- 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
On December 4 Wake became as operationally ready as it was going to become with the arrival of Marine Fighting Squadron 211, a dozen Grumman Wildcats under the command of Maj. Paul Putnam. VMF-211 was a microcosm of American military preparedness in 1941. Although the Wildcats had the stubby, pugnacious look that was to become a famous American fighting image of the war, these F4F-3 models were not ready to wage serious battle. They were both new and obsolescent at the same time. Just issued to the fleet, they were strange beasts to the pilots, who were still learning their flight characteristics on the trip out. They did not carry armor plating or self-sealing fuel tanks. The retractable landing gears had to be operated by old-fashioned hand cranks, an annoyance that on a routine flight could fracture a pilot’s wrist but something that might kill him in combat. Once the planes had touched down on Wake’s crushed coral runway, there were other deficiencies to deal with. The bomb racks did not accommodate the ordnance stored there. No spare parts had been sent ahead, and there were no experienced mechanics in the ground crews. There were no revetments or dispersal areas for the aircraft, and the underground storage area for aviation fuel had not been completed. Putnam could do little but park his planes in the middle of an open runway and complain.
Pan Am diverted its guests at Wake by giving them guns to pot at the rats that throve there.
There was much to complain about throughout the command: the list of Wake’s inadequacies was a long and dispiriting one. Communications wire had been strung, but most of it was old and frayed. Worse, it was above ground and vulnerable to attack. A fair amount of defensive weaponry had been positioned. It included six five-inch coastal guns, two at each end of the Wake triangle, and a dozen three-inch antiaircraft batteries. But none of these guns had been test-fired or calibrated. Although Wake was supposed to be an observation post for the Pacific Fleet, no long-range reconnaissance aircraft had yet been assigned. But the most debilitating shortage was simple manpower. On paper a battalion called for 43 officers and 939 men. Devereux had less than half of that: 27 officers and 422 men. As a result, much of Wake’s armament was useless. The antiaircraft batteries were only partly manned, and there were crews for only half the machine guns. Still, Devereux could take pride in what his men had accomplished. From being defenseless in August, Wake could now muster the firepower equivalent to that of a Navy destroyer.
Following a particularly sharp drill on December 6, Devereux felt he could let up on the seven-day-a-week schedule that had been in effect since he arrived. Sunday, December 7 (Wake, being on the opposite side of the international date line, was twenty-two hours ahead of Pearl Harbor), was holiday routine.
A few minutes before 7:00 A.M. on December 8, Devereux was shaving in his tent when he heard that the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. As he raced to his office, he ordered the battalion bugler to sound general quarters. Alvin Waronker was, by all accounts, an indifferent bugler. He had gone to music school just to avoid being shipped to Alaska. Waronker rarely got the notes right, and this morning he couldn’t remember them at all. He went through the whole catalog of Marine music, including pay call, church call, and fire call, until he happened on the correct one. The Marines turned out in considerable disarray, and a few appeared with sand buckets and fire fighting equipment. But Devereux passed the word that this was no drill, and within thirty minutes all posts reported ready for action.
The men at Wake were in the war, but no one knew when or how that war would reach them. Devereux and Teters did not want to halt vital construction because of an unconfirmed radio broadcast, so military and civilian work parties resumed while Marine guards stayed on alert. Major Putnam faced the hardest decision. He had twelve new Wildcats bunched on the runway. If he dispersed his planes onto open ground, some of them would certainly be damaged, and without any spare parts a damaged Wildcat was no different from a destroyed one. He took the risk of leaving eight planes on the runway while four stayed aloft, patrolling the area. If Putnam had had a week, even a few days, he might have been able to protect his planes on the ground. He had less than four hours.