The Defense Of Wake

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Major Putnam’s fliers made their last aerial show on the morning of December 22. Lt. Carl Davidson took off on the noon patrol, but Captain Freuler’s cranky Wildcat wouldn’t start. It took almost an hour of cursing and banging to get the engine to turn over. Davidson was covering the northern approach when he spotted thirty-three attack bombers and six Zeros storming in for their afternoon attack. Davidson called Freuler, whose Wildcat was wheezing up from the south, but without waiting for help, he bore in among the attackers alone. Freuler came as quickly as his plane allowed and found himself in a formation of bombers. He pulled up firing, and one of the bombers started exhaling smoke and fluttered into the sea. Freuler had no time to enjoy the exhilaration of the kill. He forced his faltering plane into a flip turn and went after a Zero only fifty feet away. It exploded into a fireball, showering Freuler’s plane with hot steel fragments. Thrown out of control by the blast, Freuler’s plane could just barely fly. The manifold pressure started to drop, and the controls were wooden. Looking about, Freuler could see Davidson caught in a deadly daisy chain, Davidson pouring machine-gun fire into a retreating bomber while a Zero, locked onto Davidson’s tail, began a firing run of its own. A Zero hit Freuler’s plane with a long burst, ripping bullets into Freuler’s back and shoulder. Freuler tried to wriggle out of the line of fire, but he couldn’t turn. There was only one thing left to try. He kicked his plane into a power dive and headed for the water. He pulled out at zero altitude and sputtered home over the wave tops. There was no question of landing in the normal sense; he didn’t have the strength to operate the landing-gear crank. He bounced in on his belly and spun crazily to a stop. The plane was a total wreck.

Freuler did not know at the time whom he had shot down. Indeed, he didn’t know what he had shot down. Plane recognition in the early days of the war was haphazard, and Freuler thought the bomber was a Zero. But postaction reports analyzed after the war indicate that his kill was the Nakajima B5N (Kate) that had been credited with sinking the Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

Davidson was aboard the last flyable airplane Wake owned. Ground crews stood out on the beach all afternoon until long after the outer limits of his fuel capacity had been passed, but no comforting speck appeared on the horizon. VMF-211 was finished. But there was still some fighting to do, so Putnam gathered up the remainder of his squadron, perhaps twenty able-bodied men, and marched them to Devereux’s command post, where they reported in as infantry.

Devereux had great need of ground troops. He assumed the Japanese would attempt to land on the southern sides of Wake Island and Wilkes as they had done on the eleventh. The offshore coral reefs that surrounded Wake were closest to the beach on the lee side, giving the invaders the shortest stretch of water to get through. But knowing where an enemy will strike does not give a commander the resources to stop him. Devereux could put perhaps eighty men on Wilkes, and he had approximately two hundred Marines, sailors, and civilian volunteers to defend Wake Island. However, most of them were needed to man the gun crews. Even putting rifles into the hands of his grounded air force and stripping Peale to a small observation post, Devereux could dole out only eighty-five men to defend four and a half miles of beach. The major ordered some of the three-inch batteries broken down into individual units and depressed into the sand so they could be angled down and used as beach defense weapons. He put Lt. David Kliewer and three men in a dugout with a generator connected to dynamite charges laced into the runway. Lieutenant Kliewer’s orders were to wait until the last minute, but if it looked as if the Japanese were going to overrun the airstrip, he was to blow it up. Lt. Arthur Poindexter had command of Wake’s entire mobile reserve: two trucks for eight line Marines, fifteen sailors, and a smattering of civilians. For the rest, it was a matter of digging foxholes a little deeper and waiting. In fact, tactics and traditional concepts of coordinated defense would count but little in the battle for Wake. When a battle is neatly drawn up on a map or executed on a sand table, it is usually won by taking the high ground or key defense positions through adroit maneuver. There was no high ground at Wake and little cover. After two weeks of bombing, Wake Island was nothing more than a single strip of runway surrounded by scrub and beach. There was not much room to maneuver when the outer perimeter was much the same as the last redoubt. The fight would be a series of struggles in the dark, scrabbling for a patch of wet sand or a single gun emplacement. That called for close-up work by individual men with guns and bayonets.

Freuler’s crash landing wrecked his plane; Davidson never came back; VMF-211 was finished.

“If they want this island,” said Cpl. Hershal Miller, “they gotta pay for it.” Miller had not been trained in the complexities of command, but like most good troopers who had seen a bit of combat, he had become a shrewd judge of the demands of battle. The Marines were preparing for a fight they knew they could not win unless they got support from the Navy relief column. In the meantime, they would sell themselves dearly.