- 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
At eight fifty A.M. the inevitable alarm sounded. It was only a matter of seconds until we realized that this was no ordinary raid: the nerve-shattering roaring of the engines close overhead was exceeded only by the repetitive swish and scream and crashing crescendo of the falling bombs. Each ear-splitting detonation shook the timbers in our dugout. There was no surcease, no breathing spell between explosions.
Dive bombers were unloading their cargoes on us in sticks of four. Dropped at water’s edge, the fourth bomb to fall was intended for the Peacock Point installations. We would hear the explosions of bombs one, two, and three, and then, when our turn came, the beams rattled and shook, the earth trembled, and dirt and gravel sifted down on us while we lay stiff with fear.
Lieutenant Barninger was worried. The presence of the dive bombers using heavy bombs indicated that an aircraft carrier was in the vicinity, and the presence of a carrier only too clearly signified the presence of a considerable enemy flotilla.
The following day, December 22, the dive-bombing started at twelve thirty-five and lasted for forty minutes. Evidently the Nipponese had our gun positions, for they hit Peacock Point hard. A large-caliber bomb had hit within twenty feet of gun No. 2’s dugout, and nineteen marines had been pinned against the wall by heavy timbers. Had the concussion been a trifle heavier, all of them would have been crushed to death.
Our last two planes, piloted by Captain Herbert Freuler and Lieutenant Carl Davidson, went into the air that morning to meet the dive bombers coming in from the sea. There was dogfighting all over the sky.
After destroying one Japanese plane Captain Freuler looked up in time to see another coming at him intent on kamikaze. He gave it a burst of bullets, jerked back on the stick, and zoomed upward, barely avoiding a head-on collision. As he passed over, the enemy plane blew up. The force of the explosion stunned Freuler. Looking down he saw fragments of the disintegrated plane splashing all over the lagoon. A third plane was coming in on his tail. The force of the explosion had loosened the fabric on the ailerons and stabilizers, and Freuler’s plane responded to the controls sluggishly. Before he could pull away, the Japanese flier had him. Badly wounded, he put his Grumman into a sideslip and made for the airport. His plane was behaving erratically. He made a pass at the field, but the Jap bombers were working it over and there was no chance to land. He made a wide circle and again came in. By this time he had lost a great deal of blood, and was weakening rapidly and feeling faint. Finally, on the fourth pass, he managed to set his plane down on the field. A fellow pilot, who was at the airport at the time, described Freuler’s condition:
We found him slumped unconscious in a pool of blood, a big chink shot out of the flesh of his shoulder. Another bullet had penetrated the gas tank, pierced the back of the seat, the folded parachute pack, Freuler’s clothing, and lodged against his spine. We found a .60 caliber slug in the engine. The oil-line was cut. The fabric of the controls was lying in folds. Everything—Freuler, the motor, the plane—“conked out” at the same time!
Lieutenant Carl Davidson was the last American pilot in the air over Wake Island. He chased an enemy plane out to sea and did not return.
On the gun positions the marines were grim and silent. This sort of thing could not go on indefinitely. Everyone sensed the coming of a crisis.
The decisive action at Wake Island began shortly after one o’clock on the morning of December 23. I was awakened by Lieutenant Barninger’s runner, Jesse Nowlin. I pulled on my shoes, hastened outside, and roused the civilians in the adjacent foxholes. All along the water front on the lee side of Wake and Wilkes islands, ascending red flares described graceful arcs against the Stygian background. At sea, completely encircling the island, searchlights were at work, flash succeeding rapid flash, the long streamers of light cutting the sky into angular black chunks as the ships busily signalled to each other. Suddenly the entire beach on our side of the island was momentarily bathed in white light. This was from one of our own searchlights. It went out as suddenly as it had come on. From all directions came the clamor of machine guns, periodically punctuated by the hollow sound of our three-inch guns. From the powder magazine on Peacock Point we were unable in the darkness to make out any of the targets which attracted this voluminous fire. The number of red flares increased. They came closer and closer, breaking over the island in ragged lines, bathing it in an eerie crimson glow. The sky now was a mosaic fashioned by tangled searchlight beams. The firing increased to a steady drumming sound. The .50-caliber nests nearby on the windward side of Peacock Point opened up. Bullets zinged close overhead, and we ducked for cover behind the sandbags protecting the magazine.
At the time the final attack came, approximately 450 servicemen were available to defend the island. These men had been on the alert at battle stations for fifteen consecutive days and nights without relief. With the exception of the plane which Captain Freuler had piloted on the afternoon of the twenty-second, and which, while repairable, would be out of commission for several days, we had lost all of our small squadron of airplanes.