A MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island
by Robert J. Cressman
It is Monday, 8 December 1941. On wake Island, a tiny sprung
paper-clip in the Pacific between Hawaii and Guam, Marines of the 1st
Defense Battalion are starting another day of the backbreaking war
preparations that have gone on for weeks. Out in the triangular lagoon
formed by the islets of Peale, Wake, and Wilkes, the huge silver Pan
American Airways Philippine Clipper flying boat roars off the
water bound for Guam. The trans-Pacific flight will not be
Word of war comes around 0700. Captain Henry S. Wilson, Army Signal
Corps, on the island to support the flight ferry of B-17 Flying
Fortresses from Hawaii to the Philippines, half runs, half walks toward
the tent of Major James P.S. Devereux, commander of the battalion's Wake
Detachment. Captain Wilson reports that Hickam Field in Hawaii has been
Walter L. J. Bayler, reputedly "the last Marine off Wake" in December
1941, is the first to set foot on the island in 1945. Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 133688
Devereux immediately orders a "Call to Arms." He quickly assembles
his officers, tells them that war has come, that the Japanese have
attacked Oahu, and that Wake "could expect the same thing in a very
Major James P.S. Devereux
Major James P.S. Devereux, Commanding Officer of the Wake Detachment
of the 1st Defense Battalion (seen here as a POW at Shanghai,
circa January 1942), was born in Cuba and educated in the United
States and in Switzerland. Devereux enlisted in the Marine Corps in
1923. He saw service at home (Norfolk, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.,
and Quantico, among other places) and abroad (Cuba, Nicaragua, and
China). He was awarded the Navy Cross for his leadership of the Marines
at Wake. After his retirement, he served in the U.S. House of
Meanwhile, the senior officer on the atoll, Commander Winfred S.
Cunningham, Officer in Charge, Naval Activities, Wake, learned of the
Japanese surprise attack as he was leaving the mess hall at the
contractors' cantonment (Camp 2) on the northern leg of Wake. He ordered
the defense battalion to battle stations, but allowed the civilians to
go on with their work, figuring that their duties at sites around the
atoll provided good dispersion. He then contacted John B. Cooke, PanAm's
airport manager and requested that he recall the Philippine
Clipper. Cooke sent the prearranged code telling John H. Hamilton,
the captain of the Martin 130 flying boat, of the outbreak of war.
Commander Winfield S. Cunningham
An unshaven Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, Officer in Charge,
Naval Activities, Wake Island, and commander of the defense of Wake, was
photographed as a POW on board the Japanese transport Nitta Maru,
at Yokohama, Japan, about 18 January 1942. A member of the Naval Academy
Class of 1921 and an excellent pilot, he had flown fighters and flying
boats, and had been schooled in strategy and tactics. Contemporaries in
the Navy regarded him as an intelligent, quick-witted officer who
possessed moral courage. His long and varied experience in aviation duty
had fitted him well for his independent duty at Wake. He would earn the
Navy Cross for his leadership of the defense of Wake.
Marines from Camp 1, on the southern leg of Wake, were soon embarked
in trucks and moving to their stations on Wake, Wilkes, and Peale
islets. Marine Gunner Harold C. Borth and Sergeant James W. Hall climbed
to the top of the camp's water tower and manned the observation post
there. In those early days radar was new and not even set up on Wake, so
early warning was dependent on keen eyesight. Hearing might have
contributed elsewhere, but on the atoll the thunder of nearby surf
masked the sound of aircraft engines until they were nearly overhead.
Marine Gunner John Hamas, the Wake Detachment's munitions officer,
unpacked Browning automatic rifles, Springfield '03 rifles, and
ammunition for issue to the civilians who had volunteered for combat
duty. That task completed, Hamas and a working party picked up 75 cases
of hand grenades for delivery around the islets. Soon thereafter, other
civilians attached themselves to marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211,
which had been on Wake since 4 December.
May 1941 photo taken from the northeast, from a Navy Catalina flying
boat, reveals the Wake Island coral atoll in the mid-Pacific beneath
broken clouds. Wishbone-shaped Wake proper lies at left, as yet unmarked
by construction of the airfield there. The upper portion of the photo
shows Wilkes; at right is Peale, joined to Wake by a causeway.
Offshore, neither Triton (SS-201) nor Tambor (SS-198),
submarines that had been patrolling offshore since 25 November, knew of
developments on Wake or Oahu. They both had been submerged when word was
passed and thus out of radio communication with Pearl Harbor. The
transport William Ward Burrows (AP-6), which had left Oahu bound
for Wake on 27 November, learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl while
she was still 425 miles from her destination. She was rerouted to
Major Paul A. Putnam, VMF-211's commanding officer, and Second
Lieutenant Henry G. Webb had conducted the dawn aerial patrol and landed
by the time the squadron's radiomen, over at Wake's airfield, had picked
up word of an attack on Pearl Harbor. Putnam immediately sent a runner
to tell his executive officer, Captain Henry T. Elrod, to disperse
planes and men and keep all aircraft ready for flight.
Major Paul A. Putnam
Major Paul A. Putnam, a "model of strong nerves and the will to
fight," is pictured at right in the autumn of 1941. One of his men,
Second Lieutenant David Kliewer, praised Putnam's "cool judgment, his
courage, and his consideration for everyone [that] forged an aviation
unit that fought behind him to the end." Putnam had become commanding
officer of VMF-211 on 17 November 1941 at Ewa, after having served as
executive officer. Designated a naval aviator in 1929, he had flown
almost every type of Marine plane from a Ford Trimotor to a Grumman
F4F-3. He had distinguished himself in Nicaragua in 1931. One officer
who had flown with him there considered him "calm, quiet, soft-spoken .
. . a determined sort of fellow." He was awarded a Navy Cross for his
heroism at Wake.
Meanwhile, work began on dugout plane shelters. Putnam placed VMF-211
on a war footing immediately; two two-plane sections then took off on
patrol. Captain Elrod and Second Lieutenant Carl R. Davidson flew north,
Second Lieutenant John F. Kinney and Technical Sergeant William J.
Hamilton flew to the south-southwest at 13,000 feet. Both sections were
to remain in the immediate vicinity of the island.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
The Philippine Clipper, meanwhile, had wheeled about upon
receipt of word of war and returned to the lagoon it had departed 20
minutes earlier. Cunningham immediately requested Captain Hamilton to
carry out a scouting flight. The Clipper was unloaded and
refueled with sufficient gasoline in addition to the standard reserve
for both the patrol flight and a flight to Midway. Cunningham, an
experienced aviator, laid out a plan, giving the flying boat a two-plane
escort. Hamilton then telephoned Putnam and concluded the arrangements
for the search. Take-off time was 1300.
Defensive Mainstay: The M3 Antiaircraft Gun
At right, in the firing position, is an Army pattern M3 3-inch
antiaircraft gun of the type that the 1st Defense Battalion had at Wake.
Already obsolescent at the outbreak of World War II, this weapon was the
mainstay of the defense battalions in the first months of the war.
Twelve of these guns were emplaced at Wake.
As early as 1915, the U.S. Army, recognizing the need for a
high-angle firing antiaircraft gun and resolving to build one from
existing stocks, chose the M1903 seacoast defense gun and redesignated
it the M1917. Soon after America's entry into World War I, however, the
requirement for a mobile mount (one with less recoil) compelled the
selection of the less powerful M1898 seacoast gun for conversion to the
M1918. Development of both guns and mounts continued throughout the
interwar years, leading ultimately to the standardization of the gun as
the M3 on the M2 wheeled mount.
On the eve of World War II, each of the seven Marine defense
battalions then activated had 12 3-inch guns in three four-gun
batteries. Each mount weighed a little over six tons. The normal crew of
eight could fire 25 12.87-pound high-explosive shells per minute. The
guns had an effective ceiling of nearly 30,000 feet and an effective
horizontal range of 14,780 yards.
Shortly after receiving word of hostilities, Battery B's First
Lieutenant Woodrow M. Kessler and his men had loaded a truck with
equipment and small arms ammunition and moved out to their 5-inch guns.
At 0710, Kessler began distributing gear, and soon thereafter
established a sentry post on Toki Point at the northermost tip of Peale.
Thirty 5-inch rounds went into the ready-use boxes near the guns. At
0800, re reported his battery ready for action.
General quarters called Captain Bryghte D. "Dan" Godbold's men of
Battery D to their stations down the coast from Battery B at 0700, and
they moved out to their position by truck, reporting "manned and ready"
within a half hour. The lack of men, however, prevented Godbold from
having more than three of his 3-inch guns in operation. Within another
hour and a half, each gun had 50 rounds ready for firing. At 1000,
Goldbold received orders to keep one gun, the director, the heightfinder
(the only one at Wake Island for the three batteries), and the power
plant manned at all times. After making those arrangements, Godbold put
the remainder of his men to work improving the battery position.