Wake Island nightmare: Rogue Valley man recalls time as civilian prisoner of war

  • November 06, 2009 
    By Paul Fattig
    Mail Tribune
    Hugh Curthey was tired of working long hours for low pay in the gladiolus fields just south of Grants Pass in the spring of 1941 when he learned of a high-paying job overseas.

    “My brother and I were working in those bulbs for a dollar and a half a day,” recalled the 93-year-old Medford resident. “That’s when we heard about this construction work on Wake Island.”

    At that point, he couldn’t have told you where Wake Island was on the globe. What he did know was that he would be making at least $500 a month — good money in those days — as a construction worker for the Morrison-Knudsen Co. to help build a U.S. Navy base.

    “We didn’t know what we were getting into but we sure found out soon enough,” he said during a recent visit with stepson and daughter-in-law Royce and Joyce Webber of Ruch.

    “I still think about it every day,” he added. “I thank the good Lord I made it through.”

    He and his brother, Robert “Bob” Curthey, were among some 1,200 civilians taken prisoner when Wake Island was captured by the Japanese on Dec. 23, 1941. Following a 16-day siege in which a 450-man Marine Corps garrison aided by civilians fought to repel the overwhelming Japanese invasion, they were held prisoner until the war ended nearly four years later. Both survived.

    “It was rough on people like me because I’ve always like to eat,” said Curthey, a retired maintenance worker for the city of Grants Pass.

    Meager meals were the least of his worries during an ordeal that included years of forced labor. More than 200 Americans with him died either during the battle or while in captivity.

    Born May 3, 1916, in Kenosha, Wis., Curthey arrived with his family in southwestern Oregon a few years before the Great Depression gripped the nation. He attended first grade in Riddle, then went to schools in Grants Pass, a region where gladiolus were a popular cash crop in the late 1930s into the early 1950s.

    Accompanied by brothers Bob and Charles, Curthey arrived on Wake Island in May 1941, although Charles returned to Grants Pass before the war erupted. They were among numerous residents from the region who had jumped at the chance for good jobs overseas.

    For seven months, they helped build a naval base on the Pacific coral atoll located between Honolulu and Guam. But their balmy blue-sky world exploded nearly simultaneously with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Maj. James P.S. Devereux, the officer in charge of the Marines, told those on the island to hunker down and prepare for an assault. In addition to the Marines, there were 68 Navy personnel on the island.

    During the next two weeks, the island was bombed eight times by Japanese aircraft. Many of the structures were leveled.

    “There wasn’t enough rifles to go around so we didn’t have any,” Curthey said. “During the siege, Bob and I worked throughout the night changing gun positions and carrying ammunition and filling sandbags. During the day we stayed down in our dugouts that we had to dig. We didn’t have any protection. But we held out 16 days.”

    He tells of a civilian who stood up on the edge of one dugout when a Japanese dive bomber swooped down. The man died instantly.

    The defense was crushed by 9 a.m. Dec. 23 with 109 Americans — 62 military, 47 civilians — killed compared to an estimated 900 Japanese soldiers and sailors dead. Using their shore batteries, the Wake Island defenders sank at least two Japanese warships.

    Following the surrender, the Americans were held under guard in their barracks. But one man continued to sneak out at night to dig up booze that had been buried before the Japanese invasion, Curthey said.

    “He was a big man with a bull neck,” he said. “They told him if he got drunk one more time, off comes the head. He went out and got drunk again. They laid him on a block and off went his head.”

    When the prison ship Nita Maru arrived to take the prisoners off the island, Curthey, by then a powerhouse operator, was supposed to stay with 98 other prisoners of war to teach the Japanese how to operate the powerhouse and other facilities.

    “I told my brother I wasn’t going to stay so I went with the other POWs getting on the Nita Maru,” he said, noting that Bob was a truck driver on the island. “If I had stayed, I would have been history.”

    Indeed, the 98 people left behind were executed on Oct. 7, 1943. They included David F. Chambers of Grants Pass and Wesley W. Stringer of Lakeview.

    “I knew both of them,” he said quietly.

    The Curthey brothers were placed in the stifling-hot hold of the ship with most of the other prisoners.

    “We stayed down in that ship for 12 days — never saw the light of day,” he said. “There wasn’t enough room for us all to sleep so some people took their belts off and tied themselves to those big timbers down in the ship so they could stand there and sleep. The sweat just puddled beneath us.”

    They were eventually taken to Shanghai, where they were marched a half dozen miles to the first of two POW camps where they would be held. They were given three scant meals a day.

    “They confiscated all the food from the Chinese farmers,” he said. “It was a cup of white rice with a piece of meat in it once in a while. That and a cup of soup. And if we did anything wrong, they’d cut us down to two meals a day. I got a little thin.”

    Each group also had a loaf of bread to divide once a week. Normally weighing about 185 pounds, Curthey dropped 50 pounds on the POW diet.

    When hunger gnawed at his gut, he would pretend he was chewing gum and crack jokes to keep his mind off food.

    “I’ve always had the ability to laugh at myself,” he said. “We (he and Bob) always figured we were gonna make it.”

    Knowing his survival depended on it, he ate everything he was given.

    “One guy when we first got there said he wasn’t going to eat their garbage,” he said. "Well, after about two weeks he decided he would eat it. But he couldn’t hold it down. He died.

    “I’ve always said rice is like a drug to me — I couldn’t get enough of it,” he said. “Every so often you’d get burned rice. Tasted like toast.”

    But they worked hard for what little food they were given.

    “When I was a prisoner, I got down to about 135 pounds and carried 220-pound bean sacks,” he said. “The last time I had my back X-rayed, the doc asked me what I did for work. I told him about the bean sacks. He said, ‘That’s the answer. You have about five or six vertebras that are crushed. You will live in pain the rest of your life.’ Well, he ain’t been far off.”

    As POWs in Japanese-occupied China, they served as slave labor, doing everything from hauling beans to moving dirt to building a rifle range, he recalled.

    “And twice a day we had to stand at rigid attention and they’d come along and count us off,” he said. "One time, a group next to us weren’t ready for inspection on time. The Japanese sergeant came along and banged them all on the head with the clipboard.

    “Well, the clipboard broke, so he beat them on the head with the pieces. All 36 men had blood dripping off their foreheads.”

    When the war ended on Sept. 2, 1945, the POWs were placed on a ship and sent back to the states. Curthey returned to Grants Pass but not to the gladiolus fields.

    “Never again, not for a dollar and a half a day,” he said. “I was ready for something else.”

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