The Race for Wake Island

By Pierce, M. R. | Military Review, May/June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Race for Wake Island


Pierce, M. R., Military Review


Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the US Pacific Fleet lay in ruins, and the Japanese were just beginning their dizzying string of victories. One bright spot in the chaos was the US Marines' dogged defense of Wake Island and its sister islets Wilkes and Peale. The islands, isolated strips of coral in the central Pacific 1,000 miles west of Pearl Harbor and 500 miles north of the Marshall Islands, sat astride east-west lines of communication for both the United States and Imperial Japan.

In 1935, PanAir requested permission to use Wake Island as a refueling stop for its Pacific Clipper air service. With an eye toward the future, PanAir began making Wake Island habitable, building a hotel and a seaplane ramp.'

In 1940, the first of 1,000 civilian contractors arrived to turn the island into a military-funded Naval Air Station. The contractors were to build a three-legged airstrip complete with hangars and maintenance facilities, dredge the lagoon to make it ready for a squadron of seaplanes and build barracks for the Marines who would occupy the island. The Marines Set Up Shop The first Marines to arrive on

Wake Island in August 1941 found that the contractors had built a sprawling camp for themselves near the PanAir facility, but work on the air station consisted only of a few ammunition bunkers, one leg of the airfield and no barracks. The I st Defense Battalion Marines quickly began preparing defenses, despite a lack of equipment.

On 6 December 1941, commander Major James Devereux called an alert to test the readiness of the defenses. The men had worked 12-hour days continuously since his arrival on 15 October. Pleased with the results, he gave his overworked command the next day off.

Following their day of rest the Wake Island force set about their usual duties on 8 December. Around 0730, commander Winfield S. Cunningham and Devereux were notified that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The message warned that an attack on Wake Island could be imminent. Within 45 minutes defenses were manned and ready.

While PanAir personnel prepared to leave the island, the civilian contractors' foreman offered his men for the defense. He and Cunningham agreed that the best course of action would be for the civilians to continue work on the air station. Eventually, some of the civilians, many of them World War I veterans, fought admirably beside the Marines. Others faded into the jungle until the battle was over. The Japanese Attack

Around noon, 27 Japanese land

based bombers attacked.2 The defenders had little time to react. Eight planes were destroyed on the ground. The Japanese bombers then withdrew before the airborne patrol could intercept them. The air raids meant to destroy the island's defenses continued daily until 11 December

Unknown to the defenders, a Japanese task force of three light cruisers, six destroyers, two transports that had been converted to destroyers, two regular transports and two submarines was on its way to the island.' Japanese planners felt that 450 soldiers of the Special Naval Landing Force, Japan's equivalent of the Marines, would be sufficient to seize Wake Island.

Lookouts on Wake Island spotted the ships approaching and alerted the command. The defenders held their fire to give the impression the air raids had destroyed the defenses. They hoped to lure the Japanese ships into range. For over an hour they were bombarded as the Japanese ships came closer. At 4,600 yards, the Marines' S-inch batteries opened fire scoring several hits, including some on the Japanese flagship. Caught by surprise, the Japanese laid down a smoke screen as the force withdrew. The Marines sank one destroyer with all hands, and the remaining planes sank another.

The Japanese received their first defeat, and for the only time during the remainder of the war in the Pacific, their amphibious assault was repulsed. However, as the defenders cheered their success other wheels were in motion. …

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