- 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
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.
Major Putnam’s fliers made their last aerial show on the morning of December 22. Lt. Carl Davidson took off on the noon patrol, but Captain Freuler’s cranky Wildcat wouldn’t start. It took almost an hour of cursing and banging to get the engine to turn over. Davidson was covering the northern approach when he spotted thirty-three attack bombers and six Zeros storming in for their afternoon attack. Davidson called Freuler, whose Wildcat was wheezing up from the south, but without waiting for help, he bore in among the attackers alone. Freuler came as quickly as his plane allowed and found himself in a formation of bombers. He pulled up firing, and one of the bombers started exhaling smoke and fluttered into the sea. Freuler had no time to enjoy the exhilaration of the kill. He forced his faltering plane into a flip turn and went after a Zero only fifty feet away. It exploded into a fireball, showering Freuler’s plane with hot steel fragments. Thrown out of control by the blast, Freuler’s plane could just barely fly. The manifold pressure started to drop, and the controls were wooden. Looking about, Freuler could see Davidson caught in a deadly daisy chain, Davidson pouring machine-gun fire into a retreating bomber while a Zero, locked onto Davidson’s tail, began a firing run of its own. A Zero hit Freuler’s plane with a long burst, ripping bullets into Freuler’s back and shoulder. Freuler tried to wriggle out of the line of fire, but he couldn’t turn. There was only one thing left to try. He kicked his plane into a power dive and headed for the water. He pulled out at zero altitude and sputtered home over the wave tops. There was no question of landing in the normal sense; he didn’t have the strength to operate the landing-gear crank. He bounced in on his belly and spun crazily to a stop. The plane was a total wreck.