Uncertainty pervades warfare. It manifests itself in the form of “unknowns about the enemy, about the environment, and even about the friendly position.”1 This is especially true while operating with few assets scattered across great distances. General David H. Berger, the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, has laid out a vision for the service involving small, numerous, and dispersed forces operating across great distances in the Pacific to counter regional adversaries.2 Although offensively postured, these expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) harken back to the Marine Corps’ principal warfighting purpose at the turn of the 20th century.3 This function was tested on Wake Island in December 1941. The battle for Wake is a great starting point for gaining historical insight into how the warfighting principle of uncertainty affects the battlespace today’s dispersed amphibious forces might encounter.
Historical context is necessary to extract and apply the lessons. According to retired Marine Colonel Theodore L. Gatchel, “Advanced base operations became an increasingly important mission for the Marines” following the Spanish-American War.4 Those years saw the creation of the Fleet Marine Force, as well as offensive and defensive doctrine for advanced naval bases.5 As relations with Japan deteriorated prior to World War II, advanced bases (and the Marines trained to occupy them) became more prevalent.6 Wake Island was the United States’ farthest forward airstrip-equipped island that might withstand a Japanese attack.7
But a 1939 Marine Corps study concluded: “The defense of Wake depended on an ability to repel Japanese carrier and land-based air attacks” and “Wake would fall because the Navy would not risk the fleet in the island’s defense.”8 Despite this, a Marine defense battalion was deployed to Wake prior to Pearl Harbor in anticipation of Japanese aggression. Led by Major James Devereaux and his Navy superior, Commander W. S. Cunningham, the defense consisted of 373 infantry Marines, Marine Fighter Squadron 211 (comprising 61 Marines and 12 F4F-3 Wildcats), 74 unarmed naval and Air Corps personnel, and 1,200 civilian construction workers.9 The Marines had a reasonable number of machine and large-bore guns, but only half were employable because of manning shortages.10
According to Gatchel, the day after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began a three-day island bombing operation to soften defenses on Wake ahead of a landing. The landing came on 11 December, supported by naval gun bombardments from three Japanese destroyers. The Marines counterattacked with 5-inch guns and sank the first Japanese vessel of the war. The landing force retreated, but the Marines pressed the attack and sank another destroyer in addition to damaging other craft with their remaining Wildcats. Days later, however, the Japanese began another assault—this time with naval guns out of range of the Marines’ large-bore guns. The Japanese quickly gained a beachhead and forced the Marines onto a small, connected island called Wilkes. Despite overwhelming force, the Marines were able to halt the Japanese advance at their new position and conduct a counterattack before surrendering. At the conclusion of the battle, the defenders had sustained 171 casualties (including civilians) while inflicting more than 1,000 casualties on the Japanese.11
The successes and failures at Wake Island were heavily influenced by the uncertainty surrounding the advanced Pacific base’s defense. Given Wake’s remoteness (2,300 miles west of Honolulu), Major Devereaux was unaware of the attack on Pearl Harbor until just before the Japanese attack commenced. He did not know his aggressor’s size or capabilities, and the prospect of reinforcements from Hawaii was unknowable, especially in light of the Marine Corps’ own study dismissing hope of Navy support there. Unable to bury wires, the Marines had their communications silenced during the initial Japanese bombings. Lacking fire-control equipment and radar, the troops were oblivious to an assault until the enemy was already on them.12 In summary, the Marines on Wake were blind, mute, ill-equipped, undermanned, unaware, and alone.
But the Marines had a mission to accomplish. Despite a lack of time and resources, they used cement bags and empty ammunition boxes as sandbags, turned 2-inch antiaircraft guns into seacoast guns, created makeshift sound detectors, and adapted welding oxygen containers to supplement VMF-211’s low supply for its aircraft. They also conducted gun drills and planned their defense at the water’s edge in preparation for the upcoming assault.13
In the face of uncertainty, Devereaux defaulted to established Marine Corps doctrine and adapted its principles to his particular situation. This allowed him to operate with the confidence that a tentative plan could be altered as the situation progressed against the Japanese, who—despite greater numbers—also operated from a position of uncertainty. According to postwar interrogations, the Japanese believed far more Marines were on Wake than was the reality.14 Combined with the fact this would be their second battle with the United States, the Japanese may have conducted the initial assault with more timidity, allowing the Marines to push their advantage and deal a heavy blow after sinking the first destroyer. Once Japanese troops successfully landed on Wake, however, uncertainty played a critical role in the Marine’s eventual surrender. Over the course of the land battle, Devereaux became separated from a large contingency of his men. The Marines who ended up on Wilkes Island managed to entrench and begin a counterattack.15 But because of the destruction of communication wires and his proximity to the fight, Devereaux was unaware of his subordinates’ actions. In his uncertainty with the developing situation, he surrendered despite a promising resistance effort from his men.
Marines today must synthesize lessons from Wake’s defense and apply them to future EABO leadership decisions. Major Devereaux and his Marines were tasked with securing Wake to ensure the United States could conduct future offensive operations. However, given the suddenness of the Pearl Harbor attack and the remoteness of their position, they soon found themselves defending against unexpected aggression. Similarly, offensively postured unit leaders of tomorrow’s amphibious bases must account for unexpected aggression from adversaries in an uncertain environment.
How is this achieved? The answer is clearly stated in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1: Warfighting: “By developing simple, flexible plans; planning for likely contingencies; developing standing operating procedures; and fostering initiative among subordinates.”16 The Marines at Wake Island displayed both success and failure in these areas. The command in the Pacific had failed to adequately plan for Japanese aggression against Wake. It did not anticipate the attack, so it did not provide a sufficient Marine presence to defend the island. However, Devereaux quickly created flexible plans based on Marine Corps amphibious defense doctrine by establishing a defense at the water’s edge.17 He made full use of the resources at his disposal, used his knowledge and intuition to improvise a plan, and rehearsed his men instead of becoming distracted by the unknown.
After the invaders established a beachhead and drove the Marines back to Wilkes Island, the initiative Major Devereaux had instilled in his subordinates was displayed by their resilience in defending and, ultimately, counterattacking the enemy of their own volition. Unfortunately, trust in subordinates did not overcome the uncertainty stemming from silenced communications; Devereaux surrendered to the enemy, unaware his subordinates were conducting a counterattack at that very moment.
Learning from Wake’s example, EABO unit leaders must be prepared to operate in a vacuum. Cyber attacks, stealth technology, and electronic warfare may deprive forward-deployed units of their advanced communications and signals intelligence, leaving them in a similar situation. Therefore, the operational chain of command must anticipate and communicate how it will use the Marine Corps’ revised force design so Marines can adequately train, equip, and study in anticipation. Marine Corps leaders, from corporal to general, need a thorough understanding of doctrine and must implement flexible plans that allow for the unknown at all levels of war. Subordinates must be empowered to take the initiative, and commanders must trust in subordinate execution regardless of their ability to communicate or stay current on the developing situation. Leaders have a duty to be stalwart in the face of uncertainty and loyal to the mission regardless of their situational awareness or technological capabilities. If emphasized, these actions will bolster the warfighting abilities of even the most outgunned expeditionary units, as evidenced by Wake.
It is essential for Marines to learn from their brothers’ past mistakes while continuing to develop the fearlessness demonstrated by the Marines at Wake Island. Uncertainty must be met with determination backed by flexible and anticipatory plans, an understanding of doctrine, and trust in subordinates despite the risks associated with the fog of war. As MCDP 1–3: Tactics puts it, “In order to try for victory, we must dare to try for victory.”18
1. U.S. Marine Corps, MCDP 1: Warfighting (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1997), 7.
2. U.S. Marine Corps, Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2021), 1–5.
3. Theodore Gatchel, At the Water’s Edge: Defending Against the Modern Amphibious Assault (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 78.
4. Gatchel, At the Water’s Edge, 78.
5. Gatchel, 79.
6. Gatchel, 79.
7. Gatchel, 80.
8. Edward S. Miller, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991).
9. Robert Debs Heinl Jr., The Defense of Wake (Washington, DC: Historical Section, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1947).
10. Heinl Jr., Defense of Wake.
11. Gatchel, At the Water’s Edge, 84–87.
12. Gatchel, 82–83.
13. Gatchel, 83–84.
14. U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), Interrogations of Japanese Officials vol. 2, Interrogation no. 413, Koyama, 371.
15. Gatchel, At the Water’s Edge, 86.
16. U.S. Marine Corps, Warfighting, 8.
17. Gatchel, At the Water’s Edge, 83.
18. U.S. Marine Corps, MCDP 1-3: Tactics (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1997), 34.