Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Humbled by Sizeable Casualties
Still No Help
All Hands Have Behaved Splendidly
This Is As Far As We Go
A Difficult Thing To Do
Major James P. S. Devereux
Commander Winfield S. Cunningham
Major Paul A. Putnam
Captain Henry T. Elrod
Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher
Special Subjects
Defensive Mainstay: The M3 Antiaircraft Gun
The Nells, Bettys, and Claudes of Japan
The Defense Battalion's 5-Inch Guns

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 completed.

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 raided.

Col Bayler
Col 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 short time."

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 Representatives.

Maj Devereux

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.

Commander Cunningham

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.

aerial photo
A 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. National Archives Photo 80-G-451195

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 Johnston Island.

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.

Maj Putnam

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

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.

Next Page Document Cover Next Page
MARINES The Few. The Proud.
Back to Top
Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division