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.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Wake Island —Part II”

  1. How could Cunningham do all that AND dig a channel? Was he not making clear how low on what they needed they WERE?
    Was the equipment at Pearl…ships, planes, etc., so much that it’s being destroyed hurt the hopes of fighting in the Pacific in meaningful ways?


    1. We think the Admiral had no real idea of what Cunningham was going through. This is why the Navy invented cussing as a means of reducing stress. While this was going on, two fleets were en route to the mid-Pacific region. One designed as a diversion, and the other to rescue the garrison at Wake Atoll. It was decided at the last minute not to risk further destruction of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Both Cunningham and Devereux agreed this was a wise decision.


  2. “Marines promptly relocated them (shore batteries) and set up wooden replicas in their place.” Can you imagine the effort it took to do THAT? (In one day!)


  3. The amount of punishment inflicted on the garrison is unbelievable…down to the efforts to move a battery and set up a decoy. It is a shame this heroism is being neglected by our classrooms of today. I salute these great young men…


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