The Battle of Wake Island

The Battle of Wake Island

The formal surrender of the Japanese garrison on Wake Island – September 7, 1945. Shigematsu Sakaibara is the officer in the right-foreground.

While Pearl Harbor was being attacked by the Japanese, and the world recoiled in horror, the Japanese were also launching an attack on the Island of Wake in the central Pacific Ocean.  This tiny island had been annexed by the United States in 1899 and was located halfway between Midway and Guam. 

In 1935 Pan American airways built a town and hotel for trans-Pacific flights to China and by 1941, there was a military airfield as well but only partially stocked with 12 F4F Wildcat aircraft at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked.  Wildcats are 1-man crew fast planes capable of great lift and contain 2 machine guns and option of bombs or storage for drops. Commander Winfield S. Cunningham was overall commander of Wake and the airfield, but radar was still at Peal Harbor.  400 US marines had also arrived on Wake Island under command of Major James P. S. Devereaux.

A destroyed Japanese patrol boat on Wake.

As news of the Pearl Harbor arrived, Commander Cunningham ordered four Wildcats to patrol the skies around Wake, barely in time as the Japanese attacked while visibility was poor and destroyed the remaining eight wildcats on the ground immediately.  23 American soldiers were killed that first day as well as 11 wounded.

The Japanese returned the next day, and although badly outmanned, US troops gave a fierce defensive battle in return.  Two Japanese planes were down and as Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka ordered 450 of his men forward to land, US Marine gunners held fire until all were in range and succeeded in sinking two ships:  The destroyer Hayate and Kajioka’s flagship Yubari.  The four remaining Wildcats in the skies sunk a destroyer the Kisaragi by bomb.

Wreckage of Wildcat 211-F-11, flown by Captain Henry T. Elrod on December 11 in the attack that sank the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi.

While the Japanese re-grouped, both Cunningham and Deveraux were called for assistance to help at Peal Harbor.  Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher was ordered by Commander in Chief William Pye to bring relief forces to Wake, but recalled them at the last moment when he learned of two Japanese Aircraft carriers in the waters.

On December 23, 1941, Kajioka and 1000 men landed on Wake Island and 368 US Marines, 60 US Naval Officers, 5 US Army soldiers and 1,104 civilian contractors were taken as POWs.  All but 98 were transported off the island to China as forced labor.

U.S. Civilian POWs Memorial

Although the United States did not counter attack, they established a submarine blockade that starved the defenders of the island. When the USS Yorktown’s aircraft carrier prepared to attack the island, Japanese Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered all of the remaining 98 prisoners to be executed.  One US soldier (unknown to this day) escaped long enough to scratch the words “98 US PW 5-10-43” on a rock near a mass grave to indicate what had happened.  He was recaptured and personally executed by beheading by Sukaibara.  The rock affixed with a plaque remains in place today.

The 15-day siege of Wake was unbalanced and the US were outnumbered five to one, but managed to sink four Japanese warships, damaged one, downed 21 Japanese aircraft and killed 820 Japanese soldiers before being forced to surrender, due mainly to the larger battle of Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States into World War II.

Side notes:

  •   Captain Henry T. Elrod was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for single handedly shooting down two Japanese Zeroes and sinking the destroyer Kisargi.
  •  Wm. L. Taylor was the only POW to escape from Wake Island.  He had been evacuated to China for labor duty, but jumped off of a railroad train.  Meeting and befriending several Chinese Communist Soldiers, they aided him to travel north, where he also claims to have met Mao Zedong, the future Communist revolutionary and political theorist who went on to found the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  He claimed that Mao saved his life allowing him to contact Americans for evacuation.
  • Sadly, the submarine blockade by the US, forced not only starvation of humans but killed off to extinction the only land bird that had been native to Wake; the Wake Island Rail.
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