- 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
In war, bad luck is the inevitable lot of the ill-prepared. Shortly before noon, as four Wildcats, commanded by Capt. Henry Elrod, were beginning the northern leg of their scouting run at twelve thousand feet, thirty-six Japanese medium bombers, unseen by anyone in the air or on the ground, broke through the clouds at two thousand feet. To achieve maximum surprise, the Japanese cut their engines and glided silently toward the target. They need not have bothered. The crashing of the surf on Wake was so constant that no one ever heard an approaching airplane until it was upon him. As the Japanese came in over the airstrip, they found a bombardier’s delight waiting for them: eight parked Wildcats stuffed with aviation gas. On their first pass the Japanese tripped their bombs and transformed the airfield into a fire storm of exploding planes and burning gasoline. Several Marine pilots tried to take off, but it was futile. Lt. Frank Holden was cut down before he got more than a few feet. Lt. Robert Conderman almost got to his plane before he was hit by machine-gun fire. Knowing he was dying, Conderman refused aid, telling the medics to look after men who had a chance of surviving. Lt. George Graves managed to climb into his plane, but before he could get the Wildcat cranked up, it exploded from a direct hit. The Japanese raiders split up and methodically began laying waste the island. They leveled the Pan American hotel and touched off stores of aviation gas maintained above ground. As at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombing was surgical in its neatness. The bomb craters were a systematic fifty feet apart, but almost none of the bombs landed on the runway. Clearly the Japanese wanted to use it for themselves once they occupied Wake in force.
It was all over in a few minutes. Without suffering a single casualty, the bombers reformed, waggled their wings in a banzai sign of triumph, and headed back to their home base in the Marshall Islands.
The air section suffered most heavily. Of its fifty-five officers and men, twenty-three were killed outright or died by the next morning. Eleven more were wounded. Whatever tools, tires, and assorted parts had been around had been blown away. Bad luck continued to plague the airmen of Wake even after the raid was over. When the flight patrol returned, still unaware of the attack, Captain Elrod badly jarred his plane on landing and skewed the propeller. Four days before, Marine Fighting Squadron 211 had arrived with twelve new planes. Now the entire air defense of Wake consisted of three serviceable Wildcats, two damaged ones, and seven flaming wrecks.
Wake faced an enormous damage control job and turned to Dan Teters’s work crew. The record of the civilians at Wake is mixed. Most of the workers did what untrained, unarmed men usually do when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a battlefield. They hid. Figures are imprecise, but it appears that at least 700 civilians sat out the Battle of Wake hunkered down in the scrub, coming out only to steal food. But immediately after the first raid, about 185 civilians volunteered to serve in any capacity. Some offered themselves for combat duty and scoured the wreckage of the Pan American hotel, looking for weapons with which to arm themselves. Eventually perhaps as many as 400 offered to take their chances along with the Marines at least some of the time. Their contribution was invaluable. Working all day and through the night, crews set about digging foxholes, scooping out bomb shelters, and repairing communications wire. By dawn eight bombproof revetments had been completed to protect the remaining Wildcats. Meanwhile, Lt. John Kinney and Tech. Sgt. William Hamilton, by scavenging parts from destroyed planes, were able to make one more Wildcat serviceable.
On their first pass, the Japanese turned the airfield into a fire storm of exploding planes.
Calculating the next Japanese air attack was a question of simple, stark mathematics. If the bombers took off from the Marshall Islands at dawn, they could be expected sometime after 11:00 A.M. They arrived at 11:45. But this time they were spotted by a ground lookout, and three rifle shots fired in quick succession—the only effective air-raid warning system Wake ever had—alerted the defense. Lt. David Kliewer and Sergeant Hamilton, flying the morning patrol run, saw twenty-seven bombers coming in and flung themselves on the formation. One bomber wobbled out of formation, burst into flame, and spun into the ocean. Wake had its first kill. The day before, the Japanese had come in low. This day they stayed up at eleven thousand feet. This was a mistake, because Wake’s three-inch batteries, ineffective at low altitudes, could be deadly at a decent height against the tight, well-disciplined formations flown by the Japanese. One bomber was shot down, and four others turned away smoking. But again the Japanese scored heavily. The hospital was destroyed, and the naval air station was badly damaged. Until radio equipment could be transferred to an empty powder magazine, Wake’s only communications link to Pearl Harbor was an Army radio truck. Wake was learning to hit back, but it was still taking a beating.