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

'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 flight.

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 machinery.

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 fire—fire 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]

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 Midway.

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 posthumously.

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.

2dLt Davidson
2dLt 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 Department.

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.

Capt Freuler
Capt 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 dive—the Japanese pilot did not follow him—nursed 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 again—the 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 80-G-413519

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.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division