Operation Battle of Wake Island

The 'Battle of Wake Island' was fought between Japanese and US forces for possession of Wake island in the Pacific campaign of World War II (8/23 December 1941).

The Japanese assault began simultaneously with the 'Ai' carrierborne air attack on Pearl Harbor naval and air bases in the Hawaiian islands group on the morning of 8 December 1941 (7 December in Hawaii), and ended on 23 December with the surrender of the US forces. The battle was fought on and around the atoll formed by Wake island and its minor islets of Peale and Wilkes by air, land and naval forces of the Imperial Japanese empire against those of the USA, with marines playing a prominent role on both sides.

The island was then held by the Japanese for the duration of the Pacific War, and the Japanese garrison on the island surrendered to a detachment of US Marines on 4 September 1945, two days after the Japanese overall surrender on 2 September 1945 on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

The atoll of Wake lies in one of the remotest regions of the North Pacific 2,004 miles (3225 km) to the west of Pearl Harbor, 1,110 miles (1786 km) to the south-west of Midway atoll, and 1,334 miles (2147 km) from Guam. Wake atoll consists of three islets arranged approximately in a V, or wishbone, shape oriented with the apex of the V, Peacock Point, to the south-east and the lagoon’s open end to the north-west. The atoll is about 4.5 miles (7.2 km) long and 2.5 miles (4 km) wide at the lagoon’s open end, and its land area is 2.85 sq miles (7.38 km˛). Wake island, the largest of the atoll’s three islets, lies in the south-east corner of the atoll with its north-western end forming a hook. The outer northern corner is called Heel Point. Both of the island’s arms are some 5,300 yards (4845 m) long, and the thick apex of the V provides sufficient land area for an airfield.

Peale island, the atoll’s second largest islet, lies on its northern side, extends the atoll’s V to the north-north-west of Wake island. Roughly an elongated triangle, it is some 2,600 yards (2375 m) long and 1,200 yards (1095 m) wide at the south-eastern end with a small peninsula. Flipper Point, jutting into the lagoon. Peale island is separated from Wake island by a channel more than 100 yards (91 m) wide and spanned by a bridge. The islet’s north-eastern end is called Toki Point.

Wilkes island extends the atoll’s V to the north-west from Wake island on the atoll’s southern side. The two islets are separated by the 50-yard (45-m) wide Wilkes Channel. The islet measures 2,300 by 500 to 600 yards (2105 by 455 to 550 m) wide. Its north-western end is called Kuku Point. A small lagoon-side inlet, New Channel, almost cuts the island in two.

The lagoon is characterised by very shallow foul ground with numerous coral heads. It could not be entered by ships and was not sufficiently dredged for other than small craft and seaplanes.

All of the islets are flat or of slightly rolling coral sand dunes. They are uniformly low, with the highest elevation on Wake island being just 21 ft (6.4 m). All are almost completely covered with scrub trees up to 10 ft (3.05 m) in height, though some reach 20 ft (6.1 m), and very dense underbrush, though the ocean-side beaches are wide and bare. In the 'Battle of Wake Island', the atoll’s dense vegetation allowed the Japanese to infiltrate between marine positions. The atoll has 21 miles (33.8 km) of shoreline, and the surf-pounded reef edge is 30 to 1,000 yards (9 to 915 m) offshore. The reef’s edge drops steeply to depths that in most areas ships could not anchor. The widest parts of the reef are along Wake island’s north-western hook, the north-western side of Peale island, and across the lagoon’s north-western opening. On the south-eastern sides of Wake and Wilkes islands the reef edge lies close to shore allowing small craft to land. The atoll’s north-eastern side provides only unfavourable landing conditions. Besides birds, the only wildlife was hordes of small grey rats.

The climate is humid and tropical with a prevailing easterly wind. Most of the infrequent rain falls in the winter. The Japanese used rain squalls to screen their air attacks while the sound of their approach was covered by the constantly thundering surf.

A crushed coral road some 30 ft (9.1 m) wide extended along the entire length of all the islands, generally following the oceanic shore. A 450-ft (137-m) timber bridge connected Wake and Peale islands. Wilkes island was accessible only by a naval-operated small boat ferry service. A connecting road spanned the lagoon-side of Wake island. The airfield was built within this inverted A-shaped triangle of roads on the island’s V.

Wake atoll was annexed by the USA on 17 January 1899. While some recognised Wake atoll’s military value, the US Navy felt it was strategically insignificant, and the atoll was not even marked as a US possession on many government maps. The atoll was placed under US Navy jurisdiction in 1934, and in the following year Pan American World Airways established a base for its trans-Pacific flying boat service on the central portion of Peale island. This was later taken over by the US Navy. The Pan Am Inn, surrounded by rainwater catchments and a garden centred around the anchor of the German ship Libelle wrecked on the reef in 1866, was built at the base of Flipper Point peninsula to receive the bi-weekly flights.

In 1939 the Hepburn Board recommended that Wake atoll be developed as the second most important outlying island after Midway atoll for the defence of Hawaii. It was envisioned as a base for patrol aircraft and was later to be developed as a small submarine base. The atoll was of strategic value as it provided a site for an airfield between Guam to the south-west and Midway to the north-east. This provided a staggered line of way stations extending between Hawaii to the Philippine island groups. Wake atoll lost some of its strategic significance when it was decided not to fortify Guam.

In January 1941, the US Navy constructed a military base on the atoll, and it was on 19 August that the first permanent military garrison, comprising elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, deployed to Wake island under the command of Major James P. S. Devereux with a force of 450 officers and men. Despite the relatively small size of the atoll, the marines could not man all their defensive positions nor did they arrive with all their equipment, notably their air search radar units. The marine detachment was supplemented by the VMF-211 marine fighter squadron with 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat single-engined fighters, under the command of Major Paul A. Putnam. Also present on the island were 68 US Navy personnel and about 1,221 civilian workers of the Morrison-Knudsen Civil Engineering Company. The workers were to carry out the company’s construction plans for the island. Most of these men were veterans of previous construction programmes for the Boulder Dam, Bonneville Dam or Grand Coulee Dam projects. Others were men who were in desperate situations and great need for money. Some 45 Chamorros (native Micronesians from the Mariana islands group) were employed by Pan American Airways at the company’s facilities on Wake island, which was one of the stops on the Pan Am Clipper trans-Pacific flying boat air service initiated in 1935.

The weapons available to the marines included six 5-in (127-mm) guns, originating from the old battleship Texas, 12 3-in (76.2-mm) anti-aircraft guns (with only a single working anti-aircraft director), 18 0.5-in (12.7-mm) Browning heavy machine guns, and 30 0.3-in (7.62-mm) heavy, medium and light water- and air-cooled machine guns.

On 28 November, the naval pilot Commander Winfield S. Cunningham reported to Wake island to assume overall command of the US forces on the island: he was afforded a mere 10 days in which to examine the defences and assess his men before the outbreak of war.

On 6 December, the Japanese despatched Submarine Division 27 (Ro-65, Ro-66 and Ro-67) from Kwajalein atoll to patrol and blockade the pending operation.

The weather over Wake island on 7 December was clear and bright. Just the previous day, had ordered a practice drill for his marines, which happened to be the first one done because of the great need to focus on the completion of the island’s defences. The drill went well enough that Devereux ordered the men to rest on the Sabbath and use the opportunity to relax, do laundry, write letters, clean or doing whatever else they wished.

On 8 December, just hours after receiving word of the attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake being on the opposite side of the International Date Line), 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M3 'Nell' twin-engined medium bombers flown from bases on the Marshall islands group attacked Wake, destroying eight of the 12 fighters on the ground and sinking Nisqually, a former cargo ship converted into a scow. The remaining four fighters were in the air on patrol but, because of poor visibility, failed to see the attacking Japanese bombers. The fighters shot down two bombers on the following day. All of the marine garrison’s defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which concentrated its attentions on the atoll’s aircraft. Of the 55 marine aviation personnel, 23 were killed and 11 were wounded.

Following this attack, the Pan Am employees were evacuated, along with the passengers of the Philippine Clipper, a passing Martin Model 130 amphibian flying boat that had survived the attack unscathed. The Chamorro working men were not allowed to board the aeroplane and were left behind.

Two more air raids followed. The main camp was targeted on 9 December, when the civilian hospital and the Pan Am air facility were destroyed. On the next day, bombers concentrated their efforts on Wilkes island. Following the raid on 9 December, the four anti-aircraft guns had been relocated in case the Japanese had photographed their positions, in which wooden replicas had been erected, and the bombers attacked the decoy positions. A bomb hit a civilian dynamite supply and triggered a chain reaction which destroyed the ammunition for the guns on Wilkes island.

Early on the morning of 11 December, the garrison, with the support of the four remaining fighters, repelled the first Japanese landing attempt by the 4th Fleet's South Seas Force, which included the light cruisers Yubari, Tenryu and Tatsuta, the relatively old 'Mutsuki' and 'Kamikaze' class destroyers Yayoi, Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Hayate, Mochizuki and Oite, the submarine tender Jingei, the 6,524-ton Kinryu Maru and 8,624-ton Kongo Maru armed merchantmen, and two 'Momi' class destroyers converted to patrol boats that were reconfigured in 1941 to launch a landing craft over a stern ramp (P-32 and P-33) carrying 450 men of a special naval landing force. The submarines Ro-65, Ro-66 and Ro-67 patrolled nearby to secure the perimeter.

The US Marines engaged the invasion fleet with their six 5-in (127-mm) coast defence guns. Devereux ordered the gunners to hold their fire until the Japanese moved within range of the coastal defences. Battery L, on Peale islet, sank Hayate at a range of 4,000 yards (3660 m) with at least two direct hits to her magazines, causing her to explode and sink within two minutes. Battery A claimed to have hit Yubari several times, but the light cruiser’s action report makes no mention of any damage. The four Wildcat fighters also succeeded in sinking the destroyer Kisaragi by dropping a bomb on her stern where the depth charges were stored, although some have also suggested that the bomb hit elsewhere and caused an explosion amidships. The Japanese thus lost two destroyers with nearly all hands: there was only one survivor, from Hayate, which was the first Japanese surface warship to be sunk in the war. The Japanese recorded 407 casualties during this first invasion attempt. The Japanese force then withdrew without attempting a landing, suffering their first setback of the war.

After the initial invasion effort had been driven away, the US news media reported that, when queried about reinforcement and resupply, Cunningham said 'Send us more Japs!' In fact, Cunningham sent a long list of critical equipment, including gun sights, spare parts and fire-control radar, to his immediate superior, the commandant of the 14th Naval District. But the siege and frequent Japanese air attacks on the garrison of Wake island continued and the US force was not resupplied.

Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher’s Task Force 14 was allocated to the planned effort to relieve Wake island while Rear Admiral John H. Brown’s TF11 was to undertake a raid on the island of Jaluit in the Marshall islands group as a diversion. A third task force, under Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, centred on the fleet carrier Enterprise, was tasked with supporting the other two task forces as the Japanese 2nd Carrier Division was still in the area of operations and presenting a significant threat.

TF14 comprised the fleet carrier Saratoga, the oiler Neches, the seaplane tender Tangier, the heavy cruisers Astoria, Minneapolis and San Francisco, and the destroyers Selfridge, Mugford, Jarvis, Patterson, Ralph Talbot, Henley, Blue and Helm. The associated convoy carried the 4th Marine Defense Battalion (Battery F with four 3-in [76.2-mm] anti-aircraft guns, and Battery B with two 5-in [127-mm] guns) and the VMF-221 fighter squadron equipped with Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo single-engined fighters, along with three complete sets of fire-control equipment for the 3-in (76.2-mm) anti-aircraft batteries already on the island, plus tools and spares; spare parts for the 5-in (127-mm) coast defence guns and replacement fire-control gear; 9,000 rounds of 5-in (127-mm) ammunition; 12,000 rounds of 3-in (76.2-mm) ammunition; 3 million rounds of 0.5-in (12.7-mm) machine gun ammunition; machine gun teams and service and support elements of the 4th Defense Battalion; the maintenance personnel for VMF-211, whose aircraft were carried by Saratoga; one SCR-270 air-search radar; one SCR-268 fire-control radar for the 3-in (76.2-mm) guns; and a large quantity of ammunition for mortars and other battalion small arms.

TF11 consisted of the fleet carrier Lexington, the fleet oiler Neosho, the heavy cruisers Indianapolis, Chicago and Portland, and the destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 1 (Phelps [flag], Dewey, Hull, MacDonough, Worden, Aylwin, Farragut, Dale and Monaghan. At 21.00 on 22 December, after receiving information indicating the presence of two Japanese aircraft carriers and two fast battleships (which were actually heavy cruisers) near Wake island, Vice Admiral William S. Pye, the acting commander-in-chief of the US Pacific Fleet, ordered TF14 to return to Pearl Harbor.

The initial resistance of the garrison of Wake island prompted the Imperial Japanese navy to detach the 2nd Carrier Division (fleet carriers Soryu and Hiryu) along with its escorting 8th Cruiser Division (heavy cruisers Chikuma and Tone) and the 17th Destroyer Division (Tanikaze and Urakaze), all of which had been involved in 'Ai', as well as the 6th Cruiser Division (heavy cruisers Kinugasa, Aoba, Kako and Furutaka), the destroyer Oboro, the seaplane tender Kiyokawa Maru and the transport/minelayer Tenyo Maru from the invasion of Guam, and 29th Destroyer Division (Asanagi and Yunagi) from the invasion of the Gilbert islands group, to support the assault.

This second Japanese invasion force arrived off Wake island on 23 December, composed mostly of the ships from the first attempt plus 1,500 Japanese naval troops of the 2nd Maizuru Special Naval Landing Force plus garrison troops.

The landings began at 02.35 after a preliminary bombardment, and the Japanese landed at different points on the atoll. They were immediately faced with resistance by a 3-in (76.2-mm) gun under the command of Lieutenant Robert Hanna, whose weapon destroyed the ex-destroyer P-32 and P-33. The Japanese naval troops bypassed the gun position and attacked the airfield. Meanwhile a special naval landing force company landed on Wilkes island and advanced inland until met with a strong US counterattack led by Platt, which inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese and forced them to retreat back to their landing area. After heavy fighting, the marines guarding the airfield retreated to a final line to the north-east of the airfield. A group of 100 special naval landing force troops infiltrated this position and attacked it, causing the surrender of the island’s garrison.

The US Marines had lost 49 men killed, two missing and 49 wounded during the 15-day siege, while three US Navy personnel and at least 70 US civilians (including 10 Chamorros) were killed, and 12 civilians wounded. Some 433 US personnel were taken prisoner. The Japanese captured all the men remaining on the island, of whom the majority were civilian contractors employed by the Morrison-Knudsen Company.

The Japanese casualties totalled 144 men: 140 special naval landing force and army casualties, and four aboard ships. At least 28 land-based and carrierborne aircraft were also either shot down or damaged.

The only marine to escape capture or death on Wake island was Lieutenant Colonel Walter Bayler, who departed in a US Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina twin-engined flying boat on 20 December. He was therefore able to provide an accurate recounting of the actual happenings on Wake island to the US press and people, while also providing photographs and maps of the island. He was also published in a nationwide magazine about the attack. The only reason Bayler had left Wake island was because he was a radio technician and thus greatly needed elsewhere.

Fearing an imminent counter-invasion, the Japanese reinforced Wake island with more formidable defences manned by more than 4,000 men of the 65th Guard Force of the 6th Base Force and the 13th Independent Mixed Regiment. The US prisoners were ordered to build a series of bunkers and fortifications. The Japanese brought in four 8-in (203.2-mm) naval guns often incorrectly reported as having been captured in Singapore. The US Navy established a submarine blockade instead of launching an amphibious invasion of Wake island and as a result, the Japanese garrison starved, which led to their hunting the Wake Island rail, an endemic bird, to extinction.

On 24 February 1942, aircraft from the fleet carrier Enterprise attacked Wake island’s Japanese garrison. US forces bombed the island periodically from 1942 until Japan’s surrender in 1945. This first raid was led by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, the commander of Carriers, Pacific Fleet, who also detached Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s Cruiser Division 5 and its escorting destroyers to shell the atoll. The first US raid prompted Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, to delay the return of Shokaku and Zuikaku from a refit in the home islands for passage to Truk in the Caroline islands group. However, Japan’s other four first-line carriers continued to operate in South-East Asia in support of the impending invasion of Java.

The raid of 5/8 October 1943 was of particular importance to the Gilbert islands campaign: after a Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane had found Pearl Harbor empty of shipping on 17 October, Admiral Mineichi Koga, the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet after Yamamoto’s death, decided that US forces were about to assault Wake island and shifted the Combined Fleet from Truk to Eniwetok. When no attack had materialised by 24 October, Koga concluded that it was a false alarm, moved the Combined Fleet back to Truk, and flew its air groups to Rabaul. This left the Combined Fleet unprepared to intervene when the Gilbert islands group was then invaded.

Following another carrier raid in October 1944, the Japanese commander on Wake island, Rear Admiral Shigemitsu Sakaibara, ordered the massacre of 98 US civilian construction workers interned since the fall of the island in 1941. He was hanged for this crime on 19 June 1947.

By the time the island was surrendered to US forces on 4 September 1945, the garrison had been reduced to 1,261 men. Of the others, some 974 had been evacuated with wounds, about 600 had been killed in air attacks, and 1,288 had died of starvation or disease.