Battle of Wake Island

The Battle of Wake Island began simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor and ended on 23 December 1941, with the surrender of the American forces to the Empire of Japan. It was fought on and around the atoll formed by Wake Island and its islets of Peale and Wilkes Islands by the air, land, and naval forces of the Empire of Japan against those of the U.S., with Marines playing a prominent role on both sides.

The island was held by the Japanese for the duration of the Pacific War; the remaining Japanese garrison on the island surrendered to a detachment of United States Marines on 4 September 1945.

In January 1941, the United States Navy constructed a military base on the atoll. On 19 August, the first permanent military garrison, understrength elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, totaling 450 officers and men, were stationed on the island, under Major James P.S. Devereux. 

                   Kuvahaun tulos haulle F4F-3 Wildcat

The defense battalion was supplemented by Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-211, consisting of 12 F4F-3 Wildcat fighters, commanded by Major Paul A. Putnam. Also present on the island were 68 U.S. Navy personnel and about 1,221 civilian workers for the Morrison-Knudsen Civil Engineering Company. Forty-five Chamorro men were employed by Pan American Airways at the company's facilities in Wake Island, one of the stops on the Pan Am Clipper trans-Pacific air service initiated in 1935.

Battle of Wake Island
Part of the Pacific Theater of World War II
A destroyed Japanese patrol boat (#33) on Wake.
Date8–23 December 1941
LocationWake Island, U.S. territory
ResultJapanese victory
 Empire of Japan United States
Commanders and leaders
Shigeyoshi Inoue
Sadamichi Kajioka
Shigematsu Sakaibara
Eiji Gotō
Tamon Yamaguchi
Winfield S. Cunningham (POW)
James P.S. Devereux (POW)
Paul A. Putnam (POW)
Henry T. Elrod 
First Attempt (11 December):
3 light cruisers
6 destroyers
2 patrol boats
2 troop transports
Reinforcements arriving for Second Attempt (23 December):
2 aircraft carriers
2 heavy cruisers
2 destroyers
2,500 infantry
449 USMC personnel consisting of:
6 coastal artillery pieces
12 aircraft
12 anti-aircraft guns
68 U.S. Navy personnel
5 U.S. Army personnel
Casualties and losses
First attempt:
1 light cruiser heavily damaged
2 destroyers sunk
325 killed
Second attempt:
820 killed
333 wounded
2 transports sunk
2 patrol boats wrecked
7–8 aircraft shot down
20 aircraft damaged
52 killed
49 wounded
2 missing
12 aircraft lost
433 captured
70 civilians killed
1,104 civilians interned, of whom 180 died in captivity
The Marines were armed with six 130 mm pieces, originating from the battleship USS Texas; twelve 76,2 mm anti-aircraft guns (with only a single working anti-aircraft director among them); eighteen12.7 mm Browning heavy machine guns; and thirty 7.62 mm heavy, medium and light water- and air-cooled machine guns.

On 28 November, Commander Winfield S. Cunningham reported to Wake to assume overall command of U.S. forces on the island. He had only 10 days to examine the defenses and assess his men before war broke out.

                    Kuvahaun tulos haulle 5"/51 caliber gun on Texas 1914.
                               5"/51 caliber gun on Texas 1914.

                    Kuvahaun tulos haulle 3"/50 caliber gun aboard Slater
                                    3"/50 caliber gun aboard Slater

                    Kuvahaun tulos haulle mitsubishi M5a airplane
                                                  Mitsubishi M5a Claude

                                                  Mitsubishi G3M3

On 8 December, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake being on the opposite side of the International Date Line), 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M3 medium bombers flown from bases on the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the 12 F4F-3 Wildcats on the ground. The remaining four Wildcats were in the air patrolling, but because of poor visibility, failed to see the attacking Japanese bombers. These Wildcats did down two bombers on the following day. All of the Marine garrison's defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the aircraft. Of the 55 Marine aviation personnel, 23 were killed and 11 were wounded.

Following this attack, the Pan Am employees were evacuated, along with the passengers of a Clipper flying boat that had survived the attack unscathed. The Chamorro men were not allowed to board the plane and were left behind.

Two more air raids followed. The main camp was targeted on 9 December, destroying the civilian hospital and the Pan Am facility. The next day, bombers focused on Wilkes Island. Following the raid on 9 December, the guns had been relocated in case the Japanese had photographed the positions. Wooden replicas were erected in their place, and the Japanese bombers attacked the decoy positions. A lucky strike on a civilian dynamite supply set off a chain reaction and destroyed the munitions for the guns on Wilkes

Early on the morning of 11 December, the garrison, with the support of the four remaining Wildcats, repelled the first Japanese landing attempt by the South Seas Force, which included the light cruisers Yubari, Tenryū, and Tatsuta; the destroyers Yayoi, Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Hayate, Oite, and Asanagi; two Momi-class destroyers converted to patrol boats (Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33), and two troop transport ships containing 450 Special Naval Landing Force troops.

The U.S. Marines fired at the invasion fleet with their six 127 mm coast-defense guns. Major Devereux, the Marine commander under Cunningham, ordered the gunners to hold their fire until the enemy moved within range of the coastal defenses. "Battery L", on Peale islet, succeeded in sinking Hayate at a distance of 3,700 m with at least two direct hits to her magazines, causing her to explode and sink within two minutes, in full view of the defenders on shore. 


Yubari's superstructure was hit 11 times. The four Wildcats also succeeded in sinking the destroyer Kisaragi by dropping a bomb on her stern where the depth charges were stored. Both Japanese destroyers were lost with nearly all hands (there was only one survivor, from Hayate), with Hayate becoming the first Japanese surface warship to be sunk in the war. The Japanese force withdrew without landing. This was the first Japanese setback of the war against the Americans.

After the initial raid was fought off, American news media reported that, when queried about reinforcement and resupply, Commander Cunningham was reported to have quipped, "Send us more Japs!" In fact, Cunningham sent a long list of critical equipment - including gunsights, spare parts, and fire-control radar - to his immediate superior: Commandant, 14th Naval District. It is believed that the quip was actually padding (a technique of adding nonsense text to a message to make cryptanalysis more difficult). But the continuing siege and frequent Japanese air attacks on the Wake garrison continued, without resupply for the Americans.

The initial resistance offered by the garrison prompted the Japanese Navy to detach the aircraft carriers Sōryū and Hiryū from the force that had attacked Pearl Harbor to support the second landing attempt.

The projected U.S. relief attempt by Admiral Frank Fletcher's Task Force 11 (TF 11) and supported by Admiral Wilson Brown’s TF 14 consisted of the fleet carrier Saratoga, the fleet oiler Neches, the seaplane tender Tangier, the heavy cruisers Astoria, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, and 10 destroyers. The convoy carried the 4th Marine Defense Battalion and fighter squadron VMF-221, equipped with Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo fighters, along with 9,000 5-inch rounds, 12,000 / 76 mm rounds, and 3,000,000 / 12.7 mm rounds, as well as a large amount of ammunition for mortars and other battalion small arms. TF 14 - with the fleet carrier Lexington, three heavy cruisers, eight destroyers, and an oiler - was to undertake a raid on the Marshall Islands to divert Japanese attention.

At 21:00 on 22 December, after receiving information indicating the presence of two IJN carriers and two fast battleships (which were actually heavy cruisers) near Wake Island, Vice Admiral William S. Pye—the Acting Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet—ordered TF 11 to return to Pearl Harbor

                                              Wake island capitulation

The second Japanese invasion force came on 23 December, composed mostly of the ships from the first attempt with the major reinforcements of the carriers Hiryū and Sōryū, plus 1,500 Japanese marines. The landings began at 02:35; after a preliminary bombardment, the ex-destroyers Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33 were beached and burned in their attempts to land the invasion force. After a full night and morning of fighting, the Wake garrison surrendered to the Japanese by mid-afternoon.

The U.S. Marines lost 49 killed and two MIA during the entire 15-day siege, while three U.S. Navy personnel and at least 70 U.S. civilians were killed, including 10 Chamorros, and 12 civilians wounded. Japanese losses were recorded at around 820 killed, with around 333 more wounded, in addition to the two destroyers were lost in the first invasion attempt with nearly all hands (168 from Hayate and 157 from Kisaragi, 325 in total for the two Mutsuki-class destroyers) on the first assault. At least 28 land-based and carrier aircraft were also either shot down or damaged. The Japanese captured all men remaining on the island, the majority of whom were civilian contractors employed by the Morrison-Knudsen Company.

Captain Henry T. Elrod, one of the pilots from VMF-211, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his action on the island during the second landing attempt, having shot down two Japanese A6M2 Zeros and sunk the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi. A special military decoration, the Wake Island Device, affixed to either the Navy Expeditionary Medal or the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, was created to honor those who had fought in the defense of the island.

Fearing an imminent invasion, the Japanese reinforced Wake Island with more formidable defenses. The American captives were ordered to build a series of bunkers and fortifications on Wake. The Japanese brought in an 8-inch (200 mm) naval gun which is often incorrectly reported as having been captured in Singapore. The U.S. Navy established a submarine blockade instead of an amphibious invasion of Wake Island. As a result, the Japanese garrison starved, which led to their hunting the Wake Island Rail, an endemic bird, to extinction. On 24 February 1942, aircraft from the carrier Enterprise attacked the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. 

U.S. forces bombed the island periodically from 1942 until Japan’s surrender in 1945. On 24 July 1943, Consolidated B-24 Liberators led by Lieutenant Jesse Stay of the 42nd Squadron (11th Bombardment Group) of the U.S. Army Air Forces, in transit from Midway Island, struck the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. At least two men from that raid were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses for their efforts. Future President George H. W. Bush also flew his first combat mission as a naval aviator over Wake Island. After this, Wake was occasionally raided but never attacked en masse.

On 5 October 1943, American naval aircraft from Lexington raided Wake. Two days later, fearing an imminent invasion, Japanese Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the execution of the 98 captive American civilian workers who had initially been kept to perform forced labor. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and executed with a machine gun. 

                              Kuvahaun tulos haulle Shigematsu Sakaibara
              Captain Shigimatsu Sakaibara, later promoted to Admiral.

                     The fate of the 98 Americans rested in his hands. 

                   Kuvahaun tulos haulle Shigematsu Sakaibara
One of the prisoners (whose name has never been discovered) escaped, apparently returning to the site to carve the message "98 US PW 5-10-43" on a large coral rock near where the victims had been hastily buried in a mass grave. The unknown American was recaptured, and Sakaibara personally beheaded him with a katana. The inscription on the rock can still be seen and is a Wake Island landmark.

On 4 September 1945, the remaining Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of U.S. Marines. The handover of Wake was officially conducted in a brief ceremony aboard the destroyer escort Levy.

After the war, Sakaibara and his subordinate, a Lieutenant Commander, were sentenced to death for the massacre of the 98 and for other war crimes. Several Japanese officers in American custody had committed suicide over the incident, leaving written statements that incriminated Sakaibara. Sakaibara was hanged on 18 June 1947. Eventually, the subordinate's sentence was commuted to life in prison. The murdered civilian POWs were reburied after the war in Honolulu's National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as Punchbowl Crater.

William L. Taylor, like many of the Wake Island POWs, was relocated to China for forced labor for the Japanese army. In 1945, he was traveling on a Japanese train as part of a work detail from Shanghai when he escaped with Jack Hernandez by jumping off the train when Japanese guards were not looking. Hernandez broke his leg and was forced to remain behind, as Taylor continued his journey. 

Down the line, Taylor met up with Chinese communist soldiers who he quoted as saying, "You're OK now, we are friends with the Americans." After 10 weeks of traveling with the Chinese communists in northern China, he was able to contact American military forces, who called for a plane to pick him up and take him to an American base in northern China. Before he left China, he met Mao Zedong, who gave him a gift of Chinese rugs and told him he was the only POW who had successfully come through north China. In an interview with the History Channel during the episode "Wake Island: The Alamo of the Pacific", he said that Mao saved his life.


185th Airborne Division Folgore

185th Airborne Division Folgore or 185ª Divisione Paracadutisti Folgore was a Parachute Division of the Italian Army (in Italian Regio Esercito) during World War II.

The division was formed on 1 September 1941 in Tarquinia, as the 1ª Divisione Paracadutisti. The division was intended to be used in Operation Hercules - the planned Axis invasion of Malta.

Each Parachute Infantry Battalion fielded one Headquarters and three Parachute Infantry Companies. Each Parachute Artillery Group fielded one Headquarters and two Parachute Artillery Batteries armed with 47/32 M35 cannons (Böhler copy).

                                                          Breda M-37 mg 

                                                    Beretta sub-machine

                                        Breda 20 mm AA-gun

The Division was well equipped with modern automatic weapons 
(Beretta submachine gun, Breda M37 and Breda M38 heavy machine guns) 
and many support weapons, giving the paratroopers of the division a good firepower against infantry and light tanks, but without any transports or medium and heavy artillery. After the cancellation of the invasion of Malta the division was sent to the North African theater. However it left the 1st Parachute Infantry Regiment with one battalion in Italy as foundation for the 184th Airborne Division Nembo. 

In June 1942 the divisions name was changed to 185th Airborne Division Folgore and its regiments renumbered and renamed as well. In North Africa the division participated in the Battles of El Alamein, where the division was the protagonist of a strong resistance against the attacking Commonwealth forces, managing also to drive off some attacks conducted by tanks and heavy infantry. In the course of the Second Battle of El Alamein the division was almost completely destroyed.
Breda (böhler) 47 mm AT-gun

Kuvahaun tulos haulle Folgore Division
An Italian parachutist from the Folgore Division throws himself under the tracks of a British Sherman with his mine to blow it up (North Africa, 1942)

Kuvahaun tulos haulle Folgore Division

Kuvahaun tulos haulle Folgore Division

Kuvahaun tulos haulle Folgore Division

Breda M-38 mg

El Alamein
During the Second battle of El Alamein the Folgore Division was under attack from three British divisions 44th (Home Counties) Infantry Division, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, 7th Armoured Division, and the 1st Free French Brigade.

Gold Medal for Military Honor given to the "Folgore" Division 
Operation Lightfoot launched on 24 October 1942, was designed to break through The weak Italian-held southern sector of the Alamein line where the Bologna, Brescia, Pavia and Folgore Divisions anchored the right flank.

The British attack began with an artillery barrage, followed by an all out assault by the 7th Armoured and 44th Infantry divisions. However, all that was achieved at a high cost of life and equipment was a small salient, which was soon recaptured by the Folgore.

In the following days between 25 October and 4 November, the 50th, 7th, 44th divisions, 1st and 2nd Free French and the Royal Hellenic Brigades, supported by artillery and armour, failed to break through in the southern sector.

The Folgore used everything at their disposal including letting the enemy advance into a "cul-de-sac" and then launching a counterattack from all sides.

They also used their 47mm Anti-tank guns from enfilade positions and Molotov cocktails to knock out the advancing tanks.

In the initial British assault alone the Folgore had destroyed over 120 armoured vehicles, and inflicted over 600 casualties.

On 6 November, after having exhausted all its ammunition, the remainder of the Division surrendered.

The few survivors, who managed to withdraw, were reorganized into the 285 Folgore Parachute Battalion and fought in Tunisia, they surrendered to the British in 1943, but without having to show a white flag and without having to raise their hands while surrendering.

At El-Alamein, throughout several engagements, the paratroopers were either able to drive back the attacks or, when the enemy had been successful in completely wiping out the first line of outposts, to reform again, usually counterattacking. In spite of the overwhelming numbers, the British made little headway against them, and in the end, the Folgore was ordered to fall back because the enemy obtained a breakthrough elsewhere.

The reasons behind this limited victory of sorts are two: mines and "guts". The mines were of course an invaluable asset for the defense. Here the minefields were extensive, thick, and treacherous; furthermore, the mines were in multiple fields. They forced the attackers to move slowly and to stick to the bottlenecks of the cleared pathways, often under observed artillery fire. Whenever the exit of the cleared track was within reach of one of the short-ranged Italian 47mm AT guns, it was easy to block the attack, provided that the first tank or two were disabled.

But the British had effective mine-clearing task forces, flail tanks (the Scorpions) and Valentine tanks, and heavy artillery barrages to move behind. All of their main attacks, in the end, came through the minefields. There, the outnumbered paratroops, after hours of artillery fire, counterattacked the infantry and close assaulted the tanks, with grenades and molotov cocktails. Notwithstanding the heavy casualties they suffered, and temporary British successes in occupying several positions in the first outpost line, they held their ground.

The main British effort, of course, was in the northern part of the line of the "Battle of El Alamein". However, the four divisions attacking the Folgore positions in the south, had also been given breakthrough objectives, that they did not reach. The 7th Armoured Division had been ordered to spare their tanks, so their attacks were called off after the bloody fighting during the night of October 24: 31 British tanks were destroyed or disabled during that night alone.

At the end of the battle of El Alamein, Harry Zinder of Time magazine noted that the Italians paratroopers fought better than had been expected, and commented that: In the south, the famed Folgore parachute division fought to the last round of ammunition.

With a few survivors and some replacement, the 285º Battaglione Paracadutisti "Folgore", a battaillon-size unit commandeered by Captain Lombardini, was formed, and participated to the defense of the Mareth Line in Tunisia in mid 1943, particularly at the Battle of Takrouna, where it was destroyed.
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