The Siege of Wake Island


Across the road from Hanna’s party, in a narrow strip of brush paralleling the runway, Captain Frank Tharin and Captain Elrod were in charge of another group of skirmishers, their personnel including civilian mechanics Yeager, Gibbons, Gibbons’ son, the contractor’s structural steel superintendent, Pete Sorenson, and a structural steel foreman named L.H. Peterson. This patch of brush was full of Japanese and the fighting was at close quarters. Men maneuvered an inch at a time to get a shot at the Japs lying behind rocks and brush not more than twenty or twenty-five feet from them.

Hanna’s party tried several times to abandon their exposed beach position and join Tharin’s group in the brush, but were prevented from doing so by a Japanese machine gunner who commanded a full view of the open road which they must cross. Sorenson and Peterson, the first armed with a tommy gun, the second with a Springfield rifle, crouched behind an overturned AA carrier about fifty yards from Hanna. They too were practically in the open. They were kneeling about six or seven feet apart, when a grenade burst directly between them. By some strange freak of fortune neither man was injured. They separated, and within seconds the Jap mortars on the airport scored direct hits on each man, killing them instantly.

Bryan did yeoman service with his machine gun before a bullet pierced his forehead. Gay was killed by a machine gun burst which raked his chest, and an almost simultaneous grenade hit which practically disemboweled him. Hanna saw a Japanese firing at Major Putnam at close range. The bullet hit a three-inch shell and ricocheted harmlessly. Before the Jap could fire again, Hanna had dropped him with his .45.

In the brush across the road, Captain Elrod and young Gibbons had been killed. Captain Tharin and a companion ensconced in a bomb crater, each with a Thompson submachine gun, were having a wonderful time. A fringe of Japanese faces peered above the crater’s rim—a spraying motion of the tommy guns—and the faces disappeared. When the surrender came, Tharin’s foxhole literally was ringed by dozens of Japanese dead.

Just how the Japanese flanked our Wake Island positions is not entirely clear. Evidently under cover of darkness they entered the lagoon over the reef in rubber boats and secreted themselves in the thick brush along the lagoon side of Wake Island. Men attached to Lieutenant Lewis’ AA battery reported that early in the morning they were fired on from that direction. After the surrender, a Japanese officer told one of the contractor’s engineers whom he had put to work straightening out blueprints in the office, that further resistance on our part would have proven futile in any event; that there were over 150 Japanese naval vessels within an hour’s call of Wake Island that morning.

The island was surrendered unconditionally about eight o’clock on the morning of December 23, a few hours less than sixteen days after the Japanese launched their first attack from the air.

It is interesting to know that the Japanese landing parties were a long way from defeating the American garrison in the field. Actually, throughout the early morning hours, we had them beaten. The main American skirmish line defending the command post, extending across Wake Island from the lagoon to Windy Beach, never did engage the enemy. On the lee shore of Wake, the parties commanded by Captain Tharin and Major Putnam were holding their own, and on Wilkes Island the force under Captain Platt had completely eliminated the attackers.

Practically alone in the command post, throughout the early hours of the morning of December 23 Major Devereux received reports from his officers in the field regarding enemy strength. Fifty to a hundred planes of all classes were in sight, and estimates of enemy vessels offshore ranged from sixteen to twenty-five or thirty with, undoubtedly, other units lying out of sight beyond the horizon.

In view of enemy strength, the ultimate outcome of the engagement was not in doubt. The opinion of the Marine officers and noncommissioned officers was that we would have been able to withstand the Japanese attacks throughout the day of the twenty-third, but that they would have overrun the island the following night under conditions that would have made formal surrender impossible.

In my estimation Commander Cunningham and Major Devereux showed rare good judgment, and saved the lives of the men on the island, by timing the surrender when they did. No doubt a sense of responsibility toward us civilians was a factor figuring in the capitulation.

Throughout the night, nine of us civilians on Peacock Point had lain under the camouflage on top of the trap door to Battery A’s powder magazine, squeezed between the sandbags for protection from the bullets streaming overhead. With the first faint glimmer of daylight, enemy planes, coming in low, swooped over our position. Retreat to the dugout was impossible; for all we knew, our battery might go into action at any moment, in which event we would be needed.

There was only one thing to do. Hastily we raised the trap door and the nine of us tumbled into the magazine, where we crouched between the tiered powder canisters and the racks of shells.