Defense of Wake Island 1941



The Battle of Wake Island (8-23 December 1941) was a fight in which the American defenders, primarily U. S. Marines and civilian contractors, held off a Japanese invasion force for fifteen days. Only after the Japanese doubled the size of their invasion force were the outnumbered Americans forced to surrender.

For two desperate weeks, the little garrison on Wake Island had held out against relentless Japanese sea and air attacks. The atoll was one of the most remote places on earth, a V-shaped tendril of sand, scrub, and coral rock, 2,300 miles from Oahu, 2,000 miles from Tokyo, 600 miles north of the only slightly less godforsaken atolls of the northern Marshall Islands and the Japanese airfields from which the daily bombing raids had come. Wake and its two small sister islets of Wilkes and Peale, comprising about three square miles all told, were remnants of the partly submerged rim of an ancient volcano. They encircled a shark-infested, cobalt blue lagoon, too shallow and thickly strewn with coral heads to accommodate ships of any draft. With a peak elevation of 20 feet, the islands were so close to the sea that ships might pass within a dozen miles and never know they were there. They had no palm trees, no freshwater sources, produced no food other than fish, and were populated only by flightless birds, hermit crabs, and rats that had deserted some visiting ship decades or possibly centuries earlier. A primitive scrub clung to the parched coral soil. Waves broke across a fringing coral reef, and the din of booming surf was Wake’s everlasting background music. The sound was not unpleasant but very loud, so much so that men had to raise their voices to make themselves heard, and (perilously) the engines of approaching airplanes could not be detected until they were immediately overhead.

Wake’s sole value was as a way station, a link in the chain of islands connecting the United States to Asia through the axis of Oahu, Midway, Guam, and the Philippines. It had been annexed in 1899, first to serve as a cable relay on the transpacific telegraph, later as a coaling station and a refueling stop for the Pan-American China Clipper Service, whose big four-engine passenger seaplanes landed in the lagoon twice a week. In January 1941, the navy had constructed a 4,500-foot crushed-coral airstrip, and had been working with what little manpower and material resources were on hand to improve defensive installations and ground support facilities for aircraft. The lagoon’s small sea-channel was being dredged and coral heads dynamited with the intention of developing an anchorage for large ships. About 1,000 civilian construction workers were converting the Pan-Am facilities on Peale Island into an expanded air station. Two military camps, each with barracks, offices, and storehouses, stood at opposite ends of Wake. A garrison of 450 officers and men of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion was stationed at the shore batteries and defensive works along the southern beaches of Wake and Wilkes islands; many of those men were quartered in tents. The atoll’s entire air force consisted of the twelve F4F-3 Wildcats of Marine Fighting Squadron 211 (VMF-211), which had flown in from the carrier Enterprise four days before the war.

At noon on December 8 (local date), just hours after the raid on Pearl, Wake was attacked by thirty-four G3M medium bombers operating from the island of Roi in the Marshall Islands. They glided in from the south, under the clouds, at altitude 1,500 feet. No one saw or heard them until less than a minute before the first bombs fell. Four of the Wildcats were patrolling at 12,000 feet, but did not spy the enemy bombers 10,000 feet beneath them. Two more planes had been ordered into the sky but had not yet taken off. Eight new blue-gray marine fighters, two thirds of Wake’s entire air strength, were parked almost wing to wing on the edge of the strip. They were not properly dispersed because there was very little room on the cramped airfield to disperse them. The G3Ms roared overhead in a tight “Vee-of-vee” formation and dropped their sticks of 60-kilogram fragmentation bombs with lethal accuracy: they fell directly among the parked aircraft and adjoining machine shops. At the same time the Japanese gunners strafed the pilots and ground crews who were caught out in the open. Dozens of men were cut down in their tracks as they ran across the airfield. The attack unfolded very quickly; the bombers were there and then they were gone. They banked left to attack Camp 2 and the Pan-Am Terminal on Peale Island, wiping out several of the buildings and facilities in that area, and killing ten Pan-Am employees. Then they banked left again and raced away to the south. Neither the marine antiaircraft gunners nor the four planes in the air were able to react in time, and the attackers made a clean escape.

Wake’s senior officer, Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, learned of the attack when a line of bullet holes walked across the ceiling of his Camp 2 headquarters. He leapt into his pickup truck and raced down the main road to the airfield. There, through a shimmering heat haze, he saw the charred hulks of eight precious Grummans, “flames licking over them from end to end.” Two large aviation fuel tanks had taken direct hits and detonated, and drums of gasoline along the airfield perimeter were ablaze. Oily black smoke boiled up from the fires and carried away to leeward. Tents had been shredded by machine-gun fire: the aerial gunners had missed nothing. Strewn across the hard-packed coral surface of the airstrip were “broken bodies and bits of what had once been men.”

As in the Philippines and Malaya, the initial Japanese airstrikes had come quickly, over a shockingly long range, and were conducted much more skillfully than the Allied airmen had expected. “Our planes on the ground were like targets in a carnival shooting gallery, stationary targets that could not shoot,” wrote one of the surviving pilots, Lieutenant John Kinney. Seven of the eight Wildcat fighters at the airfield were destroyed; the eighth was badly shot up but by a heroic patch-job was made airworthy. That left just five fighters to contest the ensuing waves of airstrikes. The strafing and bombing had taken a terrible toll on both the air and ground crews. Of VMF-211’s fifty-five men on the ground, twenty-three were killed and eleven wounded. Not a single aircraft mechanic escaped injury. The squadron had suffered more than 50 percent casualties in the first few minutes of combat.

Cunningham and his officers correctly guessed that the attack had come from Roi or one of the other airstrips of the northern Marshall Islands. Assuming the Japanese bombers would not fly at night, they worked backwards to deduce that another attack would fall the next day at midday. Pilots and mechanics, including several walking wounded, worked on repairing damage to the five serviceable planes. Bulldozers borrowed from the civilian contractors dug crude revetments in which to park those survivors. The remaining aviation fuel tanks were dispersed far away from the airfield. The wounded were transported to the Camp 2 hospital on the back of trucks. The Pan-Am seaplane, anchored in the lagoon, had been hit several times, but luckily none of its vital systems was beyond repair. The company asked for and received Cunningham’s permission to send the plane to Hawaii with as many of its employees as it could carry. (To Cunningham’s disgust, all of the company’s non-white employees were left behind.) For the sake of morale and common decency, the dead had to be removed from the field before they were swarmed by the island’s rapacious crabs. Burial details held back the crustacean horde until a dump truck arrived and transported the bodies to Camp 2, where they were placed in a refrigerated storehouse alongside ham hocks and sides of beef.

As anticipated, the next day’s air raid arrived shortly before noon, but this time the twenty-seven attacking G3Ms bombed from high altitude, about 12,000 feet. Again the bombing was alarmingly accurate, leaving many of the remaining buildings of Camp 2 in smoking ruins. An antiaircraft battery at Peacock Point was knocked out, and the fire control equipment for one of the 5-inch shore guns was damaged. All of the surviving Wildcats were in the air to receive the enemy, and managed to send one of the Japanese bombers flaming into the sea. The marine antiaircraft batteries also opened up and shot down one of the attacking planes, and another was observed with smoke trailing as it fled to the south. The airstrip suffered no serious damage, but as Lieutenant Kinney observed, “The destruction in the vicinity of Camp 2 was devastating. Barracks buildings, both civilian and navy, were riddled, machine shops and warehouses flattened. The most devastating aspect of that day’s raid, however, was the damage done to the civilian hospital at Camp 2. All of the wounded from the first day’s attack were there when the bombs started falling again. The hospital took at least one direct hit, probably several, and quickly burst into flames.” The patients and medical corpsmen were moved into two empty magazines, dark and airless chambers where at least they could count on some protection against bomb shrapnel.

The besieged garrison dug in for a long campaign, with grim hopes that the navy would come to the rescue. Airstrikes continued almost daily, usually arriving about midday. The pilots and mechanics, lacking maintenance manuals, spare parts, and tools, did their best to keep their handful of Wildcats flying by cannibalizing parts from the wrecked planes at the airfield. From about ten each morning, four fighters patrolled the skies above the atoll. On the 10th, they shot down two enemy bombers, and the antiaircraft gunners put up plenty of flak that appeared to damage two more. But the twin-engine Mitsubishis dropped a bomb directly onto a Wilkes Island storage shed that held 125 tons of dynamite (used by the civilian engineers to dredge the lagoon’s sea-channel). The colossal blast dismounted one of the antiaircraft guns, destroyed a searchlight truck half a mile away, and detonated all of the marine ammunition (both 3- and 5-inch) within a quarter mile. Range-finding equipment for one of the shore batteries was destroyed. Casualties, surprisingly, were limited to one killed and four wounded, but the garrison was so small that it could hardly afford to lose a man.

At three in the morning on December 11, marine lookouts detected faint silhouettes moving on the southern horizon. “They were like black ghosts slowly moving around out there on the ocean,” recalled Sergeant Charles Holmes. Studying them intently in the light of a half moon, the observers soon concluded they were a column of ships. Commander Cunningham was alerted. Some hoped that they might be friendly ships, a relief force from Pearl Harbor, and a few of the civilian contractors actually ran down to the beach with bags in hand, hoping to be among the first to be taken on board. Either Cunningham or the marine garrison commander, Major James Devereux, decided to keep the searchlights dark and hold fire until the ships had closed to within close range. (Both men claimed credit for the decision, leading to hard feelings after the war.) If the column included cruisers (as it did) their guns would probably be of larger caliber and longer range than Wake’s 5-inch shore guns. If so, the enemy could elect for a long-range artillery duel in which the Americans would be gravely disadvantaged. Devereux gave strict orders not to fire, but rather to “Stand quiet till I give the word to do anything.” As the ships advanced, anxiety grew among the marines: those suspenseful hours before dawn were harder on the nerves than actual combat. “We were scared to death,” Corporal Bernard Richardson later confessed. “We could see what was going to happen to us. We seemed to be surrounded . . . we could see that we were about to get it.”

The invasion force had sailed two days earlier from Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, under the command of Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka. There were thirteen ships in the column: six destroyers, three light cruisers, and four transports carrying 450 troops. Kajioka brought his ships directly in, close under the southern beaches; he apparently assumed the shore guns had been knocked out of action by the airstrikes of the past three days, and had no inkling that he had been spotted and was being led into an ambush. At 5 a. m., with the blue glow of dawn breaking in the east, and the column about four miles off Peacock Point, the cruiser Yubari, Kajioka’s flagship, turned port and ran parallel to Wake’s southern beach. Her companions followed astern. A few minutes later, the cruisers opened fire. From that range the shells came in at a low trajectory, rumbling and whining in the ears of the American defenders. No direct hits were scored on any of the beach guns, still hidden beneath camouflage netting, and the marines remained snug in their bunkers and foxholes, but two oil tanks in the vicinity of Camp 1 were set ablaze. The Japanese transports hung back, and began transferring the landing parties into their boats.

At 6:15 a. m., when it seemed to the marines as if they had been waiting for hours, Major Devereux gave the word to open fire, and the 5-inchers on shore came to life. Battery A, at Peacock Point, opened up on the Yubari. The first salvo sailed high but struck a destroyer farther south; the gun crews depressed the elevation and scored four quick hits on Yubari at range 5,700 yards. Smoke boiled out of ugly holes torn in the flagship’s starboard side, but she was fortunate in that all of the shells had struck above the waterline, and she could still make way at diminished speed. She turned south and fled for safety. Battery L, on Wilkes Island, commanded by Lieutenant John A. McAlister, had a clear field of fire on almost the entire column, but aimed its first salvo at the first and closest of three destroyers advancing in a single column at range 7,000 yards. That was the Hayate, and she was soon to be no more.

The battery’s targeting equipment having been ruined in the previous day’s bombing run, McAlister had to find the range by the time-honored technique of firing and spotting the splashes made by the falling shells. With help from another position connected by telephone, Battery L “walked” its successive splashes toward the target. The Hayate charged into the teeth of those hostile salvos and turned port to bring her entire broadside to bear. The spirited approach only exposed the brave little “tin can” to the full brunt of Battery L’s next salvo, which struck home amidships and touched off her magazine. A jolt, a white flash, a thunderclap, and the Hayate was torn apart-her bow floated one way, her stern the other, each section bobbing pitifully on the sea, and then both quickly sank, taking 168 men down with them. The battery’s crew let out a full-throated cheer. “Knock it off, you bastards, and get back on the guns!” bellowed Platoon Sergeant Henry Bedell. “What do you think this is, a ball game?”

McAlister trained his guns onto the Oite, the next destroyer in the column, already turning south to flee. She laid down a smoke screen to conceal her retreat, but Battery L managed to land two hits on her upper works. McAlister lobbed several shots at two transports, much further to the east. Though the range was nearly two miles, he scored one hit on the Kongo Maru. Finally, McAlister trained his weapon on one of the light cruisers and struck her after-turret; she ran for safety, smoke trailing behind her. “Nothing could bother Battery L this morning,” Commander Cunningham later wrote gratefully. “Battery L was red hot.”

On Peale Island, Battery B took aim on the second column of destroyers, running north to pass west of the atoll, and scored a hit on the Yayoi, topsides near her stern. The Japanese gunners responded quickly and with great accuracy, landing shells close to the battery on every side and severing a fire control cable to a nearby spotting tower. “Their deflection was perfect from the very first but since they too were firing flat trajectory weapons, they found our low lying position difficult to hit in range,” Lieutenant Woodrow M. Kessler explained. “At first their shells burst with greenish-yellow picric acid blobs in the lagoon directly in front of us. Then they went over us to land on the north beach. Then they split the straddle and we were in the middle of their pattern. It was unbelievable to see so many shell bursts in the battery position and yet to suffer no casualties.” Taking local control of the gun, the crew fired several more salvos, eventually scoring a second hit on the Yayoi and possibly one on the Mutsuki. The destroyers turned south, blowing plenty of smoke as they went. Now the entire task force was on the run. At 7 a. m., Admiral Kajioka cancelled the landing and signaled a general retreat back to Kwajalein.

Soon the retiring ships were beneath the southern horizon, but the marines were not yet finished with them. The four remaining flyable F4F Wildcats had been circling high above the atoll, remaining at altitude to receive any Japanese airstrikes that might arrive in coordination with the invasion fleet. “Well, it looks as if there are no Nips in the air,” radioed the VMF-211 commander, Major Paul A. Putnam. “Let’s go down and join the party.”

The Grummans streaked south in chase. Being fighters and not bombers, they were not designed to sink ships, but they had been jury-armed with two small 100-pound bombs each, and they could strafe the enemy decks with their .50-caliber machine guns. Those four planes flew nine consecutive sorties, attacking the retreating task force and then returning to Wake over the gradually widening range for fresh bombs and more ammunition. The squadron’s air attacks knocked out a torpedo tube on the cruiser Tenryu, wiped out the radio shack on the cruiser Tatsuta, strafed the transport Kongo Maru and set her on fire, and sank a second destroyer, the Kisaragi, by lighting up a rack of depth charges in her magazine. The planes were hit by flak and machine-gun fire, and although none was shot down, all were shot up. One Grumman’s bullet-riddled engine lost so much oil on its return leg that the pilot was forced to crash-land on the beach; he walked away, but his plane would never fly again.

The gun crews and aviators had damaged nine of the thirteen ships in Kajioka’s invasion force, sinking two. Japanese losses were never reported, but were probably in the range of 500 dead and twice that number wounded. Remarkably, only one American had been killed and only four wounded. That was the sole instance in the entire war to come in which shore batteries turned back an amphibious invasion force. The marines were exultant. “When the Japanese withdrew, you’d have thought we’d won the war,” said one Battery L gunner. It had been a remarkable victory, especially after the ruinous bombing raids of the past three days, and was the only such performance of any Allied unit during the initial Japanese offensive. “I am very certain every man on that island grew a good two inches at least,” wrote a sergeant assigned to Devereux’s staff. “Several people stopped by and congratulated Devereux. We had some kind of hope. We felt great. We were Marines, weren’t we?”

But Wake could not hold out much longer. Only two aircraft remained in service. The island was short of critical equipment, ammunition, and manpower. It needed to be reinforced, rearmed, and resupplied-or failing that, evacuated and abandoned to the enemy. “They had no illusions about the future and expected the enemy to return in greater force,” wrote Samuel Eliot Morison, “but they assumed that the Navy would make an earnest attempt to relieve them.”


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