- 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
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.
On December 21 the PBY took off with the last man to leave Wake, and the last of the defenders’ mail.
Back at Wake, the men pumped Ensign Murphy for whatever information he had about Hawaii. Most of the news was bad. The devastation at Pearl Harbor was greater than any of them could have imagined. But they were tickled to hear that a Japanese radio in Shanghai had announced Wake had surrendered on December 8. The Marines, Devereux recalled, “felt pretty good that night.”
The next day Maj. Walter Bayler, a communications officer with standing orders to leave for Midway by the first available transport, boarded the PBY and took off, bearing official reports and as much personal mail as the men had been able to scribble during the night. Although Bayler was destined to be known as the “last man off Wake Island,” there should have been two passengers aboard the departing PBY. Through a mischance of war Herman P. Hevenor, a civilian analyst with the Bureau of the Budget, happened to be at Wake going over Dan Teters’s books, checking construction costs, when the island was bombed. Although the needs of the defenders were great, they did not include a budget analyst, and Mr. Hevenor was granted permission to depart with Major Bayler. As he was about to embark, however, someone pointed out there was no life jacket or parachute available for him as required by Navy regulations. Since it was not considered safe for Mr. Hevenor to fly in a PBY, he was left on Wake.
Two hours after the PBY had taken off, Wake was struck again by air. The bombing and strafing were no more severe than the Marines were used to, but this raid carried a chilling message. Instead of land-based planes from the Marshalls, these attack bombers had flown off the decks of the Japanese carriers Soryu and Hiryu, which had taken part in the raid on Pearl Harbor. Two fleets were heading toward Wake, and the Japanese were closer.
The string was running out for the defenders. Diarrhea swept through the ranks. The men made rude jokes about it, as troops always do, but it was ferociously debilitating, and as many Marines were turning up in the sick bay because of illness as combat. As a result of thirteen days of bombing, the air defenses of Wake had diminished to the vanishing point: one antiaircraft battery of four three-inch guns and two effective airplanes, one of which was a balky starter. Throughout it all there was the harassing voice of headquarters back at Pearl Harbor. Cunningham sent a daily communiqué outlining the long litany of Wake’s defense needs: men, airplanes, medical supplies, sandbags, disk clutches, fire-control equipment—the lot. In return it seemed they were getting nothing but idiotic messages and requests for useless information. On December 17 Cunningham was asked to report on the progress of dredging operations in the lagoon and other improvements scheduled to be made in base facilities. He replied by pointing out that half his trucks and engineering equipment had been destroyed along with most of his diesel oil. The garage, construction warehouse, and machine shops all had been blown away. He added laconically that daylight hours for construction work were “limited.” Devereux found himself receiving little tips on having his men keep their sleeves rolled down and the suggestion that if glass was not available for windows in the barracks, seismograph paper was an adequate substitute.