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The Battle of Wake Island was Special Sort of World War II Hell

November 17, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: WarU.S. MarinesMilitaryWeaponsTechnologyHistoryBataan

The Battle of Wake Island was Special Sort of World War II Hell

We're approaching the 78th anniversary of the World War II battle over of the Pacific.

Key Point: The battle demonstrated, immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, that Americans would not surrender without a fight.

In mid-December 1941, the 400 U.S. Marines who called the island outpost of Wake home stood a lonely sentinel in the watery Central Pacific wilderness, like a cavalry fort in an oceanic version of the Western frontier.

As the Japanese juggernaut spread the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere to the farthest reaches of the Pacific Ocean, most of America’s Pacific battle fleet, the backbone of the nation’s power in the hemisphere, rested on Pearl Harbor’s muddy bottom along with almost 2,000 young American sailors. Marines on Guam and British infantry in Malaya were fighting futile holding actions against swarms of enemy troops. In the Philippines, Japanese bombers demolished General Douglas MacArthur’s air force before it lifted from the ground, and Japanese infantry forced his troops into a disastrous retreat toward the Bataan Peninsula.

Next on Japan’s Timetable of Conquest

Hong Kong and Singapore were poised to fall, and the crowning blow—the destruction of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse at the hands of Japanese planes off Malaya—caused British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to lament, “Over all the vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.”

Barely 600 miles—less than two days’ steaming time or four hours’ flying time—from the closest Japanese base, Wake was next on Japan’s timetable of conquest. Wake, a coral atoll comprising three islands, whose highest point was barely 20 feet above sea level and whose vegetation consisted of scrubby trees and brush, covered four square miles of total land area. Yet, even this tiny real estate, with 10 miles of beach, offered too much territory for the tiny garrison to cover. Should the Japanese crash ashore in one of the numerous gaps between gun emplacements, the Americans would be swiftly overrun. A desperately needed radar system had not yet arrived.

Fearing that he could not withstand even the feeblest of assaults, Major James Devereux, the Marine commander, asked his superiors what he should do if Wake were actually attacked. He received the disconcerting response, “Do the best you can.”

Why would one of the war’s most noble actions occur at a minuscule Pacific wasteland more suitable for rodents than humans? It boiled down to the airstrip, which dominated the V-shaped group of three small islands. Control of that airstrip loomed more crucial with the deteriorating Japanese-American relations before Pearl Harbor. In U.S. hands, Wake posed a threat to the Japanese wall of defenses, which stretched across the Central Pacific. In Japanese hands, it offered a convenient home base for aerial reconnaissance of Hawaii, Midway, and other U.S. possessions.

Before the war, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the Pacific Fleet commander, sensed a chance to engage Japan’s fleet in the waters off Wake if an invasion force attempted to overrun the island’s defenders. To hold the enemy in the area, though, Wake’s feeble defenses had to be strengthened. Kimmel ordered in a Marine defense battalion under Devereux, and more than a thousand civilian construction workers converged on the desolate outpost to erect barracks, level roads, and fortify the island.

Major Devereux Arrives on Wake

On October 12, 1941, when Major Devereux stepped onto Wake Island, he brought additional reinforcements to join the original group of five officers and 173 enlisted men who had arrived August 19. A larger Marine force meant increased contact and inevitable friction with the construction workers.

Not that fighting erupted or jealousies lingered. The two groups blended together relatively well, for, after all, as Marine Corporal Franklin D. Gross said, “We were Marines and we were disciplined and knew what we were supposed to do and what not to do.” But each day the Marines emerged from their Spartan tents to gaze across the lagoon at the more luxurious civilian quarters. While Marines supped on potatoes, civilians feasted. Marines chafed at the obvious differences.

Devereux turned to his task with a fury, intending to transform this first line of defense in the Pacific into a bastion that could punish any approaching force. “When Devereux came out there, all hell broke loose!” declared Gross. “He evidently had orders to get those guns in, so we worked seven days a week. Before that, I’m not sure we even worked on Saturday.”

The wiry major, who so meticulously planned details that a fellow officer said, “He’s the kind of guy who would put all the mechanized aircraft detectors into operation and then station a man with a spyglass in a tall tree,” quickly had his men laboring 12-hour days, seven days a week.

Intentions are noble, but they must be backed with men, weapons, and supplies, and here Devereux suffered. The U.S. Congress had allocated money to improve Wake, but the work did not begin until early 1941. Shelters to protect aircraft from bombs lay incomplete. Devereux’s 3- and 5-inch guns equaled the impact of a destroyer, but he commanded enough Marines to man only half the 24 machine guns situated about Wake. Instead of radar to give advance warning of attack, a man with a pair of binoculars on an observation post atop a water tower served as the island’s early-warning system.

Securing the Naval Air Station on the Island

Communications wire connected different outposts, but since much of it was old and frayed, no one knew how it would stand up to a heavy bombardment. In the most extreme situations, when soldiers and Marines had little else with which to fight, they could always count on using their rifles. Not at Wake. At least 75 men lacked weapons because the military had failed to ship enough to the outpost.

Devereux’s air arm offered minimal help. The 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighters failed to arrive until four days before the war started. Since the ground crews and aviators had been working with biplanes instead of the fighters, they were unfamiliar with the capabilities of the aircraft. Mechanics rummaged through the crates of supplies that accompanied the planes for instruction manuals, but could find none. Someone at Pearl Harbor had forgotten to pack them. Spare parts for the aircraft were practically nonexistent, which meant that even minor damage could knock them out of the fighting. In the frontier wilderness of the Pacific, a damaged aircraft was as good as a destroyed aircraft.

By late November 1941, although still far from complete, Wake had been bolstered sufficiently to earn the designation of naval air station. Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham arrived to assume overall command, with Devereux in charge of the Marines.

Most Marines and civilians on Wake believed that war, if it occurred, would start elsewhere in the Pacific, probably closer to the Philippines or East Asia. When they learned on December 7 that Pearl Harbor, far to Wake’s rear, had been bombed, they reacted in disbelief.

Devereux, expecting to be attacked at any moment, ordered each man to his post. Even with the precautions, war’s arrival on Wake shortly before noon on December 8 (December 7 in Pearl Harbor) came swiftly and suddenly. Construction worker Hans Whitney looked skyward to see a group of aircraft heading toward Wake. He mistakenly assumed they were American planes and said to a companion, “Look! Let the Japs come! We even have bombers, now!”

15 Seconds’ Notice

Without radar to give early warning, the tiny Marine garrison had barely 15 seconds’ notice, hardly enough time to ready their antiaircraft guns and jump into aircraft. Still, they replied. Gross’s position at the eastern end of Wake, called Peacock Point, sported four machine guns. “I was standing on top of my dugout talking to Colonel Hanna when 18 to 19 planes dropped out of a hole in the clouds. I said, ‘What’s this coming in?’ We thought they were B-17s, because they had been coming in for the last few months and we’d gas them. Suddenly these bombs fall out, and a runner near me started shooting, but we only got off 18 rounds. Then the planes were gone.”

In that brief span the Japanese inflicted heavy damage and shock to Wake’s Marines. Four Marine aviators rushed toward their aircraft intent on offering resistance to the 36 Japanese twin-engine bombers that riddled Wake, but not one reached his plane. Bomb fragments fatally tore into Lieutenant Frank Holden as he sprinted onto the runway, while Lieutenant Henry G. Webb fell with lethal wounds to the stomach and feet. Lieutenant George Graves had climbed into his aircraft and prepared for takeoff when a direct hit engulfed him in flames. Lieutenant Robert Conderman evaded the bullets that spit into the coral airstrip until he reached his aircraft, then bomb fragments tore into his body. Fellow Marines rushed to his aid, but the dying Conderman pointed to other wounded Marines lying about the area and said, “Let me go. Take care of them.”

Benjamin F. Comstock, Sr. and his son, Benjamin, Jr., were working on a two-story, steel framework building when the Japanese aircraft suddenly appeared. In an action symbolic of the sacrifices to be made by millions of sons around the nation to protect their families, the son quickly tackled his father, shoved him behind a stairway in the unfinished building, then covered him with his body. “The planes were so close you could see the gunners’ teeth,” recalled Comstock, Jr.