the Japanese would pounce before weight Kevin’s full garrison. So his plans mentioned the possibility of using civilians, some of whom were veterans of World War One to fill out marine gun crews. Now I haven’t seen an order from him to this effect, but right after the Marines land on wake, in August 1941, they began offering heavy weapons courses to contractors. During the latter spare time, what red blooded American boy wouldn’t like to learn how to fire a 50 caliber machine gun. But to sweeten the deal, they say you’ll get beer. And 150 to 225. contractors will attend these training sessions and get you know, a couple cans of 3.2 beers a reward when the war breaks out 186 contractors that I can count, some of them in fact, many of whom didn’t take the pre war weapons lessons, but they volunteered to serve alongside the Marines in their various gun positions and at least 250 more found ways to support the American garrison. teeters released his construction equipment and supplies to assist with the fabrication of bomb proof dugouts, you know, digging deep, civilians with mechanical backgrounds joined the ground crews in the Marine Fighter Squadron. Other contractors would belt machine gun ammunition after you fired away it had to be rebuilt it often by hand they filled sandbags. They fabricate provocated, camouflage and portable barbed wire barriers. They built latrines and they also replenished ammunition supplies at marine gun positions. Finally, teachers organized a catering service that delivered hot appetizing meals prepared by his civilian chefs to every marine battle station twice a day. So once the guns go off, the Marines start getting really good food.
Dan LeFebvre 18:03
Going back to the movie, there’s a scene where we see a Japanese diplomat named Mr. Saburō Kurusu stopped by wake and he’s he says he’s on his way to Washington to deliver a message of peace. And of course, we know from history, there was that your message that was delivered to the government, actually, after Pearl Harbor was attacked? Did he stopped by Wake Island first?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 18:27
Yeah, Saburō Kurusu was a Japanese diplomat who was friendly with Americans liked Americans. And so he was sent as a as an envoy to Washington as things were getting tense a sensibly to try to avoid war and I think he really believed that was his mission. But he flew out via panamerican. And the clipper stopped it wake and he was it was a hotel there. So he overnighted with the other passengers, but there was a banquet or a dinner presided over by commander Cunningham and some of the other senior American officers and Kurusu said, I’m going to try and prevent a war going to do everything I can. I think it’s a mistake that we should have a war and I’ll get other orders when he arrives in Washington. But in the movie, of course, you know, Americans are still angry at this time about the sneak attack, as we called it on Pearl Harbor. So Kurusu is played as a slimy guy who knows he’s lying and trying to love the Americans into a false sense of security.
Dan LeFebvre 19:28
Yeah, that was definitely what I got from that too. But it does make sense just knowing the timing of the movie coming out a year after the events, that that’s still going to be fresh on everybody’s minds for sure.
Gregory J. W. Urwin 19:40
Yes, definitely. Definitely.
Dan LeFebvre 19:42
Well, speaking of Pearl Harbor, according to the movie, the news of the attack on Pearl makes its way to wake and immediately, the men there are put on high alert. That means four planes are going to stay in the air at all times, and the remaining eight planes are going to be in reserve. And then that same day, we see 24 Japanese planes are sighted. They start bombing the American planes on the ground and seems to just cause a lot of casualties and chaos as well. How accurate did the movie do depicting the attack on Wake starting?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 20:15
The basics are there. Wake was on the other side of the International dateline. So December 7 at Pearl Harbor is Monday December 8 that way, but at 6am on on the eighth of December, the army radio van which was on the airfield, gets a message that says SOS island of Allahu attacked by Japanese dive bombers, this is the real thing. And so the word is conveyed to the garrison and to the marine camp on the south side of the atoll and called arms general quarters immediately sounded by a marine bugler who’s so rattled, he starts playing all the wrong calls, like mess call and stuff, they finally gets the right thing and sergeants are screaming, there’s no drill get to your gun position, so they go racing out, and they reach them they reach them pretty quickly. Part of the problem though, is that the gun positions aren’t finished. Some are not completely sandbagged. Also, there piles of ammunition around that aren’t in protected positions. So around 10am Devereaux calls up his various strong point commanders and says, okay, release most of your men to build up the sandbags and to create ammunition caches you know, move the ammunition around into smaller piles so if a bomb light lands on one you don’t lose all your ammunition Oh, you’re ready I mean nation so they’re engaged in that labor and a lot of guys you know, the alarm was sounded at six an hour after hour goes by nothing’s happening and people are saying all this is just another false alarm. There’s been several alerts earlier the autumn or nothing happened. You know, the general American racism kicks in. Well, those little blank blankety bugs wouldn’t have the guts to attack Americans. I’ll fight Chinese but they wouldn’t dare tangle with us. And as news coming on, wake often was subject to sudden rain squalls, and big bank of cumulus clouds comes comes creeping along from the south toward the south beach toward the airfield. They did have four Wildcat fighters up in the air major putting them decided okay during daylight hours continue continuous combat air patrol continuous a CAP. But the clouds are so thick that the Wildcats climb above them because you can’t see anything if you’re in the clouds. The only trouble is that they were 27 not not 24 but 27 Mitsubishi, g three m two type 96 attack bombers for your listeners have any are up on the Pacific War. They probably know them by their allied codename they’re called Nell bombers, but they’re 27 and they fly into the cloud bank. And they use that as cover and they appear right over wakes South Beach at 11:58am. They’re about 15 seconds away from the airfield. And when the Americans first see them, they can’t believe it’s the enemy. I interviewed one Marine Sergeant who was on major Deborah rose in his in his command post manning the the field phone and there was a marine on the water tower which was the highest point on weight 50 feet off off sea level who called it and said hey Malik look at the planes. And Sergeant Malik joked are they ours or theirs and the voice came back and it wasn’t in a joking tone. Now he said they got to be there’s they’re dropping bombs every GD one of them and they hit the airfield eight planes on the ground. Brown crews clustered around them refueling arming them. Pilots go running out trying to get the planes off the ground, picks up massacre. The mf 211 loses 32 personnel half its personnel are killed and wounded, including three pilots and 16 ground crew guys who were either killed in action or mortally wounded in action. Seven planes are destroyed. The guys on combat air patrol they’re I mean, they’re the the ground radio on the ground that the ground air radio, they’re trying to call them down but the radios are malfunctioning. And they don’t know anything about this until their regular tour of duty ends and they come down to land and then they find the airfield in flames most of the aviation fuels burning one of the landing Wildcats strikes debris on the airfield so it’s damaged it’s not flyable for the foreseeable future. So they’re cut from 12 fighters to four in the twinkling of an eye and most of their parts, all their repair manuals. A lot of their fuel and ordnance and ammunition gone. devastating. The Japanese also hit the Pan Am hotel and killed 10 chamorros 10 of the Guamanians there to that first day.
Dan LeFebvre 24:58
It sounds like there’s a lot of parallels to Pearl Harbor. Of course there was a lot more pearl and you know much, much bigger there but just caught off guard just things. I mean with the airfield just being pretty much knocked out right away.
Gregory J. W. Urwin 25:12
Yeah, but at Pearl they really didn’t have there were warnings on the way they kind of got detoured, but wake at six hours prior warning as the Clark field in the Philippines where most of the seven teams are sitting on the ground when the Japanese appear and pretty much wipe out the Far East Air Force under Douglas MacArthur.
Dan LeFebvre 25:34
Well, back in the movie after that first attack happens we see there’s a little bit of a break break in the action. And the men on wake are trying to hide planes and they’re assuming that there’s going to be an inevitable second wave. And when we see that attack happen, it comes with a naval bombardment. We can see the ships off in the horizon. They’re getting closer and closer, all the while they’re bombarding wake with their guns. And then we see wakes batteries are finally given the order to open fires. The Japanese ships start to come into range of their guns, and we do see the defending guns, hitting some of the Japanese ships and setting them ablaze. Did Wakes defences manage to take out some of the Japanese ships like we see in the movie?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 26:18
You bet. You bet on December 11 1941, so the Americans are hit by air raids the air raid on the first day of the eighth and their air raids. The next two days the Americans are hitting Japanese aircraft with their anti aircraft guns are ready. One marine flyer Captain l rod shoots down to Japanese bombers in rapid succession on the 12th and the Marines on the ground nickname I’m hammering Hank, he becomes the hero of the garrison Captain l rod. But on the 11th Rear Admiral side of Nietzsche kajioka attempted to land 450 Japanese Marines on wake and his wake invasion force as it would call, as it was called had three older light cruisers, six destroyers, to transports to patrol boats, which were old destroyers converted into transports and then to submarines. This was not the Japanese Navy’s first string because the Japanese Navy was attacking pearl and launching attacks on British Malaya and going after the Philippines at the same time was stretched pretty, pretty thin. But the Japanese didn’t expect much resistance at Wake that the Japanese bombers would hit wake on the eighth the ninth and the 10th. They claim Yeah, we’ve taken out the marine defenses like a lot of airmen, they exaggerated their ci but yeah, it’ll be a cakewalk. So the Japanese who taught us the danger of naval airpower at Pearl Harbor, they come in without any air cover. Major deveraux like major Katyn in the movie, he decides to play possum. The Japanese have done some damage to his his defense battalion contingent, they’ve knocked out the range finders on two of his Sea coast batteries, which makes it very difficult to hit anything out to sea that’s moving. So he realizes that first of all, if the Japanese have cruisers, they could sit out at like 25,000 yards and show us without fear of retaliation. My five inch guns maximum range is a little bit beyond 15,000 yards. So he says my only chance is to learn them and close not only because of the disparity and ranges, but because my guys are going to have to have at point blank range to hit anything. So he sends out commands from his command post he climbs on top of it in fact with a talker to watch the Japanese through his binoculars and his he keeps repeating the command Do not remove camouflage until I give the word Do not open fire until I give the word but the Japanese close to about 1000 yards and then they start firing. And you know, no matter how well trained you are, when people start shooting at you and you don’t have permission to fire back, even go nuts and this one corporal who is on the switchboard. He’s inside the command post and he’s relaying DeRose commands to the various units, five inch gun batteries, the three of them on wake, but he’s hearing from the battery commanders, all young lieutenants and you know if he didn’t know much profanity beforehand, he learned that day by blank blank. What is he trying to do? We’re hitting targets at 12,000 yards at pro 6000 yards when they’re on the beach. What does that sawed off Frenchmen trying to prove and he did not give me major Devereaux literal interpretation because Devereaux as in the movie, he was a hard nosed smart net. He was the executive officer of the first defense battalion back in Pearland the executive officers the guy in charge of punishing, you know, narrative wells. I mean, this guy, he was short he was prissy. He was from an aristocratic background and acted it. This kind of guy who conducted a white glove inspections, run his clothes was over your lockers his name was James Patrick Sinnott Devereux, JPS Devereux, and in the end you might want to edit this out but as Marines behind this back said that’s it for Just Plain Sh**. Couldn’t stand the man Devereux when he heard the battery commanders ask permission to not remove camouflage so I give the word do not at only because they feared so much I think it’s why they obeyed so the Japanese are making firing runs off wake you know, they come in at an angle firing their guns along the shore parallel to the shore then turn and make another run but angling in ever closer, and Devereux waited until the Japanese flagship the light cruiser you Barry was 4500 yards away, and then he gave the command commence firing, they opened up and they began connecting how the yubari got hit, and began belching smoke and set off a smoke screen and ran into it to hide itself. Other ships start getting hit on the far southwest end of the atoll battery l they fired three salvos the first undershot the second overshot the third connected and the Marines who were there said that that ship exploded it was a it was a light that was almost blinding. They said lifted up in the air like a jackknife folding and broke into two halves which bobbed on the water and and went down so they destroyed a destroyer but they hit three cruisers at least two other destroyers one patrol boat, and one transport in the Japanese cakewalk damn airman. They turned and ran. They turn around now in the meantime, major Putnam he had four functioning Wildcats on the morning the 11th when the Japanese were sighted, he took them up in the air, I think around 12,000 feet. And when the Japanese began running, then Vmf 211 attacked tried to get revenge for stubby Wildcat fighters carrying 100 pound bombs, which is not heavy ordinance. In fact, when they were arming the plane so they said it’s impossible to sink a ship with 100 pound bomb and supposedly Captain all rod said well, if it’s impossible, just take a little longer, but they will fly 20 sorties against these fleeing Japanese ships will scare the hell out of them. They drop the bombs, they strafe up they empty their machine guns and they come back and rearm. And during one of these attacks, Korea the members of the squad are and it was l Ron he dropped a bomb on a destroyer called the kisaragi. That also blew up they think it connected with a supply of death charges. So they sink two Japanese destroyers. They kill anyone who wasn’t killed in the explosions the sharks got him, but they killed more than 300 Japanese sailors. Later that day, a Japanese submarine surfaces 25 miles from wake and Vmf two elevens on patrol. And one of the pilots thinks that two five Marines were lightly wounded. Five Marines were lightly when the word got back. This was America’s first tactical victory of the war. It was the first unsuccessful I think the only unsuccessful amphibious attack mounted by either side during the war. It was the first really good news that the United States had gotten since Pearl Harbor our guys are hidden back, we made the enemy run people awake, just like the Japanese airman. They thought that they did more damage to the enemy, the way we sank a cruiser to you know stuff. So inflated figures get to get to the American public through Navy department press conferences. But the basic fact is Yeah, they routed the Japanese and they humiliated the Japanese, the Japanese, they couldn’t believe.
Dan LeFebvre 33:38
Wow. And it sounds it sounds like even if they may not have been on board with Devereux’s plan initially, but it sounds like that was a major reason for why it worked. I mean, waiting for them to get closer. So they’re almost point blank range.
Gregory J. W. Urwin 33:51
The guys who told me the nastiest things about Devereux they respected him. They said he knew what he was doing. Yeah, they gave them full credit for that playing possum tactic.
Dan LeFebvre 34:01
Back in the movie, we see a montage of newspaper headlines, it’s time is passing one of the headlines says awakes defenders repeller, six attack and then the next one says and an eighth attack. It’s the 20th of December and then it’s the 21st and it wakes defenders are still holding off the Japanese. So we get the idea that there were a lot of attacks and a lot of them being able to hold off the Japanese. How many attacks did they have to defend against?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 34:29
That montage is pretty good. When I was researching my book on the fight for Wake Island. I went through the New York Times on microfilm, and that’s what you saw every day. The 35th attack on wake Marines repel Sabbath attack. These are all air raids, except for the landing attempt on December 11. These are all air raids and wake sustained 13 air raids between December 8 and December 19 1941. These came mainly from Japanese medium bombers based in the Marshall Islands about 500 miles to the south. There were a few that were conducted by Japanese flying boats kawanishi flying boats, it carried really big bombs, but only a few flying boats would participate in these attacks, whereas the the nel bombers, the medium bombers, there’d be 27 and 24, that kind of thing. These cars comparatively few casualties, and little significant damage. I mean, the worst day was the first day. But they imposed a strain on the Garrison’s nerves, you know, being shot out just like having an surviving son having a near crash in an automobile. And if you’re doing that day after day after day, it’s going to wear on the atolls. 14th air raid occurred on December 21. And that was especially ominous because it was conducted not by land based medium bombers from far away. It was conducted by carrier bombers who had a limited range and that turned out that they flew from the story you and hear you which had been diverted from the carrier force that attacked Pearl Harbor after weight killed out they sent the carriers and their escorts into assist that told the Marines that the Japanese navies back in the vicinity that that means that there’s got to be a reinforced Japanese naval force closing in on the atoll. And everyone could expect another invasion attempt 18 nel bombers from the Marshall subjected wake to its 15th air raid later on the 21st. And the Japanese carrier planes return on December 22. To execute the 16th air raid So up until the day before wake fell 16 Japanese air raids and all. Wow. Well, and you when you’re talking about the newspaper, it lines up perfectly with what you were saying earlier about how this was the good news after Pearl Harbor like they’re able to hold a show, of course, that’s going to be what the papers are going to put as the front page headlines. It’s immediately compared to the Alamo. And the public was just you know, every day is wake still there’s wake still holding out. In fact, when the war first broke out. FDR, you know, he gave a talk and he squared pretty much with the American people. He said they’ve attacked Pearl Harbor. He didn’t give the exact amount of damage the I mean, it’s like did they bombed the Philippines, they’ve bombed awake and they’ve bombed Guam, and we don’t think they’re gonna hold out very long. they shelled midway, and then bam, on the 11th wait propels the Japanese so Americans were psyched. These were there. It was like, you know, being a Mets fan. In 1969, we’re winners again, you know? Leave it to the Marines, you know?
Dan LeFebvre 37:30
There’s a scene in the movie where one of the American pilots Captain Patrick, he’s shot down. He jumped from his plane and while he’s parachuting down Japanese plane shoots him while he’s in the air. And from below major Katyn is watching this and he monitors you on the dirty whatever under his breath. As if the idea of shooting a pilot who is ejected is to boot but of course, you know, they’ve also launched these surprise attacks. So I was curious, did that sort of thing happened? And was it a taboo thing to do according to the rules of war at the time?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 37:58
Well, you know, according that glamorize tales of World War One fighter aces, you’re not supposed to do that supposed to salute your foe as his planes going down or whatever. But this scene is pure propaganda. It depicts the last day Vmf 211 was an action that would have been the air raid of the 22nd when Oh, about three dozen or so Japanese carrier planes attacked and there were two Wildcats left. And I interviewed one of the pilots Captain foiler, who was one of those two planes. He managed to knock down one dive bomber and then he attacked the formation head on and he might his traces must have connected with fuel lines because the plane in front of him blew up when he was about 50 feet away. He flew through the explosion. And it was like being showered with shrapnel and the flames burned away his control circuits. His plane was inoperable. So he made a dive to get back to wake a fighter got in his tail and even though his plane was in difficulty fired Adam and he got wounded he but he survived. He managed to land on weakness. Engine conked out just as he reached the runway, the other pilot Lieutenant Davidson got on the tail of a zero fighter and a zero fighter got on his tail, and he was last seen flying out to sea. So we assume the Japanese shot him down he was never heard from again. Once this war gets going in the Pacific, it’s a war. Well, john dow wrote a wonderful work about a cold war without mercy. It’s a race war on both sides. The Americans and the Japanese think that they are racially superior to each other they depict their enemies as animals as barbarians. There’s little taking a prisoners on both sides. You know, you read about the Battle of Iwo Jima and the Japanese garrison there was like 21,000 men 200 survived. Japanese were trained not to surrender. But still, you know, it gives you an idea of of the character of that war. So imagine someone had a chance to shoot that out parachuting pilot from either side they probably would have taken one of those shots.
Dan LeFebvre 40:00
When we saw the the planes fighting, I noticed they actually had a biplane. In the Japanese planes that were attacking. Were they still using biplanes? Or is it just something where in the movie they just needed needed a plane and it filled it in?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 40:12
I don’t know where they got that stock footage the Marine Corps, because it was so happy to have this movie being made. Let the production company Paramount everything it needed, including flyable Wildcat fighters in the various forms of artillery and machine guns and even real Marines to act as extras for scenes a close order drill, etc. But no, the Japanese weren’t flying outmoded planes like that. On the other hand, up until a few weeks before Vmf 211 went to wake in November of 1941. Its pilots were flying the outdated Gruman F, three f dash, two biplane, Americans are flying by planes in October, November 1941. And you know, they get these new claims before they’re sent to wake, none of major putnams pilots, including him had flown more than a few hours in this aircraft, so they really didn’t know it could do, you know, in combat conditions, and none of them had fired a machine gun or dropped a bomb from one of these new monoplanes. And that’s not the condition you want. When you send men to war. When you send fliers to war, it’s not the ideal way to fly into a war. So the fact that they managed to do what they did with what they had, and to have it, you know, have a number of planes at their disposal reduced drastically, but the first shot, it’s a real testimony to the caliber of those marine pilots and the ground crews and the civilian assistance that helped keep the mf 211 flying until almost the very end.
Dan LeFebvre 41:42
In the movie, there is a brief mention where we see the Japanese sending a message to wake and they demand and immediate surrender. Major Caitlin’s reply in the movie is simple. Come and get us. Was there any communication between the Japanese and the men on wake like the movie shows?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 41:58
Hell no. You know, the Japanese came waltzing in, it’s gonna be a cakewalk. And they got their tail feathers scorched. And when they came back, they came back with a heavily reinforced Task Force. But they didn’t summon the American garrison to surrender, they tried to sneak in, in fact, in their determination not to advertise their presence as long as possible. There was no preliminary naval bombardment, they sent the landing parties ashore under the cover of darkness, like darkness in the sound of the surf, protect them. They had a 900 Japanese Marines and their first wave another 1000 Marines waiting to go ashore if the first wave didn’t get the job done. I mean, I was twice the number they had 450 when they went on the 11th. So 900 and first, for 8000 more, and Admiral kajioka, if things went really haywire, was determined to take his six destroyers, run them aground and throw the crews into the battle with rifles. So I mean, they were not going to be humiliated a second time. And they meant to try to take the Americans if they could by surprise now, radio messages. There was one that supposedly came out of wake in the middle of the siege, called newspaper report, Pearl Harbor as the garrison. Is there anything you need? And according to this story, and the language is racist, so I apologize for that. But their reply was send more Japs. And that made big headlines, reads, they just you know, they don’t care. Just send us more Japanese will kill them all. What really happened? I met one of the three Navy instance who, who were helping the man the lone radio that was left toward the end of the siege. And they said, Well, you know, when we were broadcasting, we would send out nonsense words. So that pearl could hone in on our signal. And then we’d give them the legitimate coded message. So you know, now’s the time for all good men to come to our country. Send more, send more beer, send more jabs, you know, tell somebody on the other end said, Oh, we got you in, okay. And then they do the serious stuff. So this one instance said, yeah, that’s what we did. And that’s somebody but probably thought this is good propaganda. This is what I’ll tell the press, you know, again, yeah, just using it for publicity and propaganda at the beginning of the war. Or you’re at war you got to get you got to get the people behind it.
Dan LeFebvre 44:23
In the movie, by the time the Japanese get to the point of boots on the ground that believe it was actually the first time that we saw boots on the ground in the movie, they seem to make pretty quick work of wakes defenses. We see a few shots of the American defenders shooting it the Japanese soldiers, but they’re just overrun. There’s too many invaders. How well did the movie do showing the actual fall of Wake Island?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 44:43
Well, you know, we have to keep in mind that back in the States, no one really knew what happened on wake that morning, except that the radio went dead and then the Japanese later announced we’ve captured Bird Island. That’s what they call the Wake Island. But in reality wakes marine defenders gave better than they got on the morning of December 23 1941. Army the Japanese were really desperate to get their force ashore. They had four landing craft and then those two patrol boats is two converted destroyers. They sacrifice them, they ran aground. The guys would get to shore, but the Marines heard them approaching and they reacted on the far southwest tip. The Japanese landed on the southern shore, Marines and contractors defending that sector. They were under Captain Wesley McCoy, Platt who among the ground Marines, was the greatest officer that ever lived. One guy said if Platt ever told you to, to storm hill with a bucket of water, you wouldn’t you’d asked to carry his bucket forum. He was a real Marines officer. But he approved he was a great combat commander to he, the Japanese established a beachhead, about 100 of them. He organized a counter attack he got to 30 caliber machine gun crews each containing one marine and three civilians. He found some marine riflemen and he attacked one side of that beachhead. Meanwhile, one Lieutenant got his crews from a five inch battery and some civilians were carrying grenades for the Marines and attacked from the other side and they wipe this, this beach head out they killed everybody, except for two Japanese plants that I want to prisoners for intelligence purposes. So they took two prisoners. One of the marine battle cries during the siege was and again, I apologize for the racist language, but it was the Japs don’t take prisoners. And this was inspired by some of the atrocities that the Japanese were committing in China. So you know, you don’t use giving up boys you got to fight to the end. Well, one marine said, you know, it dawned on me we weren’t taking prisoners either until someone gave us orders. But, you know, one of the curious things about war. Now, further to the east, along the shore, opposite the airfield, that’s where most of the Japanese landed, and there Lieutenant Arthur a Poindexter, who later became a college professor. He was commanding the mobile reserve. These were four machine gun crews and some rifleman riding around in a couple of trucks. They ambushed the left flank of the main Japanese landing force inflicted heavy casualties. Japanese turned on them and drove Poindexter his men back to the outskirts of the marine camp. But there were a lot of guys, their cooks and other people you know, who weren’t frontline troops and Poindexter established a line of 10 machine guns across wake Southern leg and stop the Japanese attack. And when it became clear to him that the momentum, the steam was going out of the Japanese attack, he organized a strike force at 55 riflemen. He organized them into three platoons. And he launched a counter attack that forced the Japanese to give up 900 yards and two hours. Captain Platt won his ground battle and Poindexter was winning his again as far as they were concerned. We’re beating these guys. But while Platt and Poindexter are winning their fights communications problems caused commander Cunningham, the Navy senior officer, the island commander and major Devereaux to conclude that all those officers and their men had been overrun because wake relied on World War One style field phones, for communications. They had some walkie talkies, but they didn’t want to hear the Japanese to hear spoken messages in the clear. And when the Japanese landed, they had the presence of mind to cut telephone lines wherever they found them. So about half of the way garrison cannot be contacted. And Deborah’s just Devers just assuming, okay, this, this strong point is fall on the strong points been overrun, et cetera. And commander Cunningham in the meantime is informing pearl that, you know, the Japanese have landed, they knew that there was a relief force that was on its way they’d learned that on the 20th or 21st of December and he was hoping that they say well, you know, help helps only a few hours away Hold on. But pearl had recalled the relief force the Navy decided didn’t want to risk any any ships out in waters two miles deep because unlike shallow Pearl Harbor of a ship sinks off Wake Island, it’s gone pearl you can refloat a lot of ships. So they say, you know relief isn’t coming and cutting Hammond Devereaux. They play hot potato each one do that felt that we we can’t win. But no one wanted to say let’s surrender. But in the end Cunningham makes the decision. And then Devereaux goes out to inform any Marines that he takes the few that are left to lay down their weapons that it’s a surrender. And it took him six hours but he walks you know, along the southern shore of the atoll, going to strong point to strong point finding not dead Americans, but Marines that were still holding out and piles of Japanese dead when he got to Platt platinum, according to some of the Marines who were there, this didn’t get in The official reports the plateau most viewed need pilots I’m not surrendering then devil said do Captain That’s an order and you will obey and I kind of broke Platts resistance. But they hear the man around heard him say, you know, a mournful South Carolina drawl. Major Do you understand what you’re asking us to do? Because they expected the Japanese would execute them all. The only reason that that that Cunningham thought that the military should surrender was the hope that the Japanese would spare the 1000 civilian construction workers. They lay down their arms. And when it was all over the Japanese, they were chagrin to find out that the Americans had suffered so few casualties all together for all 16 days of the siege. American casualties numbered less than 100. 46 Marines, three sailors 38 contractors 10 Guamanians, the Japanese, on the other hand, sacrifice 900 to 1000, slain two destroyers, one submarine to patrol boats, 21 aircraft, they lost 27 I think attacking parola was 21 at Wake. And what they ended up with was a barren heap of coral that offered them no real strategic advantages. So the fight for week ended as a Japanese victory, but it humiliated the Imperial Navy, you know, we should have done better. And we should have won this quicker. And we shouldn’t have suffered the losses that we did. Yeah.
Dan LeFebvre 51:26
And meanwhile, it also helped offer some positive publicity along the way for the American public on the other side, too.
Gregory J. W. Urwin 51:35
Yeah. I mean, the American public didn’t know a lot of these details, but they knew that this small group of Marines held out for more than two weeks. And the idea was that, you know, a handful of Marines can do this. And once this country gets into gear, and mobilizes and gets wartime production up to up to snuff, we’re gonna win this thing.
Dan LeFebvre 51:54
Well, at the very end of the movie, it says that there are over 140 million fighting Americans who will exact terrible vengeance for Wake Island. And that goes back to I mentioned earlier, it was released, right? Pretty much right after it was released in August of 1942. So less than a year after the actual battle took place. What happened after Wake Island was lost and the things that we didn’t get to see in the movie, I mean, other than just the entirety of World War Two.
Gregory J. W. Urwin 52:22
Well, of course, the smart alec answers America won the war, but I think the men who were taken on wake 1600 survived the battle. And the Japanese kept about 250 construction workers on wake to build fortifications for them and the hard fortifications. pillboxes, command centers made out of reinforced concrete, things like that trenches. They shipped most of the rest out. On January 12 1942. On a requisitioned luxury liner, the Nita Maru the POW is or putting the whole bow no luxury accommodations for them. They dropped 20 off at Yokohama for Naval Intelligence to interrogate and the rest then went to camp outside China. And moving into 43 and 44. The Japanese will take some detachments out and ship them to Japan to work in their home war industries. But most of the guys will stay there until May of 45. And then they’ll be shipped to Japan, and scattered to all kinds of different camps. But they’re kept together for a long time. So they go into captivity with their friends. The servicemen go in with their officers, and they go on with major Devereaux and Devereaux remains a snap the whip Martin net, I don’t care what your condition is, I don’t care if you’re if you’re closer and rags if they’re not giving you razors to shave. You know, if they’re working, you have to get you’re still a US Marine. When an officer comes into your barracks, you salute and you obey your NCO. In fact, he once told an NCO is having trouble enforcing discipline, he said, you get a pic handle and you use it. And don’t forget I told you that because we’ve got to maintain discipline. Well, by doing that, the camp in which most of the lake islanders ended up did not turn into these dog eat dog tribal disasters that Li POW is inhabited in the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia. Some other camps when a guy got sick, people just sat around waiting until he died or was too weak to stop them from taking his food. But it didn’t happen in this camp outside Shanghai because the military infrastructure wouldn’t let it happen. The contractors, they still had their foreman and they pretty much followed the lead of the Marines. So the wake islanders well, of the 95,000 Caucasians captured by the Japanese during the Pacific War talking about Americans Brits, Canadians, Australians New Zealanders 33,587 were Americans, soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines, 28% of all the Caucasian prisoners died in Japanese hands. Among the Americans, the death rate was even higher 38.4% more than a third die of the 25,000 or so Americans taken in the Philippines 41.6% die in contrast to these chilling statistics, the wake islanders they lost 243 dead and confinement, which you know, it’s a good number of folks. That was a death rate of 14.9%. And among the servicemen the 470 some servicemen captured on the atoll, only 5.4% of them died. And among the Marines, the 403 wake Marines, only 4.2% 17 of them died. And these are guys who are being subjected to slave labor. They’re lucky if they get three t cups of rice a day, they’re being held captive by an enemy who holds them in contempt. No real men die for the Emperor, that kind of thing you surrender your week. So if I feel like I’ll just beat the hell out of you, because you don’t deserve any better treatment, that kind of thing. But they hung together. One of their guys got sick. Other people would pool their rations to make him a double portion. Some guys sneaked into the Japanese warehouses and stole food, which would have brought summary execution if they had been caught among the contractors. Found some secret diaries the Japanese didn’t permit diaries, but a lot of POW kept them from guys saying so and so we think he STB was taken up collection, we went to the PX eventually the Japanese opened a PX for them where they overcharged, we got him two jars of peanut butter. You know, another Marine, I remember in his diary said, Today was my birthday. And the guys remembered, we only had bread covered with sugar for cake, the boys really needed them to remember they gave me two packs of cigarettes, which was good as gold, they gave me a ring made out of a quarter, and how they held it. And it’s just great to have friends like that. Well, even if you’re, you’re suffering from malnutrition, and God knows what the key to survival is the will to survive. And having a group around you of people who care for you, you know, if I go down, he’ll pick me up. And dad got it. Because these guys are sacrificing for me, I’m not going to die, I’m not going to let them down. And you know, I’m doing better. And one of them go down. I pick them up. And that was kind of part of the marine creed. You know, before World War Two, the Marines were our Imperial Light Infantry when whenever there were problems and what we today call the third world, the cry was sending the Marines send them to China suddenly to Nicaragua, send them to Haiti, and they fought guerrillas who didn’t have POW camps, you know, didn’t take prisoners. So the Marines develop discretised Marines don’t surrender. Marines Don’t, don’t leave their buddies. Marines bring out their wounded Marines bring out their dead kind of thing. And that kind of translated that that ethic that they’ve been pounded in their heads in boot camp, that translated to the POW experience. So you know, Marines don’t like it when I tell them, you know, your organization really trains people to be good POWs. But that discipline, that that that creed taught these guys how to live and live with dignity, as well as to kill for their country. And they were very good at that, too.
Dan LeFebvre 58:34
Wow, that’s I mean, yeah, that is completely unexpected. I would. I don’t know that. I’ve heard stories of prisoners being able to hold that morale because, you know, maintaining that structure, perhaps to some degree, but just maintaining that morale of remembering birthdays, it’s, it’s the little things.
Gregory J. W. Urwin 58:52
Yeah. And they weren’t, they weren’t all saints. Some guys got involved in black marketing and things like that. There were some operators in camp, but by and large, they adhered to that creed. So when they got together at their reunions, I attended quite a number. It’s where I conduct a lot of my interviews for my books. It wasn’t You dirty rat, you rip me off as they were brothers. You know, they were they were it was like the years melted away. And they were just so happy to be together. Wow. A bond formed for life. Yeah, really, really did. And the movie when they got back, you know, a movie makes it look like they all died fighting. And they were surprised what? Yeah, it seems like they fought to the last man and you know, held the ground as long as they could. Yeah. One marine said to me, I didn’t surrender. My officers surrendered me I was ordered to surrender, you know, so there was still a shame in laying down their weapons, but they had that they could rationalize why I was only following orders. Wasn’t my idea.
Dan LeFebvre 59:50
We’ve talked a bit throughout this about some of the propaganda side of this and again, going back to the movie being really so soon after the actual attack happened, of course. It’s gonna have that propaganda. It’s a propaganda film to bolster morale and you know, try to get people to enlist. If someone were making a movie about Wake Island today, what sort of changes do you think there would be that we did not see in the 1942 movie?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 1:00:16
Well, you know, it’d be nice to show the true relationship between the Marines and the contractors, especially those who ended up fighting Now, a lot of them didn’t. Once the bombs began dropping, they ran off to the boondocks, as the marine would have put it, the Marines would have put it they would steal some food and they would hide they dig holes and hide out. You really can’t blame them, though. They weren’t trained to be fighting men. They weren’t psychologically prepared for war, even trained men have to adjust. You know, as I said, there were these 180 guys who were there on the gun positions. They’re about 16 that helped with maintenance on Vmf 211, which was great because a good part of the ground crews were wiped out the first day to have these people who had experienced with engines. And after the mf 211 lost its planes major Putnam mustered the survivors issued them rifles and submachine guns and said we’re infantry now. When the Japanese landed on the south shore they went to meet them and when they’re moving out these civilians on ARM come after them and they say we’ll carry your ammunition you know there’s automatic weapons you can burn off a lot of rounds will carry your grenades is a box grenade sir Putnam said, No, stay back. You know you’re This is not a job for you. And the head of these guys was an older man he said major, do you really think you’re big enough to stop us? And that one civilian when the Japanese charged Vmf to elevens position they they killed a lot of remaining air Marines. Captain l rod. In fact, when in the battle with a tommy gun, killed a Japanese machine gun crew grabbed the machine gun through a tommy gun to another marine and was leading a counter attack with that light machine gun screaming kill the sob when a Japanese bullet killed him. But in another one of these instances, close infantry combat that one contractor I told you about was last seen throwing rocks at the approaching Japanese now. That’s a story. Excuse me. But I mean, that’s the story of patriotism, real patriotism, love of country and the Brotherhood of battle that it would do any American good to see, I think. And I mean, there are other countries, other cultures that have stories like that. But they’re incidents like that, that stick out. I mean, they’re crazy things. When during one air raid the bombs drove one of the many rats that inhabited way crazy and was running around the rim of a foxhole, finally jumped and clamped its teeth down on a Marines nose and he was screaming bloody murder until one of his friends took off his helmet, he killed the rat. So even in the middle of comment, things that made the guys laugh afterwards, except for the marine with the bleeding nose. But you know, there are a lot of stories heroism Lieutenant Poindexter waiting out in the pre dawn darkness as landing craft or approaching him with another contractor. Tony cap Rutledge, a world war one veteran waiting out to these approaching Japanese landing craft throwing grenades inside. To stop them from getting ashore. It’s just a lot of stuff you see in movies and you say that can’t be real? Well, some of that stuff really happened on Wake.
Dan LeFebvre 1:03:21
I would love to see movies of a lot of those stories or sounds like they could even just do an entire series almost like the abandoned brothers type, you know, where you have more than just a couple hours that you do in a movie to tell all these stories?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 1:03:34
Well, you know if you know Steven Spielberg tell him I’ve got a book that he could use.
Dan LeFebvre 1:03:41
Yeah, yeah. Don’t don’t don’t hold your breath.
Gregory J. W. Urwin 1:03:48
No, I know, the History Channel didn’t make a two hour special based on it. But that’s the closest I’ll get to Hollywood I imagined but that that that’s glory enough.
Dan LeFebvre 1:03:57
Thank you so much for coming on to chat about Wake Island. I know you’ve written a couple books. The first is called facing fearful odds, the siege of Wake Island. And then the second is victory and defeat the Wake Island defenders in captivity. 1941 to 1945. For someone listening to this, who wants to learn more about this story and more of those stories? Can you give an overview of your books and where they can get a copy?
Gregory J. W. Urwin 1:04:19
Yeah, well, the first one facing fearful odds deals with what happened on Wake Island to the largely 1941 the the 11th hour effort to construct a base there, the rivals, the Marines, their efforts to fortify and then of course, the fight. And then victory and defeat tells that POW story. You know, I went into this interviewing wake survivors because I wanted to do something new on the battle. And we would talk about the 16 days they spent in combat and then they start talking about their POW experiences. And I thought well, you know, I’ll just humor the guys. I’ll keep the tape recorder running. And eventually it got through my thick head. That there was this whole other great story, that they had this sort of unparalleled survival rate that they want victory during an even more prolonged and grueling experience without weapons in their hands. So victory and defeat tells us the POW story which, you know, I think deserves a remembrance as well. I grew up with the greatest generation I was born in 1955. Everybody’s dad fought in World War Two, it seemed as you have two teenage years, you go through that snotty Phase I will wear too I’m tired. I who wants to hear about that, that wasn’t that important. But I rediscovered the so called Greatest Generation when I bumped into these wake veterans just when they were getting ready to talk. And I rediscovered what set this that generation of Americans apart. I mean, I think there are other great generations I’ve helped to educate ROTC cadets who have gone on to fight and give their lives are getting wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that’s a great generation too. But this experience made me forget some of the immature notions I acquired as a child of the 60s, and to re appreciate my cultural roots that America’s cultural roots.
Dan LeFebvre 1:06:11
Thank you again, so much for your time.
Gregory J. W. Urwin 1:06:13
Thank you, it was a pleasure.