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

'This Is As Far As We Go' (continued)

In the meantime, Japanese cruisers—probably the Yubari, Tenryu, and Tatsuta—had begun shelling Wake, further discomfiting the defenders. Despite Lewis' Battery E firing "pre-arranged 3-inch air burst concentrations" over the Japanese beachhead, the enemy continued to press steadily toward VMF-211's position around Hanna's 3-inch gun. Major Putnam, already wounded in the jaw, with blood from his wound staining the backs of the snapshots of his little daughters, which he carried in his pocket, formed his final line. "This," he said, "is as far as we go."

Putnam had placed Captain Elrod in command of one flank of VMF-211's defensive line, which was situated in dense undergrowth. In the impenetrable darkness, the squadron executive officer and his men—most of whom were unarmed civilians who acted as weapons and ammunition carriers (until weapons became available)—conducted a spirited defense which repeated attacks by Special Naval Landing Force troops could not dislodge. Each time he heard Japanese troops mounting a probe of 211's position, Elrod interposed himself between the enemy and his own men and provided covering fire to enable his detachment to keep supplied with guns and ammunition. Shortly before dawn, a Japanese sailor who had hidden himself among the heaps of casualties surrounding Hanna's gun shot and killed the gallant Captain Elrod.

Captain Tharin, in charge of a group of Marines on the left flank of VMF-211's line, delivered covering fire for the unarmed ammunition carriers attached to his unit, which repulsed several assaults on his position. At one point, Japanese sailors penetrated the defenses in Tharin's sector, but in the counterattack, which drove the enemy from the position, Tharin captured an enemy automatic weapon and used it "successfully and effectively against its former owners." The indomitable Aviation Machinist's Mate First Class Hesson armed himself with a Thompson sub-machine gun and some grenades and although wounded by rifle fire and grenade fragments, single-handedly drove back two concerted attacks—killing several Japanese and preventing them from overrunning 211's flank.

Despite the heroic efforts of Putnam's "platoon," the Japanese managed to move into the roughly triangular area which was bounded by Peacock Point, on one side, the beach and the south side of the airstrip on the others. Corporal Graves' squad from Battery D, meanwhile, detrucked somewhat north of their intended destination (200 yards south of the airstrip rather than 600), began walking toward VMF-211's position, and quickly encountered a Japanese patrol. In the ensuing fire-fight, enemy machine gun and rifle fire killed one Marine and pinned down the remainder for a time, until Graves and his men managed to extricate themselves and retire northward toward the battalion command post. Graves' encounter indicated that the Japanese had penetrated the U.S. defenses. Despite their extraordinary efforts, neither Kliewer and the .50-caliber guns at the airfield, nor the Hanna-VMF-211 group at the 3-inch gun near the shore, had been able to stop them.

At the same time, Batteries A and E began to receive mortar, small arms, and machine gun fire, prompting Barninger to deploy his range section, armed with two .30-caliber Brownings, and deployed as infantrymen, facing northwest "across the high ground to the rear of the 5-inchers at Peacock Point. Lewis, whose 3-inch fire had silenced an automatic weapons position in the thick undergrowth southwest of Battery E, dispatched a patrol to try to relieve the pressure on his position. That group, under Sergeant Raymond Gragg, progressed on 50 yards beyond the perimeter before it came under heavy fire. That Japanese, however, moved no further because of the resistance put up by Gragg's squad.

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Amidst the chaos, Devereux groped for information about the progress of the battle. At some point, he received word from one of the few positions which had retained wire contact with his command post, Corporal McAnally's machine gun section, which was located at the eastern end of the airstrip. McAnally reported that the Japanese were advancing up the shore road, apparently intent upon launching a thrust up the other prong of Wake. With one unit besetting Putnam's at the airstrip, another Japanese unit skirted Putnam and Hanna and was headed into the triangular end of Peacock Point.

McAnally, establishing contact with the .50-caliber machine guns on the east shore of Wake, some 400 yards south, carried on a "resolute, well-coordinated defense" which stymied the enemy in the area. Perhaps more important, McAnally served as Devereux's eyes and ears on that portion of the battlefield.

On Wilkes, Private First Class Ray's defense of his position equaled that of McAnally's. Captain Platt, having lost communication with his own posts and also with the defense battalion command post, set out on a personal reconnaissance mission at about 0430. He crawled through the thick underbrush and picked his way across the rocky beach, until, at about 0400, he came to a place east of gun no. 10 where he could see Special Naval Landing Force men massed in and about Battery F's guns. Soon thereafter, while clambering back to he gun, Platt met Sergeant Raymond L. Coulson and ordered him to gather two .30-caliber machine gun crews and their guns at Kuku Point (where they had been sent during the false alarm earlier that morning), along with the searchlight crew and everyone else he could find, and to return to gun no. 10.

Devereux, still isolated from his units and literally in the dark about the actions on Wilkes and those in the vicinity of Camp 1, attempted as best he could to keep the island commander informed. Cunningham, consequently, also had scant comprehension of the way the fighting was progressing in those areas. At 0500, about the time Captain Platt was reconnoitering the Japanese position on Wilkes, Cunningham radioed Commandant 14th Naval District, "Enemy on island. Issue in doubt."

Poindexter, meanwhile, satisfied that Camp 1 was being defended as well as possible, proceeded to the mobile reserve gun positions on the west side of the airfield. Japanese machine gun and mortar fire, accompanied by "much shouting" and "numerous pyrotechnic flares," began to fall around those positions, partially disabling one U.S. gun section. As the sky over Wake began to lighten with the dawn, Poindexter became concerned about the enemy fire that had begun to land near his men, and also that the enemy troops infiltrating the woods might outflank the mobile reserve. He ordered a retirement toward Camp 1. The sections alternated in covering each other throughout the movement, maintaining a steady volume of fire. Reaching Camp 1 after daylight, Poindexter established a north-south line astride the shore road, east of a prominent water tank.

While Poindexter deliberated the situation facing his force, Japanese movement along the east shore road increasingly pressed Corporal McAnally's group. McAnally communicated his difficult situation to Devereux's command post. Japanese hand grenades and small arms fire made life difficult for McAnally's band, which nevertheless held its ground and broke up several assaults.

Around 0530, Devereux told Major Potter to form a final defensive line astride the north-south road, which was being threatened from the south by the advancing Japanese. Calling Godbold's Battery D into the action soon thereafter, Devereux committed his last reserve troops into the action on the east side of Wake. Aware of Corporal McAnally's predicament, Devereux ordered the corporal's combat group to withdraw northward, toward the command post, to join Major Potter's detachment.

On Wilkes at about that time, Sergeant Coulson rejoined Captain Platt with the two machine-gun crews and guns, and eight riflemen. The surf that had masked the sound made by the invaders now worked to the advantage of the hard-pressed defenders. Along with the sputter and crackle of gunfire along the south shore of Wake and on Wilkes, it prevented the Japanese from discovering Platt's briefing of his Marines for the assault on the abandoned Battery F position. In the waning darkness, Platt and his men crept toward the enemy, reaching a point less than 50 yards away from the abandoned 3-inchers. On Platt's signal the two machine guns chattered and spat toward the enemy position. His skirmishers charged forward and soon began engaging the Japanese—who, with no security on the west, were taken completely by surprise, and whose only light machine guns had been emplaced facing eastward, toward the old channel.

Almost simultaneously with Platt's assault, but not at all coordinated with it, McAlister (who lost contact with the Wilkes strongpoint commander soon after the enemy landing) and his men encountered and engaged a small enemy patrol on the beach ahead of them, killing one man before the rest took cover behind some coral boulders. While flanking fire pinned down the enemy, Gunner McKinstry started forward to clean out that pocket of resistance. McAlister stopped him but as he was telling the Gunner to detail one of the men to do it instead, Corporal William C. Halstead climbed atop the rocks and slew the remainder of the enemy.

Platt's and McAlister's assaults cleaned out the Japanese in the 3-inch gun position. Platt and McAlister reorganized their units and searched for any enemy troops who might have escaped. They encountered no further resistance and took two prisoners, who had been wounded and had feigned death. The Marines counted at least 94 dead Japanese. American losses included nine Marines and two civilians killed; four Marines and one civilian wounded.

Meanwhile (shortly before dawn) on Wake, Japanese troops surrounded Kliewer's position. The four Marines, however, armed with only two Thompsons, three .45-caliber pistols, and two boxes of hand grenades, repelled multiple bayonet charges in the darkness. Dawn revealed a full-scale enemy attempt to carry the post, but Kliewer and his three shipmates, backed up by the two .50-caliber machine guns 150 yards behind them, killed many of the attacking Japanese and continued to hold their ground.

On Peale, with the departure of Captain Godbold and the Marines of Battery D for the island's command post on Wake, First Lieutenant Kessler became strongpoint commander. At dawn, he scanned the other islets. On Wilkes, he discerned Japanese flags whipping in the breeze—one particularly large one flying where Battery F had been (flags which Platt's men would remove shortly thereafter). Kessler reported his observations to Devereux, who had not heard a word from Platt since around 0300. The report prompted Devereux to fear that Wilkes had fallen.

As he scanned Wake at about 0600, however, Kessler observed the masts of what proved to be Patrol Boat No. 32, which was aground on the south shore of Wake. Kessler requested permission to fire at the ship. His request was approved, but he was admonished to avoid firing into friendly troops. Kessler ordered his 5-inchers to open fire. The first salvo clipped off the mainmast. Then Battery B's gunners lowered their sights to hit the ship itself. They could see only the funnel tops over the intervening island. Twenty-five minutes later, at 0625, the command post ordered Battery B to cease fire, their target having been "demolished."

Twenty minutes later, Kessler observed four "battleships, or super heavy cruisers" (probably the heavy cruisers Aoba, Kinugasa, Furutaka, and Kako) off Heel Point, moving westward but remaining well out of range. Those ships lay 10 kilometers off shore and shelled the atoll, but achieved little success.

Additional Japanese forces were headed for Wake. At 0612, off to the northwest, Soryu turned into the wind and launched 12 planes. The day's air operations had begun. In less than an hour, the planes were over the island.

Throughout the battle, Major Devereux had, as well as he could, kept the island commander informed of the progress of the assault. While the Marines, assisted by the sailors and civilians, had been attempting to stem the tide, most of the news which trickled into Cunningham's command post boded ill. At 0652, he sent out a message reflecting the situation as he knew it: "Enemy on island. Several ships plus transport moving in . Two DD aground." That was at 1032, 22 December 1941, on Pearl Harbor. It was to be the last message from the Wake Island defenders.

At Pearl Harbor, at about the time that Cunningham was sending that last message, Vice Admiral Pye had reached making a decision. He concluded that if Task Force 14 encountered anything but a weaker Japanese force, the battle would be fought on Japanese terms while within range of shore-based planes and with American forces having only enough fuel for two days of high speed steaming. Like Brown, Pye believed that a damaged ship was a lost ship, especially 2,000 miles from Pearl Harbor. The risk, he believed, was too great. He ordered the recall of Task Forces 14 and 11, and directed Task Force 8 to cover the retirement.

Frank Jack Fletcher's Task Force 14, meanwhile, was right on schedule, and was in fact further west that Pye knew. His ships fully fueled and ready for battle, Fletcher planned to detach the Tangier and two destroyers for the final run-in to Wake, while the pilots on board the Saratoga prepared themselves for the fight ahead. Fletcher, not one to shirk a fight, received the news of the recall angrily, He ripped his hat from his head and disgustedly hurled it to the deck. Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, Fletcher's air commander, similarly felt the fist-tightening frustration of the recall. He retired from the Saratoga's flag bridge as the talk there reached "mutinous" proportions.

As word of the recall circulated throughout Task Force 14, reactions were pretty much the same. Pye's recall order left no latitude for discussion or disobedience; those who argued later that Fletcher should have used the Nelsonian "blind eye" obviously failed to recognize that, in the sea off Copenhagen, the British admiral could see his opponents. Fletcher and Fitch, then 430 miles east of Wake, could not see theirs. They had no idea what enemy forces they might encounter. The Japanese had beaten them to Wake.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division