The Pacific Alamo: The tiny island the U.S. defended for 15 days at the start of WWII
Americans are naturally defiant people that idolize the act of the courageous “last stand.” From the Alamo to the “Lost Battalion” of The Great War, the American warfighter has been praised in folklore and historical record for taking on battles with little chance of victory or survival.
In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a sleepy island in the Pacific soon became the site of one such “last stand,” and gave rise to a hero that would earn the nation’s highest military award.
Consisting of only 2.85 square miles of land, Wake Island is a tiny spot located between Japan and Hawaii in the vast Pacific Ocean.
In 1941, Wake Island was a sleepy garrison with just over 500 fighting men on the island, primarily Marines. Equipped with a handful of artillery pieces, and a dozen of already-outdated F4F-3 Wildcat fighters, the island was better known for being a hub for Pan American Airways than a military base.
In addition to the military personnel on the island, Wake also had around 1,200 civilian workers and 45 Micronesian natives, the majority of which worked construction or for the airlines.
Less than a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake Island would find itself under siege by an incredible invasion force- and would hold them off for around half a month until the defenders met a bitter end.
On December 8th (keep in mind, Wake was on the opposite side of the International Date Line), 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M3 bombers suddenly descended over Wake Island, dropping bombs onto the tiny atoll and destroyed all but four of the 12 Wildcat fighters parked along the runway. It is believed that all of the aircraft would have been destroyed had four not been airborne at the time (although they were unable to see the bombers due to poor visibility). After the initial attacks, The 55 Marine Aviation personnel were suddenly cut down by 34 men, with 23 being killed and 11 wounded.
Realizing what was happening, all Pan Am employees (with the exception of the Micronesians) were ordered to evacuate, using flying boats to leave the island.
Bracing for a second series of attacks, the Americans prepared their anti-aircraft batteries, moving them and putting up wooden decoys in case the Japanese had utilized photo-reconnaissance.
On December 9th, the Japanese struck again, this time they took out a hospital and the Pan Am airport facility. The following day, a dynamite supply was hit, destroying the anti-aircraft gun ammo for nearby Wilkes Island.
On December 11th, the fears of every Wake Island defender became a reality- the Japanese attempted to invade the island using their Marine forces.
Sporting three light cruisers, six destroyers, two patrol boats, and two transport ships carrying 450 Japanese Naval Infantrymen, the Japanese swarmed Wake Island and were soon met by American 127mm guns and harassment in the form of the four remaining Wildcats.
During the engagement, then-Marine Captain Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Elrod single-handedly took on 22 enemy planes, shooting down two Japanese Zero fighters. Later, he performed an amazing feat of airmanship by expertly dropping two small bombs onto the depth charge-laden stern of the destroyer Kisaragi. Exploding into a massive fireball, the destroyer sank, making Elrod the first fighter pilot in history to single-handedly sink a warship with a fighter plane.
While in the air, the Americans were out-equipped. While a formidable fighter, the F4F was hardly top-of-the-line and often inferior to Japanese fighters at the time. Facing multiple waves, all but two of the aircraft were flyable a few days into the assault, though none of the four were shot down.
Despite the handicap, Elrod and his fellow pilots continually took to the air as the Japanese relentlessly continued their attacks- and brave ground crews continued to repair the battle-damaged planes as best they could.
“Parts and assemblies have been traded back and forth so that no airplane can be identified,” Major Paul Putnam wrote in a report. “Engines have been traded from plane to plane, have been junked, stripped, rebuilt, and all but created.”
The loss to the Japanese Navy had been immense, with the sinking of two destroyers racking up over 407 casualties. Blasted before they could reach the beach, the Japanese withdrew before they could set foot on Wake.
Commander Winfred Cunningham, a former Naval Aviator and Wake Island force commander, praised the aviators and shore batteries for their superb and tireless work. In his notes, he lauded the Marines operating anti-aircraft batteries without fire control systems and noted that the fact that the four Wildcat pilots had fought waves of planes, without being shot down, was nothing short of a “miracle.”
The defenders, however, were now running out of ammo, supplies and working machinery. Despite requests for supplies, men and planes. Help, however, would never come.
When the second assault began on December 23rd, the Japanese had returned with two carriers, the previous battle fleet, and 1,500 Japanese Marines. Out for blood and still spiteful from the first-ever Japanese defeat of the war against the U.S., the invasion began with great fury.
While two patrol boats were destroyed during their attempts to land, the Japanese Marines eventually made it to shore, and the first battle between Japanese and American Marines had begun.
During the battle, Captain Elrod had shaken off the loss of his aircraft and was mortally wounded while protecting his men, who were preoccupied with carrying ammunition to a gun emplacement. He would be posthumously promoted to Major and was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
After a full night and morning of fighting, the U.S. forces at Wake Island -hopelessly outnumbered and without planes, ammo and supplies to fight on- were forced to surrender.
The Japanese had taken Wake Island but at a terrible cost. The action had cost them hundreds of men, four ships and ten aircraft, as well as damaging several ships, planes and injuring many men. The Americans had lost 52 of their own, had almost just as many wounded, and lost the 12 Wildcats. After the surrender, 433 military men were captured.
As for the American civilians and contractors, they suffered a much more tragic fate. Many of them were kept as slave labor, and following a raid from the USS Lexington, the Japanese murdered 98 American captives. One escaped during the attempt and etched the words, “98 US PW 5-10-43″ on a large rock near the mass grave where the men were buried. The escapee was reportedly recaptured and beheaded by Japanese Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, who would later be hanged for war crimes.
Today, Wake Island remains a valuable U.S. military outpost and is generally off-limits to the public. Those lucky enough to visit, however, are said to be able to feel the gravity of what happened there- a brilliant last stand that embodies the American fighting spirit.
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