The Siege of Wake Island


On the morning of December 10 the raid alarm sounded about ten forty-five. This time, 26 planes came over, bombing from Peacock Point to Kuku Point, the heaviest attack having been reserved for the Marine camp, which was ablaze. The water-front oil dump also was on fire.

Just before dawn on the eleventh, I was awakened by shouting outside our foxhole. I heard my name called, and caught the words “all civilians down on the guns.”

In the east the sky was slightly less black than total night. I felt the morning mist on my face. Men were emerging from the foxholes and running in the direction of Peacock Point. We followed, stumbling over the sharp coral boulders.

Lieutenant Barninger, a shadowy figure, stood upright on the roof of his command post. He was peering out to sea through his binoculars. I heard him say, “I can’t make out what they are…” There were ships lying offshore.

Sergeant Poulousky was coming up the trail. “I want you take charge of the powder magazine,” he said quickly. “Come along.” The magazine looked exactly like a big vine-covered coral boulder. In reality the “boulder” was a large tarpaulin stretched over a wooden framework; under this camouflage a rectangle of sandbags outlined a trap door at ground level. We raised the trap door and propped it open. “Watch your head,” Poulousky said.

“The shells are on this side,” he explained, “and the powder canisters over here. See these shells?” He took my hand and guided it to several shells standing in a vertical position on the floor. “There’s nine star shells here. For God’s sake don’t send them up.”

I straightened up, bumping my head.

“If we go into action,” Poulousky continued, “pass up two shells—one for each gun. Then two powders—understand?”

I followed him back up the ladder. Johnny Clelan and several other civilians were grouped about the entrance.

Poulousky turned to Clelan. “If we go into action, you stand at the head of the ladder here and take the stuff from Burroughs. Send a powder and a shell to gun No. i, then a powder and a shell to gun No. 2—keep alternating.”

We squatted around the magazine on our haunches talking in low tones about what might be “out there.” We had heard that contractor’s personnel on Johnston, Palmyra, and Midway islands had been evacuated several days previously. Thus we were inclined to think that the ships offshore had brought reinforcements, and, happiest thought of all, probably there would be an aircraft carrier in the flotilla. This optimistic trend of thought was shattered abruptly by Lieutenant Barninger’s steady voice: “There’s a red ball on her funnel.”

Poulousky came tearing from the brush, yelling: “All right, you civilians, break out those shells…” I dived down the ladder and fumbled for the first tier in the darkness. I grasped a shell. Johnny Clelan was crouching in the aperture above. I heaved upward, first a shell, then a powder canister. I could hear Tony Poulousky shouting excitedly: “Come on, you God-damned civilians, hurry up with those shells”; heard the heavy breathing of the men, and the sound of running feet on the coral.

“Okay down there,” Poulousky yelled, “we’ve got enough stuff on top. Come up for a breather.”

I climbed up the ladder, lifted the canvas, and crawling outside, sat down on a rock. A series of long flashes far out at sea lightened the horizon. Seconds later a sound like distant thunder reached my ears. Suddenly flames, followed by a thick column of black smoke, arose in the vicinity of the marines’ camp.

The sky was light now, and I could distinguish the outlines of three ships inshore from the horizon. Following closely on the flashes from the enemy guns, I heard Lieutenant Barninger’s voice: “Range four thousand…” He was squatting on his heels, binoculars intent on the target, and his voice calling the range came easily. Major Potter, commanding the five-inch gun positions, wisely had given orders to the battery commanders to hold their fire until the Japanese were close in.

Our initial target was a light cruiser broadside to us. The first shot from our gun No. 1 fell far short due to defective range setting, whereas gun No. 2 overshot the target; we were without electrical or compressed air control, and the gun captains were firing by lanyard. On the second salvo both guns fell short; the ship was moving out. Then, methodically, our battery built up to the target until, eight or ten minutes after we had gone into action, we scored a direct hit at a range of about 7,000 yards. It struck square amidship and right at the water line.

First a wisp of white emanated from the warship, followed by a big puff of steam. Brown smoke began billowing from her belly.3

From the smoke rising over the island, I could tell that the Japanese bombardment had set more of our oil tanks afire. Opposite the entrance to the small boat channel between Wake and Wilkes, a transport was hastily drawing off in flames. Far out at sea a small ship had been hit and seemed to be sinking.

The east was crimson and orange now, the earth-curve etched against the sky by the rolling Pacific. Each enemy unit stood clearly limned in the new light. Just beyond the transport, a smaller warship was falling apart.