By Commander Ryan Ahler, Director’s Action Group, Naval History and Heritage Command
A story of immense valor and grit that played out on a distant outpost at the outset of World War II came to life for me on a 2011 Trans-Pacific mission. Wake is a unique place, and it is quite unlike Pearl Harbor in that tourists, civilians, and even most military members can’t go there. When I was fortunate to be “stuck” there for eight days in 2011, the oft-overlooked battle waged by ordinary Americans became real and poignant. Their story deserves to be heard.
As a Naval Aviator flying across the Pacific with 10 other F/A-18 aircraft from my squadron, I wasn’t sure what to expect of this overnight stop. Descending from 27,000 feet, the tiny white speck in the distance looked impossibly small. It’s difficult to describe just how far away Wake Island is – from anything. Even in the most modern of jet aircraft you have to fly for hours and hours over nothing but the deepest, emptiest, darkest blue ocean to find it — a solitary dot of coral and sand at the tip of a massive undersea mountain. The white sand beaches and a center lagoon of the most brilliant crystal-blue water mesmerize you. Two channels break the surrounding ring of sand and brush into three islands – Wake, Peale, and Wilkes. Because of a necessary fix, we were able to stay on Wake longer than usual, giving me some time to look around.
December 8th 1941, Wake Time
Just five hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor and 2,300 miles to the west in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Americans sitting at their guns caught sight of the first of 34 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 bombers, roaring out of the dense tropical clouds and crossing the shore. The bombers dove to a slashing attack at only 1500 feet, an altitude that would render the American anti-aircraft fire ineffective. The airfield was the first and most obvious target. Revetments had not yet been built to protect the aircraft from attack, so eight of the 12 Wildcat fighters were sitting easy prey on the tarmac. 22 Marines were cut down around the airfield as they scrambled to get planes airborne. The Japanese also targeted the Y-shaped five star Pan Am hotel on Peale Island, setting it afire. Across the atoll, 55 civilians perished. When the Japanese bombers finally turned back south for their base at Kwajalein, Wake was left smoking.
When I was there, it felt like being in an episode of LOST. Peale is now deserted. Two old bridges from the main island to Peale sit wrecked in the channel, so we paddled across in borrowed kayaks. The brush hasn’t erased the main dirt road yet, but anything off that main road has been swallowed up by nature. Concrete bunkers poke out from fields of coral boulders. A massive Japanese naval gun rusts to dust, pointed out to sea. You can still find the tarmac of the seaplane base. The pier pilings for the Pan-Am hotel are still there, but the luxurious hotel itself is long gone.
In the very first weeks of the war, the Japanese would throw an overwhelming force of ships, aircraft, and men at the distant American outpost. With only 449 Marines, 69 Sailors, 5 Army communication personnel, and several hundred civilian contractors, the men of Wake Island successfully defended their base for 15 days.
While the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor may have seemed to be a massive surprise, at the time the attack on Wake was very much expected. An attack on Wake wasn’t an ‘if,’ it was just a question of when, and could the island be fortified in time. But on December 8th the defenses were far from established. Starting in January 1941, over 1,200 contractors from five companies all across America poured onto the atoll with the mission of rapidly erecting buildings, revetments, infrastructure, a runway, and port facilities. The First Marine Defense Battalion showed up in August, installing 3” and 5” anti-ship and anti-aircraft gun emplacements, along with their associated directors, searchlights, and height finders. But there weren’t enough Marines to man most of the guns. VMF-211, a 12-plane fighter squadron, showed up on December 4th – only 4 days before the attack. It had been less than 4 weeks since they had switched from biplanes to their new F4F-3 Wildcat aircraft. Most of the pilots had less than 30 hours of flying time and had never shot a gun or dropped a bomb in the Wildcat. Even worse, the island would prove too isolated from friendly forces for reinforcement or rescue. The men on Wake would have to hold their ground with what they had.
The First Invasion Force is Repulsed
After two more days of intense bombing attacks, a Japanese invasion force appeared on the horizon on December 11th. It included 13 ships, 3 submarines, and a landing force of 450 men. Delivering incredibly effective fire from the shore batteries, they scored a direct hit on destroyer Hayate, and it sank in minutes. They also achieved hits on two other cruisers, three destroyers, and a transport, forcing them to retreat to the south. With the invasion force in retreat, the VMF-211 pilots dove out of 20,000 feet with the 4 remaining aircraft and executed lethal low-level attacks. The Japanese had made a serious error – they had planned the invasion without air cover. The Marines took full advantage, attacking in pairs and then as singles, returning again and again to the island to quickly refuel, rearm, and get airborne again. They raked the invaders’ decks and superstructures with .50 caliber fire and delivered bombs at point-blank range. Capt. Elrod put a 100 pound bomb squarely on the deck of Kisaragi, which limped to the south, smoking and trailing oil, then sank. The failed invasion was a major loss for the Japanese and a major morale booster for the American people watching from afar.
The Defenders Mount a Gritty Daily Defense
The hits just kept coming. Each day, dozens of bombers showed up in high-altitude V-formations and dropped hundreds of bombs on the huddled defenders. While hampered by a lack of equipment and crew, the anti-aircraft batteries delivered significant damage to the enemy. Each night, the Americans toiled tirelessly to make repairs and regroup for the next day’s defense. They moved multi-ton anti-aircraft batteries to new spots across the islands and built decoys to confuse the attackers. They constructed new bunkers and revetments. They repaired guns and treated the wounded. Teams of volunteer civilians — many of them World War I veterans – helped with repairs, built fortifications, cooked food, and even manned gun batteries.
In a remarkable display of ingenuity and valor, VMF-211’s maintainers managed to get at least one aircraft airborne every day to face the enemy. Under tarps in the middle of the night, 2nd Lt. John Kinney led military and civilian men to scavenge the skeletons of battle-damaged Wildcats to assemble battle-worthy planes. The herculean efforts paid off. In a theme that would play out for the entire island defense, one or two VMF-211 pilots would bravely take on huge formations of Japanese bombers. On December 10th, Capt. Elrod took his single Wildcat into a formation of 26 bombers in V-formation, reporting two shot down and several others damaged. On the 12th, VMF-211 pilots 2nd Lt. Carl Davidson and 2nd Lt. John Kinney took on 17 rikkos (Japanese land attack planes), shooting down two. On the same day, Wildcat pilot Lt. David Kliewer bagged a submarine. He caught the Japanese sub RO-66 on the surface and executed multiple strafing runs, seriously damaging its conning tower. Left without communication, RO-66 later collided with another Japanese sub and sank. On December 22nd, Capt Herbert Frueler and Lt. Davidson took the two remaining aircraft into battle against 39 enemy fighters and bombers. They downed several aircraft, including some manned by Japanese crewmen who had executed the attack on Pearl Harbor just weeks prior. But the lopsided numbers were impossible to overcome. Freuler finally crash-landed at the airfield. Davidson never came back. With no aircraft remaining, the Marines of VMF-211 (to this day known as the “Wake Island Avengers”) now joined the rest of the men in the foxholes.
An Overwhelming Second Invasion Force Arrives
Determined to take the atoll, the Japanese were forced to reroute two aircraft carriers from the returning Pearl Harbor task force to provide air cover for the second attempt to take Wake. On December 23rd 1941, the Japanese beached two high speed transports (converted destroyers) and four landing craft on the island, and hundreds of Japanese fighters came ashore. The defenders mounted a valiant, skilled, and highly lethal defense. After several hours of close-quarters combat, they were forced to surrender.
The rest of the story would span the rest of the war. After Wake fell, most of the men on the island were sent to camps in China or Japan, under horrific conditions. Hundreds died in captivity or escape attempts. Many survived until the end of the war as Prisoners of War. The Japanese kept about a hundred civilians on the island, forcing them to build fortifications. But in October 1943, after an intense attack on the island by American forces, the Japanese marched the remaining 98 men to the north part of Wake Island, had them kneel before a trench, and executed them. The atoll commander killed the last remaining contractor with his sword. A single rock on Wake Island — inscribed by an unknown Prisoner of War — remains a sobering reminder of their lives and their sacrifice, as well as all of those who battled to defend Wake Island.
On the day we paddled kayaks across the shimmering lagoon to the western side of Wake Island, the sky was clear and the breeze light. Once at the shore we paused to pay respects at a rock just a few feet from the water. It is crudely inscribed with “98 U.S. PW 5-10-43”.
If you are interested in learning more, here are some great resources:
A Magnificent Fight: The Battle for Wake Island by Robert Cressman
Enemy on Island. Issue in Doubt by Stan Cohen
Building for War, The Epic Saga of the Civilian Contractors and Marines of Wake Island in World War II, by Bonita Gilbert
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