A MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island
by Robert J. Cressman
'Humbled by Sizeable Casualties'
During the night of 10 December 1941, Wake's lookouts vigilantly
scanned the horizon. Those of her defenders who were not on watch
grabbed what sleep they could. 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 1941the 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
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 destroyersMutsuki, Kisaragi, Yayoi, Mochizuki, Oite,
and Hayatealong 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.
3587-ton light cruiser Yubari, seen here at Shanghai, China, in
April 1937, was completed in July 1923. Armed with 5.5-inch guns, she
served as Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka's flagship for the operations
against Wake in December 1941. Naval Historical Center Photo NH
Admiral Kajioka faced less than favorable weather for the endeavor.
Deeming the northeast coastline unsuitable for that purpose, invasion
planners had called for the converted destroyers to put 150 men ashore
on Wilkes and 300 on Wake. If those numbers proved insufficient,
Kajioka's supporting destroyers were to provide men to augment the
landing force. If contrary winds threatened the assault, the troops
would land on the northeastern and north coasts. Since the weather had
moderated enough by the 11th, though, the force was standing toward the
atoll's south, or lee, shore in the pre-dawn hours. confident that two
days of bombings had rendered the islands' defenses impotent.
Meanwhile, far to the east, at Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Fleet
continued to pick up the pieces after the shattering blow that the
Japanese had delivered on the 7th. The enemy onslaught had forced
Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet
(CinCPac), to revise his strategy completely. Kimmel wanted to relieve
Wake, but deploying what remained of his fleet to protect sea
communications, defend outlying bases, and protect far-flung territory,
as well as to defend Oahu, would have required a wide dispersal of the
very limited naval forces. By 10 December (11 December on Wake), the
scattered positions of his aircraft carriers, which were at sea
patrolling the Oahu-Johnston-Palmyra triangle, militated against
deploying them to support Wake. Cunningham's garrison, however, in a
most striking fashion, would soon provide inspiration to the Pacific
Fleet and the nation as well.
Wake's lookouts, like Triton's,, had seen flickering lights in
the distance. Gunner Hamas, on duty in the battalion command post,
received the report of ships offshore from Captain Wesley McC. Platt,
commander of the strongpoint on Wilkes, and notified Major Devereux,
who, along with his executive officer, Major George H. Potter, stepped
out into the moonlight and scanned the southern horizon. Hamas also
telephoned Cunningham, who ordered the guns to hold fire until the ships
closed on the island.
The Defense Battalion's 5-Inch Guns
In a photo above, a 5-inch/51 seacoast gun of Battery A, 1st Defense
Battalion, rests at the Marine Corps Base, San Diego, on 21 October
1940, prior to its being deployed "beyond the seas." Private Edward F.
Eaton, standing beside it, serves as a yardstick to give the viewer an
idea of the size of the gun that could hurl a 50-pound shell at 3,150
feet per second up to a range of 17,100 yards. These guns gave a good
account of themselves at Wake Island, particularly in discouraging
Admiral Kajioka's attempted landing in December 1941.
Cunningham then turned to Commander Keen and Lieutenant Commander
Elmer B. Greey, resident officer-in-charge of the construction programs
at Wake, with whom he shared a cottage, and told them that lookouts had
spotted ships, undoubtedly hostile one, standing toward the atoll. He
then directed the two officers to alert and immediately headed for the
island's communications center in his pickup truck.
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
portable coincidence range-finder is like those used at Wake Island in
conjunction with the 5-inch/51 caliber guns of Batteries A, B, and L. It
was believed that they had been removed from decommissioned and
deactivated battleships in the 1920s. Charles A. Homes Collection,
Barninger's 5-inchers at Peacock Point, Wake's "high ground" behind
them, boomed and sent the first 50-pound projectiles beyond their
target. Adjusting the range quickly, the gunners soon scored what seemed
to be hits on the Yubari. Although Barninger's guns had
unavoidably revealed their location, the ships' counterfire proved
woefully inaccurate. Kajioka's flagship managed to land only one shell
in Battery B's vicinity, a projectile that burst some 150 feet from
Barninger's command post. "The fire ... continued to be over and then
short throughout her firing," Barninger later reported. "She straddled
continually, but none of the salvoes came into the position. "It was
fortunate that the Japanese fire proved as poor as it was, for
Barninger's guns lay completely unprotected, open save for camouflage.
No sandbag protection existed!
Captain Platt, meanwhile, told Major Potter via phone that, since
Battery L's rangefinder had been damaged in the bombing the previous
day, First Lieutenant McAlister was having trouble obtaining the range.
After Platt passed along Potter's order to McAlister to estimate it,
Battery L opened fire and scored hits on one of the transports,
prompting the escorting destroyers to stand toward the troublesome
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 Bthe muzzle blast temporarily
disabling the range findercontinued 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
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
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 venturethe heavy seas had overturned
landing boats almost as soon as they were launchedthe 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.
Captain Henry T. Elrod
Captain Henry T. Elrod (seen at right in the fall of 1941), VMF-211's
executive officer, distinguished himself both in the air and in the
ground fighting at Wake, with deeds which earned him a posthumous Medal
of Honor. Born in Georgia in 1905, Elrod attended the University of
Georgia and Yale University. Enlisting in the Corps in 1927, he received
his commission in 1931. Elrod is the only Marine hero from Wake who has
had a warshipa guided missile frigatenamed in his honor.
pre-war view of the destroyer Kisaragi, sunk as the result of
damage inflicted by two 100-pound bombs dripped by Capt Henry T. Elrod
on the morning of 11 December 1941. Out of the crew of 167 men, not one
sailor survived. Naval Historical Center Photo NH 3065
The three serviceable Wildcats then shuttled back and forth to be
rearmed and refueled. Putnam and Kinney later saw the
Kisaragiwhich had been carrying an extra supply of depth
charges because of the American submarine threatblow 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. Two
more men were listed as missing. Freuler's Wildcat took a bullet in the
engine but managed to return to the field. Technical Sergeant Hamilton
reached the field despite a perforated tail section.
The Triton, which had not made contact with an enemy ship
since firing at the unidentified ship during the pre-dawn hours, did not
participate in the action that morning. Neither did her sistership, the
Tambor. The latter attempted to approach the enemy ships she
observed firing at the atoll, until they appeared to be standing away
from Wake. Then, she reversed course and proceeded north, well away from
the retiring Japanese, to avoid penetrating the Triton's patrol
Meanwhile, after Kinney witnessed the Kisaragi's cataclysmic
demise, he strafed another destroyer before returning to the field.
Having been rearmed and refueled, he took off again at 0915, accompanied
by Second Lieutenant Davidson, shortly before 17 Nells appeared to bomb
Wrecked Grumman F4F-3s from VMF-211 near the airstrip on
Wake (photographed after the Japanese took the island). The Wildcat in
the foreground, 211-F-11, was flown on 11 December by Capt Elrod in the
attack that sank the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi. Having suffered
such damage as to make it unserviceable, 211-F-11 was ultimately
cannibalized for spares. National Archives Photo 80-G-179006
Davidson battled nine of the bombers, which had separated from the
others and headed toward the southwest. Kinney tackled the other eight.
Battery D, meanwhile, hurled 125 rounds at the bombers. Although some of
the enemy's bombs fell near the battery position on Peale, the Japanese
again inflicted neither damage nor casualties, and lost two Nells in the
process. Eleven other G3M2s had been damaged; casualties included 15
dead and one slightly wounded. Putnam later credited Kinney and Davidson
with shooting down one plane apiece.
Ordered to move Battery D's 3-inch guns the length of Peale during
the night, Godbold reconnoitered the new position selected by Major
Devereux, and at 1745, after securing all battery positions, began the
shift. For the next 11 hours, the Marines, assisted by nearly 250
civilians, constructed new emplacements. By 0445 on 12 December, Godbold
could again report: "Manned and ready." At Peacock Point, on the night
of the 11th, Wally Lewis gave permission for all but two men at each
gun, and at the director, to get some sleepthe first the men had
had in three days.
The Japanese force, meanwhile, "... humbled by sizeable casualties,"
withdrew to the Marshalls, having requested aircraft carrier
reinforcement. Hundred of miles away, at Pearl Harbor, elements of the
4th Defense Battalion received orders to begin preparing for an
operation, the destination of which was closely held. The Marines of the
battalion fervently desired to assist their comrades on Wake Island and
many of them probably concluded, "We're headed for Wake!"