Why Wake Island Was the 'Alamo' Battle of World War II

April 12, 2018 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIPacificWarJapanAmericaWake IslandMilitaryHistory

Why Wake Island Was the 'Alamo' Battle of World War II

The day after Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces assaulted the small American-held atoll of Wake Island, 2,300 miles west of Hawaii. The defenders numbered fewer than 1,800 Marines, sailors, soldiers and civilian contractors.

It was already December 8, 1941, on Wake Island’s side of the international date line. The Americans on the tiny specks of land in the western Pacific Ocean roused themselves at 6 am. Fifty minutes later, the garrison’s U.S. Army Signal Corps team opened its daily communications with faraway Hickam Field at Pearl Harbor. At first the radiomen were befuddled by the Hawaiian transmission, which seemed to indicate that Japanese warplanes were attacking the base. Hearing the report, Wake’s commander, Marine Corps Major James Devereux, made further efforts to clarify the garbled message. He soon received a coded communication that Pearl Harbor was indeed under devastating assault from carrier-based Japanese aircraft.

 

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Ordering the bugler to sound the call to arms, Devereux informed his assembling troops that it was no drill—America had gone to war. Within 45 minutes, the base’s defense positions were manned and prepped for combat. This did not interfere with the Marines’ daily salute to their country. At 8 am, the leathernecks stood at attention and saluted their nation’s flag as it was raised. The colors would fly nonstop throughout the coming siege.

The Three Strategic Wake Islands

Wake Island is actually three islands, Wake, Wilkes, and Peale, surrounding a central lagoon and encircled by a coral reef. With no indigenous inhabitants except for stunted trees and a rare species of rat, the islands are barely 20 feet above sea level at their highest and cover a scant four square miles of land. Before now, Wake had not held any great significance. The United States had taken over the atoll in 1899 as a spoil of the Spanish-American War. Lying far off the main shipping lanes, it was mostly ignored for the next four decades, until the development of the airplane began to change Wake’s strategic status.

Centrally sited between two other American possessions, Guam and Midway islands, Wake made a convenient way station for the newly established Pan-American Airways, and the Philippine Clipper passenger flying boat regularly landed in the lagoon for refueling. After 1935, travelers could also check into the opulent Pan-Am Hotel on the island. Meanwhile, the American military began to develop Wake for its own aviation purposes.

As aerial technology advanced, it became evident that air power would be a major factor in any coming war. By early 1941 there was little doubt that America and Japan would soon be coming to blows, and the U.S. Navy sent a 1,100-man force of civilian contractors and workmen to Wake Island to commence construction of a military airfield and seaplane base. The laborers were still transforming the atoll into a military post when the garrison arrived in October 1941.

The 38-year-old Devereux commanded the 400 Marines who would become the resident occupying force. A veteran of combat in Nicaragua, China, and the Philippines, Devereux was competent and industrious. As soon as his men had unloaded and installed their artillery, machine guns, searchlights, small arms, and supporting units, he set them to assist the civilians in their labors. Working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the leathernecks dug weapons pits, gun emplacements, air raid shelters, and sundry fortifications, camouflaging all of them. A direct Japanese invasion was not anticipated at Wake Island. Washington expected the Japanese to sit offshore in warships and attempt to neutralize the stronghold by naval shelling. Still, as a precaution, the ever-thorough Devereux constructed shore defenses in case of enemy landings. Under his ministrations, Wake became a fortress.

On November 28, Navy Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham flew to the island to assume overall command, and Devereux reverted to commander of all ground troops. While tensions grew, American-built B-17 Flying Fortresses in transit from California to the Philippines began landing on the brand-new runway to refuel. The presence of the bombers seemed to imply that the days of peace were running out. On December 4, 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighters from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise arrived to form Wake’s Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-211 commanded by Major Paul Putnam. Devereux had not had time to build fighter revetments, so the precious Wildcats could not be parked under cover. The Grummans would be conspicuous and vulnerable on the ground when the blow fell four days later.

On December 6, Devereux was so pleased with his men’s performance during combat drills that he gave them the rest of the weekend off to swim, lounge, read, fish, play football, write, and read letters just delivered by the Clipper. The next day, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and then turned their attentions on the previously sleepy enclave at Wake Island.

“So Close You Could See the Gunner’s Teeth”

At 11:58 am on December 8, 36 twin-engine Japanese bombers, having taken off from Roi-Namur, 700 miles to the south in the Marshall Islands, managed to catch the defenders by surprise by approaching through a rain squall. The bombers did extensive damage, igniting towering fuel-fed fires and strafing with impunity the startled anti-aircraft gunners who tried vainly to find the range. Seven of the island’s 12 vital Grumman fighters were destroyed and another was heavily damaged. Four Marine pilots—Lieutenants Frank Holden, Henry G. Webb, George Graves, and Robert Conderman—were killed on the ground while sprinting for their planes.

Japanese bombs pulverized warehouses containing spare parts, machinery, manuals, and tools, and they knocked out the island’s ground-to-air radio link. Twenty-three Americans were killed and another 11 wounded. Adding insult to injury, the Japanese pilots could be seen grinning widely and wiggling their wings in victory as they flew away. “The planes were so close you could see the gunners’ teeth,” recalled civilian contractor Benjamin F. Comstock, Jr.

Four of the Wildcats were spared because they had been absent on patrol at the time of the first attack. At 11 am on December 9, two of these planes, flown by 2nd Lieutenant David Kliewer and Technical Sergeant William J. Hamilton, were aloft when the second formation of enemy bombers approached. The two Americans immediately attacked the unescorted bombers, sending one down in flames, before having to break off their runs when their own anti-aircraft gunners opened fire.

Targeting the civilian bivouac and hospital, the Japanese bombers were savaged by flak. By the time they departed, six were trailing smoke. One exploded just offshore. Part of the Japanese 24th Air Flotilla, the returning pilots surprised their superiors with reports of the prickly reception they had received. Wake Island, it appeared, would be a harder nut to crack than so many other Allied outposts had proved to be during the waning days of 1941.

When the Japanese sent 26 bombers back to attack Wake on December 10, they were careful to approach from the east instead of the south, but the misdirection did them little good. The first wave carefully dropped its bombs on the coordinates of the anti-aircraft emplacements as reported by the previous day’s flight crews, but Devereux had anticipated this and moved the flak pits to different positions. The Japanese unloaded on dummy emplacements while American gunners opened fire from unexpected locations. The pilots were flying higher than on the previous day, at 18,000 feet, but the lofty altitude threw off the bombardiers’ aim and most of the bombs splashed harmlessly into the lagoon. One stray round crashed into a storage shed containing 125 tons of construction-grade TNT, setting off an explosion so powerful that it stripped the leaves off all the island’s trees. But only two Americans were killed and six others wounded. Again many of the bombers left trailing smoke, and Wildcat pilot Captain Henry Elrod shot down two enemy bombers.

The Plan to Take Wake Island

The next day, the American outpost of Guam fell to the Japanese, along with Makin, a British possession. As a Japanese invasion flotilla approached Wake Island, its tactical commander, Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, was confident that his own landings, scheduled for December 11, would have an easy time of it. The Japanese fleet consisted of the state-of-the-art light cruiser Yubari, two older cruisers, six destroyers, two destroyer transports, two transports, and two submarines. At 3 am on December 11, the task force came in sight of its objective, and the warships commenced assuming their pre-landing bombardment positions. The plan called for the shelling to cover 300 naval infantry troops as they landed on Wake Island while another 150 came ashore on Wilkes. After these troops established themselves, they were to be reinforced by sailors from the destroyers.

The Japanese strategy quickly came unglued. American lookouts immediately noticed the convoy and woke Devereux. His first action was to telephone his shore batteries and order them to hold fire until he ordered them to shoot. By 5 am it was light enough to see through field glasses that the cruisers’ rifles outranged his own 5-inch shore batteries, and he would have to lull the Japanese into coming within range of his guns. Considering the bomber crews’ overly optimistic reports, this was not difficult. Devereux was careful to instruct Putnam to not take off with his four Wildcats until after the beach artillery opened fire. The attackers would be totally surprised by their blistering reception.