Valor Friday

| April 16, 2021

Most in our community know that the Medal of Honor is restricted to US military recipients. This wasn’t always the case. During and shortly after the Civil War, a handful of civilians received the honor, though they were all attached to US military units. This includes Buffalo Bill (for service as a civilian scout during the Indian Wars), Mary Edwards Walker (contract surgeon for actions during the Civil War), and then-contract surgeon Leonard Wood (who would later rise to the rank of major general and be the only medical corps officer to become Chief of Staff of the US Army and the only MoH recipient to serve in that post). Since the late 1800’s though the medal has been strictly limited to active US military personnel.

The country’s second highest award for battlefield bravery is not so encumbered. The service crosses (Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Distinguished Service) can be awarded to foreign military personnel (many were so awarded during the Vietnam War) and, rarely, to civilians working with the US military. Lawton Shank is one such civilian.

Lawton Shank

Dr. Lawton Shank was a civilian medical doctor with the US Army Reserve when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941. Students of the war will immediately recognize the importance of his assigned location. He was posted as the medical officer for American contractors at Naval Air Station Wake Island.

Wake Island is a small (5 square miles) island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,500 miles east of Guam, 2,300 miles west of Honolulu, 2,000 miles southeast of Tokyo, and 900 miles north of Majuro. To put it lightly, the island is remote. There aren’t even any permanent residents.

What Wake Island was though is a strategic waypoint in the Pacific. Before World War II an airstrip had been built. It was used by Pan American Airways as a refueling point for their iconic Clipper flying boats on trans-Pacific flights. In the run up to World War II, the US annexed the island and all its facilities. They immediately started to construct a naval base.

Being on the western side of the International Date Line, it was 8 December on Wake when the attack at Pearl started. Hours later, Wake would be attacked by the Japanese (part of a larger coordinated offensive on American positions in the Pacific).

The Americans on the tiny island were few. About 1,200 contractors were being defended by 450 Marines (including a single squadron of F4F Wildcat fighters), 68 Navy personnel, and 5 from the Army. The Marines deployed to the island with some artillery and a handful of anti-aircraft guns, but did not have their target tracking radar. To make matters worse, the Marines were too few in number to adequately man all of their defensive positions.

The Japanese commenced the attack on Wake Island with a flight of 34 bombers. Catching the island’s defenders by surprise, the bombers destroyed eight of the twelve Marine fighter planes on the ground. Most of the Marine aviation personnel were killed or wounded in the first air raid. With the exception of the air assets, the rest of the island’s infrastructure and defensive positions were untouched.

Dr. Shank was in the island’s hospital on 9 December when the Japanese conducted two more air raids. These raids targeted the rest of the island, including the hospital (ostensibly a civilian medical facility).

Shank was born in Indiana in 1907, the oldest of three children. He’d married a surgical nurse in 1935. His wife Ruby remained in Indiana when Lawton went to work for Pan American Airways and got assigned as medical officer to their Wake Island facility in early 1941.

Technically only responsible for the Pan Am employees, Shank served as doctor for the military personnel on the island until a military doctor arrived a few months later. He left Pan Am for reasons unknown in July 1941 and left Wake for the mainland.

By October 1941 Shank was again at Wake Island, having been employed as doctor for contractors at the island. He was the only civilian doctor by December.

After the initial attack of 8 December, Shank and his medical staff worked tirelessly tending to casualties. As the next day’s bombing raids commenced, the dead and wounded kept the hospital exceptionally busy. When the hospital itself was hit, scores were killed or wounded.

Despite the dangers, Shank remained at his post and led the evacuation of the hospital. The base commander, US Navy Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham wrote, after the war, of Shank’s actions that day;

Doctor Shank, during the bombing and machine gunning of the camp hospital on 9 December, in complete disregard of his own safety, remained at his post and directed the evacuation of the sick and wounded, though himself in great danger from bombs, bullets, and flames. Doctor Shank’s courageous action resulted in saving the lives of those not killed in the attack, and as well the salvaging of invaluable medical equipment. [He] then established a hospital for civilian patients in an empty magazine. (W. S. Cunningham to Secretary of the Navy, 2 May 1946, U.S. Navy Seabees Museum, Pt. Hueneme, CA)

Over the coming weeks, the island’s defenders would fight valiantly and tirelessly. The tiny contingent of military forces and contractors would face off against a formidable force of Japanese navy and land forces. The defenders gave better than they got. Despite being attacked by three light cruisers and six destroyers (among other ships) and hundreds of Japanese soldiers, the defenders sunk two destroyers and killed hundreds as they repulsed the first invasion attempt on the island on 11 December.

The US Navy attempted to relieve Wake Island, but before they could arrive, the island had fallen to the second invasion on 22 December.

That second invasion consisted of 2,500 troops and an additional two aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, and two more destroyers. The invasion commenced at 0230 hours. Despite making the Japanese pay heavily for the island, the meager garrison at Wake Island was forced to surrender by mid-morning.

The defense of the island was so incredible that all military personnel on the island received a Presidential Unit Citation (the unit-level equivalent of a Navy Cross). The defenders received a special “Wake Island” device for their Navy or Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal. Among the individual medals awarded to the defenders were one Medal of Honor and 11 Navy Crosses.

After the surrender, the wounded and other survivors were left in the open once taken captive. Shank pressed his captors for supplies, but the Japanese refused to provide any to their enemy as the men succumbed to their wounds and dysentery ran through the survivors. In January 1942, conditions improved slightly as the prisoners were moved into the former barracks, but they were still not provided with any medicine or supplies. This didn’t even improve after the majority of the prisoners were removed from the island.

Shank remained behind with those on Wake Island. By September 1942 the last of the prisoners were being moved off the island to prison camps. Less than 100 men would remain behind, never to be heard from again. This included three medical personnel who had volunteered to stay behind.

Dr. Shank, dentist James Cunha, and nurse Henry Dreyer would remain at their posts, tending to those kept behind to perform forced labor.

Wake Island would be held by the Japanese throughout the war. Beginning in February 1942 (and periodically for the rest of the war) the Navy would bomb the island. In May 1944, future president George H.W. Bush would fly his first combat mission as a naval aviator over Wake.

On 5 October, 1943, aircraft from USS Lexington bombed the island. The Japanese garrison commander, fearing an imminent invasion, ordered the execution of the 98 remaining Americans.

The Japanese marched the men to the north end of the island, blindfolded them, and executed them by machine gun. They were buried hastily in a mass grave. It appears as if one man, whose identity is unknown, escaped the mass killing. He returned to the site of the war crime and, on a coral rock near the grave, carved “98 US PW 5-10-43”.

The escapee was eventually recaptured. The Japanese commander Rear Admiral Sakaibara (later tried and executed by hanging for his war crimes) personally beheaded the man with a katana.

Wake would return to American control on 4 September 1945, two days after the formal surrender by the Japanese aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

For his bravery under fire on 9 December 1941, Lawton Shank was nominated for the Medal of Honor. As a civilian we was ineligible and the award was downgraded to the Navy Cross. He was, and remains to this day, the only civilian to have received the honor.

Navy Cross Citation

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Dr. Lawton E. Shank (U.S. Army Reserve), a United States Civilian, for extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy as Physician to American Contractors, Naval Air Station, Wake Island, while associated with the naval defenses on Wake Island on 9 December 1941. At about 1100, while in the camp hospital, during an intensive bombing and strafing attack in the course of which the hospital was completely destroyed and several persons therein killed or wounded, Doctor Shank remained at his post and supervised the evacuation of the patients and equipment. With absolute disregard for his own safety, and displaying great presence of mind, he was thus enabled to save those still living and to establish a new hospital in an empty magazine. Doctor Shank’s display of outstanding courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Category: Army, Historical, Navy, Navy Cross, POW, Valor, We Remember

Comments (7)

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  1. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Thanks again, Mason.

  2. Ex-PH2 says:

    Had a film on Wake and Midway in history class in high school, when it was still OK to discuss real history.

    Fair winds and following seas to all those at Wake Island.

  3. ninja says:

    Mason…

    Wow…Wow…Wow..

    Thank You for sharing the story about about unsong Hero, Dr. “Lou” Shank (born 29 April)…Have to admit it was difficult to read without getting a lump in the throat as well as tears..

    Here is another picture of Dr. Shank from his 1936 Yearbook:

    https://bonitagilbert.com/one-heros-face/

    Dr. Shank is also mentioned in this article:

    http://militaryhonors.sid-hill.us/honors/hon-14a.htm

    Am wondering now if Ruby, his wife or his parents were among those 98 families that were not notified of his death until 1946.

    Rest In Peace, Sir. Never Forget. Salute.

    https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/31644842/lawton-e-shank

    Thank You again, Mason.

  4. Sparks says:

    Thank you Doctor Shank for your service above and beyond the call of duty. Dusty in here this morning.

  5. Green Thumb says:

    Hardcore, Dr. Shank.

    Rest well.

  6. Ken says:

    My son landed on Wake when his squadron was deploying to WestPac. I have on my desk a plastic container filled with Wake Island sand and one very corroded 50cal shell casing. Also got a book by one of the survivors of the battle with a Wake Island visa stamped on the inside cover (one of the rarest visas in the world). They mean a lot to me.

  7. 5th/77th FA says:

    Well Hellfire (and not the Air Launched Artillery Rocket). My FIRST comment (ht 2 sgtcpt) that I made this morning dropped out/didn’t post. Bad Gun Bunny.

    ‘Bout the time I get the dust bunnies under control from reading Denise Williams’ account of her Hero Son, y’all went and doubled up on this and the other Heroes that served on Wake. Maybe that rain that’s supposed to slip thru will wash the pollen away and it won’t be so dusty here at Fire Base Magnolia.

    Battery Gun Salute to Doctor Lawton E. (Lou) Shank and the Warriors he cared for that were murdered by the trash from Hell. Fire by the piece…from right to left…COMMENCE FIRING!

    Thanks Mason for this Heroes Story and Thanks to ninja for the added linkys.