- 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
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.
It was close to 2:00 A.M. when Japanese special naval landing-force personnel, some of whom in Bushido bravery had wrapped white sashes across their chests and helmets, struggled into their landing crafts and pushed off for the shore. Gunnery Sgt. Clarence McKinstry, at his battery position on Wilkes, was the first to pick out the sound of a barge motor through the crash of the surf. He called the island commander, Capt. Wesley Platt.
“Can you see anything?” Platt asked.
“Not a damned thing, but I’m sure it’s there.”
McKinstry squeezed his .50-caliber machine gun, sending pink tracers into the night, and Platt slammed on the searchlight. The light had been damaged in one of the air raids and had not functioned properly since. It stayed lit for less than a minute, but that was enough to reveal landings under way on both Wilkes and Wake Island. The Japanese were already ashore at Wilkes and moving up. There was no distance for the three-inch battery. McKinstry had it loaded with high-explosive shells cut to muzzle-burst and fired into the oncoming shadows. As good soldiers do, the Japanese moved toward the flashing gun and began grappling hand to hand with the Marines. In the dark melee the Japanese pressed forward, lobbing grenades at the gun. It was hot work, and McKinstry saw his men would be overwhelmed if they tried to hold their ground any longer. He stripped the firing locks of the three-incher and yelled to his men to pull back and form a skirmishing line. The Japanese started to pursue until sharp rifle fire pinned them where they were. For the moment they contented themselves with holding the gun position.
On Wake Island Devereux’s coastal guns were off the board from the start. Even if they could have seen the ships at sea, they could not reach them, and the guns could not bear as well on the beach area where two patrol craft had run up on the reef. During the brief flare of light, Lt. Robert Hanna saw one unmanned three-inch gun in the scrub line that might be able to do some damage. He pulled together a scratch crew and led it to the weapon. The gun had no sights, but at this range it didn’t matter. Hanna opened the breech and sighted the target by looking through the barrel. Quickly he pumped fourteen shots into the near ship and set it ablaze.
Lieutenant Poindexter was one of those few men who really enjoyed getting into a good fire fight. His men said he was either “crazy as a bedbug or the bravest guy alive.” He was eager to be in the fight, and when he saw the boats hung up on the reef, he took his chance. Poindexter and three men grabbed hand grenades and waded into the ocean to pitch them into the landing craft. They all fell short, and Poindexter went back for more. But it was too late. The resolute landing party had already gotten ashore and was fanning out over the island, looking for targets.