- 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
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.
On Wilkes the situation had stabilized. Platt, who was later killed in Korea, didn’t like stable situations and slipped out of his command post to reconnoiter. He crawled through the bush for a half-hour until he reached the gun position given up earlier. The Japanese, preoccupied with sporadic gunfire from McKinstry’s squad, had neglected to set up a perimeter defense. Without even a single sentry to watch their rear, they all were facing east. Here was the kind of textbook situation an officer rarely finds on a cluttered battlefield. Platt gathered up a detail of Marines and worked back to within fifty yards of the Japanese. The predawn light was just enough for Platt to set up a neat line of skirmishers flanked by machine gunners. Platt opened fire and moved forward as McKinstry and a pickup squad led by Lt. John McAlister pushed in from their side. The Japanese, shocked to be attacked on two sides in a battle they thought had already been won, panicked. The men not cut down by the initial bursts scrambled for safety where there was none. About thirty tried to duck under the searchlight truck and were shot where they hid. In a few minutes of crossfire the invasion force was annihilated except for two prisoners. A Japanese afteraction report on the battle for Wilkes noted tersely, “In general, that part of the operation was not successful.”
During the night a civilian stumbled into Devereux’s post sobbing, “They’re killing them all!”
On Wake Island things were going more to their liking. The Japanese had landings on the beach and were moving inland. Shortly after three, when the struggle was just developing, Devereux’s communications almost totally blanked out. The Japanese were cutting wire wherever they found it, and it is likely there was a major malfunction near the major’s command post at the same time. Now totally isolated in his little igloo hut, Devereux began to lose effective control of his battle. He sent his executive officer, Maj. George Potter, and a detachment of men culled from the ranks of clerical personnel and telephone operators to set up a picket line a few hundred yards in front of his headquarters to stop a move against the sparsely defended north side. But the major was just guessing. He didn’t know where the Japanese were or where they were heading. When he did get news, it was usually bad. Once during the night a civilian, who had been cut off from Poindexter’s group near the airstrip, stumbled into Devereux’s post, sobbing, “They’re killing them all! They’re killing them all!”
By five, a half-hour before dawn, Devereux still did not know much for certain. He did not know about Platt’s great success on Wilkes at all. But he did know the Japanese had established beachheads on Wake Island too strong for him to dislodge with the forces he had at his disposal.
Cunningham had disturbing news of his own. After the landings had been sighted, he radioed the submarine Triton, known to be in local waters, to help out by attacking the invasion force. Triton did not answer. It had left for Pearl Harbor two days before. But at 3:19 A.M. Cunningham received a startling message from Admiral Pye informing him that no friendly vessels were in his area and none could be expected for at least another twenty-four hours. After conferring with Devereux at five, Cunningham sent a message to Pearl Harbor. “ENEMY ON ISLAND.” Cunningham’s mind went back to a phrase in an Anatole France novel, The Revolt of the Angels, which he had read many years before: “for three days...the issue was in doubt.” And he added, “ISSUE IN DOUBT.”