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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sunday Ship History: The Heroes of Wake Island

December 8, 1941 on a tiny atoll strategically located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Wake Island, a small piece of American soil of some importance. Known for some time, but thoroughly explored by The United States Exploring Expedition, the island was rugged:
On December 20, 1840, the United States Exploring Expedition commanded by Commodore Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Navy, landed on and surveyed Wake. Wilkes described the atoll as "a low coral one, of triangular form and eight feet above the surface. It has a large lagoon in the centre, which was well filled with fish of a variety of species among these were some fine mullet." He also noted that Wake had no fresh water and that it was covered with shrubs, "the most abundant of which was the tournefortia."
The lack of fresh water in quantity seems to have limited its habitation. You might note from the nearby map that Wake atoll consists of three islands, Wake, Wilkes and Peale.

In 1899, the U.S. claimed Wake:
Wake Island was annexed by the United States (empty territory) on January 17, 1899. In 1935, Pan American Airways constructed a small village, nicknamed "PAAville", to service flights on its U.S.-China route. The village was the first human settlement on the island and relied upon the U.S. mainland for its food and water supplies; it remained in operation up to the day of the first Japanese air raid.
In January 1941, a military base was developed on Wake. As the base grew, so did the population, on Wake were
...elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, totaling 449 officers and men, 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.
Overall command was held by U.S. Navy Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, who had arrived in late November.
On December 8, 1941, the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake being on the opposite side of the International Date Line), 36 Japanese medium bombers flown from bases on the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the twelve F4F 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.
Another air attack followed on December 9, causing severe damage to the island hospital among other things.

So get the picture - a relatively small group of Marines, down to a few aircraft, with defenses that included salvaged 5-inch guns from old ships and visually aimed 3-inch anti-aircraft gun, a handful of sailors and a number of civilian contractors on coral atoll maybe 3 miles long and a couple of miles wide at its widest point are tasked to defend Wake - the defenders already under air attack, knowing Pearl Harbor has been hit (and the U.S. Pacific Fleet, on which you may have hoped for rescue, lies stricken)

The defenders of Wake had plenty of opportunity to be downhearted, but as set out very well in A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island by Robert J. Cressman, these few mounted an incredible defense, sinking a couple of Japanese destroyers, shooting down numerous aircraft and forcing the Japanese to withdraw their first invasion attempt and mount a larger offensive bolstered by aircraft carriers.

Wake had its fast dwindling aircraft, the previously mentioned guns and a couple of American submarines lying offshore. One of these fired the first torpedo against an enemy ship by U.S. forces in WW II:
Shortly before midnight, the Triton was south of the atoll, charging her batteries and patrolling on the surface. At 2315, her bridge lookouts spied "two flashes" and then the silhouette of what seemed to be a destroyer, dimly visible against the backdrop of heavy clouds that lay behind her. The Triton submerged quickly and tracked the unidentifiable ship; ultimately, she fired a salvo of four torpedoes from her stern tubes at 0017 on 11 December 1941--the first torpedoes fired from a Pacific Fleet submarine in World War II. Although the submariners heard a dull explosion, indicating what they thought was at least one probably hit, and propeller noises appeared to cease shortly thereafter, the Triton's apparent kill had not been confirmed. She resumed her patrol, submerged.
As Cressman notes, the destroyer was probably a picket for the larger invasion force:
The ship that Triton had encountered off Wake's south coast was, most likely, the destroyer deployed as a picket 10 miles ahead of the invasion convoy steaming up from the south. Under Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, it had set out from Kwajalein, in the Marshalls, on 8 December. It consisted of the light cruiser Yubari (flagship), six destroyers--Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Yayoi, Mochizuki, Oite, and Hayate--along with Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33 (two ex-destroyers, each reconfigured in 1941 to launch a landing craft over a stern ramp) and two armed merchantmen, Kongo Maru and Kinryu Maru. To provide additional gunfire support, the Commander, Fourth Fleet, had also assigned the light cruisers Tatsuta and Tenryu to Kajioka's force.
This force attempted to close on Wake, but the defenders had teeth (and some help from the weather):
As the Japanese ships neared Wake, the Army radio unit on the atoll sent a message from Cunningham to Pearl Harbor at 0200 on the 11th, telling of the contractors' casualties, and, because of the danger that lay at Wake's doorstep, suggested early evacuation of the civilians. Army communicators on Oahu who received the message noted that the Japanese had tried to jam the transmission.

At 0400, Major Putnam put VMF-211 on the alert, and soon thereafter he and Captains Elrod, Tharin, and Freuler manned the four operational F4Fs. The Wildcats, a 100-pound bomb under each wing, then taxied into position for take-off. Shortly before 0500, Kajioka's ships began their final run. At 0515, three wildcats took off, followed after five minutes by the fourth. They rendezvoused at 12,000 feet above Toki Point. At 0522, the Japanese began shelling Wake.

The Marines' guns, however, remained silent as Kajioka's ships "crept in, firing as they came." The first enemy projectiles set the oil tanks on the southwest portion of Wake ablaze while the two converted destroyers prepared to land their Special Naval Landing Force troops. The column of warships advanced westward, still unchallenged. Nearing the western tip of Wake 20 minutes later, Kajioka's flagship, the Yubari, closed to within 4,500 yards, seemingly "scouring the beach" with her 5.5-inch fire. At 0600, the light cruiser reversed course yet again, and closed the range still further.

The Yubari's maneuvering prompted the careful removal of the brush camouflage, and the Marines began to track the Japanese ships. As the distance decreased, and the reports came into Devereux's command post with that information, the major again told Gunner Hamas to relay the word to Commander Cunningham, who, by that point, had reached his command post. Cunningham upon receiving Hamas' report, responded, "What are we waiting for, open fire. Must be Jap ships all right." Devereux quickly relayed the order to his anxious artillerymen. At 0610, they commenced firing.
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Platt carefully scrutinized the Japanese ship movements offshore, and noted with satisfaction that McAlister's 5-inchers sent three salvoes slamming into the Hayate. She exploded immediately, killing all of here 167-man crew. McAlister's gunners cheered and then turned their attention to the Oite and the Mochizuki, which soon suffered hits from the same guns. The Oite sustained 14 wounded; the Mochizuki sustained an undetermined number of casualties.

First Lieutenant Kessler's Battery B, at the tip of Peale, meanwhile, dueled with the destroyers Yayoi, Mutsuki and Kisaragi, as well as the Tenryu and the Tatsuta, and drew heavy counterfire that disabled on gun. The crew of the inoperable mount shifted to that of a serviceable one, serving as ammunition passers, and after 10 rounds, Kessler's remaining gun scored a hit on the Yayoi's stern, killing one man, wounding 17, and starting a fire. His gunners then sifted their attention to the next destroyer in column. The enemy's counterfire severed communications between Kessler's command post and the gun, but Battery B--the muzzle blast temporarily disabling the range finder--continued with local fire control. As the Japanese warships stood to the south, Kessler's gun hurled two parting shots toward a transport, which proved to have been out of range.
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The Yubari's action record reflects that although Wake had been pounded by land-based planes, the atoll's defenders still possessed enough coastal guns to mount a ferocious defense, which forced Kajioka to retire. As if the seacoast guns and the weather were not enough to frustrate the admiral's venture--the heavy seas had overturned landing boats almost as soon as they were launched--the Japanese soon encountered a new foe. While Cunningham's cannoneers had been trading shells with Kajioka's, Putnam's four Wildcats had climbed to 20,000 feet and maintained that altitude until daylight, when the major had ascertained that no Japanese planes were airborne. As the destroyers that had dueled Battery B opened the range and stood away from Wake, the Wildcats roared in.

Major Putnam saw at least one of Elrod's bombs hit the Kisaragi. Trailing oil and smoke, the damaged destroyer slowed to a stop but then managed to get underway again, internally afire. While she limped away to the south, Elrod, antiaircraft fire having perforated his plane's oil line, headed home. He managed to reach Wake and land on the rocky beach, but VMF-211's ground crew wrote off his F4F as a total loss. Meanwhile, Tenryu came under attack by Putnam, Tharin, and Freuler, who strafed her forward, near the number 1 torpedo tube mount, wounding five men and disabling three torpedoes.

The three serviceable Wildcats then shuttled back and forth to be rearmed and refueled. Putnam and Kinney later saw the Kisaragi--which had been carrying an extra supply of depth charges because of the American submarine threat--blow up and sink, killing her entire crew of 167 men. Freuler, Putnam, and Hamilton strafed the Kongo Maru, igniting barrels of gasoline stowed in one of her holds, killing three Japanese sailors, and wounding 19.
The Marine pilots took on Japanese bombers with great effect. However, more land-based bombers attacked, but the American struck back:
Weathering bombing attacks, taking the enemy's blows, was one thing, but striking at the Japanese was something else--something to boost morale. At about 1600 on the 12th, Second Lieutenant Kliewer, while patrolling, spotted a surfaced submarine 25 miles southwest of Wake. With the sun behind him, he dove from 10,000 feet. Convinced that the submarine was Japanese, Kliewer fired his four .50-calibers broadside into the submarine. Turning to the right, and seeking to increase his chances of scoring maximum damage on the enemy, he dove and dropped his two 100-pounders at such a low altitude that bomb fragments ripped large holes in his wings and tail surfaces. Emptying his guns into the submarine on his next pass, he looked behind him and saw her submerge. Major Putnam flew out to verify that the sub had been sunk and spotted an oil slick at the spot Kliewer indicated.
Back in Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel's staff was trying to find a way to relieve Wake, but was hampered by the damages to the fleet, the scarcity of aircraft carriers and, in fact, by Kimmel's odd status due to Pearl Harbor. The fighting men of Wake developed novel tactics:
The next day, the 16th, 33 Nells raided Wake Island at 1340. The Marines, however, greeted the Japanese fliers with novel fire control methods. Kinney and Kliewer, aloft on patrol, spotted the incoming formations closing on the atoll at 18,000 feet, almost 10 minutes before they reached Wake's airspace. The U.S. pilots radioed the enemy's altitude to the gun batteries. The early warning permitted Lewis to enter the data into the M-4 director and pass the solution to Godbold. Battery D hurled 95 rounds skyward. Battery E's first shots seemed to explode ahead of the formation, but Gunner McKinstry reported that the lead plane in one of the formations dropped, smoking, to the rear of the formation. He estimated that at least four other planes cleared the island trailing smoke. Godbold estimated that four planes had been damaged and one had crashed some distance from the island. Japanese accounts, however, provide no support for Godbold's estimate, acknowledging neither losses nor damage to Japanese aircraft during the attack that day. Kliewer and Kinney each attacked the formation of planes, but with little effect, partly because only one of Kinney's four machine guns functioned.
The relief group sailed:
At Pearl Harbor, in the lengthening shadows of 15 December (16 December on Wake), the relief expedition made ready to sail. The Tangier, the oiler Neches (AO-5) and four destroyers sailed at 1730 on the 15th (on Wake, 1400 on 16 December). The Saratoga and the remainder of the escort--delayed by the time it took to fuel the carrier--were to sail the following day. "The twilight sortie," First Lieutenant Robert D. Heinl, Jr., as commander of Battery F, 3-Inch Antiaircraft Group, wrote of the Tangier's sailing," Dramatized the adventure." The ships steamed past somber reminders of 7 December--the beached battleship Nevada and a Douglas SBD Dauntless from the Enterprise that had been shot down by "friendly fire" off Fort Kamehameha. "The waters beyond sight of Oahu," First Lieutenant Heinl noted, "seemed very lonely waters indeed ... Columbus' men, sailing westward in hourly apprehension of toppling off the edge of a square earth, could not have felt the seas to be more inscrutable and less friendly."
The Japanese upped the ante:
Wake's dogged defense caused Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, Commander, South Seas Force (Fourth Fleet), to seek help. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, responded by assigning a force under the command of Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe, Commander, 8th Cruiser Division, consisting of carriers Hiryu and Soryu and escorting ships, to reinforce Inoue. At 1630 on 16 December, the two carriers (with 118 aircraft), screened by the heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma and the destroyers Tanikaze and Urakaze, detached from their Pearl Harbor Striking Force, and headed toward Wake.
That Japanese carriers might be involved was a major concern to the leadership of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (Kimmel who was relieved by VADM Pye). When word came from Wake that it was being attacked by carrier aircraft as well as land-based bombers, the concern grew. The rescue force was still enroute, though not without difficulties:
Heavy seas bedeviled Frank Jack Fletcher's Task Force 14 as it pressed westward. Having been ordered to fuel to capacity before fighting, Fletcher began fueling his ships from Neches in the turbulent seas. Rolling swells and gusty winds slowed that process considerably and permitted the fueling of only four of his destroyers. If Fletcher was expected to fight, his ships would require more fuel to be able to maneuver at high speed, if necessary. he resolved to top off the rest the following day (23 December).

Meanwhile, at around 1900 on 21 December (1530, 22 December Wake), the PBY that had borne Major Bayler (the "last man off Wake Island") from Wake to Midway arrived at Pearl Harbor. The plane's commander dictated a report, which was transcribed by a CinCPac stenographer shortly after the pilot's arrival, regarding Wake's desperate plight. Pye, upon reading the report, was deeply moved. Members of Pye's staff, many of whom had also faithfully served on Admiral Kimmel's staff, pleaded with Pye's Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Milo F. Draemel, on behalf of the Wake relief efforts. Referring to the PBY commander's report, Pye declared later, "the situation at Wake seemed to warrant taking a greater chance to effect its reinforcement even at the sacrifice of the Tangier and possible damage to some major ships of Task Force 14. The admiral therefore removed the restrictions on Task Force 14's operations. The Tangier was to be detached with two destroyers to run in to Wake to begin the evacuation of the civilians and to disembark the Marines.
But the Japanese began their landings:
The bad weather that prevented the Marines from seeing their foes likewise hindered the Japanese. Shortly before 0200, Special Naval Landing Force troops clambered down into the medium landing craft designated to land on Wilkes and Wake. Four landing craft were launched some 3,000 to 4,000 meters offshore, but in the squalls and long swells they experienced difficulty keeping up with Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33 as they churned on a northeasterly course, headed for the beach. The landing craft designated to follow No. 32 lost sight of her in the murky, gusty darkness.

At about 0230, Marines on Peacock Point detected the two patrol boats, which appeared to them only as dark shapes as they made for the reef by the airstrip. Then, the two ships ground gently ashore on the coral. The Japanese naval infantrymen slipped over the side into the surf, struggled ashore, and sprinted across the coral for cover.

On Wilkes, Gunner McKinstry called to Captain Platt and informed him that he thought he heard the sound of engines over the boom of the surf, and at 0235 one of his .50-caliber guns (gun no. 10) opened fire in the darkness. Ten minutes later, McKinstry, having sought permission to use illumination, caused a searchlight to be turned on. Although the light was shut off as suddenly as it had been turned on, its momentary beam revealed a landing boat aground on Wilkes' rocky shore and, beyond that, two destroyers, beached on Wake.
These landing were the beginning of the end for the Wake defenders despite their fierce resistance, especially when news reached Pearl:
Meanwhile, after word of the enemy landing reached Pearl Harbor, Vice Admiral Pye convened a meeting of his staff. By 0700 (22 December, Hawaiian time), having received further word of developments at Wake, Pye estimated that a relief of the island looked impossible, given the prevailing situation, and directed that the Tangier should be diverted toward the east. With the relief mission abandoned, should his forces attack the enemy forces in the vicinity of Wake? Or should American forces be withdrawn to the east? He feared that the timing of the Japanese carrier strikes and the landing then in progress indicated that the enemy had "estimated closely the time at which our relief expedition might arrive and may, if the general location of our carrier groups is estimated, be waiting in force." American forces could inflict extensive damage upon Japanese, Pye believed, if the enemy did not know of the presence of the U.S. carrier forces. They had not yet seen action, though, and no one could overestimate the danger of having ships damaged 2,000 miles from the nearest repair facilities--"a damaged ship is a lost ship," Brown had commented in Task Force 11's war diary. Damage to the carriers could leave the Hawaiian Islands open to a major enemy thrust. "We cannot," Pye declared, "afford such losses at present."

Two course of actions existed--to direct Task Force 14 to attack Japanese forces in the vicinity of Wake, with Task Forces 8 and 11 covering Task Force 14's retirement, or to retire all forces without any attempt to attack the enemy. These choices weighed heavily on Pye's mind. If American forces hit the Japanese ships at Wake and suffered the loss of a carrier air group in the process, Pye deemed the "offensive spirit" shown by the Navy as perhaps worth the sacrifice.

However, in the midst of his deliberations, shortly after 0736, Pye received a message from the CNO which noted that recent developments had emphasized that Wake was a "liability" and authorized Pye to "evacuate Wake with appropriate demolition." With Japanese forces on the island, though, Pye felt that capitulation was only a matter of time. "The real question at issue," Pye thought, "is, shall we take the chance of the loss of a carrier group to attempt to attack the enemy forces in the vicinity of Wake?" Radio intelligence from the previous day linked "CruDiv 8 ... CarDiv 2" and erroneously, "BatDiv 3" (consisting of two battleships) with the forces off of Wake. A pair of Kongo-class fast battleships, supported by carriers and heavy cruisers would easily have overmatched Fletcher's Task Force 14.
On the island, the defenders counterattacked Japanese forces ashore. Their fate, however was sealed by decisions made at some distance:
Throughout the battle, Major Devereux had, as well as he could, kept the island commander informed of the progress of the assault. While the Marines, assisted by the sailors and civilians, had been attempting to stem the tide, most of the news which trickled into Cunningham's command post boded ill. At 0652, he sent out a message reflecting the situation as he knew it: "Enemy on island. Several ships plus transport moving in . Two DD aground." That was at 1032, 22 December 1941, on Pearl Harbor. It was to be the last message from the Wake Island defenders.

At Pearl Harbor, at about the time that Cunningham was sending that last message, Vice Admiral Pye had reached making a decision. He concluded that if Task Force 14 encountered anything but a weaker Japanese force, the battle would be fought on Japanese terms while within range of shore-based planes and with American forces having only enough fuel for two days of high speed steaming. Like Brown, Pye believed that a damaged ship was a lost ship, especially 2,000 miles from Pearl Harbor. The risk, he believed, was too great. He ordered the recall of Task Forces 14 and 11, and directed Task Force 8 to cover the retirement.

Frank Jack Fletcher's Task Force 14, meanwhile, was right on schedule, and was in fact further west that Pye knew. His ships fully fueled and ready for battle, Fletcher planned to detach the Tangier and two destroyers for the final run-in to Wake, while the pilots on board the Saratoga prepared themselves for the fight ahead. Fletcher, not one to shirk a fight, received the news of the recall angrily, He ripped his hat from his head and disgustedly hurled it to the deck. Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, Fletcher's air commander, similarly felt the fist-tightening frustration of the recall. He retired from the Saratoga's flag bridge as the talk there reached "mutinous" proportions.

As word of the recall circulated throughout Task Force 14, reactions were pretty much the same. Pye's recall order left no latitude for discussion or disobedience; those who argued later that Fletcher should have used the Nelsonian "blind eye" obviously failed to recognize that, in the sea off Copenhagen, the British admiral could see his opponents. Fletcher and Fitch, then 430 miles east of Wake, could not see theirs. They had no idea what enemy forces they might encounter. The Japanese had beaten them to Wake.
Holding out as long as they could, the Wake men were finally forced to surrender on December 23, 1941:
Of the 449 Marines (1st Defense Battalion and VMF-211 detachments) who manned Wake's defenses, 49 were killed, 32 were wounded, and the remainder became prisoners of war.[1] Of the 68 Navy officers and men, three were killed, five wounded, and the rest taken prisoner. The small, five-man Army communications detachment suffered no fatalities; they were all taken prisoner. Of the 1,146 civilians involved in construction programs on Wake Island, 70 were killed and 12 were wounded. Five of Wake's defenders were executed by the Japanese on board Nitta Maru, With the exception of nearly 100 contractors who remained on Wake Island, all the rest of the civilians joined Wake's Marines, sailors, and soldiers in prisoner of war (POW) camps. The Japanese transported the wounded military men and civilians from the island as their wounds healed and they were deemed well enough to travel. They, too, were placed in POW camps until their liberation in 1945.
Wake was not recovered by force of arms:
Wake was not recaptured by American forces during the war. Air raids on Wake occurred throughout the war, the first occurring in February 1942. Raids in October 1943, however, had grave repercussions for the contractors who had been left behind. Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, the atoll commander, who feared that the raids portended a major landing, had them all executed. He was unwilling to have his garrison threatened by such a large "fifth column." For that offense, he was hanged as a war criminal. The U.S. recovered Wake Island after the Japanese surrender in 1945.
We remember the men of the Alamo, of Bastogne, of the "Frozen Chosen" - add to that list of heroes, if you haven't already, the fighting men who defended Wake Island so well and so bravely.

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