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.
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.
|Empire of Japan||United States|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Winfield S. Cunningham (POW)|
James P.S. Devereux (POW)
Paul A. Putnam (POW)
Henry T. Elrod †
|First Attempt (11 December):|
3 light cruisers
2 patrol boats
2 troop transports
Reinforcements arriving for Second Attempt (23 December):
2 aircraft carriers
2 heavy cruisers
449 USMC personnel consisting of:
12 anti-aircraft guns
68 U.S. Navy personnel
5 U.S. Army personnel
|Casualties and losses|
1 light cruiser heavily damaged
2 destroyers sunk
2 transports sunk
2 patrol boats wrecked
7–8 aircraft shot down
20 aircraft damaged
12 aircraft lost
|70 civilians killed|
1,104 civilians interned, of whom 180 died in captivity
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.
5"/51 caliber gun on Texas 1914.
3"/50 caliber gun aboard Slater
Mitsubishi M5a Claude
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.
Captain Shigimatsu Sakaibara, later promoted to Admiral.
The fate of the 98 Americans rested in his hands.
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.