- Historic Sites
The Defense Of Wake
Their High Command abandoned them. Their enemy thought they wouldn’t fight. But a few days after Pearl Harbor, a handful of weary Americans gave the world a preview of what the Axis was up against.
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was only one blow in an offensive without parallel in warfare. Within hours after the first bombs had crashed into Battleship Row, Japanese forces struck at twenty-nine targets along a three-thousand-mile front that stretched from the central Pacific to the South China Sea. Destroyers shelled American installations on Midway Island, and airplanes spilled their bombs over Clark and Iba airfields in the Philippines, wiping out half the American air forces there in a single raid. On December 8 the Japanese army seized the international settlement in Shanghai, invaded Malaya in a drive toward Singapore, and marched into Thailand. Bangkok fell without opposition on the following day just as Japanese troops were landing on Tarawa and Makin in the Gilbert Islands. The operational plans of the Japanese High Command called for the swift occupation of the Philippines, Guam, Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, the Bismarck Archipelago, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, and Timor as its first major conquests.
Well down on the list of secondary objectives was Wake, a scruffy atoll in the central Pacific that the Japanese planned to use as an advanced base for patrol planes to support their thrust at Midway. In allotting forces to the task, the Japanese assigned 450 assault and garrison troops under the command of Rear Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka. If the force was small, it was considered adequate. Wake’s three square miles were known to be manned by a scattering of inexperienced Marines. And throughout the Far East the Americans were not putting up much of a fight. The Marine detachments at Peking and Tientsin in China had already been herded off to detention camps without firing a shot. The 153 Marines on Guam, having nothing heavier with which to defend themselves than four .30-caliber machine guns, had surrendered after a few hours of disorganized scuffling. On the same day that Guam had toppled into the Japanese harvest basket, two landings on Luzon in the Philippines had been virtually unopposed. The Japanese naval command, which had not suffered a reversal or lost a ship of the line since the Russo-Japanese War, expected the reduction of Wake to be little more than a brisk afternoon’s work.
Until the development of the long-range airplane, Wake was a desolate point of land in the central Pacific that held scant interest for a major, internationally minded power. Formed by the rim of a submerged volcano, Wake consists of three tiny atolls: the main island, shaped like a ragged V, with two smaller spits trailing a few yards behind the northern and southern ends. Seen from the air, Wake gives the appearance of a broken wishbone tossed aside after Thanksgiving dinner. It has a mean altitude of twelve feet and affords neither fresh water nor edible vegetation. It was discovered in 1586 by the Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña, who apparently thought so little of his find that he did not bother to name it. That honor was left to a British sea captain named William Wake, who came upon the main island in 1796. The smaller atolls, Wilkes on the north and Peale on the south, were named after members of an American expedition that conducted a brief geological survey there in 1841. (This article follows military usage: “Wake” refers to the grouping while “Wake Island” refers only to the main island.) The United States claimed this dreary triptych for itself in 1899, when the gunboat Bennington sent a landing party ashore, raised the flag, fired off a cannon, and sailed away. Except for the occasional party of Japanese hunters shooting birds or the storm-lost mariner searching for water he would not find, Wake, in the three and a half centuries since its discovery, heard only the roar of the surf.
Useless to vessels of sail or steam, Wake, located 1,025 miles from Midway and 1,300 miles from Guam, suddenly emerged as an important link in the American air route across the Pacific. Pan American Airways obtained a permit to build a seaplane refueling stop there for the China Clipper traffic to the Philippines. By the time Pan American started flying passengers between San Francisco and Manila in 1936, the airline had built a twenty-four-room hotel, put in a system of catchments to store rainwater, and started work on a “bathtub garden” for growing fresh vegetables. The accommodations were crude, and to help its overnight passengers kill time, Pan American provided air rifles and ammunition for shooting the particularly hardy breed of long-legged rats that throve on the island.