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”