Wake Island, Central Pacific Ocean December 11, 1941

As war clouds gathered over the Western and Central Pacific in the late 1930s/­early 1940s, U.S. mili­tary brass iden­ti­fied a V‑shaped set of coral islets, since 1899 an Amer­i­can out­post between Hawaii and Guam, a “priority defense require­ment.” Actually a sub­merged vol­cano top, Wake Island (see map below) happened to be one of the lone­li­est atolls in the entire Pacific. Yet by 1935 the tiny waste­land of sand, scrubby trees, and brush had emerged as an important com­mer­cial and mili­tary airbase. Between early 1941 and August 19 civil­ian con­trac­tors and 178 Marines landed on Wake to im­prove the island’s feeble defenses and build an air sta­tion and bar­racks for U.S. naval and Marine personnel.

On October 12, 1941, Major James Devereux arrived with Marine rein­force­ments and more civil­ian con­struc­tion workers. The balding, 38‑year-old Marine embraced his task with a fury. Over­worked Marines and civil­ians scrambled round-the-clock to build out the naval base as well as the coral run­way for U.S. Army Air Corps B‑17 Flying For­tres­ses that soon would be landing there. Six 5‑inch (127mm) coastal defense guns were dispersed over the islets.

In December 1941 the Wake Island gar­ri­son num­bered 422 Marine enlisted men (mostly artil­lery­men) and 27 offi­cers of the 1st Defense Bat­tal­ion under Devereux, as well as Marine avi­ators of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211; 10 naval offi­cers and 58 en­listed men (including hos­pital corps­men); a 5‑person Army com­muni­ca­tions unit; 70 Pan Amer­i­can Air­ways civil­ians and 1,146 con­trac­tor employees. Apart from Oahu, Hawaii, Wake had become the most heavily defended U.S. island out­post in the Cen­tral Pacific. That said, signif­i­cant defense defi­cits remained: a desper­ately needed radar sys­tem never arrived to give advance warning of an enemy attack (a weak­ness the Japa­nese would exploit), and rein­force­ments to the Navy’s air arm, con­sisting of 12 Grum­man F4F‑3 Wild­cat fighters minus instruc­tion manuals and spare parts, arrived just 4 days before the war started.

At noon on December 8, 1941 (Decem­ber 7 in Pearl Harbor), Japa­nese twin-engine bombers and fighter aircraft, using a rain squall and low cloud cover to fly unseen and unheard, launched a deadly strike on the Amer­i­can base. In quick order the bombers destroyed 8 Wild­cat fighters on the ground (4 were in the air), blasted gaso­line storage tanks, and killed and wounded 34 Marine avi­a­tion personnel. On this date 3 days later, Decem­ber 11, a Japa­nese special naval invasion force arrived and received a drub­bing. Marine shore bat­teries and the remaining Wild­cats caused the deaths of at least 200 to 340 Japa­nese (sources vary), injuries to 65, and the loss of 2 destroyers (a first for Japan). The invaders—450 Spe­cial Naval Landing Force troops in trans­ports and old destroyers—never set foot on the island. Ama­zingly only one Amer­i­can perished in this first battle between U.S. Marines and Imperial Japa­nese forces. How­ever, Wake’s air cover was now prac­ti­cally non­exis­tent: just 2 Wild­cats remained in working order. (The fighters were later destroyed in com­bat.) Defiant and proud, the Marines knew the Japanese would attempt a second landing.

On December 23 the Japanese did just that. In between, how­ever, Japa­nese avia­tors left daily explo­sive calling cards. It was hair raising, bone rattling, and mind numb­ing for the gar­ri­son’s anxious defenders. A U.S. Navy relief expe­di­tion centered on the air­craft carrier Saratoga departed Pearl Harbor on Decem­ber 12, but it was recalled 10 days later, two days’ out from Wake Island and one day after Japa­nese soldiers had overrun the tiny island. Marines and civil­ian con­struc­tion workers died amid a hail of bullets and gre­nades, some grappling their attackers in brutal hand-to-hand com­bat. The sur­vivors—400 Marines, 5 Army and 65 Navy person­nel, and 1,076 civil­ians—were taken pri­soner. Most were shipped off to Japa­nese POW camps for slave labor, but over 100 civil­ian con­trac­tors were retained as workers on Japa­nese-occupied Wake. On Octo­ber 7, 1943, the island’s remaining Ameri­cans were bound, blind­folded, led to the beach, and machine-gunned to death by their captors.

Battle of Wake Island: U.S. Marines’ Legendary Last Stand, December 8–23, 1941

Map of Western and Central Pacific Ocean, circa early 1943, showing Wake Island

Above: Map of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, circa early 1943. Japa­nese-occupied Wake Island atoll (Wake Island, Wilkes Island, and Peale Island) is located in the cen­ter of the map above the black circle enclosing a “1.” The north-south dashed line depicts the Inter­na­tional Date Line, with Wake being on the oppo­site (west) side of it; thus, Wake is a calendar day earlier than places to the east of it. Prior to Wake’s cap­ture, the island’s U.S. Navy-Marine gar­ri­son had been an impor­tant intel­li­gence-gath­ering cen­ter and warning out­post. Wake had also been a stop­over for Pam Am’s big China Clipper flying boats. To the east of Wake Island the Pacific out­posts are in Amer­i­can hands. Japa­nese island strong­holds lie to the west of Wake and much of the south; e.g., the Mari­anas, Guam, and the Mar­shall and Gil­bert islands, which the Amer­i­cans took during cam­paigns that lasted from November 1943 through August 1944. The Japa­nese remained in occu­pa­tion of Wake Island, weath­ering peri­odic U.S. bombing and occasional raids, until September 4, 1945.

Wake Island airfield, December 1941Destroyed F4F-3 Wildcat, Wake Island, December 1941

Left: Columns of billowing greasy black smoke rise from on either side of Wake Island’s air­strip after a Japa­nese air raid in December 1941. During the 16‑day siege of Wake Island, the Japa­nese lost 7 air­craft, 2 destroyers, 2 trans­ports, 2 patrol boats, and over 1,100 men, with many more wounded. U.S. dead were 122 (including civil­ian contrac­tors), with 49 wounded and 2 missing. Interned along with U.S. mili­tary pri­soners were 1,104 civil­ians. Among the latter group, 180 unfor­tu­nates died in brutal cap­tivity in Japan and occu­pied China. Wake’s heroic defense and sacri­fice were the chief bright spots in the grim first months of the Pacific War.

Right: Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 36 Japa­nese medium bombers flown from bases on the near­by Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying 8 of the 12 F4F‑3 Wild­cat fighter air­craft belonging to Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF‑211 on the ground. This photo, taken after the Japa­nese had captured the island, shows the wreck­age of Wild­cat 211‑F‑11, flown by execu­tive offi­cer Capt. Henry T. Elrod on the morning of Decem­ber 11, 1941, in the attack that sank the destroyer Kisa­ragi with the loss of all 167 hands—the first Japa­nese war­ship sunk by a U.S. fighter pilot. “Hammerin’ Hank” Elrod was post­humously awarded the Con­gres­sional Medal of Honor—the first avi­ator to receive the medal in World War II—for his actions on Wake during the second Japa­nese landing attempt on Decem­ber 23. Sadly by night­fall that day, the island’s defenders were left with no serviceable aircraft to turn back the invaders.

Beached Japanese Patrol Boats 32 (left) and 33, Wake Island, December 1941Remains of Patrol Boat No. 33, Wake Island, December 1941

Above: Japanese Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33 were two ex-destroyers recon­figured in 1941 to launch a landing craft carrying 250 naval infantry­men over a stern ramp. In the photo on the left the two patrol boats (Patrol Boat No. 32 on the left) have been run aground on the south coral shore of Wake Island near the air­strip before dawn on Decem­ber 23, 1941. Island defenders, with a 3‑in gun, managed to draw a bead on beached Patrol Boat No. 33, less than 500 yards from their posi­tion. Some of their 15 pro­jec­tiles touched off the ship’s maga­zine, and the war­ship began to burn. (Her remains are shown in the right photo.) The illumi­na­tion pro­vided by the burning ship revealed her sis­ter ship, Patrol Boat No. 32, which was hit with 5‑in, 50 lb shells from coastal artil­lery guns. Twenty-five minutes later that boat too was completely demolished. The Japa­nese marines, how­ever, were able to slip over the patrol boats’ sides in the darkness and sprint across the coral reef for cover.

Radio Broadcast Announcing Fall of Wake Island to Japanese