- 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
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.
Rigged with pairs of hundred-pound bombs attached to homemade racks, the Wildcats caught up with the retreating ships fifteen miles southwest of Wake. Each pilot dived in, dropped his bombs, and hurried back to rearm and take off again. In all, Putnam’s men flew ten sorties. Captain Elrod and Capt. Frank Tharin scored hits on the cruisers Tenryu and Tatsuta, while Capt. Herbert Freuler set the transport Kongo Maru aflame. Captain Elrod had the biggest score. He crashed a bomb on the deck of the destroyer Kisarg , which was carrying a load of depth charges topside. The Kisargi was consumed in a giant fireball, and then, like the Hayate, it simply disappeared.
The hot fighting took its toll on the squadron. Captain Freuler brought his plane back with its engine shot up beyond repair. The fuel line of Captain Elrod’s Wildcat had been severed, and the engine cut out just as he was nursing it home. Elrod managed to crash-land among the boulders on the beach, but his craft was demolished. When Devereux and Putnam raced to pull him out of the wreckage, they found the pilot apologetic. “Honest, sir,” he said, “I’m sorry as hell about the plane.”
When the day’s fighting score was added up, the Japanese had lost two ships, suffered damage to several more, and left as many as seven hundred men in the water. Incredibly the Marines had suffered only four minor casualties. As Corporal Brown commented to Major Devereux, it had been “quite a day.”
The bloody nose suffered by the Japanese at Wake forced them to rethink the schedule so carefully worked out in Tokyo. Admiral Kajioka’s force limped back to Kwajalein to be refitted with more men and more ships so that it could return to attack again. In the meantime, the Japanese would rely on aerial bombardment to soften up this unexpectedly difficult target. Weather permitting, and it usually did, they would bomb Wake twice a day. In the face of this, Wake’s ability to defend itself was dwindling. After December 11 the effective air force of Wake was down to two airplanes.
It is a truism of war that winners tell the truth while losers make up stories. Except for the stolid defense of Wake, the Americans were losing badly elsewhere. Accordingly, press reports of the early days of the war were larded with unusually large doses of fiction. One of my most vivid memories of when I was a child listening to the radio was that of a broadcaster saying that Japanese firepower was so poor that soldiers on Bataan were actually fielding mortar shells with baseball mitts. We thrilled to reports of the Battle of Lingayen Gulf, in which a large invasion force was repulsed by the 21st Division of the Philippine Army, leaving the beaches strewn with Japanese bodies. The invasion force turned out to be a single Japanese motorboat on patrol. Every American child knew about the exploits of Capt. Colin Kelly, who, as the legend grew, won the Medal of Honor for flying his B-17 into the smokestack of the battleship Haruna and sending it to the bottom off the Philippines. In truth, Kelly had dropped a bomb on a large transport ship. And although he had done enough to earn any honor the nation might wish to bestow —at the cost of his own life Kelly had stayed at the controls of his stricken B-17 so his crew could jump to safety—he had seen no battleship; the Haruna at the time was fifteen hundred miles away in the Gulf of Siam.
In the first days of the war, with the American military position collapsing throughout the Pacific, the stand at Wake became a light of hope. Its troops were compared to the men who had fought at the Alamo, as Americans, thirsting for stories of gallantry and heroism, looked to Wake. But no information was forthcoming except what had been processed by public relations officers. Since they didn’t know what was going on themselves—the only communications coming out of Wake were Cunningham’s desperate requests for supplies and equipment—they, not surprisingly, provided legends.