The Defense of Wake Island

by Lieutenant Colonel R.D. Heinl, Jr., USMC
Historical Section, Division of Public Information
Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps


During December 1941, the stubborn defense of Wake by less than 450 Marines galvanized not only the American public but their comrades in arms. In days of disaster then, as of uncertainty later, the thought of Wake and its defenders encouraged Marines to hang on longer, and to fight more resolutely. Small in time and numbers though the action was by comparison with Guadalcanal or the other great battles to come, Wake will never be forgotten.
To my mind, in addition to the obvious military lessons which may be drawn from any battle, be it victory or defeat, the defense of Wake points up two soldierly characteristics which may well be remembered by Marines. These are military adaptability, and the realization that, first and always one must be prepared to face ultimate close ground combat with the enemy.

The officers and men of the 1st Defense Battalion on Wake were artillerymen of a highly specialized type; those of VMF-211 were aviation technicians. neither group let its specialized training or background prevent it from fighting courageously and well as basic infantry when the chips were down. Despite its specialization, each group did the best it could with what it had.

These capabilities and attributes, I submit, should characterize Marines now as they characterized those Marines on Wake, who, though they were outnumbers and eventually overwhelmed, were never outfought.

General, U.S. Marine Corps
Commandant of the Marine Corps



"The Defense of Wake," a monograph prepared by the Historical Section, Division of Public Information, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, is one of a series of operational monographs designed to provide both student and casual reader with thorough and complete narratives of the major operations in which Marine Corps units participated during World War II. As a sufficient number of monographs are brought to completion, these in turn will be condensed and edited for final compilation into official operational history.

Production of this monograph on the defense of Wake has presented special problems. Not only are the character and scale of the action much different from those ordinarily encountered in the operational history of the Marine Corps during the past war, but the sources are far less reliable and more subject to error than would ordinarily be the case.

Virtually all the documentation of the operation was produced five or more years after the battle was concluded, and there is scarcely an original source which does not somewhere allude to the possible fallibility of memory during the interval. As a result, even in cut-and-dried matters, such as important dates or casualty figures, the reader must accord a tolerance more broad than would ordinarily be acceptable in a historical study. In cases of conflict--and there have been many--the historian has been forced to weigh evidence, compromise, deduce, and reconstruct, processes which may produce results unacceptable to isolated individual recollections.

This preface would not be complete without acknowledgment of the generous and scholarly assistance of the Office of Naval History and especially of the Navy's operational historian, Capt. Samuel Eliot Morison, USNR, together with his assistant, Lt. Comdr. Henry Reck, USNR. Both of these officers have rendered invaluable aid in research and criticism.

For cartographic assistance, acknowledgment must go to the Reproduction Section, Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Va.

All photographs are United States Marine Corps or Navy official.

Above all, however, credit must be given to the numerous officers, all survivors of Wake, who, in lengthy interviews or by painstaking replies to official questionnaires did so much to clarify the record as to what actually took place. It is strongly hoped that these and others with first-hand experience will make possible further improvement of this narrative either by submitting comments, or when in Washington, by visiting the Historical Section, Division of public Information, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, for interview and discussion of the points involved.

Brigadier General, U.S. Marine Corps
Director, Division of Public Information

Chapter 1: Wake in the Shadow of War

The complete history of the defense of Wake commences well before December 1941, possibly as early as 1940, when the Navy commenced construction of base facilities on the atoll--and certainly in early 1941, when the decision was made to establish a Marine defending garrison.[1] In the strategic context of 1940 and 1941, the importance of Wake, both to the United States and Japan, was considerable.

At this time, it must be remembered, the United States had not won its ocean-girdling net of Pacific bases, and, with the exceptions of Wake, Midway, and Guam, the expanse between the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippines was terra incognita lumped under the awe-inspiring, mysterious phrase, "The Mandated Islands."

Wake, therefore, a prying outpost north of the Marshalls and on the flank of the Marianas, would be a strategic prize to Japan for her own outpost-line, and a corresponding embarrassment while in the hands of the United States. These factors had been thoroughly if discreetly indicated by the Hepburn Report of 1938,[2] which, according Wake high priority, recommended a $7,500,000 three-year base-development program intended to make the atoll an advance air base, primarily for long-range patrol-plane reconnaissance, and secondarily an intermediate station on the air route to the Far East. Wrote the Board:

The immediate continuous operations of patrol planes from Wake would be vital at the outbreak of war in the Pacific.

In response to me Hepburn recommendations, initial development of Wake was initiated early in 1941, beginning, as is always the case in peacetime, with base-construction at first priority and defense distinctly secondary.

By 18 April 1941, however, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, USN, then Command in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet, fully aware of the strategic situation of Wake, had become alarmed over its defenseless condition. This he expounded to the Chief of Naval Operations in a prophetic study which, within less than a year, would by its realization do credit to his foresight and judgment; pertinent excerpts from the text are therefore quoted:

The strategic importance of Wake is increasingly evident, as one inquires into means by which the Pacific Fleet may carry on offensive operations to the westward. It is 2,000 miles from Pearl Harbor, over 1,000 miles from Midway, and about 1,400 miles from Johnston. On the other hand, it is but 450 miles from Bikini in the Marshalls, while Marcus, which itself is an outpost of the Bonins and Marianas, is 765 miles to the northwestward.

As an operating patrol plane base, it could prove highly valuable to us in observing the Marshalls, or in covering advance of our forces toward the Saipan-Honshu line. In the hands of the Japanese, it would be a serious obstacle to surprise raids in the Northern Marshalls, or on Marcus, Port Lloyd,[3] or Saipan and

would be capable of causing serious interference with other secret movements of our forces.
To deny Wake to the enemy, without occupying it ourselves would be difficult; to recapture it if the Japanese should seize it in the early period of hostilities, would require operations of some magnitude. Since the Japanese Fourth Fleet includes transports, and troops with equipment especially suited for landing operations, it appears not unlikely that one of the initial operations of the Japanese may be directed against Wake.

If Wake be defended, then for the Japanese to reduce it would require extended operations of the naval forces in an area where we might be able to get at them; thus affording us opportunity to get at naval forces with naval forces. We should try, by every possible means, to get the Japanese to expose naval units. In order to do this, we must provide objectives that require such exposure.

With the foregoing considerations in mind, it is considered essential that the construction work now in progress on Wake be proceeded with and that the eventuality of war should not interrupt it. To this end, the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, believes that defense installations and defense forces should be established on Wake at the earliest possible date, even at the expense of slowing down construction. It may be pointed out, in this connection, that in the absence of defense forces, construction on Wake, in the event of war, is subject to serious interruption or even complete stoppage, through enemy action.

It is therefore recommended that units of a marine defense battalion[4] be progressively established on Wake as facilities there permit.

In light of the growing tenseness between Japan and the United States, Admiral Kimmel's wise recommendations regarding Wake could hardly be disregarded. Indeed, all possible steps were already being taken to reinforce our position in the Pacific. Midway, much further along in development, was already garrisoned by elements of the 3d Defense Battalion. Johnston and Palmyra were occupied the task-units of the 1st Defense Battalion, while Pago Pago, American Samoa, was defended by the 7th Defense Battalion, a hybrid organization which, alone among FMF defense battalions of this time, contained a small infantry component. Only Guam, defensive development of which had been hamstrung by the 1922 treaty and subsequent nonappropriation of funds, remained static and undefended.

As may be divined from Admiral Kimmel's remarks so as to the necessity of providing the Japanese with objectives which would require exposure of their fleet, the Pacific strategy of 1941 contemplated rendering our bases relatively secure against air raids, hit-and-run surface attacks, or even minor landings. Fleet marine Force defense battalions, organized for defense against just such operations, could provide antiaircraft protection, could stand off light men-of-war and transports, and, in extreme emergency, could fight on the beaches with individual weapons in the classic tradition that every Marine, first and last, is an infantryman.

Within and about the structure of such lightly held but secure bases, the Pacific Fleet was expected to ply, awaiting the moment when battle could be joined with enemy naval forces--"to get at naval forces with naval forces," Admiral Kimmel put it--in decisive action for control of the sea.

As might be expected, on the other hand, the Japanese concept of strategy in the Central Pacific was to seize or neutralize the few advanced United States bases west of the Hawaiian Islands with maximum rapidity after the outset of war. For this purpose Japanese forces in the Marshalls and Carolines (the Fourth Fleet) were organized along lines more nearly resembling an American amphibious force than anything else.

Commanded by Vice Admiral Inouye, Nariyoshi, IJN, the Fourth Fleet was in fact composed of amphibious shipping, a few old cruisers, destroyers, submarines, shore-based aircraft, and a Japanese version of our own Fleet Marine Force: the Special Naval Landing Force.[5] Fleet headquarters were at Truk, where Admiral Inouye's flag flew in the light cruiser Kashima.

The war missions of Admiral Inouye and his fleet had generally been decided in 1938 when the basic East Asia war plans had been prepared in Tokyo. It was not, however, until November 1941, that detailed instructions for commanders within the Combined Fleet[6] were formulated and issued. In these instructions, Wake was dismissed with one phrase within one sentence:

"Forces of the Fourth Fleet: defend the South Seas Islands, patrol, maintain surface communications, capture Wake * * *"

Wake, then, was to be strictly a local operation. By Admiral Inouye's scheme, 450 Special Naval Landing Force troops could, in a pinch, turn the trick.

Final Preparations, Autumn, 1941

Admiral Kimmel's prophecies to the Chief of Naval Operations regarding Wake did not fall upon deaf ears, and, on 23 June 1941, the latter directed that elements of the 1st Defense Battalion, FMF, be established at Wake "as soon as practicable." This directive (as eventually modified) specified that the following units should compose the defensive garrison:
Four 3-inch antiaircraft batteries
Three 5-inch seacoast batteries
Appropriate automatic weapons
One SCR-268 fire-control radar, and one SCR-270B search radar

Altogether, for the times, this would constitute an adequate if not imposing garrison.

CNO's "as soon as practicable," was translated into immediate action by the Pacific Fleet command. About 1 August, Major Lewis A. Hohn, with five officers and 173 enlisted Marines and sailors from the 1st Defense Battalion, commenced loading USS Regulus, a 20-year old "Hog Island" transport which would carry the battalion advance detail to Wake. Regulus sailed on 8 August, and, after an uneventful voyage out, arrived off Wake on 19 August. Disembarkation and lightering ashore of weapons and camp equipment--mainly the latter--were begun without delay, and, by the time the Regulus departed, on 22 August, camp had been made in the now-abandoned contract workmen's original temporary "rag camp" facing the lagoon on a site toward the west end of the south leg of Wake Island. To distinguish this camp from the luxurious new one completed west of Heel Point for the 1,200 Pacific Naval Air Base contract workmen, the Marine camp was designated as Camp 1, and the civilian establishment as Camp 2.

Wake, as it appeared to the Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion, was a V-shaped atoll composed of three islands: Wake Island proper,[7] the body of the V; and Wilkes and Peale, the two tip-ends. Its land-mass consisted of some 2,600 acres of sand and coral, a substantial part of which was, in 1941, covered by very dense low brush. Offshore, heavy surf roared continually against a coral reef which surrounded the whole atoll at distances varying from 30 to 1,100 yards. The beaches and much of the terrain inland were covered with coral boulders, some large enough to conceal several men. The interior lagoon, although affording sufficient surface and depth for seaplanes, was studded with coral heads and foul ground which must be dredged clear before ships could enter through the one channel, that between Wilkes and Wake Island. Despite its limited land area, however, Wake's coastline was extensive, altogether exceeding 21 miles, or more than half the distance between Washington, D.C., and Quantico, Virginia. An excellent vignette of Wake[8] in 1941 was given by Colonel Bayler:

Wake is by no means the bare sandy spit one thinks of when atolls are mentioned. Considerable areas of it are covered by woods, and though the trees are small, their thick foliage and the scrubby tangled underbrush provided admirable cover. * * * Walking in these jungles was difficult but not impossible. * * *

Follow this link for a map of Wake Island >

In August 1941, Wake was in rapid transition from its past wild solitude to the mechanized modernity of an outlying air base. Patrol-lane facilities and a concrete ramp were already available on Peale. Just inshore of Peacock Point, along the south leg of Wake Island, a narrow airstrip, 5,000 by 200 feet. had been chopped out of the dense growth. A main road-net, 30-foot packed coral, was rapidly taking shape as the contractor's workmen, equipped with every mechanical aid, blasted, slashed and dozed Wake into the image of America.

In a broader sense, as well, however, the Wake of Autumn, 1941, was literally in the image of America: an island in the path of inevitable war; an island vibrant with unceasing construction in a effort to recapture time lost; an island militarily naked.

In spite of the mounting pressure, however, rigid official separation existed between the construction efforts of Marines and of the contractors. Operating on a semiprivate basis, with the heavy equipment, supplies and facilities which American civilian enterprise takes for granted, the naval air base contract[9]

proceeded with its mission of building roads, shops, utilities, quarters, air-base facilities and the like, but no military defenses. The Marines, with little engineering equipment save picks and shovels or the luxury of a borrowed civilian bulldozer, were required to install their heavy weapons by hand, hew out emplacements and foxholes from the coral, and maintain their own living facilities as well.

Understanding this basic difference in available means, the Navy's construction representative, Lieutenant Commander Elmer B. Greey, USN,[10] as well as the civilian general superintendent, Mr. N.D. Teters, did their best in small ways and by small aids to assist the shorthanded and meagerly equipped Marines. At no time--even after the outbreak of war--did the contractor's establishment or workmen come under full military control.

On 15 October, Major Hohn was relieved as Marine detachment commander by Major James P.S. Devereux, who until this time had been executive officer of the 1st Defense Battalion. By virtue of his seniority, Major Devereux also became Island Commander, an additional and onerous duty which he would hold until relieved, on the brink of war, by a Navy officer, Commander W.S. Cunningham, at this time still navigator of the USS Wright.

Wake, as Major Devereux saw it at this time, he describes as follows:

When I arrived on the island, the contractor's men working on the airfield near the toe of Wake proper had one airstrip in usable condition and were beginning the cross-runway. Five large magazines and three smaller detonator magazines, built of concrete and partly underground, were almost completed in the airfield area. A Marine barracks, quarters for the Navy fliers who would be stationed on the island, warehouses and shops also were going up on Wake. On Peale Island, work was progressing on a naval hospital, the seaplane ramp and parking areas. On Wilkes, there were only fuel storage tanks and the sites of proposed powder magazines, but a new deepwater channel was being cut through the island. In the lagoon, a dredge was removing coral heads from the runways for the seaplanes which were to be based at Wake. Some of these installations were nearly finished; some were partly completed; some were only in the blueprint stage.

To accomplish his urgent military mission of getting Wake's defenses into highest readiness in the shortest time, Major Devereux found much to be done, few tools and little time. In addition, however, to this pressing matter, as top representative of the armed forces on Wake, he was confronted by other problems hardly less demanding.

To reinforce Army air strength in the Philippines, B-17 "Flying Fortresses" were being staged across the Pacific as they could be spared. Wake was a necessary stop, but no Army--in fact, no aviation--ground crews were available to service the great airplanes. One B-17 of this type consumed some 3,000 gallons of gasoline at a drink, and, since Wake did not yet afford proper facilities for aircraft fueling, this bulk and weight of fuel for each airplane had to be manhandled and pumped[11] by the Marines--in addition to their normal duties and at any hour of the day or night. This arrangement had been put into effect on order from the Fourteenth Naval District Headquarters (Pearl Harbor), of which Wake, although two thousand miles distant, was an outlying station.

It was, in a sense, ironic that these aircraft, which cost Wake so many man-hours of vital defensive preparations, would themselves be trapped on the ground and largely destroyed by the initial Japanese attacks on Clark and Nichols Fields in the Philippines, which took place after the attacks on Wake and Pearl Harbor.

Although Army aviation servicing represented the heaviest single additional demand upon the Marines, whenever a ship arrived, they were also required to act as stevedores in the time-consuming, exhausting process of transfer and lightering which would remain necessary until the channel, berthing and turning facilities inside the lagoon could be completed.

Because of all the foregoing additional duties, much less fortification and construction of defenses--not to speak of training--was accomplished during the Autumn months of 1941 than would ordinarily have been the case. Fortunately, as far as training was concerned, the defense detachment, although even now carrying its share of recruits, contained considerably more than a cadre of veteran noncommissioned officers, "old Marines" of the best type.

Two weeks after Major Devereux's arrival and assumption of command, the Wake garrison was, on 2 November, augmented by a further draft from the parent 1st Defense Battalion, when 9 officers and 200 enlisted arrived from Pearl in USS Castor, bringing the total Marine strength on Wake to 15 officers and 373 enlisted Marines.

During October and November, progress on and about the air strip, by now a going concern, indicated that there was room on Wake for the aviation component of fighters necessary to balance and round out the defense force. Commander Aircraft, Battle Force, had determined that this was to be Marine Fighting Squadron 211, supported in its independent role by a provisional service detachment drawn from Marine Air Group 21, to which VMF-211 was assigned. To establish the ground facilities required to maintain this squadron, Major Walter L.J. Bayler, from the staff of MAG-21, together with a detachment of 49 Marines commanded by Second Lieutenant Robert J. Conderman,[12] was despatched from Pearl on 19 November, in USS Wright, an aircraft tender which was also bringing out the prospective Island Commander and commanding officer of the Naval Air Base.

While the Wright, also a "Hog Islander," plowed westward bearing VMF-211's ground components, the air echelon of that squadron, consisting of the squadron commander, nine officers and two enlisted pilots,[13] had on the afternoon of 27 November received secret verbal warning orders to prepare for embarkation aboard a carrier.

Since some such orders had been expected by the squadron commander (though not by the pilots, none of whom carried more than toilet-articles and a change of clothing), few preparations were required other than to fly the 12 new F4F-3 (Grumman Wildcat) fighters from Ewa Mooring Mast (as that air station was then designated) over to Ford Island, the naval air base in the middle of Pearl Harbor, for further transfer by air to the flight deck of USS Enterprise. This was a routine operation for any Marine squadron, trained as all were in carrier operations, and, save for the newness of the aircraft and the fact that one plane's starter[14] misbehaved badly, the morning flight of 28 November onto the Enterprise went off without incident.

The best description of VMF-211's voyage to Wake is contained in a personal letter, composed on the eve of the squadron's debarkation, from Major Putnam to Col. Claude A. Larkin who commanded MAG-21. Excerpts are quoted:

At Sea,
December 3, 1941.
Dear Colonel Larkin:

It is expected that we will go ashore tomorrow morning. The extreme secrecy under which we wailed is still in effect, and I understand is to remain so at least until this force has returned to Hawaiian operating area. Therefore I am sending this first report via guard mail on this ship, rather than by air mail after landing. * * *

You will recall that I left one plane at Ford Island. The Admiral at once gave me a plane to replace it, from CF-6; and he made it plain to me and to the whole ship that nothing should be overlooked nor any trouble spared in order to insure that I will get ashore with 12 airplanes in as near perfect condition as possible. Immediately I was given a full complement of mechs and all hands aboard have continually vied with each other to see who could do the most for me. I feel a bit like the fatted calf being groomed for whatever it is that happens to fatted calves, but it surely is nice while it lasts and the airplanes are pretty sleek and fat too. They have of course been checked and double checked from end to end, and they have also been painted so that all 12 are now of standard blue and gray. * * *

The Admiral seems to be most determined to maintain secrecy regarding the position and activity of this force. There has been a continuous inner air patrol during daylight, and a full squadron has made a long search to the front and flanks each morning and evening. They are armed to me teeth and the orders are to attack any Japanese vessel or aircraft on sight in order to prevent the discovery of this force.

My orders, however, are not so direct. In fact I have no orders. I have been told informally by lesser members of staff that I will be given orders only to fly off the ship and go to the land, and that there will be nothing in the way of instructions other than to do what seems appropriate at the moment. Of course I shall go and as for orders and instructions, but it seems unlikely that I shall be given anything definite. * * *

This is written Wednesday forenoon. Should I receive any orders at variance with the foregoing, I will add a postscript. Otherwise I think of nothing further of importance or interest at this time. * * *

When the Enterprise had reached a point approximately 200 miles northeast of Wake, the squadron, from a matériel standpoint, was "as far as possible ready for combat service," according to Major Putnam. However, he added, it was

seriously handicapped by lack of experience in the type of airplane then used. It is believed that the squadron was excellently trained and well qualified for war duty in a general sense, but it was unfortunate that the new type of airplane, so radically different from the type in which training had been conducted, had been received too recently to permit familiarization in tactical flying and gunnery.

On the morning of 4 December, met and led in by a Navy PBY sent out from Wake,[15] VMF-211 took off from the flight deck of the Enterprise, and within less than two hours, the last F4F-3 had pancaked on the narrow strip at Peacock Point.

Having arrived on 29 November, Major Bayler, busy setting up air-base communication facilities on Wake, and Lieutenant Conderman, with his 49 headquarters and service personnel, were waiting to greet the squadron, but the aircraft operating facilities at Wake were hardly in a finished stage.

The landing strip, although sufficient in length, was too narrow to permit safe operation of more than one airplane at a time, thus precluding takeoffs or landings by section, the most expeditious means of getting the maximum number of planes airborne in the shortest time. Parking was extremely restricted, and all areas about the hardstand parking mat were in such rough and unfinished condition that passage of airplanes over them, even when pushed by hand, could occasion serious damage. Fueling facilities were the same as those just described for the B-17s.

Although their necessity had been early realized by Major Devereux, no shelters or aircraft revetments as yet existed, a matter which was immediately made the subject of representation by Major Putnam[16] to the Island Commander (now Commander Cunningham). Finally summarized Putnam,

The difficulty now presenting itself was that of operating new type airplanes, engines, and propellers without either instruction manuals or experienced airplane and engine mechanics.

Realizing the urgency not only of construction and material facilities but of training and familiarization with the new aircraft, Major Putnam immediately instituted a training syllabus which could be carried on in conjunction with the daily dawn and dusk patrols ordered commenced by Commander Cunningham on the morning after VMF-211's arrival. These patrols, to be executed in each case by four aircraft, were to circle the atoll at not less than 50-mile radius and would be combined with navigation and instrument training. The latter were rightly deemed of special importance because no electronic homing or navigational aids suitable for fighter operations existed on Wake, a small mark for a returning fighter pilot to locate through a floor of intermittent clouds.

With the arrival of the Wright, on 28 November, just prior to that of VMF-211, numerous changes had taken place. Commander Cunningham of course was no Island Commander. With him he had brought Commander Campbell Keene, USN, eight Navy officers and 58 bluejackets, the initial detachment for establishment of the Naval Air Base. All these personnel, like the existing Army Air Force communication detachment[17] of one officer and four soldiers, were without arms or field equipment.

Although unfamiliar with detailed plans for defense of Wake, should it be attached, Commander Cunningham took immediate steps to assert his general authority as Island Commander and to coordinate (insofar as this was not already automatic) the activities of the ground and air components of the Marine defense force.

As of 6 December 1941, the defensive status of Wake may be summarized in a few sentences.

The ground defenses, embodying the complete artillery of a defense battalion, had by dint of unceasing 12-hour working days been emplaced, and some protective sandbagging and camouflage accomplished. To man these weapons, which even by the economical 1941 tables of organization required 43 officers and 939 enlisted, the 1st Defense Battalion detachment had but 15 officers and 373 enlisted. In terms of effect this meant that one 3-inch antiaircraft battery[18] was entirely without personnel, and that the other two batteries could each man but three of their four guns--therefore that of twelve 3-inch guns on the island only six were active weapons. Only one 3-inch battery (D) had its full allowance of fire-control equipment; Battery E had a director but no heightfinder, and was thereby forced to rely for target altitude-data upon telephoned information from Battery D. Less than half the minimum personnel were on Wake to man the machine-guns, both ground and antiaircraft. Despite existing plans for its eventual provision, no radar, either fire-control or early warning, had reached Wake, and the searchlight battery did not have it sound-locators to pick up the noise of approaching aircraft. Only the 5-inch seacoast batteries were at or near authorized strengths, and even these, like all other units, were devilled by unending minor shortages of tools, spare parts and miscellaneous ordnance items.

Of the three islands, it would be safe to say that Peale was the most advanced, both in general base development and in defensive organization. Although Battery B, the 5-inch seacoast unit at Toki Point, had only been fully organized since arrival of personnel on 2 November, the battery position was generally well organized. Much the same could be said of Battery D, 3-inch antiaircraft, set up near the southeast end of the island. Although not all emplacements had been completely sand bagged, there were adequate personnel shelters plus underground stowage for 1,400 rounds of 3-inch ammunition. Complete, though not underground, telephone lines linked all positions and the island strongpoint-command post.

On Wake Island the progress of high-priority construction, especially in the vicinity of the fighter-strip, together with the general realization that this was the important land mass of the atoll, had combined to bring readiness almost to the level of Peale. Battery A, 5-inch seacoast at Peacock Point, was completely emplaced and well-camouflaged although without individual shelters. Battery E, 3-inch antiaircraft, could show progress almost as great. Working with only 43 Marines, the battery nevertheless had completely emplaced, sand-bagged and camouflaged two guns and the director, while the

third gun was well along toward completion. Although a complete telephone net (with important trunks doubled or tripled) connected all units on Wake Island, the field-wire lines were all on the surface, and, because of the dense brush (particularly along the south shore) followed the road net.

Of Wilkes at this time, Capt. Wesley McC. Platt, the strong-point commander, wrote:

Wilkes was the least developed island of the Wake group. At the outbreak of war, weapons * * * had been set up. All were without camouflage or protection except the .50 caliber machine guns, which had been employed. All brush east of the new channel had been cleared. The remaining brush west of the new channel was thick and difficult to negotiate. As a result of the density of this brush, .50 caliber machine guns had been placed fairly close to the water line. The beach itself dropped abruptly from 2 1/2 to 4 feet just about the high water mark.

Other than his machine guns (four .50 caliber AA and four .30 caliber) and two searchlights, Captain Platt had but one active battery on Wilkes, Battery L, the 5-inch seacoast unit at Kuku Point. The four 3-inch guns destined for Battery F were parked on Wilkes without personnel or fire-control gear. Wire communications between the island command post and all units were in and complete.

The situation of VMF-211 has been discussed in detail, but the air-defense picture may well be resummarized. Wake, intended primarily as a patrol-plane base for PBYs, "the eyes of the Fleet," had no scouting aircraft, and only the most primitive facilities for any type of aircraft operations. Its defending fighter squadron, VMF-211, was learning on the job how to operate wholly new aircraft which, beautiful as they were, had no armor, no self-sealing fuel tanks; and on which the bomb racks (always mounted by naval fighters) did not match the local supply of bombs.[19]

Over and above the 1,200 civilian contract employees, the military population of Wake (almost 20 percent of whom were without arms or equipment) total 38 officer and 485 enlisted as follows:

Section Officers Enlisted
1st Defense Battalion detachment 15 373
VMF-211 and attachments 12 49
U.S. Naval Air Station 10 58
(without arms)
Army Air Corps 1 4
(without arms)
USS Triton 1
(without arms)

On the entire atoll, therefore, equipped and trained for combat, there were but 449 marines of all ranks, the sole defense of Wake against attack by land and sea and air.

Supplies on Wake, although aggravatingly short in many particular items, were generally adequate. The Marines had 90 days' rations on hand, while the contract organization's storerooms contained a 6-months' supply. Despite the fact that no natural water supply existed, a catchment system and a sufficient number of evaporators were in service to meet all needs for human consumption. Ammunition and aviation ordnance supplies on hand, while enough for limited initial operations, were not sufficient for any protracted, continuing defense. Medical supplies were those normal for a remote, outlying station, and could thus be considered adequate. In addition to the naval medical equipment and personnel on Wake, the contractor's organization operated a fully equipped hospital in Camp 2.

The general level of readiness as distinct from adequacy of supply and sufficiency of personnel, though not nearly ideal, was nevertheless excellent and fully up to local possibilities. During the month of November, dispatch warning had been received from Pearl that:


At this time the island commander, then Major Devereux, had responded with a query as to whether the situation was such that contractor's personnel should be diverted to construction primarily military and defensive in nature. Upon receipt of a negative reply, some two days later, this suggested revision of priorities was abandoned, but small arms ammunition was nevertheless issued to individual Marines, to be kept in readiness in each tent, and the amount of ready-service ammunition stowed at every gun position was increased.

Although the field telephone equipment was old and battered and the field wire frayed, above-ground

wire communications connected all positions, and, in addition, a common J-line, so-called, joined all batteries, command posts, observation posts, and other installations with which the commander might need contact during battle. By means of primitive "walky-talkies," a radio net had been established to parallel wire communications between the respective command posts on Wake Island, Wilkes, and Peale. Atop the 50-foot steel watertank at Camp 1, the highest point on Wake, Major Devereux had established a visual observation-post linked by field telephone to the command post. The OP, with a seaward horizon of about nine miles, was the only substitute for radar.

On the morning of Saturday, 6 December, a few hours of freedom from external interruption enabled Major Devereux, for the first time since assuming command, to hold general drills for the entire defense battalion detachment. "Call to Arms" was sounded, all gun positions were manned (to the extent which personnel shortages permitted), communications tested, and simulated targets were "engaged."[20] The drill ran smoothly and much to the commanding officer's satisfaction. In return for excellent performance, and because his Marines had been working a seven-day week all autumn, Major Devereux decided to grant something almost unheard-of on Wake: Saturday afternoon off and holiday routine on Sunday.

His timing of the pause for rest was better than he knew.


[1] For a résumé of the previous history of Wake, see Appendix II, "Prewar History of Wake, 1586-1941."
[2] The so-called "Hepburn Board," headed by Rear Admiral A.J. Hepburn, U.S.N., was created in May 1938, to institute a strategic survey and report to Congress on United States needs for additional naval bases and facilities. Its recommendations, many, though not all of which were adopted (the fortification and development of Guam went by the board), constituted throughout the prewar period a fundamental strategic plan for development of United States naval bases in the Atlantic and Pacific.

[3] Port Lloyd is the principal on Chichi Jima in the Bonins. It was then highly regarded by planners as a key point in Western Pacific strategy.

[4] For details as to composition and organization of the Marine defense battalion of this time, see United States Marine Corps tables of organization D-133 through D-155-D. Generally speaking, the defense battalion was an artillery unit containing three 3-inch antiaircraft batteries, three 5-inch (Navy weapons) seacoast artillery batteries, a searchlight and sound locator battery, and antiaircraft (.50 caliber) and ground (.30 caliber) machine gun batteries. In 1941, strength of a typical battalion was 43 officers and 939 enlisted, and its two most characteristic attributes were all-around, balanced structure and a high degree of strategic mobility. The latter characteristic, however, disappeared at the battalion's destination, and, once in position, a defense battalion was perpetually plagued by insufficient transportation and by the stringency of personnel deliberately written into its organization.

[5] The Special Naval Landing Force ("SNLF," sometimes contracted to "SLF") were Japanese Navy personnel organized for service and duties in limited land operations similar to those performed by U.S. Marines; throughout the war, they gave outstanding account of themselves.

[6] Despatch war instruction to key fleet commands were issued by the Japanese Navy Ministry on 5 November 1941, based upon a current concept of operations against the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

[7] To prevent confusion, Wake Island as distinguished from the entire atoll, will hereinafter be entitled "Wake Island," whereas the single word, "Wake," will designate the atoll.

[8] For a detailed description of Wake's terrain and hydrography, see Appendix VII, "Terrain and Hydrography of Wake."

[9] Officially designated Contract Noy 4173 Wake.

[10] "Resident Officer-in-Charge" was Lieutenant Commander Greey's official designation. With four enlisted Navy radiomen to maintain his communications, he or his predecessor had been, until the arrival of Major Hohn's detachment, sole Naval representative on Wake.

[11] Tankers would pump bulk aviation gas into tank storage ashore; Marine working parties would pump this gasoline into 50-gallon drums and would transfer the drums to dispersed fuel dumps; finally, on arrival of planes, the same gasoline would again be pumped by the same means into a lone tank-truck for delivery to the aircraft; when time presses--as it usually did--Marines reinforced the truck by pumping directly from 50-gallon drums into the Fortress.

[12] This detachment, like a similar one organized for the Marine air component at Midway, had been provisionally made up from key personnel representing each squadron in MAG-21, inasmuch as, at the time of organization, firm decision had not been made as to which squadrons from that group would be assigned to which islands. Wake aviation's ground detachment therefore included personnel not only from VMF-211, but from Headquarters and Service Squadron 21 and Marine Scout Bombing Squadrons 231 and 232.

[13] The pilots of VMF-211's Wake detachment were: Major Paul A. Putnam (commanding), Captains Henry T. Elrod, Herbert C. Freuler, Frank C. Tharin, First Lieutenant George A. Graves, Second Lieutenants Robert J. Conderman (in command of advance detail and ground maintenance, but also a pilot), Carl R. Davidson, Frank J. Holden, John F. Kinney, David D. Kliewer, Henry G. Webb, Technical Sergeant William J. Hamilton, and Staff Sergeant Robert O. Arthur.

[14] A hint as to the importance of the squadron's mission might have been drawn at this time from the fact that, when this starter-trouble developed, the defective plane's pilot was flown out by a torpedo-plane from Enterprise, and a brand-new F4F-3 from VF-6, and Enterprise squadron, was substituted on the spot.

[15] On the day before, to the surprise of persons at Wake, a 12-plane squadron of PBYs had glided down onto the lagoon, anchored, and commenced what, through 5 December, was to be a daily series of long-range air searches to the south of Wake. No information is available as to their findings, if any. The PBY which assisted VMF-211 with its navigation was of course from this squadron.

[16] Major Putnam's official report (cited in Appendix I as source 19), an informative and vivid document, describes the negotiations required to initiate construction of revetments as follows:

"Backed by a written request from the Commander, Aircraft Battle Force, a request was made through the Island Commander to the Civilian Contractor's superintendent on the morning of 5 December, asking for the immediate construction of bunkers for the protection of aircraft, and outlining various other works to follow. Great emphasis was put on the fact that speed, rather than neatly finished work, was required. However, an inspection that afternoon revealed a young civil engineer laboriously setting out stakes with a transit and three rodmen. It required an hour of frantic rushing about and some very strong language to replace the young engineer and his rodmen with a couple of Swedes and bulldozers."

[17] Commanded by Captain Henry S. Wilson, AUS, this detachment manned an Army Airways Communication Service radio-van to assist B-17s entroute westward.

[18] This was Battery F. For this battery, however, the necessary fire-control equipment had not yet arrived, so, even with full gun-crews, its effectiveness would have been slight.

[19] Captain Freuler, squadron ordnance officer, at this moment was devising homemade modifications of the troublesome bomb lugs so that, by 8 December, two 100-pound bombs could be precariously swung onto each aircraft, though hardly in any manner to inspire pilot confidence in clean release, or assurance that return to base could be accomplished without dangling armed bombs.

[20] Prior to the outbreak of war, no opportunity had been found for test-firings, calibration, or other gunnery exercises after emplacement of weapons on Wake. The first actual firing was in combat against the Japanese.

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