- 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
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.
Admiral Kajioka returned to Wake in the dark early morning of December 23 with fresh troops and new ships but not much in the away of fresh ideas. This time his big ships would stay out of range of Wake’s coastal guns, and instead of waiting until dawn, his invasion force would make its way to the beach in the darkness. But essentially it was the same plan that had failed twelve days before, only more so. A great deal more so. Kajioka’s landing force had more than two thousand men in assault and reserve troops. If they were not enough to settle the matter, the admiral was prepared to run two destroyers straight onto the reefs and have their crews spill out onto the island. On December 11 Kajioka correctly assumed the American Navy would not be able to pull itself together after Pearl Harbor soon enough to be a bother to him. Twelve days later he could not be so sure. He stationed Cruiser Division 6, led by four heavy cruisers, to the east, covering the landing and ready to engage any approaching American surface vessels while the Soryu and Hiryu were to the north within air-strike range. The Japanese were determined to have Wake, and they were willing to pay Corporal Miller’s price.
The vagaries of a major amphibious operation at night are many, however, and the second invasion of Wake got off to a poor start. Hoping to divert attention from the southern approach, Kajioka sent two destroyers, Tenryu and Tatsuta , north to bombard Peale. The vessels lost their bearings in a gusty rainsquall and missed Peale by several miles. The first shells of the last battle for Wake were hurled into a turbulent ocean, and the aimless cannonade served only to alert the garrison.
Devereux refused to bite for a ruse so ineptly carried out, and for the next hour and a half he strained to peer through the sheeting rain, looking for a sign of ships to the south.