Chapter 3: Enemy Attacks Through 22 December


Hardly had VMF-211's planes returned to base (in one condition or another), before it was time for the two serviceable remaining fighters to take off on the early midday combat patrol, piloted by Lieutenants Davidson and Kinney. The fighter section did not have long to wait. At about 1000, 30 shore-based bombers of the Twenty-fourth Air Flotilla appeared at 18,000 feet, this time approaching from the northeast, for their daily milk run on Wake. The two fighters slashed in, and Davidson accounted for two bombers, while Kinney sent one homeward smoking. Batteries D and E, 3-inch antiaircraft respectively on Peale and Wake Island, opened fire with their usual promptitude, getting off between them some 225 rounds during the action, an excellent showing for six guns.

The results, too, were excellent: one bomber crashed in the water off Wilkes, and three more, when last seen, were smoking heavily. During the antiaircraft firing, enemy bombs dropped close to Battery D on Peale, confirming Major Devereux's supposition that his battery positions were accurately located. Fortunately no casualties resulted from this raid, and, although Wake Island and Peale received numerous bomb salvos, no major material damage was inflicted. Within a few hours after the bombers had departed, Battery D, evidently a located target, received orders to displace from the neck of Toki Point to a new position on the eastern end of Peale.

For the balance of the garrison, the remainder of the day was spent in replenishing ammunition, effecting minor repairs, and discussing the day's battle.

At 1700, just prior to actual commencement of Battery D's displacement, a smoke bomb, combined with a chain flare of three red balls, was sighted about 2 miles to seaward northeast of Toki Point. During the next 20 minutes, the same signal was twice repeated. The significance of these signals has never been established. It is known, however, that Japanese submarines were operating in the vicinity of Wake, and it is at least a possibility that enemy survivors, either air or surface, could still have been afloat in the waters near Wake. Taken together, these facts lead to the supposition that the mysterious signals might have resulted from some type of attempted rescue operations.

As soon as night began to fall, at 1745, Battery D commenced displacement, assisted by a mixed working party of civilians and Marines. At this time, the critical shortage of sandbags was further emphasized when condition of the bags at the old position prohibited further reuse. Cement bags and empty ammunition boxes were made to serve instead. It was 0445, shortly before dawn, when the back-breaking displacement was complete, and Battery D was ready to fire from its new position.

The enemy opened the day of 12 December early. Shortly after 0500, two four-engine Kawanishi patrol bombers from the Japanese No. 3 Air Attack Force, still on Majuro, bombed and strafed Wake Island and Peale, with bombs dropping about the airstrip. Captain Tharin, who had just taken off on the morning reconnaissance patrol, was able to intercept one of the big flying boats and shot it down.

During the morning, routine work went forward. On Wilkes, beach defenses were improved, and Battery L's battered 5-inch guns received much needed servicing from the Ordnance Officer, Marine Gunner Borth. From his improvised aviation maintenance set-up, Lieutenant Kinney was able to deliver one more serviceable airplane, so that, for this day, there would be three available fighters for VMF-211.

To the defenders' surprise, for the first day since the opening of hostilities, the anticipated noon raid failed to materialize.[1]

For the garrison, this freedom from attack was a welcome and profitable interlude. Captain Freuler of VMF-211 who had been attempting since the opening of the war to devise some means of employing welder's oxygen to augment the dwindling supply for the fighter pilots of VMF-211, was able to improvise, at great personal hazard, a means of transferring the gas from commercial cylinders to the oxygen bottles of the Grummans. This was the sole means of keeping the squadron in effective fighting condition.

Another experiment, almost equally important, but unfortunately not so successful, was the attempt, about 12 December, to construct a home-made aircraft sound located ("a crude pyramidal box, with four uncurved plywood sides," Major Devereux described it). But in order to exclude extraneous noise and trap every decibel of the sound of aircraft engines, sound locators must be designed and shaped in accordance with the precise acoustic formulae, and this local improvisation to make good the lack of radar only served to magnify the roar of the surf.

On the evening air patrol of this day, three planes were in operational status. By the order of rotation in effect, the pilots were Lieutenants Kinney and Kliewer and Technical Sergeant Hamilton. Kinney and Hamilton got off on time, but Kliewer's airplane, a chronically difficult starter, was delayed almost 15 minutes on take-off.

As Kliewer climbed out to overtake his companions, he saw, some 25 miles offshore, bearing 225À from Wake, a completely surfaced submarine. He took position at 10,000 feet so as to approach from the sun, pushed over into a fast dive, and dropped down to identify the vessel. As he neared the surface, it was evident that this was an enemy submarine, and he opened fire with his four .50 caliber machine guns. A few seconds later, as he executed a pull-out to the right, he released his two 100-pound bombs. Neither bomb scored a direct hit, but both exploded, he estimated, within 15 feet of the target, and his pull-out was so low that bomb fragments tore holes in his wing and tail surfaces. As he climbed to cruising altitude for return to base, he saw the submarine go below water, leaving a large oil slick.[2]

After nightfall on 12 December, the first mass burial of Wake's dead took place in a common grave located about 100 yards southwest of the marine aid station in Magazine 10, the southernmost of the four igloo magazines along the east leg of Wake Island. Simple prayers were read by a lay preacher from the contractor's group.

Whatever may have been the final fate of Lieutenant Kliewer's submarine, 13 December, the day following this incident, saw no enemy action against Wake whatsoever. It was the first such day since the beginning of the war, and this unlooked-for cessation of hostile activity seemed to confirm what had been the suspicion of the defenders, that the Japanese were using submarines for radio navigational homing purposes in the long-distance raids on Wake. As Lieutenant Kinney put it,

Wake was a hard place to find. It was small and there were usually a lot of scattered clouds around. If they had come in at night, it would have been possible for them to hit by accurate celestial navigation. But they were making five- and six-hundred-mile flights over water with no landmarks, by dead reckoning alone and they always seemed to hit the island on the head just about the same time each day. Moreover, we heard a lot of funny radio signals. We never had any radio direction-finding equipment, and therefore couldn't take any bearing on these strange signals, but I am convinced that the sub was leading them in.

But even this quiet day,[3] which afforded all hands an opportunity to freshen camouflage, improve fox holes, and bathe in the lagoon, did not pass without loss. While taking off for the evening air patrol, Captain Freuler's fighter swerved to the left without warning toward a group of workmen and a large crane beside the runway. To avoid hitting the crane, Freuler swing further left in a steep bank, and the plane lost lift and altitude, settling into the brush, a permanent washout. Along with other such wrecks, it was set up in the parking area as a dummy, where it continued to draw bombs.

Well before dawn on 14 December, three of the four-engine Kawanishi 97 flying boats now operating from Wotje droned over Wake at 0330 and dropped bombs about the airstrip without damage. The garrison made no attempt to return fire.

After beginning the day this early, the Twenty-fourth Air Flotilla resumed its daily routine of forenoon bombing attacks. Thirty shore-based bombers arrived from Roi at 1100, and released bomb salvos on Camp 1, the lagoon off Peale, and the west end of the airstrip. Two Marines from VMF-211 were killed and one wounded, but, sad as these deaths were, the worst loss incurred by this raid was that of one more of the dwindling number of F4Fs; one of the serviceable fighters suffered a direct bomb hit inside its revetment and was totally destroyed, leaving but one effective airplane in operation on Wake.

When this airplane was hit and the after end seen to burst into flame, Lieutenant Kinney, VMF-211's engineering officer, accompanied by his two principle assistants, Technical Sergeant Hamilton and assistant Machinist's Mate First Class James F. Hesson, USN,[4] who were under cover nearby, sprinted for the revetment, and, despite the fire, accomplished the unbelievable feat of removing the still serviceable engine from the fuselage and dragging it clear.

In exchange for the loss of this airplane, however, the 3-inch batteries shot down two enemy bombers.

During the morning combat patrol of 15 December, a submarine was again sighted to the southwest, this time by Major Putnam. Confused by here markings, which from the air looked orange in color, the pilot hesitated to attack her for fear that she might be a Netherlands boat. Since aircraft destined for the Netherlands East Indies, and bearing similar Dutch markings, had been in the Hawaiian area in late 1941, this was an understandable error. The submarine in question, however, appears to have been Japanese.

Even though this submarine was not actually attacked, it is noteworthy that on this day again, the noon raid from Roi failed to arrive.

Although handicapped by the critical shortage of sandbags, 300,000 of which were requested by despatch this date, fortification proceeded uninterrupted. Two deep underground shelters with 3-foot overhead rock cover were dozed out of Peacock Point at Battery A's position. Around the airfield, in VMF-211's area, personnel shelters adequate for all hands were completed.

At 1730, well off to the east of Wake, an airplane was spotted in and out of the clouds. A half hour later, at 1800, just at dark, four to six four-engine Kawanishi 97 flying boats arrived from Wotje after an easterly approach with a load of heavy bombs which were apparently aimed at Battery D on Peale, but most of which hit in the lagoon just off shore. Wake Island and Peale were both strafed in a low-flying run over the atoll. One civilian was killed.

Before nightfall on this date, one important transaction had been completed. This was destruction of classified documents. The first step in this direction had been undertaken by Commander Cunningham on 8 December after the first attack, when the Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District, ordered destruction of the naval air base's reserve codes and ciphers. This was done immediately. VMF-211's codes still remained intact, however, until this date, when Major Bayler, assisted by Captain Tharin, shredded all codes into an oil-drum, soaked them in gasoline, and destroyed every vestige of their significance.

After a routine morning which commenced with 0500 general quarters, the day of 16 December was marked at 1315 by a resumption of the heavy daylight raids by Air Attack Force No. 1 from Roi. Twenty-three bombers approached the island at 18.000 feet from the east and bombed Peale and Camp 2. This raid was spotted on its incoming course by the two-plane combat air patrol (Lieutenants Kinney and Kliewer) which, mindful of the dependence of antiaircraft gunners upon accurate altitude data, immediately radioed down the exact altitude of the enemy formation with excellent observed effect upon the firing. Although the fighters had no luck this day, the antiaircraft shot down one plane in sight of Wake, and four more were smoking heavily as they limped away. Both 3-inch batteries, D and E, fired, and it was probably due to this factor that many of the enemy bombs hit inside the lagoon rather than on ground targets.

Again conforming to the now established pattern of dusk harassing, one Japanese flying boat at 1745 made an attack on Peale, coming in out of rain clouds and low visibility. Four heavy bombs were released, some of which hit in the lagoon, and Battery D's position, near which the remaining bombs hit, was heavily strafed. Due to the low ceiling and lack of warning, the 3-inch guns could not return fire. This was Wake's tenth air raid.

Shortly after midnight, at about 0200 on the morning of 17 December, lookouts of Wilkes reported, through a heavy drizzle which was falling, that approximately 12 ships were offshore. The defenders were immediately ordered to general quarters, but the threat failed to materialize. There is no enemy record of any such ship movement in the vicinity of Wake, and no friendly surface forces were at this time within this proximity of the atoll.

As of 0600, VMF-211's engineering crew could proudly report that four airplanes were again in commission. This high strength was solely due to the unceasing efforts of Lieutenant Kinney and his unceasing efforts of Lieutenant Kinney and his helpers, Marine, Navy, and civilian. In a subsequent report, the squadron commander, Major Putnam, was to say of this work:

These three,[5] with the assistance of volunteers among the civilian workmen, did a truly remarkable and almost magical job. With almost no tools and a complete lack of normal equipment, they performed all types of repair and replacement work. They changed engines and propellers from one airplane to another, and even completely built up new engines and propellers from scrap parts salvaged from wrecks. They replaced minor parts and assemblies, and repaired damage to fuselages and wings and landing gear; all this in spite of the fact that they were working with new types with which they had had no previous experience and were without instruction manuals of any kind. In the opinion of the squadron commander their performance was the outstanding event of the whole campaign.

"Engines have been traded from plane to plane, have been junked, stripped, rebuilt, and all but created," another report said of VMF-211's engineering section.

At 1317, flying from the southeast in line of division Vs, 27 shore-based bombers arrived from Roi at 19,000 feet. For a change from their previous concentration on Peale, they hit Wilkes, where a Diesel oil supply tank was set on fire; and Camp 1, where the majority of the 1st Defense Battalion Detachment's tentage, its mess hall and quartermaster storage, were destroyed. One of the evaporators, necessary on waterless Wake, was also damaged. Three-inch antiaircraft brought down one of the attackers.

As a final touch, one more of the precious fighter planes washed out on take-off for the afternoon combat air patrol. It, too, joined the dummies.

Appearing in their greatest strength during the entire operation, eight Wotje flying boats hit Wake at 1750 with bombs and strafing but without inflicting major damage.[6]

On 17 December, the construction authorities at Pearl Harbor, who seem to have been under the impression that the planned program for development of Wake was progressing without interruption, requested a progress report on dredging in the lagoon and asked for a specific date by which certain improvements would be completed.

In preliminary reply, having prefaced his report with information of the day's latest air raid (that by the four-engine flying boats), the island commander briefly summarized the matériel status of his command. Half of his trucks and engineering equipment were destroyed; the better part of his Diesel oil and commercial explosives had gone up; the Navy garage, the blacksmith and machine shops, and the major warehouse for building supplies--all these had been burnt or blasted to me ground. Continuing in a supplementary report which commenced with the statement that defending the atoll and keeping its garrison alive had been his main preoccupations, Commander Cunningham reminded Pearl Harbor that night work was impossible; that the lack of air-warning gear restricted daytime construction, especially with heavy equipment the noise of which masked sounds of approaching bombers; that the raids had depleted his effective engineering equipment and destroyed repair facilities; and that civilian morale was generally bad. He closed with the statement that no deadlines could be predicted or met unless enemy pressure were lifted.

No further such queries were received from rear areas during the balance of the defense.

18 December was a quiet day.[7] The only enemy activity in the vicinity of Wake, however, was ominous. A single shore-based airplane was picked up almost overhead at 25,000 feet, well out of antiaircraft range and much above the combat air patrol. It flew up the northwesterly axis of the atoll, and then turned south, presumably returning to Roi. This was believed to have been a photo-reconnaissance flight.

Next morning, after an uneventful night, the defenders continued their routine tasks. By now, even with their limited tools and personnel, the various batteries had begun to be well dug in. Beach defenses, to the full extent of personnel available to man them, had been set up, even including alternate machine-gun positions fully equipped with weapons and ammunition but only to be manned under particular contingencies. Trained men were the most critical shortage of all.

With one plane in commission and the one other suffering from engine trouble, the Marines began 19 December as usual, at morning general quarters.

At 1050, 27 of the shore-based bombers from Roi coming in from the northwest at 18,600 feet, worked over the VMF-211 area south of the airstrip, Camp 1 to the west (where they finished off the Marines' mess hall and tentage), and PanAir. Defending 3-inch fire from Batteries D and E hit four of the bombers, one of which crashed after its crew had parachuted over the water. Except in Camp 1, already partially razed, no serious damage was done, and no casualties resulted.

The next day, 20 December, dawned gloomily with heavy rain, low ceilings, and poor visibility all day. This frontal rain, which covered a wide area, dissuaded the Japanese from making their usual noon visit, but it could not stop a PBY, and, at 1530, a United States Navy patrol bomber, the first physical contact between Wake and the outer world, landed in the lagoon bearing detailed information for the island commander as to plans and actions underway for relief and reinforcement of the atoll.

All civilians, except key personnel essential to upkeep and certain high-priority projects, were to be evacuated. A Marine fighting squadron (VMF-221) would be flown in to reinforce VMF-211, now near the end of its tether. Substantial reinforcements of Marine Corps personnel and matériel were being despatched for the 1st Defense Battalion Detachment. A complete loading-plan of the Tangier was included.

After delivering their messages, the pilots of the PBY asked where the hotel on Wake was located, not realizing that it had been destroyed almost 2 weeks previously.

As night fell, all hands worked on brief letters and official reports to be transmitted back to Pearl. Commander Cunningham, Majors Devereux and Putnam, and Commander Greey sent back reports. Major Bayler, his mission long since completed, would carry the papers back and leave Wake in compliance with orders directing his return "by first available Government air transportation." Mr. Hevenor, the Bureau of the Budget official who had missed the Philippine Clipper on 8 December, was originally to return as well, but someone pointed out that he could not travel in a Naval aircraft without parachute and Mae West, neither of which was available, so he remained at Wake.

At 0700 next morning, 21 December, the PBY turned over its engines and took off. Within less than two hours, at 0850, with no warning, 29 Japanese Navy attack-bombers, covered by 18 fighters, lashed down through the overcast and bombed and strafed all battery positions. These were planes from Carrier Division 2 (Soryu and Hiryu), called in by the Japanese to help soften Wake's unexpected toughness. Due to the low ceiling, the attack was consummated before the 3-inch batteries could get into action, but the .50-caliber antiaircraft machine guns helped to render the attack, while ominous in its implications, ineffective as far as results went.

Only three hours later, at 1220, 33 of the shore-based Japanese bombers arrived from Roi. As they had so often in the past, they again took Peale and Camp 2 as their targets. The approach was from the east at 18,000 feet in two major formations, and the bombs of the second group plastered Battery D's position on Peale. Some 35 3-inch rounds had been fired, and one bomber hit after about a half minute's action, when a bomb fell squarely inside the director emplacement of the battery, killing the firing battery executive, Platoon Sgt. Johnalson E. Wright, and wounding the range officer and three enlisted Marines.

The effects of this hit were of critical seriousness to the antiaircraft defense of Wake.

The only remaining director on the atoll belonged to Battery E, located in the elbow of Wake Island. This battery, however, had no height finder, something which Battery D on Peale possessed. Between the two 3-inch batteries, there thus remained only sufficient fire-control equipment for one. Since Battery E was more centrally located and had thus far apparently escaped detection or direct attack, it seemed more logical to retain it as the primary antiaircraft defense of the atoll. In addition, if attacked, its location was such that near-misses would fall well clear of other installations. Because of all these considerations, major Devereux directed Battery D to send its height finder, now the only one on Wake, together with certain other fire-control gear, one gun and the necessary personnel, to Battery E, which, for the first time on Wake, would be a fully manned, fully equipped four-gun battery. Of the remaining three 3-inch guns on Peale, two were to be shifted to a new location from which they could execute beach-defense missions, and one was to be kept active in the old Battery D position amid dummies, to create the impression that the battery was still in its former location. As a further measure of deception, Battery F on Wilkes, now reduced to two guns, was also to open fire by local control methods whenever air raids occurred.

The net result of enemy attrition, therefore, was that Wake now possessed but one antiaircraft battery of four 3-inch guns, whereas at the outset of hostilities, it had possessed 12 such guns, eight of which were potentially effective. Of 12 fighters, only two remained in commission.

That night, after Platoon Sergeant Wright had been buried in the battery position where he fell, Battery D proceeded to carry out the defense detachment commander's orders, and by next morning Battery E was fully manned and equipped as directed. The remaining strength of the garrison on Peale was now less than a hundred Marines plus a groups of civilians who had been trained under Marine noncommissioned officers to act as one of Battery D's gun crews.[8]

On the morning of 22 December, two airplanes were in commission although one suffered from starter trouble which delayed the take-off of Captain Freuler on the midmorning combat-air patrol. Lieutenant Davidson had been out almost an hour, and was just covering the northern approaches to Wake at 12,000 feet when he spotted enemy planes coming in. He called Captain Freuler, who was then south of the atoll, and the latter headed back.

The incoming flight consisted of 33 enemy carrier attack planes escorted by six fighters, all from the Soryu-Hiryu carrier division. The fighters were at 12,000 feet and the dive bombers at 18,000. The fighters were of a sleek, new type, the first Zeros to be encountered over Wake.

Confronted by six Zeke's, Captain Freuler in his patched-up F4F-3 unhesitatingly dived at the enemy division, and, seconds later, as he pulled up, found the formation scattering around him and his first victim already smoking on its way down. Flipping his airplane into a difficult opposite approach, he attack another of the Zeros, which exploded only 50 feet below, sending a curtain of flame and flying fragments about the Grumman. The Marine fighter was badly scorched, manifold pressure dropped, and the controls reacted sluggishly.

At this moment, looking back toward Wake, the only possible landing place, Freuler saw Lieutenant Davidson in action against the dive bombers. The other Grumman was diving at a retreating bomber, while behind Davidson one of the Zeros was already commencing a run of his own. This was the last time Lieutenant Davidson or his airplane were ever seen.

While Freuler looked, another of the carrier fighters got on his tail and fired a long burst, wounding the Marine pilot in the back and shoulder. Captain Freuler pushed his plane over into a steep dive, managed to shake off his pursuer, and dragged the shattered, scorched F4F into the field for a crash landing. In the words of Lieutenant Kinney, whose shoestring maintenance had kept VMF-211 flying for 15 days, "This left us with no airplanes."

In spite of the fighting squadron's last blaze of heroism, the dive bombers had methodically worked over all battery positions again, although, by United States Navy standards of dive bombing, commented Lieutenant Barninger, "We who have been used to seeing only the propeller hub are a bit taken aback by their shallow dives and their inaccuracies." There had been no casualties on the ground.

That afternoon, preparations for ground defenses were intensified. On Peale, organization of the beach-defense positions for the two remaining 3-inch guns was pressed and concluded. On Wilkes, Captain Platt, the strong-point commander, issued detailed instructions to Marine Gunner McKinstry, in command of the provisional Battery F (3-inch), that, upon initiation of actual landings, he was to fire on the boats as long as the guns could be depressed to hit, and then to fall back as infantry into contact with Battery L Marines, who would also be acting as infantry in this contingency. Now having no airplanes, Marine Fighting Squadron 211 reported to the defense battalion as infantry. The squadron included less that 20 effectives, both officers and men.

The words of one officer on Wake summed up the situation as of 22 December quite accurately:

"All that can be done is being done, but there is so little to do with."

ENEMY PLANS AND ACTIONS DECEMBER 11 - 21


As the enemy forces, damaged and defeated, executed their southward withdrawal toward Kwajalein during 11 December, it was readily apparent to Rear Admiral Kajioka (whose flagship, the Yubari, had had more than a taste of Wake's accurate gunfire) that the difficulty of the mission had by no means been underestimated by his pessimistic chief of staff, and that additional means and more favorable conditions must be sought.


On 13 December, the battered force entered Kwajalein Atoll and anchored while conferences were held and plans recast. Rear Admiral Marushige, Kuninori, who had commanded Cruiser Division 18 (the old light cruisers, Tatsuta and Tenryu, both of which had been well worked over), analyzed the failure factors[9] of the unsuccessful attempt in the following order:

Vigorous seacoast artillery defense
Fighter opposition
Adverse weather
Insufficient Japanese forces and means


The Wake invasion force's losses and injuries had been impressive; two destroyers sunk; substantial damage to all three cruisers present; three more destroyers and one destroyer-transport damaged; and one transport partially burnt out. None of the damage, however, was beyond repair, and this was immediately set on foot with such facilities as Commander Fourth Fleet had at Kwajalein.

Despite the fact that the same general difficulties were anticipated for the next attempt, the Japanese higher echelons let the basic scheme of attack remain largely unchanged, an example of the lack of flexibility which so characterized much enemy planning. To make good immediate losses and strengthen the force somewhat, Commander Fourth Fleet contributed two replacement destroyers (Asanagi and Yunagi, sisters of the sunken ships which they replaced), together with one more, Oboro, a much more powerful and new ship of destroyer-leader characteristics, armed with six 5-inch guns. In addition to these reinforcements, the mine layer Tsugaru, then in the Marianas, embarked the personnel of the Maizuru Second Special Landing Force at Saipan and transported them to Roi, where they were incorporated into the Wake landing force organization. Another transport, Tenyo Maru, and a float-plane tender, Kiyokawa, were also added.

While troop rehearsals were in progress in 15 December, Commander Fourth Fleet urged the insufficiency of his force for the mission, and, in reply, the Commander in Chief, Combined Fleet, now apparently convinced that Wake, by contrast with other central Pacific objectives, constituted a major stumbling block, diverted what, by United States standards, amounted to a carrier task force: two fleet carriers (Soryu and Hiryu, Carrier Division 2); four older heavy cruisers (Aoba, Furutaka, Kako, Kinugasa, Cruiser Division 6); two very new heavy cruisers (Tone and Chikuma, Cruiser Division 8); and a task-force commander, and was also, on 18 December, designated by Commander Fourth Fleet as over-all commander of forces afloat for the projected operation, leaving as before, however, the amphibious force command to Rear Admiral Kajioka.

The new plan and estimate of the situation were, in essence, amplified versions of the original one which had failed.

The necessity--so clearly indicated by the battle of 11 December--for adequate prelanding softening of Wake was, however, taken into account. Commencing on 21 December, 2 days prior to the target date, which was set for 23 December, the aircraft of Carrier Division 2 would work over the Wake defense, concentrating in order of priority on United States aircraft, batteries, and machine-gun positions, locations of which were beginning to be fairly well known and pin-pointed.

In order that Wake's deadly seacoast batteries might be afforded minimum opportunities, initial landings were to take place by darkness, shortly before dawn. As a measure of surprise, indicates on source, there was to be no preliminary naval bombardment of 23 December.[10] To insure that the troops actually landed, regardless of how the battle fared for the forces afloat, the two destroyer-transports, Patrol Boats 32 and 33, were to be run aground on the south shore in the vicinity of the airstrip. At least four--and possibly six[11]--landing barges, each bearing 50 men, would land along the south shore as follows: two on Wilkes; two between the end of the airstrip and Camp 1; and two (possibly) just west of Peacock Point. In the event that all these Special naval Landing Force troops, approximately 1,000, were unable to force a decision ashore, a 500-man reserve, to be organized from ships' landing forces, would be committed. As a desperate, ultimate expedient, the destroyers themselves would be beached, and the remainder of their crews would swarm ashore. It would truly be a fight to the finish.

The possibility of United States naval surface intervention was taken into consideration. This had been dismissed as out of the question on 11 December, because it was correctly believed that the shock of Pearl Harbor would immobilize American surface operations for some days afterward. On this second attempt to seize Wake, the enemy judged without ever knowing of Pacific Fleet Task Force 14's operations, United States surface opposition was probably. To anticipate this threat, Cruiser Division 6, the four heavies, was to be stationed as a covering force east of Wake. In the event that a major surface action should develop Rear Admiral Abe, of Cruiser Division 8, would conduct the fight.

As on the first attempt, submarine reconnaissance would precede the invasion force, not only to size up the island situation but to look out for United States surface forces.

In compliance with the orders of the C-in-C Combined Fleet, the Soryu-Hiryu carrier task force, which had been operating northwest of Midway, balked by weather from delivering a major strike against that base, proceeded on 15 December toward the Marshalls. The earlier increment of reinforcements, including the Marianas Special Landing Force troops, had already reached Kwajalein, having been released from operational commitments after participating in the comparatively easy seizure of Guam, which had been completed by nightfall of 10 December.[12]

After issuance of final orders, completion of rehearsals and making good battle damage from the action of 11 December, at 0900 on 21 December, the Wake invasion force, under Admiral Kajioka, cleared Roi on a northward track for a second attempt to crush the defenders of Wake.

THE RELIEF ATTEMPT, DECEMBER 15 -23RD


On 15 December,[13] the Tangier, Neches and a temporary escort of four destroyers had sortied by twilight from Pearl Harbor, while the Saratoga, loaded with planes and pilots of VMF-221 (Major Verne J. McCavl), was fueling inside the harbor for the trip forward to Wake. The Pacific Fleet operation order which directed the relief attempt directed Task Force 14 to depart Pearl in two task groups. The train, consisting of Tangier, Neches, and escort, would leave early and rendezvous next day with the Saratoga task group. The mission of the task force was to deliver supplies, reinforcements and aircraft to Wake, evacuate wounded (together with a portion of the civilians), and return to Pearl. VMF-221 was to be flown off to Wake as soon as possible. The train was to be protected from air, submarine, and surface attacks while unloading at Wake (anchored to buoys in the roadstead off Wilkes channel), but the Saratoga was to remain out of visual range of Wake and clear of the lines of approach to Wake from enemy bases. Fueling at sea might be carried out at discretion of the task force commander (Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, USN), and the Neches would then be released for independent return to Pearl. The task force was to arrive at Wake on 23 December, east longitude date.

At 1115 next day, 16 December, the fighting elements of the task force having completed a somewhat delayed fueling, sortied from Pearl Harbor, one carrier, three heavy cruisers and nine destroyers in all. That afternoon they joined up with the train at a rendezvous southwest of Oahu, and the westward voyage to Wake began.

In spite of the impatience which chafed all hands to reach Wake, the speed of advance of Task Force 14 was considerably curtailed by the maximum speed of its slowest component, the old Neches, which could only make 12 knots, and, with the zig-zagging considered necessary in the no-man's sea west of the Hawaiian Islands, the actual advance was even less.

To the Marines and seamen of Task Force 14, which constituted the first westward naval sally of the war, the waters beyond sight of Oahu seemed very lonely waters indeed. No contact, either friendly or enemy, varied the tenseness of the run. Aboard the Tangier each day there was down general quarters followed by a morning of such training for the embarked Marines as was possible. To introduce the antiaircraft personnel to radar, indoctrinatory lectures were put on by the technicians who had come aboard just prior to sailing. The radar sets themselves were stowed aft on the flight deck, still mysterious and puzzling to all hands, both officers and men.

The few available maps and charts of Wake received intense study. In anticipation that Wake's 3-inch guns might have to deliver direct, local-control fire on ships or ground targets, improvised forward-area sights were designed and turned out in the ship's machine shops, while the machine-gun detachment commander contrived with the ship's force to construct special slings with which his .50 caliber antiaircraft machine guns could be hoisted from ship to barges in the full ready position to ward off enemy attacks while unloading. The 5-inch seacoast men stayed in practice by standing their share of condition watches on the after 5-inch gun of the Tangier. All Marine antiaircraft machine guns were of course set up and manned on the superstructure.

Disembarkation and unloading at Wake were the subject of many conferences. Since entrance into the lagoon would be impossible, troops and supplies would have to be lightered in. If vitally injured during the tedious process, it was stated that the Tangier would be run aground should this be necessary to ensure delivery of the vital cargo.

On 18 December, as Task Force 14 plodded westward, CinCPac, mindful of the possibility of dangerous confusion about Wake, ordered Task Group 7.2, the Wake submarine patrol, to withdraw from that vicinity and operate near Rongelap. On 21 December, intelligence available at Pearl Harbor indicated a heavy concentration of shore-based Japanese aviation strength in the Marshalls, with the possibility that hostile surface forces might be encountered astride Task Force 14's approach to Wake. Task Force 11, operating to the southeast with the Lexington, was therefore ordered to act in support of Task Force 14. By this date, also, it was known at Pearl that enemy carriers in unknown strength were operating to the northwest of Wake. CinCPac surmised that the Soryu might be one of them a highly accurate deduction.

Meanwhile, at 2000 on 21 December, the relief force had reached a point only 627 miles east of Wake. By the next morning at 0800, there remained but 515 miles to go. Aboard the Astoria, the task force commander was in touch with the urgent situation on Wake, as CinCPac was relaying all of the Wake reports to the relieving force, which, however, maintained strict radio silence.

Although the destroyers' fuel supply was reasonably adequate, their margin, in the event of a fight near Wake, seemed slim to Admiral Fletcher, and, on the 22d, rather than pressing in toward Wake, he commenced to fuel destroyers from the Neches, steaming slowly northward on a track which brought the force no nearer its destination. After all-day difficulties which slowed fueling, the task force again turned generally westward during the night of 22-23 December, and, by 0800, 23 December, at the very moment when Commander Cunningham was ordering Major Devereux to arrange the surrender of Wake, the relieving force was but 425 miles distant. The 0800 position of the Saratoga on 23 December, in 173º15' east longitude and 22º30' north latitude, was the nearest that relief was to approach Wake.

During the night of 22-23 December (21-22 December, it was at Pearl), where the closeness of the race against time was forcefully apprehended, Admiral Pye, acting as CinCPac pending arrival of Admiral Nimitz from Washington, was in conference with Capt. Charles H. McMorris, USN, and Rear Admiral Milo F. Draemel, USN, both of the CinCPac staff. The question was whether or not to risk losing what was left of the Pacific fleet in what might well be a vain attempt to relieve Wake. During the night, as a compromise measure, it was decided to send in the Tangier, a fast new ship, to Wake by herself, fly off the Marine fighters from the Saratoga at maximum range, and retire. But before Admiral Fletcher could execute this hazardous decision (which would have spelled destruction for the Tangier and her relief force of Marines), the orders were countermanded. To add to the difficulties of decision, Admiral Pye knew that Wake was already, in the minds of many, written off as lost, and that some doubted if we could continue holding, even if this crisis was averted.

Finally, as day was breaking over Makalapa, the decision was reached. At 0811, Hawaiian time, some two and a half hours before Wake was to surrender, Task Force 14 was recalled.

Aboard the Astoria, Saratoga, and Tangier, reactions varied from astonishment to shame and anger. There were even some staff officers who counseled Admiral Fletcher to disregard orders and make a dash in to Wake. They did not now that at this very moment, some four enemy heavy cruisers (Cruiser Division 6) were patrolling east of Wake, separated from any Japanese carrier air support by hundreds of miles,[14] a sitting target for the airmen of the Saratoga; nor did they know that the Japanese attack force was disposed about Wake with no apparent measures for security against surface attack. Had all this been known, the story of Wake might have been very different.

But it was not known, and Task Force 14, which might have relieved Wake, spent most of 23 December refueling its cruisers, and that night retired on Midway.

Footnotes
[1] Beginning with 12 December, and extending until about 20 December, another day on which no enemy air activity took place, the recollections of Wake survivors are sometimes confused beyond any possible reconciliation. This condition is acute with regard to the period 12-14 December, inclusive, dates on which no two written sources seem to agree. This monograph's schedule of events during this time therefore represents the best possible compromise between these conflicts.
[2] The question as to whether or not this submarine was finally sunk remains difficult. Enemy records are not clear with regard to this loss, but Lieutenant Colonel Kinney states that, after the fall of Wake, he and other pilots were questioned by a representative of Japanese naval intelligence who asked specifically what had happened to a Japanese submarine in the vicinity of Wake at this time. Inasmuch as the balance of this officer's questions related to other established naval losses, especially those of flying boats shot down over Wake, Kinney believes that the submarine must have been sunk, and that this officer was attempting to account for it.

[3] A marked innovation inaugurated this date was the service and delivery of hot rations, cooked in the contractor's galley, from a "chuck wagon" which visited all battery positions. This was one of Mr. Teters' many contributions to the defense.

[4] Hesson was a Navy aviation instrument repairman sent over to VMF-211 from the naval air base after the first attack had played such havoc among the fighter squadron's ground personnel. He turned out to be an outstanding general aviation maintenance man, and, for his courage and resource on this, as well as other occasions, he was subsequently awarded the Navy Cross.

[5] Lieutenant Kinney, Technical Sergeant Hamilton, and Aviation Machinist's Mate Hesson.

[6] This major raid, which not a single defender recalled in his postwar account, is an excellent example of how the defenders' memories blurred. There is no doubt that the raid actually was delivered, inasmuch as it was reported by despatch to Pearl Harbor within a few hours after it took place.

[7] Likewise typical of the day-to-day confusion which exists in the Wake records and recollections is the fact that contemporary records--the Wake despatches and Major Bayler's official narrative report prepared in December 1941--indicate that the memories of the survivors have almost unanimously transposed the events of 17 and 18 December.

[8] Of them, the Peale strongpoint commander, Captain Godbold, was to write, "The civilians who served with this battery were of inestibale value * * * under the capable leadership of Sergeant Bowsher, they soon were firing their gun in a manner comparable to the marine-manned guns. Before the surrender of the island some of these men were slated to be evacuated to Honolulu; however, the entire gun crew offered to stay on the island and serve with the battery."

[9] Admiral Kajioka's chief of staff later spoke of "* * * your three aggressive fighter planes" and added, "the defense guns were very accurate * * * The American fighter pilots were admired for their skill and bravery."

[12] Units involved in the Guam operation and now assigned to Wake were Oboro (destroyer), Kiyokawa (float-plane tender), Tsurgaru (mine layer), and Cruiser Division 6 (the four heavy cruisers).

[13] Dates in this section are west or east longitude as applicable to the location at which the respective events occurred. Where confusion is possible, the type of date will be indicated.

[14] The two enemy carriers, Soryu and Hiryu (Carrier Division 2) were stationed some 250 miles northwest of Wake, well beyond supporting distance for the surface covering force of heavy cruisers east of Wake.

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