- 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
Devereux tried to guess the next Japanese move. He figured that after hitting the air defense and base facilities, they would strike at the antiaircraft batteries, particularly the guns at Peacock Point on the leading edge of Wake Island. Devereux ordered the battery moved, and it took a hundred civilian workmen all night to drag the eight-ton guns six hundred yards away and set up dummies in their place. Devereux’s hunch was a good one. The next afternoon the Japanese wasted a bombing run going after the fake guns at Peacock Point and lost two planes to Captain Elrod’s slashing attack.
The Japanese had struck at Wake three times by air. Now they would try by sea.
It was about three in the morning on December 11 when sentries staring out to sea first spotted movement on the darkened horizon. As the predawn light grew, Devereux could just begin to make out the shapes of the Japanese invasion force: three light cruisers, six destroyers, four troop transports. It was not an armada, but it seemed enough to do the job. Devereux calculated that the light cruisers carried at least six-inch guns. If the enemy wished to, he had only to stay beyond reach of Wake’s five-inch coastal guns and batter the island to rubble at his leisure. Wake’s only hope was to sit tight and let the invaders stray into range. Devereux passed the word to hold fire until ordered. He checked with Putnam, who had four Wildcats ready to go at dawn. “Don’t take off until I open fire,” Devereux said. “I’m trying to draw them in and the planes would give the show away.”
By five the Japanese had closed to within eight thousand yards. We cannot know the mind of Admiral Kajioka standing on the bridge of his flagship Yubari as he headed for Wake. He may have been concerned that in attempting a landing without air cover to support the landing force and protect its ships, he was violating a primary rule of amphibious operations. But probably he was confident. His intelligence reports claimed that half of Wake’s coastal guns as well as all its airplanes had been put out of action. The Yubari opened fire at five-thirty as the flotilla cruised from opposite Peacock Point on Wake Island to Wilkes. When there was no response, the Yubari closed to six thousand yards and sailed back, casually hurling shells at a moribund enemy. A few minutes after six the invasion force turned once again toward the shore to begin its third firing run.
Cpl. Robert Brown, Devereux’s radio talker, could hear battery gunners calling their commander “every kind of dumb son of a bitch” for letting the enemy come so close without giving them a chance to shoot back. But Devereux continued to hold. By six-ten the morning sun had made the sea bright as Japanese flanking destroyers closed to forty-five hundred yards. Devereux gave the command to commence firing.
The five-inch guns at Peacock Point and Wilkes opened up almost simultaneously. The gun crews did not have proper range finders or fire-control equipment, but they had been silently tracking the big ships for almost an hour. Lt. Clarence Baringer stood out on the roof of his post at Peacock Point, directing fire at the Yubari . The first salvo was over, and Baringer ordered the range down five hundred. Then he had the cruiser straddled. The Yubari turned to run, but at fifty-five hundred yards Peacock’s battery caught it with two shells, as gunners like to say, “between wind and water.” A destroyer coming up to give support to the flagship took a hit in the forecastle. Together they steamed through their own smoke and beat it for safer water.
Captain Elrod hit the destroyer Kisargi, which was carrying depth charges. The ship disappeared.
The battery at Wilkes, commanded by Lt. John McAlister, had its choice of targets: three destroyers, two light cruisers, and two transports. McAlister took aim at the lead destroyer, Hayate . He missed with his first two salvos, but the third scored a direct hit with both shells. For a moment the Hayate was covered in a cloud of roiling mist and smoke. As the cloud cleared away, the gunners could see that the ship had been smashed into two pieces. Both halves disappeared beneath the waves with all hands in less than two minutes. McAlister’s crew was jubilant with backslapping self-congratulation until Sgt. Henry Bedell, a warhorse who had seen service in China, recalled them to their duties. “Knock it off, you bastards, and get back to the guns. What d’ya think this is, a ball game?” Later the gunners liked to tell each other that the Japanese had retired in such haste because they thought Sergeant Bedell was yelling at them.
Confused and badly mauled, Admiral Kajioka’s force regrouped in deep water and headed for home in Kwajalein. It was the first and only time during World War II that an invasion was successfully repulsed by shore batteries. The admiral had little time to muse on the historical significance of his defeat. His battle was not over. Major Putnam’s four Wildcats jumped off the runway at the first sound of American gunfire. Their primary mission was the air defense of Wake, and they searched the sky for incoming Japanese airplanes. Surprised to find none there, Putnam went to the attack.