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Wake Island: 1941

Wake Island is an atoll consisting of three islands with a lagoon, annexed by the United States as a result of victory over Spain in May 1898. In 1941 Wake was a small naval station and airstrip, defended by U.S. Marines, part of the U.S. military presence in the Pacific. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Japanese began their assault on Wake Island.

Surrender of Japanese on Wake Atoll, 4 September 1945, the first time the U.S. flag flew over Wake since its capture by the Japanese on 23 December 1941.  The officer saluting at right foreground is Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, Japanese commander on Wake. Colors carried by the U.S. party, right background, include the U.S. Marine Corps flag
Surrender of Japanese on Wake Atoll, 4 September 1945, the first time the U.S. flag flew over Wake since its capture by the Japanese on 23 December 1941. The officer saluting at right foreground is Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, Japanese commander on Wake. Colors carried by the U.S. party, right background, include the U.S. Marine Corps flag.

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Battle of Wake Island: 1941

Wake Island’s defenders were not prepared for war. The Marine aviators and mechanics were unfamiliar with their aircraft, the airstrip could only accommodate one aircraft at a time, and many of the permanent facilities were incomplete. Nevertheless, a Marine "ready for anything" attitude prevailed. By 27 October 1941, the Marine Defensive Battalion numbered 15 officers and 373 enlisted men, led by Major James P.S. Devereux (later Major General) with a separate naval detachment of 13 men. This figure is well below the 900 Marines officially recommended for the defense of the island, but nonetheless Rear Admiral Claude C. Bloch advised the Chief of Navel Operations that "anyone who wants these places now will have quite a tussle to get them."

Additional deployments continued throughout November. In late November, the Marine fighting squadron (VMF) 211 arrived with their 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat aircraft, led by Major Paul A. Putman.

On 27 November 1941, Wake Island received a warning that negotiations with Japan had deteriorated. The message also advised that "an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days." By early December 1941, the military on Wake totalled 449 marines, the 1st Defense Battalion and Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211, 71 sailors, and a six man Army signal detachment, all commanded by Navy Commander Winfield S. Cunningham.

The Japanese Assault on Wake Atoll

Smoke rises from Wake Island after a Japanese air attack. The command post used by the detachment of the 1st Defense Battalion lies in the right foreground.  December 1941
Smoke rises from Wake Island after a Japanese air attack. The command post used by the detachment of the 1st Defense Battalion lies in the right foreground. December 1941.

On the morning of 7 December 1941, (8 December on Wake), Major Devereux, received the message that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese. For three days Wake was strafed and bombed by Japanese aircraft, based on Roi in the Marshall Islands. Eight of the twelve Marine aircraft were destroyed on the first day and many of the facilities were damaged. The defenders of Wake, however, continued to put up a strong fight, destroying a large number of attacking enemy aircraft.

On 11 December, the attack escalated. Three light cruisers, six destroyers, two patrol boats, two transport ships, and three submarines of the Japanese Navy arrived off the coast. With inadequate firepower, a lack of range finding equipment and only four remaining aircraft, the Americans created a defense based on surprise. Holding their fire until the Japanese were within 6,000 yards, the Marines hit and sank two destroyers and also damaged the three cruisers, the transport ships, one submarine, and three of the destroyers. During this battle, the Wake defenders also downed two bombers and damaged eleven fighters. These losses, combined with high seas and poor weather, forced the Japanese Commander, Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, to withdraw.

The American forces on Wake endured an additional 12 days of air attacks before the next invasion force arrived, on 23 December 1941. This time the Japanese were reinforced by four heavy cruisers, two replacement destroyers, and a seaplane carrier. With no airworthy planes left, the Marine Aviators joined the crews of military and civilians manning shore defenses to hold off the invaders.

The Japanese offensive began, without pre-invasion bombardment, just after midnight on 23 December. A landing force of 1,000 men, with another 500 in reserve, came ashore at several points on the atoll. The Marines continued to fight, pushed into ever smaller pockets of resistance. By 0500, 27 Japanese ships encircled the atoll and over 1,000 Japanese were on the islands. The Marines damaged two more destroyers, but to prevent the complete slaughter of his men Commander Cunningham authorized the American surrender at 0630, with the last group laying down their arms seven hours later.

During the 16-day battle for Wake, the Japanese lost 820 men killed and 333 wounded. American casualties totaled 120 killed, 49 wounded and two missing.

Why No Reinforcements For Wake Island?

After the first Japanese attack failed to take the island, there was a small window of opportunity when the island could have been reinforced from Hawaii. The heroic and successful defense by the small Marine detachment boosted the morale of the men on the island and of the American public back home. But that was not enough. The fate of the island garrison remained dependent on reinforcements and Hawaii was the only source. Task Force 14, an American relief convoy, was dispatched and steamed towards Wake Island, but the second Japanese attack on 23 December started before they arrived. At that point, with the fate of Wake still in doubt, Admiral Pye, acting commander of the Pacific fleet, decided that the risk was too great. The destruction inflicted on the fleet at Pearl Harbor was still a fresh wound and he could not risk the loss of an American carrier or capital ship in the defense of the strategically meaningless Wake Island base. Although a painful choice, Admiral Pye recalled the relief force.

Aftermath of the Wake Island Battle

According to Major Devereux, "After our capture we remained on Wake until 12 January 1942 when we were sent away on the Nita Maru," taken to a Japanese prison camp on Hokkaido Island. In all, 1,462 military and civilian personnel fighting for the American side were taken to prisoner of war camps in China and Japan. Only 1,231 were repatriated in September 1945.

Ninety eight civilian contractors remained on Wake to complete construction projects. On the orders of Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, Wake Commander, the contractors were executed in October 1943.

Because air superiority and control of the sea made it possible to bypass Wake, there was no attempt to recapture the atoll, although it was occasionally bombed. The war officially ended for Wake on 4 September 1945, when the Japanese surrendered the island to Brigadier General Lawson H. M. Sanderson of the U.S. Marines. (top photo on this page)

For executing the contractors and other acts, Sakaibara was hanged for war crimes after the Japanese defeat.

Recommended Book about the 1941 Battle of Wake Island

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