"I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” stammered Communications Sergeant Ernest Rogers, who was monitoring the Pearl Harbor radio circuit in a trailer about 500 feet behind the parking apron for Wake Island’s small airstrip. It was 0650 on 8 December 1941. Part of a five-man U.S. Army Air Forces communications team on Wake to coordinate the transit of B-17 bombers to the Philippines, Rogers immediately called his unit’s commander, Captain Henry S. Wilson, to listen.
Wilson heard the distinctive “dits” and “dahs” of Morse code. “SOS, SOS, Japs attacking Oahu . . . this is the real thing. . . . Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor under attack.” The captain recognized the “fist” of the operator (the distinctive method of tapping the telegraph hand key) and realized the alarm was real. He rushed to inform the commander of the U.S. Marine detachment defending Wake Atoll, Major James P. S. Devereux, who was in his tent shaving. The major passed an alert over Wake’s defense network and ordered the duty field music to sound “Call to Arms.”
‘An appalling crash made the ground tremble. . . .I was engulfed and half strangled by a choking cloud of dirt, dust and the picric-acid fumes from exploding bombs.’
The First Strike
Personnel from Major Paul A. Putnam’s Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211 rushed to the parking apron to prepare a division of Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats for immediate flight and, because there were no protective bunkers or revetments, to disperse the remaining fighters as widely as possible.
At 0800, Putnam and his dawn patrol, which was airborne when news of the attack arrived, returned to base. Soon, a four-plane division led by Captain Henry T. Elrod was aloft to sweep the approaches to Wake. It was VMF-211’s first wartime combat air patrol. Any attack was expected to come from the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 24th Air Flotilla based at Roi, 720 miles south of Wake in the Marshall Islands. After searching for some time, the patrol arrived back over Wake and was coming down through broken clouds when First Lieutenant John F. Kinney “spotted two formations [of planes] about three miles” out, but he soon lost them in the heavy overcast.
At 1158, a drifting rain squall obscured an incoming Japanese raid. Thirty-four Mitsubishi G3M2 Type 96 twin-engine attack bombers—soon to be known in Allied code as “Nells”—from the 24th Air Flotilla emerged from a bank of clouds almost on top of the airstrip. Lieutenant William Lewis, in command of the 3-inch battery on Peacock Point, spotted a tight V formation of 12 Japanese planes just as they released their bombs. A civilian construction worker on Wake, unaware it was an enemy raid, exclaimed, “Look, the wheels dropped off the airplanes!” An instant later, 100-pound fragmentation bombs and 20-mm incendiary bullets rained down on VMF-211’s grounded planes. Wilson recalled, “They just opened their bomb bays and laid their eggs in my face.”
Several officers were in the squadron ready tent, and many of VMF-211’s personnel were working on the parking apron when the shattering explosions erupted. “An appalling crash made the ground tremble . . . my body was shaken,” exclaimed Major Walter L. Bayler, the squadron’s communications officer. “I was engulfed and half strangled by a choking cloud of dirt, dust and the picric-acid fumes from exploding bombs.” First Lieutenant George A. Graves and Second Lieutenant Robert J. Conderman were in the ready tent close to the airfield when the Japanese attacked. Both pilots sprinted for their aircraft. Graves scrambled into his F4F’s cockpit just as a bomb hit the plane, instantly killing him. Conderman “was almost close enough to touch [his Wildcat] when a Jap machine gunned him,” Devereux later recalled. Someone went to help him, but Conderman pointed to other wounded men beyond him, saying, “Take care of them.” He died later that night.
A strafing attack caught Second Lieutenant Frank J. Holden as he raced for cover. Putnam, flight officer Captain Frank C. Tharin, Second Lieutenant Henry G. “Spider” Webb, and enlisted pilot Staff Sergeant Robert O. Arthur all were wounded.
The raid destroyed seven of VMF-211’s 12 F4Fs and seriously damaged an eighth. A pilot bent his plane’s propeller as he taxied into scattered debris. A direct bomb hit destroyed the air-ground radio installation and set the two 25,000-gallon aviation fuel tanks on fire. “All our tools, spark plugs, tires and all spare parts had been destroyed,” Kinney lamented. VMF-211 had sustained grievous casualties in the ten-minute attack. Of 55 squadron personnel on the ground, 23 were killed or mortally wounded; 11 others were less seriously wounded.
A Remote U.S. Outpost
V-shaped Wake Atoll, located 2,300 miles west of Honolulu and 3,000 miles east of Manila, comprised two small islets —Peale on the northeast prong and Wilkes on the northwest prong—and Wake Island, forming the base of the V. No more than 21 feet above sea level, the atoll was a narrow band of sandy soil covered with thick scrub brush with a coastline stretching about 21 miles. The remote outpost was a steppingstone for a Japanese or a U.S. advance across the Pacific.
As diplomatic relations with Japan had worsened, the U.S. Navy began constructing a military base on the atoll. In January 1941, Morrison-Knudsen, a small Boise, Idaho, company, offered $30 a month to men willing to build a naval air base in the exotic Pacific. More than 1,100 civilian workers jumped at the “good-paying jobs” and were soon building airfield facilities on Wake Island, including a narrow 200-by-5,000-foot airstrip of crushed coral, crew buildings, a radio transmitter center, and other infrastructure projects—but no defensive facilities.
In late April 1941, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, became alarmed at the island’s defenseless condition. Four months later, Major Lewis A. Hohm and a detachment of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion arrived and began setting up camp. By November, the Marine force had swelled to 15 officers and 373 enlisted men, under the command of Major Devereux, the battalion’s former executive officer. Devereux was an energetic officer who drove his men relentlessly in an effort to beef up the atoll’s defenses. Working parties constructed 5-inch seacoast batteries and a dozen 3-inch antiaircraft batteries and antiaircraft machine gun emplacements at several locations—Toki Point, the atoll’s northeastern tip; Peacock Point, the southern tip near the airstrip; and Kuku Point, on the northwestern tip.
In late November, 41-year-old U.S. Navy Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham arrived on board the USS Wright (AV-1) to succeed Devereux as the island’s commander and to serve as officer in charge of naval activities. Also arriving were Major Bayler, an airfield communications expert and former Marine Air Group (MAG) 21 staff officer; a detachment of 49 Marines to establish aviation ground facilities; and Second Lieutenant Robert J. Conderman to command the detachment. Bayler was told his job was “to prepare the island for patrol plane operations and to operate patrol planes when they arrive.”
Flying into Wake
On the afternoon of 27 November, Major Putnam, commanding officer of VMF-211, stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Ewa, Hawaii, reported to Colonel Claude A. Larkin, MAG-21’s commander, who gave him secret verbal orders to embark 12 new F4F-3 Wildcats and 10 officers and 2 enlisted pilots on board the USS Enterprise (CV-6), part of Task Force 8 commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. “Paul, your boys are going aboard the carrier, and I don’t know when they’re coming back,” Larkin related. “They can take a toothbrush and nothing else.” Then Larkin cautioned, “You’re going to Wake, but you can’t tell your boys.” Putnam called his men together and told them they were going to fly to Maui and remain overnight.
The next morning, instead of returning to their base, the squadron rendezvoused with the Enterprise. Once at sea, Halsey announced that the “Big E” was transporting VMF-211 to Wake “under war conditions.”
On the morning of 4 December, when the Enterprise was 200 miles from the atoll, a Navy Consolidated PBY 5A Catalina flying boat flew out from Wake to guide VMF-211 to its new home. Just before the 12 Wildcats took off, one of Lieutenant Kinney’s Pensacola flight school classmates gave him a bottle of whiskey. “You will need this more than I will,” he said, not realizing how prophetic his words would be. The fighters then were launched from the Enterprise’s wooden flight deck and formed up behind the flying boat. Two hours later, the squadron touched down on Wake Island’s primitive east-west runway.
Still only half completed, the airstrip was not wide enough for two aircraft to take off at the same time. Also, there were no revetments to protect planes from air attack. The only safe spot for parking the F4Fs free of loose coral that might damage an engine was a small 300-by-800-foot hardstand mat adjacent to the runway. Putnam quickly arranged for construction of revetments to commence as soon as possible.
The absence of a radar warning system magnified the danger posed by the lack of revetments. The substitute was a visual observation post (OP) near the top of a 50-foot steel water tank located on the highest point of the island and linked by a field telephone to the command center. The OP had a view of about nine miles. To further provide early warning, Putnam established a daily dawn and dusk four-plane combat air patrol.
In addition to the poor condition of facilities on Wake, the major faced a perhaps more daunting problem: the unfamiliarity of his pilots with their aircraft. Putnam had written Larkin from on board the Enterprise that VMF-211 was “seriously handicapped by lack of experience in the type of airplane then used.” He added that the F4F-3s “had been received too recently to permit familiarization in tactical flying and gunnery.” His squadron, which had been flying Grumman F3F-2 biplanes, even lacked instruction manuals for the new Wildcats. Therefore, one of Putnam’s first tasks on arrival was to establish a training program to be carried out in conjunction with the air patrols.
From 8 to 23 December, the Japanese would either bomb from the air or shell the atoll from ships offshore. Whenever they were not under attack, Marines and civilians dug trenches, rebuilt equipment, and tended the wounded. At night, they worked under blackout conditions. Despite the lack of tools, spare parts, and basic equipment, Lieutenant Kinney, Technical Sergeant William J. Hamilton, and Staff Sergeant Robert O. Archer were able to repair damaged aircraft by swapping and cannibalizing parts. Putnam later called their performance “Magical . . . the outstanding event of the whole campaign.”
At dawn on Tuesday, 9 December, the island was on full alert. Antiaircraft batteries were manned and ready, and a four-plane combat patrol was airborne in anticipation of a second air raid. At 1145, the water tank observation post spotted 27 G3M2 bombers south of Peacock Point at 13,000 feet. The alert was flashed over the garrison’s radio network to the Marines at their battle stations and to the squadron’s airborne patrol via air-to-ground radio.
As the tight Japanese formation approached its bomb release point, two Wildcats flown by Hamilton and Second Lieutenant David D. Kliewer flamed one of the Nells but had to break off their attack when 3-inch antiaircraft shells began to explode in and around the Japanese formation. Enemy bombs destroyed the hospital and warehouse and heavily damaged the metal shop. Several hospital patients were killed, including three noncommissioned officers from VMF-211.
The Japanese repeated their aerial bombardment at mid-morning the next day. Captain Elrod, the squadron executive officer, led the combat patrol and personally shot down two bombers. The raid scored a direct hit on a 125-ton dynamite cache. The resultant explosion denuded the greater part of Wilkes Islet, set off all 3-inch and 5-inch ready ammunition at two batteries, and swept the seacoast battery clean of accessories, light fittings, and anything else. Four Marines and 55 contractors were killed.
Repulsing a Sea Attack
Shortly before 0300 on 11 December, Marine lookouts on Kuku Point spotted approaching ships on the black southern horizon. General quarters was sounded. Devereux told his gunners to “Hold your fire until I give the word.” He believed any premature firing would reveal their locations and lose any element of surprise. At 0500, three Japanese cruisers turned broadside to Wake Island and opened fire with their 6-inch guns. One cruiser and two destroyers then reversed course and closed the range to about 4,500 yards. At daylight, Devereux gave the order to fire. Within minutes, Marine 5-inch coastal batteries hit six Japanese ships. One destroyer blew up and sank with her entire crew.
As the Japanese flotilla began to withdraw, Putnam and three of his most experienced pilots—Elrod, Tharin, and Captain Herbert C. Freuler—pounced on the enemy ships about 30 miles south of Wake, bombing and strafing relentlessly. The Marine pilots began their attack from 15,000 feet, diving at a steep 70-degree angle. Antiaircraft fire exploded all around them as they bore in on the ships. At 1,500 feet, they released their eight 100-pound bombs.
Elrod and Tharin then focused their firepower on the Japanese light cruisers Tenryu and Tatsuta. “One left a trail of oil and smoke as it steamed south,” Kinney reported. Freuler dropped one small bomb on the stern of the Kongo Maru, a medium transport, starting a gasoline fire that burned fiercely. A converted destroyer also was hit, but the biggest prize was the destroyer Kisaragi. Elrod and Tharin bombed and strafed the ship, leaving her ablaze from stem to stern. After the aircraft returned to Wake to rearm, Kinney and Hamilton were the next pilots in the air. Determined to finish off the Kisaragi, Kinney started to zero in on her when the destroyer exploded and rapidly began to sink. “I had a brief feeling of having been cheated out of a chance to sink this ship myself,” he later admitted.
The Marine pilots made a total of 10 sorties, dropped 20 bombs (with eight hits), and fired 20,000 rounds of .50-caliber armor-piercing rounds during the engagement. Japanese records indicated that 500 sailors were lost. Two VMF-211 planes received such heavy battle damage they had to be scrapped. Captain Elrod barely survived a crash landing on Wake’s south beach, and Captain Freuler glided back to the airfield with a dead engine. The squadron was left with only two serviceable fighters until Kinney and his crew were able to patch up one of the damaged planes.
Final ‘Kills’ over Wake
Early on 12 December, two four-engine Kawanishi H8K “Emily” patrol bombers raided Wake. Flying the morning reconnaissance patrol, Captain Tharin was able to intercept and shoot down one of the flying boats. Later that day, Kliewer, on evening patrol, spotted a surfaced Japanese submarine about 25 miles southwest of the island. Diving out of the sun, he opened fire with his four .50-caliber machine guns and, as he pulled out of the dive, pickled two 100-pound bombs that exploded within 15 feet of the hull. Bomb fragments ripped his Wildcat’s wing and tail surfaces. The sub slipped below the surface, leaving a large oil slick. (Japanese records list the submarine, RO-62, as lost, cause unknown.)
No enemy bombers appeared in the skies on 13 December, but they returned with a vengeance over the next several days. The Japanese made 12 air raids with formations ranging from three heavy seaplanes to 41 twin-engine landplanes. Putnam reported that his gunners shot down five enemy planes, with four other kills not verified.
At about 0900 on 21 December, the Japanese were back with the heaviest and most ominous raid to date. Twenty-nine Aichi D3A2 Type 99 “Val” dive bombers and 18 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero, or “Zeke,” fighters from a carrier task force descended from the cloudy sky. The Marine antiaircraft guns were ineffective against the fast-moving carrier planes. Morale plummeted as the enemy pounded the island with near impunity. Only two of VMF-211’s fighters remained in commission.
The next day, Captain Freuler and Second Lieutenant Carl R. Davidson were on combat air patrol when they spotted 33 Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” bombers escorted by six Zekes. Freuler took on the fighters, smoking one, scattering the formation, and engaging another. The fighter blew up 50 feet below his plane, enveloping the Wildcat in flames and damaging its control surfaces. A Zeke then got on his F4F’s tail, riddling the aircraft. A bullet hit the captain in the back and shoulder as he pushed the battered plane into a dive. Just as he touched down on Wake Island’s runway, his engine conked out. Freuler went to the hospital, and the plane went to the boneyard. Davidson was last seen diving on a retreating Zeke with another on his Wildcat’s tail and several others nearby. The loss of these two F4Fs left the squadron without any airplanes; Putnam reported to Devereux and volunteered his decimated squadron as infantry.
Final Defense of Wake
In the predawn darkness of 23 December, the boom of surf and whoosh and patter of rainfall made Marine lookouts’ job difficult; however, they did notice flashes of light on the distant horizon north of Peale Island. At about 0235, Second Lieutenant Robert M. Hanna saw two destroyer transports looming offshore. Commander Cunningham messaged Pearl Harbor: “Island under gunfire X apparently landing.”
Estimates of the number of Japanese Special Naval Landing Force sailors who came ashore on Wake that day range from 800 to more than 1,200, but when they landed, the defenders had no idea of the enemy force’s size. Judging from the information coming into the command post, Devereux thought the most serious threat was along the south coast. He sent an eight-man mobile reserve and Putnam’s 20 surviving members of VMF-211 to support to a 3-inch gun south of the airstrip that Hanna and a scratch crew hastily had manned.
As the Japanese landed at several points along the south coast of Wake Island and on Wilkes Islet, Lieutenant Kliewer and three Marines rushed to guard one of the generators previously wired to detonate mines buried along the airstrip. The mines were to be used in case the Japanese attempted an air landing. Putnam deployed his group of Marines, reinforced with 15 civilian volunteers, in a line facing west in defense of Hanna’s gun, and they took the attacking Japanese under fire. Putnam killed two with his .45-caliber pistol. Elrod screamed, “Kill the sons of bitches!” and sprayed the rest with a submachine gun. His ferocious one-man attack temporarily stopped the enemy.
The Japanese regrouped and continued to hit the U.S. perimeter. Elrod was killed when he stood to throw a grenade. Putnam was shot in the jaw and bled profusely. He and his men were forced to give ground step by step as they gradually were surrounded while defending the 3-inch gun. The enemy swept the position with a rain of rifle grenades and heavy fire from the shelter of aircraft revetments. Three of the gun’s 13 defenders were killed and 9 wounded. Every officer except Captain Tharin was wounded.
Surrender and Aftermath
By 0500, the defenders’ situation was extremely serious. Cunningham sent a message to Pearl Harbor: “Enemy on island; issue in doubt.” The report convinced Vice Admiral William C. Pye, the newly appointed Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, to abandon an attempt then under way to relieve Wake. At 0800, after discussing the situation with Devereux, Cunningham made the difficult decision to surrender to avoid more casualties. Devereux accepted the task of passing the word to the Marines still fighting.
Accompanied by Sergeant Donald R. Malleck, who carried a white sheet attached to a mop handle, Devereux surrendered to a Japanese officer who spoke some English. Around 0930, Devereux, Malleck, and the enemy officer reached VMF-211’s position. The remnants of the squadron—ten men out of the original 61—were still holding out under heavy enemy pressure. When he saw the white flag, Putnam came out to meet them. Devereux later recalled, “Major Putnam looked like hell itself . . . his face was a red smear.” The major ordered his men to lay down their weapons. At 1014, Devereux approached Lieutenant Kliewer and his men near the airfield. At first, the cluster of Marines thought it was a hoax but then realized the sad truth. They were the last members of VMF-211 to surrender.
On 12 January 1942, Japanese captors herded 1,235 prisoners—Marine, Navy, and Army personnel and civilian contractors—on board the SS Nitta Maru, a converted luxury liner. Left behind were the remains of approximately 122 men who had died defending Wake, those too seriously injured to be moved, and a contingent of contractors the Japanese would put to work bolstering the atoll’s defenses. In October 1943, the 98 surviving members of the last group would be massacred on orders from the Wake garrison’s commander, Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara.
On board the Nitta Maru, guards treated the prisoners brutally, jamming them into the bowels of the ship with little water, food, or sanitation for transport to POW camps. On 22 January, the Japanese beheaded five prisoners, including two members of VMF-211—Master Technical Sergeant Earl R. Hannum and Technical Sergeant Vincent W. Bailey—to avenge the Japanese airmen lost over Wake. The POWs who survived the coming years of imprisonment were liberated in August 1945.
Shortly thereafter, on 4 September, U.S. forces returned to Wake, and Marine Brigadier General Lawson Sanderson accepted the surrender of the atoll from Admiral Sakaibara, who would be executed for war crimes in 1947.
LtCol Walter L. J. Bayler, USMC, Last Man Off Wake Island (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943).
Robert J. Cressman, ‘A Magnificent Fight’: The Battle for Wake Island (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995).
Robert J. Cressman, A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island (Washington, DC: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1992).
Bonnie Gilbert, “POWs,” bonitagilbert.com/pows/.
LtCol R. D. Heinl Jr., USMC, The Defense of Wake (Washington, DC: Historical Branch, U.S. Marine Corps, 1947).
LtCol Frank O. Hugh, USMCR; Maj Verle E. Ludwig, USMC; and Henry I. Shaw Jr., History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, vol. 1, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal (Washington, DC: Historical Branch, U.S. Marine Corps, n.d.).