Was WAKE ISLAND Surrendered Prematurely?

By Cunningham, Gregory R. | Sea Classics, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Was WAKE ISLAND Surrendered Prematurely?


Cunningham, Gregory R., Sea Classics


Startling comments by Cmdr. Winfield Scott Cunningham, the US Naval aviator in command of the Wake Island garrison, lends further credence to the controversy that Marine Maj. James Devereaux overestimated the strength of the Japanese invasion

The surrender of Wake Island to the forces of Imperial Japan on 23 December 1941 was a terrible blow to America's pride and morale. While the island itself was largely unknown to most Americans prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the fact that an American possession had actually fallen to the enemy after a bitter two-week battle accentuated how terribly unprepared we were to wage a war in the distant Pacific. Although Wake Island actually held no strategic significance, its loss combined with that of Guam and the Japanese invasion of Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines served to paint a most disheartening (and accurate) picture of America's inability to contain Japan's ruthless quest for Pacific dominance.

Full details of the last desperate hours of fighting on Wake Island would not become known until after the war's end when Wake's surviving defenders returned home. From the eye-witness testimony of these survivors emerged an often cloudy recanting of exactly what transpired among Wake's embattled Marines as Japanese invaders swarmed over the three islands comprising Wake Island's lagoon. Out of these often confusing and contested statements by Wake's military commanders one cannot avoid the fact that certain rushes to judgment were made in the immediate post-war environment. One of these contentions is the role played by Cmdr. Winfield Scott "Spiv" Cunningham, USN, who took command of the tiny outpost barely a week before the Japanese unleashed their Pacific onslaught on 7 December 1941. Commander Cunningham's amazing life story is now the subject of a new article by his great-nephew, Gregory Robert Cunningham. This masterful thesis assesses many divergent opinions which, viewed in contemporary context shed considerable light on the question: "Was Wake Island surrendered prematurely?" Here is Winfield Scott Cunningham's Wake Island story:

After 18-months on the USS Wright, Cmdr. Winfield Scott Cunningham was hoping for Stateside duty to be with his wife and daughter. Instead, orders were received on 8 October 1941 to report to the Commandant, 14th Naval District, for duty as Commanding Officer of the new Naval Air Station Johnston Island. He was given ten days leave starting 10 October, but leave was canceled on 14 October. A Naval message was wired to the USS Wright, "Understand COMDR Winfield S. Cunningham ordered Command NAS Johnston Island. Account present emergency recommend cancellation Cunningham's leave and he be directed report COMFOURTEEN for temporary duty as OINC all Naval activities Wake Island." Cmdr. Cunningham thought to himself, "Well, at least Wake has trees. I felt it was a good omen since, on my first cruise as the Wright's navigator, I had hit it right on the button. It is a low island, only 21-ft above the sea at its highest point, and finding it without radio aids to navigate by in a weary old ship was a feat of which any navigator could justly be proud."

As the international situation worsened, Cunningham reported for duty on 28 November 1941 as Officer in Charge, All Naval Activities, Wake Island.

Winfield Scott Cunningham's entire peacetime service had prepared him for command at Wake almost as if it was planned. On tours of duty in destroyers, cruisers and battleships over a period of years, Winfield had been battery officer, fire control officer, and senior aviator in charge of observation, all of which functions had made him thoroughly familiar with the very 5-in guns which would defend Wake's shoreline.

As for the air defense, the planes in his own Fighting Five squadron had been predecessors of the very F4F-3 Wildcats that would serve with such heroic futility on Wake. Winfield had learned the jobs of a fighter squadron all the way from dive-bombing to the more mundane duties of administration. …

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