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The Battle of Wake Island began simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor naval and air bases in Hawaii and ended on 23 December 1941, with the surrender of the American forces to the Empire of Japan. It was fought on and around the atoll formed by Wake Island and its minor islets of Peale and Wilkes Islands by the air, land, and naval forces of the Japanese Empire against those of the United States, with Marines playing a prominent role on both sides.

Battle of Wake Island
Part of the Pacific Theater of World War II
A destroyed Japanese patrol boat (#33) on Wake.
Date8–23 December 1941
Wake Island, U.S. territory
Result Japanese victory
 Japan  United States
Commanders and leaders
Empire of Japan Shigeyoshi Inoue
Empire of Japan Sadamichi Kajioka
Empire of Japan Shigematsu Sakaibara
Empire of Japan Eiji Gotō
Empire of Japan Tamon Yamaguchi
United States Winfield S. Cunningham (POW)
United States James P.S. Devereux (POW)
United States Paul A. Putnam (POW)
United States Henry T. Elrod 
First Attempt (11 December):
3 light cruisers
6 destroyers
2 patrol boats
2 troop transports
Reinforcements arriving for Second Attempt (23 December):
2 aircraft carriers
2 heavy cruisers
2 destroyers
2,500 infantry[1]

449 USMC personnel consisting of:

6 coastal artillery pieces
12 aircraft
12 anti-aircraft guns
68 U.S. Navy personnel
5 U.S. Army personnel
Casualties and losses
First attempt:
2 destroyers sunk
340 killed
65 wounded
2 missing[2]
Second attempt:
2 patrol boats wrecked
10 aircraft lost
20 aircraft damaged
144 casualties[3]
52 killed
49 wounded
2 missing
12 aircraft lost[4]
433 captured[5]
70 civilians killed
1,104 civilians interned, of whom 180 died in captivity[6]

The island was held by the Japanese for the duration of the Pacific War theater of World War II; the remaining Japanese garrison on the island surrendered to a detachment of United States Marines on 4 September 1945, after the earlier surrender on 2 September 1945 on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay to General Douglas MacArthur.[7]



In January 1941, the United States Navy constructed a military base on the atoll. On 19 August, the first permanent military garrison, understrength elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion[8] totaling 450 officers and men,[9] was stationed on the island, under Major James P.S. Devereux, USMC of Baltimore. The defense battalion was supplemented by Marine Corps fighter plane squadron VMF-211, consisting of 12 F4F-3 Wildcat fighters, commanded by marine aviator Major Paul A. Putnam, USMC. Also, present on the island were 68 U.S. Navy personnel and about 1,221 civilian workers for the Morrison-Knudsen Civil Engineering Company. Forty-five Chamorro men (native Micronesians from the Mariana Islands and Guam) were employed by Pan American Airways at the company's facilities on Wake Island, one of the stops on the Pan Am Clipper trans-Pacific amphibious air service initiated in 1935.

5"/51 caliber gun on Texas 1914.
3"/50 caliber gun aboard Slater

The Marines were armed with six 5-inch (127 mm)/51 cal pieces, originating from the old battleship USS Texas; twelve 3 in (76 mm)/50 cal anti-aircraft guns (with only a single working anti-aircraft director among them); eighteen .50 in (12.7 mm) Browning heavy machine guns; and thirty .30 in (7.62 mm) heavy, medium and light water- and air-cooled machine guns.

On 28 November, naval aviator Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, USN reported to Wake to assume overall command of U.S. forces on the island. He had 10 days to examine the defenses and assess his men before war broke out.

On 8 December, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake being on the opposite side of the International Date Line), 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M3 medium bombers flown from bases on the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the 12 F4F-3 Wildcats on the ground.[10] The remaining four Wildcats were in the air patrolling, but because of poor visibility, failed to see the attacking Japanese bombers. These Wildcats shot down two bombers on the following day.[11] All of the Marine garrison's defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the aircraft. Of the 55 Marine aviation personnel, 23 were killed and 11 were wounded.

Following this attack, the Pan Am employees were evacuated, along with the passengers of the "Philippine Clipper," a passing Martin 130 amphibious flying boat that had survived the attack unscathed. The Chamorro working men were not allowed to board the plane and were left behind.[12]

Two more air raids followed. The main camp was targeted on 9 December, destroying the civilian hospital and the Pan Am air facility. The next day, enemy bombers focused on outlying Wilkes Island. Following the raid on 9 December, the guns had been relocated in case the Japanese had photographed the positions. Wooden replicas were erected in their place, and the Japanese bombers attacked the decoy positions. A lucky strike on a civilian dynamite supply set off a chain reaction and destroyed the munitions for the guns on Wilkes.[12]

First landing attemptEdit

Early on the morning of 11 December, the garrison, with the support of the four remaining Wildcats, repelled the first Japanese landing attempt by the South Seas Force, which included the light cruisers Yubari, Tenryū, and Tatsuta; the destroyers Yayoi, Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Hayate, Oite, and Asanagi; two Momi-class destroyers converted to patrol boats (Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33), and two troop transport ships containing 450 Special Naval Landing Force troops.

The US Marines fired at the invasion fleet with their six 5-inch (127 mm) coast-defense guns. Major Devereux, the Marine commander under Cunningham, ordered the gunners to hold their fire until the enemy moved within range of the coastal defenses. "Battery L", on Peale islet, sank Hayate at a distance of 4,000 yd (3,700 m) with at least two direct hits to her magazines, causing her to explode and sink within two minutes, in full view of the defenders on shore. Battery A claimed to have hit Yubari several times, but her action report makes no mention of any damage[2]. The four Wildcats also succeeded in sinking the destroyer Kisaragi by dropping a bomb on her stern where the depth charges were stored. Both Japanese destroyers were lost with nearly all hands (there was only one survivor, from Hayate), with Hayate becoming the first Japanese surface warship to be sunk in the war. The Japanese recorded 407 casualties during the first attempt.[2] The Japanese force withdrew without landing, suffering their first setback of the war against the Americans.

After the initial raid was fought off, American news media reported that, when queried about reinforcement and resupply, Commander Cunningham was reported to have quipped, "Send us more Japs!" In fact, Cunningham sent a long list of critical equipment—including gunsights, spare parts, and fire-control radar—to his immediate superior: Commandant, 14th Naval District.[13] But the siege and frequent Japanese air attacks on the Wake garrison continued, without resupply for the Americans.

The initial resistance offered by the garrison prompted the Japanese Navy to detach the aircraft carriers Sōryū and Hiryū from the force that had attacked Pearl Harbor to support the second landing attempt.

Aborted USN relief attemptEdit

VMA-211 Insignia.

The projected US relief attempt by Admiral Frank Fletcher's Task Force 11 (TF 11), supported by Admiral Wilson Brown’s TF 14, consisted of the fleet carrier Saratoga, the fleet oiler Neches, the seaplane tender Tangier, the heavy cruisers Astoria, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, and 10 destroyers. The convoy carried the 4th Marine Defense Battalion and fighter squadron VMF-221, equipped with Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo fighters, along with 9,000 5-inch rounds, 12,000 3-inch (76 mm) rounds, and 3,000,000 .50-inch (12.7 mm) rounds, as well as a large amount of ammunition for mortars and other battalion small arms. TF 14—with the fleet carrier Lexington, three heavy cruisers, eight destroyers, and an oiler—was to undertake a raid on the Marshall Islands to divert Japanese attention.[citation needed]

At 21:00 on 22 December, after receiving information indicating the presence of two IJN carriers and two fast battleships (which were actually heavy cruisers) near Wake Island, Vice Admiral William S. Pye—the Acting Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet—ordered TF 11 to return to Pearl Harbor.[14]

Second assaultEdit

Wreckage of Wildcat 211-F-11, flown by Captain Henry T. Elrod on December 11 in the attack that sank the Kisaragi.
Japanese Patrol Boat No.32 (left) and Patrol Boat No.33

The second Japanese invasion force came on 23 December, composed mostly of the ships from the first attempt with the major reinforcements of the carriers Hiryū and Sōryū, plus 1,500 Japanese marines. The landings began at 02:35; after a preliminary bombardment, the ex-destroyers Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33 were beached and burned in their attempts to land the invasion force. After a full night and morning of fighting, the Wake garrison surrendered to the Japanese by mid-afternoon.

The US Marines lost 49 killed, two missing, and 49 wounded during the 15-day siege, while three US Navy personnel and at least 70 US civilians were killed, including 10 Chamorros, and 12 civilians wounded. 433 US personnel were captured. Japanese losses were 144 casualties, 140 SNLF and Army casualties with another 4 aboard ships.[3] At least 28 land-based and carrier aircraft were also either shot down or damaged. The Japanese captured all men remaining on the island, the majority of whom were civilian contractors employed by the Morrison-Knudsen Company.[15]

Captain Henry T. Elrod, one of the pilots from VMF-211, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his action on the island during the second landing attempt, having shot down two Japanese A6M2 Zeros and sunk the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi. A special military decoration, the Wake Island Device, affixed to either the Navy Expeditionary Medal or the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, was created to honor those who had fought in the defense of the island.

Japanese occupationEdit

Attack by Yorktown planes in October 1943

Fearing an imminent invasion, the Japanese reinforced Wake Island with more formidable defenses. The American captives were ordered to build a series of bunkers and fortifications on Wake. The Japanese brought in an 8-inch (200 mm) naval gun which is often incorrectly[16] reported as having been captured in Singapore. The U.S. Navy established a submarine blockade instead of an amphibious invasion of Wake Island. As a result, the Japanese garrison starved, which led to their hunting the Wake Island Rail, an endemic bird, to extinction. On 24 February 1942, aircraft from the carrier Enterprise attacked the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. U.S. forces bombed the island periodically from 1942 until Japan’s surrender in 1945. On 24 July 1943, Consolidated B-24 Liberators led by Lieutenant Jesse Stay of the 42nd Squadron (11th Bombardment Group) of the U.S. Army Air Forces, in transit from Midway Island, struck the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. At least two men from that raid were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses for their efforts.[17] Future President George H. W. Bush also flew his first combat mission as a naval aviator over Wake Island. After this, Wake was occasionally raided but never attacked en masse.

War crimesEdit

The 98 rock

On 5 October 1943, American naval aircraft from Lexington raided Wake. Two days later, fearing an imminent invasion, Japanese Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the execution of the 98 captive American civilian workers who had initially been kept to perform forced labor. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and executed with a machine gun. One of the prisoners (whose name has never been discovered) escaped, apparently returning to the site to carve the message "98 US PW 5-10-43" on a large coral rock near where the victims had been hastily buried in a mass grave. The unknown American was recaptured, and Sakaibara personally beheaded him with a katana. The inscription on the rock can still be seen and is a Wake Island landmark.[18]

On 4 September 1945, the remaining Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of US Marines. The handover of Wake was officially conducted in a brief ceremony aboard the destroyer escort Levy.

After the war, Sakaibara and his subordinate, a lieutenant commander, were sentenced to death for the massacre of the 98 and for other war crimes. Several Japanese officers in American custody had committed suicide over the incident, leaving written statements that incriminated Sakaibara. Sakaibara was hanged on 18 June 1947.[19] Eventually, the subordinate's sentence was commuted to life in prison. The murdered civilian POWs were reburied after the war in Honolulu's National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as Punchbowl Crater.[20]

Order of battleEdit

American forcesEdit

   1st Defense Battalion Detachment, Wake – Major James P.S. Devreaux
Unit Commander Remarks
5-inch Artillery Group Maj. George H. Potter
3-inch Artillery Group Capt. Bryght D. Godbold
Independent batteries
VMF-211 (Marine Corps Fighter Squadron) Maj. Paul A. Putnam Equipped with 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighters
1st Defense Battalion Maj. James Devereux Understrength - total 450 officers and men
A memorial to the Wake Island defenders stands near the command post of Major Devereux


  1. ^ Naval and air personnel not included.
  2. ^ a b c Dull 2007, p. 24.
  3. ^ a b Dull 2007, p. 26.
  4. ^ Martin Gilbert, the Second World War (1989) pg 282
  5. ^ 20 later died in captivity
  6. ^ "The Defense of Wake".
  7. ^ "War in the Pacific NHP: Liberation - Guam Remembers". Archived from the original on 2012-12-17. Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  8. ^ 1st Marine Defense Battalion Archived August 25, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Only 449 marines were on hand for the battles at Wake Island because one officer [Major Walter Baylor], USMC had been ordered to leave on 20 December with official reports.
  10. ^ Urwin, Gregory. "Battle of Wake Island". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  11. ^ "Battle of Wake Island, 8-23 December 1941". Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  12. ^ a b Cunningham, W. Scott (1961). Wake Island Command. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. OCLC 464544704.
  13. ^ Robert J. Cressman, A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Defense of Wake Island, World War II Commemorative Series, ed. Benis M. Frank (Marine Corps Historical Center: Washington, D.C.:1998). Electronic version - accessed 6-10-2006
  14. ^ Lundstrom, John B. (1990). The first team : Pacific naval air combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (1st Naval Institute Press pbk. ed.). Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-471-X. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  15. ^ A MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island Archived May 12, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "Dirk H.R. Spennemann, 8-inch Coastal Defense Guns". Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  17. ^ Scearce, Phil; "Finish Forty and Home", pgs 113-114.
  18. ^ "The 98 Rock". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 2019-01-16.
  19. ^ "Sakaibara Shigematsu | Japanese military officer". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-01-16.
  20. ^ Administration, National Cemetery. "National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific - National Cemetery Administration". Retrieved 2019-01-16.


  • Burton. Fortnight of Infamy: The Collapse of Allied Airpower West of Pearl Harbor. US Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-096-X.
  • Devereux, Colonel James P.S. (1997) [First published 1947]. The story of Wake Island. Nashville: Battery Press. ISBN 0-89839-264-0.
  • Dull, Paul (2007). A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941-1945. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1591142199.
  • Sloan, Bill (2003). Given up for dead : America's heroic stand at Wake Island. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-80302-6.
  • Uwrin, Gregory J.W. (1997). Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-9562-6.

Further readingEdit

  • Dennis, Jim Moran (2011). Wake Island 1941 : a battle to make the gods weep. Osprey Campaign Series. 144. Illustrated by Peter Dennis. Oxford: Osprey Pub. ISBN 978-1-84908-603-5.
  • Urwin, Gregory J.W. (2010). Victory in defeat : the Wake Island defenders in captivity, 1941-1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-899-9.

External linksEdit