The China Marines —Part I

China Marines 001Marines became “China hands” in the same way Marines ended up as experts in small wars in the Western Hemisphere. It began with a threat to the security of American interests. In 1927, the president dispatched the Fourth Marine Regiment to China to protect those interests; the regiment ended up staying in China for the next 15 years.

China had been troubled by internal conflicts for years and each of these emerged with anti-foreign sentiments in some quarters of the population. In retrospect, who can blame the Chinese? Foreign interests did not exactly treat the Chinese people as if they were our equals, after all and the United States had no hesitation of intervention. Marines were no strangers to China.

In the mid-1920s fighting broke out between opposing Chinese factions around the city containing the largest foreign settlement: Shanghai. Marines were landed twice in 1925 to protect American diplomatic interests and our citizens. A more serious threat emerged two years later when Nationalist Chinese forces pushed toward Shanghai, destroying all of those that opposed their advance. The anxiety of these approaching forces were shared equally by the Chinese and foreigners because it was then the habit of the Chinese army to loot homes and businesses, and then abandon areas so that the opposing forces could have what was left. The fears of the foreign settlements were intensified by the reputation of the communist elements for violent behavior toward foreigners. The “Old China Hands” could recall the violence of the Boxers from an earlier period of unrest; a cry went out for military forces to protect them.

The United States ordered 340 Marines at Guam to reinforce the diplomatic garrison in Shanghai, but this did little to assuage the fears of American diplomats and their families. Following mail guard duty, the 4th Regiment of Marines was sent to China, departing San Diego, California on 3 February 1927 and arriving off the coast of Shanghai three weeks later. The Marines were not disembarked, however, as diplomatic instructions form Washington wanted a clearer picture of the threats against American life and property [1]. Although fighting had erupted in areas surrounding Shanghai, the State Department still would not allow the regiment to land. Finally, in late March, the municipal council of the foreign settlement declared a state of emergency, and the United States government responded by landing the regiment.

To be continued


[1] Proving, of course, that idiots like Hillary Clinton have been in the U. S. State Department for a very long time.

Wake Island —Part III

As Pye was attempting to make sense of his radio intelligence, Wake’s defenders endured another air raid. On 19 December, 27 G3Ms (Americans called them Nells) approached Wake Atoll from the northwest in late morning, dropping bombs on the remainder of the Pan Am facility on Peale and on Camp 1 at Wake. “D” Battery fired 70 rounds at the attacking aircraft, Marines reporting one plane leaving the area trailing smoke. The Marines had achieved far more than that, however. Of the 27 planes sent to punish the Marines, the Marines ended up hitting 12 of them.

Then, on 22 December 1941 Admiral Pye received information that suggested a substantial Japanese naval presence operating near Wake Island. As it turned out the information was partly true but the fact is that Admiral Pye and Admiral Fletcher had no clear understanding of what the Japanese had, or their intentions, Pye could not, and was not willing to commit significantly reduced US naval assets to a fight at Wake Island. Pye recalled Fletcher and Brown to Hawaii. The garrison at Wake was now doomed to their fate[1].

Wake Defense 001A second Japanese assault came on 23 December 1941. It consisted largely of the same ships as previously (less those sunk) —this time with 1,500 Japanese Marines. The landing began in the middle of the night so that the American Marines could not see Japanese ships or the landing Marines. After a full night of fighting that stretched into the next afternoon, Cunningham ordered his force to surrender to the Japanese. During the assault, US Marines lost 49 killed and two missing in action, while Navy casualties were 3 killed, 70 civilians killed, including 10 Chamorro’s, and 12 civilians wounded. Japanese losses were 820 killed, 533 wounded, the loss of ships previously mentioned, and 21 Japanese aircraft shot down.

CAM144cover2.qxd:Layout 1Captain Henry T. Elrod, USMC received a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor while serving as one of the pilots from VMF-211 during the second invasion. Fellow pilot Captain Frank E. Tharin, USMC, interned as a prisoner of war, later received the Silver Star Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross for his service at Wake Island[2].

With all deference to the Marine corporal who served at Wake, who bemoaned the surrender of Marines at Wake, the United States had little choice at that place and at that particular time. As distasteful as it was, I believe Commander Cunningham made the right decision —indeed, the only rational decision available to him on 23 December 1941.

The ordeal of Americans was not over, however. Initially, the Japanese gave every indication that they intended to execute Navy and Marine Corps prisoners. That did not happen because Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka prohibited the executions. What did happen, however, is that the Japanese Wake garrison, at the direction of Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, murdered the 98 American civilians retained as forced laborers. American authorities hanged Sakaibara and his deputy in 1947.



[1] Interviewed in 1990, General Devereux said that he believed that Admiral Pye made a wise decision to withdraw TF-11 and TF-14.

[2] It was my privilege to work for Lieutenant General Frank Tharin when he served as the Deputy Chief of Staff (Plans and Operations) at Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps. He shared with me several amusing anecdotes of the time he spent as a POW, but there was nothing even remotely comical about the treatment our men received while in Japanese hands.

Wake Island —Part II

Wake Atoll afireTwo more air raids followed on 9 December. Japanese aviators targeted the main camp and successfully destroyed the civilian hospital and the Pan-Am facility. Marine pilots downed two Japanese bombers. Fearing that Japanese pilots had photographed the position of shore batteries, Marines promptly relocated them and set up wooden replicas in their place. On the following day, the Japanese focused on Wilkes Island. They did fall for the Marine’s trick, but a lucky hit on the civilian construction worker’s dynamite shed set off a chain reaction explosion and destroyed munitions for the guns on Wilkes Island.

Early on the morning of 11 December, the garrison at Wake repelled Japan’s first attempt at landing troops, which included three light cruisers, six destroyers, two patrol boats, and 450 Japanese Marines.

Major Devereux ordered his Marines to hold fire until the Japanese moved within range of the coastal defenses. Lima Battery on the Peale Islet sank the destroyer Hayate with two direct hits to her magazines at 4,000 yards; the ship sank within two minutes. Marine coastal guns hit the light cruiser Yabari eleven times, and Marine Wildcats managed to sink the destroyer Kisaragi. The Japanese destroyers were lost with all hands; the destroyer Hayate was the first Japanese ship of war sunk during World War II. The Japanese force withdrew before landing any troops. It constituted the first Japanese defeat in the war. American news media reported the attack, they included this quip from Commander Cunningham: “Send us more Japs!” The fact is, however, Commander Cunningham realized at the outset that the Wake garrison was critically short of essential materials. He needed gun sights, spare parts for aircraft, fire-control radar, and he needed munitions. His salty quip was actually “message padding,” or the inclusion of nonsense within official messages to help confuse the enemy.

Wake Wildcats DefendingThe siege continued, however. The stalwart defense of Wake Island by American Marines caused Japanese Vice Admiral Inoue to seek additional assistance and Admiral Yamamoto provided that help. Yamamoto detached the carriers Hiryu and Soryu (with escorts) to reinforce Inoue. On 16 December, the two Japanese carriers detached from the Pearl Harbor Strike Force and headed toward Wake Island.

Meanwhile, TF-11 under the command of Admiral Frank Fletcher and TF-14 under the command of Admiral Wilson Brown sailed toward the Marshal Islands. Admiral Fletcher intended to sail as a relief force for the garrison at Wake Island. His force consisted of the carrier USS Saratoga, a fleet oiler, a seaplane tender, heavy cruisers Astoria, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, and ten destroyers. He carried with him 450 Marines of the 4th Defense Battalion, VMF-221 equipped with the F2A-3 Brewster Buffalo, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million rounds of much-needed munitions.

Admiral Brown (CTF-14) headed toward the Marshall Islands with the fleet carrier USS Lexington, three heavy cruisers, eight destroyers, and a fleet oiler. He planned to conduct a diversionary raid as cover for Fletcher’s force.

Navy radio intelligence operators were intercepting Japanese radio transmissions which, when decoded, caused quite a stir —not because they were able to discern Japanese Imperial Navy intention vis-à-vis Wake Atoll, but rather because Japanese intentions were unclear[1]. Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor seriously impaired the effectiveness of the United States Pacific Fleet, and William S. Pye, having relieved Admiral Kimmel and assumed temporary command at Hawaii, was perplexed. He was not willing to commit the balance of the entire Pacific fleet to an action where there was at least an even chance that he could be defeated. The plain fact of the matter was this: US military forces were not yet ready to take on the Imperial Japanese Navy.

To be continued.


[1] The uncertainty at CINCPAC headquarters seems evident given the message Admiral Bloch sent to Cunningham on 17 December. Admiral Bloch asked Cunningham, who was by now up to his knickers in defending the Atoll and keeping his men alive, whether it was feasible to continue dredging a channel across Wilkes Island. One can only imagine what might have been going through Cunningham’s mind as he read the Admiral’s message.

Wake Island —Part I

Noted author Robert J. Cressman refers to the Battle of Wake Island as, “A Magnificent Fight,” although according to the testimony offered by Marines who were there, it was nothing like the Hollywood depiction of 1942. One former corporal recalled that the battle was more like the Alamo; another remembered that there was no glory in surrendering, which at Wake Island is what the Marines were ordered to do after 15 days of holding off the powerful Imperial Japanese Navy.

Wake 5-inch GunWake Island (known officially as Wake Atoll) is a coral formation north of the Marshal Islands consisting of 12 miles of coastline. It lies 2,300 miles west of Hawaii, and 1,510 miles east of Guam. Construction of a base of operations began at Wake in January 1941. The first permanent military garrison arrived in mid-August —a significantly understrength element of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion[1]. This initial complement consisted of 450 Marine officers and men operating under the command of Major James P. S. Devereux[2]. Also present were 68 US Navy personnel and 1,221 civilian workers of the Morrison-Knudsen Company. Since Wake Island was one of the regular stops for the Pan American Airways Clipper Service, there were additionally about 45 Chamorro men (a people indigenous to the Mariana Islands) employed to maintain the Pan American facilities.

For armament, the Marines had six 5-inch guns, which came from the USS Texas, twelve 3-inch anti-aircraft guns, eighteen 50-caliber machine guns, thirty 30-caliber water-cooled machine guns, and in keeping with the traditional role of every Marine, no matter what his occupational specialty: 450 rifleman.

Wake Wrecked WildcatsNavy Commander Winfield S. Cunningham assumed overall command of US forces on Wake in late November 1941. He had only ten days to examine island defenses and assess his men before the war began, which it did on 8 December 1941 —mere hours after the Japanese attacked US forces in Hawaii. Thirty-six Mitsubishi G3M3 medium bombers (referred to as Nell by Allied forces) flown from the Marshal Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of 12 F4F-3 Wildcat fighters of Marine fighter squadron VMF-211. At the time of the attack, the remaining four Wildcats were engaged in aerial patrols; poor visibility prevented these pilots from seeing the approaching Japanese aircraft. Focusing primarily on air capability, the Japanese ignored the Marine gun positions. During this attack, VMF-211 lost 23 of its 55 personnel KIA, 11 wounded casualties.

Following the initial attack, Commander Cunningham ordered the evacuation of all Pan American employees. Only Chamorro workers remained behind.

To be continued.



[1] Unlike the mobile Fleet Marine Force (FMF) involved in offensive operations, Marine Corps defense battalions were detached forces assigned to defend key coastal and island outposts in the Pacific Ocean area and in Iceland. These battalions varied in size and equipment, but generally included coastal gun batteries, anti-aircraft batteries, searchlights, and radar equipment. Bolstering these heavy crew served weapons were machinegun units with composite infantry companies, although most were required to provide their own riflemen (as an additional duty).

[2] James Patrick Sinnot Devereux served on active duty in the U. S. Marine Corps from 1923 to 1948. Upon the fall of Wake Island, Devereux became a prisoner of war; upon release in 1945, he continued his military service until 1948. Upon retirement, the Marine Corps advanced Colonel Devereux to the rank of Brigadier General pursuant to the law of the day relating to performance of duty in combat. After retirement from active duty, Devereux served as a U. S. Representative of Maryland from 1950 to 1959. He passed away in 1988.