- 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
As the morning sun broke clear over Wake, the defenders looked to the ocean for a sign of the relief force. They saw twenty-seven Japanese warships prowling the water. At seven, carrier planes from Soryu and Hiryu screamed down, shooting up the beaches.
With Devereux in his command post on the north side of Wake Island near the airstrip and Cunningham in his post farther up the island near Peale, the defense of Wake had become an absurdity. An officer who could not see the battle was reporting to one who could not comprehend it. Devereux and Cunningham had a telephone conference about seven-thirty, and the major filled in his superior officer as best he could with the spotty information he had. He told him that Wilkes was gone (in this Devereux was wrong, but it didn’t matter—if he could not hold Wake Island, he could not hold Wilkes); the Japanese were securely on the island in at least three places; they had Peacock Point, and some were already on the airstrip.
Adm. Raymond Spruance, whose mildly professorial air belied the fact that he was one of the most effective sea fighters of the war, once defined battle in the simplest terms. “All operations,” he said, “are like a woman going to shop. For you must ask two questions: ‘What is it going to cost you and what is it worth to you?’ ”
This homely equation bore in heavily on Cunningham. He still had some capital to spend in the lives of a few more of his men, but he couldn’t buy anything with it. The demands of military command are harsh. Throughout the defense of Wake, Cunningham’s inexperience in tactical matters made him little more than a fretful observer. Now he faced a decision that only he had the authority to make.
“Well,” he said, “I guess we’d better give it to them.”
Devereux was still hoping. “Let me see if there isn’t something I can do down here.” He asked if the commander could spare any of his men for combat, but Cunningham’s personal defense force consisted of five Army communicators freshly equipped with old rifles they didn’t know much about. There wasn’t anybody else.
“I’ll pass the word,” said Devereux. He cranked up his field telephone and told all units who could hear him to cease firing and destroy their weapons. The fight was over.
Cunningham sent another message to Pearl Harbor. “ENEMY ON ISLAND—SEVERAL SHIPS PLUS TRANSPORT MOVING IN—TWO DDS AGROUND.” Although Cunningham’s message and his decision to surrender were made within minutes of each other, he apparently did not have the heart to tell Pearl Harbor he was giving up. He had the radio pulled down, and Wake went silent.
While Cunningham went back to his quarters to change into a dress blue uniform, Devereux had a sergeant tie a white rag to a mop handle, and together they moved out to effect the surrender of Wake. As the Japanese cautiously emerged from cover into the sunlight, the defenders of Wake got their first good look at the enemy they had fought for so long. One civilian, John Burroughs, was surprised to see how short they were. Their split-toed sneakers, he noted, gave them the appearance of having cloven hooves.
A Japanese combat correspondent, Ibushi Kayoshi, who landed on Wake, reported the capture “was so heroic that even the gods wept.” The Japanese High Command issued a brief bulletin saying its forces “resolutely carried out landing operations against enemy opposition, brushing aside stubborn resistance, and completely occupied the island at 10:30 A.M.”