A MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island
by Robert J. Cressman
'This Is As Far As We Go'
Shortly after midnight, First Lieutenant Barninger noted flashing
lights "way off the windy side of the island." Alerted to the odd
display on the horizon in the darkness, Barninger telephoned Major
Devereux, who replied that he also had seen it. Devereux directed
Barninger to keep a watch out and cautioned the Peacock Point
strongpoint commander to be mindful that the lee shore posed the most
possibilities for danger. lookouts continued to note irregular flashes
of light in the black, gust, rainy predawn of 23 December 1941. It may
have been the Tenryu, the Tatsuta, and the Yubari
firing blindly at what their spotters thought was Wake Island but which
was, instead, only empty ocean.
At 0415, however, a report came into the detachment commander's
command post, telling of an enemy landing in progress at Toki Point, at
the tip of Peale. Devereux alerted the battalion. Kessler, in the
meantime, dispatched a patrol up the lagoon beach toward the PanAm
facility, which met a patrol from Battery D. Neither had anything to
report. On Wilkes, Captain Platt directed Battery L to move the men of
two 5-inch gun sections (equivalent to two rifle squads) to the shore of
the lagoon, west of the area of the new channel being dredged across the
island. The rest of the men of the batteryfire controlmen and
headquarters men under McAlister, who had established his command post
near the searchlight section of the batterymoved into positions
they had readied along the south shore of Wilkes, between McKinstry's
Battery F and the new channel.
sound of the heavy surf surging ashore continuously in the defenders'
ears as it pounded the reef that ringed the atoll, militated against
their hearing approaching enemy planesa decided disadvantage in
view of Wake's lack of radar. Marine Corps Historical Collection
Kessler, whom Devereux had requested to confirm or deny the accuracy
of the information regarding the landing, reported that there was no
landing in progress, but that he had seen the lights offshore.
Cunningham, at 0145, radioed the Commandant, 14th Naval District,
reporting "gunfire between ships to northeast of island."
Wake thus alerted, Second Lieutenant Arthur A. Poindexter, at Camp 1
with the mobile reserve (predominantly supply and administration Marines
and 15 sailors under Boatswain's Mate First Class James E. Barnes),
believed Peale to be threatened. He exercised initiative and entrucked
eight Marines with four .30-caliber machine guns. Reporting his
intention to the detachment commander, Poindexter and that portion of
his mobile reserve sped past the airfield toward Peale. It was nearing
Devereux's command post when he ordered it intercepted. The major
retained Poindexter's little force where it was, pending clarification
of the situation.
The bad weather that prevented the Marines from seeing their foes
likewise hindered the Japanese. Shortly before 0200, Special Naval
Landing Force troops clambered down into the medium landing craft
designated to land on Wilkes and Wake. Four landing craft were launched
some 3,000 to 4,000 meters offshore, but in the squalls and long swells
they experienced difficulty keeping up with Patrol Boat No. 32
and Patrol Boat No. 33 as they churned on a northeasterly course,
headed for the beach. The landing craft designated to follow No.
32 lost sight of her in the murky, gusty darkness.
At about 0230, Marines on Peacock Point detected the two patrol
boats, which appeared to them only as dark shapes as they made for the
reef by the airstrip. Then, the two ships ground gently ashore on the
coral. The Japanese naval infantrymen slipped over the side into the
surf, struggled ashore, and sprinted across the coral for cover.
On Wilkes, Gunner McKinstry called to Captain Platt and informed him
that he thought he heard the sound of engines over the boom of the surf,
and at 0235 one of his .50-caliber guns (gun no. 10) opened fire in the
darkness. Ten minutes later, McKinstry, having sought permission to use
illumination, caused a searchlight to be turned on. Although the light
was shut off as suddenly as it had been turned on, its momentary beam
revealed a landing boat aground on Wilkes' rocky shore and, beyond that,
two destroyers, beached on Wake.
1stLt Arthur A. Poindexter (seen here in a post-war
photograph), commander of the mobile reserve on Wake, provided such
evidence of "exemplary conduct and ability to lead troops ... with utter
disregard for his own safety" that he was ultimately awarded the Bronze
Star. Poindexter File, Reference Section
McAlister ordered Platoon Sergeant Henry A. Bedell to detail two men
to hurl grenades into the enemy craft. The veteran non-commissioned
officer, accompanied only by Private First Class William F. Buehler,
gamely tackled the task, but Japanese gunfire killed Bedell and wounded
Buehler before either had been able to work their way close enough to
lob grenades into the boats.
McKinstry's men, meanwhile, manned the 3-inchers of Battery F, but
the guns could not be depressed enough to fire onto the beach. The
Marines held their position until the men from the Takano Unit of
the Special Naval Landing Force approached closely enough to
begin lobbing grenades. Marines and Japanese grappled in the darkness,
hand-to-hand, before McKinstry's men, after removing the firing locks
from the guns, pulled back to take up infantry positions. Their
concentrated fires kept most of the Japanese at bay near the 3-inch gun
Other Special Naval Landing Force troops, however, probed
westward, toward the 5-inch guns that had so humbled Kajioka's force on
the 11th. They ran into heavy fire from gun no. 9, a well-camouflaged
.50-caliber Browning, handled skillfully by 20-year old Private First
Class Sanford K. Ray and situated some 75 yards west of where the
Takano Unit had first swarmed ashore. Ray's fire prevented the
enemy from advancing closer than 40 or 50 yards from his sand-bagged
position, and his proximity to the beach allowed him not only to harass
the enemy but also to report enemy movements. Although Japanese troops
had severed most wire communication lines, Platt remained in touch with
developments at the shoreline by reports from Ray.
Reports from observers along the beach soon began to deluge
Devereux's command post, where he and his executive officer, Major
Potter, attempted to keep abreast of events. Gunner Hamas relayed the
information to Cunningham, at his command post. On the basis of those
reports, the island commander, at 0250, radioed the Commandant of the
14th Naval District: "Island under gunfire. Enemy apparently
At that point, Devereux directed Poindexter to move the mobile
reserve into me area between Camp 1 and the west end of the airfield.
Since the eight Marines had remained in the truck with the four machine
guns, only 15 minutes elapsed before they set up both gun sections in a
position commanding the road that ran along the south shore and also
covering a critical section of beach. Within moments, Poindexter's
Brownings chattered and spat into the dim shape of the grounded
Patrol Boat No. 32, most of the bullets striking the after part
of the ship. Special Naval Landing Force troops who disclosed
their position by igniting flares soon came under fire. At Camp 1, just
up the coast, men from Battery I and the sailors who had been serving as
lookouts manned the four .30-caliber machine guns set up there. From
Poindexter's vantage point, the enemy troops appeared confused and
disoriented, shouting and discharging a number of flares, perhaps for
"control and coordination."
Having received a report of Japanese destroyers standing toward
Wake's south shore (and well inside the range of the 5-inch batteries
that had so vexed the enemy on 11 December), Second Lieutenant Robert M.
Hanna, who commanded the machine guns emplaced at the airstrip, clearly
perceived the threat. Accompanied by Corporal Ralph J. Holewinski and
three civilians, Paul Gay, Eric Lehtola, and Bob Bryan, Hanna set off at
a dead run for the 3-inch gun that had been emplaced on the landward
side of the beach road, on a slight rise between the beach road and the
oiled tie-down area at the airstrip. Up to that point, Major Putnam's
grounded airmen, their ground support unit, and the volunteer civilians,
had been awaiting further orders. As Hanna and his scratch 3-inch crew
sprinted to the then-unmanned gun, Devereux ordered Putnam to support
Painting by artist Albin Henning shows Marines firing a
.30-caliber Browning machine gun as Japanese landing force sailors
splash ashore. While inaccurate in details (barbed wire, for example, is
an artist's invention because no such obstruction existed at Wake
Island, since the coral reef surrounding the atoll was bare of any
holding ground for the stakes or anchors necessary to keep them in
place), it does capture the desperate nature of the Marines' final day's
fighting. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 307142
Putnam assigned Second Lieutenant Kliewer to a post on the west end
of the airfield, along with Staff Sergeant John F. Blandy, Sergeant
Robert EW. Bourquin, Jr., and Corporal Carroll E. Trego. They were to
set off the mines on the field if the enemy attempted to use it. Two
.50-caliber guns situated just north of the airstrip covered Kliewer's
position. At the eastern end of the strip lay the guns manned by
Corporal Winford J. McAnally, along with six Marines and three civilians
and supported by a small group of riflemen. The gunners enjoyed a
perfect, unobstructed field of firethe airstrip itself.
About 0300, just at a time when events began to develop with
startling rapidity as the Japanese pushed ashore on Wilkes and Wake,
Major Devereux lost touch with Camp 1, Putnam's platoon, Hanna's command
post near the airstrip, and Barninger's Battery A. Advancing Japanese
troops probably had found the communication linesthe exigencies of
war had prevented them from being buriedand cut them. Devereux's
last situation reports from those units painted a bleak picture. If
Cunningham received less-than-encouraging reports from the defense
battalion commander, he received equally grim news from CinCPac when, at
0319 Wake time, Pearl Harbor radioed to Wake that the Triton and
Tambor were returning to Hawaiian waters. "No friendly vessels
should be in your vicinity today," the message stated, "Keep me
Hanna and his men, meanwhile, reached the 3-inch gun and set to work.
Anxious hands fumbled in the darkness for ammunition while
Hannasince the gun lacked sightspeered down the bore to draw
a bead on the beached and stationary Patrol Boat No. 33 that lay
less than 500 yards away. The first round tore into the ship's bridge,
seriously wounding both the captain and navigator, killing two seamen,
and wounding five. Hanna's gun hurled 14 more rounds on target. Some of
his projectiles evidently touched off a magazine, and the beached
warship began to burn. The illumination provided by the burning ship
revealed her sistership, which Hanna and his hard-working gunners
bombarded, as well. A short time later three Special naval Landing
Force sailors attacked Hanna's exposed position. In the ensuing
fight, Hanna coolly shot and killed all three enemy sailors with his
pistol and resumed the operation of his 3-incher.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
Reinforcing Hanna's connoneers became the next order of business.
Devereux felt compelled to keep Peale's Battery B intact to deal with
surface threats, and Battery E (which, by that point, had a full
complement of guns and crews along with the only heightfinder and
director) to deal with enemy planes. That left Godbold's Batter D, which
by that point possessed only two operational guns and no fire-control
gear. Devereux directed Godbold to send one section (nine men) to the
battalion command post to reinforce Hanna's crew. Under Corporal Leon A.
Graves, the squad clambered on board a contractor's truck and reached
the command post about 0315. They were to proceed along the road that
paralleled the shoreline to a junction some 600 yards south of the
airfield, where they were to leave the truck and proceed through the
brush to Hanna's position. Quickly, they set out into the night.
The flames from the wrecked Patrol Boat No. 33 disclosed
Japanese troops advancing past the west end of the airstrip into the
thick undergrowth in front of the mobile reserve's positions.
Poindexter, after ordering one machine gun section to keep up a fire
into the brush to interdict that movement and protect his own flank,
heard machine gun fire from Camp 1, behind him. Wanting to see for
himself if more Japanese landing craft were coming ashore to his rear,
the lieutenant, accompanied by his runner, left the front in charge of
Sergeant "QT" Wade, and hurried back to the camp.
Raymond R. "Cap" Rutledge, one of the contractors on
Wake, (seen here as a POW at Shanghai in January 1942), had served in
the U.S. Army during World War I and threw hand grenades into Japanese
landing barges off Wake in the pre-dawn fighting of 23 December.
There, unable to see at what his neophyte sailor-gunners were
expending their ammunition, Poindexter asked each to point out his
target. Two could notthey'd opened fire only because the other two
had done sobut a third pointed to the dim outline of what appeared
to be a "large landing barge on the order of a self-propelled artillery
lighter." When another craft of the same type seemed to materialize out
of the murk, Poindexter ordered firing resumed at what proved to be two
large landing craft that were attempting to ground themselves 1,200
yards east of the entrance to Wilkes Channel.
The enemy coxswains, however, appeared to be having difficulty
coaxing the unwieldy landing craft onto the beach, backing off and
trying again and again to land the Special Naval Landing Force
men crouched behind the gunwales, which seemed to be deflecting the
.30-caliber bullets peppering them. Seizing the moment, Poindexter
called for volunteers to pick their way down the rocky beach to the
water's edge, there to lob grenades into the boats. Poindexter organized
two teamsMess Sergeant Gerald Carr and a civilian, Raymond R.
"Cap" Rutledge (who had served in the Army in France in World War I), in
one, Poindexter and Boatswains' mate First Class Barnes in the other.
The grenadiers dashed to the water's edge while the machine guns
momentarily held their fire. Barnes, taking cover behind coral heads,
remained hidden until the barges ground ashore again. Then, exposing
himself to enemy fire, he hurled several grenades toward the Japanese
craft, and managed to land at least one inside, killing or wounding many
of the troops on board.
The valiant efforts of Poindexter and his men, however, stopped the
Japanese just momentarily, for soon they began swarming ashore and
moving inland. Shortly before the wire communications to Devereux's
command post failed, Poindexter reported the result of his foray.
Having seen flares streaking skyward in the murk, Captain Godbold on
Peale, meanwhile, sent out two patrols, one to move westward toward the
naval air base, and the other to go eastward along the lagoon's shore.
Neither patrol encountered any enemy troops. A half-hour later, Godbold
established an outpost at the bridge connecting Peale and Wake.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
Meanwhile, after word of the enemy landing reached Pearl Harbor, Vice
Admiral Pye convened a meeting of his staff. By 0700 (22 December,
Hawaiian time), having received further word of developments at Wake,
Pye estimated that a relief of the island looked impossible, given the
prevailing situation, and directed that the Tangier should be
diverted toward the east. With the relief mission abandoned, should his
forces attack the enemy forces in the vicinity of Wake? Or should
American forces be withdrawn to the east? He feared that the timing of
the Japanese carrier strikes and the landing then in progress indicated
that the enemy had "estimated closely the time at which our relief
expedition might arrive and may, if the general location of our carrier
groups is estimated, be waiting in force." American forces could inflict
extensive damage upon Japanese, Pye believed, if the enemy did not know
of the presence of the U.S. carrier forces. They had not yet seen
action, though, and no one could overestimate the danger of having ships
damaged 2,000 miles from the nearest repair facilities"a damaged
ship is a lost ship," Brown had commented in Task Force 11's war diary.
Damage to the carriers could leave the Hawaiian Islands open to a major
enemy thrust. "We cannot," Pye declared, "afford such losses at
Two course of actions existedto direct Task Force 14 to attack
Japanese forces in the vicinity of Wake, with Task Forces 8 and 11
covering Task Force 14's retirement, or to retire all forces without any
attempt to attack the enemy. These choices weighed heavily on Pye's
mind. If American forces hit the Japanese ships at Wake and suffered the
loss of a carrier air group in the process, Pye deemed the "offensive
spirit" shown by the Navy as perhaps worth the sacrifice.
However, in the midst of his deliberations, shortly after 0736, Pye
received a message from the CNO which noted that recent developments had
emphasized that Wake was a "liability" and authorized Pye to "evacuate
Wake with appropriate demolition." With Japanese forces on the island,
though, Pye felt that capitulation was only a matter of time. "The real
question at issue," Pye thought, "is, shall we take the chance of the
loss of a carrier group to attempt to attack the enemy forces in the
vicinity of Wake?" Radio intelligence from the previous day linked
"CruDiv 8 ... CarDiv 2" and erroneously, "BatDiv 3" (consisting of two
battleships) with the forces off of Wake. A pair of Kongo-class
fast battleships, supported by carriers and heavy cruisers would easily
have overmatched Fletcher's Task Force 14.