Memoir of a Civilian POW
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December 1, 1999
Below is a transcript of the first part of our interview with Mr. James Allen. Questions are in italics. Links to the sound files are in QuickTime format (see the righthand column for more information). Our sound files are provided in two versions, "Good" or "Better." The former is a faster download, but of lower quality than the latter.

What was your career as a civilian contractor like before your capture at Wake?

I was just a journeyman carpenter helping build houses, cantonments, at Ford Ord, Camp Roberts, Mather Field. And then -- there was a large gas tank, if any of you should happen to remember, down by the Terminal Annex in Los Angeles, the post office, on the banks of the Los Angeles River. I helped build the foundation for that large gas tank. Which it's not there today; it's been torn down already.

How long had you done this type of work?

Before Wake Island, it was only about three years, from 1939, other than as a young boy helping my grandfather. That was the big job of getting hired to go to Wake Island: they wanted carpenters to have 10 years' experience. I was 23 at the time, and I couldn't very well lie enough to have 10 years' experience! [Laughs.] Although I got several letters of recommendation, and eventually the man hired me.

What was Wake Island like before the war?

Well, it was a very small island, and 21 feet was the highest point on the group of islands. Many birds -- many, many birds, several different kinds -- there was the gooney bird, the frigate bird, the white tern ... and a lot of hermit crabs. I guess they were the natives. [Laughs.]

What was the relationship between the people on the island, the native people on the island, and the U.S. personnel?

"Native people" would be the hermit crabs -- there were no natives on the island ... other than employees of Pan American Airways, which established a hotel and a fueling station for the China Clippers in 1935.

What were the China Clippers?

The China Clippers? That was a seaplane, could land on water and take off. It was a four-engine plane, single wing. They had several of them. And they flew from San Francisco to Hawaii and stayed all night. Then they flew over to Midway Island and stayed all night. Midway down to Wake and stayed all night. Then they made it to Guam the next day and stayed all night, weather permitting, and then they went into, I believe Hong Kong or Manila. I'm not too familiar from Guam where they went, but I believe they did go to Manila and Hong Kong.

Describe what you knew of the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor and what people thought would happen on Wake Island.

Well, it was Monday morning on Wake Island, whereas it was Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, and of course we all got up, had breakfast, went to work, and we were working. The China Clipper took off that morning for Guam. And after some time, about an hour maybe, why here it was flying north of the island dumping gasoline -- see a real white streak coming out of it, and it landed. We noticed the Marines was a little active with their equipment -- motorcycles, trucks, cars going up and down the island in a hurry, much faster than they normally went. And then the word -- "scuttlebutt" as we called it -- got scattered around the job that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. And of course we didn't think too much about it, other than after you'd seen the Marines and one thing or another, yeah then you began to think something about it. We just kept on working, and when noontime came, why they had a big semi truck with benches on it that we rode to the mess hall. It arrived and was sitting out in front of the future mess hall for the Marines -- that's where I was working that morning -- I went around the building and headed that way and then the island started shaking and the walls of the glass warehouse across the street began shaking. In a little while, here comes a drove of bombers. They flew right over and they was headed right towards me, so I hit the ground. So there was a bomb fragment went through the left loin of my back and just -- drew blood was all, wasn't serious, thank goodness. Then there was a second, then I got up and was going to try and run further away, and I decided that "here come another bunch." And I'd happened to remember a story that a one-armed man was selling pencils down on Long Beach Boulevard in 1940, telling about how much fun he had over there flying with the Flying Tigers in a plane with a machine gun and how much fun it was, because they was running. He could see them when they was running. He said if they'd stayed still, he couldn't have seen them. I happened to think about that, so I decided to quit running. [Laughs.]

And they come over then, and another wave come over -- you could see the pilots, in the nose of the plane. You could see the two up there real well. So they passed over -- that all took maybe five minutes, at the most about five minutes. In the meantime, why, they had damaged seven airplanes out of 12 completely, destroyed a seventh, or eighth, and then they burned up Pam Am Hotel where the Clipper was tied up at the dock. They put a few holes, machine gun bullets in the Clipper. And then after they passed on, we got on the truck and went down to the mess hall. I don't know, I don't think we ever ate anything, if I remember correctly. But the superintendent got up and told all of us, who had been training with the Marines -- who had more equipment than they had men -- and they'd asked for some volunteers to come out at night and they'd try and teach us how to use some of their equipment, which I was one of the many who did. They come to the barracks with their trucks and picked us up and took us out and brought us back, two nights a week.

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