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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, January 17, 2005

Belief that he would be freed kept POW alive

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer

To Patrick Kahaumea Aki, then just 17 and right out of Kaua'i High School in 1941, going to Wake Island seemed like a great adventure.

Patrick Aki, 80, shown here at Pearl Harbor, was a civilian worker on Wake Island in 1941 when Japan attacked the atoll. He ended up spending four years as a prisoner of war, until being freed in 1945.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

But he soon found himself a prisoner of war, one of 1,500 civilians and 500 U.S. military personnel who were on Wake when Japan attacked the strategic atoll hours after the invasion of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

He and about 1,300 others surrendered after 15 days.

"When you surrender that's a terrible thing," said Aki, 80. "You surrender everything."

Aki is now telling his story to Kahuku students who are collecting oral histories from people who lived through World War II. The stories, from about 30 Hawai'i residents, will be compiled into a book for students.

Sixty years have passed, and memories can fade. But Aki remembers several of his fellow prisoners, including Eddie Lee, from Hawai'i, who understood enough Japanese to learn how the war was progressing; "Angel," from Massachusetts, who made him wooden shoes; John, an Australian, who helped him steal food; and Bill Kapihi, from Hawai'i, who traded his food rations for cigarettes and died of pneumonia.

And he remembers accepting his harsh fate, vowing never to work diligently for the enemy and believing that the United States would win the war.

"That's my belief all the way through," Aki said. "I tried to encourage the older guys, just stay alive. We're going to be rescued."

Aki arrived on Wake Island on Aug. 9, 1941 as a messman with a civilian construction crew that was building a runway and submarine base.

He tried spear fishing and enjoyed the hundreds of friendly birds. There were no women and no drinking, but food was plentiful and activities included movies, hiking the coast and playing music.

With war rumors spreading, he signed up for the weapons training and learned how to fire a machine gun. But when the invasion hit, there were few weapons for civilians and all he could do was take cover.

"I stayed in the barracks that night," he said. Everyone else was in the bushes. "It was the most loneliest night and the scariest night I ever spent."

Life as a prisoner on Wake consisted mostly of trying to avoid work and beatings. "We didn't go into active sabotaging but I think a lot of that stuff was going on."

They were always scheming to escape but never could.

His refusal to work finally got him shipped to Japan in October, when the Japanese decided to move nonessential prisoners and slackers. Aki said the remaining 98 prisoners were eventually killed by the Japanese.

Landing in Sasebo, the prisoners were forced to walk past jeering people who lined the streets in the middle of the night to taunt them.

Their first home was an old wooden warehouse used to store cement for a hydroelectric plant project, their first assignment.

The sides of the warehouse were made of tree bark, he recalled, and the wind whistled through. It was his first taste of cold weather.

"My main problem was it was really cold and our toes were never warm." The soles of their shoes were burnt from putting their feet in a fire. They were beaten for burning their shoes, he said.

About half of the men he was with became sick and died.

This was when Angel, a one-time wrestler, carved a pair of wooden shoes for Aki, topping them with canvas cut from a fire hose. Angel, who died a prisoner, contracted a disease during transport to Japan that caused an outbreak of boils on his thighs and lower legs.

"There was a gaping hole (from the boils) ... and he would stuff it with clean rags," he said.

After a year, the prisoners were sent to Nagasaki where they met up with about 1,000 other POWs from Australia, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. The accommodations were better, in concrete buildings, but harsh treatment and short rations continued.

Aki said he learned the Dutch prisoners were receiving Red Cross packages. John, an Australian, talked him into looking for them one night. They found boxes filled with small cans of corned beef, pudding and jam.

But the food was too rich, he said, "It went right through us."

Later, Aki said, they learned that the Japanese had discovered the theft, blamed the Dutch and beat them.

In August 1945, the prisoners learned about a mysterious "gas attack" that had killed 100,000 people. The guards disappeared. One day an American Army officer came to the camp and told them the war was over, Aki said.

There was no celebration, he said. The men were told to catch a train heading south. When he reached Kagoshima, an MP stuck his head in the train and ordered everyone out.

"I really wanted to give him a hug," Aki said.

Aki returned to Japan years later while serving in the Air Force, even visiting his first home as a prisoner, the hydroelectric plant project. While there, he stopped at a memorial to the American POWs who died there. Returning was something he had wanted to do since serving as a prisoner. He said he holds no hard feelings, and he eventually married a Japanese woman.

Aki will tell the Kahuku students that although he never prayed, he believes prayer saved him.

"I don't remember saying a single prayer from the time the war began until the war ended," Aki said. "But I knew that there were people praying for me. So now I pray. It's payback time. I pray for other people who don't seem to have any hope."

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com or 234-5266.