The Battle Of Wake Island - Alamo Of The Pacific - December 1941

By Mike Spradlin

Author Page

December 18, 2017

While December 7, 1941 is truly a date that continues to live in historical infamy, the Japanese invasion of Wake Island on the same day is lesser known. Nonetheless, it is an incredible story of heroism, valor and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds.
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A rusted gun emplacement on Wake Island.

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The tiny island as seen from the air.

Wake Island is a tiny atoll in the South Pacific, barely above sea level, and it was undermanned and unready for an attack.
Wake Island was garrisoned by a small force of military personnel. The 1st Marine Defense Battalion with 450 officers and men was not at full strength. There were twelve F4 Wildcats on the base commanded by Marine Aviator Major Paul A. Putnam. The Wildcats would play an important role in keeping the Japanese invasion force at bay over the next few days.
Just like their comrades at Pearl Harbor the soldiers, sailors and Marines on Wake were caught off guard by the attack. For those on the island, it was December 8, since Wake Island was on the other side of the International Dateline. The military garrison at the island also had to contend with 1221 of civilian contractors from the Morris Knudson Civil Engineering company. They were there to help the military force construct an airfield. With an airfield here, US long range bombers could reach several Japanese bases in the Western Pacific. The island was also a stop for the Pan Am Clipper civilian airline and employed 96 Chamorro (native Micronesians).
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A Marine aviator and ground crew prior to the battle.

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Civilian laborers, who were instrumental to Wake's defense.

In addition to the low numbers of personnel, the island was woefully outgunned. In the first wave, the Japanese sent 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M3 medium bombers who took a devastating toll on the allied fortifications. All but four of the Wildcats were destroyed in the attack, leaving the island with extremely limited air support capability. Their anti-aircraft artillery was limited to six 133 mm guns salvaged from the battleship USS Texas. In addition they also had eighteen .50 in (12.7 mm) Browning heavy machine guns; and thirty .30 in (7.62 mm) heavy, medium and light water- and air-cooled machine guns.
The Japanese bombers struck several targets on the island including a hospital and the Pan Am Facility destroying them completely. Still the defenders put up a stirring fight, their limited guns still managing to sink the Japanese Destroyer Hayate and downing two of the Mitsubishi bombers. They also drove off the first attempt by the Japanese to put ashore a landing force.
Still, the Wake defenders, despite being horribly outgunned, managed to put up a fight. The Wildcats also sank the destroyer Kisaragi. In fact, the defenders had bloodied the Japanese landing force, sinking two ships, forcing the grounding of two patrol boats as well as shooting down several planes. After the initial raid was fought off, the American News Media began preparing daily updates on the ‘Defenders of Wake Island.’ In fact, the Commander of the US Forces, Winfield Scott Cunningham was quoted as telling the media to ‘send us more Japs!’

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Japanese dive-bombers begin their attack on the island. 

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James Devereux, Navy Cross

Read His Story

There were many heroes at Wake Island, both those whose stories we know and ones who will never be told. However, two special leaders stand out - James Devereux, the Marine commander on Wake, and "Hammering Hank" Elrod, who received the Medal Of Honor for his actions on Wake. (You can read both of their stories by clicking on the links at right and left.)

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Hank Elrod, MOH

Read His Story

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Marines desperately defending Wake Island.


But the Battle of Wake Island took a dark turn for the Allies. A Task Force headed by the carrier USS Saratoga steamed toward the atoll, but turned back when learning the Japanese reinforcements had reached the island. On December 23, a new landing force led by the carriers Hiryū and Sōryū, carrying aircraft and 1500 Japanese soldiers launched a new attack. The US Garrison simply could not hold out against so overwhelming numbers. After fighting through the night and morning the Garrison surrendered in the midafternoon. The Marines lost 49 killed and 49 wounded in the attack. Approximately 70 of the civilian contractors were killed along with several of the Chamorro.
Once in control of the island, the Japanese placed their prisoners into forced labor. They were assigned to building bunkers and gun emplacements and make repairs to the airfield. In a tragic turn, after completely the work, 98 of the contractors were executed by the Japanese occupiers. This later resulted in the Japanese commander being executed for war crimes in 1947.
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Prisoners of war at hard labor after the battle.


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A popular cartoon showing the fighting spirit of the Marines that inspired Americans at home.

Many of the POWs were removed from the island and placed in POW camps in China and in mainland Japan where they were placed in to forced labor. POW William L. Taylor escaped from captivity in China by jumping off a train. He made his way north to the Communist lines and was eventually returned to US Forces. He is believed to be the only American POW to escape captivity in China during the war.
The Japanese held Wake Island until the end of the War. Historians have speculated that it could have easily been retaken by US forces but instead the allies opted for a submarine blockade of the island. The blockade prevented the Japanese from resupplying the island and the Japanese finally surrendered in September 1945, after the formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The heroic defense of Wake Island in December 1941, however, entered into history as ‘the Alamo of the Pacific’ in deference to the garrison’s brave defense. While they eventually fell to overwhelming force, the Americans on Wake sank two destroyers, one escort vessel, and one submarine, while also destroying nearly 100 Japanese aircraft. More importantly, the Wake defense inspired and motivated the American people during a dark hour in our history.
 
Battle of wake island