June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
American Heritage Book Selection: An eyewitness account of the World War II battle in the Pacific.
On Monday morning, December 8 (Wake Island time),1 1941, we reported for work at seven o’clock as usual. At about eight, my friend Bob Bryan, a clerk in the engineering office, came to my desk, greatly excited.
“There’s a report coming in on the radio that the Japs have attacked Pearl Harbor, and are bombing and machine-gunning Schofield Barracks!” he exclaimed.
I heard trucks rumbling over the Peale Island bridge. (Wake Island is actually an atoll composed of three islands: Peale, Wilkes, and the largest, Wake.) Looking out of the window, I saw the usual working party of marines who were building machine-gun pits on the windward side of Peale Island pass by. For the first time they were in full battle dress, with packs, helmets, and rifles. This gave me pause for thought, but still the urgency of compiling my reports in time to get them aboard the eastbound clipper was uppermost in my mind.
The radio reports persisted, however. Men began leaving their drawing boards and desks and circling about the engineering office uneasily. The China Clipper had taken off that morning, continuing its routine flight to Guam; but soon after its departure I was astounded to see it circling in from the west, low on the horizon.
Just about noon, a loud explosion occurred, followed by a series of similar ones that shook the building, violently rattling the windows in their casements. The first thought entering my mind was that the drill crews had set off some particularly heavy charges in the lagoon—for they had been at work for the past month blasting coral-heads to clear the seaplane runways. But outside, the lagoon was placid in the sunlight.
I joined a group of men from my department and from the engineering office who were running into the hall and toward the exterior door. Then for the first time I heard the drone of engines and the rapid staccato of machine-gun fire. Someone yelled, “Hit the floor!”
I crawled to the door on my hands and knees to look out. All along the water front clouds of black smoke were pouring upward; crossing the lagoon at an altitude of five or six hundred feet, headed in our direction, were three squadrons of two-engine bombers in tight V-formations. It flashed through my mind that very probably they would bomb our camp. “Outside!” I yelled, and running down the steps, I raced across the road and threw myself under a stunted tree.
Men were running in all directions seeking what sparse cover there was in the area. All around us, machine-gun bullets were kicking up little spurts of dust like the impact of heavy raindrops on a dirt road. I heard a swift tearing sound directly overhead and looked up into a shower of shredded leaves. At the same time, as though a sharp stick had been drawn across the ground, a stream of bullets cut a line in the dirt parallel to, and scarcely eight inches distant from, my body. The Japanese planes were flying so low that I could plainly see the crewmen peering out of the cockpits.
By now, Pan American’s buildings and installations, as well as many of the permanent establishments that we had built on Peale Island, were roaring infernos of flame and smoke corkscrewing into the sky. Evidently the Japanese had expended their bomb load on our land-plane runway, for they passed over our camp strafing but not bombing. After they disappeared, I stood up, feeling queer in the knees. I looked at my watch. It was twelve o’clock “straight up.” From beginning to end the attack had not lasted more than four or five minutes.
I ran back into the office, grabbed the cost ledgers, shoved them in a filing cabinet, and closed and locked the drawer. Reynold Carr, one of my clerks, called, “Hey, look at this!” A bullet had drilled a neat hole through the seat of his chair. He had missed death by seconds. We found other holes in the floor and walls.
Leaving the office, I walked toward the mess hall. It being near mealtime, scores of men had been on the mall when the attack came, and yet, miraculously, none of them had been hit. Men were now scattered about in little groups, talking in hushed voices, some squatting on their heels intently digging in the ground with pocketknives in search of bullets. Williamson, the assistant steward, came out of the mess hall and climbed on a table. “There’ll be no seating today,” he said. “We’ll serve lunch cafeteria-style. Get in line. Pass through the kitchen to get your grub, then go outside—and don’t bunch up.”
I gulped the food, returned the utensils to the mess hall, and crossing to my bunkhouse, hurriedly made up a bedroll. I looked at the pictures on the shelf, hesitated a moment, and decided to leave them and my other possessions where they were. Shouldering the bedroll and pocketing toothbrush, tooth powder, and some chocolate bars I had purchased at the canteen, I left. I never entered the bunkhouse again. It was bombed out of existence the following day.
My bunkhouse was situated on a side road debouching on the arterial road which led to the Peale Island bridge. As I approached the main road, I saw two trucks and a pickup crossing the bridge very slowly; I stepped aside to permit them to turn down the side road to the hospital. The truck swung around the curve, a corner of its tail gate passing within a foot of my face. Its bed was covered with wounded, dying, and dead men, sprawled on rumpled, bloody quilts. Nearest me, his head, neck, and shoulder a lacerated mass, was a man whose arm was connected to his body by the merest shred of flesh. Half of his skull had been blown away, and his brains were oozing through the jagged aperture onto the quilt. The second truck and the pickup carried the same grim cargo.
Work parties were being made up in front of the contractor’s office. I remember Lieutenant Commander Elmer Greey, the Navy’s resident officer in the construction camp, asking me if I was arranging transportation back home and my reply that I was scheduled to report to the Marine camp with a party of volunteers. We tossed our bedrolls onto a truck and climbed in.
Our immediate task was the decentralization of .30- and .50-caliber machine-gun ammunition. Speed was imperative. The heavy cases were stacked in great piles high under the rafters of a long, sheet-iron warehouse building. Men swarmed up these piles while those of us below formed two lines. The cases began moving out rapidly. We shoved them aboard a truck, which transported them out to the parade ground where they were unloaded and hastily buried.
Before we had completed the decentralization of the small arms ammunition, ten of us were assigned to a detail engaged in trucking three-inch antiaircraft shells from temporary frame magazines to the gun batteries. About five o’clock, we finished supplying the Wilkes Island battery, and headed in our truck for the contractor’s camp. As we crossed the east-west runway of the airfield, a sad sight, formidable in its implications, met our eyes. Seven of our twelve Grumman Wildcat fighters were broken in two, their empennages and radial engines pointing skyward at sharp angles. Four of them had been set on fire by machine-gun strafing, and three were damaged beyond repair by close bomb hits. An eighth plane had been damaged but was in repairable condition.
Our Marine aviation personnel had also suffered heavy casualties. Of the pilots, First Lieutenant George Graves and Second Lieutenants Frank Holden and Robert Conderman had been killed, and Second Lieutenant Henry Webb severely wounded. The casualties had been proportionately heavy among the members of the ground crew. The loss of these pilots, as well as seven of our twelve fighter planes, on the first day of hostilities was the worst possible blow to our defenses.
All the planes had been aloft most of the morning; at the time of the attack, however, only four were up, the others having returned to base for refueling. Had the enemy delayed twenty minutes, we would have had eight planes in the sky, with two more ready to take off.
The initial success of the Japanese in taking the island by surprise can be attributed to the skill with which they made use of cloud cover. All morning the sky had been overcast, and a long dense cloud bank lay parallel to and directly above Wake’s lee shore. Apparently the Japanese came in high, and while still far out to sea, cut their engines. They glided in, darting out of this cloud bank at an altitude of a thousand or fifteen hundred feet, and were over our airfield before we were aware of their existence.
At ten o’clock that night I found myself a member of a crew unloading antiaircraft shells near the extremity of Peacock Point. Fred Hauner, one of the men from my department, was with me. When we had unloaded the truck, Fred and I headed down the trail toward the Five-Inch battery. A sentry challenged us. “This is Burroughs,” I answered. “Where is Lieutenant Barninger?”
Sergeant Boscarino, gun captain on gun No. 1, came up. “We’ve fixed up foxholes for you men. That’s what we were doing during the bombing. We didn’t waste any time. Come on and I’ll show you where they are.”
Fred and I followed, stumbling in the inky blackness, our feet catching on the creeping vines.
“There it is,” Boscarino said, pointing to a smudge one degree blacker than the enveloping night. There was hardly room enough for the two of us to squeeze inside the foxhole. The “floor” was covered with coral cobbles the size of a man’s fist. We each had a blanket, a sheet, and a canvas bedcover. I was too exhausted to fall asleep. For a long time I lay twisting on the pernicious coral, trying to avoid the drip of the rain that had begun to fall, and listening to the ominous boom and rumble of the nearby surf.
Fred and I awoke at daybreak and crawled out of our hole. In the west, smoke still ascended from the preceding day’s holocaust. We had learned that Pan Am’s casualties were ten men—mostly Chamorro boys from Guam—dead, and that some thirty service men had been killed or wounded in the attack on the airport. An undetermined number of contractor’s men were casualties. The hospital was full, and the contractor’s surgeon, Dr. Lawton Shank, and the Navy medical officer, Lieutenant Gustave Kahn, had operated without rest all during the afternoon and night of December 8.
Fred and I went down to Battery A’s range finder and passed the time of day with the marines. Boscarino quickly instructed us in the use of a .30-caliber machine gun, and showed us which foxholes we were to occupy in the event an air raid caught us while we were working around the battery. A klaxon which could be heard all over the point had been rigged up to give the alarm when enemy planes came in sight.2 Lookouts equipped with binoculars were posted on the range finder shelter, and on top of Lieutenant Barninger’s battery command post.
Dead tired from the excitement and the work of the preceding day, and from a sleepless, rain-drenched night, I stretched out on a rock and was nearly asleep when the klaxon sounded. As distant as the drowsy hum of bees on a sultry summer day I could hear the engines of the approaching planes. This time the Japanese did not have the advantage of a surprise attack. First I heard the rapid staccato of our .50-caliber machine guns, and then the close, loud, hollow-sounding “pung-pung-punging” as the AA battery under the command of Lieutenant William Lewis went into action. Fred and I crouched against the rear wall of our foxhole, as far back as it was possible to get from the brilliant splash of sunlight on the white rocks at the entrance.
The enemy flight was passing directly over Peacock Point. Above the ever-present pounding of the surf a new sound came to my ears: first, a swift rustling as of heavy silk; then a shrill thin scream culminating in a shattering explosion. I shrank back, instinctively throwing my arm in front of my eyes. The ground shuddered. Rock fragments were falling on the roof of our foxhole like the steady pounding of heavy rain. A rock the size of my head catapulted into the opening and rolled against my feet. As the sound of bursting bombs grew fainter and fainter, I crawled to the door and looked out.
Nearby, the leaves on the shrubbery were gray-coated with dust. Fred came out of the hole, and we stood on the rocks watching a huge conflagration in the contractor’s camp. Soon all of Peale Island and the northwesternmost tip of Wake were blanketed by flame and smoke. Now and then a new wisp of light-gray smoke would rise and mingle with the black, as another frame building took fire.
We went down to the battery command post. Bit by bit, disastrous news came over the wire. The contractor’s warehouse in Camp Two had been hit. Our machine shop and adjacent oil and gasoline stores had been completely wiped out. The explosive and incendiary bombs had cut a swath right through the center of the contractor’s camp. The Nipponese had succeeded in bombing and burning the company hospital, which was crammed with men wounded in the preceding day’s attack. I learned later that my bunkhouse had burned to the ground in this raid, leaving me bereft of all my possessions except the clothing I wore.
One fact of these raids struck me as peculiarly significant. The Japanese had carefully avoided destroying the powerhouses in the two camps, the bridge connecting Wake and Peale islands, and the nearly completed Naval Air Station barracks building on Peale. This seemed strange, for without the powerhouses, the fresh water distilleries could not be operated, and without the distilleries we soon would be forced to capitulate because of thirst. But it also occurred to me that perhaps the Japanese were bent not so much on our destruction and the eradication of Wake Island as an effective link in our aerial communications with the Philippines, as they were in preserving our most essential installations for themselves. Of course this meant but one thing: landing parties—an attempt to storm the island—and this posed a serious personal problem to all civilian personnel.
The marines on the island were, essentially, a working party, many of them not long out of boot camp. The first full-strength defense battalion, it was rumored, was not due to arrive until January 9, 1942. Even the servicemen on the island were under-armed. Let me emphasize that the terms of our working agreements with the contractors prohibited our bringing personal weapons to the island. Yet there we were—1,200 unarmed men—living like rats in the middle of a battlefield! A weapon in a man’s hands gives him confidence. We did not have weapons. All we could do was crouch behind rocks and scoot from foxhole to foxhole.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Time passed. The sky lightened. The steady drumming of machine guns came from all sides. I looked through the small screened vent at ground level and was surprised to see the long tube of our gun No. 1 stripped of camouflage, ready for action. None of the marines was in sight. Fortunately for us unarmed civilians, the Japanese landing parties avoided the strong rip-tides off Peacock Point, and passed a hundred yards to the west of our position on their way to the airport.
The sun was up now. A plane dived directly on us, passed close—scarcely a hundred feet overhead—and, miracle of miracles, nothing happened. Then we noticed a significant lull in the firing of the machine guns. I risked a glimpse top-side. Overhead a multitude of planes of all types were flying low over the island. Our two naval rifles, stripped of their camouflage, were naked and cold-looking in the early morning sunlight. They were glaring targets, but the Japanese airmen ignored them. I couldn’t figure it out.
After the hours of incessant gun fire, the sudden absolute quiet was awesome. We whispered in muted tones, or kept quiet, admonishing others to do likewise by sign language. Except for the soft murmur of a quiet sea lapping at the coral pebbles on the beach, Peacock Point was absolutely still.
At long last a man appeared in the clearing in the rear of our guns. It was Sergeant Warren. Approaching the magazine, he called: “You people can come on up. It’s all over. The island’s surrendered.”
I don’t know just what I did expect, but I hadn’t expected that. The thing that must not happen, the thing we dreaded most—more than mutilation or death—had happened. In a benumbed state of mind, I automatically took out the small notebook in which I had been keeping a diary, tore it into small fragments, and scattered them among the powder canisters. Loosening my belt, I removed the only weapon I possessed—a clasp knife with a four-inch blade—and tossed it behind a rack of shells. I crawled outside, and, unutterably weary, stood on unsteady legs.
Slowly, we made our way to the range finder. The skirmish line had broken up, and men were coming out of the brush from all directions. Some of the marines were busy opening tinned food. “Eat all you can,” Lieutenant Barninger admonished, “it may be a long time to the next meal.” He turned toward us. “You civilians get away from the battery. The Japs may class you as guerrillas if they find you here.”
“Let’s go up on the road and see what it’s all about,” I said to Johnny Clelan.
Johnny and I shook hands all around with the marines, and started up the trail. We came out on the road, and walked in the direction of the contractor’s camp.
The rounded dirt-covered crests of the four high-explosive magazines loomed ahead. A Japanese flag floated on top of one of them. Someone had left a half-full number ten can of pineapple rings in the middle of the road. We hooked several rings of the fruit over our fingers and walked toward captivity eating nonchalantly.
Two Japanese soldiers were standing on either side of the road in front of the first of the magazines. My initial impression of them was that they carried unusually long rifles and bayonets. A second glance revealed that the rifles were of ordinary size, but that the men holding them were very small. Both were wearing split-toed sneakers, which gave them a cloven-hoofed appearance. Round canvas-covered helmets came low over their heads and necks.
Beyond the sentries, a considerable group of nearly naked Americans were lying or sitting in the middle of the road. As we approached, the sentries grunted, making upward thrusts with their bayonets. We raised our hands over our heads. One of them stepped forward and pulled at my shirt, pointing at a heap of clothing by the side of the road. We stripped down, being allowed to retain only our under-shorts, socks, and shoes. Then we were herded in with the other prisoners, most of whom were trussed up with telephone wire cut from nearby communication lines. Their legs were tied together at the ankles. Their crossed wrists had been tied and drawn up between their shoulder blades, the lashings then looped around their throats in such a manner that any effort to release their wrists, or to relieve their arms from the twisted, cramped position, automatically resulted in cutting off their wind—an ingenious lash-up which rendered them perfectly inert. Many men wore dirty, blood-soaked bandages.
Japanese sentries with fixed bayonets stood guard over us. On top of a nearby high-explosive magazine, a sailor trained a light machine gun in our direction. The Japs were highly elated. Planes roared overhead. One of them—a biplane with pontoons—meandered over at an altitude of forty or fifty feet. The sailor on the magazine stood up, yelled “ banzai,” and waved his cap.
I looked out to sea. Hard by the reef, standing so close to each other that it seemed the bow of one overlapped the stern of the other, rising and falling with the ocean swells, Japanese men-of-war completely ringed the island. Not until years later, after V-J day, in fact, when I flew over Yokohama harbor en route to Guam, did I see so many ships assembled.
1 Wake is west of the International Date Line. Thus it was December 7 at Pearl Harbor.
2 Unfortunately, Wake Island was not equipped with radar.
3 Lieutenant Barninger’s battery had hit the light cruiser Yubari , flagship of the Japanese invasion force.
4 In the engagement of December 11, the Wake Island shore batteries sank one Japanese destroyer and badly damaged several other warships. Thirty miles southwest of the atoll, the Grumman fighters sank a second destroyer. It was the last time in the Pacific War that coast defense guns repelled an amphibious landing. —Ed.