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.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Wake Island —Part III”

  1. We take so much for granted – like ‘always’ winning. Thank you for the reminder of the cost of freedom.


  2. “. . . at the direction of Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, murdered the 98 American civilians retained as forced laborers.” This is not the only occasion of such behavior, and try as I might, I have never been able to understand the mentality behind such behavior. Never. No matter what the excuse some apologists have put forth, their is just no excuse.


  3. Gallantry and love for their fellow Marine shined at their brightest on that godforsaken atoll… And at the same time, humanity sunk to a low with the executions. However, the routine executions at the hands of ISIS today take humanity even lower.

    I am elated you had the privilege and honor serving for Lt. Gen. Tharin.


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