Operation Buzzer

'Buzzer' was a US unrealised plan for the recapture of Wake island, an atoll annexed by the USA in 1899 and lying in the Central Pacific to the north-west of the Marshall islands group and to the south-west of Midway island (1944).

Wake is a small atoll in the central part of the Pacific some 2,000 miles (3220 km) to the west of Hawaii. Comprising three islets without any natural source of fresh water other than rain, Wake is about 4.5 miles (7.2 km) long and 2.5 miles (4 km) wide, and has an land area of 2,600 acres (1050 hectares). Wake island itself, to the south, is V-shaped with its two arms each about 5,300 yards (4845 m) long. Peale island is separated from the eastern arm of Wake by a narrow channel, and Wilkes island is separated from the western arm of Wake by an even narrower channel. This channel had been dredged to allow boat access into the lagoon, which was shallow and full of coral heads. The islands are flat, with the high point just 21 ft (6.4 m) above the high-water level, and covered with dense vegetation. They are surrounded by a barrier reef that allows easy boat access only along the south-west coast and which plunges to great depth at its edge, providing no good place to anchor large ships.

The atoll is very remote, the nearest land being the Marshall islands group some 450 miles (725 km) to the south. As a potential military base, the atoll had so many liabilities that only its strategic location made it of any interest.

Wake was uninhabited and wholly undeveloped until the Pan American airline built a seaplane ramp here for its 'Clipper' trans-Pacific flying boat route in 1935. The US Navy then took increasing interest in the atoll as war loomed, and from January 1941 built an airfield with a runway 5,000 ft (1525 m) long and therefore able to accommodate bombers, and began to dredge the lagoon. Late in 1941, however, there was still no good anchorage, and cargo ships supplying the island had therefore to be unloaded by lighter.

The construction of additional facilities was being undertaken by 1,216 civilian contractors when war broke out in the Pacific. These facilities were to include two additional runways and a ship channel and turning basin in the lagoon, which would thus be capable of accommodating a tender and submarine base.

On 19 August the atoll received its first permanent military garrison, in the form of elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion totalling 449 officers and men under Major James P. S. Devereaux. The island’s garrison was commanded by Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, and other US service personnel on the island were 68 men of the US Navy; there were also the 1,216 civilian workers. The island’s defensive artillery comprised six obsolescent 5-in (127-mm) guns removed from a scrapped cruiser and 12 3-in (76-mm) anti-aircraft guns. The garrison also had 18 0.5-in (12.7-mm) modern M2 heavy machine guns and an assortment of 30 other heavy, medium and light machine guns.

Reflecting Japan’s perception that Wake island was an important staging point in any attempt by the USA to advance from the Hawaiian islands across the Pacific to effect the relief of the US and Filipino forces which they felt would still be holding out on the Philippine islands group, the Japanese attacked Wake island on 8 December 1941, the day following the 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor. Some 16 bombers of Vice Admiral Eiji Goto’s 24th Air Flotilla took off from bases in the Marshall islands group and attacked Wake island, destroying on the ground eight of the 12 Grumman F4F fighters of the US Marine Corps' VMF-211 squadron, which were their primary target; the other four aircraft were in the air on patrol, but without radar control were unable to effect an interception. All of the defensive emplacements remained undamaged by the raid.

Early in the morning of 11 December the garrison, with the support of the four remaining F4F fighters, beat off the first Japanese landing attempt by Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue’s 4th Fleet, South Seas Force, which included, under the local command of Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, the light cruisers Yubari, Tenryu and Tatsuta, destroyers Yayoi, Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Hayate, Oite and Asanagi, two old destroyers reclassified as patrol vessels, and two troop transports carrying 450 men of the 2nd Maizuru Special Naval Landing Force.

Devereaux ordered his coastal guns, which were well concealed, not to open fire until the Japanese moved to within close range. One destroyer, Hayate, was then hit in her magazine by the coastal guns and exploded with loss of all hands as the first Japanese warship to be lost in World War II. The light cruiser Yubari, flagship of the Japanese invasion force, was also hit and suffered moderate damage. At this point, Kajioka ordered his ships to withdraw. During the Japanese withdrawal, another destroyer, Kisaragi, was struck in its depth charge racks by a bomb from one of the Wildcat fighters, and exploded violently with the loss of all hands.

The Japanese had thus withdrawn without attempting to land, and this first battle of Wake island also marked the only occasion in World War II in which an amphibious assault was defeated by shore-based guns.

Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, was still in shock after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but nonetheless thinking of the immediate future. In the spring of 1941 he had urged that a very strong garrison be established on Wake island to ensure that the Japanese had to send a substantial force against it in the event of war. He had argued that this might well give the US Navy a chance to destroy a significant element of the Japanese fleet. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kimmel had appreciated that he would be stripped of his acting rank of admiral and revert to his substantive rank of rear admiral when the blame for 'Ai' fell on him, and his last major decision was to order elements of all three Pacific Fleet carrier task forces to the relief of Wake.

Kimmel had already decided that Wake island could be held if reinforcements of men and critical equipment could be sent to the atoll. This included an SCR-270 early warning radar and three SCR-268 fire-control radars loaded on the transport vessel William Ward Burrows, which was on its way to Wake when war broke out, and reinforcements of men and ammunition carried by seaplane tender Tangier. The plan eventually put into effect dropped the slow William Ward Burrows, which finally delivered its radar and supplies to Johnston island, but Tangier was to dash in to the island, disembark the men and supplies, and embark as many civilian workers as possible. Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher’s Task Force 14 centred on the fleet carrier Saratoga was to provide air cover for Tangier, while Rear Admiral Wilson Brown’s TF11 centred on the fleet carrier Lexington was to raid Jaluit island to the south in order to draw Japanese land-based aircraft away from Wake island.

While superficially sound, the plan was put together in haste by staff personnel lacking any experience of the realities of wartime operations, and therefore possessed a number of inherent problems. None of the carrier task forces would be in position to support another: Vice Admiral William F. Halsey’s TF8 centred on the fleet carrier Enterprise was patrolling to the north of Oahu in the Hawaiianislands group, and therefore could not return to Pearl Harbor and resupply in time to provide meaningful support. Captain Charles H. McMorris, the Pacific Fleet’s war plans officer and the author of the scheme, ignored the possibility of intervention by Japan’s carrier forces and assumed only the battleships and cruisers of the 4th Fleet could threaten the relief expedition. Unaware of the schedule for the second invasion attempt which the Japanese had immediately set in hand, the Americans envisaged a simple resupply and evacuation operation protected by a strong covering force and with no tight deadline. The logistic support for the US plan can be characterised only as typical of peacetime thinking, and exacerbated by the fact there was currently only one fast oiler, Neosho, equipped with modern under-way replenishment gear, and this was assigned to TF11, which was working to a tighter timetable. TF14 was therefore dependent on the aged and slow Neches, which could only sustain about 12.75 kt speed, limiting the rate of advance of the entire force.

The relief expedition also suffered a number of other setbacks, beginning with a one-day delay to sort the oiler dispositions, and a delay of another day in Saratoga’s arrival at Pearl Harbor as a result of a submarine scare. A further delay was incurred when Fletcher paused just outside air search range of the Japanese to refuel his escorting destroyers. He encountered considerable difficulty doing so as the sea conditions were poor, with moderate winds and a long cross-swell. The US Navy’s crews were still relatively inexperienced in under-way refuelling, and seven oil lines parted and only four destroyers were refuelled in a period of 10 hours.

It was on 14 December, on the instructions of Kimmel, that Brown’s TF11 departed Pearl Harbor with the fleet carrier Lexington, heavy cruisers Chicago, Indianapolis and Portland, and destroyers Phelps, Dewey, Hull, McDonough and Worden (Destroyer Division 1), and Aylwin, Dale and Drayton (Destroyer Division 2) together with the fleet oiler Neosho to carry out a diversionary raid of Jaluit island in the Marshall islands group. The Wake island relief force departed two days later as Fletcher’s TF14 with the fleet carrier Saratoga carrying the 18 Brewster F2A single-seat fighters of the VMF-221 squadron to fly to Wake island when within range, heavy cruisers Minneapolis, Astoria and San Francisco, destroyers Selfridge, Henley, Blue and Helm (Destroyer Division 7), and Jarvis, Mugford, Patterson and Ralph Talbot (Destroyer Division 8), seaplane tender Tangier carrying the 4th Marine Coastal Defense Battalion and supplies including ammunition for all of the garrison’s weapons, and fleet oiler Heches. To support and cover the undertaking, Halsey’s TF8 departed Pearl Harbor only on 20 December for the area between Midway and Johnston islands with the the fleet carrier Enterprise, heavy cruisers Northampton (flying the flag of Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance), Chester and Salt Lake City, and destroyers Balch, Craven, Gridley, McCall and Maury (Destroyer Division 11) and Fanning, Dunlap, Benham and Ellet (Destroyer Division 21).

On 20 December TF11 had been turned away to the north in direct support of the Wake island undertaking, and the raid on Jaluit island was therefore abandoned. At 21.00 on 23 December TF14 was ordered by Vice Admiral William S. Pye, the new acting commander of the US Pacific Fleet following Kimmel’s removal in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, to return to Oahu. The decision to abandon the undertaking was the result of a combination of excessive caution, mechanical problems, difficulties with refuelling at sea, and the general confusion over the Japanese whereabouts, and Task Force 14 turned back when 425 miles (685 km) to the north-east of Wake.

Kimmel had already been dismissed six days earlier; his designated successor, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, was stuck in Washington; and Pye was not willing to rush strategic forces to the relief of Wake without a direct order. The only guidance Pye had from Washington was permission to evacuate the island at his discretion: he knew that the considered opinion of his superiors that Wake island was a liability. Thus the continuing Japanese naval siege and frequent air attacks on Wake island’s garrison continued, without even the possibility of resupply for the Americans.

The land-based bombers of the 24th Air Flotilla attacked Wake island again between 14 and 17 December, and then once more on 19 December, losing several aircraft but managing to destroy two of the island defence’s four remaining Wildcat fighters.

The initial resistance offered by the garrison had prompted the Japanese to detach two fleet carriers, Soryu and Hiryu of Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi’s 2nd Carrier Division from Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s 1st Air Fleet, which was returning from the 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor, to support the second landing attempt. This support element was commanded by Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe, whose Carrier Reinforcement Force comprised the two carriers (32 Aichi D3A 'Val' dive-bombers, 36 Nakajima B5N 'Kate' torpedo and level bombers, and 46 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen 'Zero' fighters), heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma, and as many as six destroyers including Tanikaze and Urakaze.

The second Japanese invasion effort by Kajioka’s reinforced Wake Invasion and Occupation Force began on 20 December, when the force sortied once again for Kwajalein island in the Marshall islands group, and the Japanese force which arrived off Wake island three days later comprised the light cruisers Tatsuta and Tenryu of Rear Admiral Kuninori Marumo’s 18th Cruiser Division), the light cruiser Yubari and destroyers Asanagi, Oite and Yunagi (29th Destroyer Division) and Mochizuki, Mutsuki and Yayoi (30th Destroyer Division) of Kajioka’s own 6th Destroyer Squadron, the fast transports P-32 and P-33, three other transports including Kongo Maru and Kinryu Maru, one minelayer and one aircraft tender.

Support was provided by Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto’s 6th Cruiser Squadron (heavy cruisers Aoba, Furutaka, Kinugasa and Kako) and the 23rd Destroyer Division (Kikuzuki, Uzuki and Yuzuki) from Truk island in the Caroline islands group.

After shore-based aircraft had made attacks on Wake island on 12, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 19 December, 47 and 39 aircraft from the carriers attacked on the island on 21 and 22 December, respectively. At 02.35 on 22 December some 900 marines of the 2nd Maizuru Special Landing Force (out of an assault and garrison force of more than 1,200 men) were able to get ashore in six landing craft.

A report of the Japanese landing came as Fletcher’s TF14 continued to refuel some 400 miles (645 km) to the north-east of Wake. By this time Kimmel had been relieved, and the relief attempt was called off by Pye, the interim commander of the Pacific Fleet, after consulting with his staff. Pye was probably deeply affected by a report delivered earlier by Ensign James J. Murphy, who flew a Consolidated PBY flying boat to Wake island with the relief plan and, on his return, reported that conditions on the atoll were 'grim, grim, grim'. Pye was also influenced by a message from Admiral Harold R. Stark and Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commander, US Fleet respectively, to the effect that 'Wake is now and will continue to be a liability' and authorising its demolition and evacuation if necessary.

By 23 December, after a full night and morning of fighting, the Japanese had captured the island with support from their ships, and the remnants of the US garrison surrendered in the middle of the afternoon. The two fast transports P-32 and P-33 were lost after these ex-destroyers had been hit by US gun fire, and were then beached and burned out.

The US Marines' casualties during the entire 15-day naval siege and marine assault were 56 men killed and 44 wounded, while the US Navy lost three men killed and five wounded, and the civilian contractors lost 70 men killed and 12 wounded. The survivors comprised 349 marine, 65 navy and five air force personnel, most of whom were send to labour camps in the northern part of China. The Japanese losses were recorded at between 700 and 900 killed, together with at least 1,000 more wounded, in addition to the two destroyers lost in the first invasion attempt, as well as at least 20 land-based and carrierborne aircraft.

On 24 February 1942 aircraft from Enterprise attacked the Japanese garrison on Wake island, and at the same time Halsey detached a cruiser and destroyer force of Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s Cruiser Division 5 to shell the atoll. The raid prompted Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, to delay the return of the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku from a refit in the home islands to Truk. However, Japan’s other four fleet carriers continued to operate in South-East Asia in support of the pending 'J' invasion of Java in the Dutch East Indies.

US air forces bombed the island (seven aircraft carrier strikes and numerous land-based bomber attacks) from 1942 until Japan’s surrender in 1945. On 8 July 1943, for instance, Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers operating from Midway island bombed the Japanese garrison. On 5 October 1943 aircraft of the fleet carriers Yorktown, Essex and Lexington undertook a very successful attack, and two days later, fearing invasion and a possible revolt, Captain (from 15 November 1944 Rear Admiral) Shigematsu Sakaibara, commanding the 65th Guard Force, ordered the execution of 98 captured US contract workers remaining on the island as forced labourers. These Americans were taken northern end of the island, blindfolded and machine gunned or, in the case of the last man, beheaded by Saikabara himself, who was convicted of this crime in 1947 and hanged.

The attack of 5 October also had strategic ramifications for the 'Galvanic' assault on the Gilbert islands group. When a Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane found Pearl Harbor empty of shipping on 17 October, Admiral Mineichi Koga, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet following Yamamoto’s death in 'Vengeance', concluded that the Americans were about to assault Wake island and shifted the Combined Fleet from Truk to Eniwetok in the Marshal islands group. When no such attack had materialised by 24 October, Koga decided that this had been a false alarm, shifted the Combined Fleet back to Truk, and flew its air groups to Rabaul to support operations in the South-West Pacific. This left the Combined Fleet wholly unprepared to intervene when the US forces did attack the Gilbert islands group In November.

On 4 September 1945 the Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of the US Marine Corps, the Wake Island Surrender Acceptance Unit commanded by Brigadier General Lawson H. M. Anderson, transported in the destroyer Levy. The Japanese surrendered 653 naval and 609 army personnel, of whom more than 400 were wounded or ill, and their casualties during the entire occupation of Wake had amounted to some 600 men killed, 1,288 died of starvation or disease, and 974 evacuated as starving or ill. Under Sakaibara’s command, the Japanese garrison had peaked at 4,100 men of the navy’s 65th Guard Force (controlled by the 6th Base Force from Kwajalein atoll) and elements of the 24th Air Flotilla, as well as the army’s 13th Independent Mixed Regiment.