The Siege of Wake Island


“There it is,” Boscarino said, pointing to a smudge one degree blacker than the enveloping night. There was hardly room enough for the two of us to squeeze inside the foxhole. The “floor” was covered with coral cobbles the size of a man’s fist. We each had a blanket, a sheet, and a canvas bedcover. I was too exhausted to fall asleep. For a long time I lay twisting on the pernicious coral, trying to avoid the drip of the rain that had begun to fall, and listening to the ominous boom and rumble of the nearby surf.

Fred and I awoke at daybreak and crawled out of our hole. In the west, smoke still ascended from the preceding day’s holocaust. We had learned that Pan Am’s casualties were ten men—mostly Chamorro boys from Guam—dead, and that some thirty service men had been killed or wounded in the attack on the airport. An undetermined number of contractor’s men were casualties. The hospital was full, and the contractor’s surgeon, Dr. Lawton Shank, and the Navy medical officer, Lieutenant Gustave Kahn, had operated without rest all during the afternoon and night of December 8.

Fred and I went down to Battery A’s range finder and passed the time of day with the marines. Boscarino quickly instructed us in the use of a .30-caliber machine gun, and showed us which foxholes we were to occupy in the event an air raid caught us while we were working around the battery. A klaxon which could be heard all over the point had been rigged up to give the alarm when enemy planes came in sight.2 Lookouts equipped with binoculars were posted on the range finder shelter, and on top of Lieutenant Barninger’s battery command post.

Dead tired from the excitement and the work of the preceding day, and from a sleepless, rain-drenched night, I stretched out on a rock and was nearly asleep when the klaxon sounded. As distant as the drowsy hum of bees on a sultry summer day I could hear the engines of the approaching planes. This time the Japanese did not have the advantage of a surprise attack. First I heard the rapid staccato of our .50-caliber machine guns, and then the close, loud, hollow-sounding “pung-pung-punging” as the AA battery under the command of Lieutenant William Lewis went into action. Fred and I crouched against the rear wall of our foxhole, as far back as it was possible to get from the brilliant splash of sunlight on the white rocks at the entrance.

The enemy flight was passing directly over Peacock Point. Above the ever-present pounding of the surf a new sound came to my ears: first, a swift rustling as of heavy silk; then a shrill thin scream culminating in a shattering explosion. I shrank back, instinctively throwing my arm in front of my eyes. The ground shuddered. Rock fragments were falling on the roof of our foxhole like the steady pounding of heavy rain. A rock the size of my head catapulted into the opening and rolled against my feet. As the sound of bursting bombs grew fainter and fainter, I crawled to the door and looked out.

Nearby, the leaves on the shrubbery were gray-coated with dust. Fred came out of the hole, and we stood on the rocks watching a huge conflagration in the contractor’s camp. Soon all of Peale Island and the northwesternmost tip of Wake were blanketed by flame and smoke. Now and then a new wisp of light-gray smoke would rise and mingle with the black, as another frame building took fire.

We went down to the battery command post. Bit by bit, disastrous news came over the wire. The contractor’s warehouse in Camp Two had been hit. Our machine shop and adjacent oil and gasoline stores had been completely wiped out. The explosive and incendiary bombs had cut a swath right through the center of the contractor’s camp. The Nipponese had succeeded in bombing and burning the company hospital, which was crammed with men wounded in the preceding day’s attack. I learned later that my bunkhouse had burned to the ground in this raid, leaving me bereft of all my possessions except the clothing I wore.

One fact of these raids struck me as peculiarly significant. The Japanese had carefully avoided destroying the powerhouses in the two camps, the bridge connecting Wake and Peale islands, and the nearly completed Naval Air Station barracks building on Peale. This seemed strange, for without the powerhouses, the fresh water distilleries could not be operated, and without the distilleries we soon would be forced to capitulate because of thirst. But it also occurred to me that perhaps the Japanese were bent not so much on our destruction and the eradication of Wake Island as an effective link in our aerial communications with the Philippines, as they were in preserving our most essential installations for themselves. Of course this meant but one thing: landing parties—an attempt to storm the island—and this posed a serious personal problem to all civilian personnel.

The marines on the island were, essentially, a working party, many of them not long out of boot camp. The first full-strength defense battalion, it was rumored, was not due to arrive until January 9, 1942. Even the servicemen on the island were under-armed. Let me emphasize that the terms of our working agreements with the contractors prohibited our bringing personal weapons to the island. Yet there we were—1,200 unarmed men—living like rats in the middle of a battlefield! A weapon in a man’s hands gives him confidence. We did not have weapons. All we could do was crouch behind rocks and scoot from foxhole to foxhole.