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.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

5 thoughts on “Wake Island —Part I”

    1. Yes sir, he did. The book titled simply Wake Island was first published in 1947 as The Story of Wake Island. Not sure how well it did on the best selling lists as by then, Americans were tired of the war and of those who participated in it, the last thing they wanted to do is dwell on the battles.


  1. What a tragedy for VMF-211 during their initial combat. Wake is such a small place but was crammed full of gallant Americans. Looking forward to your next post on Wake.


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