The Siege of Wake Island


Leaving the office, I walked toward the mess hall. It being near mealtime, scores of men had been on the mall when the attack came, and yet, miraculously, none of them had been hit. Men were now scattered about in little groups, talking in hushed voices, some squatting on their heels intently digging in the ground with pocketknives in search of bullets. Williamson, the assistant steward, came out of the mess hall and climbed on a table. “There’ll be no seating today,” he said. “We’ll serve lunch cafeteria-style. Get in line. Pass through the kitchen to get your grub, then go outside—and don’t bunch up.”

I gulped the food, returned the utensils to the mess hall, and crossing to my bunkhouse, hurriedly made up a bedroll. I looked at the pictures on the shelf, hesitated a moment, and decided to leave them and my other possessions where they were. Shouldering the bedroll and pocketing toothbrush, tooth powder, and some chocolate bars I had purchased at the canteen, I left. I never entered the bunkhouse again. It was bombed out of existence the following day.

My bunkhouse was situated on a side road debouching on the arterial road which led to the Peale Island bridge. As I approached the main road, I saw two trucks and a pickup crossing the bridge very slowly; I stepped aside to permit them to turn down the side road to the hospital. The truck swung around the curve, a corner of its tail gate passing within a foot of my face. Its bed was covered with wounded, dying, and dead men, sprawled on rumpled, bloody quilts. Nearest me, his head, neck, and shoulder a lacerated mass, was a man whose arm was connected to his body by the merest shred of flesh. Half of his skull had been blown away, and his brains were oozing through the jagged aperture onto the quilt. The second truck and the pickup carried the same grim cargo.

Work parties were being made up in front of the contractor’s office. I remember Lieutenant Commander Elmer Greey, the Navy’s resident officer in the construction camp, asking me if I was arranging transportation back home and my reply that I was scheduled to report to the Marine camp with a party of volunteers. We tossed our bedrolls onto a truck and climbed in.

Our immediate task was the decentralization of .30- and .50-caliber machine-gun ammunition. Speed was imperative. The heavy cases were stacked in great piles high under the rafters of a long, sheet-iron warehouse building. Men swarmed up these piles while those of us below formed two lines. The cases began moving out rapidly. We shoved them aboard a truck, which transported them out to the parade ground where they were unloaded and hastily buried.

Before we had completed the decentralization of the small arms ammunition, ten of us were assigned to a detail engaged in trucking three-inch antiaircraft shells from temporary frame magazines to the gun batteries. About five o’clock, we finished supplying the Wilkes Island battery, and headed in our truck for the contractor’s camp. As we crossed the east-west runway of the airfield, a sad sight, formidable in its implications, met our eyes. Seven of our twelve Grumman Wildcat fighters were broken in two, their empennages and radial engines pointing skyward at sharp angles. Four of them had been set on fire by machine-gun strafing, and three were damaged beyond repair by close bomb hits. An eighth plane had been damaged but was in repairable condition.

Our Marine aviation personnel had also suffered heavy casualties. Of the pilots, First Lieutenant George Graves and Second Lieutenants Frank Holden and Robert Conderman had been killed, and Second Lieutenant Henry Webb severely wounded. The casualties had been proportionately heavy among the members of the ground crew. The loss of these pilots, as well as seven of our twelve fighter planes, on the first day of hostilities was the worst possible blow to our defenses.

All the planes had been aloft most of the morning; at the time of the attack, however, only four were up, the others having returned to base for refueling. Had the enemy delayed twenty minutes, we would have had eight planes in the sky, with two more ready to take off.

The initial success of the Japanese in taking the island by surprise can be attributed to the skill with which they made use of cloud cover. All morning the sky had been overcast, and a long dense cloud bank lay parallel to and directly above Wake’s lee shore. Apparently the Japanese came in high, and while still far out to sea, cut their engines. They glided in, darting out of this cloud bank at an altitude of a thousand or fifteen hundred feet, and were over our airfield before we were aware of their existence.

At ten o’clock that night I found myself a member of a crew unloading antiaircraft shells near the extremity of Peacock Point. Fred Hauner, one of the men from my department, was with me. When we had unloaded the truck, Fred and I headed down the trail toward the Five-Inch battery. A sentry challenged us. “This is Burroughs,” I answered. “Where is Lieutenant Barninger?”

Sergeant Boscarino, gun captain on gun No. 1, came up. “We’ve fixed up foxholes for you men. That’s what we were doing during the bombing. We didn’t waste any time. Come on and I’ll show you where they are.”

Fred and I followed, stumbling in the inky blackness, our feet catching on the creeping vines.