Review: Wake Island Pilot
- Published: 01 May 2010 01 May 2010
- Last Updated: 12 July 2013 12 July 2013
John F. Kinney
Wake Island Pilot is the remarkable first person account of Marine aviator John F. Kinney. A career Marine, the author enlisted in 1938 and took part in the defence of Wake Island before being taken prisoner by the Japanese. Following over three years of captivity he escaped to freedom. Kinney retired from the Marine Corps a brigadier general in 1959. He subsequently worked in civil aviation and aircraft development.
From his earliest days Kinney was determined to fly. However, the author’s passion for aviation and aptitude for mechanics and engineering were not enough to overcome a diagnosis of colour blindness by Army and Navy flight surgeons. On the advice of a friend, Kinney applied for Marine flight training and, to his surprise, passed his physical. After checking out on a progression of ever more complicated machines Kinney was posted to VMF-211 as a Grumman F4-F Wildcat pilot. Stationed in Hawaii at the outset of the Second World War the author, and most of his squadron, were transferred to the small air base at Wake Island only days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The author’s account of the defence of Wake Island is riveting and certainly one of the highlights of the book. After the first Japanese airstrike destroyed most of the squadron’s planes Kinney was put in charge of repair and maintenance for VMF-211’s surviving aircraft. Lacking technical manuals, adequate tools or trained mechanics, Kinney and his overworked ground crews nonetheless kept the squadron’s remaining planes in the air until every last machine was out of action. With no planes left an exhausted and unwell Kinney was admitted to the base infirmary. Soon afterwards Japanese troops stormed the island and took the remaining garrison prisoner. Following a horrendous sea passage Kinney and his fellow POWs found themselves behind the wire in Japanese occupied China. They would remain there for over three years.
Beyond the random brutality of the guards, malnutrition, neglect, disease, harsh weather and boredom were a persistent difficulty for prisoners. To improve morale and living conditions in the camps Kinney constructed a number of ingenious gadgets including a tiny radio, a compass, an electric blanket and an air blower to start coal fires during winter. He was not the only amateur inventor; the base power supply was so regularly tapped that the camp had the highest electric bill in Shanghai, a fact that befuddled the commandant. The author’s view of his captors varied with experience. The sadistic behaviour of some camp guards contrasted markedly with the humane behaviour of a Japanese admiral who invited him to dinner or a naval interpreter who took Kinney shopping in Shanghai.
Thoughts of escape and freedom pervaded Kinney’s mind throughout his incarceration. He took his chance in early 1945 when the Japanese were relocating the POW’s to a new camp. After a daring escape from a moving train the author was picked up by Chinese Communist troops, who conducted him safely to Nationalist lines, and ultimately to an American transport plane that Kinney himself flew for part of the return journey. The author’s observations about the differing conduct his Nationalist and Communist hosts hints at why it was Mao, and not Chiang, who ultimately prevailed in the conflict. With his return to the United States and the end of the war the final chapters of Wake Island Pilot read as a postscript to the author’s wartime experience. Kinney outlines his Korean service and civil aviation work but this period is inevitably less dramatic than preceding chapters.
Kinney’s work is candid and thoughtful. His comments on the qualities of the aircraft he piloted will interest aviation enthusiasts while his descriptions of camp life will help readers to better understand the fate of the thousands of Americans taken prisoner in the first months of the war. The author also gives the reader a good sense of the insular views held by many Americans during the pre-war years. While Kinney has no axes to grind he does challenge the misperception (fostered in part by the 1942 film Wake Island) that the defence of Wake was solely a Marine affair and that Navy Commander Winfield S. Cunningham was an ineffectual leader. While acknowledging the contribution of Marine Defence Battalion commander James Devereux to the battle, Kinney credits Cunningham for the dogged defence of the island. Wake Island Pilot contains several pages of photographs, the most striking of which were taken by Communist guerrillas of Kinney behind Japanese lines.
On balance Wake Island Pilot represents a fine addition to the literature on the Pacific War and the POW experience. His is a memoir well worth reading and it is heartily recommended by this reviewer.
(Reviewed by K.H. Roberts)