Wake Island was an American outpost in the central Pacific. Wake is a coral atoll, made up of three islands. Wake Island itself is the largest, and forms two sides of a triangle. Peale Island and Wilkes Island extend the two arms of Wake Island. The three islands are tiny – only 2.5 square miles in area, but their location in the central Pacific gave them a strategic significance far beyond their size. The Marshall Islands to the south and most of the Mariana Islands to the west had been in Japanese hands since the First World War, when they seized them from the Germans.
It had been annexed by the United States on 17 January 1899, but did not gain its first permanent settlement until 1935, when Pan American Airways built a small village and a hotel to service their flying boats. Wake Island became one link in Pan American’s China Clipper route, between Midway and Guam.
As tension rose in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy decided to construct a base on Wake Island. Work started in January 1941, but was incomplete when the Japanese attacked. Despite this, the first permanent garrison, just under 400 men from the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, arrived on 19 August. The airfield was ready to take aircraft by December, and on 4 December twelve Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats from Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-211 arrived on Wake. The air base was usable but not complete. There were no revetments to protect the aircraft from bombs. The island’s radar was still at Pearl Harbor. Commander W.S. Cunningham had 449 Marines (including pilots) to resist any Japanese attack.
His first problem was that Wake Island was within range of Japanese bombers based in the Marshall Islands. The Japanese plan took advantage of that, using land based bombers to support a small naval force (no battleships or carriers were involved) carrying just under 500 invasion troops. This fleet left Roi, in the Marshall islands, on 9 December, the day after the first bombing raid against the island.
That raid struck on 8 December, the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake is on the other side of the international date line, so the date is one day ahead of that on Hawaii). The garrison of Wake Island had received a warning from Pearl Harbor at 6.50 am. Lacking radar, it was decided to keep four of the Wildcats in the air. This saved them from destruction. At noon thirty six Mitsubishi G3M medium bombers attacked the airfield. Visibility was poor, and the four Wildcats in the air failed to spot the Japanese aircraft. Seven of the eight Wildcats on the ground were destroyed. VMF-211 lost 23 men dead and 11 wounded. No Japanese aircraft were lost. The next day a second, smaller, bombing raid met with less luck, losing two aircraft in combat with four Wildcats. The island was subjected to almost daily air raids for the rest of the battle.
The Japanese invasion fleet, under Admiral Kajioka, arrived off Wake Island early on 11 December. The attack went disastrously wrong. Despite the air raids, Wake Island still had teeth. A gun battery at Peacock Point on Wake Island scored direct hits on the Yubari, Admiral Kajioka’s flagship, forcing it to withdraw from the bombardment. Another battery on Wilkes Island did even better, destroying a Japanese destroyer, the Hayate, the first Japanese warship to be sunk by the Americans. Admiral Kajioka decided to withdraw. Before his force could escape, the remaining Wildcats launched an attack on his fleet. Two cruisers were destroyed, and a second destroyer, the Kisaragi, destroyed by a direct hit on depth charges stored on her deck. The Japanese had lost around 700 men. The naval bombardment of Wake had only caused four American casualties, none fatal. However, two of the four airworthy Wildcats were forced to crash land. Only two were left.
Wake was not left entirely to its fate. A relief force, led Admiral "Black Jack" Fletcher on the U.S.S. Saratoga, had been dispatched from Hawaii. However, its progress was slow. On 22 December the force was still 515 miles from Wake Island, and then had to spend a day refuelling. The next day the second Japanese invasion fleet reached Wake. The relief force was ordered back to Pearl Harbor.
This was a much more powerful force. Admiral Kajioka had been reinforced with two fleet carriers, the Soryu and the Hiryu. This meant that the attack would have fighter cover. The invasion force was now over 1,500 men strong. Two old destroyers were to be beached on Wake to allow the troops to land.
On 22 December the last two Wildcats were lost in combat with Zeros from the carriers (one in combat, one had to crash land due to damage suffered). During the entire battle, the Wildcats had shot down at least 20 Japanese aircraft, mostly land based bombers, but including at least two Zeros.
Before dawn on 23 December, the second Japanese attack went in. The two destroyers ran aground, and although one was destroyed by gunfire, by dawn 1,000 Japanese soldiers had landed. They quickly occupied the southern wing of the island, capturing the now-useless airfield. The situation was clearly hopeless. The marine commander, Major James Devereux, was now isolated on the northern part of Wake Island, and outnumbered by at least two to one (probably by more). With no hope of victory, Cunningham was forced to surrender.
Wake Island remained in Japanese hands for the rest of the war. The garrison finally surrendered on 4 September 1945. During the war they had been subjected to frequent bombing raids, and had been blockaded since 1944.
The first Japanese attack on Wake Island was the only amphibious attack to be repulsed by shore based guns during the Second World War. Even if the Japanese had landed, they were at best equal to the Marines in numbers and may well have been repulsed. The second invasion was on a much larger scale, and demonstrated how vulnerable the isolated American islands were in the Pacific. However, the Marine garrison had offered the first sustained resistance to the Japanese whirlwind that swept through the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. They offered a rare example of success, which was a great boost to Allied morale in the dark days of early 1942.