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).
In 1796, Captain Wake, master of the british trading schooner Prince William Henry, arrived, located the atoll accurately, and gave it is name. In 1840, Charles Wilkes, american oceanographer and explorer, and the the naturalist Titian Peale landed on and surveyed Wake : they gave their name to the two lesser islands of the group.
On 4 July 1898, Maj. Gen. Francis V. Greene, commanding the Second Detachment, Philippine Expeditionary Force, ordered two boats ashore and raised an american flag. Shortly after, on 17 January 1899, the USS Bennington, commanded by Edward D. Taussig, acting on orders from Washington, took possession of the atoll known as Wake Island, for the United States of America.

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.
In 1935, Pan American Airways, extending their routes to the west, selected Wake as a useful intermediate clipper base for the Philippines run. And the US Navy, quick to sense the potential military value of this base, cooperated with the project.
In the growing tenseness between Japan and the United States, the strategic importance of Wake, both to the United States and Japan, became considerable. As an operating patrol plane base, it could prove highly valuable in observing a wide area in the Pacific, or in covering advance of forces. In the hands of the ennemy, it would be a serious obstacle to surprise raids. The strategy was to render the outpost bases relatively secure against air raids, hit-and-run surface attacks, or even minor landings and provide the Japanese with objectives which would require exposure of their fleet: the Pacific Fleet was expected to ply, awaiting the moment when battle could be joined with enemy naval forces.
Thus, the Hepburn Board (created in May 1938, to institute a strategic survey and report to Congress on United States needs for additional naval bases) accorded Wake high priority and recommended a $7,500,000 three-year base-development program intended to make the atoll an advance air base. In early 1940, the US Navy commenced construction of military base facilities on the atoll. And in early 1941, a Marine defending garrison was established.

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.

The first strikes and the failed landing

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.
By next morning, the Japanese bombers returned, methodical almost to a fault : the hour, altitude and pattern did not vary. The air combat patrol (or what was left of it) flanked them, opened fire and sent one bomber careening down in flames. The antiaircraft batteries opened up : five bombers were belching smoke, one burst into flames and exploded. Over the next two days, they would shoot down at least two more planes and score damaging hits on numerous others that disappeared over the horizon in a trail of smoke. The second raid hit hard the camp and the naval air station. They destroyed the hospital, the Navy's radio station, and the civilian and naval barracks, killing 55 civilians and four Marines.
The aerial raids had been directed at the airstrip and the various supporting establishments. But, as events would shortly prove, the three days' bombing, while inflicting considerable damage on Wake, had been insufficient.

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 woefully inaccurate.
A battery sent two shells into Yubari at the waterline and two more shells caught her slightly aft. Badly hurt, Yubari retired over the horizon. Another battery fired and caused a violent explosion in the destroyer Hayate : she broke in two and sank. The Oite was next and took a direct hit : she threw up a smoke screen and limped away. Then, the gunners shifted fire to the Japanese transports Kongo Maru and Konryu Maru : one shell hit the leading transport, causing both to flee. Next they turned their efforts to a cruiser off the west end of the island : she took one shell in the stern and retreated out of range. The destroyer Yayoi take a shell in the stern and be set afire. Then went a smoke screen, and the ships made their escape. Kajioka ordered a withdrawal : plans for a landing were forgotten and damage control on burning and smoking ships became priority.
The fleet had no air cover and the remaining Wildcats found it little more than an hour's sail from Wake : the destroyer Kisaragi, suffering from an earlier hit, just blew up, and another destroyer suffered heavy damage. The defeat was total : two ships were lost, seven were damaged, and probably about 500 japanese died while four Marines were wounded in action.

The fall of Wake

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.

In 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 12 knots.
On 21 December, intelligence available at Pearl Harbor indicated a heavy concentration of shore-based Japanese aviation strength in the Marshalls, with the possibility that hostile surface forces might be encountered astride Task Force's approach to Wake. Eager to evacuate or reinforce the island, Admiral Pye, acting commander of the Pacific fleet, nevertheless decided that the risk was too great. In light of the destruction inflicted on the fleet at Pearl Harbor, he could not chance damaging much less losing an American carrier or capital ship. Finally, the relief force was recalled. It was but 425 miles distant from Wake.
He did not know that, at this very moment, some four enemy heavy cruisers were patrolling east of Wake, separated from any Japanese carrier air support by hundreds of miles, a sitting target for the airmen of the Saratoga; nor did he know that the Japanese attack force was disposed about Wake with no apparent measures for security against surface attack. Had all this been known, the story of Wake might have been very different.

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.

The 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.
On Wilkes island : At 02:45 hours, the japanese Company with approximately 100 men came ashore under heavy fire coming from two .50-caliber machine-guns above the landing area. The tiny garrison of the Marines on whole Wilkes numbered only approximately 70 men. The Japanese soon overrun the positions of the nearly battery, and also commenced movement to the west, toward the next battery. That was all what the Japanese had accomplished on Wilkes Island. Further advance was not possible, as good camouflaged machine-guns nets pinned down the Japanese to the ground. By 04:00 hours, the situation on Wilkes Island have stabilized. The Japanese were in firm possession of the first battery position, but surrounded by the Marines, which prevented them any expansion of the beachhead. Then, the Marine combat groups joined their forces, and then proceeded to sweep the entire position. After the successful attack, the Japanese casualties were horrible: they lost four officers and at least 90 men. American's losses were 9 Marines and 2 civilian workers killed, and five wounded. But the communication line with Devereux's command post was dead and this has later probably misled Major Devereux into belief that Wilkes Island already had fallen into Japanese hands. Around 8am, after their forces being pushed from the island, the Japanese continued with aerial and sea bombardment of the Wilkes Island, and finally managed to silence the island's coastal battery.
On Wake island : In the meantime, on the south coast of wake Island, east of Wilkes Island, the patrol boats No. 32 and No. 33 (two old destroyers) run ashore off the west end of the airstrip. When the two japanese Companies swarmed down the sides into the water, Lieutenant Hanna and his crew fired 3-inch rounds into the hull of patrol craft No. 33, which immediately burst into flame. Helped by the light of the burning ship, Hanna and his men shifted his fire onto the other beached vessel, patrol craft No.32, which was then also considerably damaged. Despite the defense of the Marines, two other large landing crafts managed to ground on the reef about 30 yards off shore, east of Wilkes Channel entrance : the Japanese landing party (app. 100 men) landed on shore, and was soon infiltrating the brushy area. Soon after, another Japanese landing party commenced landing near beached destroyers. South of the airfield, the Marines detachment still held its position, but it was by now surrounded by reinforced Japanese troops, who made several attacks. Then, Soryu and Hiryu launched their planes in support of the fighting troops. At 07:15 hours, carrier-based dive bombers arrived over the island, hammering remaining defense positions. With his command post under attack, convinced of the fall of Wilkes Island, and with enemy air superiority above his head, Major James P.S. Devereux, bearing a white flag, moved southward down the shore road to surrender the island with its scattered and exhausted garrison to the Japanese.


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.
Air raids on Wake occurred throughout the war, the first occurring in February 1942. Raids in October 1943, however, had grave repercussions for the contractors who had been left behind. The atoll commander, who feared that the raids portended a major landing, had them all executed. For that offense, he was hanged as a war criminal.
Wake was not recaptured by American forces during the war. There was no bloody American amphibious invasion to recapture the island, because air superiority and control of the sea made it possible to bypass Wake. The U.S. recovered Wake Island after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

In 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.
Today, the former commercial airbase is used primarily by the US Army Space and Strategic Defense Command and for emergency landings of trans-Pacific flights. There are a few dozen people living there to support the runway, and most of the island is a bird and marine sanctuary.


Want to know more ? Please read my sources :
- Marines in World War II - The Defense of Wake, by Lieutenant Colonel R.D. Heinl, Jr., USMC. (the most complete and accurate ressource on the web).
- A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island, by Robert J. Cressman (very detailed historical chronology).
- Leathernack, magazine of the Marines (accounts of some Wake survivors).

Movie links
- Wake Island (USA - 1942), directed by John Farrow.

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Battlefield 1942 gazette, by Caepolla & Ubaldis - hosted by Free.
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An island in the middle of nowhere.


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Defense installations map.


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A May 1941 photo of Wake taken from a Navy Catalina flying boat.


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North of Wake. 1941.


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Formation of Mitsubishi G3M1 and G3M2 Type 96 bombers (Nell).


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Wrecked Grumman F4F-3s from VMF-211 near the airstrip on Wake.


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A 3-Inch Antiaircraft Gun in action.


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Actual photo of an old 5-Inch coastal gun on Wake.


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The light cruiser Yubari, Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka's flagship for the operations against Wake.


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The destroyer Kisaragi, sunk as the result of damage inflicted by two 100-pound bombs on the morning of 11 December 1941.


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Marines from the 4th Defense Battalion embark in Tangier at Pearl Harbor, 15 December 1941, bound for Wake.


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The japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu.


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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.


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Patrol craft No33 beached. Wake, 23 december 1941.


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Beached japanese landing craft on Wilkes island.


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Maj James P. S. Devereux, was the senior Marine officer on Wake. He held the Wake defenses together longer than anyone expected.


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Japanese troops pay homage to the memory of Lt Kinichi Uchida, whose unit lost two other officers and 29 enlisted men killed at Wake.


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Civilian contractors marched off to captivity after the Japanese captured Wake.


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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.


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Dauntless raid over Wake in 1943.


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In 1945, the Wake japanese garrison surrender to returning Americans.


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Wake, nowadays.