Click here to see wartime correspondence between John Dolezal and his family.
It was dinnertime back in Wahoo on Dec. 7, 1941, when a Nebraskan a long way from home started to live his own personal day of infamy.
John Dolezal wasn't anywhere near Pearl Harbor, and he was barely in the military; his paperwork to join the Marines as a reservist hadn't even reached Washington.
But as Japanese bombers bore down, the 32-year-old Wahoo native and employee of a military construction company found himself running ammunition to a small group of Marines trying to repel the attack and protect a tiny island from overwhelming enemy firepower.
Soon Dolezal and 1,100 other military contractors found themselves in the middle of the Battle of Wake Island, an often-ignored fight that began only hours after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
And soon enough, Dolezal would find himself a prisoner of war who for 44 months relied on several extraordinary acts of kindness to keep him alive as he endured forced labor and neared starvation.
Today, as many focus on the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Omaha relatives of Dolezal think it's high time that the attack on Wake Island catches our attention, too.
Here is the first thing you need to know about it, they say: Historians call it “the Alamo of the Pacific” for a reason.
“The Japanese expected no resistance,” said Dan Gruber, Dolezal's great-nephew and an amateur historian who now holds many of Dolezal's letters and memorabilia from the war. “They got a lot more than they bargained for.”
Dolezal never expected any combat when he signed up to work for Morrison-Knudsen, a defense contractor that had won the job to construct a military base on a tiny island in the North Pacific Ocean.
It was a chance to make double or triple the money he could make in rural Nebraska, said his niece Dolores Gruber, who knew Dolezal as a child. It was a chance to get off the farm and see the world.
Once on Wake Island, Dolezal took up an offer by a Marine officer on the base and trained to become a reservist, his family members said. But that training mostly consisted of shooting rifles and throwing grenades into the wilderness, he told his family.
But what little training Dolezal had became crucial on Dec. 7 — actually Dec. 8 on Wake Island, as it's across the international date line.
With little warning, 27 Japanese bombers attacked, set the island's airstrip aflame and turned the area into something resembling “a scene from Dante's 'Inferno,'” according to a seminal history of the attack, “Pacific Alamo,” written by John Wukovits, a military expert.
On Dec. 11, after repeated bombardment, a fleet of Japanese ships attempted a land invasion on Wake Island.
It didn't work. The 400 Marines — a grab-bag of other military personnel and the civilian workers — somehow managed to repel the invasion with heavy artillery they had hidden from the earlier Japanese bombing.
The Japanese fleet retreated, marking what would be the one and only unsuccessful amphibious invasion of the entire Second World War.
But they returned less than two weeks later, this time with fighter planes, destroyers and more than 1,500 men.
Within hours, every U.S. military member and civilian on the island was forced to surrender.
On Christmas Eve, Dolezal helped dig a giant hole that he was sure would become a mass grave meant to hold his body, he later told his family. He and many others stood in front of this hole, at gunpoint, their fate sealed.
And then the order came: Most of the American prisoners, including Dolezal, were going to Japan.
He was forced onto a ship. During the weekslong trip, suffering from an unknown medical problem, Dolezal became unable to use his legs, he told family members.
A Japanese guard prepared to throw Dolezal overboard, but before he could, a Japanese doctor onboard stopped the guard, convincing him that Dolezal's medical problem could be studied.
Dolezal told his family after the war that the Japanese doctor had made up that lie on the spot to save his life.
Dolezal remained on the ship. He regained the use of his legs. And soon he was in China, working on construction projects for the Japanese under the watchful eye of more guards with guns.
Back in Nebraska, Dolezal's family had no idea he was alive. In fact, it was late 1942 before family members got word that a Red Cross list of prisoners of war included his name.
Dolezal's first letter home didn't arrive until the spring of 1944. He had been writing his parents and siblings religiously, but those letters had never been mailed by the Japanese.
In Dolezal's letter home he includes information about food, including a Christmas meal given to the prisoners by the Red Cross.
Then comes a paragraph ostensibly about high school baseball, where he appears to write about a team, “Zluthy,” that won last year but may be beaten this year. “Where do their weakness lie in their pitching, fielding or batting? How are the other leagues? It will be a happy day to be home again at a game.”
Except there was no team name Zluthy, his family members said. Dolezal wasn't writing about baseball at all. Using sports and a sprinkling of Czech words, including those meaning hunger and cold, he was writing in code about the war and his mistreatment.
Zluthy are the Japanese.
Family members actually showed Dolezal's first letter to military officials, Dan Gruber said, hoping that it would increase understanding of the prisoners' plight.
In 1945, after nearly four years in captivity, Dolezal returned to Nebraska.
He had been physically abused, watched Marines die of starvation, and melted to less than 100 pounds.
He had been sustained by his sense of humor and by what he saw as small but meaningful gifts from humanity — a young Japanese man the prisoners named “The OK Kid” used to give him sugar and sweets when the guards weren't looking, for example.
He had worn a rosary for the entire captivity. By the time the war ended, the beads had worn off, but the chain and the cross remained around his neck.
“They took everything else away from him,” Dan Gruber said. “That's the only thing they would let him keep.”
For the rest of his life, John Dolezal would work as an insurance agent in Columbus, but he would also suffer from anxiety attacks and flashbacks, things that today would be diagnosed and treated as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He would live only until 1958 and the age of 49. A doctor who performed an autopsy on Dolezal told his family that because of his years in the prison camp, “he had the insides of an 80-year-old,” Dolores Gruber said.
But in the summer of 1945, none of that mattered yet. John Dolezal stepped off a train in Omaha's Union Station, which is now the Durham Museum.
He hugged his mother, his sisters and his extended family members, including his teenage niece, Dolores Gruber. He cried.
And then everyone headed back to Wahoo. Soon it would be dinnertime.
He had survived Wake Island. And now John Dolezal wanted to eat.
“We had a celebration that night, a real one,” Dolores Gruber said. “He and all those guys (on Wake Island) did so much for this country. We want them remembered, too.”
Letters from a POW
Click on the images below for a closer look at the correspondence between John Dolezal and his parents and siblings. Dolezal's family didn't receive a letter from him until early 1944 – the Japanese had previously destroyed the letters he had written and attempted to send to Nebraska.
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