The Relief of Wake Island 1941



Vice Adm. William S. Pye, whose decision to abandon the relieve of Wake Island resulted in his eternal hatred by the U. S. Marine Corps. Pye’s appointment as temporary CINCPAC shocked Layton, who vividly recalled the admiral’s Dec. 6 prediction. Others noticed that Pye, after having dismissed the Imperial Japanese Fleet threat out of hand, had now done a complete about face and seemed to be particularly gun-shy about engaging it, especially when he read any intelligence report containing the words “Japanese carrier.” Even so, Pye did not countermand Task Force 14’s mission. He also allowed a diversionary attack on the Japanese-held Marshall Islands by the carrier Lexington to continue.

Admiral Kimmel, soon to be relieved by Nimitz, had given plenty of thought to Wake Island even before December 7. The previous April he had surmised that the little atoll might serve as bait to bring Japanese naval forces out into the open, “thus offering us an opportunity to get at naval forces with naval forces.” On Wednesday, December 10, Kimmel approved an audacious plan to deploy all three of his carrier task forces far to the west, where with a little luck they might ambush the Japanese fleet and troopships he expected to converge on Wake. Saratoga, en route from California, would be placed under the command of Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. She would be the nucleus of a task force (No. 14) that would reinforce Wake, while evacuating the wounded and civilian workers. A detachment of the 4th Marine Defense Battalion, with ammunition, weapons, and supplies, would embark in the seaplane tender Tangier. (Though the initial plan did not call for the abandonment of Wake to the enemy, the option was there; Captain Charles H. McMorris, Kimmel’s chief war planning officer, had written on December 11 that the Tangier could take the island’s entire population of 1,500 aboard: “She would be crowded to an extreme degree, but I believe it could be done.”) Lexington (Task Force 11, Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, Jr.) would conduct a diversionary raid on the enemy airfield on Jaluit in the Marshall Islands, and then head northwest to join Fletcher if needed. Enterprise (Task Force 8, still under the command of Admiral Halsey) would cruise west of Johnston Island and be ready to raise steam and support her sisters if the engagement should develop into a major battle. With the various cruisers, destroyers, and auxiliaries attached to the three flattops, the expedition involved substantially all of the naval power (except submarines) available to Kimmel after the calamity of December 7.

From the start, the rescue mission was plagued by an almost unbelievable series of delays, variously blamed on weather, refueling mishaps, and submarine scares. The hard truth was that the American carrier groups were not yet accustomed to operating at sea in wartime conditions, and were climbing a steep learning curve. Heavy seas slowed the progress of the screening destroyers. Refueling while underway in any kind of weather was an art yet to be refined. Bogus submarine contacts were rife. (In one of the Enterprise’s early war cruises, Halsey had signaled his task force: “We are wasting too many depth charges on neutral fish. Take action accordingly.”) Entries in the CINCPAC war diary dwell on those problems throughout December. December 12: “Task Force Twelve was still unable to fuel at sea and it was decided to bring the Lexington group into Pearl Harbor to accomplish this.” December 12 again: “The Saratoga was being delayed by the effect of rough weather on her escort of three 1200-ton destroyers.” December 13: “The arrival of Saratoga was still further delayed by weather.” She was four hours from Pearl when a faulty report of a Japanese midget submarine skulking in the harbor forced her to hang back: she did not put in until the morning of December 15.

Fletcher sent the Tangier, an oil tanker, Neches, and a division of destroyers on ahead, with the intention of overtaking them when Saratoga was fueled up. The carrier put to sea on December 16 and raised steam for the northwest, overtaking her companions the next afternoon. The task force crept along at the regal pace of 13 knots, the maximum speed of the Neches. The weather had been fair for days, but on December 22, when the task force was still 600 miles from Wake, the wind rose to 20 knots and a white-capped cross swell kicked up. Fletcher had received orders from Pearl to refuel at specified coordinates, so that the Lexington group could rendezvous if necessary. The underway fueling process was long and painstaking, with all the usual profanity-laced pratfalls of near collisions and broken fuel lines, particularly when the destroyers came alongside the heaving deck of the Neches. Ten hours passed and the task force made barely any westward progress at all, and by that time the battle for Wake Island was near its end.

In a sense, the entire world was watching. The stubborn defense of Wake Island had been a balm to the wounded spirits of the American people, who seized upon every new shred of censor-approved news from the embattled atoll. President Roosevelt had hailed their actions. The newspapers and radio networks had relished reporting (and embellishing) the gallant stand of the “Pacific Alamo.” “Wake Island’s indomitable little garrison of United States Marines still clung tenaciously to the scarred and battered atoll Friday night after beating off two more Japanese onslaughts,” the Associated Press reported on December 19. Asked by Pearl Harbor for a list of needed supplies, Commander Cunningham was said to have replied: “Send us more Japs!” He had said nothing of the kind: the quote was a misreading (possibly deliberate) of the meaningless verbal “padding” used in radio communications to throw enemy codebreakers off the scent. When the report was picked up by a shortwave radio on Wake, the defenders were not amused. “More Japanese were absolutely the last thing we needed,” Lieutenant Kinney observed. Cunningham thought the tone taken at home was all wrong; it adopted a Hollywood swagger that belied the atoll’s dire predicament. “The picture conjured up by the radio reports was as far removed from reality as Wake was from Pearl Harbor,” the commander later wrote. “We were doing our best, and we were proud of it, but our best seldom included that disregard for sanity that marks so many romantic visions of the thin red lines of heroes. . . . We wanted to live.”

Kimmel had been formally relieved of command on December 17, the same day Nimitz was named as his successor. But Nimitz was not due in Hawaii for another week. During the brief interregnum, the caretaker CINCPAC would be Vice Admiral William S. Pye, commander of the Battle Force (that is, the battleships, now largely out of action). Pye was less confident than Kimmel in the prospect of success of the Wake relief mission, and far more chary of the Japanese. The command situation at Pacific Fleet headquarters was now very confused. Pye listened with one ear to Kimmel’s former staff, but he also continued to rely on his old Battle Force staff, made homeless by the heavy damage to his flagship California. Pye recruited Rear Admiral Milo S. Draemel, chief of the destroyer flotilla, to serve as his temporary chief of staff-and Draemel, in turn, brought several of his destroyermen into the headquarters. The result, in the words of a radio intelligence officer, “was confusion superimposed upon disaster.” The fate of Wake (and the carriers converging on Wake) was Pye’s most pressing business; but he was mindful that he was only keeping the seat warm for Nimitz, and seems to have felt a heavy obligation to deliver the carriers safely into the hands of the new boss.

Moreover, Pye was being urgently reminded by Washington that Hawaii itself was exposed, and what business did the fleet have in supporting a distant outpost with little military value, when the main American stronghold was thought to be vulnerable? The cruel reality, as Pye, Kimmel, and the Washington admirals all understood and had conceded, was that Wake was a “liability.” Sooner or later, Japan would seize it. Though the ostensible aim of the expedition was still to reinforce the garrison and air group on Wake, the fallback plan was to evacuate the atoll completely and perhaps inflict punishment from the air on the Japanese invasion forces. Most important of all was not to lose any of the precious remaining aircraft carriers, even if the 1,500 men on Wake had to be abandoned to the enemy. That was Pye’s bottom line, as he would soon reveal.

Pye felt blind. He had no way of knowing the location of the big Japanese carrier force that had hit Pearl on December 7, and feared it might be lying in wait for the American carriers. In attempting to ambush the Japanese, the Americans might themselves be steaming into an ambush. Pye’s intelligence staff estimated that most of the force, perhaps four out of six carriers, had returned to Japan for refueling and replenishment, but that was little more than conjecture. There was also the danger posed by land-based bombers operating from bases in the Marshall Islands. There were concerns about the battle readiness of the carriers: antiaircraft drills on the Lexington had been alarmingly bad. Could the carriers defend themselves against air attack, even with sufficient notice? On the 20th, Pye and Draemel gave serious consideration to ordering Task Force 14 back to Pearl, but relented in the face of hot-blooded dissent from the CINCPAC war planning chief, Captain McMorris. In notes recorded that day, however, Pye laid the groundwork for his pending decision to abandon Wake. He also radioed Admiral Brown and the Lexington group, directing him to abandon the raid on the Marshall Islands and divert north to rendezvous with Fletcher. Brown’s staff was incensed, and there was mutinous talk on the bridge about tearing up the orders and throwing them into the sea; but Brown obeyed. On the 21st, Pye informed Admiral Stark, the chief of naval operations, that the Wake operation was continuing but that American carriers would not approach closer to the island than 200 miles.

Pye’s doubts seeped into his radio transmissions to Task Force 14. The CINCPAC’s instructions were vacillating and irresolute, and tended to eat away at Fletcher’s confidence. On December 21, Fletcher was ordered to steam with full speed for Wake, and launch planes at a range of 200 miles. That order was quickly countermanded, and he was told instead to send the Tangier at peak speed to embark the garrison and bring them to safety. Not an hour had passed before that order was also revoked.

Conditions on Wake were growing desperate. On December 20 (the 19th in Hawaii), Cunningham reported that his remaining fighter planes were “full of bullet holes,” and it could only be described as a “miracle” that they had not been shot down in air-to-air combat. The island was short of critical equipment and supplies, from radar sets to fire control instruments to provisions to ammunition of every caliber. The 3-inch antiaircraft batteries were no good against high-altitude attacks, and in any case the 3-inch ammunition would last only another day, maybe two. Airstrikes continued almost daily. Intra-island telephone communications were a mess, the cables having been shredded by bomb damage. Crews worked dawn to dusk each day improving the island’s defenses-digging foxholes and bunkers, filling sandbags, distributing ammunition, throwing branches over gun emplacements-but the casualty list was long and growing longer, and long rows of cots were crowded into makeshift hospitals in empty magazines. Even the “healthy” men were exhausted and sleep-deprived, and there were increasing signs of dysentery. Morale was not enhanced by a ludicrous message from Pearl Harbor, received on the 17th, asking how long it would take to finish dredging the lagoon. Were the admirals totally ignorant of the situation on Wake?

Keeping the marine fighters in the air had required heroic efforts, but without replacement planes or at least additional parts, it was inevitable that Wake would soon have no air defense left at all. On December 14, a bomb struck a Wildcat in its revetment, destroying the tail section but sparing the engine. Lieutenant John Kinney decided to attempt an engine transplant from the destroyed plane to another in which the engine was running very rough. Without a proper engine hoist or maintenance hangar, the operation took nine hours of backbreaking effort. But that same night another plane crash-landed after veering off the runway to avoid a gaggle of civilian onlookers. That left three airworthy planes. By the second week of the war, the shortages became critical, and the flying aircraft had become Frankenstein’s monsters-rattling, bullet-ridden, patched- over amalgamations of parts scavenged from the wrecks scattered over the airfield. On December 20, two planes were capable of getting off the ground.

That day and again on the 21st, the island was attacked by single-engine Aichi Type 99 “Val” dive-bombers, which were known to be a carrier-type plane. On the second day, the Vals were accompanied by Zeros. In the aerial melee, one of the Wildcats was shot down and the other crash-landed and was judged a loss. The island now had no air defenses at all.

When Cunningham reported the appearance of the carrier planes, Pye worried that a Japanese carrier task force was covering the approach of a new invasion flotilla. In fact, the dive-bombers had flown from two of the six carriers that had hit Pearl Harbor and were now retiring toward Japan; it had been an opportunistic, hit-and-run raid, and would not be repeated. But a second invasion force was en route, this time covered by four heavy cruisers. The warships remained carefully out of range of the shore guns, while sending a force of about 1,000 Japanese marines in on landing barges. The landings began at 2:35 a. m. on December 23 local time (December 22 in Pearl Harbor). That night the invading force quickly swept through the islands, cutting the defenders off into isolated pockets. The marines put up a gallant defense, and claimed the lives of 700 to 900 attackers, but their positions were gradually overrun. At 2:50 a. m. on December 23 local time, Commander Cunningham notified Pye: “Enemy apparently landing.” With superior numbers, the invaders gradually advanced across the islands, and at five in the morning Cunningham signaled: “The enemy is on the island. The issue is in doubt.”

With those dispatches in hand, Pye huddled with his staff. He asked the war plans chief, Captain McMorris, and his acting chief of staff, Admiral Draemel, to put their recommendations into writing. Both agreed that it was too late to save Wake, either by reinforcement or evacuation. But they differed sharply on the question of whether to send the American carriers to attack the enemy fleet. Fletcher’s Saratoga group was still 425 miles from Wake, with the destroyers still struggling to refuel in a bumpy cross-swell, but it was still possible for the Sara to make a high-speed run toward Wake and launch her attack planes the following morning. Brown’s Lexington group was near enough to join the fray from the south, and Halsey’s Enterprise group could have been placed in position to cover the subsequent withdrawal.

In a strongly worded memo, McMorris counseled Pye to push on with the attack. American forces in the vicinity were probably stronger than the enemy’s, and to withdraw without offering battle would be “unduly cautious.” While it was true that the exact composition of the Japanese forces (the carriers, especially) was unknown, it is often necessary to accept odds in battle, and “The enemy cannot have superior forces in all directions.” To retreat would also “tend to destroy service and public confidence.” He concluded: “It is an opportunity unlikely to come again soon. We are in great need of a victory.”

Draemel’s assessment endorsed Pye’s more cautious mind-set. The Saratoga force’s fueling situation was a major problem, and would risk putting American ships within striking range of superior forces without means of escape. “Are we willing to accept a major engagement, at this distance from our base, with an uncertainty in the fuel situation?” His answer was no: “There are no reserves-all our forces are in the area of possible operations. . . . The general situation dictates caution-extreme caution.”

Pye had heard enough. At 9:11 a. m. on December 22, he called all three carrier groups back to Pearl Harbor. The order was received with heavy resentment. Men in the task forces sobbed openly. Commander George C. Dyer, executive officer of Admiral Brown’s flagship, later charged that “Admiral Pye had had a scare, apparently visualizing the Japanese fleet all over the Pacific Ocean.” Commander Edwin Layton, the Pacific Fleet intelligence officer, echoed the point: “To lose to an enemy that fought you, and fought you well, was one thing. But to lose because your own admiral was a ‘nervous Nellie’ was another.” On the Saratoga’s flag bridge there was loose talk of ignoring the withdrawal order, and some thought Fletcher should have imitated Horatio Nelson’s famous gesture at Copenhagen, when he raised his scope to his blind eye and exclaimed that he could not read the signal ordering him to disengage the enemy fleet. The marine airmen on Saratoga, who had been ready to fly to Wake to relieve their colleagues, threatened to climb into their planes and go. Rear Admiral Aubrey “Jake” Fitch, whose flag flew on the Saratoga, was forced to withdraw to his cabin so that he would not overhear any of the mutinous talk on his bridge. Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, in Pearl Harbor, exclaimed: “By Gad! They used to say a man had to be both a fighter and know how to fight. Now all I want is a man who fights.”

For many in Hawaii, both military and civilians, that was the single worst day of the war. The cancellation of the Wake relief operation coincided with ominous news from the Philippines: Japanese transports were pouring troops onto the beaches of Luzon and Leyte without opposition, and MacArthur had fled Manila. The United States had no realistic hope of sending reinforcements or supplies to the Philippines; they would probably be abandoned and conceded to the enemy, as Wake had been.

In Hawaii, the specter of invasion seemed very real to civilians and servicemen alike. Carroll Robbins Jones, age seven, who lived in Honolulu, overheard her mother crying that the island was going to be “taken over.” Carroll got on her knees and “confessed to God all my sins and prayed for Him to make me good, thinking somehow my confession and promise of goodness would help end the war.” Robert Casey, a Chicago Daily News correspondent who had been in Paris during the Nazi Blitzkrieg eighteen months earlier, studied the faces of the civilian residents of Honolulu, and was reminded of the expressions he had seen in France in May 1940. “The parallel was sickening,” he wrote. The trauma of defeat had left many officers, even those with sterling records, in a dazed torpor. It was a poorly kept secret that the fleet surgeon, beset by men verging on psychological collapse, had dosed them “with whatever they used for tranquilizers in those days.”

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