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Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941-1945

Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941–1945 by Gregory J. W. Urwin. Naval Institute Press, 2010, 512 pp.

The adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” perfectly applies to Gregory Urwin’s Victory in Defeat. The title may lead some potential readers to dismiss the book as simply another treatment of World War II with a focus on US Marines or prisoners of war (POW). If that is the case, then they are missing a treasure trove that enriches the reader’s soul. Urwin’s extensive research brings his characters and a semblance of their experiences to life. Specifically, his interviews with several American POWs and their Japanese captors, together with references to historical documents and other sources, lend vivid clarity to the scenarios and atrocities, making readers feel as if they were living in the moment.

The author’s mastery of his subject shines through in objective descriptions of cultural influences, geographic landscapes, and perspectives derived from interactions with the people involved. The presence of extensive notes and references bolsters Urwin’s scholarly credibility, and he remains up front and transparent concerning any research limitations that he might have encountered. His approach also highlights what many would argue is an ongoing battle in today’s Air Force dealing with discrimination fueled by biases and selective attention. Ethnocentrism—both American and Japanese—contributed to barrier building. However, experiences revealed that individuals often dispelled the stereotype, enabling human compassion to work to the benefit of the Wake Island defenders (WID) and prison mates.

Leadership remains a key to breaking the stereotypes, especially if Airmen realize that they are both leaders and followers. The WIDs’ decision to work as a team to guarantee survival and hope in a prosperous future should remain a call to arms for today’s Airmen—not only to prevail in situations over which we have little control (e.g., the global economy, the engagement of state and nonstate actors, and political change) but also to develop effective strategies for our successors to implement.

Coupled with overcoming barriers such as gender, race, competitive categories, and age (a critical lesson learned from Urwin’s themes) is the power of resilience, in terms of both the individual and the community. These themes mirror those found in the Air Force’s Comprehensive Airman Fitness (CAF) concept. Adapted from the US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, CAF initially sought to reverse the trend of suicides and suicidal ideations in the service. However, key players recognized the need to address underlying root causes to help individuals make good behavioral choices rather than continue conduct that produces suicidal thoughts or actions.

The collaborative approach used in developing CAF reflects the WIDs’ efforts, both of which share the goal of becoming strong before, during, and after the emphasis on diversity. For example, although the WIDs were physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially resilient prior to capture, new circumstances that affected any one of those four areas resulted in greater reliance on social aspects to strengthen the other three. The healthier WID POWs shared rations with their weaker companions, and others offered to undergo punishment designated for POWs less able to endure it. Such selflessness reinforced a determination to survive and ensure that no one was left behind.

The Air Force’s core values of “Service before Self, Integrity, and Excellence in All We Do” reverberated in my mind as I read this book. Just as the WIDs and others before us paved the way by using similar principles to serve our nation and humanity, so did the CAF concept synthesize our core values to build a foundation for overcoming uncertainty among individuals and the service as a whole. When sickness or execution reduced the number of WIDs, they abandoned their previously held biases in favor of ensuring survival of the group. Lessons learned from Victory in Defeat serve as a template that current and future Airmen can employ to hone individual skills, thereby strengthening the Air Force and allowing it to thrive under any circumstance.

Lt Col Katherine A. Strus, USAF
Peterson AFB, Colorado

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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