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.

For one of the few times in Corps history, a group of Marines was surrendering to an enemy.

Devereux Surrenders

The end of the fighting, just as the beginning, was orchestrated by Major Devereux, who stepped forward to arrange the surrender details. The heavy burden showed on the career officer’s face, and Sergeant Bernard Ketner consoled him at the command post, “Don’t worry, Major. You fought a good fight and did all you could.”

Devereux walked out into the open to pass the order along to different units. When one Marine questioned him, Devereux snapped, “It’s not my order, damn it!”

At Peacock Point, Franklin Gross at first refused to believe the fight had ended. “We were raised up in the school that Marines never surrender and the Japs would never take us prisoners. I sent one of my men over to the 5-inch guns, and he climbed up in the observation tower and he couldn’t see any Japs.

“We took off down a path there, about 12 men. One of the guys found a can of pineapples, and we were eating it when we heard a shot. I don’t know whether this guy shot into us or over our heads, but I looked up and here were these Japs wearing all this camouflage and these hats. We had a white flag with us. They took us a little farther up and stuck us in the brush and made us sit down. They set up a machine gun in front of us, and knowing what I had heard and read about the Japs all these years I knew they were going to kill us.

“I stared at the gun barrel and knew as well as I was going to take another breath that they were going to kill us. I looked right at that barrel and thought, ‘Well, I’m going to see you spit your fire.’

“I didn’t say a prayer—you were beyond praying. You had to rely on yourself. If anyone was going to help you, it had to be you.”

Meanwhile, Ewing Laporte endured his own little hell. He watched Major Devereux and another officer, holding a mop to which was attached a white rag, walk over and order Laporte’s group to surrender. After the fighting and dying, the shouting and the bombs, now the men were to lay down their weapons.

“I didn’t believe that we were surrendering. I threw the bolt of my rifle away to make it useless for the Japs, then saw some Japanese on the road. It was the shock of my life to see them. They jerked our clothes off, took our rings, tied us up. They were small, but it don’t matter what size you are as long as you got a rifle.

“We hated this. Can you imagine! Our creed was supposed to be you don’t surrender, but we had the order. It was hard to take.”

A High Price for Japan’s Forces

After completing the exhausting duty, which was more difficult for Devereux than any he had carried out in his career, he collapsed to the ground in despair. Just then a haggard group of Marine prisoners trudged by, guarded by Japanese soldiers. One Marine, Sergeant Edwin F. Hassig, spotted his commander and barked to his men, “Snap outta this stuff! Goddamn it, you’re Marines!” The Marines quickly straightened up and marched by Devereux in perfect formation.

Heartened by the sight, Devereux regained his composure and stood at the head of his Marine contingent. Some of the other men checked impulses to charge at the Japanese, who by now were running all about the camp, ransacking barracks and cheering in delight. When one Japanese soldier climbed the tower to lower the American flag, a few Marines took a step forward, but Devereux nipped any foolhardy actions. “Hold it. Keep your heads, all of you!” In angry silence, they glared at the solitary enemy soldier who tore down the Stars and Stripes.

They had no reason to be ashamed, for the defenders of Wake exacted a high price for the island. Forty-nine Marines, three Navy personnel, and 70 civilians died in the melee, while the Japanese lost two ships and seven aircraft and suffered at least 381 dead.

The Japanese tied each man’s hands high behind his back, with a wire looped around the neck. Any lowering of the arms tightened the wire, so each man battled pain and the sun to keep his arms elevated. After a few agonizing hours, the Japanese cut the bindings and ushered the men to the airstrip, where they detained them without food and water. “We got no food or anything for a while,” mentioned Laporte. “Christmas dinner was bread and jam. December 26 we had some food and we were marched into the barracks.”

Ignored By Their Own Government

Admiral Kajioka’s chief of staff approached Devereux to ask where the hidden gun positions rested. When Devereux replied there were none, that the only gun positions on Wake were the visible ones, the Japanese officer refused to believe that so few guns had inflicted such damage. Another Japanese officer asked Cunningham if Wake had actually sent the famous message, “Send us more Japs!” When Cunningham replied in the negative, the officer answered, “Anyhow, it was damned good propaganda.”

On January 12, 1942, all the Americans, except for a group of civilians who remained on Wake as laborers, boarded transports for the long voyage to Asian prison camps. Before the transports reached their destination, the Japanese selected five Marines, led them on deck, and beheaded them as retribution for the fighting on Wake. Similar angry actions would become all too commonplace for the Wake defenders.

After seizing Wake the Japanese stationed on the island were cut off from their homeland by the steady American advance through the Pacific. Supplies ran out, forcing the Japanese to eat grass for sustenance, and daily bombing made life miserable on Wake. People in the United States never forgot Wake Island and the valorous deeds performed there, but Japanese civilians and military officials gave little notice to the soldiers garrisoned on the island.

The Japanese suffered quietly, ignored by their own government, until war’s end, at which time the United States returned and reclaimed the land. Partly out of a spirit of vengeance, on October 7, 1943, the hundred civilian construction workers still on Wake were bound, blindfolded, led to the beach, and machine-gunned to death.

Four hundred Marines, five Army and 65 Navy personnel, and 1,076 civilians eventually left troop transports and slowly marched through the gates of Asian prison camps that were to be their homes for the next three and a half years. While they endured misery and hardship after performing bravely in the battle, the Wake defenders do not think they are heroes. At Wake and in prison camp they simply did their job—no more, no less.

Surviving the Camps

“People always say we’re heroes, and to most Wake Islanders it’s embarrassing,” explained Gross. “You know, any other group of Marines with the same amount of experience would have done the same thing. It’s no small thing we did, because we probably delayed the Japanese going to Midway about 30 days. They had to go back and regroup, and it took them 16 days to take Wake, so it slowed their timetable. It was quite a feat, but any other bunch of experienced Marines would have done the same.”

Gross may be right, but the Wake Island defenders, military and civilian alike, were extraordinary individuals. In times of stress they turned to one another, leaned on each other, and maintained faith that each would do his duty.

They also clutched tightly to another faith. At a reunion 40 years after the attack, the author asked LeRoy Schneider what made him survive prison camp when others did not. The imposing Wake Marine, still muscular and dignified after all these years, answered with a few simple, yet moving, words. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a well-worn Rosary that looked as if it had been used thousands of times.

“It was this,” he said to me as he nodded toward the string of beads, the same one he had used in prison camp. “Each Sunday a group of us, including Major Devereux, gathered together, got down on our knees, and said the Rosary.” As tears welled in the aged warrior’s eyes, Schneider added, “That’s what got me through.”

This article by John Wukovits originally appeared on Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikipedia