The Defense Of Wake

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In one of the most famous anecdotes of the war, Devereux, asked if he needed anything at Wake, shouted, “Send us more Japs!” The roar of defiance embodied the dogged spirit of beleaguered American troops everywhere. The story became so much a part of the fabric of the war that as late as 1945 The New York Times was still taking it seriously and editorialized that it demonstrated a fierceness not shown even by kamikaze pilots. The only thing known for certain about the celebrated line is that no one at Wake ever said it. The Marines at Wake had all the Japs they wanted. When they heard the story over the shortwave radio, they wondered how anyone could say something that stupid. After the war the official version of how the quote got around was that it was all a mistake. In sending a coded message from Wake to Pearl Harbor, Cunningham’s communications yeoman went through the usual procedure of padding the message with nonsense material and sent out a communiqué reading “SEND US...NOW IS THE TIME FOR ALL GOOD MEN TO COME TO AID OF THEIR PARTY...CUNNINGHAM...MORE JAPS.”

According to Duane Schultz, an energetic chronicler of the Wake saga, “someone in Honolulu seized upon the opening and closing words of the padding and a propaganda legend was born.” Research as thorough as scanty records and fallible memory can provide offers no proof of this explanation, and it strikes me as even less plausible than the folklore version. In my opinion it is more likely the great quote was an inspired piece of flackery from a Marine public information officer no closer to Wake than the bar at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel—if it had been a Navy officer, he would have attributed the quote to Cunningham. But, as Devereux commented after the war, no one knows for sure.

Following the battle of December 11, real life on Wake settled into a deadly routine. For the next week the Japanese bombing was constant and methodical. A morning raid by land-based planes and a smaller one at dusk by seaplanes kept punishing Wake’s defenses. The men on the ground worked to save their precious Wildcats. Technically each plane had been destroyed twice over, but the ground crews had become expert scroungers. By taking propellers and spare parts from one plane and slapping them into another, they managed to keep something flyable. Once the crews actually wrenched a hot engine out of a crashed plane while the fuselage burned around them.

Next to Japanese bombardment, the greatest enemy faced by the Marines was simple fatigue. Devereux figured he never got more than two hours’ sleep at any one time during the entire siege. Officers and men suffered from exhaustion as one day blurred into the next, punctuated only by bombing raids and burial details. Devereux recalled, “The men became so punch-drunk from weariness that frequently a man would forget an order almost as soon as he turned away, and sometimes it was hard for you to remember.”

In their weariness everything seemed to conspire against the Marines. The birds that flocked around Wake suddenly seemed full of dark menace, and the men frequently mistook them for incoming bombers and sounded the alarm. Even in their foxholes there was little rest for the Marines as the island rats became more voracious, digging into shelters, looking for food and safety from the bombing.

Inevitably tempers became taut. It is unlikely that Cunningham and Devereux could have worked comfortably together even in garrison duty. Each man had a nice appreciation for the prerogatives of his rank and a good measure of the vanity common to men accustomed to exerting authority over their fellows. The memoirs of both men make obvious the fact that they didn’t like each other. The strain of combat in close quarters made a thorny situation worse. Devereux had his hands full conducting the tactical defense of Wake, and he resented reporting to an officer so inexperienced in such matters that he did not know the gunnery characteristics of the weaponry in use. Battle is not a good time to be instructing your commanding officer in ballistics. Cunningham, in turn, was in a nightmarish situation. On November 29 he had come to Wake to be responsible for a brand new naval air station, and two weeks later his command was being blown to pieces and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Cunningham, according to one reviewing Marine officer, “appears to have taken refuge from his own lack of experience and technical capacity by enveloping himself in authority. He attempted to supervise every detail of the defense exactly as the captain of a man-of-war would fight his ship, even down to an attempt to select precise moments for opening and cessation of fire.” Cunningham was clearly beyond his depth at Wake, and as early as December 15 headquarters at Pearl Harbor had decided to relieve him with a Marine colonel, if he could somehow be transported out there.

THE LAST MAN OFF WAKE