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After Pearl Harbor

Map of Wake Island as it looks today.
A modern map of Wake Island atoll, which is literally on the edge of nowhere in the vast Pacific Ocean, but so important strategically the Japanese attacked and invaded in the hours and days after Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The atoll is closer to Tokyo (1,991 miles) than Honolulu (2,298). Today it is home to a restricted U.S. Air Force base (note long runway at the bottom of the atoll) and a strategic missile defense facility.

In the hours and days immediately following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, American civilians and military personnel experienced a mishmash of paralysis, fear, confusion, indecision and bravery. Regular Americans reacted the quickest and the best. Even before President Franklin Roosevelt finished his “Day of Infamy” address to Congress on Dec. 8, recruitment stations were swamped with thousands of men wanting to enlist while their families began preparing for a long arduous war.

Military leaders reacted the worst. One of America’s best generals in history, Douglas MacArthur, sat paralyzed in his Manila penthouse for several hours after informed about Pearl Harbor, thereby letting the Japanese destroy his air force on the ground. The Army Air Corps had plans drawn up for an outbreak of hostilities and would have sent its new heavy B-17 bombers to attack the main Japanese base on Formosa, now Taiwan, if given the go ahead by MacArthur.

While the United States sat frozen in stunned surprise after the Hawaii attack, the Japanese were busy implementing their master plan to establish a defensive perimeter around their Asian/Pacific empire. Guam and Wake Island were bombed and invaded within hours and days of Pearl Harbor. Guam fell to Japanese invaders on Dec. 10 after a small battle. I’ve chosen to highlight the heroic but tragic story of Wake Island in this blog because it encompasses the entire range of reactions and emotions immediately after Pearl Harbor.

Besides Wake, the Philippines and Guam, the Japanese on Dec. 7/8 also attacked or occupied British Hong Kong and Malaya, Thailand and international settlements in China. It would take the Americans, British, Australians, and their allies four long, bloody years to pierce and collapse this perimeter and bring their forces to the shores of the Japanese homeland.

Wake suddenly important

Old photo of the USS Bennington gunboat that claimed possession of Wake Island for the U.S.
The crew of the U.S.S. Bennington, a Yorktown-class gunboat, formally took possession of Wake atoll in 1899, beginning a long association with the American military that continues to this day.

The wind- and wave-swept atoll was “discovered” by Europeans in 1568 when Spanish explorers circled the island. My apologies to the Polynesians who undoubtedly visited the atoll long before the Spaniards, but I didn’t have access to their oral histories. Humorously, at least to me, the Spanish sailors named it “San Francisco” because discovery day was on the eve of the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. But the island quickly returned to obscurity. A pair of ship captains named Wake separately “rediscovered” the atoll in the 1790s and lent their name to the island, which stuck this time.

Except for the drama surrounding a couple of famous shipwrecks on Wake, the island was generally ignored (except by Japanese feather harvesters) until 1898. The annexation of Hawaii that year and the capturing of Guam and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War suddenly made Wake important because it was roughly halfway between Honolulu and Manila and useful for refueling U.S. Navy ships. On Jan. 17, 1899, the crew of an U.S. gunboat formally raised an American flag, erected a plaque, and claimed the island for the United States.

Still, the little island didn’t even register on many world maps until two events in the 1930s — Pan American World Airways decided Wake would make a dandy way station for its revolutionary flying boat service from Asia to the American West Coast; and increasing tensions with Japan made Wake strategically important to both parties.

Wake heroism

Poster for 1942's "Wake Island" film.
Soon after the real Wake Island fell to the Japanese after a heroic defense, Hollywood was making a movie about it. The 1942 film was nominated for five Academy Awards and is a fairly accurate depiction thanks to an airman who escaped the atoll on the last airplane and told the world the story.

The Japanese wanted Wake so badly they bombed the atoll hours after the Pearl Harbor attack. Events moved forward quickly. On Dec. 11, a day after Guam surrendered, the Japanese attempted a landing on Wake. But with war clouds building since early 1941, the United States had been fortifying the island with troops, guns, and planes. The Japanese sent three light cruisers, six destroyers, and several other ships of various kinds to complete the mission. Wake contained six 5-inch cannons taken from the decommissioned battleship, U.S.S. Texas, 12 3-inch anti-aircraft weapons, and numerous machine guns. Not only were there 450 Marines on the island but also 68 sailors, 1,200 civilian construction workers, and 45 Chamorro men from the Mariana Islands and Guam. All fought the Japanese during the next two weeks.

One of the 5-inch guns sank a destroyer, and one of four remaining American aircraft dropped a bomb that sank another destroyer. The Japanese suffered 407 wounded and killed and withdrew without attempting a landing. They were back in 12 days.

The second invasion was successful but only after Japan diverted to Wake two fleet carriers returning from Pearl Harbor and several more cruisers and destroyers and hundreds of additional troops. After a night and morning of fighting, the Wake defenders surrendered on Dec. 23, but acts of bravery abounded. Two Japanese patrol/landing boats burned on the beaches, two dozen aircraft were destroyed or damaged, and Marine aviator Henry T. Elrod won a posthumous Medal of Honor for sinking a Japanese destroyer and shooting down a number of enemy planes. He crash-landed his plane on Wake and then fought the enemy in hand-to-hand combat until he was killed.

Fortunately, we know all these details because Marine Lieut. Col. Walter Bayler, a communications expert and aviator, was ordered to take his knowledge and escape on the last working aircraft. Bayler, by the way, went on to fight in some of the Pacific war’s most famous battles and became a Marine brigadier general.

Interestingly, or tragically I don’t know, American war leaders really wanted Guam back, but not Wake Island. The battles to retake Guam in 1944 cost the Marines and Navy nearly 8,000 casualties. On the other hand, the Japanese held Wake until Sept. 4, 1945, two days after the country formally surrendered on board the U.S.S. Missouri.

The Japanese in WW II apparently just couldn’t contain their brutality. On Wake, as in many of their other occupied territories, they murdered 98 American prisoners in 1943. One of the prisoners briefly escaped and carved “98 US PW 5-10-43” on a large coral rock that exists today as a memorial. That unnamed prisoner was recaptured and beheaded. After the Japanese surrender, the island commander was tried as a war criminal and hung.

Loss of nerve

USS Saratoga (CV-3), one of America's first aircraft carriers.
The U.S.S. Saratoga (CV-3), one of America’s original fleet carriers, was sent toward Wake Island to relieve the beleaguered defenders but was recalled without engaging the Japanese.

Warhistorybuffs know the story of Wake and probably have seen the movie, but I was astounded to learn the U.S. sent a small fleet toward the atoll to reinforce the defenders and expel the invaders.

How that operation evolved and ended is part of the dismal failures and loss of nerve characterized by some of America’s military leaders after Pearl Harbor. It would take several months in all the service branches to sort out the fighting generals and admirals from the desk jockeys who had atrophied from more than 20 years of peace.

The idea for the relief mission was Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Husband Kimmel’s. That was the same Admiral Kimmel blamed for the Pearl Harbor debacle (the Kimmel saga is another story; it eventually was revealed Kimmel was kept in the dark about broken Japanese codes that indicated an attack was coming). In any event, Kimmel WAS a fighting admiral. He had been pushing the fleet hard in training and expected an imminent war. When he learned of Wake’s heroic defense, Kimmel formed Task Force 14 and sent it sailing toward Wake on Dec. 15.

Admiral Frank Fletcher led the Saratoga relief mission while another American carrier was to raid the Marshall Islands as a diversion. Fletcher’s Task Force 14 was formidable. Besides the Saratoga, it contained an oiler, a seaplane tender, three heavy cruisers and eight destroyers carrying Marine reinforcements and considerable equipment including fire control gear and new radar technology.

Unfortunately for the Wake defenders, Kimmel was relieved on Dec. 18 and replaced by an acting Pacific fleet C-in-C, Admiral William Pye, who had commanded the battleships at Pearl Harbor. Pye initially allowed TF-14 to continue, but it was slowed by refueling issues. When Pye heard the Japanese were renewing their attack on Wake (with aircraft carriers, which Pye feared and didn’t understand; he was a battleship guy), and the Navy brass in Washington suggested the relief mission should turn into an evacuation, Pye lost his nerve. He ordered Task Force 14 to turn around and return to Pearl Harbor.

Fletcher was a by-the-book commander and obeyed orders despite urgings by his staff to sail on toward Wake. An admiral like William (Bull) Halsey probably would have charged into battle, but the chances for a glorious victory like Midway would have been low. The Saratoga was carrying obsolete Brewster Buffalo fighters, which were no match for the Japanese Zeros. On the other hand, the Japanese would have been completely surprised by the appearance of an American carrier and cruisers at Wake.

Pye gave way to the incoming Admiral Chester Nimitz and was reassigned to non-combat commands for the duration of the war. President Roosevelt was reportedly angry over the Wake surrender, and Marine Corps leaders were furious over the abandonment of their troops, contributing to Pye’s backwater assignments after Pearl Harbor.

Posted in U.S. Marines, Japan, Pacific, U.S. Navy, WW II, military, War History, War Movie

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