Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island

By Gregory J. W. Urwin | Go to book overview
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XXIV
"WE'RE HEADED FOR WAKE"

The Pacific Fleet Sails to Wake's Relief, 15-21 December 1941

"To Retrieve Our Initial Disaster"

Considering the state of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in mid- December 1941, the decision to relieve Wake Island was one of the most daring made by any naval commander during World War II. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison believed that Admiral Kimmel's moves to succor Wake set the stage for what could have been America's first sea victory of the Pacific war. Gordon W. Prange, an authority on the early stages of that conflict, agreed with Morison. "Had Kimmel remained in command," Prange concluded, "Wake's story might have been different."1

Ten minutes before six o'clock on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, six Japanese aircraft carriers belonging to the Pearl Harbor Task Force turned eastward into the wind at a point two hundred miles north of Oahu and began launching aircraft. Within ninety minutes, 350 dive-bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters were on their way to Pearl Harbor. Their mission was to incapacitate the Pacific Fleet, rendering the United States powerless to interfere with Japan's drive into Southeast Asia.2

By 7:53 A.M., the first wave of the Japanese air armada (43 fighters and 140 bombers) had arrived over its target. The pilots, bombardiers, and rear gunners could see they were not expected. Despite months of diplomatic tension and growing Japanese belligerence, American sailors, soldiers, and Marines on Oahu (just like their comrades on Wake Island) could not accept that the Japanese were competent or brave enough to attack them.3

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