December 8, 1941
Japanese soldiers landing on Wake Island
You’ve probably heard of The Alamo. That battle happened in Texas, way back in 1836, when a handful of Texans took on the mighty Mexican army. The Texans didn’t win the battle, but they fought so bravely that people still say, “Remember the Alamo.” (You can learn more about The Alamo in Great Battles Volume I. (JEN: CAN YOU HYPERLINK THOSE LAST WORDS TO GBVOLI?)
But almost 100 years after The Alamo, there was a battle in called The Alamo of the Pacific. It was the Battle of Wake Island.
Wake Island is really small. It’s a string of coral outcroppings shaped like a horseshoe and situated in the South Pacific. But even though Wake was small, Japan wanted to control this island. In fact, they waned Wake so badly that they attacked the day after striking Pearl Harbor.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, one of the only pieces of good fortune was that no American aircraft carriers were docked there. One of those carriers, the USS Enterprise, was delivering airplanes to Wake Island. More than 400 Marines and 1,000 construction crew workers were working on Wake, building an airfield and a defensive position. America already sensed Japan’s aggression could come that way.
If you look at the map below, you’ll see that Wake Island sits just north of the Marshall Islands, which were held by the Japanese. By controlling Wake Island, America could launch bombers and strike Japanese territory. Of course, Japan wanted to prevent that from happening; that’s why they attacked Wake right after Pearl Harbor
But although the Enterprise delivered twelve F4F Wildcat airplanes to Wake Island, it didn’t deliver any radar equipment or any gear that would protect the planes from an aerial attack. If the men on Wake had those supplies, this battle might’ve ended very differently.
Wake Island, with the Hawaiian Islands to the east and Japan to the west.
While Pearl Harbor was smoldering, the Navy alerted Commander Winfield Cunningham who was leading the forces on Wake Island. Cunningham ordered four of the Wildcats to patrol the skies around the island. But that day, an ocean haze hindered visibility. And, of course, there was no radar equipment.
The pilots didn’t see any enemy planes. They headed back to the airfield.
Suddenly thirty-six Japanese bombers appeared and dropped their load on the tiny island, destroying the eight Wildcats still on the ground. The bombs also damaged the airfield, and killed or wounded thirty-four American servicemen.
Japan suffered no losses, and expected to conquer Wake Island with ease. Japan’s invasion force included six destroyers, two troop carriers, two armed merchant vessels, one light cruiser ,and more than 1,000 troops.
Even though there were only about 450 Marines on Wake Island, none of them weren’t interested in rolling over for Japan.
On December 11th, as the Japanese ships confidently approached the island, Major James Devereux, who was in charge of the marines, ordered his gunners to hold fire until the Japanese ships were within range. Then six coastal artillery guns erupted from "Battery L" on Peale islet (see the next map, below). They hit the Japanese destroyer Hayate from 4,000 yards out, with at least two hits going directly to the ship’s magazines, where the ammunition is stored. The Hayate exploded. Devereux also sent up the four remaining Wildcats. One of their bombs landed on the Hayate’s stern, detonating the storage area filled with depth charges. Every man onboard the Hayate was killed.
Seeing the heavy fire, the Japanese fleet pulled out of range.
This marked the first American victory of WWII. The marines had stopped the Japanese invasion of Wake. It would also be the last time in history that onshore guns would repel an attempted invasion.
But the Battle of Wake Island didn’t end there.
Cunningham and Devereaux radioed Hawaii for help. The Japanese forces were not leaving. In fact more ships were coming to reinforce them—ships sailing from their successful attack on Pearl Harbor.
The American navy dispatched from Hawaii the carrier USS Saratoga, carrying forces and supplies for the men on Wake. But meanwhile, the marines stepped up their fight for the island, refusing to back down. Devereux moved his fortifications from one spot to another, confusing the enemy and preventing them from cutting off the defense’s main artery.
But on December 22nd, after days of bombings by Japanese planes, the forces on Wake Island got some bad news. The navy was recalling the Saratoga. Too many ships had been lost in Pearl Harbor, and Japan had built up a powerful force around Wake. The navy couldn’t risk losing another ship.
The men on Wake were on their own.
The battle on Wake had become so fierce that even the construction workers joined the fight. But Devereux realized time wasn’t on their side. The Saratoga wasn’t coming, the Americans had lost two more Wildcats, and now the Japanese invasion fleet had even more war ships, including four heavy cruisers and more than 1500 troops. Devereaux wondered how long he could keep playing cat-and-mouse with the Japanese, especially when his troops were outnumbered two-to-one.
But still the marines refused to surrender.
Then, on December 23, Devereux and Cunningham suddenly lost radio contact among their forces. They had no way of knowing what was happening on Wake’s three islands, whether the marines were winning or losing, dying or living.
“I tried to think of something we might do to keep going,” Devereaux later recalled, “but there wasn’t anything . . . . We could keep on expending lives, but we could not buy anything with them.”
Later that day, Devereux surrendered to the Japanese.
The fifteen-day siege on Wake Island killed forty-seven marines, three naval personnel, and ten civilians.
But the outnumbered Americans had killed about 800 Japanese troops and wounded more than 300. They’d also taken out two Japanese destroyers, one submarine, and twenty-one aircraft.
So although America lost the battle at Wake Island, the marines had showed true courage. When reports reached the other American troops, it inspired them, especially after the humiliating attack on Pearl Harbor. Instead of saying America lost the battle at Wake Island, people called it “the Alamo of the Pacific.” (Again, you can read more about the Alama on Great Battles Volume I.)
More tragically, the Japanese captured every American alive on Wake Island. The prisoners of war, or POWs, were sent to Japanese prison camps where they would endure brutal treatment.
Ninety-eight civilians were kept on Wake Island as forced labor.
Later, the Japanese executed those men.
1942 cartoon by Ralph Lee.
As a result of lessons learned at Wake Island, civilian construction workers were trained in weaponry and basic tactics. They eventually became known as the Naval Construction Battalion, or Seabees (for “CB,” Construction Battalion).
These construction workers were a tough group. They had built America’s highways, skyscrapers, the New York City subways, mines, quarries, and wharfs. The Seabees worked in more than sixty skilled trades. Although technically only support troops, the Seabees were schooled in military discipline and taught to use light arms because they often wound up in battles.
By the end WWII, there were 325,000 men enlisted in the Seabees. In the Pacific, they built more than 100 airstrips, 400 piers, 2,500 ammunition magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals to serve 70,000 patients, tanks for the storage of 100,000,000 gallons of gasoline, and housing for 1,500,000 men.
Roughly 200 of them died in combat. They also earned more than 2,000 Purple Hearts, 33 Silver Stars, and 5 Navy Crosses.
On Wake Island, the construction workers did everything from dredging the channel to building the naval air station.The ninety-eight men kept by the Japanese as forced labor were later lined up and machine-gunned to death all at once.
But one construction worker managed to escape. He is believed to have carved his initials into a nearby coral rock, documenting the ninety-eight who died. When he was recaptured, the Japanese allegedly beheaded him.
But the “98 Rock” remains on Wake Island to this day.
FIND OUT MORE:
Wake Island 1941: A Battle to Make the Gods Weep by Jim Moran.
This is a brief but good video showing a fight between the Japanese Zero and the US F6F Hellcat in the raid on Wake Island.
The Atlantic magazine published vivid photographs of WWII fighting in the Pacific. These historic images give us an eyewitness view to the war.
The US Marine Corps History and Museums Division offers lots of information on “The Corps.”
Wake Island: Alamo of the Pacific