- 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
As nearly as we could ascertain, the Nipponese were attempting to land all along the lee shores of Wake and Wilkes islands in motor-driven barges and boats. Throughout the night, flares also were seen over the lagoon. On Peale Island shortly before 2 A.M. the gun crews were ordered to take small arms and stand by to repel a possible landing sortie from the lagoon side. Except for reconnaissance patrols in their area, the troops on Peale Island were inactive until seven o’clock on the morning of the twenty-third when they were transferred to Wake Island to join a skirmish line protecting the command post.
On Wilkes Island, however, it was a different story. Throughout the night, flares burst over the island and our machine guns fired constantly. In bombing Wilkes Island on December 10 the Japanese had hit a big cache of dynamite. The force of the terrific explosion damaged the big searchlight unit concealed in the brush nearby to such an extent that it went out of order after only a few seconds of use on the morning of the twenty-third. Consequently the defense against the landing parties was undertaken in total darkness.
The fighting on Wake Island was widespread, extending from the small boat channel eastward along the lee shore to within 150 yards of our Peacock Point positions, taking in the airport, and extending as far north as the communication center. The best way to tell the story of the melee on the lee shore of Wake, and in the brush between the road and the airport, is to relate the amazing exploit of Lieutenant Bob Hanna.
Lieutenant Hanna, being the American farthest out on the beach, was the first to discern the shadowy shapes of the Japanese landing craft silently gliding shoreward. A crew was to have been formed to service the nearby three-inch gun, but they had not arrived. Hanna got on the phone and was informed from command post that no crew was available to man this gun. Although he was a machine-gun specialist, Hanna asked for and obtained permission to man the three-inch gun himself. Assisted only by civilians Robert M. Bryan and Paul Gay, who had been trained on machine guns and who knew absolutely nothing about the operation of a three-inch gun, Hanna got busy.
It was pitch black and everything had to be done by “feel.” Hanna told Bryan to bring the gun to bear on the target—a shadowy hulk close in, and approximately a hundred yards upshore from his position—while he proceeded to cut the fuses on several shells, making them as short as possible for a two-second burst.
Hanna loaded the three-inch piece, attached the lanyard and fired. The first shot went high. In laying the piece on the target, Bryan had sighted along the top of the barrel as one sights a shotgun or a sporting rifle. Hanna quickly lowered the muzzle and “bore-sighted” the gun. The next shot took effect.
Hanna could not recognize the nature of the target—whether it was a landing barge, a longboat or what. As its stern receded into the blackness of the night and the Pacific, he put two more shots into her. The Japanese aboard the craft, probably to give their shock troops a brief glimpse of the terrain ashore, then did a foolish thing. Momentarily they turned on a hooded spotlight on the ship’s bow. It was enough. For an instant the entire structure—it was a patrol craft—was silhouetted. Hanna quickly swung the muzzle of his gun to the left. A shot—there was a muffled roar—and clouds of steam rose upward. A second shot found the ship’s magazine and she went up: small-arms ammunition covered the sky with red traceries; larger shells exploded making exquisite red and white flower pots; grenades feathered out like sparklers.
The “show” was visible all over the island. By its light Hanna discovered a second ship of the same class in the immediate vicinity, and succeeded in putting several shots into her. In the haste with which it had been placed, the platform of the gun he was firing had not been seated firmly on the ground, but rested in part on some tough, springy ironwood brush. Each time it was fired, the gun jumped about like an unruly mustang, and it was necessary to check the aim before again firing. The position was exposed, and Hanna and his crew were utterly without sandbags or any other type of protection.
Dawn found twelve men defending the beach in the vicinity of Hanna’s position: Hanna, Bryan, Gay, Major Putnam, Corporal John Painter, who had given an excellent account of himself as a mechanic on the airport, Marines L.V. Murphy and Baumgardner, civilians Eric Lehtola and J.C. Smith, and three other civilians whose names are not available. Bryan was manning a .30-caliber machine gun. In addition, the party was armed with a Thompson submachine gun, a Browning automatic rifle, Springfields, and a few side arms.
Early in the war our draglines had gouged deep recesses into the bank paralleling the south side of the east-west runway for the protection of our planes when they were on the ground. Under the cover of darkness, a number of Japanese had infiltrated into these recesses, and when dawn came they gave Hanna’s embattled group plenty of trouble with manually operated grenade throwers. These small mechanical mortars, with a very high trajectory, were surprisingly accurate.