- 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
If Wake was an essential element in America’s western reach to the Orient, it was also neatly situated on a line from Tokyo through Iwo Jima and Marcus Island for Japan’s anticipated thrust into the central Pacific. In the prewar planning of both Japanese and American strategists, Wake increasingly represented a risk and an opportunity. By 1941 the U.S. Navy had wheedled sufficient money from a parsimonious Congress to build a permanent airfield there. A civilian construction team of 80 men arrived on January 8 to start building an airstrip and base facilities. The crew, which eventually grew to 1,150, was a tough and experienced bunch, many of whom had learned their trade putting up the dams at Boulder and Bonneville. The project foreman was an ex-football player from the University of Washington named Dan Teters. He was reckoned a good boss who kept the work moving with a dollop of Irish charm or a clenched fist, whichever seemed appropriate at the time. Most of the men agreed they had a sweet deal. At a time when a Marine corporal with five years of service was paid twenty-eight dollars a month, a workman could plan on banking at least two hundred dollars. There were morale problems, however. Wake was a desperately lonely place with few pleasures. Liquor was effectively forbidden, and women were generally seen only on the screen at the outdoor movies that were shown six nights a week. Almost every supply ship that left Wake carried workers who had broken their contracts to get off the island. One man went berserk and drowned himself in the ocean.
During February of 1941, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, an experienced battleship sailor who had been jumped over thirty-two more senior officers to get the job, took command of the Pacific Fleet. A meticulous, by-the-book officer, Kimmel insisted on neat sailing formations and precise drills. He was not an officer given to great leaps of imagination, but he could recognize a ripe tactical opportunity when he saw one. Wake, with its new and undefended airstrip, was a prize the Japanese would surely reach for in the first days of a war. Kimmel calculated that if an invasion force could be held long enough in the waters off Wake, it would offer a rewarding target for counterattack. At his direction a Marine defense battalion was authorized to be assembled at Wake with orders to dig in and wait.
The battalion commander was Maj. James P. S. Devereux, an eighteen-year veteran of the corps who had seen garrison service in China and Nicaragua. With his balding pate, floppy ears, and a moustache that drooped under a beaked nose, Devereux did not cut a figure out of an enlistment poster. Indeed, he admitted he had been a poor student in school and had enlisted in the Marines because he fancied the red stripe that ran down the trouser leg of the uniform. Nevertheless, Devereux was a tough, no-nonsense commander who bore down on details. One fellow officer said, “He’s the kind of guy who would put all the mechanized aircraft detectors into operation and then station a man with a spyglass in a tall tree.”
At Wake there were no mechanized aircraft detectors—radar had been assigned, but the equipment never got there—and no tall trees. Devereux made do with what he had. He put his men to work twelve hours a day, building up the tactical defenses of Wake, until his troops said the first three initials of his name stood for “Just Plain Shit,” a sobriquet that did not disturb Devereux in the slightest.
Throughout the autumn of 1941 personnel arrived at Wake like officials summoned to a hastily arranged meeting whose function was not clear to the participants. Even Devereux may have been misdirected as to his real mission. Kimmel obviously had a major operation in mind for Wake, but Devereux had been briefed only to prepare against small raiding parties. Although there were no planes based at Wake, by November the buildup had progressed to such a state that the complex was officially designated a naval air station and required a Navy officer as commandant. On the twenty-ninth, with his golf clubs among his luggage, Comdr. Winfield Scott Cunningham landed at Wake to take charge. Cunningham was a somewhat unprepossessing officer who had so little time to familiarize himself with his new command that many Marines never knew he was there until long after the war was over. This unfortunate failure to make his presence felt later led to a bitter and needless dispute among the survivors of Wake in allotting credit for its defense. Officially Cunningham was in overall command of Wake, while Devereux and his battalion were charged with its tactical defense. But in such a small operation, especially when there was nothing to do but fight off the enemy, the niceties of command structure became blurred. As a practical matter the main burden for the defense of Wake fell to Devereux.