Escape from WAKE ISLAND

Article excerpt

Would Wate Island not have fallen if the Navy had allowed its relief convoy to land desperately needed reinforcements? / PART II


Some 6000-mi to the west, the embattled Marines, sailors and civilian workers left on that besieged island had their hands full. The day following their first attack, and 20-hr after the Clipper had departed, Japanese bombers returned. This time their raid was made up of 27 more modern G4M Betty bombers flying in three distinct formations, consisting of three vees each. Again, they had taken off at dawn from their land bases, calculating their flying time from the Marshalls almost to the minute, striking just before noon. But a reception committee was waiting.

During the night of 8 December, burned out Marine Wildcats were scavenged for parts, battery positions had been camouflaged, more foxholes dug and telephonic communication lines laid underground. The Marine squadron, now equipped with five planes, shot down one of the Bettys, which crashed into the sea. Another exploded in midair when hit by antiaircraft fire, and two others were seen trailing smoke as they limped back to their base.

On the ground, the Pan Am hotel and dock facilities on Peale were completely gone and 55 civilians and four Marines were dead. It was now clear that the Japanese would soon attempt to invade the island, after first softening it up by air attack, and while battery positions were further strengthened and another damaged Wildcat fighter was refurbished, two large underground ammunition storage bunkers were turned into hospitals.

When the Japanese returned on the 10th with 26 planes, this time an hour earlier, Capt. Henry Elrod shot down two of the Nells, but a bomb struck a cache of dynamite on Wilkes Island, destroying all of the southern section's store of 3- and 5-in ammunition and severely damaging its heavy gun battery.


Meanwhile, in San Diego, plans were being rushed forward to dispatch an 18-plane contingent of Brewster F2A fighters, carried aboard the Saratoga, for the relief of Wake. The carrier left on the 8th for Pearl Harbor, where Adm. Husband Kimmel was quickly assembling an accompanying task force for the relief of the Marines. The force was to be made up of the planes Saratoga was carrying, which would be launched while the carrier was still 300mi out, three heavy cruisers and nine destroyers for fire support, the seaplane tender Tangier, now loaded with ammunition, spares and supplies, and the oiler Neches with fuel and an additional 300 Marines.

Unfortunately, due to the tremendous damage inflicted by the 7 December attack, the task force did not leave Pearl until the afternoon of 15 December (16 December on Wake). Before they plowed west, the Japanese had already made their first attempt at landing troops on the island and, as was to be demonstrated over and over again during the war, particularly on Guadalcanal eight-months later, their commander was to pròve both overconfident and complacent. Although he expected to find 1000 troops on Wake and up to 600 laborers, Adm. Kajioka cavalierly assigned only 450 men to the actual landing, to be carried in two patrol boats and a pair of transports. Three cruisers and the crews of six older destroyers, which would also land troops and provide covering fire, would bolster this force. These arrived off the main island at daybreak of 11 December and at 8000-yds the cruisers opened fire.

The 8-in shells of the flagship Yubari hit some diesel storage tanks between Wake and Wilkes, but little damage was done to the Marine seacoast batteries that remained silent and did not reply. Cocky and sensing easy victory, the Japanese captains ordered their ships to move in closer. When they drew within 3-mi of Wake's narrow coral fringe, the Marnies fired back. Yubari was hit by the first salvo. Two shells slowed her and she turned back out to sea. As she retreated, smoking, two more shells holed her at 7000-yds. …