Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Wake Island, Battle for (8–23 December 1941)

Early Pacific Theater battle. Strategically located in the Central Pacific, Wake Island—which is actually an island group—had been a U.S. possession since 1899. Approximately 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, it is composed of three islets: Wake, Peale, and Wilkes. This otherwise insignificant spit of coral served as a refueling stop for the Pan American Airways Clipper Service, but it gained strategic importance as war loomed between the United States and Japan. Both sides recognized the value of Wake Island as a base for reconnaissance operations, but the United States did not begin fortifying it until 1941.

In January of that year, the first of more than 1,000 workers arrived to begin converting Wake Island into a naval air station. They were followed by the 500 men of the U.S. Marine Corps's 1st Defense Battalion, commanded by Major James P. S. Devereux. To assist in the defense of the island, this unit brought with it 6 5-inch naval guns, 12 3-inch antiaircraft guns, and numerous .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. On 28 November, Commander Winfield S. Cunningham arrived to assume command. On 4 December, 12 F-4F-3 Wildcats of VMF 211 flew off the carrier Enterprise and landed at the partially completed airstrip on Wake.

On 8 December (7 December Hawaiian time), the defenders were notified that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. As the Marines went to general quarters, Pan American Airways prepared their passengers and personnel for evacuation. At 11:58 a.m., however, 18 Japanese land-based bombers from the Marshalls struck the island, destroying 8 Wildcats on the ground and damaging the 3-inch batteries and fire-control equipment of a 5-inch battery. Although riddled by Japanese machine-gun bullets, the Pan American Clipper resting in the lagoon was otherwise undamaged, and it took off with a capacity load of civilians that afternoon. Japanese air attacks continued for two more days.

Convinced that the defenses on Wake Island had been sufficiently reduced, a Japanese invasion force arrived on 11 December. The force consisted of three light cruisers, six destroyers, four transports, and 450 troops of the Special Naval Landing Force (Japanese marines). The defenders held their fire until the Japanese were in point-blank range. After a short, sharp fight, the Japanese withdrew—but not before the defending U.S. Marines had sunk two Japanese destroyers and damaged other ships.

On 23 December, the Japanese returned with a larger invasion and support force including the aircraft carriers Hiryu and Soryu, which had participated in the Pearl Harbor raid. Superior Japanese numbers overwhelmed the defenders before a relief force—en route from Pearl Harbor and centered on the carrier Saratoga, three cruisers, and nine destroyers—could arrive. The defenders held out for 11 hours before Commander Cunningham ordered Major Devereux to surrender the island. All defenders, save 100 civilians, were sent to prison camps. The Japanese put the remainder to work finishing the air station. They were executed in October 1943 (the Japanese commander was later tried on war crimes' charges and executed). The heroic Marine defense of Wake Island provided a boost to American morale during the early days of the U.S. involvement in World War II.

M. R. Pierce


Further Reading
Cohen, Stan. Enemy on Island, Issue in Doubt: The Capture of Wake Island, December 1941. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing, 1983.; Cressman, Robert J. The Battle for Wake Island: A Magnificent Fight. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.; Kinney, John F., and James M. McCaffrey. Wake Island Pilot: A World War II Memoir. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1995.; Schultz, Duane. Wake Island: The Heroic, Gallant Fight. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978.; Urwin, Gregory J. W. Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
 

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