American Portraits

The Selfless Defenders of Wake Island

In this lesson, students will learn about the defenders of Wake Island and their struggle against the Japanese in 1941. They will explore the actions of these defenders and see how their sacrifices helped inspire the nation at the beginning of the war. Through this example, they will learn how they can act selflessly in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

The low-flying airplanes were a great surprise to many of the residents of Hawaii on that bright December day in 1941. Seeing military planes was not an unusual sight to the residents on the island, but these planes were different. Flying low to limit radar detection, these planes had a bright white body color and a distinctive red sun painted on the wing tips. They were there for one reason: to kill….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can the actions of the men on Wake Island inspire you to act selflessly in your own life?

Virtue Defined

Self-sacrifice is purposeful action exchanging personal loss for the good of others.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the defenders of Wake Island and their struggle against the Japanese in 1941. They will explore the actions of these defenders and see how their sacrifices helped inspire the nation at the beginning of the war. Through this example, they will learn how they can act selflessly in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze the performance of the defenders during the Battle of Wake Island.
  • Students will understand how acting selflessly can benefit those around them.
  • Students will understand how they can act more selflessly in their own lives.

Background

The Empire of Japan was formed, or more accurately restored, in 1868 following the Meiji restoration. Before the restoration, Japan had been living in relative isolation in a more or less feudal state as the rest of the world bowled ahead into the industrial age. With the restoration came rapid modernization. By 1905, Japan was a match for any world power, as it showed through its victories in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Japan had developed a desire to expand beyond its traditional borders in the hopes of exerting its influence across the entire Pacific region. The strong militaristic and nationalist traditions of Japanese culture fueled this drive for expansion.

In the early 1930s, Japan invaded Manchuria and by 1932 was also at war with China. What resulted was a long and bloody conflict that put on display the true horror and strength of the Japanese military.

This aggressive expansion inevitably created growing tensions between the Japanese and the United States. Since the late 1890s, the United States had exerted a strong influence in the region. It had claimed territories across the South Pacific and benefitted greatly from trade in the area. Tensions between the two countries grew as the United States placed tighter and tighter trade restrictions on the Japanese. Finally, after the United States placed an oil embargo on the Japanese, they felt they had to act. Their gamble came in the form of a surprise attack upon the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor Hawaii on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Vocabulary

  • Isolation
  • Feudal
  • Modernization
  • Nationalist
  • Militaristic
  • Embargo
  • Plummet
  • Atoll
  • Arduous
  • Garrison
  • Personnel
  • Repulse
  • Resilience

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Where is Wake Island? Who occupied it in 1941?
  • What happened on Wake Island in December of 1941?
  • How did the selfless actions of the Wake Island defenders help inspire the United States?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Devereaux, Colonel James P.S., USMC. The Story of Wake Island. The Battery Press, 1947.
  • Sloan, Bill. Given up for Dead: America’s Heroic Stand at Wake Island. Bantam Books, 2003.
  • Uwrin, Gregory J.W. Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island. University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

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