Ninety-year-old Frank R. Mace, of Cheney, was a prisoner of war in Japan and an accidental atomic veteran – one of the few Americans briefly exposed to the deadly atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.
At the time, Mace had been laboring in a Japanese POW camp in Nagoya. In the 44 months since his capture on Wake Island after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the former minor league baseball player nicknamed “Curley” had dropped 81 pounds from his 187-pound frame. Beaten repeatedly during a regimen of forced labor, he was trying to survive on two cups of rice doled out each day.
Mace said he and 24 other American POWs who had been making steel ingots in Nagoya were picked to repair a crippled destroyer in a harbor about 13 miles from downtown Nagasaki. They were working hard on the ship’s damaged hull that fateful August day. The B-29 Superfortress named Bock’s Car had diverted to Nagasaki, its secondary target, under military orders because its primary target, Kokura, was clouded over.
“We were riveting steel plates at the time,” Mace recalled in an interview at his home. “One guy said, ‘Look at the smoke!’ Five minutes later, we couldn’t breathe and we dove into the water.”
A thin pocket of air just above the surface and under the billowing cloud enabled the men to breathe until their captors returned to haul them away in trucks, Mace recalled.
Mace said he and his fellow POWs knew nothing about the top-secret atomic bomb – only later learning of the health hazards from the dusty storm of radiation that spread over the harbor where they were working. Mace, who lost his body hair from the fallout immediately afterward and later survived prostate and kidney cancer, said he’s the last survivor of the Nagasaki work crew.
“Cancer got them all,” he said, referring to a list of the men in the harbor that day.
Mace has no second thoughts about the atomic bombs that ended the war. He said his captors had told him if American troops ever set foot on Japanese soil, all the POWs would be killed.
“If they hadn’t dropped the bombs, I wouldn’t be here,” said Mace, who belongs to an atomic veterans group and a POW association. He has volunteered thousands of hours at Spokane’s Veterans Administration Medical Center and has served as chaplain of the American Legion’s Cheney chapter, Post 72.
In the 1980s, Mace began writing a book about his World War II experiences, which he eventually self-published under the title: “The Story of Wake Island: Before, During and After Life as a Prisoner of War of the Japanese for 44 Months.” He has distributed dozens of copies of the book to VA hospitals, and he relishes telling lengthy, elaborate tales of his time in captivity.
A Medical Lake High School graduate, Mace had studied to be a chaplain but left that program in January 1941 to go to Wake Island as a carpenter foreman for Morrison-Knudsen Co., a Boise company with a contract to build a seaplane and submarine base on the four-mile long atoll 2,200 miles west of Pearl Harbor. A Morrison-Knudsen roster lists Mace among the Americans eventually captured by the Japanese on Wake Island.
More men came to the strategically important island every few months. A Marine depot was built, plus a barracks for more than 400 Marines. Camp II housed about 1,200 civilians, including Mace.
When Wake Island was attacked by 36 Japanese bombers the day after Pearl Harbor, Mace was conscripted into the Marines and later the Navy to help defend the island. He said he was chosen to serve as chaplain and read simple prayers for Americans who died in a continuing, lethal wave of air attacks.
Mace said he used his baseball pitching arm to lob grenades into two barges pushed ashore by a Japanese landing party. The grenades detonated the ammunition on the barges, killing some of the invaders, Mace recalled.
But two weeks later, the battle of Wake Island was over. American planes and most of the ammunition were gone.
On Dec. 23, 1941, the Japanese “came in with 46 bombers just before lunch. They captured us. They tied our hands behind our backs with barbed wire and stripped us down to our underpants. We didn’t have a meal for three days,” Mace recalled.
On Christmas Day, the prisoners were marched back to their barracks under heavy guard. The men were put to work rebuilding the island for the Japanese. Most, including Mace, were transferred to prison camps in China and Japan in January 1942.
Some civilian survivors never made it off the island. On Oct. 7, 1943, 98 American POWs who remained were blindfolded and shot in the back; after the war, the admiral who ordered their deaths was hanged as a war criminal and the bones of the POWs were moved to Hickam Field in Honolulu, where a memorial stands today.
Mace’s book is illustrated with sketches by the late Joseph Astarita, of Brooklyn, N.Y., a fellow civilian construction worker listed among the Morrison-Knudsen crew who became a POW along with Mace. Astarita’s drawings, first shown in New York in 1947, documented the battle for Wake Island, including the Japanese capture of the Americans and the transfer of the survivors by prison ship.
The stark black-and-white drawings depict the suffering of the prisoners: a teacupful of rice for dinner. Hard labor for 16 to 18 hours at a time at a camp in Woo Sung, China, their first destination before being moved to Japan four months later. The bitter winters, where the POWs marched up and down inside their flimsy cabins to keep warm. Beatings with bamboo sticks that caused running sores.
The sketches were drawn on toilet paper, folded up and sewn inside the sweatband of a hat that Mace said he always wore. If they’d been discovered, Mace said he and Astarita would have been summarily executed.
Mace brought the hat and its precious contents home after the war, donating them to the Marines.
On Wake Island, he said, he was ordered to burn the bodies and pick up the bones of hundreds of Japanese soldiers who died in the attack. He witnessed the beheading of five Americans when the prison ship Nita Maru steamed into Yokohama – a staged punishment meted out as thousands of Japanese watched and photos of the beheaded men were snapped for newspapers in Shanghai and Tokyo.
“They kicked their bodies off in the bay. They never took the rest of us off the ship,” Mace recalled.
As part of his chaplain’s duties while a prisoner in Japan, Mace said he was put in charge of cremating and storing the ashes of his compatriots who died in the camps. Many of the small boxes were packed with personal possessions and affixed with identification labels with the goal of delivering them to surviving family members after the war.
Mace says his Christian faith carried him through dark days.
When he got pneumonia in 1943 and lay near death with a high fever in a hospital in Kobe, he had a vision of a figure with long hair and a white robe who reached out and took his hand. “You have lots of work to do for me; get out of that bed and walk with me,” the figure said.
“The next morning the doctor came in and said it was a miracle I was still alive. From that day on I got better,” Mace said.
Of the 1,200 men captured on Wake Island, 450 died in the camps. About 60 remain alive, Mace said.
When the tide of war turned against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, Mace said, they took it out on the Americans.
He said he was repeatedly beaten, strung up by his hands and left to dangle in the air.
“I can’t bend my wrists backwards to this day,” he said, raising his arms to display his rigid joints.
A portion of his family history was also published by Ye Galleon Press of Fairfield, Wash., in 1997. It mentions his work for Morrison-Knudsen, some of his POW experiences in Japan and his arrival in San Francisco on Oct. 2, 1945, where he spent two weeks at Letterman General Hospital being checked over by doctors before returning to Spokane.
When he arrived home, his parents came in from Four Lakes to meet him at Great Northern Depot. A niece introduced him to Marcia Lee Peterson, and he was married on April 11, 1946, at Four Lakes Grange. The Maces have three grown children, two grandchildren and a great-grandchild, and have been married 61 years.
Mace has received an award for volunteering 15,000 hours at the VA hospital. He’s also active in a POW group in Spokane, which he said has about 100 members – most of them widows of former POWs.
It took decades for the military to formally recognize the role of the civilian POWs in the defense of Wake Island. Mace said he received his discharge papers from the Navy in 1981. “They were 36 years late,” he said. He also was awarded two bronze stars and five Purple Hearts for wounds sustained on Wake Island.
Mace is still not forgiving his captors: “I’ll forgive them the day they say they’re sorry for bombing Pearl Harbor.”