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Battle of Wake Island
Part of the Pacific Theater of World War II
A destroyed Japanese patrol boat (#33) on Wake.
Date December 8–23, 1941
Location Wake Island
Result Japanese victory
Japan Empire of Japan  United States
JapanShigeyoshi Inoue
JapanSadamichi Kajioka
JapanShigematsu Sakaibara
United StatesWinfield S. Cunningham #
United StatesJames P.S. Devereux #
2,500 infantry[1] 449 USMC personnel consisting of:
399 infantry of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion (understrength), and
55 det. VMF-211,
68 US Navy
5 U.S. Army personnel,
Casualties and losses
820 killed,
1 light cruiser heavily damaged,
2 destroyers sunk,
2 patrol boats sunk,
7–8 aircraft shot down,
20 aircraft damaged. See [3]
(Note USMC History estimates 21 aircraft shot down and 51 aircraft damaged by flak. See [3]
130 Killed,
49 wounded,
12 aircraft [4]
433 Military and 1,104 Civilian POWS of whom 5 military (killed Jan 1942) and 98 Civilian POWS (killed Oct 1943). In addition 15 military and 82 civilians died as POWS[5]

The Battle of Wake Island began simultaneously with the Attack on Pearl Harbor and ended on December 23, 1941, with the surrender of the American forces to the Japanese.

It was fought on and around the atoll formed by Wake Island and its islets of Peale and Wilkes Islands by the air, land and naval forces of the Empire of Japan against those of the United States of America, with Marines playing a prominent role on both sides.

The island was held by the Japanese until September 4, 1945, when the remaining Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of United States Marines.



In January 1941, the United States Navy constructed a military base on the atoll. On August 19, the first permanent military garrison, understrength elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, totaling 450 officers and men,[6] were stationed on the island, under Major James P.S. Devereux. Also present on the island were 68 U.S. Navy personnel and about 1,221 civilian workers.

5"/51 caliber gun On USS North Dakota (BB-29)
3"/50 caliber gun aboard the USS Slater (DE-766)

The Marines were armed with six 5"/51 shore batteries, removed from a scrapped battleship; twelve 3"/50 M3 antiaircraft guns (with only a single working anti-aircraft sight between them); 18 Browning M2 heavy machine guns; and 30 heavy, medium and light water- and air-cooled .30 caliber machine guns of various manufacture and operating condition.

On November 28, 1941, U.S. Navy Commander Winfield S. Cunningham reported to Wake to assume overall command of U.S. forces on the island. He had less than two weeks to examine defenses and assess his men before war began.

On December 7, 1941, the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake being on the opposite side of the International Date Line), 36 [4] Japanese Mitsubishi G3M bombers flown from bases on the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the twelve F4F-3 Wildcat fighter aircraft belonging to Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-211 on the ground. All of the Marine garrison’s defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the naval aircraft. Of 55 Marine aviation personnel – 23 were killed/DOW and 11 were wounded and 10 Chamorro civilian employees of Pan American Airways were also killed.[5]

First landing attempt

Early on the morning of December 11, the garrison, with the support of the four remaining Wildcats, repelled the first Japanese landing attempt by the South Seas Force, which included the light cruisers Yubari, Tenryū, and Tatsuta; the destroyers Yayoi, Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Hayate, Oite, and Asanagi; two Momi class destroyers converted to patrol boats (Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33), and two troop transport ships containing 450 Special Naval Landing Force troops.

The U.S. Marines fired at the invasion fleet with their six 5-inch (127 mm) coastal artillery guns. Major Devereux, the Marine commander under Cunningham, ordered the gunners to hold their fire until the enemy moved within range of the coastal defenses. “Battery L” commanded by Sergeant Henry Bedell on Peale islet succeeded in sinking the Hayate at a distance of 4,000 yards with at least two direct hits to her magazines, causing her to explode and sink within two minutes, in full view of the defenders on shore. Yubari's superstructure was hit eleven times. The four Wildcats also succeeded in sinking another destroyer, Kisaragi, by dropping a bomb on her stern where the depth charges were stored. Both Japanese destroyers were lost with all hands, with Hayate becoming the first Japanese surface warship to be sunk during World War II. The Japanese force withdrew before landing. This was the first Japanese defeat of the war.

After the initial raid was fought off, American news media reported that, when queried about reinforcement and resupply, Cunningham was reported to have quipped “Send us more Japs!” In fact, Commander Cunningham sent a long list of critical equipment—including gunsights, spare parts, and fire-control radar—to his immediate superior: Commandant, 14th Naval District. It is believed that the quip was actually padding (a technique of adding nonsense text to a message to make cryptanalysis more difficult).[7]

But the continuing siege and frequent Japanese air attacks on the Wake garrison continued, without resupply for the Americans. The initial resistance offered by the garrison prompted the Japanese Navy to detach two aircraft carriers (Sōryū and Hiryū) from the force that attacked Pearl Harbor to support the second landing attempt.


USN relief attempt

VMA-211 Insignia.

The projected U.S. relief attempt by Admiral Frank Fletcher's Task Force 11 (TF-11) and supported Admiral Wilson Brown’s Task Force 14 (TF-14) consisted of the fleet carrier Saratoga, the fleet oiler USNS Neches, the seaplane tender Tangier, the cruisers Astoria, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, and ten destroyers. The convoy carried the 4th Marine Defense Battalion, the VMF-221 fighter squadron equipped with F2A Brewster Buffalo fighters, along with 9,000 five-inch (127 mm) rounds, 12,000 three-inch (76.2 mm) rounds, and 3,000,000 .50 cal. (12.7 mm) rounds as well as a large amount of ammunition for mortars and other battalion small arms. Task Force 14 (TF-14) with the fleet carrier Lexington, three heavy cruisers, eight destroyers and one oiler was to undertake a raid on the Marshall Islands to divert Japanese attention.

On December 22 at 21:00, after receiving information indicating the presence of two IJN carriers and two fast battleships near Wake Island Vice Admiral William S. Pye, the Acting Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, ordered TF-14 to return to Pearl Harbor.[8] for fear of losses. (At the Battle of Midway Pye ordered battleships to patrol from the West Coast-in case of a Japanese attack; after Wake and Midway he never commanded forces in battle again).

Second assault

Captain Henry T. Elrod, KIA, Medal of Honor recipient
Wreckage of Wildcat 211-F-11, flown by Captain Henry T. Elrod on December 11 in the attack that sank the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi.
{211 for "Squadron 211"; F for "Fighter"; 11 for eleventh plane}
Wake Island Device

The second Japanese invasion force came on December 23, composed mostly of the same ships from the first attempt with some new additions, plus 1,500 Japanese marines. The landings began at 02:35 where, after a preliminary bombardment, the ex-destroyers Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33 were beached and burned in their attempts to land the invasion force. After a full night and morning of fighting, the Wake garrison surrendered to the Japanese by mid-afternoon.

The U.S. Marines lost 47 killed and 2 MIA during the entire 15-day siege, while three U.S. Navy personnel and at least 70 civilians were killed {besides the 10 Chamorros}. Japanese losses were recorded at between 700 to 900 killed, with at least 300 more wounded[9], in addition to the two destroyers lost in the first invasion attempt and at least 28 land-based and carrier aircraft either shot down or damaged. The Japanese captured all men remaining on the island, the majority of whom were civilian contractors employed with Morrison-Knudsen Company.

Captain Henry T. Elrod, one of the pilots from VMF-211, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his action on the island during the second landing attempt, having shot down two Japanese A6M Zero fighters, and sunk the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi. A special military decoration, the Wake Island Device, was also created to honor those who had fought in the defense of the island.

Japanese occupation

Attack by USS Yorktown planes in October 1943

Fearing an imminent invasion, the Japanese reinforced Wake Island with more formidable defenses. The American captives were ordered to build a series of bunkers and fortifications on Wake. The Japanese brought in an 8-inch (200 mm) naval artillery gun. The United States Navy established a submarine blockade instead of an amphibious invasion on Wake Island. As a result, the Japanese garrison starved. On February 24, 1942, aircraft from the carrier Enterprise attacked the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. United States forces bombed the island periodically from 1942 until Japan’s surrender in 1945. On July 8, 1943, B-24 Liberators in transit from Midway Island struck the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. George H. W. Bush also conducted his first mission as an aviator over Wake Island. After this, Wake was occasionally raided but never attacked en masse.

War crimes

The 98 rock

On October 5, 1943, American naval aircraft from USS Yorktown raided Wake. Two days later, fearing an imminent invasion, Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the execution of the 98 captured American civilian workers remaining on the island, kept to perform forced labor. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and executed with a machine gun. One of the prisoners (whose name has never been discovered) escaped the massacre, apparently returning to the site to carve the message 98 US PW 5-10-43 on a large coral rock near where the victims had been hastily buried in a mass grave. The unknown American was recaptured, and Sakaibara personally beheaded him with a katana. The inscription on the rock can still be seen and is a Wake Island landmark.

On September 4, 1945, the remaining Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of United States Marines. The handover of Wake was officially conducted in a brief ceremony aboard the USS Levy (DE-162). After the war, Sakaibara and his subordinate, Lieutenant-Commander Tachibana, were sentenced to death for the massacre and other war crimes. Several Japanese officers in American custody had committed suicide over the incident, leaving written statements that incriminated Sakaibara. Tachibana’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison.[10] The murdered civilian POWs were reburied after the war in Honolulu Memorial, Hawaii.

William L. Taylor

Like many of the Wake island POWs, Taylor was relocated to China for forced labor for the Japanese army. In 1945 he was traveling on a Japanese train as work detail from Shanghai when he escaped with Jack Hernandez by jumping off the train when Japanese guards were not looking. Hernandez broke his leg and was forced to stay as Taylor continued his journey. Down the line, Taylor reluctantly met up with Chinese Communist soldiers who he quoted as saying "You're OK now, we are friends with the Americans." After 10 weeks of traveling with the Chinese Communists in northern China he was able to contact American military forces who called for a plane to pick him up and bring him to an American base in northern China. Before he left China he met Mao Zedong who gave him a gift of Chinese rugs and told him he was the only POW who had successfully come through north China. On a interview with the History Channel during the segment "Wake Island: The Alamo of the Pacific" he claims that Mao "saved his life".

Cinematic portrayal

The Paramount studio began work on a movie even before the real life Battle for Wake Island was over. The resulting 1942 film, directed by John Farrow, tacks unrelated romantic subplots onto a straightforward re-telling of the battle. The film contains numerous factual errors, leaving viewers with the impression that the island's defenders fought to the last man; that the island's naval commander was killed in a bombing raid (he survived); and that the Island defense was in the hands of USMC officers. However, the film succeeded in its primary propaganda purpose of creating a stirring patriotic film. Wake Island was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture. Farrow won the 1942 New York Film Critics Circle Award for best director. The film was re-released on DVD by MCA Home Video in 2004.

The Tom and Jerry cartoon The Yankee Doodle Mouse message at the end to "Send More Cats" is a spoof of the last message "Send More Japs".

A 2003 television documentary, Wake Island: Alamo of the Pacific, included interviews with both U.S. Marines and Japanese sailors who took part in the fighting. The film received a 2004 Emmy nomination for music and sound.


  1. ^ Naval and air personnel not included.
  2. ^ A big unit of civilian volunteers fought also.
  3. ^ [1])
  4. ^ Martin Gilbert, the Second World war (1989) pg 282
  5. ^ a b [2]
  6. ^ Only 449 marines were on hand for the battles at Wake Island because one officer [Major Walter Baylor] had been ordered to leave December 20, 1941 with official reports.
  7. ^ Robert J. Cressman, A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Defense of Wake Island, World War II Commemorative Series, ed. Benis M. Frank (Marine Corps Historical Center: Washington, D.C.:1998). Electronic version - accessed 6-10-2006
  8. ^ Lundstrom, John B. The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1990. ISBN 1-59114-471-X.
  9. ^ United States and Japanese Casualties
  10. ^ Hubbs, Mark E.. "Massacre on Wake Island". Retrieved 2008-10-31.  


  • Burton. Fortnight of Infamy: The Collapse of Allied Airpower West of Pearl Harbor. US Naval Institute Press. ISBN 159114096X.  
  • Devereaux, Colonel James P.S., USMC (1947). The Story of Wake Island. The Battery Press. ISBN 0-89839-264-0.  
  • Sloan, Bill. Given up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand at Wake Island. Bantam Books, 2003. ISBN 0-553-80302-6
  • Uwrin, Gregory J.W. (1997). Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-9562-6.  

External links


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