- 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
Bad weather kept the Japanese away on December 20, but that afternoon a PBY, a craft that was said to be “so big and ugly and stupid it didn’t know it couldn’t fly in rough weather,” lumbered through the overcast and splashed down in the lagoon. A young ensign, James Murphy, in starched khakis, emerged and asked for directions to the Pan American hotel. He was shocked to be directed to a pile of debris.
Murphy brought mail to Cunningham and Devereux as well as an official dispatch containing the most blessed news a besieged commander can hope for. A Navy relief force with men and planes and matériel had already set sail from Pearl Harbor and was on its way to Wake. The dispatch apparently did not tell Cunningham that his replacement was also aboard.
When Admiral Kimmel had made his original plans for a counterattack at Wake, he had assumed, along with every other senior officer and civilian official in Washington, that he would be sailing against Japanese surface vessels in an openly declared war. The raid at Pearl Harbor had changed all that. With much of his fleet sunk in the harbor, Kimmel’s trap had been unsprung, and he was just feeding the mice. Now the offensive-minded admiral intended to retrieve the bait and still slap the Japanese hard.
Considering the losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, Kimmel’s plan was astonishingly bold. Conceived as early as December 9, it called for the deployment of all three fast carrier forces then available. Task Force 11 with Adm. Wilson Brown aboard the Lexington would make a diversionary raid on Jaluit in the Marshall Islands while Adm. William Halsey took the Enterprise and Task Force 8 west of Johnston Island with the double mission of covering the approach to Hawaii and lending support to the main attack. The job of leading the strike force heading straight for Wake was given to Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher. Fletcher’s command was a pickup fleet that had never sailed as a unit before; it included nine destroyers, three heavy cruisers—Astoria, Minneapolis, and San Francisco—and the venerable carrier Saratoga, holder of several speed records between California and Hawaii, and which was then steaming toward Pearl Harbor from San Diego at twenty-one knots. Fletcher’s ships held everything Wake needed: two hundred Marines aboard the San Francisco and a fresh squadron of fighter planes on the Saratoga. Even if Fletcher’s ships were too late to effect the relief of Wake, they were heading for a hell of a fight. Kimmel’s plan involved considerable risk, but it was a good one. With speed, a little luck, and a Nelson on the bridge, it might have succeeded. It had none of these.
Skipper of the San Francisco, Fletcher was a solid officer. He had been graduated high in his class at Annapolis and seen service as a destroyer commander in World War I. He held the Medal of Honor from Veracruz. But Fletcher had no experience as a carrier force commander and had been given the assignment because he was the senior flag officer in the group. Adm. Aubrey Fitch, commander of the Saratoga and the most knowledgeable carrier admiral in the Navy, was relegated to a secondary role when Fletcher came aboard.
The expedition was plagued by misfortune and delay from the outset. The Lexington could not be fueled because of bad weather and did not get under way until the fourteenth; the Saratoga did not leave until the sixteenth. Worse, the Saratoga, which should have been dashing for Wake at top speed, was slowed to a crawl by the decrepit oiler Neches, which could put out only twelve knots. On the seventeenth, the Lexington, steaming toward Jaluit, held an antiaircraft gun drill and discovered that none of the ammunition aboard its cruisers worked. By then the relief expedition had lost its guiding spirit. Admiral Kimmel had been relieved of his command on the sixteenth and hustled into retirement until he could be court-martialed after the war for his part in the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Adm. Chester Nimitz was named to replace him, but Nimitz was still in Washington and could not take command for two weeks. In the interim the job would be held by Adm. William Pye, temporarily on the beach since his battleship California had been sunk on December 7. The rights and wrongs of Kimmel’s court-martial are not within the scope of this article, but it should be noted that on December 15,1941, Admiral Kimmel’s principal thought was to seek out the Japanese and engage them wherever they could be found. His replacement’s chief aim was to preserve the fleet and not turn a large butcher’s bill over to the new commander in chief.