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 cruisersprobably the Yubari,
Tenryu, and Tatsutahad 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
menmost 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
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 attackskilling 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
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
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
Japanesewho, 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
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
breezeone 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
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
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.