On December 8, 1941, the US garrison on Wake Island awoke to news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japan’s destruction of the US Pacific Fleet meant Wake Island was on its own against Japan’s advance across the Pacific.
The garrison surrendered after a 16-day battle, but their resistance gave the US Navy breathing room and became a rallying cry for Americans.
Early on December 8, 1941, an American radio technician on Wake Island opened daily communications with the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor, located on the other side of the international date line.
The initial transmissions were unintelligible. Follow-up attempts revealed shocking and devastating news: Pearl Harbor was under attack by Japanese planes, and the US Pacific Fleet was crippled.
Within minutes, Wake Island’s garrison of just 449 Marines rushed to their defensive positions, and four of the 12 Marine Corps F4F-3 Wildcat fighters on the island took off to patrol the area.
Hours later, 36 Japanese G3M medium bombers appeared overhead and began their bombing runs. In seven minutes, they destroyed the remaining eight Wildcats, a number of buildings, and killed 45 Marines and civilian workers.
The war with Japan was now in full swing, and the defenders of Wake would fight a 16-day battle that turned the small island into the Alamo of the Pacific.
An underprepared garrison
The garrison at Wake was relatively new. In 1935, the island was a tourist destination run by Pan American Airways. But Japanese actions in China and Southeast Asia made the US increasingly worried that Tokyo would go after the Pacific territories of the US and other European countries.
Wake was suddenly considered an important forward base. In January 1941, construction of military installations began. A month later, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8682, making Wake and other islands “defensive sea areas.” By August, the first Marines arrived.
By the time of the attack, Wake’s garrison included 449 Marines, 75 Navy and Army personnel, and 1,146 civilian contractors. Twelve anti-air guns and six 5-inch coastal artillery guns made up the defenses.
But the island’s commanders believed at least another 1,000 Marines were needed to counter an attack. Wake also had no radar installations, which meant it couldn’t detect or track Japanese movements.
Japan’s first tactical defeat
The fight for Wake began in the sky. Japanese bombers, operating from the Marshall Islands some 600 miles away, flew countless missions for three days.
The remaining four Wildcats put up stubborn resistance, with one Marine, Capt. Henry T. Elrod, single-handedly attacking a flight of 22 Japanese bombers, shooting down two.
On December 11, three Japanese light cruisers, six destroyers, and two troop transports arrived south of the island, intent on landing an invasion force. Their commander, Rear Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka, was encouraged by reports from his pilots, who said Wake’s defenses were destroyed and its garrison thrashed.
Kajioka was so confident that he conducted his mission without air cover.
In fact, the six coastal artillery guns were untouched. They waited until the ships were just 4,000 yards away before they opened fire in an intense barrage. In 12 minutes, they hit Kajioka’s flagship 11 times, sunk the destroyer Hayate -killing all but one of its 148-man crew – and damaged three other ships.
Kajioka ordered his force to withdraw. As the ships sailed away, the remaining Wildcats pounced. In a daring strafing attack, Elrod sunk the destroyer Kisaragi with bombs that detonated the ship’s depth charges, setting off a chain reaction.
It was the first tactical defeat for the Japanese, who lost about 300 dead and two destroyers – the first Japanese ships sunk in the war.
A second landing
The victory was only temporary. For the next 12 days, Wake was subject to an intense bombing campaign. The Navy sent the carrier USS Saratoga and its escorts as a relief force from Pearl Harbor on December 16, but by December 22 it was still 500 miles away.
The Japanese, on the other hand, were committed to taking Wake. The invasion force was supplemented by additional cruisers, destroyers, and the fleet carriers Sōryū and Hiryū, which had taken part in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
At 2:35 a.m. on December 23, a second invasion force arrived. Two destroyers converted into troop transports were intentionally beached so they could offload hundreds of soldiers. They were followed by other landing craft. Fierce combat erupted across the island as Marines and some civilian workers attempted to drive the Japanese back.
Elrod, his plane now destroyed, fought on one of the beaches before being mortally wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The defenders mounted some successful counterattacks, but the sheer number of Japanese soldiers was overwhelming.
The commander of the Wake garrison, Cmdr. Winfield S. Cunningham, informed his superiors in Pearl about the situation. Worried that they could lose the few ships they had left, the relief force was recalled, causing considerable outrage on the Saratoga, especially among the Marines on board.
By the end of the day, Wake’s defenders had surrendered.
A rallying cry
The Americans lost 52 Marine and Navy personnel and 70 civilians; another 57 were wounded. All 12 Wildcats were destroyed, and over 1,500 Americans were taken prisoner.
But the Japanese paid a high price; about 1,000 are believed to have been killed and an unknown number wounded. Twenty-one of Japan’s aircraft were shot down, and it lost four ships, including two destroyers sunk.
The defense of Wake became a rallying cry for the American public. The defenders had inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese and forced Tokyo to stretch out its forces, buying time for the Pacific Fleet to regroup and rearm.
With the exception of periodic naval bombardments and small air raids, Wake did not see any large-scale action after 1941.
The Japanese left a garrison of more than 4,000 troops on the island, but the US chose to blockade and bypass it. Fearing a US attack in late 1943, the Japanese commander, Capt. Shigematsu Sakaibara, ordered the execution 98 prisoners of war who remained on the island.
The Japanese finally surrendered the island on September 4, 1945, two days after Japan’s formal surrender to the Allies. For his role in the executions, Sakaibara was sentenced to death after the war.
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