The Marines’ last stand at Wake Island (1941)


Sunday morning 7 December 1941 is a date that
is printed in the collective American mind. It was the day the Japanese launched their
devastating surprise attack on the American Naval Base in Pearl Harbour on the Hawaiian
island of Oahu. Not the Americans, nor any of the Colonial Powers in the far East and
Pacific were able to adequately respond to the Japanese declaration of war and their
subsequent sweeping conquest of the pacific. There was another island, about 3200 kilometres
west of Hawaii… it was held by a small American force… and it too came under heavy attack
that fateful day. For the next 2 weeks, it would be under heavy siege by the Japanese,
attempting to capture Wake Island. -intro- The Japanese Attack Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, the
Japanese embarked on a steamroll campaign and managed to carve out a gigantic Pacific
empire. Within 5 months they captured the islands of Guam and Wake, the Philippines,
French Indochina, Burma, Thailand, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, ¾ of New Guinea
and Papua, the Bismarck Archipelago and a substantial part of the Gilbert and Solomon
islands. To the north, they threatened Alaska, to the south, Australia, and to the West they
were making plans to invade India. This is the story of that tiny atoll 3200
kilometres west of Hawaii, consisting of 3 islets. It was held by 450 US marines and
75 Army signal corps and Navy personnel with over 1500 civilians under their protection.
The commander of Wake was Officer Winfield Scott Cunningham. In the weeks leading up
to the Pearl Harbour (and Wake atoll) attacks the Americans were constructing an airfield
on the atoll. Once completed, it would be a floating aircraft carrier.
The Japanese ruined that plan by their attack several hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour.
36 Japanese Mitsubishi medium bomber planes flew over, bombed and destroyed seven of the
12 Wildcat fighters stationed on Wake. 23 marine personnel on the atoll were killed.
Several more raids followed the next day and the American soldiers tried to repel the Japanese
as well as they could. But it wasn’t until 11th December that real fighting broke out
again. Early that morning a strong Japanese naval
force moved on Wake. Three Japanese light cruisers, six destroyers, two patrol boats,
two medium transports and two submarines were ready to lay siege to the small atoll, which
had been preparing for this attack they knew was inevitable. At 3 AM Commander Cunningham
was woken up by Major James P. Devereux. He commanded the ground forces at Wake. The lookout
had sighted ships on the horizon and their identity was unknown. It wasn’t likely they
were allied and a Japanese naval bombardment seemed like their best guess. Any aid for
the soldiers on Wake was too far away and they were merely equipped with 6 old 152mm
guns in three batteries – the problem was that their fire control systems had been destroyed
by the initial aerial attacks. All in all, it didn’t look too good for the Americans.
Cunningham decided they would have to ambush the Japanese. It was ordered searchlights
to be extinguished. All men were rallied, ordered to take up positions. Cunningham told
his men of the plan: have the Japanese come as close as possible, without so much as alerting
them. Then they would have to bombard them with everything they had in their arsenal.
It was certainly a big risk, but Cunningham figured they did not have any other viable
option. The Ambush Cunningham later reminisced: ‘It was a perfect
tropical night. A half-moon was coming up over the ocean and the air was cool and soft.
The roar of the surf had a soothing, almost hypnotic quality about it.’ On Wake atoll,
that evening, the marines dug themselves in, patiently waiting for the Japanese flotilla
to move closer to the atoll and their order to open fire. The four planes that had survived
the initial bombing, purely by luck because they were patrolling in the sky at that time
might I add, stood ready at the airstrip now. Two hours after the initial report to Cunningham
the Japanese were only 8 kilometres removed from Wake, slowly sailing towards the southern
side. As the Japanese were taking their positions to launch their bombardment, Cunningham patiently
waited for just the right time. Another hour later, at nearly dawn, Cunningham ordered
his troops to open fire. The Japanese were startled by the sudden barrage of fire launched
from the island which seemed peacefully asleep. The Japanese light cruiser Yubari was instantly
hit three times – it was the flagship of the task force’s commander, Admiral Sadamichi
Kajioka. It didn’t sink and was able to sail away, out of range of American fire.
But still, not a very great start for the Japanese. The Americans kept on firing – a
succession of hits was scored both on the transport ships, cruiser and two destroyers.
Of the destroyers, the Hayate blew up and sank after being hit. The Japanese flotilla
now withdrew, hiding behind a smokescreen from the hit ships. The retreating ships were
pursued by the four remaining Wildcats, bombing two light cruisers, setting fire to a transport
ship and sinking the destroyer Kisaragi when Captain Henry Elrod dropped a bomb directly
on it. The pilots were rather positively surprised about the fact that the Japanese did not have
any aircover. The first Japanese assault was over, and admittedly, the Americans did better
than expected. To make up the balance: the Japanese lost
two destroyers (the first Japanese ships that were sunk by Americans during the war) and
nearly 500 men; the Marines of Wake lost just one. Unfortunately, 2 of their remaining 4
Wildcats crashed, though both pilots survived. Now Admiral Kajioka withdrew all the way to
the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Japanese were going to conjure up a new
plan in order to bring the Americans of Wake to their knees. On Wake, at the same time,
they were celebrating their unexpected and outstanding victory. Cunningham reminisced:
‘It was like a fraternity picnic; war-whoops of joy split the air; warm beer was sprayed
on late arrivals without regard to rank….’. The Japanese Return Those celebrations would not even last a day.
The next morning, at 9:00 am a roar in the distance alerted the American crew on Wake.
17 Japanese Mitsubishi bombers appeared on the horizon. They dropped their bombs as the
Americans tried to fend them off with anti-aircraft guns as well as they could. Two Mitsubishis
were shot down, both by Lieutenant Davidson. 15 flew away again. The casualties of that
air raid were 26 officers and men of the fighter squadron and around 40 of the 1500 civilians
that were contracted to build the airfield. Cunningham sent a list of equipment the men
needed to withstand another Japanese assault while the attacks by the Japanese continued
via air raids. Now, about 2 weeks before the final battle
commenced, a relief attempt and US taskforce to reinforce the atoll was set up. The Saratoga,
a carrier with 72 fighters and dive-bombers was sent together with a seaplane tender.
Admiral William Pye received information that the Japanese were approaching Wake: he ordered
the ship to return to Pearl Harbour. It was the 22nd of December, one day before the Japanese
were to launch their largest and last assault on Wake. The men were to face a much larger
Japanese force, all on their own. On 2 AM on December 23 this larger Japanese
flotilla arrived. Once again, Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka commanded the fleet. Six heavy cruisers
and two of the aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbour, Soryu and Hiryu, were part
of it. Around 2000 Japanese Marines received orders to besiege and overtake Wake. According
to Cunningham, this second attack was launched ‘in an atmosphere of desperate confusion
from which only one clear factor emerged: the overwhelming numerical superiority of
the invaders’. As the Japanese stormed the beaches and the
Americans were subjected to an artillery barrage, some of the civilian construction workers
grabbed weapons and fought alongside the Marines. The fighting over the three islets was a battle
to the death: the beaches were littered with the bodies of over 100 Japanese Marines, the
first wave that set foot on land. At daybreak, the Japanese dive-bombers carpet-bombed
the American positions. There was no air support anymore: the last Wildcat went missing in
action the day before. The pilots that survived now took up their guns and fought the Japanese
from their foxholes as well. That morning, suffering heavy casualties, those marines
that had survived did all they could to repel the Japanese. The Japanese Marines had slowly
but surely managed to invade the beaches and as the fight progressed they even moved up
towards the improvised hospital on one of the small islets. There were over 1000 civilians
on the island and Cunningham had to make the difficult decision: he did not want to risk
absolute carnage and an all-out massacre. The Japanese, after all, were already known
for their brutality and war crimes. Cunningham finally decided: he would order
his men to surrender – they had to destroy their weapons and a white sheet was to be
hoisted from the base on the largest islet. The fighting had lasted an entire night, and
now that 122 men had died, of whom the majority civilians, the men of Wake surrendered. It
should be noted that Cunningham wasn’t too wrong when he was worried about the Japanese
brutality. Over 1100 American US civilians that worked on the landing base on Wake were
interned as POWs. 180 died in captivity. That wasn’t everything though, and there
is a landmark left on Wake island as a silent witness to the horrors that were committed
on the island. It is this rock you’re seeing right now. After the capture of Wake the Japanese
took hold of the island and set up a base there. When in 1943 the tide of war was turning
and the Japanese were expecting the US to retake the island, Rear Admiral Shigematsu
Sakaibara ordered the execution of 98 American civilians on the island… Those civilian
workers that initially built the airstrip – some of those men had not been sent to Japanese
concentration camps but were forced to perform labour on the island. As the men were being
executed, one of them escaped and managed to carve “98 US PW 5-10-43” on the rock
you’re seeing. He was eventually recaptured and it is said he was beheaded personally
by Sakaibara. As for the commander of Wake, Winfield Cunningham was released in August
1945 – he had been a POW for over 4 years. He was promoted to captain and subsequently
continued to serve in the US Navy. And that is the story of one of the many brave
fights the Americans put up in the Pacific theatre. Are there more events or people from
this period and region you would like to know more about? Let me know your thoughts in a
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