Described as one of the loneliest atolls in the Pacific, Wake Island is a submerged volcano top, which consists of Wake and two other islets, Wilkes and Peale. Wake Island is 450 miles from the nearest land, and approximately 2,300 miles from Honolulu. Claimed and annexed by the United States in 1899, the military had decided in the 1930s, with the clouds of war suddenly beginning to darken, to use it as an advanced naval and air base that was within striking distance of various Japanese-held territories in the Pacific.
By December 1941, the garrison on Wake was comprised of a severely reduced detachment of 422 Marines Corps enlisted men and 27 officers of the 1st Defense Battalion under Major James Devereux, as well as Marine aviators of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211; 10 naval officers and 58 enlisted men (including hospital corpsmen); a small Army communications unit of 1 officer and 4 men; 70 Pan American Airways civilians and 1,146 contractor employees. Most of the Marines on Wake were artillerymen, but all of them were overworked as the detachment was vastly undermanned. The exhausted Marines were just finishing breakfast at 0650 on Monday, 8 December when a message came through that Pearl Harbor, on the other side of the International Date Line, was under attack by the Empire of Japan.
The defenders at Wake Island did not have the benefits of radar, as there was still none of the relatively new technology in place anywhere on the atoll, a weakness the Japanese would soon exploit. Although four Grumman Wildcat F4F-3 aircraft of Marine fighter squadron VMF-211 were on patrol in the skies above the atoll, the lack of early warning radar, as well as a rain squall and low cloud cover allowed Japanese bombers and fighter aircraft to fly in unseen and unheard to launch a deadly strike around noon on 8 December. In rather quick order, the bombers were able to destroy the remaining eight Wildcat fighters on the ground. The raid also killed and wounded 23 Marines, and was a costly lesson to the Marines on the devastating results that came from the lack of radar equipment.1
The Japanese naval invasion force, commanded by Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, arrived three days later. With only 450 special naval landing troops at his disposal, Kajioka just barely outnumbered the defending Marines, who used their six 5-inch coast-defense guns that protected Wake Island with amazing skill and accuracy. The 5-inch/51-caliber seacoast guns hurled a 50-pound shell at 3,150 feet per second up to a range of 17,100 yards.2 Kajioka’s flagship Yubari was hit 11 times, while the lead ship of three destroyers, Hayate, was struck by three two-gun salvos at a distance of only 4,000 yards “so accurately that she blew up, broke in two, and sank immediately.”
The Marines from Battery L cheered so wildly that Sergeant Henry Bedell, an Old Breed Marine [1st Marine Division] hollered at his Marines, “Knock it off, you bastards, and get back on the guns. What d’ya think this is, a ball game?” The Marines had every reason to cheer, as Hayate was the first Japanese surface ship to be sunk during the war. Battery L then set their sights on Japanese destroyer Oite and scored two hits. They then fired on the next leading transport, which turned seaward and retired behind a destroyer smoke screen, leaving the survivors of Hayate to drown (only one sailor from her crew of 148 survived). The well-trained Marines from Battery B, on Peale Island, let loose with salvos from their 5-inch/51-caliber guns on the leading ship Yahoi, which scored one hit. The enemy fired upon Battery B in return, severing fire-control communications, but otherwise not doing any harm. The Marines shifted fire to another destroyer and soon all the Japanese ships retired. The four Wildcat fighters meanwhile jumped into the fight, and one of the pilots seemed bound and determined to defeat the enemy himself.
Captain Henry Elrod was responsible for the sinking of the Imperial Japanese destroyer Kisaragi. Three days earlier, Captain Elrod had single-handedly attacked 22 Japanese aircraft and shot down two of them, becoming the first Marine to score air-to-air victories in the war. On 11 December, he began to strafe and bomb several of the enemy ships near Wake, and also became the first pilot to sink a warship with small caliber bombs dropped from a fighter aircraft. Captain Elrod’s two 100-lb. bombs set off a far larger chain of explosions when they detonated the depth charges on Kisaragi’s stern. After he was forced to land his damaged aircraft, he then went into action as a rifleman, and helped organize the beach defense when the Japanese returned in force. His heroics and enthusiasm for hard-charging and fighting were instantly recognized and admired by his fellow Marines and led directly to the well-earned nickname “Hammerin’ Hank.” Captain Elrod was later killed on 23 December, the very day the island fell to the Japanese, after he had laid down covering fire for some of his men bringing up ammunition to a gun emplacement. He also became the first Marine in the war awarded the Medal of Honor.
The heroics of “Hammerin’ Hank” Elrod and his fellow Marines on 11 December accounted for more than 200 Japanese dead and the loss of two destroyers. More importantly, the Japanese invaders withdrew without one of their soldiers setting foot on Wake Island. This marks the only time during the World War II that an amphibious assault was beaten back by coastal defense guns. Amazingly, only one American had been killed in this first battle between U.S. Marines and Imperial Japanese forces. However, Marine air cover was now non-existent, as only two Wildcats remained in working condition. The Marines stood defiant and proud, but they knew the Japanese would return.3
While the Marines made their legendary stand, a relief force was being designated to bring supplies and reinforcements to them. Task Force 11 (TF 11), built around the aircraft carrier Saratoga (CV-3), with Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher in command, as well as Task Force 14 (TF 14) under the command of Admiral Wilson Brown in carrier Lexington (CV-2), slowly made preparations to get underway. Task Force 14 was to make a feint against the Marshall Islands in an effort to draw Japanese attention away from TF 11 and their mission to resupply the Wake Island defenders.4
Task Force 11 did not get underway from Pearl Harbor until 16 December, and Admiral Fletcher stopped to refuel his destroyers on 22 December, lengthening the time it would take the relief force to arrive at Wake. In the meantime, Vice Admiral William Pye, temporary Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, learned that two Japanese carriers possibly lurked just off Wake Island. On 21 December, a Japanese air raid had sent the defenders scrambling for cover. Major Paul A. Putnam, commanding officer of VMF-211, had taken off on an unescorted flight to find the Japanese carriers that launched the aircraft. The carriers Hiryu and Soryu, which had participated in the Pearl Harbor attack, had joined the Japanese invasion force at Wake Island. For his actions that day, Major Putnam later received the Navy Cross.5
On 22 December (23 December, Wake Island Time), Admiral Pye read the “urgent” message from Commander Cunningham apprising him of the dire circumstances at Wake. Although he had been authorized to “evacuate” the defenders at Wake, something he realized was impossible due to the Japanese controlling the area; he had also been told that the island had become a “liability.” Therefore, Pye ordered Admirals Fletcher and Brown to return to Pearl Harbor. Upon reading the message, Admiral Fletcher threw his hat to the deck in disgust, and several of his officers pleaded with him to disobey the order and press on. Fletcher could not of course, and several sailors hung their heads and wept openly in shock and dismay at the thought of leaving so many of their comrades behind to the enemy.6
In the early morning hours of 23 December the Japanese landed 1,500 troops of their special naval landing forces on Wake. The Marines gave a very good accounting of themselves against a superior force, and fought ferociously throughout the morning and on into the next afternoon. When it became clear that they were not to be relieved or evacuated, Commander Cunningham, who later received the Navy Cross for his defense of the island, ordered the Marines to surrender. Even then, several of the artillerymen and aviators-turned-riflemen had to be persuaded by Major Devereux in person before they would put their weapons down. Devereux was also awarded the Navy Cross for his role in leading Marines in their first battle against Imperial Japanese forces. For the Marine Corps as a whole, it was clear that if their Marines were well-supplied and well-led, they could easily defend against anything the Japanese threw at them.
Of the nearly 449 Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion and VMF-211, 49 were killed and 32 wounded in action, while the rest became prisoners of war. Of the 68 Navy personnel, 3 were KIA and 5 WIA. The Army detachment did not lose any of its soldiers, while the 1,146 civilians lost 70 killed and 20 wounded. The Japanese lost 381 men, plus an unconfirmed number of wounded. Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, the Japanese commander of Wake Island, was executed after the war when it was discovered that he had ordered the execution of 98 civilian contractors in October 1943. He had apparently feared a major landing by American forces around that time, which never materialized. The other American POWs were sent off to prison camps in occupied parts of China or to Japan to become slave laborers. All endured years of starvation, torture, disease, and despair until they were liberated at war’s end. Despite occasional Allied raids throughout the war, the Japanese remained in control of Wake Island until they finally surrendered on 4 September 1945.7
Essay by Guy Nasuti, NHHC Histories and Archives Division, December 2016
1 Samuel Eliot Morison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific 1931–April 1942 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company), 230.
2 Robert J. Cressman, A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), 10.
3 Ibid., 231–32.
4 Ibid., 235–37.
5 Cressman, 3.
6 Morison, 250–54.
7 Cressman, 13, 32–36.
Cressman, Robert J. A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island. Washington DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1993.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Rising Sun in the Pacific: 1931–April 1942: History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. III. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1968.