Friday, December 23, 2011

Anniversary of the Fall of Wake Island

Wake Island (1942)
Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Mitsubishi G3M medium bombers descended upon Wake Island. The “Island” was actually a strategically located group of islets under American administration in the central Pacific. Civil workers were constructing a U.S. Navy and Pam Am managed a hotel and a dock for its trans-Pacific flying boat. The next day a small armada of Japanese ships proceeded to shell the island and a landing was attempted.

For the next 16 days, until December 23, the small Marine garrison with the help of unprepared civilians stationed at Wake held off the Japanese invaders.

Often referred to as the Alamo of the Pacific, the battle is legend among the Marines. It was the only time during the Pacific War that a Japanese amphibious assault was repelled. The Wake Island Marines that December also offered the first sustained resistance to the Japanese juggernaut that had swept through the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. The battle was a rare example of success in the War's early months.

Throughout 1941, the U.S. Navy was constructing a base on Wake Island with civilian contractors from the Boise, Idaho firm of Morrison-Knudsen. Unfortunately, it was incomplete when the Japanese attacked in December. The first permanent military garrison, just under 400 men from the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, had arrived on August 19 commanded by Major James P.S. Devereux. The airfield was ready to take aircraft by December, and on December 4th, 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats from Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-211 arrived on Wake.

Marine Command Post
Naval Commander W.S. Cunningham had 449 Marines (including pilots), 68 U.S. Navy personnel, five Army Air Force Communications experts, 1,221 civilian workers from the Morrison-Knudsen Company, and 45 Chamorro men who worked for Pam Am to resist any Japanese attack. With the exception of the Marines, all were without arms or field equipment. Commander Cunningham had only reported for duty on November 28, 1941 as Officer in Charge, All Naval Activities, Wake Island.

The Japanese invasion force led by Rear Admiral Kajioka Sadamichi consisted of the light cruiser Yubari (flagship), six destroyers--Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Yayoi, Mochizuki, Oite, and Hayate--along with Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33 (two ex-destroyers, each reconfigured in 1941 to launch a landing craft over a stern ramp) and two armed merchantmen, Kongo Maru and Kinryu Maru. To provide additional gunfire support the light cruisers Tatsuta and Tenryu joined the force. 

In the initial attack seven of the 12 Wildcat fighters were destroyed on the ground. However, the stationary naval battery was successful in sinking two Japanese destroyers (Hayate and Kisaragi) and damaging several other ships including the flagship Yubari. The remaining Wildcat fighters and the Marine’s beach defenses drove off the landing attempt.

Although the small U.S. force on the island repulsed the initial landing attempt, they were in serious need of additional supplies and support—which would never come. However, the Japanese would and did. On December 23rd, Rear Admiral Abe Koki's two fleet destroyers (Hiryu and Soryu) supported by heavy cruisers and destroyers (on the way back from Pearl Harbor) attacked. This second assault on Wake was successful.

American casualties numbered 52 military personnel (Navy and Marine) and approximately 70 civilians killed (including 10 Chamorros). Japanese losses exceeded 800 dead, with some estimates ranging as high as 1,000. Wake's defenders sank two Japanese destroyers and one submarine, and shot down 24 Japanese aircraft.

The Japanese took 368 Marine, 60 Navy, 5 Army, and 1,104 civilian personnel (including 35 Chamorros) prisoner after the surrender of Wake. Seventeen of the military prisoners died during their captivity, including 2 Marines and 3 sailors who were beheaded and thrown overboard from the Nitta Maru, en route from Yokohama to the POW camp near Shanghai. In Shanghai, two Chamorros were murdered. One hundred-eighty of the civilian prisoners died during their captivity, including 98 murdered on Wake in October of 1943. [It is difficult to confirm these numbers and I welcome documented corrections.]

Those Wake Island Defenders who were not sent to prisons in China became slave laborers throughout the Empire. Twice during his captivity in China, Commander Cunningham attempted to escape only to be recaptured. Major Devereux ended up in Hokkaido at the Hakodate #4, Nishi-Ashibetsu POW camp where after the war ended he was treated to a farewell dinner by nervous officials of the Mitsui Mining Company at the local Mitsui Company Clubhouse (See Here).

Soto Dam After 2010 Memorial
 Rededication Ceremony
Others, including all the Chamorros were at Sendai #11 Kamikita near Misawa. They were slave laborers for Nippon Kogyo (Nippon Mining, today’s JX Nippon Mining & Metals) working in an open pit iron mine. Of the civilian contractors, 265 were sent to build the Soto Dam at Sasebo where 53 died. The U.S. Navy holds an annual memorial to these men as the dam is near the Sasebo Naval Base. Former U.S. Navy journalist Phil Eakins successfully researched the names of the fallen and succeeded in 2010 to have a bronze plaque dedicated to them at the memorial.

Many started their stay in Japan at Tokyo 5D Kawasaki as slave laborers for Nihon Kokan (NKK Steel which is today’s JFE Holdings) stripping boats at a Mitsui dockyard (See POW Merchant Seaman David Wilson's memoir). And many ended up in the infamous Naoetsu in Niigata where Louis Zamperini immortalized by Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken was continually and capriciously tortured. POWs were slave laborers for Shinetsu Chemical and Nippon Stainless.

Battle of Wake Island Memorial
Dedication December 7, 2011
Earlier this month, on December 7th, a monument to the Wake Island Defenders was dedicated in Boise, Idaho’s Veterans Memorial Park. It was the inspiration of Eagle Scout candidate Noah Barnes whose great-grandfather was one of the Morrison-Knudsen contractors who died building the Soto Dam. It was not until 1981 that the civilian workers on Wake were granted military veterans status under the U.S. Air Force. The Chamorros were granted military veterans status in 1982 under the U.S. Navy.

A new documentary on the Battle of Wake Island is in the works. The heroism and spirit of Wake will not be forgotten.

Major Devereux returned to home (video of Devereux returning to Washington) and soon ran for Congress where he represented Maryland's Second District for most of the 1950s. The District's current congressman, Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) is not yet a co-sponsor of H. Res. 333, which honors the Wake Island defenders who became POWs of Japan.

Boise, Idaho's Congressman Raúl Labrador (R-ID) is also not yet a co-sponsor of H. Res. 333. Veterans are not listed among Mr. Labrador's "Featured Issues" on his congressional website. No effort was made by Congress to honor the 70th anniversary of the Wake Island defense.


  1. What was the name of the Japanese ship that was beached off the runway. I was there in 1963 and saw it but never knew the name.
    Bob Pegram

    1. The rusting hulk was the Japanese supply ship Suwa Maru, which eventually succumbed to the tides and corrosion.

  2. Hi,
    Our family is trying to find out which POW camp William Howard Long was in. He died 15 December 1942 and is listed as "Civilian Wake Island" Naval Air Station:

  3. My father in law was a Wake civvie constructor. His name George Schmaljohn. He was sent to 2 Japanese POW camps. He saw attrocities and kindness fm military and civilians. He was subjected to torture. In 2001, he was issued a Purple Heart. He passed away in 2008. His was tougher than I can even fathom. RIP, George.

  4. my father in law was a civvie constructor on Wake. He was in 2 Japanese POW camps. He saw attrocities and kindness fm military and civilians. He was tortured himself. He received the Purple Heart in 2001. He passed away in 2008. He was an honest, humble working class guy.


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