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.

Others declined. “We got the word to write a letter if we wanted to, and our corporal said he’d take them down from our station,” explained Laporte, “but I don’t think anybody there wrote a letter. I think a lot of us didn’t know what to say.”

On December 22, Pye, concerned that Japanese carriers might be in the area and worried that he might lose the few remaining ships of the Pacific Fleet, recalled the relief expedition. The recall produced angry outbursts among Marine and Navy personnel aboard the ships at sea, who urged superiors to ignore the order and continue on to rescue their fellow fighters.

The language grew so inflammatory on the bridge of the Saratoga that Rear Adm. Aubrey Fitch stormed off so he would not hear possibly mutinous talk and be forced to take action. One Navy officer aboard the carrier Enterprise dejectedly wrote, “It’s the war between two yellow races.” Even in Japan, propagandist Tokyo Rose ridiculed the Navy by sarcastically asking in a broadcast, “Where, oh where, is the United States Navy?” The order stood, however, and the task force reluctantly turned away from Wake.

Wake’s defenders were now completely alone. They did not learn of the recall until much later, though, for they were now heavily occupied with problems of their own. On that same day, Japan launched the second landing attack.

Admiral Kajioka took few chances this time. Four heavy cruisers escorted 2,000 men, and the aircraft carriers Soryu and Hiryu, returning from their victory at Pearl Harbor, provided air support. To avoid the damage sustained in the prior attack, Kajioka ordered his ships to remain beyond the range of Wake’s accurate shore batteries.

Devereux spread his mixture of Marines, Navy personnel, and civilians throughout a 4.5-mile defense line that ran along Wake Island’s southern shore. Machine-gun crews dug in at each end of the airfield, while other defenders manned their positions and waited for the attack to begin. In case the Japanese broke through the line, Devereux organized the only reserve force he could muster, eight Marines and four machine guns in a truck.

‘More than Morale’ for the Marines

In the early-morning stillness of December 23, the Americans gazed seaward with a fierce determination that had outlasted the tortuous days of bone-rattling bombing. “I noticed a strange thing,” wrote Devereux. “It was an unspoken thing, intangible, but it was as real as the sand or the guns or the graves. My men were average Marines, and they had bitched and griped among themselves like any soldiers. Now their nerves and bodies had been sapped by two almost sleepless nights. Now the chips were down for the last roll of the dice, and they knew it, and they knew the odds were all against us, but now they were not grumbling. There seemed to grow a sort of stubborn pride that was more than just the word ‘morale.’”

Ewing Laporte sensed a difference as well. As the surf crashed against Wake’s shores and a stiff ocean breeze wafted the smell of salt water among the anxious defenders, the Marines waited with a new attitude. “There was that look on their faces. They weren’t the same guys anymore. It wasn’t a desperation look, but a look you got when you knew you had to do something. Of course, there was some fear involved, but every damn one of ’em was ready to do his duty.”

While many civilians sought shelter from the fighting in the brush, some hardy souls lent their assistance. John P. Sorenson, a large, hard-edged construction worker over 50 years old, led a group of 22 civilians to a command post to offer assistance to the Marines. The officer, touched by their willingness to fight, knew their chances of surviving combat were slim and declined their offer. Sorenson smiled and replied, “Major, do you think you’re really big enough to make us stay behind?”

As usual, a pre-invasion bombardment tore into the thin lines on Wake. Platoon Sgt. Johnalson E. “Big” Wright, an immense man weighing 320 pounds whose ability to down copious amounts of beer was legendary, stood in the open as bombs exploded, tightly clutching in his hands the lucky silver dollar he had carried for years. Other men begged him to seek shelter, but Wright counted on his lucky dollar to pull him through. Just as he was again telling the men to shut up, an explosion engulfed him. The dead Marine lay on the beach, still cradling the silver dollar.

The Japanese Invade

Around 2 am Japanese soldiers landed in three places on Wake Island and the adjoining Wilkes Island. They rushed forward with fixed bayonets, determined to shove the defenders out of their places and overrun Wake. Devereux’s communications with his outposts quickly broke down, due either to faulty wire or to being cut by the enemy. In the dark and without communications, Devereux could obtain no clear picture of the fighting, but he correctly guessed the location of the main thrust and ordered his small reserve force to the middle sector.

Marines and civilians fired their weapons until the Japanese were on top of them, at which time they resorted to bayonets and bare hands. Major Paul A. Putnam, knocked to the ground in the melee, fired his .45 pistol at two Japanese soldiers at such close range that one slumped dead across him. A Japanese soldier saw one Marine “blaze away with a machine gun from his hip as they do in American gangster films.”

“Two civilians—Paul Gay and Bob Bryan—were killed alongside of me,” explained Ralph Holewinski, still touched by the heroism of men who were not on Wake to fight. “As the Japanese moved closer to our gun emplacement—within 20 feet, close enough that when I hit one he spun around and the blood spurted out, just like in the movies—Bryan kept lobbing grenades from a box he tightly clutched.” After the battle, 30 Japanese bodies lay sprawled around the position defended by Holewinski and his civilian comrades.

John Sorenson and his men fought side by side with the Marines in another foretaste of the “citizen soldiers” who would shortly be entering the service to augment the regular military forces. The killing and maiming occurred from close quarters as opponents smacked into each other, clutched throats, bit hands, screamed in pain, and died with sudden violence. As Japanese soldiers advanced toward Sorenson’s position, bullets spitting from their rifles and hand grenades plopping into foxholes, Sorenson ran out of ammunition. Without hesitation he rose from his position, ran toward the enemy, and hurled expletives and rocks until felled by bullets.

Marine aviator Captain Henry T. Elrod had earlier distinguished himself by sinking a Japanese destroyer on December 11, but his actions on December 23 earned the career officer a posthumous Medal of Honor. Reporting as a combat soldier after all the aircraft had been destroyed, Elrod stood with his fellow defenders as the Japanese swarmed toward them. Accurate American fire cut down swaths of enemy soldiers, but more quickly took their place. Marines and civilians died amid a hail of bullets and grenades, some grappling with their foe in brutal hand-to-hand combat.

“Enemy on Island—Issue in Doubt”

Looking like the classic image of Davy Crockett surrounded by Santa Ana’s troops at the Alamo, Elrod stood up in the midst of the fighting, shouted “Kill the sons of bitches!” and blasted away with his Thompson submachine gun. When that weapon ran out of bullets, Elrod picked up a Japanese machine gun and continued to fight. Finally, with Japanese bodies piling up at his feet, Elrod was killed as he prepared to toss a hand grenade.

In numerous spots, other fighters recorded unheralded deeds. Gunner Clarence B. Mc-Kinstry rallied his small group by shouting, “Get going, move on! You don’t want to stay here and die of old age!” As the men rushed forward, McKinstry tossed hand grenades passed to him by an accompanying civilian. When he saw a supposedly dead Japanese soldier rise from the sand and kill an American, McKinstry bellowed, “Be sure the dead ones are dead!” Marine Corporal Alvey A. Reed and a Japanese attacker charged headlong in the melee, simultaneously plunged their bayonets into each other, and slumped to the ground, locked in a deadly stillness as the noise and fury continued about them.

In spite of the valor, the small group of defenders could only hold on for so long against the much larger enemy force. Although cut off from forward positions since communications lines had been severed, Devereux knew the defense was being overwhelmed. When a civilian rushed inside, screeching in terror, “They’re killing them all!” Devereux decided to establish a last-ditch defensive line near his command post and manned it with clerks and communications personnel.

With the battle deteriorating, Commander Cunningham realized that further resistance was futile. At 5 am he had sent a message to Pye, stating, “Enemy on Island—Issue in Doubt.” Now, two hours later, he turned to Devereux and muttered, “Well, I guess we’d better give it to them.” Cunningham then headed to his room, shaved and washed his face, put on a clean uniform, and headed out to meet the enemy.