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.

Bomb craters 50 feet apart spotted the ground with surgical precision, except for the airstrip. It remained untouched so the Japanese could use it after their conquest. Seven precious Wildcat fighters lay in smoldering ruins amid the lifeless bodies of 23 Marine aviation personnel. The Japanese blasted gasoline storage tanks, strafed the island’s Pan American Airways hotel, and peppered Pan Am’s huge flying passenger boat Philippine Clipper with 23 bullet holes.

As if to add insult to injury, as the enemy aircraft completed their runs, “The pilots in every one of the planes was grinning wildly. Every one wiggled his wings to signify Banzai,” mentioned a defender.

A Citizen Soldier Army Assembles

Marines and civilians emerged from foxholes and half-completed construction projects and quickly tended to the wounded and dying. Billowing smoke blotted out the sun and burning wreckage littered the landscape, but the men put aside their thoughts and focused on the job at hand, which was preparing for the inevitable invasion. They repaired severed communications lines, camouflaged and sandbagged gun positions, cleared the runway, and dug revetments to protect the few remaining aircraft.

Civilians parked heavy construction equipment on the airstrip to prevent Japanese landings, while a Navy lighter was filled with concrete blocks, dynamited, and anchored in the center of Wilkes Channel to prevent small boats from entering the lagoon. Since they had little time to spare for burials, Marines stored the dead civilians and Marines in a large freezer room in one of the civilian buildings.

The citizen soldier army, so heralded in contributing to victory in Europe and the Pacific, made its first appearance at Wake as 200 volunteers dropped their shovels or stepped down from bulldozers to stand side by side with the 400 Marines. They had traveled to Wake for monetary reasons, not to fire weapons, but when the chips were down they answered the call of duty like their Marine compatriots. Most were sent to undermanned batteries and given speedy instructions on how to fire the weapons. Hans Whitney was stationed at an antiaircraft gun, where he filled sandbags and waited for a renewed attack.

Apprehension frayed nerves and exhausted even the sturdiest of men, who never knew when the main Japanese assault would come. Some believed the U.S. Navy would charge out of Pearl Harbor to their rescue, but others wondered if it even could. How severely had it been wounded on the war’s first day? Was Wake to be sacrificed by an impotent Navy, or would a rescue force save them?

In those perilous days immediately after December 8, Marine Pfc. Verne L. Wallace remembered a letter from his girlfriend back home that he had stuffed unread into his pocket. In a few quiet moments, he sat down and looked at the letter. The girl had sent it before December 7, and thinking that Hitler posed the real threat to American servicemen, she wrote, “As long as you have to be away, darling, I’m so very, very happy you are in the Pacific, where you won’t be in danger if war comes.”

Drawing in the Japanese

The irony of the situation did not escape Wallace, sitting in the middle of a Japanese-controlled ocean, for danger crept closer as he read the note. In the predawn moments of December 11, the Japanese, invigorated by the list of triumphs already under their belts, commenced their first attempt to overrun Wake. Confident of victory over what they assumed was a ragtag group of civilians and a few Marines, the Japanese stepped into a trap cunningly devised by Major Devereux. Devereux outfoxed the enemy commander, Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, into thinking he had surprised Wake. Since the Japanese force sported much larger guns than those on Wake, Devereux’s only hope was to hold his own fire and lure the enemy ships within range of his smaller 5-inch guns.

Admiral Kajioka, in the flagship Yubari, cautiously led three light cruisers, six destroyers, and 450 soldiers in transports and old destroyers toward Wake. Optimistic reports from the returning bomber pilots and a lack of activity on Wake as his ships neared the island bolstered Kajioka’s confidence that taking Wake should be a breeze.

Lookouts on Wake first spotted the Japanese at 3 am. Kajioka swung west when his ships drew within 7,000 yards, opened fire at 5:30, and systematically raked the island as the flotilla boldly steamed along its coastline. When the Japanese ships reached Wake’s westernmost point, Kajioka reversed course, closed the distance, and again steamed offshore with guns booming. The lack of American return fire convinced Kajioka that he had caught the enemy by surprise.

Marines at two gun batteries impatiently awaited Devereux’s order to fire as they watched the enemy shells inch alarmingly close and felt the vibrations from nearby explosions. A corporal manning Devereux’s phone spurned pleas to open fire by shouting, “Hold your fire till the major gives his word.” One Marine, dodging mounds of earth shaken loose from bombs, griped, “What does that dumb little bastard want us to do? Let ’em run over us without spitting back?”

Devereux coolly waited for another 30 minutes. When the unsuspecting Kajioka drew into point-blank range, he ordered all batteries to commence firing. Like Wild West gunslingers glaring at their foes, his gunners on batteries A, B, and L poured accurate salvos into the Japanese ships barely 4,000 yards away. Shells smashed Japanese hulls, and shrapnel felled Japanese sailors. The enemy attempted to fire back, but the Marines continued to pummel the attacking ships.

The only thing more stunning than the cascading Marine fire that broke the darkness was the look of dismay on Kajioka’s face as he realized he had been lured into the Marine guns. An initial salvo screamed over the Yubari, and as destroyers hurriedly spread covering smoke to shield the flagship, a second salvo straddled the ship. Marine gunners pumped four successive shells into the hapless cruiser, enveloping one side in fire and smoke.

Three shells from a second battery sent the destroyer Hayate and its crew of 168 to the bottom. Marines lustily cheered as the ship disappeared beneath the waves until veteran Platoon Sgt. Henry Bedell turned their minds back to business by yelling, “Knock it off, you bastards, and get back on the guns! What d’ya think this is, a ball game?”

A Humiliating Defeat for Admiral Kajioka

When the Marines landed hits on three more destroyers and on a transport, Kajioka ordered his force to retire. Major Paul A. Putnam, commander of Wake’s air squadron, now jumped into the fray. Putnam’s Wildcats pounced on the retreating Japanese ships in a series of attacks. Captain Henry Freuler damaged a transport, while Captain Henry Elrod and Captain Frank Tharin scored hits on the cruisers Tenryu and Tatsuta. Another aircraft machine-gunned the Yubari, barely missing Admiral Kajioka.

The destroyer Kisaragi, which lagged behind the rest of Kajioka’s force, paid the highest price. Her tardiness in leaving proved to be her undoing when a bomb, attributed to Elrod, hit the destroyer’s quarterdeck and ignited the ship’s depth charges. Explosions ripped apart the destroyer, which sank within minutes.

Admiral Kajioka absorbed a humiliating defeat at the hands of a vastly outnumbered foe. He lost two ships and at least 340 killed and 65 wounded against one Marine death. The Japanese limped away from the gunfight, while the United States celebrated its first victory of the war.

Marines registered three “firsts” on Wake that day. For the first and only time in the war, an invasion had been repulsed by shore batteries. The first Japanese surface warship had been sunk. Most important, for the first time since the war started, the Japanese had been stopped in their desire to gain an objective.

The defenders on Wake erupted in joy, dumping water on each other and behaving like schoolboys. Cunningham later compared the celebration to a “fraternity picnic. War whoops of joy split the air. Warm beer was sprayed on late arrivals without regard to rank.” At the end of the day Devereux’s radio operator remarked, “It’s been quite a day, Major, hasn’t it?”


But their reaction was nothing compared to the reaction back home, where victory-starved civilians, still in shock over Pearl Harbor, received the news with elation. People had already begun wondering where the U.S. Navy was, since it had not made an appearance since the December 7 debacle, but they at least knew where the U.S. Marines stood—on a tiny Pacific speck where American military forces repelled the seemingly invincible Japanese. Headlines proudly proclaimed, “MARINES KEEP WAKE,” and compared its gallant defense to the valiant stand at the Alamo.

They took heart in the news of Wake’s heroic stand, for if such a small garrison on a barren isle could perform that well, what might the Japanese expect once the United States sent its vast, well-supplied armies into conflict? Americans finally had something to cheer about, and while they hated to think of loved ones being killed or wounded, they knew that once their sons were organized and marched to war, momentum would swerve to the United States.