World War Two: Fall of Wake Island, 11-23 December 1941

The day after Guam fell, the defenders of Wake Island scored the first American victory of the war. It was heartening but temporary. At 0500 on December 11, Japanese cruisers, escorting transports loaded with 450 Special Landing Troops, opened fire on Wake. Marine lookouts had spotted the flotilla in the light of the half moon; but Major James P.S. Devereux, commanding the Marine defense battalion detachment, held his fire to prevent the enemy from locating his guns prematurely. At 0615 the new light cruiser Yubari and three destroyers closed to 4,500 yards. Now, the Marines opened up. The 5-inch guns of Battery A at Peacock Point, commanded by 1st Lieutenant Clarence A. Barninger, hit Yubari three times; the cruiser turned tail and fled, trailing smoke. On Wilkes Island, Battery L’s 5-inch guns, commanded by 2nd Lieutenant John A. McAlister, sank the lead destroyer Hayate; she was the first Japanese surface craft sunk by U.S. naval forces in the war. The Marine gun crews were so excited they stopped firing and started cheering. Platoon Sergeant Henry A. Bedell, an old China hand, brought them back to business, bellowing: ” Knock it off, you bastards, you get back on the guns. What d’ya think this is, a ball game?”

The keyed-up Marine gunners promptly hit a second destroyer and the lead transport and sent off another two transports. Their accurate firing then found a light cruiser, and she also turned away. First Lieutenant Woodrow W. Kessler’s Marines at Battery B on Peale Island scored a hit on a destroyer

The Marine gunners had driven off the invasion force. Four Marine Grumman F4F Wildcats, led by Major Paul A. Putnam, of Washington, Iowa, chased the retreating ships, strafed them, dropping 100-pound bombs and scooted home to re-arm. The planes shuttled out; damaged two warships and a transport, and Captain Henry T. Elrod of Thomasville, Georgia, sank the destroyer Kisaragi. There were no survivors.

The battle was an unqualified victory for the Marines. They had sunk two destroyers, damaged a cruiser and several other ships, shot down three Japanese bombers and damaged four more. The enemy lost some 500 men; on Wake, there were no casualties. The historian Morison wrote: “ the eleventh day December 1941 should always be a proud day in the history of the Corps. Never again, in the Pacific War, did coast defense guns beat off an amphibious landing.” But the Marines superb shooting could not save Wake.

The Japanese were determined to take the atoll. A lonely speck 450 miles from the nearest land, it was made up of three islands in the shape of a wishbone open to the northwest. The main island was Wake; Wilkes was at the tip of the southern branch of the wishbone, and Peale at the tip of the northern. The atoll, which had been visited by the Wilkes Exploring Expedition in 1841 and annexed to the United States in 1899, sat astride the Pacific lines of communication of both the United States and Japan–a strategically placed coral aircraft carrier.

When war came there were on wake only 388 Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion commanded by small, wiry Major Devereux, who had been an enlisted Marine in Nicaragua and China; Major Putnam’s Marine Fighter Squadron 211 of 61 men and 12 blue and grey Wildcats (flown off the Enterprise on December 4); 68 Navy personnel; five army communication men; 70 Pan American civilians, and 1,146 civilian contract employees who had been trying to pound Wakes coral boulders in to a Naval sir base. Navy Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, a lanky aviator , was the atoll commander.

Only the understrength Marines were armed. A total of six 5-inch and a dozen 3-inch guns were emplaced on Peale and Wilkes Islands and on Peacock Point at the base of Wake. There were Marines enough to man but six of the 3-inch antiaircraft guns.

After sunrise on Monday (Sunday, December 7 in Hawaii) Pan America’s Philippine Clipper took off and headed west toward Guam. The Marines finishing breakfast. Major Devereux was shaving. At 0650, Army Captain Henry S. Wilson dashed into the major’s tent with an un-coded message that Hawaii was under attack. Devereux told the bugler to sound Call to Arms. Marines grabbed their Springfield ’03 rifles and ammunition and World War I-style helmets, piled into trucks and rushed to their batteries. By 0735 all positions were manned. Aviators had their planes warmed up and dispersed as much as possible, civilians started digging foxholes. The Clipper was recalled and returned. A four plane patrol went up and swung to the north to scout for enemy planes.

Just before noon, 36 twin-engine bombers, approaching from the south, swooped down out of a rain cloud. The Island had no radar; and with the constantly roaring surf, nobody heard or saw the bombers till 15 seconds before the first bomb fell. In ten furious minutes, the Japanese destroyed seven of the eight Wildcats on the ground; wrecked the Pan Am station, riddled the Clipper; killed 10 civilians; and 23 aviation Marines and wounded 11 more. The enemy fliers flew off intact, wagging their wings to celebrate their success.

An hour later, the Clipper managed to take off for Midway to the northeast. The Marines and some volunteers from Dan Teter’s civilian construction crew cared for the wounded, repaired damage, salvaged planes and mined the runway to prevent an airborne landing. The marines could not get permission to use the contractor’s ditch-digger to bury their communications wires.

For the next two days, Wake was pounded. Only three Wildcats were operational. Lieutenant David D. Kliewer and Tech Sergeant William J. Hamilton flew in on the flanks of one enemy raid and shot down a straggling bomber. Captain Elrod shot down two more. The bombers hit guns, ammunition, barracks, radio station and machine shops. They burned the hospital to the ground, killing four Marines, 55 civilians and several corpsmen. On the third night, December 11, the Japanese made their first attempt to land and were thrown back by the Marine gunners.

At Pearl Harbor, the American naval commander organized a relief expedition around three fast carrier task forces with Lexington, Enterprise and Saratoga. But the relief expedition was crippled by indecisiveness and excessive caution. Naval officers feared risking their then-irreplaceable carriers.

Bombers clobbered the island almost daily; there was no hiding form the hell they dropped. By December 14, two planes had been wrecked; and VMF-211 was down to one again. Cannibalizing planes, the Marines on the seventeenth had four Wildcats that could do battle.

On Saturday, December 20, a Navy PBY arrived; Wake’s first physical contact with the outside world since the island was attacked. The plane brought the plans of the relief expedition, cheering all hands, and took off again early the next morning. Two hours later, the first Japanese carrier dive bombers and fighters appeared. They promised that the Japanese were preparing another landing attempt.

The twenty-first was a bitter day; Battery D on Peale was virtually destroyed. On the twenty-second, only two Wildcats could fly. Captain Herbert C. Freuler and 2nd Lieutenant Carl R. Davidson took them up to attack 33 carrier dive bombers and six zero’s Davidson dived at one of the bombers; a zero shot him down. Freuler exploded under another Zero. A Zero tailed him and wounded him twice. He escaped and crash-landed his plane on Wake. That wiped out the Marine airpower for good. What was left of VMF-211, less than 20 able-bodied men, joined the Defense Battalion as infantrymen.

It was now a race between the American relief expedition and the enemy landing force. The Japanese won. Saratoga was still 600 miles from Wake; but Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher spent December 22 refueling. Then it was too late.

The Marines spotted the Japanese amphibious force at 0215 on December 23, an intensely dark, moonless night. This time, the Japanese came to stay. They brought six heavy cruisers, six destroyers, and two carriers. In the landing force was an estimated 1,500 men.

At 0235 the enemy landed simultaneously on Wilkes and the southern side of Wake. About 100 men hit Wilkes. There, big tough Marine Gunner Clarence B. McKinstry, commanding Battery F, began the battle by firing a.50 caliber machine gun at the landing barges. On Wake island, 1,000 Japanese landed against some 85 Marines on the beach. An unmanned 3-inch gun on a slight rise was the only large weapon that could bear on the two destroyer-transports disembarking their men. Second Lieutenant Robert M. Hanna quickly gathered a scratch crew, raced to this gun threw 15 shells into the grounded landing craft. But the enemy scrambled ashore. Devereux sent Major Putnam, Captain Elrod and the VMF-211 Marines between the enemy and Hanna’s gun. They fought off several hundred Japanese for six hours, until all but one of the defenders, Marines and civilians, were killed or wounded. Among the dead was Hank Elrod. The thirty-six year old flier was the first Marine aviator in World War Two to earn the Medal of Honor–awarded for his courage in the sir and on the ground.

The Marine Defense Battalion had no infantry component; small detachments, bolstered by a few civilian workers, met repeated enemy attacks and shouting bayonet charges. They fought the enemy with machine guns and grenades. The Japanese captured the hospital and tied up the wounded Marines with telephone wire. Major George H Potter Jr., Devereux’s executive officer, and 40 men fought from a defense line that crossed the Airstrip. At 0500 a half hour before dawn, Commander Cunningham sent a message to Pearl Harbor: “ENEMY ON ISLAND ISSUE IN DOUBT.” The Japanese were firmly established on the atoll. The Marines thin line was just too thin.

At Pearl, Vice Admiral William S. Pye, temporarily commanding the Pacific Fleet, fearful of losing the Saratoga, ordered the mismanaged relief expedition back to Hawaii. On Saratoga, sailors and marines were furious; Marine aviators cursed and wept. Wake’s last hope was snuffed out.

At 0730, Cunningham and Devereux, knowing now that no relief could be expected, decided to surrender. Devereux, with Sergeant Donald Malleck carrying a white rag on a mop handle, walked south to meet the nearest Japanese commander. But the fighting continued for hours, and Devereux had to go to each Marine position to bring the battle to a halt. As Morison wrote:” Marines surrender Hard”

The final battle was fought on little Wilkes Island, where there were 70 Marines and a number of sailors and civilians. Gunner McKinstry’s Marines were forced back to join men form Battery L commanded by 2nd Lieutenant McAlister. From this position, they were able to block the way to the main island.

Captain Wesley McC. Platt’s command post on Wilkes was on the far side of the Japanese landing force. Down near the beach, on that side, the Marine machine gun nearest the landing was able to repel attacks until dawn. As day broke Captain Platt led Platoon Sergeant Raymond L. Coulson and eight marines riflemen against nearly 100 Japanese. They drove the surprised Japanese back the McAlister-McKinstry line. McAlister gathered 24 Marines and counterattacked from his side. Platt and McAlister joined forces and together wiped out the rest of the Japanese landing force on Wilkes.

But Platt was now out of communication with Devereux’s command post. Under dive bomber attack, he and his Marines marched east toward Wake Island. At 1330 Platt saw three men approaching; two Marines and a Japanese officer with a large sword. The Marines were Devereux and Mallack; the major told Platt that the atoll had been surrendered. The Battle for Wake Island was over.

The Japanese made prisoners of 470 officers and men and 1,146 civilians. The American dead were 49 Marines, three sailors, and about 70 civilians. Enemy casualties in taking Wake were estimated to total 820 killed and 333 wounded. The prisoners kept hoping for an American counterattack until they sailed on January 12 for Shanghai. En route, they were half starved and repeatedly beaten. Two Marine Sergeants from VMF-211 and three sailors were beheaded. In Woosung prison camp Shanghai, the Wake Marines joined Colonel Ashurst and the Marines from North China. They would be there for a very long time.

SOURCE: U.S. Marine Corps Story: BY: J. Robert Moskin

….Flying thirty-six of it’s twin-engine bombers, the 24th Air Flotilla attacked Wake at midday on 8 December, destroying seven planes, severely damaging another, damaging the Pan American facilities, and cratering the airstrip. Not a single Japanese plane was lost. Bombing raids continued through 10 December, exploding ready ammunition and damaging some of the 5-inch guns.

While the Guam Invasion Force had been a massive one, pitted against opposition known to be minor, the wake Invasion Force was dangerously weak against a force known to be potentially strong. The Fourth Fleet at Truk assigned the following ships to the wake Island invasion: the light cruiser Yubari ( flagship of Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka), the destroyers Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Yayoi, Mochizuki, Oite, and Hayate, escorting two transports (converted destroyers) with 450 SNLF troops and two Maru Transports carrying garrison troops. (Maru is a term attached to Japanese merchant ships, and the title was retained when the ship was impressed into naval service) The light cruisers Tenryu and Tatsuta, old cruisers commissioned in 1919, would act as a support group. This definitely was not the Japanese first team, as event were soon to prove.

The Wake invasion Force sailed from Ruotta anchorage, Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, on 8 December, arriving off Wake two days later. The cruiser’s Action Reports and the tactics of the invasion force indicate that little resistance was anticipated; the Japanese apparently assumed that the two days of bombing had rendered Wake relatively defenseless. The Japanese ships began their approach on 11 December shortly after 0500. In atypical destroyer squadron, the Yubari would have been at the head of her six destroyers; this arrangement was modified, how ever by situating the light cruisers Tatsuta and Tenryu between Yubari and the destroyers, in a column formation. On the starboard side of the column were the two converted destroyers, on the port side were the two Marus. Seas were running high. Which would make the launching of assault craft slower and more difficult.

The defenders at wake had seen blinking lights to the south shortly after midnight, so available defenses had been readied. The four remaining Grumman’s took to the air as the approach was spotted, and the Marines stood to their three batteries of 5-inch guns, one battery on each of the three islands.

The Japanese column opened fire at 0522, after having turned to port to make its firing run, paralleling Wakes southern perimeter at 6,000 yards from shore. The marines on Wake held their fire, and the records of the Tenryu indicate that the Japanese bombardment target was the “Wake, residential area” and “housing in the West area.” At any rate, their target was definitely not the defense batteries. Oil tanks at the southern end of Wake Island were hit, however, and set afire. As the column advanced to the west, the transports began to prepare to land their troops. After twenty minutes, having reached the west edge of Wilkes Island, the Yubari closed the range to 4,500 yards and reversed for another firing run. The Marine defenders still held their fire. At 0600 the Yubari reserved again, once more closing range for a third firing run, and at 0610, the islands’ batteries opened fire. Battery A, at the southeast tip of Wake Island, claimed to have hit the Yubari with it’s second salvo, although the Yubari Action Report makes no mention of any damage. One of the converted destroyers, carrying half the SNLF troops, received a fatal hit from Battery A, at about the same time, and eventually drifted ashore at Wake Island.

Rear Admiral Kajioka immediately retired his command ship to the southwest, escorting the remaining converted destroyer. The transports came under the fire of Battery L on Wilkes Island, and one Maru was hit. The destroyers Hayate, Oite and Mochizuki in order to screen the transports and deliver counterbattery fire, charged directly toward Battery L and thus proved anew the truth of an old naval dictum: fixed ground defense guns can usually outshoot attacking ships. The Hayate, in the lead, was hit squarely by three salvos and blew up, with no survivors: 168 men were killed. The Oite was hit, with nineteen men wounded, along with the Mochizuki she turned south-southwest of Wilkes Island. Meanwhile, a reconstructed column made up of the Yayoi, Mutsuki and Kisaragi backed up by the Tatsuta and Tenryu, got into a fire fight with Battery B on Peale Island. The Yayoi was hit ( one man killed, seventeen wounded), but she returned fire and did considerable damage to Battery B.

A new element was added to the battle when the four Grumman Wildcats attacked. At 0724, they made a strafing run on the starboard bow of the Tenryu. The forward section of the cruiser was raked in the vicinity of her NO. 1torpedo tube, wounding five, disabling three of her torpedoes and puncturing the hull. With this, the remaining ships made smoke and also retired to the southwest. But the Wildcats were not through; the Kisaragi came under attack about 30 miles southwest of Wake. Hits on her depth charges set off a hugh explosion, and the Kisaragi went down at once with all hands (her normal complement was 150 men) at 0731.

The Yubari’s Action Report sums up the battle succinctly. “Although the enemy sustained heavy damage from numerous attack by the medium-attack bombers of the 24th Air Flotilla, he still retained intact several fighters, ground batteries, etc.–he fiercely counterattacked and we were temporarily forced to retire.” The total Japanese casualty list was 340 killed, 65 wounded, and 2 missing. The Wake Invasion Force, now missing two destroyers and one converted destroyer transport, returned to Ruotta anchorage to repair its damages and to await reinforcements before anew effort. On Wake, the defense batteries were still mainly in tact, but there were only two planes left. Amazingly, only one U.S. Marine was killed. This battle certainly showed warships should not charge into the point-blank range of fixed 5-inch guns.

In the interval between the first and second invasion operations, the Americans wanted to reinforce the Wake garrison. But confusion in the command echelons, caused the Pearl Harbor debacle, and the lack of hard intelligence on the whereabouts of the Japanese Combined Fleet or the nature of Japanese naval installations in the Marshalls, caused the Americans to fail to reinforce Wake or engage new enemy invasion forces in battle. Although three fleet carriers with cruiser and destroyer screens were then available, it was feared that Wake was the bait the in a Japanese trap, and the risk of losing three fleet carriers on top of the battleship losses at Pearl Harbor seemed to great.

The Japanese continued a daily air bombardment by the 24th Air Flotilla, augmented by planes from the heavy carriers Hiryu and Soryu and from the seaplane tender Chitose. They set no ambush, however, between 11 and 23 December, even though they realized that Wake could have been reinforced in that time. Although they made an efficient and successful invasion in the predawn of 23 December, the Japanese invasion force was inferior in all its elements to what the United States could have mustered. Thus, the Americans had been timid and cautious, while the Japanese showed an almost rash lack of caution or preparation for a battle that might have proved decisive. The Japanese navy provided only a token sort of covering force which an American Fleet, acting with initiative, might have overwhelmed.

The Second Wake Invasion Force mustered at Ruotta anchorage. It included the quickly repaired original ships: light cruisers Yubari, Tatsuta, Tenryu; Destroyers Mutsuki, Yayoi, Oite, Mochizuki; two Maru transports and one converted destroyer transport. Rear Admiral Kajioka in the Yubari was till in overall command. The force gained two destroyers, the Asanagi and the Yunagi (which helped capture Makin Island and had been raiding elsewhere in the Gilbert Island), one converted-destroyer transport, another Maru transport, a minelayer, and a troop-carrying seaplane tender. The original SNLF troops were reinforced by some of throops that had captured Guam. The Combined strength of the SNLF forces, then at Ruotta, was nearly 2,000. The heavy cruisers Kinugasa, Aoba, Kako and Furutaka of the Guam Invasion Force were, on 13 December, designated Marshall Area Operation Support Group for the second wake Invasion. The 24th Air Flotilla was augmented by the seaplane tender Chitose’s twenty-eight planes. The Hiryu and Soryu, with 108 planes, the heavy cruiser Tone and Chikuma, and the destroyers Urakaze and Tanikaze, had split off from the retiring Pearl Harbor Strike Force to support the second Wake invasion attempt, passing under the tactical command of the Fourth Fleet.

The Second Wake Invasion Force left Ruotta at 0545 on 21 December. The Hiryu and Soryu were already positioned about 200 miles north-northwest of Wake, and carrier-plane strikes on 21 December were added to the 24th Air Flotilla’s continuous raids. Rear Admiral Kajioka’s forces did not storm in on Wake as on 11 December, and there was no sustained pre-invasion bombardment. Instead the SNLF were put into assault boats in the dark at 0220 on 23 December, some two miles from their objective. Despite fierce resistance, beachheads were soon secured. At 0600, carrier planes joined in the attack, and by 0630, the overwhelmed garrison surrendered. The SNLF and Army landing forces had lost 140 men; the ships lost 4 men. Ten Japanese planes were shot down. Wakes three islands became part of the Japanese Empire and a link in the Japanese Navy’s perimeter defense, the Philippines life line had been severed, without damage to any naval units, and the Japanese had learned a lesson in amphibious tactics.

SOURCE: Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945); BY: Paul S. Dull

World War Two: Marines Surrender; China -Guam December 1941

World War Two: Philippines (Prewar, Part 1-2; 3-4-5); Building the USAFFE


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