The Siege of Wake Island

PrintPrintEmailEmailFor the United States forces in the Pacific, the first months of World War II were a time of unremitting disaster. Undermanned, outgunned, and hardly prepared for a struggle of such magnitude, our scattered garrisons could hope only to delay and hinder the Japanese onslaught until the nation’s war machine grew strong enough to contain it. One of the most gallant of these desperate holding actions was the defense of Wake Island in December, 1941. Although tiny and remote—this 2,600-acre wishbone of sand and coral is 450 miles from the nearest land—Wake was of considerable strategic importance: for America, it was part of the defense chain that linked the Pacific Coast with the Philippines and the mainland of Asia; for the enemy it was a steppingstone toward Midway and the Hawaiian Islands. At the time of the Japanese attack, Wake was defended by 450 marines under Major James P.S. Devereux, and approximately 1,200 civilian workers, one of whom was a construction engineer named John R. Burroughs. During three and a half years of captivity in prison camps in China and Japan, Burroughs kept a record of his war experiences, which he has recently put together in book form. It is from that work that this account of the last sixteen days of Wake is taken.

On Monday morning, December 8 (Wake Island time),1 1941, we reported for work at seven o’clock as usual. At about eight, my friend Bob Bryan, a clerk in the engineering office, came to my desk, greatly excited.

“There’s a report coming in on the radio that the Japs have attacked Pearl Harbor, and are bombing and machine-gunning Schofield Barracks!” he exclaimed.

I heard trucks rumbling over the Peale Island bridge. (Wake Island is actually an atoll composed of three islands: Peale, Wilkes, and the largest, Wake.) Looking out of the window, I saw the usual working party of marines who were building machine-gun pits on the windward side of Peale Island pass by. For the first time they were in full battle dress, with packs, helmets, and rifles. This gave me pause for thought, but still the urgency of compiling my reports in time to get them aboard the eastbound clipper was uppermost in my mind.

The radio reports persisted, however. Men began leaving their drawing boards and desks and circling about the engineering office uneasily. The China Clipper had taken off that morning, continuing its routine flight to Guam; but soon after its departure I was astounded to see it circling in from the west, low on the horizon.

Just about noon, a loud explosion occurred, followed by a series of similar ones that shook the building, violently rattling the windows in their casements. The first thought entering my mind was that the drill crews had set off some particularly heavy charges in the lagoon—for they had been at work for the past month blasting coral-heads to clear the seaplane runways. But outside, the lagoon was placid in the sunlight.

I joined a group of men from my department and from the engineering office who were running into the hall and toward the exterior door. Then for the first time I heard the drone of engines and the rapid staccato of machine-gun fire. Someone yelled, “Hit the floor!”

I crawled to the door on my hands and knees to look out. All along the water front clouds of black smoke were pouring upward; crossing the lagoon at an altitude of five or six hundred feet, headed in our direction, were three squadrons of two-engine bombers in tight V-formations. It flashed through my mind that very probably they would bomb our camp. “Outside!” I yelled, and running down the steps, I raced across the road and threw myself under a stunted tree.

Men were running in all directions seeking what sparse cover there was in the area. All around us, machine-gun bullets were kicking up little spurts of dust like the impact of heavy raindrops on a dirt road. I heard a swift tearing sound directly overhead and looked up into a shower of shredded leaves. At the same time, as though a sharp stick had been drawn across the ground, a stream of bullets cut a line in the dirt parallel to, and scarcely eight inches distant from, my body. The Japanese planes were flying so low that I could plainly see the crewmen peering out of the cockpits.

By now, Pan American’s buildings and installations, as well as many of the permanent establishments that we had built on Peale Island, were roaring infernos of flame and smoke corkscrewing into the sky. Evidently the Japanese had expended their bomb load on our land-plane runway, for they passed over our camp strafing but not bombing. After they disappeared, I stood up, feeling queer in the knees. I looked at my watch. It was twelve o’clock “straight up.” From beginning to end the attack had not lasted more than four or five minutes.

I ran back into the office, grabbed the cost ledgers, shoved them in a filing cabinet, and closed and locked the drawer. Reynold Carr, one of my clerks, called, “Hey, look at this!” A bullet had drilled a neat hole through the seat of his chair. He had missed death by seconds. We found other holes in the floor and walls.