A MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island
by Robert J. Cressman
'Still No Help'
Well before dawn on 12 December unsynchronized engines heralded the
approach of a Japanese flying boat. Captains Freuler and Tharin
scrambled their planes to intercept it. The enemy planea Kawanishi
H6K Type 97 reconnaissance flying boat (Mavis) from the Yokohama Air
Group dropped its bombs on the edge of the lagoon and then sought
cover in the overcast and rain squalls. Tharin, although untrained in
night aerial combat techniques, chased and "splashed" it. None of its
nine-man crew survived.
Frank C. Tharin (see here as a first lieutenant, 8 August 1939) would
earn a Silver Star Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and two Air
Medals for his performance of duty at Wake Island. Marine Corps Historical
Later that same day, 26 Chitose Air Group Nells bombed Wake
Island. Returning aircrewmen claimed damage to a warehouse and an
antiaircraft gun in the "western sector." Antiaircraft fire shot down
one plane and damaged four; Japanese casualties included eight men
killed. Once the bombers had departed, "Barney" Barninger's men
continued working on their foxholes, freshened the camouflage, cleaned
the guns, and tried to catch some sleep. The daily bombings, he wrote
later, "were becoming an old story, and it was a relief from waiting
when the raid was over."
Weathering bombing attacks, taking the enemy's blows, was one thing,
but striking at the Japanese was something elsesomething 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.
That night, a stateside radio report praised Wake's Marines. It
stated that for security reasons it could not mention the size of the
garrison defending the atoll, but noted that "we know the number is very
"Nothing like letting the enemy know our status," Kinney noted
sardonically in his diary. "Still no help."
David D. Kliewer (seen here circa September 1941), a minister's son,
would be awarded a Bronze Star Medal and two Air Medals for his service
at Wake. Marine Corps Historical Collection
Although help was a subject very much on the minds of Admiral Kimmel
and his staff back at Pearl Harbor, by 11 December plans to reinforce
Wake had not yet "crystallized." Nor could they, until the carriers
around which any task forces could be formed could be marshaled for the
task. As Captain Charles H. "Soc" McMorris, Kimmel's war plans officer,
had estimated, all of the nearly 1,500 people on Wake could be
accommodated very rapidly on board the seaplane tender Tangier
(AV-8) if they either destroyed or abandoned their personal belongings.
Tangier would be crowded, but he believed it could be done.
Protecting the tender, though, was key. "She should not go," McMorris
wrote, "until air protection is available." If the evacuation of Wake
was decided uponand he recommended against itthe "promptest
measure" would be to have Tangier assigned to a task force formed
around the aircraft carrier Lexington (CV-2). Then, accompanied
by destroyers, she could evacuate Wake's garrison while
Lexington's planes provided cover. Even as the people at Pearl
Harbor considered plans for her employment, however, "Lady Lex" and her
consorts were encountering difficulty refueling in the heavy seas
northwest of Oahu. Ultimately, Task Force 12 had to put into Pearl to
complete the refueling.
The following day, 13 December, found VMF-211 conducting its patrols
as usual with three available aircraft. Meanwhile, ground crews dragged
Captain Elrod's old plane over from the beach and propped it up across
the runway to serve as a decoy. The contractors promised Kinney that a
light-proof hangar would be finished that night.
Listening to the radio that evening provided little inspiration. As
Kinney noted in his diary, Kay Kyser, the renowned bandleader, had
dedicated a song to the "Wake Marines," while commentators noted that
Wake's defenders, when asked what they required, had said "Send us more
"We began to figure out," Kinney wrote, "that the U.S. was not going
to reinforce us."
At Pearl Harbor, however, efforts proceeded apace to disprove those
who despaired of relief: the Tangier began discharging aviation
gasoline to a barge alongside, as she prepared for her impending
mission. Early the following morning, she began unloading warheads and
torpedoes and commenced loading aviation stores earmarked for Wake.
later, she shifted to the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, where she continued
discharging gasoline and unloading torpedoes. "Wake Island,": Rear
Admiral Claude Bloch, the Commandant of the 14th Naval District, wrote
on 12 December (13 December on Wake) "is putting up a magnificent fight.
Kimmel is doing his best to devise means for reinforcing it and getting
out the civilians. ...." The Lexington and her consorts entered
Pearl to fuel on 13 December, while Saratoga (CV-3) and her
escorts (three old destroyers) steamed toward Oahualso delayed by
The enemy, meanwhile, maintained aerial pressure on the atoll. Three
flying boats bombed the island at 0437 on Sunday, 14 December, but did
not damage anything. The Marines, sailors, and contractors went about
their daily business of improving their defensive positions. The
artillerymen replaced the natural camouflage with fresh foliage.
Wake had little need for "more Japs," despite media claims. It did,
however, need tools with which it could defend itself. Cunningham
radioed to the Commandant of the 14th Naval District a lengthy list of
suppliesincluding fire control radarsrequired by his 5- and
3-inch batteries, as well as by the machine gun and searchlight
At the airfield, the 14th dawned with just two planes in service.
Kinney determined, though, that one of those, an F4F "bought" from VF-6
(embarked on the USS Enterprise), required an engine replacement.
They would scavenge the parts required from two irreparably damaged
planes. As a work crew tackled that task, 30 Nells from the Chitose
Air Group began sowing destruction across Wake. One bomb hit one of
the aircraft shelters and set afire an F4F.
seaplane tender Tangier (AV-8) (seen here off Mare Island,
California, in August 1941), a converted freighter, had elements of the
4th Defense Battalion embarked as well as vitally needed ammunition and
equipment including radar. National Archives Photo 19-N-25360
Scrambling over to that Wildcat after the raid had ended, Kinney saw
that the enemy ordnance had hit close to the tail but had damaged only
the oil tank and intercoolers. Since that was the squadron's best
engine, Kinney knew that it must be removed, mount and all. Kinney used
an improvised hoist to lift the plane by its nose.
With only the single makeshift hoist, Kinney and his crew removed one
engine and attached the other mount by nightfall, fortified only by a
gallon of ice cream which Pete Sorenson, one of the contractors, had
thoughtfully brought them. Since the hangar was not complete, they had
to work quickly to avoid the blackout.
Kinney instructed the civilian foreman to call him as soon as the
hangar was ready to receive the plane. He sent Hamilton to bed at 0800,
and retired, himself, to be awakened an hour and a half later. With
Hamilton in tow, he awoke the three civilians who had been helping them,
and all went to the hangar. With a bit more effort, they were ready for
the aircraft at 1130. Kinney and his civilian helpers completed
installing the engine by 0330 on the 15th.
The failure to have the hangars completed, meanwhile, proved to be a
sore point for Major Putnam. Commander Cunningham differed with his
Marine subordinates over just how much pressure to apply to the
civilians, eschewing the use of armed force in favor of addressing the
workers in small groups and appealing to them to lend a hand.
Annoyed that Cunningham seemed to be using only "moral suasion" on
the contractors, Putnam, on 14 December, personally persuaded the
contractors to work on the underground sheltersno work having been
done for the previous 24 hoursand the civilians turned out in
force ("about 300 when only 40 could work," Kinney noted).
The enthusiastic turnout, however, had an unexpected effect.
Curiosity moved many workmen to line the airstrip to watch the take-off
of the evening patrol. The surging crowd caused Captain Freuler to ease
his plane to the left to avoid hitting any men, and in so doing found
that he had aimed the plane toward a crane which sat on the north side
of the airfield. Continuing to the left, Freuler tried to miss the piece
of heavy equipment but instead "ground-looped" his F4F into the
"boondocks," wrecking it. Hauled back to the runway, the damaged Wildcat
served, thereafter, as a decoy.
At Pearl Harbor, at 1231 on 14 December (0901 15 December, on Wake),
Task Force 11 (formerly Task Force 12) stood out to sea. Its commander,
Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, had been ordered to raid Jaluit to divert
attention away from Task Force 14, which was to sortie the following day
and proceed to Wake. Brown's force was to conduct the raid on
Jaluitreckoned to be the center of Japanese operations in the
Marshallsand then to retire toward Pearl Harbor the day before
Task Force 14, under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, was to reach
Fletcher's task, meanwhile, was to see that the Tangier
reached her objective. The Saratoga, with VMF-221 embarked, was
to launch the Marine fighters to fly into Wake while the seaplane tender
was to moor offshore to begin the process of putting ashore
reinforcements, ammunition, provisions, and equipmentincluding an
important radar set. The Tangier was then to embark approximately
650 civilians and all of the wounded men and return to Pearl Harbor.
Kimmel and his staff had estimated that the process of unloading and
debarkation would take at least two days; embarking all the people at
Wake could be accomplished in less than one. Unfavorable weather,
however, could lengthen the time considerably. At 1331 (at Pearl
Harbor), on 15 December Kimmel informed the Chief of Naval Operations
(Admiral Harold R. Stark) of the relief expedition he had just launched.
He received Admiral Stark's concurrence early the following morning.
Meanwhile, during the day on the 15, Dan Godbold's men observed the
usual routine, starting the day at full alert and replacing the natural
camouflage before reducing the alert status at 0700. His men completed
the shelters near the guns during the day and began work on a shelter at
the heightfinder position. They stopped work at 1700 to return to full
alert. A half hour later, however, battery lookouts reported a plane
lurking amongst the low clouds to the east, and Godbold reported the
presence of the intruder to the island command post. At 1800, four
flying boats came in at 1,000 feet and dropped bombs on what their crews
thought was the "barracks area (Camp 1) on the northern part of the
island." They also strafed the area near Batteries D and B. The Japanese
reported their bombing as having been "effective," but it inflicted no
material damage. One civilian workman was killed. From his vantage
point, Marine Gunner McKinstry, in Battery E, thought all of the bombs
landed in the ocean.
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.
That day, as half of Wake's submarine supportthe
Tamborretired toward Oahu because of an irreparable leak in
her forward torpedo room, Kinney returned to me task of keeping the
planes ready to fight with field expedient repairs and borrowed gear.
Kinney and his helpers fashioned gun cleaning rods from welding rods.
The pervasive, intrusive coral sand threatened to cause severe
mechanical damage to he planes. Kinney borrowed a compressor from PanAm
(two previous compressors had been "strafed out of commission") to try
to keep the planes clean by blasting a mixture of air and kerosene to
blow out the accumulations of grit.
Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher
Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the commander of Task Force 14 is the
subject of much historical "Monday morning quarterbacking." All these
commentators have the benefit of something neither Pye, the overall
commander, nor Fletcher, on the scene, hadhindsight. As "Soc"
McMorris (Admiral Kimmel's war plans officer) put it, "We had no more
idea'n a billygoat," about what Japanese forces lay off Wake. The welter
of message traffic linking CruDivs, CarDivs, and BatDivs with land-based
air painted a formidable picture of what might be encountered by a
single U.S. Navy carrier task force. While the Navy pilots may
have been well trained, Saratoga's embarked fighter squadron was
understrength, having only 13 operational Wildcats.
Nor could the Marines of VMF-221 (bound for Wake) have been counted
on as an effective adjunct to Saratoga's squadron, since they had
not operated from a carrier. An even more compelling argument for how
VMF-221 would have performed in the emergency is that Major General Ross
Rowell, commanding the 2d Marine Aircraft Wing, knowing of 221's
manpower and operational deficiencies, lamented having to send "[Major
Verne] McCaul's half-baked outfit into that mess." Rowell knew that
maintaining the temperamental Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo fighters at a
stateside air base with all the conveniences had been a chorelet
alone having to operate the F2A-3 at an advance base (especially one
that had been so badly cut-up as Wake had been) or at sea on a carrier
(where the F2A's performanceespecially with landing gear
failureswas nearly infamous).
And, too, the three carriers committed to me relief expedition were
all there were in the Pacific. There were no reserves. Even though the
Japanese harbored no ideas of conquest of Hawaii at that timethey
were through with Oahu for the time beingPye and his advisors had
no way of knowing that. What intelligence existed pointed toward a
potential disaster for an island where the issue was, as Cunningham
correctly perceived, very much in doubt!
When asked in 1970 if the relief expedition's arrival would have made
any difference in the outcome at Wake, retired Brigadier General
Devereux answered: "I rather doubt that that particular task force, with
its size and composition, could have been very effective ... I think it
was wise ... to pull back."
To help Kinney and Hamilton and their small but dedicated band of
civilians. Aviation Machinist's Mate Hesson, who had been wounded on the
14th, violated doctor's orders and returned to duty. He resumed work on
the planes, carrying on as effectively as ever in spite of his injuries.
Putnam later recalled Hesson's service as being "the very foundation of
the entire aerial defense of Wake Island."
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 escortdelayed by the time
it took to fuel the carrierwere 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 Decemberthe 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."
Marines from the 4th Defense Battalion embark in
Tangier (AV-8) at Pearl Harbor, 15 December 1941, bound for Wake.
Barely visible beyond the first Marine at head of the gangway is a
sobering reminder of the events of eight days before: the mainmast of
the sunken Arizona (BB-39). Tank farm spared by the Japanese on
that day lies at right background. National Archives Photo 80-G-266632
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.
As Abe's ships steamed toward Wake, U.S. Navy radio intelligence
operators intercepted Japanese radio transmissions. The messages, when
decoded, caused the intelligence analysts to suspect that connections
existed among the Japanese Fourth Fleet operations "CruDiv 8"
(the Tone and the Chikuma), "Cardiv 2" (the Soryu
and the Hiryu), and Airon 24 (24th Flotilla). Aerial
reconnaissance flights from the Marshalls followed.
The following afternoon Read Admiral Bloch sent a message that must
have seemed a trifle unrealistic to Cunningham, who was primarily
concerned with defending the atoll and keeping his men alive. The
message stated that it was "highly desirable" that the dredging of the
channel across Wilkes continue and inquired about the feasibility "under
present conditions" of finishing the work with equipment at hand. It
requested an estimated date of completion.
On 17 December, something occurred at Pearl Harbor which harbored ill
portents for the Wake Island relief operation. Admiral Kimmel was
relieved of command. In a perfunctory ceremony at the Submarine Base,
Kimmel relinquished command to Vice Admiral William S. Pye, who would
serve as the acting commander until Admiral Chester W. Nimitz arrived to
assume command. Pye inherited an operation about which he would soon
harbor many reservations. The next day (18 December), CinCPac's radio
intelligence men noted again that ... "Cardiv and Crudiv 8 continued to
be associated with the Fourth Fleet in communications."
While the acting CinCPac digested that latest disquieting
intelligence and sent it along to Fletcher and Brown, Wake's defenders
endured another air raid. On the 19th, 27 Nells came in from the
northwest at 1135, and dropped bombs on the remainder of the PanAm
facility on Peale and on Camp 1 on Wake. Battery D fired 70 rounds at
the attacking planes, and both Godbold and Marine Gunner McKinstry
reported seeing one plane leaving the sky over the atoll, trailing a
plume of smoke behind it. An aviator, they said, drifted down in his
parachute some distance from land. Wake's gunners had actually done far
better than they had thought. Of 27 planes engaged, 12 had been hit by
Cunningham responded to Bloch's message of the previous day that up
to that point he had been concerned only with defending the island and
preserving lives. He addressed the completion of the channel by listing
the difficulties associated with the task. He pointed out that blackout
conditions militated working at night, and that Japanese air raids,
which came without warning, reduced the amount of work which could be
accomplished during the day. But working during the day was hazardous,
he said, because noisy equipment prevented workmen from being alerted to
the incoming planes in time for them to take cover. Furthermore, the
amount of contractor's equipment was being continually reduced by the
bombings. Additionally, continuing the projects would require the
immediate replenishment of diesel oil and dynamite. With morale of the
civilian workmen generally low, Cunningham could not predict, under the
prevailing conditions, when the construction projects would be
completed. He further declared that "relief from raids would improve
[the] outlook." After recording, in a second message the damage
inflicted by the Japanese on the base on Peale, the atoll commander
noted that, since the outbreak of war, the efforts involved in assisting
in the defense and salvage operations had fully occupied all of the
contractors' men. Cunningham continued by noting the additional number
of dead or missing civilians since his earlier dispatch on the subject,
and described the civilians' morale as "extremely low." He reiterated
his request to consider evacuating the civilians, since the large number
of them who were not contributing to the defensive efforts required
sustenance, which drew on the stores required by those actively engaged
in the defensive operations.
In the meantime, Vice Admiral Pye had passed on to Brown information
pointing toward Japan's establishment of an air base in the Gilberts and
the existence of a submarine force at Jaluit. Most disturbing of all was
the news that CinCPac's intelligence people knew of "no definite
location of [the] force which attacked Oahu." For all anyone knew, the
Japanese carriers whose planes had bombed Pearl Harbor could be lurking
Considering the newly established enemy air bases that he would have
to pass en route to Jaluit, Brown could see that Japanese air searches
from those places might spot Task Force 11 before it reached its
objective. He began fueling his ships on the 18ththe same day that
Rear Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.'s Task Force 8 sailed from Pearl to
support Task Forces 11 and 14and informed the task force of its
objective. Brown completed the fueling operations on the 19th. That
done, he detached his oiler, the Neosho (AO-23), to stand out of
danger, and contemplated what lay ahead.
Fletcher's Task Force 14, meanwhile, pressed westward. At noon on the
19th, the Saratoga and her consorts were 1,020 miles east of
Wake. D-Day had been set for the 24th.