- 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
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.
Putnam gave ground until his men were backed up to the gun. “This,” he said, “is as far as we go.”
Devereux didn’t want to lose the most effective gun he had on the beach and ordered Putnam and his crew to lend Hanna support. As they were about to pull out, John Sorenson and a group of civilians offered to help. Putnam tried to wave them off. Unarmed civilians didn’t stand much of a chance on a battlefield, and if they were captured, it might go particularly hard with them. Sorenson, who was twenty years older than Putnam, and considerably larger, smiled genially. “Major, do you think you’re really big enough to make us stay behind?” Sorenson and his men appointed themselves ammunition carriers and scurried off in the dark with the Marines. Putnam formed a horseshoe skirmish line on the beach in front of Hanna. It was a wild, screaming fight, so close that when Putnam shot one Japanese with his .45 automatic, the helmets of the two men clanged together. As on Wilkes, the Japanese swarmed over the defenders. Putnam gave ground slowly until he and the five men left in his command had been backed up to Hanna’s smoking gun. “This,” he shouted, “is as far as we go.” And it was.
During the close fighting Sorenson repaid some of the debt incurred by his fellow workers hiding in the scrub. He was throwing rocks at the enemy when they shot him down. Sorenson and nine other civilians were killed defending Hanna’s gun position.