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Wake Island : Worst Christmas in U.S. Naval History

Wake Island : Worst Christmas in U.S. Naval History

Photo #: 80-G-411160  Wake Island

Wake Island. Aerial photograph taken from a PBY patrol plane on May 25, 1941, looking west along the northern side of Wake, with Peale Island in the center and right middle distance and Wilkes Island in the left distance (80-G-411160).

Wake Island : Worst Christmas in U.S. Naval History When Admiral Chester W. Nimitz stepped off a flying boat off Ford Island on Christmas Day, 1941 to assume command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the magnitude of the challenge facing him is almost incomprehensible today, as he saw the shattered fleet, bloated bodies still being fished from the harbor, and experienced the over-powering stench of oil, death and defeat. Nimitz’ first question after he got on the oil-slimed launch to take him across the harbor concerned the status of the defense of Wake Island and the relief plan.

When informed that Wake had fallen and the relief operation cancelled (the two actions were simultaneous, neither caused the other, but that was not known at the time) Nimitz fell silent as he immediately grasped the impact of what Admiral Joseph Reeves (a former four-star Commander of the U.S. Fleet and member of the Roberts Commission, already investigating why the U.S. was surprised at Pearl Harbor) termed “a disgrace to the U.S. Navy.” 

The less than 500 valiant Marine defenders of Wake Island had already been lionized in the press as the “Alamo of the Pacific,” having driven off the first Japanese amphibious assault on 11 Dec with heavy Japanese losses (two destroyers sunk with almost all hands, and multiple ships damaged) – this was the only amphibious assault in the Pacific War to be driven off by shore battery fire, and the first Japanese surface warships to be sunk. The U.S. Navy Commanders did not know at the time that in the final Japanese assault on 23 December, the Marine defenders had killed the great majority of the initial landing force (over 800 Japanese KIA) nor did the commanders on Wake Island, who arguably surrendered prematurely, mistaking raised Japanese flags on the island as victory symbols, rather than their intended purpose to avoid friendly fire from their own ships.

After the first attack on Wake Island (which Admiral Husband Kimmel had well-before the war correctly predicted would be an initial Japanese objective), the Pacific Fleet Commander, still Kimmel, had approved an audacious plan to use three U.S. aircraft carriers, with Wake as the bait, to spring a trap on the predicted next Japanese assault, in many respects the blueprint for what Nimitz later did at Midway. With 20/20 hindsight, Kimmel’s plan probably would have worked, as the Japanese allocated only two carriers (as predicted by the PACFLT N2, Edwin Layton) in a half-hearted show of support, leaving the assault force and covering force of four heavy cruisers without effective fighter cover for extended periods. However, Admiral Kimmel was ordered relieved on 17 Dec, and command and responsibility for executing the aggressive plan transferred to Vice Admiral William Pye, the Battle Force Commander, whose flagship, the USS California (BB-44), was on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Ultimately, rather than seizing an opportunity to trap the Japanese, Pye became concerned that the Japanese were planning to spring a trap on him.

Pye had many valid reasons for his caution, but indecision and a defeatist attitude amongst the disorganized combined PACFLT/Battle Force staff at the time contributed significantly to other factors, including weather, that turned the aborted relief effort into one of the sorriest episodes in U.S. naval history. In the end, the U.S. Navy chose to sacrifice the Marine defenders of Wake Island (and over 1,000 civilian construction workers) rather than accept any risk to the three U.S. aircraft carriers in the area at the time. (Our brother Marines will occasionally use Guadalcanal as an example of being abandoned by the U.S. Navy, however over three times as many U.S. Sailors died defending Guadalcanal as Marines died on it. In the case of Wake Island, however, the charge is valid.)

On the morning of 8 December (7 December, Pearl Harbor time) 36 Japanese twin-engine bombers from Kwajalein struck the U.S. outpost at Wake Island, a small atoll that served as a refueling stop for Pan-Am Clipper flying boats between Hawaii and Guam.  Although Wake was alerted to the state of war with Japan, with no radar on the island, a pounding surf that drowned out the noise of planes, and favorable cloud conditions, the Japanese avoided detection by the four airborne Marine Wildcat fighter combat air patrol, and achieved surprise, destroying the remaining eight Wildcat’s on the runway (the 12 Wildcats of VMF-211 had only arrived from USS Enterprise (CV-6) on 4 Dec and no revetments had been completed yet) and killing almost half of the Marine aviation personnel (23 of 50) and wounding more. 

The Japanese destroyer Kisaragi, destroyed by Marine Wildcats in the successful first defense of Wake Island. Kure Maritime Museum photo

The bombers strafed the Pan Am Clipper that had just returned to Wake after aborting its flight to Guam upon word of war, but it was able to take on all Pan Am employees (except for native Chamorro workers who were left behind) and return to Hawaii.  The bombers returned twice more in the next two days, bombing decoy gun positions (the Marines had moved the guns in anticipation that the Japanese would strike them next and made log decoys) and fighters shot down two bombers, however a lucky hit on dynamite storage of the civilian construction company upgrading the airfield and dredging the lagoon, caused massive secondary explosions that destroyed large quantities of ammunition.

Wake Island

The first Japanese amphibious assault occurred at dawn on 11 December as a Japanese force of older light cruisers and destroyers opened fire in an ineffective shore bombardment.  Marine shore batteries (5” and 3” guns) held fire under orders of Senior officer Commander Winfield Cunningham and Marine detachment commander Major James P.S. Devereaux (both later claimed credit), until the Japanese ships were well in range. 

The Marine guns hit Rear Admiral Kajioka’s flagship, the light cruiser IJN Yubari, on the second salvo, eventually scoring eleven hits with serious damage.  Marine gunners hit the destroyer IJN Hayate in the magazine which exploded with the loss of all hands but one (168) the first Japanese surface combatant sunk by the U.S. in the war (planes from USS Enterprise had sunk the Japanese submarine I-70 off Oahu on 10 Dec.)  Other ships were hit and damaged, and the Japanese aborted the landing before any troops went ashore.  Marine Wildcats strafed and bombed the retreating Japanese, damaging more ships and hitting the depth charge racks on the destroyer IJN Kisaragi, which exploded and sank with the loss of all hands (157)

Wake Island

In subsequent days, Marine fighters and anti-aircraft accounted for 28 Japanese aircraft downed or damaged, but by the second Japanese assault on 23 Jan, despite extensive cannibalization, all Marine fighters had been lost or were no longer flyable. 

Following the first attack it was widely reported that the Wake Island senior officer, Commander Winfield Cunningham, sent a message to Hawaii requesting “send more Japs.”  This is not true; the phrase originated in cryptographic “padding” – non-sensical phrases inserted into coded messages to complicate enemy code-breaking efforts (the same was true of the famous “the world wonders” phrase in Nimitz’ message to Halsey during the Battle of Leyte Gulf inquiring into the whereabouts of TF-34).   The situation on Wake was desperate and both Cunningham and Deveraux knew it.

In response to the unexpected defeat, the Japanese detached two carriers (Hiryu and Soryu, with 108 aircraft) from the returning Pearl Harbor strike force, which commenced strikes on Wake on 21 Dec, and it was Zeros from the carriers that destroyed the last Marine fighters.  The Japanese invasion force returned on 23 Dec, essentially the same force with replacements as the first attempt, still under the command of the much wiser RADM Kajioka.  Japanese ships remained out of range of Marine shore batteries, and landed in positons not covered by the larger Marine guns under cover of darkness, and did not open fire until Japanese troops (bolstered by Special Naval Landing Force, i.e., Japanese “Marines”) had reached shore. 

Nevertheless in bitter combat throughout the pre-dawn hours into the morning, the 450 Marine defenders killed or wounded virtually the entire initial Japanese landing force (over 800 KIA, over 300 WIA) although the Japanese had several hundred more in reserve afloat.  However, inability to communicate (largely due to previous Japanese bombing) with isolated pockets of still-resisting Marines convinced Commander Cunningham that Japanese success was much greater than it was, and that further resistance was futile

Cunningham gave the order to surrender and Deveraux complied, although it took several hours to get the Marines in contact to comply.  In the end, 49 U.S. Marines, 3 Navy and 70 civilian workers were killed, and two Marines MIA, during the entire course of the “siege” of Wake Island

The Japanese captured 433 U.S. service members (20 died in captivity) and 1,104 civilian workers (108 died in captivity.)(Sources vary on some of these numbers.)

Of note, Marine pilot Captain Henry T. Elrod, who sank the destroyer Kisaragi and downed two Japanese aircraft, was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions fighting as an infantryman during the second Japanese assault.

Wake Island : Worst Christmas in U.S. Naval History Written by Admiral Sam Cox

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