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

'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 plane—a 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.

Capt Tharin
Capt 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 Collection

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 else—something 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 small."

"Nothing like letting the enemy know our status," Kinney noted sardonically in his diary. "Still no help."

2dLt Kliewer
2dLt 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 upon—and he recommended against it—the "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 Japs."

"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 Oahu—also delayed by heavy weather.

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 supplies—including fire control radars—required by his 5- and 3-inch batteries, as well as by the machine gun and searchlight batteries.

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.

The 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 shelters—no work having been done for the previous 24 hours—and 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 Jaluit—reckoned to be the center of Japanese operations in the Marshalls—and then to retire toward Pearl Harbor the day before Task Force 14, under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, was to reach Wake.

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 equipment—including 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 support—the Tambor—retired 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, had—hindsight. 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.

Adm Fletcher

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 chore—let 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 performance—especially with landing gear failures—was 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 time—they were through with Oahu for the time being—Pye 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 escort—delayed by the time it took to fuel the carrier—were 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 December—the 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 emarking
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 antiaircraft fire.

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 almost anywhere!

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 18th—the same day that Rear Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.'s Task Force 8 sailed from Pearl to support Task Forces 11 and 14—and 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.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division