— the defense of Wake Island by a handful of
United States Marines, Sailors, Soldiers,
and civilians against an invasion fleet
of the Imperial Japanese Navy in December, 1941.
Wake Island is a small atoll in the North Pacific — historically, very sparsely inhabited.
Today, the island is without any obvious intrinsic value to anyone, except as a refueling stop for the United States Air Force.
Back in the 1930’s the US Navy had built an airstrip and a base there, and used the base for reconnaissance and rescue —
The airline Pan American had made Wake Island one of the stops on it’s “Clipper” service, starting in 1935 —
But on December 7, 1941– the day that the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of Japan, things were also hotting up for the people stationed on tiny Wake Island.
Of the Americans on Wake, about 450 were United States Marines, 68 U.S. Navy Sailors, — the rest were civilian contractors working either for Pan Am, or the Morrison Knudson Company- a construction company building a seaplane base, submarine base and dredging a sub channel into the lagoon .
It was only hours after they heard about the attack on Hawaii, that the folks on Wake were under attack themselves.
27 Japanese G-3-M Mitsubishi “Nell” Bombers screamed in from the West, almost immediately destroying 8 of the 12 Marine F4 Wildcat fighters while still on the ground.
But the people on Wake had no illusions as to the direness of their situation.
Wake was suddenly a very important spot —
it’s geographical position made it ideal for
support of the Japanese effort to bring the entire Pacific under it’s control.
The Japanese could not overlook the advantages to taking the island, and wouldn’t.
But not without a fight —
and the Marines, Sailors,
and even the civilians, were gonna give em one.
For the next three days, the Japanese bombers kept up the pressure, trying to soften up the little island’s defenses for an invasion the Marines knew would be coming.
Early on December 11, Japanese Naval units of the “South Seas Force” attempted a landing using 6 destroyers, 3 light cruisers, several patrol boats and two transport ships with about 450 Japanese Marines aboard.
To the Japanese, the success of their invasion might have seemed a foregone conclusion.
The US Marines had a surprise for the attacking force, though–
They opened fire with six 5-inch 51 caliber artillery guns they’d been keeping under cover — and blasted two gaping holes in the side of the destroyer “Hayate” which was only about 4000 yards from shore — the defenders watched as the ship took only two minutes to sink to the bottom.
Heavy machine guns and artillery seriously damaged a number of the Japanese ships, scoring 11 individual hits on the superstructure of the cruiser “Yubari” — and causing the invading force to withdraw without being able to land.
One of the most famous quotes of the war comes from this attack —
The Commander of the U.S. forces on the island, US Navy Commander Winfield S. Cunningham , was asked about what reinforcements and supplies he needed, is said to have radioed back:
” Send us more Japs ” .
Actually, he had also asked for everything else from bullets to blankets, because the island was simply running out — but it’s that one part of the message that is best remembered– maybe because no supplies or reinforcements, bullets, or blankets, would be forthcoming.
Originally, a plan had been worked up to try to save the island and it’s defenders…..
The United States Navy could ill afford at that point, only 10 days after Pearl Harbor, to lose any more ships.
So the brave, embattled defenders at Wake Island were on their own.
In the meantime, the Japanese Imperial Navy had sent in two carriers — ‘Hiryu‘ and ‘Soryu‘.
Aerial attacks increased dramatically.
Damage to the Island’s defenses weakened still further.
On December 23, more ships, more men, and a more determined Japanese enemy attacked again—
A last desperate message about the defenders status was sent to headquarters —
They were just about out of food, water, and ammo —
… and a large Japanese force finally forced a landing on the far side of the island —
They lost two landing craft, over 800 men, and more aircraft, but after about 18 hours of fighting, the Japanese were able to capture the island and it’s defenders.
The tale should end there —
One military objective in a war, fought over by soldiers and sailors on both sides, with bravery and honor displayed on both sides.
But it didn’t .
The Japanese felt humilated —
Japanese Naval Commander Mistake Kumara later wrote that: “Considering the power accumulated for the invasion and the meager forces of the defenders, it was the most humiliating defeat the Japanese Navy ever suffered.”
The large Japanese force had lost face, and they wanted revenge.
Only the arrival of the Japanese Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka stayed the execution.
When the Marines were told: “The Emperor has gracefully presented you with your lives “,
……… one of the Marines shot back:
” Well, thank the son of a bitch for us ” .
They were eventually transported to POW camps in China, where many perished under the most inhumane conditions.
The 98 remaining civilians did not fare any better….. worse.
They remained on Wake Island, as slave labor, until 1943, when, under the orders of Japanese Commander Sakaibara, angry over a recent US air attack, they were executed in cold blood.
On the early evening of October 7, 1943, Lieutenant Torashi Ito was ordered to have the Americans lined up, bound, blindfolded and seated along the ditch facing the sea…
Three platoons of Japanese soldiers then opened fire with rifle and machine guns…..
A witness, a Korean laborer later testified what happened next: ” All prisoners, both dead and wounded were bayoneted. ”
The bodies were hastily buried in shallow graves on the beach.
The brutal and dishonorable execution of the civilian defenders of Wake weighed heavily upon a number of the officers
serving under Sakaibara, and several committed ritual suicide over it,
while implicating Sakaibara.
He was later hung as a war criminal.
On the island today, near the spot of the massacre,
………………. a certain rock sits overlooking the sea…
There is a plaque there,
on that piece of coral rock,
where an unknown man,
who had managed to escape the Japanese execution
for a few hours, had scrawled upon it-
” 98 US PW 5-10-43 ”
But his bravery,
…. and the bravery of all those who fought
off the overwhelming Japanese invasion force
for so long, with so little —
……………. should always be remembered.
As a collective memorial to those men , we say:
Semper Fi !!!!