Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Base Defense in a Possible War with Japan
An Organization for Base Defense
Organization and Equipment for the Defense Battalion
The Approach of War
The Saga of Wake Island
A Defensive Buildup
Two African-American Defense Battalions
The South Pacific
South Pacific Tales
Into the Central and Northern Solomons
Fighting Boredom
The Central Pacific Drive
Signs of the Times
Reorienting the Defense Battalion
Tributes to the Defense Battalions
Pacific Victory
Gone But Not Forgotten
Battalion Summaries
Special Subjects
Shoulder Insignia
Antiaircraft Artillery
Antiaircraft Machine Guns
Coast and Field Artillery
Fire Control
Armor and Support

CONDITION RED: Marine Defense Battalions in World War II
by Major Charles D. Melson

The Saga of Wake Island

The first real test of the base defense concept in the Pacific War began with savage air attacks against Wake Island on 8 December and lasted 15 days. Wake's defenders lacked radar and sound-ranging equipment, forcing the 400-man Marine garrison to rely on optical equipment to spot and identify the attacking aircraft, which inflicted heavy losses on the Americans during the first bombing raids. Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, who headed the Wake Island naval base, later insisted that "one radar" could have turned defeat into victory. In contrast, Technical Sergeant Charles A. Holmes, a fire-control specialist, believed that radar "would never have affected the out come of the situation . . ." The set, moreover, might have fallen into Japanese hands sufficiently intact to yield useful intelligence.

On 11 December, the fire of the 5-inch guns of Major George H. Potter's coastal defense batteries forced the withdrawal of the first Japanese naval assault force consisting of three cruisers, their escorting destroyers, and a pair of troop transports. A Marine communications officer vividly remembered the repeated attacks by Japanese aircraft throughout the siege. During each raid, he said, "one or two would be smoking from machine gun or antiaircraft fire." Captain Bryghte D. Godbold's 3-inch antiaircraft group seemed especially deadly, and sometimes one or two aircraft would be missing from a Japanese formation as it flew out of range. Gun crews stayed with their weapons during the increasingly stronger air raids, while those Marines not needed at their battle stations were "hotfooting it for shelter."

Early on, the Marines realized they were fighting a losing battle, although, as Technical Sergeant Holmes pointed out, "We did our best to defend the atoll . . ." and to prevent the Japanese from establishing themselves there. With limited means at their disposal — the weapons of the defense detachment and a few fighter planes — the Marines sank one warship with aerial bombs and another with artillery fire, and during the final assault inflicted hundreds of casualties on the Japanese who stormed ashore from self-propelled barges and two light transports beached on the reef. On the morning of 23 December, before a relief expedition could get close enough to help, the defenders of Wake Island surrendered.

While the Wake Island garrison fought against overwhelming numbers and ultimately had to yield, Japanese naval forces began a short-lived harassment of Johnston and Palmyra that lasted until late December and stopped short of attempted landings. On 12 December, shells from a pair of submarines detonated a 12,000-gallon fuel storage tank on Johnston Island, but fire from 5-inch coast defense guns emplaced there forced the raiders to submerge. Similarly, a battery on Palmyra drove off a submarine that shelled the is land on Christmas Eve.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division