Wake Island, Western Pacific Ocean December 23, 1941

On this date in 1941 Wake Island defenders surrendered after two attack waves of 1,000 Japa­nese marines each stormed the beaches. Two days earlier, in their largest attack yet on Wake Island, the Japa­nese had sent 49 aircraft, dive bombers and fighters both, to knock out the last of the island’s eight air­craft—this after launching their first air assault (36 bombers) on Decem­ber 8, five hours after their fiery ambush of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (Wake was on the oppo­site side of the Inter­national Date Line.) Three days later, on Decem­ber 11, 450 Japa­nese marines attempted their first landing. They were repulsed by U.S. Marine Corps shore bat­teries con­sisting of a half-dozen 5‑in guns from a World War I-era battle­ship as well as aggre­ssive pilots flying Grum­man F4F Wild­cats, who shot down 24 enemy air­craft. Two Japa­nese destroyers were sunk—the first Japa­nese war­ships lost in World War II—and many more vessels damaged.

Wake Island, an American Paci­fic out­post between Hawaii and Guam, had been iden­ti­fied as a “priority defense require­ment” four months before August 1941, the month building the island’s defenses began. By Decem­ber the three coral islets had become the most heavily defended U.S. atoll in the Western Paci­fic but with a signif­i­cant weak­ness: no radar to alert its defenders to approaching enemy aircraft.

A week after the deadly Japanese assaults on Pearl Harbor and Wake Island, two U.S. task forces (TF 11 and TF 14) steamed toward Wake from Hawaii. Among the war­ships were the fleet carrier Sara­toga with 66 air­craft of her air group and a dozen largely obso­lete Brewster F2A Buffalo fighters for the Marine Wake squad­ron, 3 heavy cruisers, 10 destroyers, and ele­ments of the 4th Marine Defense Bat­tal­ion. The relief expe­di­tion was still 425 miles away when Japa­nese marines suc­cess­fully assaulted the island on a gusty, rainy Decem­ber 23. After eleven hours of fierce resis­tance, the enemy, which out­num­bered Wake’s defenders three or four to one, captured roughly 500 Marines, Navy person­nel, and sol­diers and 1,150 civil­ian-con­trac­tor volun­teers, the major­ity begin­ning 3‑1/2 years of captiv­ity as slave laborers in China and Japan. Only about two‑thirds of the men sur­vived their captivity. Bedeviled by heavy seas Adm. Frank Fletcher’s relief force, striving to arrive on Decem­ber 24 in the vicinity of now-fallen Wake, was instead recalled to Pearl Harbor. The size and com­po­si­tion of the relief force was later recog­nized as incap­able of lifting the enemy siege or evacuating the island in the two weeks prior to Wake’s capture or dislodging the invaders in the days afterward.

The POWs who remained on the island were employed by the Japa­nese in building island defenses: con­crete and coral block houses and pill­boxes with inter­locking fire, tank traps, land mines, and barbed-wire entangle­ments along the shore­line, air­craft revet­ments at the air­field, and the like. In Septem­ber 1942 a second batch of POWs was trans­ported to pri­son camps in China. The 98 heavy equip­ment opera­tors who remained were exe­cuted in early October 1943 when the Japa­nese gar­ri­son feared an im­mi­nent inva­sion from a U.S. armada that included the carrier USS York­town and many cruisers and destroyers.

The enemy garrison, numbering 4,400 army and navy per­son­nel at its height, remained en­trenched on Wake Island through Septem­ber 4, 1945, sur­ren­dering to a detach­ment of U.S. Marines two days after their nation’s formal surrender in Tokyo Bay. Japa­nese Rear Admiral Shige­matsu Sakai­bara, who ordered the exe­cu­tion of the 98 captive civilian workers, was hanged on June 18, 1947, as a war criminal.

Battle of Wake Island, December 8–23, 1941

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

Above: Map of the Western 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.” Prior to its capture, the U.S. Navy-Marine garri­son on Wake 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.

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

Left: Columns of smoke rise from on either side of Wake Island’s airstrip after a Japa­nese air attack in December 1941. The Japa­nese lost 7 air­craft, 2 destroyers, 2 trans­ports, 2 patrol boats, and over 1,100 men, with many more wounded, in the Battle of Wake Island. U.S. dead were 122 (including civil­ian contrac­tors), with 49 wounded and 2 missing. Interned were 1,104 civilians, of whom 180 died in cap­tivity. 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. 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. At the end of that day, how­ever, 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