A MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island
by Robert J. Cressman
While the atoll's defenders prepared for war, Japanese bombers droned
toward them. At 0710 on 8 December, 34 Mitsubishi G3M2 Type 96 land
attack planes (Nells) of the Chitose Air Group had lifted off
from the airstrip at Roi in the Marshalls. Shortly before noon, those 34
Nells came in on Wake at 13,000 feet. Clouds cloaked their approach and
the pounding surf drowned out the noise of their engines as they dropped
down to 1,500 feet and roared in from the sea. Lookouts sounded the
alarms as they spotted the twin-engined, twin-tailed bombers a few
hundred yards off the atoll's south shore, emerging from a dense bank of
clouds. At Battery E, First Lieutenant Lewis telephoned Major Devereux's
command post to inform him of the approaching planes.
Although Putnam was rushing work on the six bunkers being built along
the seaward side of the runway, he knew none of them would be ready
before 1400. He also knew that moving the eight F4F Wildcats from their
parking area would risk damage to the planes and obstruction of the
runway if the planes were in fact damaged. Since any damage might have
meant the loss of a planeWake possessed virtually no spare
partsPutnam decided to delay moving the Wildcats and the material
until suitable places existed to protect them.
No foxholes had been dug near the field, but the rough ground nearby
offered natural cover to those who reached it. Putnam hoped that his men
would obtain good cover if an attack came. The movement of gasoline,
bombs, and ammunitions; then installation of electrical lines and
generators; and the relocation of radio facilities kept all hands busily
The attack found Second Lieutenant Robert "J" Conderman and First
Lieutenant George A. Graves in the ready tent, going over last minute
instructions concerning their escort of the Philippine Clipper.
When the alarm sounded, both pilots, already in flight gear, sprinted
for their Wildcats. Graves managed to reach one F4F, but a direct hit
demolished it in a ball of flame as he was climbing into the cockpit,
killing him instantly. Strafers' bullets cut down Conderman, as he tried
to reach his plane, and as he lay on the ground a bomb hit the waiting
Wildcat and blew it up, pinning him beneath the wreckage. He called to
Corporal Robert E.L. Page to help him, but stopped when he heard another
man crying for help. He directed Page to help the other man first.
Strafing attacks killed Second Lieutenant Frank J. Holden as he raced
for cover. Bullets and fragments wounded Second Lieutenant Webb.
Marine Gunner Hamas, who still had 50 cases of hand grenades in his
truck, having just delivered 25 to Kuku Point, saw the red sun insignia
on the planes as they roared low overhead. Immediately, he ordered the
vehicle stopped and instructed his men to head for cover.
Confident that his airborne planes would be able to provide
sufficient warning of an incoming raid, Commander Cunningham was working
in his office at Camp 2, when he heard the "crump" of bombs around 1155.
The explosions rattled windows elsewhere in the camp, prompting many men
to conclude that work crews were blasting coral heads in the lagoon.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
Guns 1 and 2 of Battery D opened up on the attackers, collectively
firing 40 rounds during the raid. The low visibility and the altitude at
which the Mitsubishis flew, however, prevented the 3-inch guns from
firing effectively. No bombs fell near the battery, but the guns' own
concussions caved in the sandbag emplacements. Marine antiaircraft fire
damaged eight Nells and filled a petty officer in one of them. Returning
Japanese aircrews claimed to have set fire to all of the aircraft on the
ground, and reported sighting only three airborne American planes.
On Peacock Point, First Lieutenant Lewis' Battery E had been
standing-to, ready to fire. Like Godbold, Lewis did not have enough men
for all four of his guns. Lewis manned two of the 3-inchers, along with
the M-4 director, while the rest of his men busily completed sandbag
emplacement. After telephoning Devereux's command post when he saw the
falling bombs. Lewis quickly estimated the altitude and ordered his
gunners to open fire. Again, however, the height at which the attackers
came rendered the fire ineffective.
In about seven minutes, Japanese bombs and bullets totally wrecked
PanAm's facilities. Bombing and strafing set fire to a hotelin which
five Chamorro employees diedand also to a stock room, fuel tanks, and
many other buildings, and demolished a radio transmitter. Nine of
PanAm's 66-man staff lay dead. Two of the Philippine Clipper's
crew were wounded.
The Nells, Bettys, and Claudes of Japan
A formation of Mitsubishi G3M1 and G3M2 Type 96 bombers (Nell),
above, fly in formation in 1942. The first models flew in 1935, and more
than 250 were still serving in the Japanese land-based naval air arm in
December 1941. Nells, instrumental in the reduction of Wake's defenses,
served alongside the newer, more powerful Mitsubishi G4M1 Type-97
bombers (Betty)earmarked to replace them in front-line servicein
helping to sink the British capital ships HMS Prince of Wales and
HMS Repulse off Malaya on 10 December 1941.
Two 1,000-horsepower Kinsei 45 engines enabled the Nell to
reach a speed of 238 miles per hour at 9,840 feet. Normally crewed by
seven men, the G3M2 model carried a defensive armament of one 20-mm and
two 7.7-mm machine guns, and a payload of either one 1,764-pound torpedo
or 2,200 pounds of bombs.
Although Mitsubishi A5M4 Type 96 carrier fighters (Claude), also
equipped the Chitose Air Group, none accompanied the group's
Nells because of the long distances involved. Marine antiaircraft of
fighter aircraft gunfire at Wake destroyed at least four Nells During
December 1941. Since the numbers of G3Ms engaged varied from raid to
raidno more than 34 or fewer than 17so, too, did damage figures. On
at least two occasions, though, as many as 12 returned to their base in
the Marshalls damaged.
Almost miraculously, though, the 26-ton Clipper, empty of both
passengers and cargo but full of fuel, rode easily at her moorings at
the end of the dock. A bomb had splashed 100 feet ahead of her without
damaging her, and she received 23 bullet holes from the strafing
attacknone had hit her large fuel tanks. Captain Hamilton
courageously proposed evacuating the passengers and PanAm staff and
Commander Cunningham assented. Stripped of all superfluous equipment and
having embarked all of the passengers and the Caucasian PanAm employees,
save one (who had been driving the atoll's only ambulance and thus had
not heard the call to report for the plane's departure), the flying boat
took off for Midway at 1330.
Although he had received a bullet wound in his left shoulder, Major
Putnam immediately took over the terrible task of seeing to the many
injured people at the field. His dedication to duty seemed to establish
the precedent for many other instances of selflessness which occurred
amidst the wreckage of the VMF-211 camp. Sadly, the attack left five
pilots and 10 enlisted men of VMF-211 wounded and 18 more dead,
including most of the mechanics assigned to the squadron. On the
materiel side, the squadron's tents were shot up and virtually no
suppliestools, spark plugs, tires, and sparse spare
partsescaped destruction. Both of the 25,000-gallon gasoline
storage tanks had been demolished. Additionally 25 civilian workmen had
As the bombers departed, Gunner Hamas called his men back from the
bush, and set out to resume delivery of hand grenades. As he neared the
airfield, though, he stopped to help wounded men board a truck that had
escaped destruction. Then, he continued his journey and finally returned
to Camp 1, where he found more civilian employees arriving to join the
Earlier, as they had returned to the vicinity of Wake at about noon,
Kinney and Hamilton had been descending through the broken clouds about
three miles from the atoll when the former spotted two formations of
planes at an elevation of about 1,500 feet. He and Hamilton attempted
unsuccessfully to catch the formations as they retired to the west
through the overcast. Kinney and Hamilton remained aloft until after
1230, when they landed to find the destruction that defied description.
Neither Elrod nor Davidson had seen the enemy.
1stLt John F. Kinney (seen here circa September
1941), became engineering officer for VMF-211 upon 1st Lt Graves' death
on 8 December, and, along with TSgt William H. Hamilton and AMM1c James
F. Hesson, USN, kept Wake's dwindling number of battered Wildcats flying
throughout the bitter 15-day siege. Author's collection
In the wake of the terrible devastation wreaked upon his squadron,
Putnam deemed it critical to the squadron's reorganization to keep the
remaining planes operations. Since his engineering officer, Graves, Had
been killed, Putnam appointed Kinney to take his place. "We have four
planes left," Putnam told him, "If you can keep them flying I'll see
that you get a medal as big as a pie." "Okay, sir," Kinney responded,
"if it is delivered in San Francisco."
Putnam established VMF-211's command post near the operations area.
His men dug foxholes amidst brush and all of the physically capable
officers and men stayed at the field. Putnam ordered that pistols,
Thompson submachine guns, gas masks, and steel helmets be issued, and
also directed that machine gun posts be established near each end of the
runway and the command post. Meanwhile, the ground crews dispersed the
serviceable planes into revetments, a task not without its risks. That
afternoon, Captain Frank C. Tharin accidentally taxied 211-F-9 into an
oil drum and ruined the propeller, reducing the serviceable planes to
three. Captains Elrod and Tharin (the latter wounded superficially in
the attack) later supervised efforts to construct "protective works" and
also the mining of the landing strip with dynamite connected up to
electric generators. Contractors bulldozed portions of the land
bordering the field, in hopes that the rough ground would wreck and
enemy planes that attempted to land there.
That afternoon, over at Battery D, Godbold's men repaired damaged
emplacements, improved the director position, and accepted delivery of
gas masks, hand grenades, and ammunition. Later that afternoon, 18
civilians reported for military duty. Godbold assigned 16 of them to
serve under Sergeant Walter A. Bowsher, Jr., to man the previously idle
Gun 3, and assigned the remaining pair to the director crew as lookouts.
Under Bowsher's leadership, the men in Gun 3 were soon working their
piece "in a manner comparable to the Marine-manned guns."
Gunner Hamas and his men, meanwhile, carted ammunition from the
quartermaster shed and dispersed it into caches, each of about 20 to 25
boxes, west of Camp 1, near Wilkes Channel, and camouflaged them with
coral sand. Next, they dispersed hundreds of boxes of .5 and
.30-caliber ammunition in the bushes that lined the road that led to the
airfield. Before nightfall, Hamas delivered .50-caliber ammunition and
metal links to Captain Herbert C . Freuler and furnished him the keys to
the bomb and ammunition magazines.
About 25 civilians with trucks responded to First Lieutenant Lewis'
request for assistance in improving his battery's defensive position.
Then, Lewis ordered his men to lay a telephone line from the battery
command post (CP) to the battery's heightfinder so that he could obtain
altitude readings for the incoming enemy bombers, and relay that
information to the guns.
Commander Campbell Keene, Commander, Wake Base Detachment, meanwhile,
reassigned his men to more critical combat duties. He sent Ensigns
George E. Henshaw and Bernard J. Lauff to Cunningham's staff.
Boatswain's Mate First Class James E. Barnes and 12 enlisted men joined
the ranks of the defense battalion to drive trucks, serve in galley
details, and stand security watches. One of the three enlisted men whom
Commander Keene sent to VMF-211 was Aviation Machinist's Mate First
Class James F. Lesson. Kinney and Technical Sergeant Hamilton soon found
the Pennsylvanian with light brown hair, who had served in the Air Corps
before he had joined the Navy and who had just turned 35 years of age,
to be invaluable. VMF-211 also benefited from the services of civilians
Harry Yeager and "Doc" Stevenson, who reported to work as mechanics, and
Pete Sorenson, who volunteered to drive a truck.
For the remainder of the day and on into the night, in the
contractor's hospital in Camp 2, Naval Reserve Lieutenant Gustave M.
Kahn, Medical Corps, and the contractors' physician, Dr. Lawton E.
Shank, worked diligently to save as many men as possible. Some, though,
were beyond help, and despite their best efforts, four of VMF-211's
menincluding Second Lieutenant Condermandied that night.
At Peacock Point, that afternoon, just down the coast from the
airfield, "Barney" Barninger's men had completed their
foxholesoverhead cover, sandbags, and chunks of coral would come
later. Later, at dusk, Barninger evidently sensed that the atoll might
be in for a long siege. Thinking that they might not be in camp again
for some time, he sent some of his men back to Camp 1 to obtain extra
toilet gear and clothing. In the gathering darkness, he set his security
watches and rotated beach patrols and observers. Those men not on watch
slept fitfully in their foxholes.
That night, Wake's offshore guardians, Tambor to the north and
Triton to the south, surfaced to recharge batteries, breathe
fresh air, and listen to radio reports. From those reports the crews of
the Tambor and Triton finally learned of the outbreak of
The 9th of December dawned with a clear sky overhead. Over at the
airfield, three planes took off on the early morning patrol, while
Kinney had a fourth (though without its reserve gas tank) ready by 0900.
A test flight proved the fourth F4F to be "o.k.," since she withstood a
350 mph dive "without a quiver." It was just in the nick of time, for at
1145 on the 9th, the Chitose Air Group struck again, as 27 Nells
came in at 13,000 feet. Second Lieutenant David D. Kliewer and Technical
Sergeant Hamilton attacked straggling bombers, and claimed one shot
down. Battery D's number 2 and 4 guns, meanwhile, collectively fired 100
3-inch rounds. The Marines damaged 12 planes, but the enemy suffered
only very light casualties: one man dead and another slightly wounded.
William J. Hamilton, (seen here on 20 January 1938) was one of two
enlisted pilots serving in VMF-211 at Wake, and not only flew patrols
but helped keep the squadron's planes in the air. Author's
Once more, though, the Japanese wreaked considerable havoc on the
defenders. Most of their bombs fell near the edge of the lagoon, north
of the airfield, and on Camp 2, demolishing the hospital and heavily
damaging a warehouse and a metal shop. One wounded VMF-211 enlisted man
perished in the bombing of the hospital while the three-man crew of one
of the dispersed gasoline trucks died instantly when a bomb exploded in
the foxhole in which they had sought shelter.
Doctors Kahn and Shank and their assistants evacuated the wounded and
saved as much equipment as the could. Shank carried injured men from the
burning hospital, courageous actions that so impressed Marine Gunner
Hamas (who had been trapped by the raid while carrying a load of
projectiles and powder to gun positions on Peale) that he later
recommended that Shank be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism.
The hard-pressed medical people soon moved the wounded and what medical
equipment they could into magazines 10 and 13, near the unfinished
airstrip, and established two 21-bed wards.
Once the bombers had gone, the work of repairs and improving planes
and positions resumed. That night, because the initial bombing had
destroyed the mechanical loading machines, a crew of civilians helped
load .50-caliber ammunition. That same evening, work crews dispersed
food, medical supplies, water and lumber to various point around the
atoll, while the communications center and Wake's command post were
Earlier that day from near the tip of Peacock Point, Marine Gunner
Clarence B. McKinstry of Battery E had noted one bomber breaking off
from the rest. Supposing that the plane had taken aerial photographs, he
suggested that the battery be moved. That afternoon, First Lieutenant
Lewis received orders to reposition his guns after dark; he was to leave
two 3-inchers in place until the other two were emplaced, and then move
the last two. Aided by about a hundred civilians with several trucks,
Lewis and McKinstry succeeded in shifting the batteryguns,
ammunition, and sandbagsto a new location some 1,500 yards to he
northwest. Marines and workmen set up dummy guns in the old
As the 10th dawned, Marine Gunner McKinstry found himself with new
duties, having received orders to proceed to Wilkes and report to
Captain Wesley McC. Platt, commander of the Wilkes strongpoint. Battery
F comprised four 3-inch guns, but lacked crewmen, a heightfinder, or a
director. Consequently, McKinstry could only fire the guns accurately at
short or point-blank range, thus limiting them to beach protection.
Assisted by one Marine and a crew of civilians, Gunner McKinstry moved
his guns into battery just in time for the arrival of 26 Nells which
flew over at 1020 and dropped their bombs on the airfield and those
seacoast installations at the tip of Wilkes.
While casualties were lightBattery L had one Marine killed and
one wounded (one civilian suffered shell-shock)the equipment and
guns in the positions themselves received considerable damage. Further,
120 tons of dynamite which had been stored by the contractors near the
site of the new channel exploded and stripped the 3-inch battery of its
fresh camouflage. The gunners moved them closer to the shoreline and
camouflaged them with burnt brush because they lacked sandbags with
which to construct defensive shelters for the gun crews.
In a new position, which was up the coast from the old one, Battery
E's 3-inchers managed to hurl 100 rounds skyward while bombs began
hitting near Peacock Point. The old position there was "very heavily
bombed," and a direct hit set off a small ammunition dump, vindicating
McKinstry's hunch about the photo-reconnaissance plane. Battery D's
gunners, meanwhile, claimed hits on two bombers (one of which was seen
to explode later). Although Captain Elrod, who single-handedly attacked
the formation, claimed two of the raiders, only one Nell failed to
return to its base.
That night, the itinerant Battery E shifted to a position on the toe
of the horseshoe on the lagoon side of Wake. Their daily defensive
preparations complete, Wake's defenders awaited what the next dawn would
bring. They had endured three days of bombings. Some of Cunningham's men
may have wondered when it would be their turn to wreak destruction upon