Did the Brave Marines At This Lonely Outpost Delay Imperial Japan's Advance By More than a Month?
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Crucial point: The Wake Island marines lasted longer than expected for weeks and gave America the necessary moral boost.
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In mid-December 1941, the 400 U.S. Marines calling Wake Island Outpost at home stood as a lone sentry in the Central Pacific watery wilderness like a cavalry fort in an oceanic version of the western border.
When the Japanese juggernaut spread the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Greater East Asia to the remotest areas of the Pacific Ocean, most of the American Pacific battle fleet, the backbone of the nation's power, was resting in the hemisphere, along with nearly 2,000 boys, on the muddy ground by Pearl Harbor American sailors. Marines on Guam and British infantry in Malaya fought unsuccessful actions against swarms of enemy troops. In the Philippines, Japanese bombers destroyed General Douglas MacArthur's air force before it lifted off the ground, and the Japanese infantry forced its troops to a catastrophic retreat towards the Bataan Peninsula.
Continue to the Japanese conquest plan
Hong Kong and Singapore were on the brink of the fall, and the crowning blow - the destruction of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse by Japanese aircraft off Malaya - made British Prime Minister Winston Churchill complain: "Overall, Japan's vast expanse of water was outstanding, and we were weak and naked everywhere. "
Nearly 600 miles - less than two days of steam time or four hours of flight time - from the nearest Japanese base, Wake was the next on Japan's conquest. Wake, a coral atoll with three islands, the highest point of which was barely 20 feet above sea level and whose vegetation consisted of scrubby trees and bush, covered four square miles of the entire land area. But even this tiny property with 10 miles of beach offered too much territory for the tiny garrison to cover. Should the Japanese fall ashore in one of the numerous gaps between arms positions, the Americans would quickly be overrun. A much-needed radar system had not yet arrived.
Major James Devereux, the naval commander, feared that he would not be able to withstand the weakest attacks, and asked his superiors what to do if Wake were actually attacked. He received the unsettling answer: "Do the best you can."
Why should one of the noblest actions of war take place in a tiny Pacific wasteland that's more suitable for rodents than humans? It resulted in the runway that dominated the V-shaped group of three small islands. Control of this runway was critical in the face of deteriorating Japanese-American relations off Pearl Harbor. In US hands, Wake posed a threat to the Japanese defensive wall that spanned the Central Pacific. In Japanese hands, it provided a convenient base for aerial reconnaissance of Hawaii, Midway, and other U.S. properties.
Before the war, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, recognized an opportunity to attack Japan's fleet in the waters off Wake if an invasion force tried to overrun the island's defenders. To keep the enemy in the area, Wake's weak defense had to be strengthened. Kimmel commanded a naval defense battalion below Devereux, and more than a thousand civilian workers gathered at the abandoned outpost to build barracks, level roads, and fortify the island.
Major Devereux comes up
On October 12, 1941, when Major Devereux entered Wake Island, he brought additional reinforcements to join the original group of five officers and 173 teams who had arrived on August 19. A larger naval unit meant increased contact and inevitable friction with the construction workers.
Not that fighting broke out or jealousy subsided. The two groups fit together relatively well because Marine Corporal Franklin D. Gross finally said, "We were Marines and we were disciplined and knew what we should and shouldn't do." But every day the Marines emerged from their Spartan tents, to look out over the lagoon to the more luxurious civil quarters. The civilians feasted while the Marines were eating potatoes. Marines rubbed the obvious differences.
Devereux turned furiously to his task, intending to turn this first line of defense in the Pacific into a bastion that could punish any approaching force. "When Devereux came out, hell broke loose!" Gross explained. “Obviously, he was ordered to bring these weapons in, so we worked seven days a week. Before that I'm not sure if we even worked on Saturday. "
The wiry major, who planned the details so meticulously that a fellow officer said, "He's the guy who puts all the mechanized aircraft detectors into operation and then deploys a man with binoculars in a tall tree," let his men work 12 hours quickly - Days, seven days a week.
Intentions are noble, but they must be supported with men, weapons and supplies, and here Devereux suffered. Congress had provided money to improve wake, but work did not begin until early 1941. The bomb shelters for aircraft were incomplete. Devereux's 3 and 5-inch cannons were impacted by a destroyer, but he commanded enough marines to mate only half of the 24 machine guns that were near Wake. Instead of using radar to warn of an attack, a man with binoculars on an observation post on a water tower served as the island's early warning system.
Securing the Naval Air Station on the island
Communication cables connected various outposts, but since much of it was old and frayed, no one knew how it would stand up to heavy bombardment. In the most extreme situations, where soldiers and marines had little else to fight, they could always rely on using their rifles. Not with wake. At least 75 men were missing weapons because the military had not sent enough to the outpost.
The Devereux air arm provided minimal help. The 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighters arrived four days before the war started. Since the ground teams and aviators had worked with biplanes instead of fighters, they were not familiar with the capabilities of the aircraft. Mechanics rummaged through the boxes with supplies that accompanied the aircraft according to operating instructions, but could not find any. Someone in Pearl Harbor had forgotten to pack them up. Spare parts for the aircraft were practically non-existent, which meant that even minor damage could throw them out of the fighting. In the Pacific border wilderness, a damaged plane was as good as a destroyed plane.
By the end of November 1941, Wake, although far from complete, had been sufficiently strengthened to receive the name of a naval flight station. Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham assumed overall command, Devereux was responsible for the Marines.
Most of the Marines and civilians on Wake believed that if war waged, it would start elsewhere in the Pacific, probably closer to the Philippines or East Asia. When they learned on December 7 that Pearl Harbor had been bombed far behind Wake, they reacted incredulously.
Devereux, expecting to be attacked at any moment, ordered every man to his post. Despite the precautionary measures, the arrival of the war in Wake came just before noon on December 8th (December 7th in Pearl Harbor) quickly and suddenly. Construction worker Hans Whitney looked up at the sky and saw a group of planes heading for Wake. He mistakenly assumed that the planes were American and said to a companion: “Look! Let the Japanese come! We even have bombers now! "
15 seconds in advance
With no radar to warn early, the tiny naval garrison barely had 15 seconds, barely enough time to prepare their anti-aircraft guns and jump into planes. Still, they answered. Gross' position at the east end of Wake, called Peacock Point, had four machine guns. “I was standing on top of my dugout and talking to Colonel Hanna when 18 to 19 planes fell out of a hole in the clouds. I said, "What's in there?" We thought they were B-17 because they had come in the past few months and we were gassing them. Suddenly these bombs fall out and a runner near me started shooting, but we only got out of 18 rounds. Then the planes were gone. "
In that short span of time, the Japanese inflicted severe damage and shock on Wake's Marines. Four naval pilots charged their aircraft to resist the 36 Japanese twin-engined bombers that rocked Wake, but none of them reached his plane. Bomb fragments fatally hit Lieutenant Frank Holden as he sprinted on the runway while Lieutenant Henry G. Webb fell to the stomach and feet with fatal wounds. Lieutenant George Graves got on his plane and was preparing to take off when a direct hit set him on fire. Lieutenant Robert Conderman dodged the bullets that spewed into the coral runway until he reached his plane, and then fragments of bombs ripped into his body. Mitmarines rushed to his aid, but the dying Conderman pointed to other wounded Marines in the area and said, “Let me go. Take care of her."
Benjamin F. Comstock Sr. and his son Benjamin Jr. were working on a two-story steel scaffold building when the Japanese plane suddenly appeared. In an action symbolic of the sacrifices that millions of sons across the country have to make to protect their families, the son quickly grabbed his father, shoved him behind a staircase into the unfinished building, and then covered him with his Body. "The planes were so close you could see the gunner's teeth," recalls Comstock Jr.
Bomb craters 50 feet apart discovered the ground with surgical precision, except for the runway. It remained untouched so that the Japanese could use it after it was conquered. Seven precious wildcat hunters lay in smoldering ruins amidst the lifeless bodies of 23 naval aviation employees. The Japanese blew up petrol storage tanks, tightened the island's Pan American Airways Hotel and provided Pan Am's huge flying passenger boat Philippine Clipper with 23 bullet holes.
As if the injury was worse when the enemy aircraft ended their runs: “The pilots in each of the planes grinned wildly. Everyone wiggled their wings to indicate Banzai, ”said a defender.
A citizen soldiers army gathers
Marines and civilians emerged from foxholes and semi-finished construction projects and quickly looked after the wounded and the dying. Clouds of smoke extinguished the sun and burning debris lay in the landscape, but the men put their thoughts aside and concentrated on the job that was preparing for the inevitable invasion. They repaired disconnected communication lines, camouflaged and sandbagged gun positions, cleared the runway and dug revetments to protect the few remaining planes.
Civilians parked heavy construction equipment on the runway to prevent Japanese landings while a marine lighter was filled with concrete blocks, blown up and anchored in the center of the Wilkes Canal to prevent small boats from entering the lagoon. With little time for burials, the Marines stored the dead civilians and Marines in a large freezer in one of the civilian buildings.
The civilian army, which had contributed to victory in Europe and the Pacific, first appeared in Wake when 200 volunteers dropped their shovels or stepped back from bulldozers to stand side by side with the 400 Marines. They had traveled to Wake for financial reasons not to fire weapons, but when the chips were down, they answered the call of duty like their naval compatriots. Most were sent to under-charged batteries and were given quick instructions on firing the weapons. Hans Whitney was stationed at an anti-aircraft gun, filling sandbags and waiting for another attack.
The concern frayed nerves and exhausted even the strongest men who never knew when Japan's main attack would come. Some believed that the U.S. Navy would leave Pearl Harbor to rescue them, others wondered if this was possible. How badly was it wounded on the first day of the war? Should Wake be sacrificed by a passed out navy or would a rescue worker save her?
In these dangerous days immediately after December 8, Marine Pfc. Verne L. Wallace remembered a letter from his girlfriend at home that he had put in his pocket unread. In a few quiet moments he sat down and looked at the letter. The girl had sent it before December 7th and thought Hitler was the real threat to American soldiers. She wrote: "As long as you have to be away, darling, I am so very, very happy that you are in the Pacific. where you're not in danger when war comes "
Draw in Japanese
The irony of the situation did not escape Wallace, who was sitting in the middle of an ocean controlled by Japan, for the danger came as he read the note. In the early morning hours of December 11, the Japanese began their first attempt to overrun Wake, bolstered by the list of triumphs already under their belt. The Japanese, certain of victory over a group of civilians and a few Marines, entered a trap that Major Devereux had cleverly invented. Devereux outsmarted enemy commander Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka and thought he had surprised Wake. Since the Japanese force had much larger guns than those on Wake, Devereux's only hope was to keep its own fire and lure the enemy ships within range of its smaller 5-inch guns.
Admiral Kajioka carefully led three light cruisers, six destroyers and 450 soldiers in transports and old destroyers to Wake in the flagship Yubari. Optimistic reports from the returning bomber pilots and lack of activity on Wake as his ships approached the island strengthened Kajioka's confidence that taking Wake would be a breeze.
The Japanese discovered lookouts on wake for the first time at 3 a.m. Kajioka swung west as its ships moved within 7000 meters, opened fire at 5:30 a.m. and roamed the island systematically as the flotilla boldly steamed along its coast. When the Japanese ships reached Wake's westernmost point, Kajioka reversed course, closed the distance, and steamed off the coast again with booming cannons. The lack of an American counter-fire convinced Kajioka that he had surprised the enemy.
Marines with two cannon batteries were waiting impatiently for Devereux's command to fire when they saw the enemy grenades approach alarmingly and feel the vibrations of explosions nearby. A noncommissioned officer who occupied Devereux's phone refused to open the fire by shouting, "Hold your fire until the major says his word." A marine dodged mounds that had been cleared of bombs and took hold of: “What does this stupid little bastard want from us? Let's run them over without spitting back? "
Devereux waited coolly for 30 minutes. When the unsuspecting kajioka came up close, he ordered all the batteries to start shooting. Like gunslingers from the wild west staring at their enemies, his gunners, with batteries A, B and L, poured precise volleys into the Japanese ships, which were almost 4,000 meters away. Grenades smashed Japanese hulls and fragments of grenade fell Japanese sailors. The enemy tried to shoot back, but the Marines kept hitting the attacking ships.
The only thing more breathtaking than the cascading naval fire that broke through the darkness was the look of dismay on Kajioka's face when he realized he had been lured into the naval rifles. A first volley screamed over the Yubari, and as the destroyers hurriedly spread smoke to shield the flagship, a second volley spanned the ship. Naval gunners pumped four successive grenades into the unfortunate cruiser, covering one side in fire and smoke.
Three shells from a second battery sent the destroyer Hayate and his 168-man crew to the ground. Marines cheered cheerfully as the ship disappeared under the waves until veteran platoon Sgt. Henry Bedell turned back to business by shouting, "Stop it, you bastards, and get back on your arms! What do you think is this a ball game? "
A humiliating defeat for Admiral Kajioka
When the Marines hit three more destroyers and a transporter, Kajioka ordered his troops to withdraw. Major Paul A. Putnam, commander of Wakes Air Squadron, jumped into the fray. Putnam's wildcats pounced on the retreating Japanese ships in a series of attacks. Captain Henry Freuler damaged a transport while Captain Henry Elrod and Captain Frank Tharin scored hits on the Tenryu and Tatsuta cruisers. Another plane shot at the Yubari with machine guns and hardly missed Admiral Kajioka.
The destroyer Kisaragi, lagging behind the rest of Kajioka's forces, paid the highest price. Her delay in leaving was her doom when a bomb, attributed to Elrod, hit the destroyer's aft deck and ignited the ship's deep attacks. Explosions tore apart the destroyer, which sank within minutes.
Admiral Kajioka suffered a humiliating defeat by an outnumbered enemy. He lost two ships and at least 340 dead and 65 wounded to a naval death. The Japanese hobbled away from the shooting as the United States celebrated its first victory in the war.
The Marines registered three “premieres” at Wake that day. For the first and only time in the war, an invasion of land batteries had been fended off. The first Japanese surface warship had been sunk. Most importantly, for the first time since the beginning of the war, the Japanese had been stopped from reaching their goal.
Wake's defenders burst out with joy, draining water from each other and behaving like students. Cunningham later compared the celebration to a “brotherhood picnic”. The joy of war split the air. In the event of late arrival, warm beer was sprayed regardless of rank. "At the end of the day, the radio operator from Devereux said," It was quite a day, major, wasn't it? "
"MARINES KEEP AWAKE"
But her reaction was nothing compared to the reaction at home when victorious civilians still shocked by Pearl Harbor received the news with exhilaration. People had already started wondering where the US Navy was since it hadn't appeared since the December 7 debacle, but they at least knew where the US Marines were - on a tiny Pacific spot, on which American forces fended off the apparently invincible Japanese. The headlines proudly proclaimed "MARINES KEEP WAKE" and compared his brave defense with the brave stance in the Alamo.
You have taken the news of Wake's heroic stance to heart because if such a small garrison could do so well on a barren island, what could the Japanese expect if the United States sent their huge, well-supplied armies into conflict? The Americans finally had something to cheer for, and although they hated to think of loved ones being killed or wounded, they knew that once their sons were organized and marched to war, the momentum in the United States would fluctuate .
Immediately after the battle, a Japanese naval officer evaluated Kajioka's performance against the Wake garrison. He concluded that Wake was "one of the most humiliating defeats our navy has ever suffered".
Wakes defenders had taken round 1. Round 2 was about to start.
Every Marine on Wake knew that the Japanese would return for a second attack, this time with enough men and ships to avoid another setback. The only question was when the attack would take place. The Pacific quickly turned into a Japanese ocean. Japan's only challenges came from a weakened U.S. Navy and wake. Every day the garrison became more isolated from the rest of the world.
"The foggy blur of days and nights when time stopped"
Over the next 12 days, the men who were already tired of the war became spectral from constant vigilance and daily Japanese air strikes. Without knowing when an invasion force could suddenly appear off the coast, Marines and a handful of civilians had to stay at their gun positions around the clock, where hot food and the opportunity to relax were luxuries from a past that had disappeared. No man could take a break for more than a few moments because the daily waves of fighters and bombers gave them little rest from the fighting conditions. Exhausted men emerged like vending machines after each raid, hastily repairing what they could, removing the wounded and dead, and preparing for the next wave of bombs. Diarrhea affected many. The island's giant native rats - hit by the bombing raids - swarmed in shelters and fox holes, while countless dead birds had to be buried for hygiene purposes. The supplies decreased with every raid.
Devereux called this time the "foggy blur of days and nights when time stopped" when men asked for laughter and a decent night's sleep. “The days blurred in a bleak equality of bombing and endless work and always the painful need for sleep. I saw men standing with their eyes open and not staring at anything, and they didn't hear me when I spoke to them. “The only thing that mattered was survival.
Marines and civilians rose from their shelters after every bomb attack, looked around for the new devastation and gave a small smile. "It was like a big weight lift from your chest," Devereux wrote. "You wouldn't die today."
Civilians continue to interfere
During these weary days of nerve-wracking bombings, the men on Wake showed remarkable resilience and self-sufficiency. They followed the old marine saying that "maybe you should get more, maybe you will get more, but all you can rely on is what you already have." Devereux outsmarted his opponents by moving the anti-aircraft guns almost every night. He rightly assumed that the Japanese bombers would mark the gun emplacements for subsequent attacks and ordered his weary marines to move the guns after each raid. The next attack usually dropped bombs on the abandoned positions.
The ship mechanics worked wonders to keep the four remaining fighters in the air, swap engines from one plane to another, dismantle crashed planes for parts to build a hybrid version, and even a precious engine from a still-burning plane pull.
Some civilians added their own contributions. Dan Teters, a World War I veteran, organized a delivery system that brought groceries to the men at their posts. The recognized Marines affectionately referred to it as "Dan Teters' Catering Service". In the absence of a military chaplain, a Mormon lay preacher named John O'Neal visited Foxholes or comforted the wounded. Others carried ammunition to gun positions. Earl Row's turn was the night patrols, a duty he described as "the most hair-raising thing I've ever done in my life." Row fought a mix of fear and fatigue and imagined lifelike shapes in every rock, but he kept reminding himself not to shoot what he hoped was just an illusion.
Teters excused 186 men to fight the Marines while they were on the payroll of Morrison-Knudsen, the civilian contractor who hired them, and over 400 civilians - the "citizen soldiers" of 1941 - ultimately helped in the one form or another.
In the meantime, the citizens at home were watching the wake saga closely. Men blocked operations centers to join the military, including five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, named Sullivan, who later died on the same battered ship off Guadalcanal. In its December 22 issue, TIME magazine trumpeted Wakes' accomplishments, stating, “They have been there since the first day of the war, knocking off attacks after the Japanese attacked, shooting down his planes, sinking his surface ships, and likely knocking the stains off his landing groups . "
"Send us more Japs"
Then came one of those moments that brought Wake to heights that reached few battles and contributed to the legend that was forming. In the TIME magazine of December 29, 1941, it says: “The small group of professionals on Wake Island came with an ill-considered defiant message that was formulated for the story. Wakes Marines were asked over the radio what they needed. The answer made old marines' chests grow under their campaign bars: "Send us more Japanese."
The sentence was exactly the tonic a country needs that is tired of defeat. Patriotic pride and enthusiasm bubbled over the words that Devereux allegedly said when Pearl Harbor asked what they could do for him.
In fact, these words had never been spoken. They were simply added as padding on both ends of a coded radio transmission to confuse Japanese cryptanalysts. Someone in Pearl Harbor extracted the sentence and turned it into the national assembly cry it became. After the war, American citizens learned that Devereux had never used the words, but by then the effects had long had an effect.
While citizens of the United States cheered the sentence, Marines on Wake mocked when they learned of the incident. "We heard about the quote" Send us more Japanese "when we were on Wake," explains Private Ewing E. Laporte. "We didn't like it at all." The last thing a marine wanted was more of the enemy.
What they needed were more planes. On December 22, the last two fighters were destroyed in the fight. After their aerial screen disappeared, the Marines became the only line of defense. With no ships, no planes, no relief, the Marines stood in the middle of the Pacific, surrounded by an enemy burning to take revenge for December 11th.
Hold on for a few more days
Marine Corporal Ralph Holewinski wondered how he and his friends would reject a well-equipped Japanese task force behind the sandbags of his hastily crafted gun position. In the films he saw at home, the good guys always won. But at that moment he wondered, "Where's the cavalry now?"
Hopes that the Navy would take turns to rescue them rose sharply these 12 days. Every time the cycle unfolded without help, the feeling of isolation wake gripped tighter.
Wakes Marines expected the Navy to come to their aid. After all, that's what other soldiers do. Commander Cunningham wrote: “We felt good, almost overconfident. Help would surely come from Pearl Harbor every day now, and in the meantime we could wait. "
In fact, at Pearl Harbor, Kimmel had already prepared a bold plan to relieve Wake, who was concentrating on the Saratoga aircraft carrier. After December 7, however, Kimmel was quickly replaced by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
Vice-Adm held until Nimitz arrived from Washington. William S. Pye, a man as cautious as Kimmel dared to hold the reins. Fearing to lose even more of the battered Pacific fleet before Nimitz took command, Pye acted with reluctance to do anything that might endanger the ships.
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