The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia
|Previous: Wakde||Table of Contents||Next: Wakely, Arthur V.T.|
19.280N) is a
in the central Pacific some
2000 miles (3200 km) west of Hawaii.
It is about 4.5 miles (7.2 km) long and 2.5 miles (4 km) wide with a
total land area of 2600 acres (1050 hectares) and consists of three
islands. Wake Island, to the south, is V-shaped with both arms about
5300 yards (4800 meters) long. Peale Island is separated from the east
arm of Wake by a narrow channel, while Wilkes Island is separated from
the west arm of Wake by an even narrower channel. This channel had been
dredged to allow boat access into the lagoon, which was shallow and
full of coral heads. The islands are flat, with the high point just 21
feet (7 meters) above the high water level, and covered with dense
vegetation. They are surrounded by a barrier reef that allows easy boat access only
along the southwest coast and which plunges to great depth at its edge,
providing no good place to anchor large ships. There is no fresh
water supply. The
atoll is extremely remote, with the nearest land being the Marshall
Islands 450 miles (725 km) to the south. As a potential base, the
atoll had so many liabilities that only its strategic location made it
of any military interest.
undeveloped until the Pan American built a seaplane ramp here for its
flying boats in 1935. The U.S.
Navy took increasing interest
in the atoll as war loomed, and built an airfield and began dredging
lagoon. However, in late 1941 there was still no decent
anchorage and cargo
ships supplying the island had to be unloaded by lighter. There was
also no radar
for the airfield, but the island boasted a number of
6” coastal defense guns,
12 3" antiaircraft guns, and
of 1 Marine
Defense Battalion. A 10' (3 meter) sand berm had been bulldozed
along the vegetation line along the southeast coast. The airfield had
25,000 gallons of aviation fuel
on hand and, because there were plans to stage B-17 bombers to the
Wake, the runway was long enough at 5000 feet (1520 meters) to
Air cover was provided by VMF-211 with
twelve F4F Wildcats.
additional facilities was being undertaken by 1216 civilian contractors
when war broke out in the Pacific. These were to include two additional
runways and a ship channel and turning basin in the lagoon capable of
accomodating a tender
and submarine base. The
civilian contractors were trapped on the island
by the Japanese, who insisted on
as prisoners of war
rather than as civilian internees.
U.S. Marine Corps. Via ibiblio.org
The Japanese saw the strategic value of seizing Wake in
order to break the American air bridge to the Philippines, secure the
approaches to Japan, and advance their air power forward towards Midway. Japanese
aircraft bombed the atoll shortly after the
attack on Pearl Harbor.
Without radar direction, the four Wildcats
on combat air patrol were unable to intercept the raid, which destroyed
the remaining eight aircraft of the squadron.
Three days later, the Japanese attempted a landing, but this initial invasion attempt was repulsed by the coastal guns and the four surviving Wildcats. The Marine commander, Major James Devereaux, ordered his coastal guns, which were well-concealed, to hold fire until the Japanese moved to within close range. One destroyer, Hayate, was hit in her magazines by the coastal guns and violently exploded with loss of all hands. Light cruiser Yubari, the flagship of the Japanese invasion force, was also hit and suffered moderate damage. At this point, Kajioka had had enough and ordered his ships to withdraw. During the Japanese withdrawal, another destroyer, Kisaragi, was struck in its depth charge racks by a bomb from one of the Wildcats; it, too, exploded violently with the loss of all hand.
Wake Invasion Force
24 Air Flotilla
1 Marine Defense Battalion
with 4 Wildcats
Kajioka was determined to redeem his honor by capturing
the atoll in his second attempt. Kimmel, emboldened by the
Marines' initial success, decided the island could be held if
reinforcements of men and critical equipment could be sent to the
atoll. This included an SCR-270 early warning
radar and three SCR-268
fire control radars loaded on William Ward Burrows,
which was on the way to Wake when war broke out, and reinforcements of
men and ammunition carried by seaplane tender Tangier.
The plan that was eventually put into effect dropped the slow William Ward Burrows, which ended
up delivering its radar and supplies
to Johnston Island, but Tangier was to dash in to the
island, disembark the men and supplies, and embark as many civilian
workers as possible. The Saratoga force under Fletcher would provide air
cover for Tangier while the Lexington
task force under Brown
raided Jaluit to the south to pull
Japanese land-based aircraft away from Wake.
The plan was put together in haste by staff
inexperienced in the realities of wartime operations, and it had a
number of problems. None of the carrier task forces would be in
to support another. Enterprise under Halsey was patrolling
north of Oahu and could not return
and resupply in time to provide meaningful support. McMorris, who came up with
the plan, discounted any possibility of intervention by Japan's carrier
forces and assumed only 4 Fleet threatened the relief
expedition. Although the relief was later characterized (particularly
by Morison 1946) as an opportunity to engage the Japanese on favorable
terms, Lundstrom (2006) has shown that a fleet engagement was the last
thing the American planners had in mind. Unaware of the timetable for
the second Japanese invasion attempt, the Americans envisioned a
straightforward resupply and evacuation run protected by a strong
covering force and with no tight deadline. Logistics for the expedition were
amateurish compared with what the Americans achieved later in the war,
in part because there was as yet only a single fast oiler equipped with modern underway
replenishment gear available, the Neosho,
which was assigned to the Lexington force
(which was on a tighter schedule.) The Saratoga force found itself
dependent on the aged and slow Neches, which could only
about 12.75 knots speed, limiting the rate of advance of the entire
The relief expedition suffered a number of delays, starting with a delay of one day to get the oiler dispositions sorted out and another one day delay in Saratoga's arrival at Pearl Harbor due to a submarine scare. A further delay was incurred when Fletcher paused just outside air search range of the Japanese to refuel his escorting destroyers. He encountered considerable difficulty doing so: Sea conditions were poor, with moderate winds and a long cross-swell. Navy crews were still relatively inexperienced at underway refueling, and seven oil lines were parted and only four destroyers were refueled in ten hours. Morison (1948) suggests that Fletcher should have left his destroyers behind and made a high-speed run in to attack with Saratoga escorted by his cruisers, but Lundstrom (2006) counters that even Fletcher's cruisers needed refueling before they could engage in high-speed operations.
Meanwhile the Japanese prepared for their second
assault on Wake with two weeks of
aerial bombardment. During this bombing campaign, the Japanese suffered
losses, but destroyed two more
of the Wildcats. The Japanese supported their second landing
attempt with a
division of heavy
cruisers and carrier
aircraft from the Hiryu
Elements of 2 Maizuru SNLF (about 900 men)
ashore on the night of 22 December 1941. Two Japanese destroyer-transports
were badly damaged by the Marine guns and were deliberately run aground
on the southwest coast, while the remaining troops came ashore in six landing craft. The Japanese
took heavy casualties but could
not be dislodged.
Word of the Japanese landings came as Fletcher's relief
expedition continued to refuel some 400 miles northeast of Wake.
By this time Kimmel had been relieved, and the relief attempt was
called off by the interim
Pacific commander, William Pye,
after consulting with his staff. Pye seems to have been deeply affected
by a report delivered earlier by Ensign James J. Murphy, who flew a
Catalina to Wake with the relief plan. On his return, he had reported
that conditions on the atoll were "grim, grim, grim" (Lundstrom 2006).
Pye was also influenced by a message from Stark and King stating that "Wake is now
and will continue to be a liability" (ibid.)
and authorizing its demolition and evacuation if necessary.
The recall order was not well received. A junior gunnery officer remembered Fletcher throwing his cap to the deck in disgust. Talk on the Saratoga became so mutinous that Fitch felt it necessary to leave the bridge. Morison (1946) suggested that Fletcher should have ignored the order and pressed ahead, but Fletcher sensibly assumed that Pye knew something he didn't, and he did no more than linger in the area for several hours, while continuing to refuel, in hopes that Pye would have a change of heart.
A controversy later arose over whether Fletcher was sufficiently
aggressive during this campaign. Fletcher clearly was still
surface-oriented in his thinking: He flew his flag in Astoria
and did not conform his movements to Saratoga,
leaving her behind when she turned into the wind to conduct air
operations. Morison criticized Fletcher's delay to refuel as well as
his decision to obey the recall order, as previously noted. Because of
the tremendous influence of Morison's history of the Pacific War, his
criticisms became entrenched in postwar historiography, but Admiral
Vincent R. Murphy, who was one of McMorris' planners in 1941, described
Morison's treatment of the relief expedition as "not even a reasonable
facsimile of history" that "does grave injustice to Admiral Fletcher
... [The] failure to relieve Wake was due, not to poor seamanship and
want of decisive action, but to the presence of two Jap first line
The island was surrendered
after a bitter ground fight lasting into the afternoon of 23 December
1941. Later the Marine commander, Devereaux, claimed that the Navy
island commander, Cunningham, had surrendered prematurely, while
Cunningham claimed that Devereaux had concurred in the decision. It is
clear that many of the Marines were reluctant to surrender until
ordered to in person by Devereaux. Casualties
were 47 killed and 2 missing for the Marines, along with 70 contractors
and 3 Navy personnel killed. The remaining 419 Marines and sailors were
taken prisoner. The Japanese took very heavy casualties,
estimated at 820 killed and another 1153 wounded during
the two assaults.
Historians have argued over the likely outcome had the
American relief force pressed on. Many seem to feel that the odds
favored the Americans, and an examination of the order of battle
suggests that the Japanese carrier force was weak on escorting
destroyers and inferior in total number of aircraft. In addition, the
force was well to the northwest of Wake, where it was ill-positioned to
intervene had the Americans attacked the invasion force from long
range. Against this must be weighed the fact that the Japanese were
much more experienced and the Americans were, in some cases, flying
inferior Buffalo fighters. The
Japanese also had the support of long-range land-based bombers and search aircraft
flying out of Kwajalein.
Reinforcement Force (Abe)
||Carrier Division 2 (Yamaguchi)|
|24 A6M Zero|
|18 B5N Kate|
|16 D3A Val|
|22 A6M Zero|
|18 B5N Kate|
|16 D3A Valimages|
|Cruiser Division 8 (Abe)|
|Invasion Force (Kajioka)|
|Cruiser Division 18 (Marumo)|
|Elements, Destroyer Squadron 6 (Kajioka)|
|Elements, Destroyer Division 29|
|Destroyer Division 30|
|CX Kongo Maru (8624 tons, 16.5 knots)images|
|CX Kinryu Maru (6524 tons, 11 knots)|
|Maizuru 2 SNLF (1200 men plus garrison troops)|
|Support Group (Goto)|
|Cruiser Division 6 (Goto)|
|24 Air Flotilla|
1 Marine Defense Battalion
VMF-211 with 2 Wildcats
TF14 (Saratoga) with VMF-221 (14 F2A Buffalo)
Following its capture, the Japanese renamed Wake Tori Shima, "Bird Island." It was
garrisoned by 65 Guard Force
of 6 Base Force and 13 Independent Mixed Regiment.
These initially numbered over 4000 men.
Wake was raided by Halsey on
24 February 1942, who also detached Spruance with a
cruiser-destroyer force to shell the atoll. The raid prompted Yamamoto to delay the return
of Shokaku and Zuikaku
from a refit in the home islands to Truk.
However, Japan's other four first-line carriers continued to operate in
southeast Asia in support of the pending invasion of Java.
The raid of 5-8 October 1943 was of particular
importance to the Gilberts
campaign. When a Japanese reconnaissance plane
found Pearl Harbor empty of
shipping on 17 October, Koga
concluded that the Americans were about to assault Wake, and shifted Combined Fleet from Truk to Eniwetok.
When no attack materialized by 24 October, Koga concluded that it was a
false alarm, shifted Combined Fleet
back to Truk, and flew its air groups to Rabaul.
This left Combined Fleet
unprepared to intervene when the Gilberts were invaded.
Following another carrier raid in October 1944, the Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Sakaibara Shigemitsu, ordered the massacre of 98 American civilian construction workers interned since the fall of the island in 1941. He was hanged for this crime at Guam on 19 June 1947.
By the time the island was surrendered to the Americans
on 4 September 1945, the garrison had been reduced to 1261 men. Of the
others, some 974 had been evacuated with wounds, about 600 had been
killed in air attacks, and 1288 had died of starvation or illness.
The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia © 2007-2010 by Kent G. Budge. Index
Comment on this article