- Historic Sites
The Siege of Wake Island
An eyewitness account of the World War II battle in the Pacific.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
I heard Lieutenant Barninger say: “They’re drawing off…” Then: “Range 17,500!” A thrill of enthusiasm ran through me. The Japanese had attacked in considerable strength—there had been at least two cruisers, four or five destroyers, and several auxiliary craft in their flotilla, with a possible fire-power of fifty or sixty naval rifles running up to ten- or twelve-inch caliber available against us—and we had beaten them off with three batteries of five-inch guns!
One of those freakish happenings that sometimes occur in battle chalked up an additional warship for Lieutenant Barninger’s battery. From our position we were unable to see a Japanese destroyer lying beyond, but in the same azimuth as the cruiser at which we were firing. At his command post down on the reef, Lieutenant Robert M. Hanna could see this destroyer, however. He told me that the first shot fired from our gun No. 2, which overreached the cruiser, plopped squarely into this destroyer.
In their overconfidence the Japanese had walked into a trap, heaving-to to send in and to cover landing parties within a triangle formed by our land batteries and an American submarine which lay hidden on their seaward side. Our aviators, too, had scored heavily, ferrying bombs with which they smeared the enemy throughout the engagement. Except for the burning of tanks, the Japanese guns had done little damage. From the first shot to the last, not more than an hour had elapsed. For some time smoke and flames still were visible far at sea mingling with the heavy white smoke screen thrown out by their remaining destroyers.4
I put the magazine in order and then walked down to the range finder. The men in the range section were jubilant. Sergeant Boscarino came up from his gun. His face was grimed and black with powder smoke. He still wore the protective pad on his left forearm with which he wiped the “mushroom” on the breechblock after each round had been fired. Everyone congratulated each other.
At nine thirty the next morning, the Japanese raided Wake Island again. There seemed to be more planes than usual—I learned later that thirty bombers had come over—but they dropped fewer bombs. When they had passed over, I ventured out of the foxhole. Our few planes already were in the sky, and were diving into the enemy formations. The AA batteries on Peacock Point and on Peale Island opened up. The shells burst high in the sky, leaving white puffs intermingled with the tiny birdlike specks that were the enemy planes. Our few Grummans buzzed in and out of the enemy formations like hornets, oftentimes following the Japanese bombers amid the bursts of our own antiaircraft fire.
One evening shortly after the sea attack, I went down to the water to bathe. Lying on my back in a shallow pool, and listening to the pounding of the surf on the outlying reef, I felt perfectly safe. So far all air raids had come in the forenoon, and we had arrived at the conclusion that the Japanese planes—which, we presumed, were coming from the Marshall Islands, some six hundred miles to the south—found it inexpedient to return to their bases after nightfall.
I had come out of the water and was reaching for my towel when I heard someone shout. Looking up, I saw two marines running full tilt along the shore. It suddenly occurred to me that I was upwind from the range finder, and very possibly had missed the air raid alarm. Even with this thought I heard the sound of engines rising above the roar of the sea. I jerked on my shoes, snatched up my clothing, and ran for cover. As the first bombs fell, I scrambled into our foxhole, stark naked. It was a rather close call, but I had put on a good show for the other boys, and the explosion of the bombs was punctuated by their laughter.
Day followed day. There was no telling now when the Nipponese air arm would strike. Sometimes the klaxon awakened us at dawn. Again it sounded in the mid- or late afternoon. Sometimes the enemy attacked twice in the same day; and as time wore on, one question loomed in the minds of civilians and servicemen alike: “Where, in Christ’s name, was the U. S. Navy?” When would our people send reinforcements?
Life had been reduced to its simplest elements: we ate when food was available, slept, bathed infrequently, answered our nature calls. This life was lived in an atmosphere of ever-increasing apprehension. The feeling of exhilaration arising from our success in the battle of December 11 had worn off. The air raids continued. Though casualties were slight, and little damage was done, the damnable persistence of the Japanese had the effect of disrupting any attempts at large-scale reorganization for effective defense work.
Late on the afternoon of December 20, a United States PBY flying boat arrived at Wake Island. Word reached us over the grapevine that it had come for the purpose of delivering sealed orders to Commander Winfield Cunningham, who was in charge of the small naval detachment on the island.
The insouciance of the three aviators, their ignorance regarding the plight we were in, and their nonchalant request to be conducted to the Pan American Hotel, left us a little flabbergasted and vastly discouraged.
The PBY took off on the return trip at seven o’clock the following morning carrying Major Baylor, USMC, as a passenger. He was the last man to get away from the island. Two days later we were prisoners of the Japanese.