Battle of Wake Island 75th anniversary: honoring the sacrifice of the Wake Defenders

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. John Gordinier
  • 11th Air Force Public Affairs

Most know about the attack on Pearl Harbor, the day that “will live in infamy,” Dec. 7, 1941, however, few people know about the attack that followed just a few hours later—The Battle of Wake Island.

Dozens attended the 75th anniversary ceremony and a wreath laying on Wake Island Atoll, including Col. Frank Flores, Pacific Air Forces Regional Support Center commander, Chief Master Sgt. Gay Veale, 11th Air Force command chief, and Chief Master Sgt. David Boerman, PRSC superintendent, to honor those who fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice.

“It’s always important to remember those who have gone before us, but we didn’t want it to be a sad ceremony,” said Capt. Allen Jaime, Det. 1 (Wake Island Atoll) commander, PRSC. “We wanted to give people a history of Wake Island, why it was so important, and to give a recollection of the attack so people can get a vivid sense of what the island defenders went through.”

“Seventy-five years seems like a long time, but in reality it isn’t,” said Capt Allen Jaime. “Today, we pay homage and reflect on a dark day in which the courage of a few showed us that with enough determination, we can defy the odds, and such was the case for the story of the Battle of Wake Island.”

The tiny spec of land known as Wake Island is located roughly 2,000 miles west of Hawaii and 1,300 miles east of Guam and is about 10 square miles in size. It was purchased by the U.S. in 1899 and its purpose was to be a telegraph cable gathering station and to refuel war ships for the U.S. Navy as well as merchant passenger and steam ships.

In January of 1941, a group of 80 personnel began working on establishing Wake Island as a military facility. The assigned personnel would eventually grow to 1,200 military and civilian personnel and the construction was intended to take 3 years. The island would house an airport, seaplane base and submarine base with all the associated support facilities.

In August of 1941, the first group of military personnel arrived in the form of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion to protect the island. A 58-man Naval detachment and small 7-man Army detachment were also assigned to provide radio communications with B-17 Bombers flying to the Philippines.

In December of 1941, personnel assigned to Wake were: 1st Marine Defense Battalion consisting of 15 officers and 373 enlisted; (Marine Fighter Attack Squadron) VMF-211 consisting of 12 officers and 49 enlisted; U.S. Naval Air Station consisting of 10 officers and 58 enlisted; and U.S. Army Air Corps consisting of 1 officer and 5 enlisted.

On Dec. 7, 1941 Hawaii time and Dec. 8, 6:50 a.m. local time, Wake Island received a message stating that the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor. All military personnel were put on alert and issued weapons. The anti-aircraft guns were manned to the maximum extent possible and command posts were set up. VMF-211 sent four F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft up to 12,000 feet to patrol for enemy aircraft, but unfortunately, Japan’s aircraft were on their way to attack about a 2,600 feet below them.

At approximately noon, chaos ensued. Japanese bombers flew in a V formation and attacked the airfield. Eight of the F4F Wildcats were caught on the ground and seven of them were completely destroyed and the eighth was severely damaged. Twenty-three squadron members were killed in the initial attack. The fuel storage facilities were destroyed and an additional 55 civilians were killed.

The defense force managed to get the anti-aircraft guns operational, but due to the surprise of the attack, the anti-aircraft fire was mostly ineffective. As quickly as the attack started, it was over. The Wake Island residents spent the next few days repairing damages and reinforcing defenses.

Four Wildcats were still in flying condition and the Wake defenders built protection walls for them and put mines on the airfield to prevent enemy landings and set up defensive postures around the airfield. For three days after the initial attack, the island suffered repeated air raids by Japanese bombers. Their goal was to destroy the remaining aircraft facilities and anti-aircraft weapons. The raids did some damage, but were ineffective overall.

On Dec. 11 at 3 a.m., the Japanese attempted to take the island during a beach assault with a roster of three light cruisers, six destroyers, two patrol boats, two medium transports and a force of 450 men. As the Japanese troops approached the island, they found it was quite difficult with the rough seas and high wind. The Marines spotted the approaching forces and were instructed to hold their fire until they got closer. Surprise was the best weapon the Americans had at this time. The four wildcats were instructed to stay on the ground until the battle began. By 6 a.m., all three cruisers began to assault the broadside of the island shore. The defenders were ordered to open fire, striking one of the cruisers. The cruiser attempted to retreat as one of the destroyers laid down cover smoke. The cruiser and destroyer were hit in the process.

On the other side of the island, three destroyers, two transports and the remaining two cruisers were laying assault--the defenders opened fire, completely obliterating a destroyer, the ship exploded violently and sunk where it stood. The defenders also scored hits on the other two destroyers, one of the transports and one of the cruisers. The destroyers retreated behind smoke.

With rough weather and a weakened force, the Japanese retreated completely, foregoing the island landing. The VMF-211 aircraft were in the air, already making the Japanese retreat quite difficult as they had no air cover. Two destroyers, one transport and one patrol boat took hits from the air and the VMF-211 scored the sinking of a destroyer. It was considered the biggest victory of the day.

The shore battery suffered some damage, but only four Marines were wounded. The Americans inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese with three damaged cruisers and two destroyers and one patrol boat sunk. There were more than 700 men lost from the ships. This was a great win for the Wake Island defenders, but unfortunately, the battle would go on for another 12 days.

The Japanese used the following days to strengthen their forces in order to prepare a larger scale assault on the island. Additions included four replacement destroyers, two transports, and several submarines. The landing force was increased to 1,000 personnel with an additional 500-man reserve force.

On Dec. 12, one of the submarines was sunk by VMF-211. The next five days was constant air raids from the Japanese forces. On Dec. 21 the battle took a turn for the worst. Twenty-nine Japanese attack bombers flew over the island, and this time they had fighter plane escorts. These 18 fighters alerted the Wake Island defenders that naval carriers were in the area and other ships were likely with them.

On Dec. 22, the last 2 Wildcats took off in an effort to intercept 39 enemy aircraft. They were able to shoot down several Japanese aircraft before one Wildcat disappeared and the other crash landed on Wake Island. With no more aircraft at their disposal, all remaining crew became infantry.

For 15 days the defenders had fought valiantly, damaging roughly 50 enemy aircraft and destroying 21 of them.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 23, the Japanese arrived on Wake Island. Only 200 Marines were assigned to defend the beach while the rest of the men manned the 3 and 5-inch guns. Marines opened fire on the Japanese, but they drove the Wake defenders back. At this time, communications were lost with command. At 5 a.m. the commander sent a message to Pearl Harbor stating “Enemy on island. Issue in doubt.” By sunrise the island was lost, with more than 1,000 Japanese on the island, 27 ships in the water and complete air control. A complete surrender seemed the only rational option, but it took six hours to stop the fighting.

Over the course of the 16 days of attack, 820 Japanese were killed and 333 were wounded. American losses totaled 120 killed, 49 wounded and 2 missing.

With the surrender official, all remaining defenders were taken prisoner and were sent to prisoner of war camps in China. Initially, the prisoners were treated very badly having little to no food and awful living conditions. Tensions quickly eased as the American situation was made better. On Jan. 12, 1942, approximately 1,200 personnel would undergo a 12-day journey to the East. Several hundred prisoners would leave Wake Island later in 1942, but 98 civilians remained on the island. These personnel were used to operate heavy equipment and were later executed on Oct. 7, 1943.

Overall, 1,462 Americans were transferred to POW camps in China and Japan, 231 of which died.

For 44 months, the Japanese occupied Wake Island, the island withstood heavy American bombardment, leading to the death of more than 2,000 Japanese personnel. It wasn’t until 4 Sept. 1945 that the Japanese handed over the island to the Americans during a flag ceremony two days after Japan’s surrender.

“Today, we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Wake Island,” said Flores. “We remember the sacrifices of those who fought so valiantly; those who, during a time of despair, fought back against overwhelming odds and really inspired a nation.”

“President Ronald Reagan once said, ‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction, we didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream, it must be fought for, protected and handed on to them to do the same,’” said Flores.

“We honor those brave souls who were lost and those who suffered tremendously,” he continued. “We carry on the tradition of service, dedication, and courage through our actions on this island today. The defenders of Wake Island were a mix of Marines, Sailors and contractors fighting for their country, fighting for each other and fighting for their lives. That partnership continues today as the people who serve here, military and civilians, play an important role of maintaining our nation’s security. Today Wake Island serves as a platform for Trans Pacific air traffic and critical missile defense tests. The roles are different, but what is at stake is still the same…precious freedom.”