The battle for Wake island
For an isolated group of 400 U. S. Marines on Wake island, with a few artillery pieces and a dozen planes, word that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by forces of the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941, was worrying news. They were convinced that they would be the next target. But for two weeks, this little band held off overwhelming Japanese invasion forces.
Wake is located about 5 hours west of Hawaii, approximately in the middle of nowhere. The so-called island is a V-shaped atoll and comprises three low-lying coral islets (Wake proper, the body of the V, Wilkes and Peale, the two tip-ends) linked by causeways, on a reef surrounding a lagoon.
Wake was first sighted in 1586 by Alvaro de Mendana,
a spanish explorer who lay-to off the atoll and finally landed in hopes
of replenishing his supply of food and water. Mendana, who found neither
food nor water, but only brambles, named it San Francisco, fixed
it in latitude but very badly in longitude (somewhere, west of Hawaii).
The first intention in formally acquiring Wake had been
to establish a cable station thereat for Guam-Midway cable, but the
absence of fresh water, taken with evidence that the island at some
time previous had been completely inundated, dissuaded that the cable
station be put into service. As a result, the cable was laid past Wake
directly into Guam.
As of 6 December 1941, the defensive status of Wake was far from ideal. Intended primarily as a patrol-plane base for Catalina clippers, the island had no scouting aircraft yet, and only the most primitive facilities for any type of aircraft operations. Its squadron of 12 Grumman Wildcat aircrafts, VMF-211, was learning on the job how to operate wholly new aircraft which had no armor and on which the bomb racks did not match the local supply of bombs. On the entire atoll, there were 449 marines of all ranks, detachment of the 1st Defense Battalion, therefore equipped and trained for combat. The ground defenses, embodying the complete artillery of a defense battalion (5-inch seacoast batteries and 3-inch antiaircraft guns), had by dint of unceasing 12-hour working days been emplaced, and some protective sandbagging and camouflage accomplished. To man all these weapons, 43 officers and 939 enlisted were required, but only 15 officers and 373 enlisted were available. Furthermore, there were 1,200 unarmed civilian contract employees on the island.
Word of war came around 7am on 8 December 1941. At 11am,
several planes drop through the clouds : this was japanese Air Attack
Force of 34 Nell bombers, based at Roi, 720 miles to the south.
The fortuitous rain squall masked the enemy let-down and approach, but
the complete lack of any type of early warning was a matter which pointed
squarely at Wake's most critical shortage: the want of radar. The results
of the Japanese attack were devastating. Using 100-pound bombs and 20
mm cannon, the air strike destroyed seven F4F fighters on ground. The
island's main aviation gas tank took a direct hit, exploded and set
everything ablaze, including the squadron's tentage, tools and spare
parts. VMF-211 suffered nearly 60-percent casualties and there were
84 dead or dying on Wake. Across the Pacific it was a similar story
: in Pearl Harbor, Guam, Philippines, North China. In his first message
after the Pearl Harbor disaster, President Roosevelt had warned the
American people to be prepared for word of the fall of Wake. With the
core of the fleet on the bottom of the seas, there could be little question,
for the time being, of a sustained and aggressive fleet defense. Wake
would stand or fall largely by its own strength.
Admiral Inouye, commanding the Imperial Japanese Fourth
Fleet, was charged by current war plans with capture of Wake, but, more
important, that of Guam, Makin and Tarawa. By dark on 10 December, Guam
had fallen. Earlier that same day, Makin and Tarawa had surrendered.
Wake alone remained : conduct of this last operation was delegated to
Rear Admiral Kajioka. His naval force comprised one flagship light cruiser,
the Yubari, two other light cruisers (Tatsuta and Tenryu),
six destroyers (Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Yayoi, Mochizuki, Oite, and
Hayate), two destroyer-transports, two transports, and two submarines.
The plan was to have 150 men land on Wilkes Island, and 300 men on the
south side of Wake Island to capture the airfield, covered by the guns
of the naval force. If those numbers proved insufficient, supporting
destroyers were to provide men to augment the landing force.
At 3am, on 11 December, lookouts reported ships in sight.
At 5am, Kajioka's ships began their final run. Because of the unfavorable
weather and heavy seas, boating progressed slowly and unsatisfactorily,
with some landing craft being overturned. Soon after, the boats opened
fire at area targets along the south shore of Wake. The coastal guns,
however, remained silent and hidden behind a brush camouflage. At 6am,
as the boats were closer, the Marines commenced firing. Although they
had unavoidably revealed their location, the ships' counterfire proved
The enemy maintained aerial pressure on the atoll. Day after day, the shore-based Nell bombers of the Twenty-fourth Air Flotilla attacked, now covered by Zero fighters, helped by Mavis flying boats used as bombers, and soon by Val dive bombers from carriers Soryu and Hiryu. Enemy planes methodically worked over all battery positions, reducing american defenses. One by one, the defender planes were used up : when all the planes were destroyed, the remaining men of the squadron reported to serve as infantry.
the meantime, at Pearl Harbor, a relief expedition made ready to sail.
The relief train, consisting of Tangier cargo and Neches
fleet oiler, had to deliver supplies, reinforcements and aircraft to
Wake, evacuate wounded with a portion of the civilians, and return to
Pearl Harbor. The expedition was to be protected from air, submarine,
and surface attacks by the Saratoga task group : the carrier,
three heavy cruisers and nine destroyers in all. But the speed of advance
of the Task Force was considerably curtailed by the maximum speed of
its slowest component, the old Neches, which could only make
Despite the fact that the same general difficulties were anticipated for the next attempt, the Japanese higher echelons let the basic scheme of attack remain largely unchanged : the new plan and estimate of the situation were, in essence, amplified versions of the original one which had failed. The sunken ships were replaced by two new destroyers (Asanagi and Yunagi), together with one more, Oboro. In addition, two carriers (Hiryu and Soryu with 118 aircrafts), screened by the heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma and the destroyers Tanikaze and Urakaze, were detached from their Pearl Harbor Striking Force, and headed toward Wake. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, was now convinced that Wake, by contrast with other central Pacific objectives, constituted a major stumbling block. In order that Wake's deadly seacoast batteries might be afforded minimum opportunities, initial landings were to take place by darkness, shortly before dawn. And as a measure of surprise, there was to be no preliminary naval bombardment.
Marines spotted the Japanese assault force at 2am, 23 December. At the
same time, japanese infantrymen clambered down into the medium landing
craft, two heading for Wilkes Island and others for the south shore
of Wake Island.
Eighty-one Marines, eight sailors and 82 civilian construction workers had been killed or wounded during the battle. The Japanese, however, paid a heavy price for their victory. Fragmentary information of varying reliability is to be found in various sources, however, the following estimated enemy losses are tabulated: 21 planes shooted down and 51 aircrafts damaged, 2 ships sunk and eight damaged, about 1.000 men killed or missing. Considering the power accumulated for the invasion and the meager forces of the defenders, it was one of the most humiliating battle the Japanese Navy ever suffered. And the Battle of Wake upset the timetable for the Japanese campaign of conquest in the Pacific.
Enraged by their losses, the Japanese treated the american
soldiers brutally. Some were stripped naked, others to their underwear.
Most had their hands tied behind their backs with telephone wire. And
five of Wake's defenders were beheaded by the Japanese on board Nitta
Maru. With the exception of nearly 100 contractors who remained
on Wake Island, all the rest of the civilians joined Wake's Marines,
sailors, and soldiers in prisoner of war camps.
1949, a 7000-foot runway was paved over the existing coral runway. The
island base also played a key role as a refueling stop for aircraft
during the Korean War. During the Cold War, it was an base for surveillance
flights toward the USSR. And, as a result of the foresighted runway
lengthening in 1959 to 9800 feet, the island was able to participate
in Desert Storm in 1991, once again as a fueling station.
Critics, remarks, insults :
An island in the middle of nowhere.
Defense installations map.
A May 1941 photo of Wake taken from a Navy Catalina flying boat.
North of Wake. 1941.
Formation of Mitsubishi G3M1 and G3M2 Type 96 bombers (Nell).
Wrecked Grumman F4F-3s from VMF-211 near the airstrip on Wake.
A 3-Inch Antiaircraft Gun in action.
Actual photo of an old 5-Inch coastal gun on Wake.
The light cruiser Yubari, Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka's flagship for the operations against Wake.
The destroyer Kisaragi, sunk as the result of damage inflicted by two 100-pound bombs on the morning of 11 December 1941.
Marines from the 4th Defense Battalion embark in Tangier at Pearl Harbor, 15 December 1941, bound for Wake.
The japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu.
Wreckage of the last american plane, on the beach where he crash-landed on 22 December, after he had destroyed a Kate in aerial combat.
Patrol craft No33 beached. Wake, 23 december 1941.
Beached japanese landing craft on Wilkes island.
Maj James P. S. Devereux, was the senior Marine officer on Wake. He held the Wake defenses together longer than anyone expected.
Japanese troops pay homage to the memory of Lt Kinichi Uchida, whose unit lost two other officers and 29 enlisted men killed at Wake.
Civilian contractors marched off to captivity after the Japanese captured Wake.
Poster for the Wake island movie (1942). Propoganda, but nevertheless a stunning piece of Hollywood filmmaking. It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. And the poster is correct : these Marines had WWI "skimmer" style helmets.
Dauntless raid over Wake in 1943.
In 1945, the Wake japanese garrison surrender to returning Americans.