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.

Immediately after the battle a Japanese Naval officer assessed Kajioka’s performance against the garrison at Wake. He concluded that Wake proved to be “one of the most humiliating defeats our navy ever suffered.”

Wake’s defenders had taken Round 1. Round 2 was about to begin.

Every Marine on Wake knew that the Japanese would return for a second assault, this time with enough men and ships to avoid another setback. The only question was when the attack would occur. The Pacific was fast turning into a Japanese ocean, with Japan’s only challenges coming from a weakened U.S. Navy and from Wake. With each passing day, the garrison became more isolated from the rest of the world.

“The Foggy Blur of Days and Nights When Time Stood Still”

Over the next 12 days the men, already weary from the strain of war, turned spectral from the constant state of vigilance and from daily Japanese air raids. Not knowing when an invasion force might suddenly loom offshore, Marines and a handful of civilians had to remain around the clock at their gun positions, where hot food and a chance to relax were luxuries from a past that had disappeared. No man could catch more than a few moments’ rest, since daily waves of fighters and bombers gave them little respite from combat conditions. Like automatons, exhausted men emerged after each raid, hastily repaired what they could, removed the wounded and dead, and prepared for the next wave of bombing. Diarrhea afflicted many. The island’s huge native rats—bothered by the bombings—swarmed into shelters and foxholes, while innumerable dead birds had to be buried for sanitation purposes. Supplies dwindled with each raid.

Devereux called this period the “foggy blur of days and nights when time stood still,” when men ached for laughter and one decent night’s sleep. “The days blurred together in a dreary sameness of bombing and endless work and always that aching need for sleep. I have seen men standing with their eyes open, staring at nothing, and they did not hear me when I spoke to them.” The only thing that counted was survival.

Marines and civilians rose from their shelters after each bombing, looked around at the new devastation, then permitted a small smile to briefly appear. “It was like a great weight lifting from your chest,” wrote Devereux. “You wouldn’t die today.”

Civilians Continue to Chip In

Through these weary days of mind-numbing bombing, the men on Wake displayed a remarkable resilience and self-sufficiency. They bided by the old Marine saying, which warned, “Maybe you oughta get more, maybe you will get more, but all you can depend on getting is what you already got.” Devereux again outwitted his opponents by moving the antiaircraft guns almost every night. He correctly assumed the Japanese bombers would mark the gun emplacements for subsequent attacks, so following each raid he ordered his tired Marines to shift the guns. When the next attack occurred, bombs usually fell on the abandoned positions.

Marine mechanics worked marvels to keep the four remaining fighters aloft, trading engines from one plane to another, stripping crashed aircraft for parts to build a hybrid version, and once even pulling a precious engine from a still-burning aircraft.

Some civilians added their own contributions. Dan Teters, a World War I veteran, organized a delivery system that shuttled food to the men at their posts. Appreciative Marines fondly labeled it “Dan Teters’ Catering Service.” In the absence of a military chaplain, a Mormon lay preacher named John O’Neal visited foxholes or comforted the wounded. Others carried ammunition to gun positions. Earl Row took his turn at the nightly beach patrols, a duty he called “the most hair-raising thing I have ever done in my life.” Row, battling a mixture of fear and weariness, imagined lifelike forms in every rock, but he kept reminding himself not to fire at what he hoped were only illusions.

Teters excused 186 men to fight with the Marines while keeping them on the payroll of Morrison-Knudsen, the civilian contractor that had hired them, and over 400 civilians—the “citizen soldiers” of 1941—ultimately helped in one form or another.

Meanwhile, citizens back home closely followed the Wake saga. Men jammed enlistment centers to join the military, including five Waterloo, Iowa, brothers named Sullivan, who later died together on the same stricken ship off Guadalcanal. In its December 22 issue TIME magazine trumpeted Wake’s feats, stating, “They had been there since the first day of war, beating off attack after attack by the Jap, shooting down his planes, sinking his surface ships, probably knocking the spots out of his landing parties.”

“Send Us More Japs”

Then came one of those moments that elevated Wake to heights few battles attain and contributed to the legend that formed. As reported in TIME magazine on December 29, 1941, “From the little band of professionals on Wake Island came an imprudently defiant message phrased for history. Wake’s Marines were asked by radio what they needed. The answer made old Marines’ chests grow under their campaign bars: ‘Send us more Japs.’”

The phrase was precisely the tonic needed by a country weary of defeat. Patriotic pride and enthusiasm bubbled over these words, supposedly uttered by Devereux when asked by Pearl Harbor what they could do for him.

In fact, those words had never been spoken. They were simply added as padding at both ends of a coded radio transmission to confuse Japanese cryptanalysts. Someone at Pearl Harbor extracted the phrase and turned it into the national rallying cry it became. American citizens learned after the war that Devereux had never used the words, but by that time the impact had long had its effect.

While citizens in the United States cheered the phrase, Marines on Wake jeered when they learned of the incident. “We heard about the quote, ‘Send us more Japs,’ while we were on Wake,” explains Private Ewing E. Laporte. “We didn’t like it at all.” The last thing any Marine wanted was more of the enemy.

What they needed was more aircraft. On December 22, the final two fighters were destroyed in combat. With their air umbrella gone, the Marines became the sole line of defense. Without ships, without planes, without relief, the Marines stood in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by an enemy that burned with a desire to seek vengeance for December 11.

Holding Out for a Few More Days

From behind the sandbags of his hastily fashioned gun emplacement, Marine Corporal Ralph Holewinski wondered how he and his buddies would turn back a well-equipped Japanese task force. In the movies he watched back home, the good guys always won. But at that moment he asked himself, “Where’s the cavalry now?”

Hopes that the Navy would speed to their rescue alternately soared then plummeted during these 12 days. Each time the cycle unfolded without help arriving, the sense of isolation gripped Wake more tightly.

Wake’s Marines expected the Navy to come to their aid. After all, that is what fellow servicemen do. Commander Cunningham wrote, “We felt good, almost cocky. Surely, help would come from Pearl Harbor any day now, and meanwhile we could wait it out.”

In fact, at Pearl Harbor, Kimmel had already prepared a daring plan to relieve Wake, centering on the aircraft carrier Saratoga. In the aftermath of December 7, however, Kimmel was quickly replaced by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

Until Nimitz arrived from Washington, Vice Adm. William S. Pye, a man as cautious as Kimmel was daring, held the reins. Pye dreaded losing any more of the battered Pacific Fleet before Nimitz assumed command and thus acted with reticence toward anything that might endanger the ships. However, he reluctantly permitted the relief expedition, carrying 200 Marines, 9,000 rounds of 5-inch shells, and a squadron of aircraft, to steam out of Pearl Harbor on December 12.

Back on Wake, Marines impatiently watched and waited. “Why the hell doesn’t somebody come out and help us fight?” Captain Elrod asked Major Devereux. Many civilians, certain that the Navy would evacuate them before the Japanese arrived in force, made plans to depart. Their optimism seemed justified on December 20, when Ensigns James J. Murphy and H.P. Ady landed a seaplane in Wake’s lagoon and brought news that the relief expedition, due to arrive Christmas Eve, was already heading toward Wake. Every Marine brimmed with confidence that they could hold out for four more days.

Stranded And Alone

Meanwhile, Murphy and Ady prepared to fly out. Since Major Walter Bayler had orders to proceed to Midway at the earliest possible time, he joined the ensigns on the outward flight. Before leaving, Bayler told the other men he would forward any letters they cared to write to loved ones.

Men penned letters to wives or parents, informing them that they were well and not to worry. “To Mrs. Luther Williams, of Stonewall, Mississippi,” wrote one Marine. “Solon is OK. Tough fight—but OK.”

Cunningham wrote his wife, “You know I am waiting only for the time of our joining. Circumstances may delay it a little longer, but it will surely come.”