- 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
There was not much doubt in Pye’s mind any longer. He had never liked the plan in the first place, and Cunningham’s message indicated it was too late to relieve Wake anyway. But should he let the Saratoga force sail on and engage whatever enemy could be found? Pye didn’t like that idea much either. A captain sailing into a sea battle ought to have some idea what he was getting into, but as one staff officer commented, “we had no more idea than a billy goat” what was going on at Wake. Pye radioed Fletcher, telling him to break off and return to port.
Fletcher was 425 miles from Wake when he got Pye’s message. His task force had already suffered several frustrating delays. Had Fletcher made straight for Wake, he probably would have arrived about the same time as Kajioka, but not wanting to steam into battle with half-empty destroyers, he had paused to refuel. The refueling was snafu from the start. Seven oil hoses ruptured, and a number of towlines parted in the rolling seas. In ten hours only four destroyers were filled while the fleet actually drifted farther away from Wake. During the voyage Pye sent Fletcher a series of conflicting dispatches, each more cautionary than the previous one. It is likely Fletcher was glad to finally get a direct, explicit order from Pearl Harbor. He complied swiftly.
When word of the withdrawal reached Washington, CNO Stark couldn’t bring himself to break the news to President Roosevelt and asked Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to do it for him. Roosevelt, a former Undersecretary of the Navy and a keen yachtsman in his youth whose heart was always with the seafaring services, was devastated. Knox reported back to Stark that the President said it was “worse than Pearl Harbor.”
The American people did not know a fleet had been ordered to Wake until much later, so there was no public reaction to the withdrawal. But within the Navy and Marine Corps, the reaction was immediate and bitter. Officers on the Saratoga, some of them weeping, pleaded with Fletcher to put Nelson’s blind eye to the telescope and sail on in spite of orders. The talk became so heated that Admiral Fitch left the bridge of his own ship because he did not want officially to hear his officers speaking in terms that were close to mutinous, particularly when they expressed sentiments he agreed with. One officer aboard the Enterprise scribbled furiously in an unofficial log, “It’s the war between two yellow races.”
The incident marred Fletcher’s long and honorable naval career. He was frequently referred to thereafter as “Fueling Jack Fletcher” and chastised for lack of resoluteness in combat. In fairness Admiral Fletcher did not win the Medal of Honor because he was squeamish about fighting, and to divide one’s forces in the face of a numerically superior enemy, as he was to do five months later at the Battle of Midway, is not the mark of a timid admiral. The worst that can be said about Fletcher is that he was not Nelson.
On Wake Island the fighting had degenerated into a series of separate melees. Poindexter put up a good show. As first light was breaking, he found the Japanese had slipped past his flank during the night and were between his troops and the airstrip. He and his men charged through the scrub and sand for about five hundred yards. That was the last ground taken by the Marines at Wake Island. Now it was the Japanese who were defending the airstrip, and they set up a solid picket line, blocking Poindexter’s way. Throughout the rest of the island American men and matériel began to break down. True to his word, Putnam had retreated no farther. But defending Hanna’s gun had been costly. Captain Elrod, who was to be awarded the Medal of Honor, had been cut down during the night, trying to throw a grenade. Putnam was shot through the cheek and neck. He recalled later he didn’t realize he had been hit. He merely thought it was odd that he should suddenly feel sleepy during the middle of a fire fight. He passed out for a moment, came to, cured his weakness, and passed out again.
Cunningham faced the decision he had to make. “Well,” he said, “I guess we’d better give it to them.”
Lieutenant Kliewer’s dugout had been under constant attack almost from the start. The Japanese repeatedly charged him with bayonets and grenades, but Kliewer’s sharp fire beat them back. At first light Kliewer was surrounded, but incredibly all four men had survived the night. Several times Kliewer had been tempted to detonate the airstrip and try to cut his way out. But although his telephone link to Devereux had been dead for almost three hours, his last orders from the major were clear: Don’t destroy the runway until the Japanese seize it. If the relief force should arrive, the strip would be needed to receive planes from the Saratoga. As Kliewer began to make out shapes in the early dawn, he could see Japanese position flags around and in back of him. He reached over to push the generator button to blow up the strip. It didn’t work. The night rains had flooded the motor.