- 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
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.
Pye was a careful officer. Nimitz, the kindest and most gently spoken of great war admirals, once described him as a “great brain but no guts.” In an operation where other men saw opportunity, Pye was the sort of man who naturally saw difficulties. In looking over the operational plans of the departed Kimmel, Pye saw difficulties aplenty. In a single gambler’s toss Kimmel, who had lost much of the Pacific Fleet in one afternoon, was sending the rest of it piecemeal into waters that the Navy did not control to engage an enemy whose position and strength he did not know. No, Pye didn’t like the plan at all. Prudently he ordered Admiral Brown’s Lexington to turn north away from the Marshalls to give Fletcher closer support. More cold water was thrown on the plan from Washington on December 20 when the chief of naval operations, Adm. Harold Stark, confided to Pye that Wake was considered more of a liability than an asset and left the relief of Wake up to Pye’s “discretion,” a universally understood shorthand in the military meaning the commander would be held responsible for any failure. In his heart Pye wanted to call off the project then and there. It was only when several staff officers begged him with tears in their eyes to keep the fleet on course that he agreed. The Sea Hawk spirit that had animated the project gave way to a sense of foreboding and concern. Still, the Navy was steaming for Wake. If the Marines there could hold for another four days, they might yet be saved.