John Day resident Leslie Traylor said her father, Oscar “Whitey” Lent, was always just her dad.
However, before he was her dad, Lent, a longtime John Day resident and business owner who died in 1982, was one of over 1,000 civilian contractors taken prisoner in December 1941, when Japanese troops overran Wake Island in the western Pacific Ocean.
“He was just our dad, but when you look at (his diary), you can see he was another person before he was our dad,” she said. “Before us, dad had a whole other life.”
Author Bonita “Bonnie” Gilbert, who teaches history at North Idaho College, said the Battle of Wake Island, a 16-day siege, occurred the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Gilbert said most civilians aided Marines in the defense and the manning of the guns to defend the island.
Gilbert, who wrote “Building for War: The Epic Saga of the Civilian Contractors and Marines of Wake Island in World War II,” said 93 Americans were killed, while many more were rounded up and captured, including Lent and Gilbert’s father, Ted Olson, and grandfather, Harry Olson.
Gilbert said 44 civilians and 49 soldiers died in the siege.
She said the Japanese massacred an additional 98 civilian prisoners of war on the island in 1943, and a total of 194 civilian and military POWs died on Wake Island from 1941 to 1945.
As many of the 1,145 contractors, Lent worked for Morrison-Knudsen Co. of Boise and recruited laborers from the region to build roads on Wake Island. In winter 1941, the country was still in the midst of the Depression, and good-paying jobs were scarce.
Gilbert said about 135 were from Oregon. Lent, who grew up in Portland, was about 19-years-old when he traveled to Wake Island, Traylor said.
By coincidence, Traylor said, Lent was imprisoned with two people from John Day: brothers-in-law R.W. Hardesty and George Walker, who did not make it out of the camp.
Lent, who kept a journal of his time at the camp, marked both men’s deaths with an “x.”
In addition to documenting both Hardesty and Walker’s deaths, Lent wrote about the bets he made with the other men at camp about when the war would end.
Traylor said they wagered things like a box of Uno bars, or five pounds of the best chocolates.
In one entry that Traylor read Thursday, Lent wrote: “He says the war will be over by December 1, 1943, one quart of Canadien Club Whiskey.
“I say the average height of draftees of this war is 5 feet, 8 inches. He says 5 feet, 7 inches, one box of Van Dyne chocolate-covered cherries.”
Traylor said she imagines these things kept them going because they were reminders of home and helped them keep their sanity in such harrowing conditions.
And harsh conditions they were. According to Gilbert, the Japanese took Lent, Hardesty and Walker to the absolute worst POW camp in Japan, where over 50 of the 250 prisoners died in the first year.
Lent, Traylor said, moved the family to John Day around 1950, when she was 2 years old.
According to her older brother, Larry, Lent, like many POWs, was reticent about his experience.
Larry said he got most of Lent’s stories through other people — many of whom Lent was imprisoned with, Larry noted.
For instance, Larry said, Lawrence Gillis, who Larry said Lent named him after, told him how both he and Lent had fungus sores due to the prison’s poor, filthy conditions.
Lent had to have ulcers cut out of his neck with spoons sharpened with rocks, while Gillis had to cut half of his thumb off.
It was these traumatic experiences that make Traylor and Larry believe he had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
“And a lot of that was traumatic,” Larry said. “I mean, there were times when my dad would drink, and I would get called from downtown because he’d be talking Japanese or something.”
Larry said once he would get him home, he would lay him on the couch and play opera music.
“He loved opera music,” he said. “And that would calm him down.”
Larry said his dad, who owned a bar in town, was a huge music lover who could play the harmonica, accordion and piano.
It was on Wake Island, Larry said, where Lent learned how to play the piano.
“He didn’t know how to play the piano, but a guy there drew out a piano in the sand and taught him to play the piano in the sand,” Larry said, “I mean the keys and stuff. And I was probably 10 or 11 years old before I’d ever heard him ever play anything.”
Larry said his dad was tough, which he believes helped him survive his four years on Wake Island.
“Dad was a fighter,” Larry said.