August 29, 2011

Columbus Darwin Smith: prisoner of war 1941

(Ship photo courtesy of NavSource)

There are lots of soldiers in our family tree who fought in every war in U.S. history. I know of none who were killed in action and two who were captured and held as prisoners of war. One of the latter was Columbus Darwin Smith, a first cousin once removed of Soapy Smith. He was captured as the commander of the USS Wake on December 8, 1941 and made a heroic and successful escape in 1944. During the time of his detainment he was officially listed by the U.S. government as dead.

Not a whole lot is currently known (by me) about his personal life. I know he was born about February 1890 in Georgia according to the 1900 and 1910 census. Both his parents along with a couple of his siblings and little is known of them.

Here is what I learned about Columbus' capture, from the website For clarity I am changing a few sentences here and there but all the credit goes to the HMSFalcon link above.

Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor there were a number of American and English warships present at Shanghia, China. Just before the attack both nations removed their ships leaving a small force presence. The English H.M.S. Peterel and the American U.S.S. Wake were the last remaining warships on December 8, 1941, the day of the Pearl Harbor attack (time differences make it December 7, 1941 in Hawaii). Smith had received a telephone call the night before from a Japanese officer he knew. The officer asked where Smith would be the next morning as he wanted to deliver some turkeys for Smith and his crew. The Japanese did the same to other American officers and officials so as to determine where they would be on December 8th. That next morning the Wake was tied up at a pier, it's crew consisted of fourteen (eight of whom were radio operators) and she had been rigged with demolition charges. At 4:00 am she was approached by a large body of Japanese marines. Unaware of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that had occurred two hours earlier, the crew of both ships were not prepared for the sudden onslaught and were caught entirely by surprise, the Japanese forces taking control within minutes.

The Wake
(Photo courtesy of Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships)

The commanding officer of the Wake, Columbus Darwin Smith, the nominal Captain, was at his private apartment onshore in Shanghia. He had been given command of the ship in March 1941. On the morning of the attack he learned from his quatermaster of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Commander Smith rushed to the ship but it was too late. The Japanese had already captured the vessel. Ironically, the Japanese captured one of the radio operators just after he had received news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The author of the website  believes that, "had the Japanese boarded Wake just a few minutes later, she would have been at battle stations. Not a shot was fired and Wake suffered the ignominious distinction of being the only US Naval vessel captured during World War II without presenting any resistance."

The Tatara (formerly Wake)
(Photo courtesy of NavSource

When Commander Smith arrived at the dock the Japanese would not let him onboard. At that moment the Japanese opened fire on HMS Peterel and Commander Smith witnessed her sinking. Part of what he saw included the Japanese machine-gunning Royal Navy sailors in the water as HMS Peterel sank. The story of the Peterel can be viewed on the same link above.

Commander Smith and his crew were confined to a prison camp near Shanghai and the Wake was renamed HIJMS Tatara and entered Japanese naval service.

Most of the aforementioned work describes Commander Smith's internment. Smith was a truly courageous individual and almost immediately made an escape from the Woosung POW camp. Unfortunately, he was captured and spent a month in the infamous Bridge House, a facility used by the Japanese for interrogation and torture. The Japanese proceeded to try him for the escape and at one point his Japanese "defense attorney" requested that Smith be given the maximum sentence, death. The judge had already been given the sentence by his superiors, ten years in Ward Road Jail (Shanghai) with all of Smith's military and civilian rights revoked. Ward Road Jail was a high security prison from which no one had ever escaped and an escape attempt at this point would inevitably lead to beheading. While awaiting his fate Columbus thought often of family. He did his best to remember every conversation he had ever had with family members. It was during one of these rememberances that he recalled being told he was related to a famous old west outlaw called Soapy Smith. Undaunted by his initial failure to escape, Smith methodically began planning his next escape and went over the wall in September of 1944. Amazingly, by foot (and occasionally sampan) he made his way through 700 miles of Japanese infested territory to Nationalist Chinese troops. Thereafter he was repatriated to US forces. (It should be noted Commander Smith managed his escape to freedom with two fellow comrades, Commander John B. Woolley of the Royal Navy and US Marine Jerold B. Storey)

In 1945 The Wake was captured by American forces. In 1946 she was presented to China and renamed Tai Yuan. In 1949 Chinese Communist forces captured the ship and utilized the ship for unknown purposes. The history of its fate has not yet been learned. As of 2010, no other ship of the U.S. Navy has been named Wake.

A history of the Wake can be found on Wikipedia, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, NavSource Outline.

An excellent work, Officially Dead - The Story of Commander C.D. Smith, by Quentin Reynolds briefly recounts the taking of USS Wake. The book was reprinted in 1971 under the title, He Came Back by the same author, Quentin Reynolds. I have yet to read the book but have it on order.

Jeff Smith



  1. I too have it on order. I read this book in elementary or Jr high and have been trying to get my hands on it for well over 30 years, without remembering the title or author. Made an impression on me I guess. Amazing what google can do. CP

  2. Jeff, I have a copy of "Officially Dead" -- just finished it -- a fine read
    Gene Dorris

    1. Hi, Gene. Last weekend I found my copy in storage and pulled it out for another read through.


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