A MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island
by Robert J. Cressman
'All Hands Have Behaved Splendidly'
Shortly before 1600 on 20 December, scrutinized by Wake Island's only
serviceable F4F, a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat bearing mail
landed in the lagoon. It arrived in the midst of a rain squall, but the
defenders welcomed the precipitation because it worsened the flying
weather and inhibited the Japanese bombing efforts. Commander Keene's
sailors moored the Catalina and fueled it for the next morning's
As "Barney" Barninger observed, the flying boat's arrival "set the
island on end with scuttlebutt." Most men surmised that the civilians
would be evacuated. The scuttlebutt was partially correct. From the
secret orders carried on board the PBY, Cunningham learned that he was
to prepare all but 350 civilians (those to be selected "by specific
trades to continue the more important of the projects," one of which was
the completion of the ship channel between Wake and Wilkes) for
evacuation. He was also notified that fire control, radar, and other
equipment was being sent, along with reinforcements of both men and
That day, Commander Cunningham recounted the events which had
occurred to date in a report to Rear Admiral Bloch. Although many air
raids had occurred, he reported, that most has resulted in few
casualties and little damage to installations. He attributed Wake's
escape from more serious damage to the effectiveness of the Marines'
antiaircraft firefire delivered despite the lack of fire control
equipment. A former fighter pilot, he also lavished unstinting praise on
VMF-211's aviators, who had "never failed to push home attacks against
heavy fire." That none of the planes had been shot down, he marveled,
"is a miracle."
The representative of the Bureau of the Budget, Herman P. Hevenor,
who had arrived on Wake via the Clipper on 7 December to check
the progress of construction on the atoll and review the expenditures,
wrote to the Bureau telling them of the siege to that point and praising
those who led the defense. "The Commanding Officer [Cunningham] and his
staff, including the Marine Officers, have done a big job and an
efficient one. Their stand against the Japs has been marvelous and they
deserve everything our Government can give them..."
Major Putnam dashed off a report of VMF-211's operations to
Lieutenant Colonel Claude A. Larkin, commanding officer of Marine
Aircraft Group 21. After recounting the losses of both planes and men
suffered by his squadron, and the damage he felt his men had inflicted
upon the enemy, Putnam wrote that a large share of the squadron's
records had been destroyed on the first day, and since then, "parts and
assemblies have been traded back and forth so that no airplane can be
identified. Engines have been traded from plane to plane, have been
junked, stripped, rebuilt, and all but created." Practically all of
211's gear had been destroyed. Quartermaster property lay scattered
about, wholly unaccounted for.
Nevertheless, he praised his men. "All hands have behaved splendidly
and held up in a manner of which the Marine Corps may well tell." He
singled out the "indefatigable labor, the ingenuity, skill, and
technical knowledge of Lieutenant Kinney and Technical Sergeant
Hamilton," since "it is solely due to their efforts that the squadron is
still operating." 
1 In a marginal note to this report by
Putnam upon his return from a POW camp in Japan in October 1945, he
added AMM1c Hesson's name to those of Kinney and Hamilton.
The next morning the PBY crew and their only passenger, Major Walter
L.J. Bayler, who had completed his temporary duty at Wake, clambered on
board the Catalina. The PBY taxied into the lagoon and took off for
As the PBY departed, a Japanese task force steamed toward Wake
Island, intent upon attacking on the 22d. The arrival and departure of
that PBY, however, influenced the Japanese plans. On 20 December, Rear
Admiral Abe received a report (based upon the radio messages the PBY
sent as it approached Wake) that planes from Patrol Squadron 23 had
advanced to Wake from Midway the previous day. Consequently, the
commander of the South Seas Force, hoping to catch and destroy
those planes, pressed Abe to advance the attack one day. The Wake
Island Reinforcement Force increased its speed to 30 knots.
In the meantime, on the morning of 21 December, Rear Admiral Kajioka
set out from the Marshalls for a second attempt at Wake. The attacking
naval forces included the same ships that had participated in the first
attack, the destroyers Asanagi and Yunagi (which replaced
the Hayate and the Kisaragi, which had been sunk during
the initial attack), and some reinforcements, four heavy cruisers
(Kako, Aoba, Furutaka and Kinugasa) that had recently
taken part in the occupation of Guam, and the seaplane carrier
Kiyokawa Maru. Instead of 225 troops in each converted destroyer,
250 (some of whom had taken part in the seizure of Guam) had been
embarked. Landing exercises had been conducted at Kwajalein.
At 0700 on the 21st, beneath cloudy skies, Hiryu and
Soryu turned into the northeasterly wind and began launching
planes. The aircraft arrived over Wake at about 0900 to find a 200-meter
ceiling and, seeing no U.S. patrol planes, circled at 50 to 200 meters
and began attacking shore installations. Antiaircraft fire hardly seemed
to hinder them as they "worked things over a bit" and gave embattled
defenders their first taste of dive-bombing. Soryu's and
Hiryu's aviators, having experienced the flak over Pearl Harbor,
reported "very slight" resistance from antiaircraft fire. "The enemy,"
Rear Admiral Abe reflected, "seemed to lose their fighting spirits."
The blow had fallen without warning. It caught Second lieutenant
Kliewer eating breakfast with the crews of the two .50-caliber machine
guns at the west end of the field. He admired them for the way in which
they stuck to their guns amidst the bombing and strafing, continuing to
fire "when other guns on the island [had been] silenced."
The raid had caught Major Putnam returning from Camp 2 in a truck. He
attempted to reach the only flyable F4F, but strafing Zeroes twice
forced him away. Only after the Mitsubishis and Aichis left the
vicinity, at about 1020, was he able to take off and attempt to follow
them to their ships. Although he was not successful in that endeavor,
his attempt typified the "highest order of courage and resolution" that
he displayed throughout the siege. As Putnam searched for the Japanese
fleet, Cunningham radioed word of the morning's raid to CinCPac and the
Commandant of the 14th Naval District.
Later that day, 33 Nells paid Wake a visit. The antiaircraft fire,
however, apparently forced them to bomb from a higher altitude than
before (18,000 feet vice 13,000). Although Dan Godbold claimed to
have seen one plane dropping from the skies over Wake, trailing smoke,
all G3M2s returned safely to Roi. Their bombs, however, had fallen
thickly about the battery, scoring a bullseye on the director
emplacement, killing Platoon Sergeant Johnalson E. Wright, wounding
three other men, and knocking unconscious the range officer, Second
Lieutenant Robert W. Greeley. The M-4 director, although destroyed by
the bomb, deflected the full force of the explosion from Greeley and
saved his life.
Wright, the firing battery officer, had been known for his
cheerfulness and boundless vitality. Although during previous raids he
had been told to take cover, he had remained at his post, calmly giving
orders and disregarding the bombs. His seemingly tireless efforts to
improve the efficiency of the battery earned him a Bronze Star
At Peacock Point, a bomb had fallen near the shelter belonging to
Barninger's no. 2 gun crew, causing the entrance to be blocked and
blowing the sides in. Fortunately, no one was hurt. "The bomb hitting
the shelter," Barninger wrote later, "was the only one close to he
guns." He and his men spent the rest of the day repairing the damaged
shelter. Most of the Marines, though, began feeling that foxholes were
better. "Although we didn't lose a man," Barninger commented, "it was a
close thing and with the heavy caliber bombs the shelter is too light.
For that reason we are all back in the foxholes."
On the previous day, Major Devereux had ordered Marine Gunner
McKinstry to keep the two guns of Battery F firing to divert the enemy's
attention from the only complete battery on the island, Battery E. On
the 22d, McKinstry's gunners put on a fine performance, despite having
neither director nor heightfinder to help them. Firing by the expedient
of "lead 'em a mile," the two guns of Battery F kept the enemy guessing
as to which group of guns was the greater threat.
Nevertheless, all of the planes from Hiryu and Soryu
returned undamaged to their decks. Then, Abe's force steamed south to be
in a position 200 miles from Wake the next day to provide an
antisubmarine screen for Kajioka's ships.
Carl R. Davidson (seen circa September 1941), VMF-211's assistant
gunnery officer, was awarded a Navy Cross posthumously for courageously
and unhesitatingly attacking an overwhelming number of Kates on 21
December. Marine Corps Historical Collection
At Pearl Harbor, Vice Admiral Pye read with concern Cunningham's
dispatch reporting the raid by carrier planes. The Japanese had inserted
a dangerous new factor into the equation. Pye deemed it essential "to
insure [the] defense of the [Hawaiian] islands." With the Army's
Hawaiian defense in shambles, and the battleship strength significantly
reduced by the Japanese attack on 7 December, he believed that the
Pacific Fleet's three carriers constituted the best protection for Oahu.
After he considered the evidence of increased Japanese air activity in
the Marshalls, with one, or perhaps two, carrier groups in that
vicinity, as well as "evidence of extensive offshore lookout and
patrol," he decided that a surprise raid on Jaluit could not be
conducted successfully. Thus, Pye reluctantly abandoned the proposed
carrier raid on the Marshalls.
While he allowed the efforts to relieve Wake to continue, Pye warned
Fletcher not to get within 200 miles of the atoll, and directed Brown to
move north with Task Force 11 to support Task Force 14. That decided, on
the afternoon of 20 December, he radioed his decision to the Navy
With efforts to relieve Wake progressing, CinCPac radioed Cunningham
on the morning of the 22d (21st at Pearl Harbor) and asked him to report
the condition of the aircraft runways. He also requested to be informed
immediately of any significant developments.
At 0800 on 22 December, 39 planes from the Soryu and the
Hiryu ascended and headed into the gray skies above the
beleaguered atoll. Their pilots expected to meet American fighters.
Second Lieutenant Davidson took off from Wake at 1000, cranked up his
landing gear, and set out on the regular midday patrol. Engine trouble
prevented Captain Freuler from getting aloft until 1030.
Shortly before noon, Davidson, patrolling to the north of Wake,
radioed Freuler, then flying to the south of the atoll, informing him of
approaching enemy aircraft. In spite the odds, both men gave battle.
Herbert C. Freuler (seen circa September 1941), was VMF-211's
gunnery and ordnance officer. Freuler was commissioned a second
lieutenant in July 1931. He was awarded a Navy Cross and a Bronze Star
for heroism at Wake. Marine Corps Historical Collection
Freuler engaged six carrier attack planes and dropped one, trailing
smoke, out of formation on his first pass. As the group of Nakajimas
broke up, he made an opposite approach and fired, flaming one Kate,
which exploded in an expanding ball of fire about 40 feet beneath him.
As his controls responded sluggishly, and his badly scorched F4F's
manifold pressure dropped, he glanced back toward Wake and saw Davidson
engaging several enemy planes. An instant later, a Hiryu Zero got
on Freuler's tail and opened fire. Bullets penetrated Freuler's
fuselage, both sides of his vacuum tank, the bulkhead, seat, and
parachute. After his plane was hit, Freuler threw his F4F into a steep
divethe Japanese pilot did not follow himnursed it home, and
landed with the canopy stuck in the closed position. Ground crews
extricated him and took him to the hospital.
Carl Davidson, unfortunately, did not return. The pilot who had
knocked Freuler out of the fight went to the rescue of his shipmates and
shot down Davidson. Rear Admiral Abe later paid homage to the two Marine
pilots who had challenged his carrier planes, lauding them as having
resisted fiercely and bravely.
The Soryu lost two planes and their three-man crews. Damage
suffered in the aerial action compelled a third to ditch, but one of the
screening ships recovered its crew.
That afternoon, at 1320, Cunningham radioed Pye that a "combined
land- and carrier-based plane attack" had occurred and that his fighters
had engaged the attackers. He reported Davidson's loss and the wounding
of Freuler, but noted that they had shot down "several" planes. The
atoll had suffered "no further damage." As "Barney" Barninger later
recounted: "Dive bombers againthe carriers must still be in the
vicinity ... Things are getting tense. Rumor continues to fly about
relief, but the dive bombers [are] also present. Things go on in the
same manner as before. All that can be done is being done, but there is
so little to do [it] with."
Heavy seas bedeviled Frank Jack Fletcher's Task Force 14 as it
pressed westward. Having been ordered to fuel to capacity before
fighting, Fletcher began fueling his ships from Neches in the
turbulent seas. Rolling swells and gusty winds slowed that process
considerably and permitted the fueling of only four of his destroyers.
If Fletcher was expected to fight, his ships would require more fuel to
be able to maneuver at high speed, if necessary. he resolved to top off
the rest the following day (23 December).
Wreckage of what is probably Capt Freuler's plane, on
the beach where he crash-landed it on 22 December, after he had
destroyed a Kate in aerial combat. Bullets penetrated his fuselage,
vacuum tank, bulkhead, seat, and parachute. National Archives Photo
Meanwhile, at around 1900 on 21 December (1530, 22 December Wake),
the PBY that had borne Major Bayler (the "last man off Wake Island")
from Wake to Midway arrived at Pearl Harbor. The plane's commander
dictated a report, which was transcribed by a CinCPac stenographer
shortly after the pilot's arrival, regarding Wake's desperate plight.
Pye, upon reading the report, was deeply moved. Members of Pye's staff,
many of whom had also faithfully served on Admiral Kimmel's staff,
pleaded with Pye's Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Milo F. Draemel, on
behalf of the Wake relief efforts. Referring to the PBY commander's
report, Pye declared later, "the situation at Wake seemed to warrant
taking a greater chance to effect its reinforcement even at the
sacrifice of the Tangier and possible damage to some major ships
of Task Force 14. The admiral therefore removed the restrictions on Task
Force 14's operations. The Tangier was to be detached with two
destroyers to run in to Wake to begin the evacuation of the civilians
and to disembark the Marines.
Pye also rescinded the restrictions on the operating areas of Task
Forces 8 and 11, allowing them to support Cunningham's command more
effectively. Those on the staff who had pleaded for the relief force to
continue toward Wake felt vindicated by Pye's decision that night.
Meanwhile, at Wake, with Commander Cunningham's prior approval, Paul
Putnam, with no flyable planes left, reported his men to Major Devereux
for service as infantrymen. Devereux ordered Putnam to keep his squadron
where it was and await further orders.