Remember Wake Island!

by Lieut John W Thomason III
Lieutenant Thomason. assigned by Brig Gen Robert L Denig, USMC, to write this special feature for Flying, has spent many years in what now is the Pacific war zone. He knew many of the heroic Marines of whom he here writes. He is the son of Col John W Thomason, Jr, USMC, author of Jeb Stuart and other noted books on fighting men.

This official US Marine Corps summation of the siege of Wake Island reveals how a handful of men and a few planes fought off overwhelming hordes of Jap bombers and ships for two weeks.

Aviation facilities on Wake Island during November, 1941, consisted of an adequate seaplane runway (a dredged-out channel), one complete landplane runway and quantities of aviation fuel and oil. The landplane runway extended across that southeast corner of Wake Island which terminates in Peacock Point. One of three planned, this strip was about 200 feet wide by 5,000 feet long. Up until December 20, when the last detailed information from Wake was brought from the island by Maj Walter Bayler, the runway had received no hits, although there were several bomb craters at its edges. Whether the Japanese spared it on purpose or simply missed it is unknown, but in view of the reports from other areas telling of the care with which Axis pilots have spared roadways, the point is interesting.

It was planned to base a squadron of Marine fighters on the island as soon as the planes could be accommodated and, late in November, 1941, a force of two officers and 47 enlisted men, drawn from the complements of various Marine aviation units in the Hawaiian area, arrived at Wake Island. Major Bayler commanded this advance ground force, although his particular mission was the establishment of radio facilities for ground-air communication. His second in command was in charge of setting up general maintenance facilities for a squadron of fighters.

This maintenance force immediately went about the job of setting up shops and offices necessary for the functioning of a squadron of fighters. These structures were dispersed along the southern edge of the runway.

In the first week of December, 12 Marine Corps fighters, single-seated Grumman Wildcats (F4F-3) under Maj Paul Albert Putnam, arrived at Wake Island, having been transported to within fighter plane distance of the island by an aircraft carrier. Pilots of these planes were Major Putnam, nine commissioned pilots and two enlisted pilots.

Writing to a friend the night before he took off for Wake, Major Putnam said: "He (the admiral in command of the task force of which the carrier was a part) made it plain to me that nothing should be overlooked nor any trouble spared in order that I get ashore with 12 airplanes in as near perfect condition as possible … and … all hands aboard have continually vied with each other to see who could do the most for me. I feel a bit like the fatted calf being groomed for whatever it is that happens to fatted calves, but it surely is nice while it lasts and the airplanes are pretty and sleek, too."

Major Putnam reported to Comm Winfield S Cunningham, the senior Naval aviator at Wake and commander of that station. And for the next few days the southeast corner of the island saw much activity as "Marfitron 211" (Marine Fighting Squadron 211) shook down for whatever was coming. Major Bayler and his men completed their mission, and the lieutenant in charge of the ground crews and aviation technicians established the necessary maintenance teams for the 12 stubby little fighters.

Early on the morning of December 8, Wake time, the garrison at Wake received the news of the Pearl Harbor bombing. The alarm was sounded and all hands called to general quarters. The Pan American Philippine Clipper, which had left earlier for Guam, was recalled by radio and Commander Cunningham decided to have the Clipper make a reconnaissance patrol with two Marine fighters as escorts. This flight was planned for one o'clock that afternoon. It never occurred.

The fighting squadron maintained a constant patrol of four planes all morning, with the other eight in reserve. Four would patrol until gasoline was exhausted and as they landed the next four would take off. Through the siege a far-out patrol was maintained from dawn to about 7:30 AM and from about four PM to dusk. Overhead patrol was held throughout the day.

At two minutes to 12 noon on December 8, the two-weeks' battle started. Twenty-four Jap bombers came up out of the vastness south of the island and hit the airport. The leading division of 12 planes continued north across the island and bombed the Pan American Airways establishment on Peale Island; the trailing 12 planes turned and again attacked the airport. This attack was made at an altitude of about 3,000 feet, and throughout the bombing there was continuous ground strafing by incendiary and armor-piercing bullets.

The attack was over quickly. Behind them the retreating Jap bombers left seven Wildcats completely destroyed and one badly damaged. The casualties among the aviation group were 25 dead and seven wounded.

The airplanes were in open temporary shelters. (These are erected where no other facilities are available). Before the end of the Battle of Wake two of these shelters had been covered, made light-tight, and were being used constantly for repairs on planes at night.

When the four remaining Wildcats (on patrol at the time of the attack) landed, one, unable to evade the wreckage strewn about the field, damaged its propeller. The others all landed safely.

The next day (December 9) saw another raid, this one at 11:45 AM and centered not on the airfield but on the living quarters of the civilian contractor's men in camp two. Bombs struck the island's hospital and killed three men. (Thereafter the hospital, under Lieut (jg) Gustav M Kahn, USNR, was transferred to ammunition cellars and no more patients were killed by bombs.) Countering the attack, four intact Marine planes went aloft and shot down one bomber. Three of the island's aviation personnel were killed, either by bombs or strafing. Twenty-seven bombers made a raid the next day but inflicted no casualties. By this time the defenders had built individual shelters for personnel and the men slept by their work.

On the 11th, the Japanese decided to get rid of the troublesome garrison. As dawn broke that Thursday morning the Marine lookout saw a force of about 12 light cruisers, gunboats, destroyers and transports coming up out of the southwest. Four Marine fighters took off. The defense battalion gunners stood by their pieces. The Nipponese fleet moved in.

Wake is not a bare sand bar. There is much scrub and many hardwood trees, the kind of tough brush that can stand prevailing winds 365 days out of the year. The five-inch guns of the defense battalion were probably well hidden and the antiaircraft cannon had been moved to new positions every other day. The Japanese had seen their bombs take effect on most of the squadron and thought they would offer no menace. Maybe they saw the four Grummans take off. Even so, four tiny fighters which had certainly taken punishment from the turret guns of Jap bombers were no threat to a fleet of 12 ships equipped with antiaircraft guns. The Japs had sunk capital ships with dive bombers and torpedo planes, but never with fighters. These American planes were fighters. There was little menace in the island.

The leading elements of the Jap fleet opened fire. The Marine gunners stood fast, the four fighters climbed higher and higher and the enemy fleet moved in.

Forty-seven hundred yards from the island they were when the first shells screamed out of the island's five-inch guns. The four "harmless" fighters swooped down.

Presently the Japanese fleet went away. Behind them they left victims of Marine guns: two destroyers and a gunboat. Those four Marine planes had not been harmless either. They had made a total of 10 attacks. Two of them, piloted by Capt Henry T Elrod and Capt Frank C Tharin, had concentrated on a cruiser. There must have been hot antiaircraft barrels on that cruiser, but the globe-and-anchor-marked Wildcats had hit her with eight 100 pound bombs. She sank. The other plane-attacked ship had left trailing smoke.

Captains Elrod and Tharin made out their reports. They were the first flyers of the Naval service to sink a large Jap ship and they had sunk her with shipboard fighters. The defense battalion had taken three warships out of Hirohito's fleet with five- and three-inch guns The

Japs came back at noon to spike this troublesome defense of Wake and hit the island with bombers in force. The four Marine Wildcats went up again. The antiaircraft guns opened fire. And the raiders went away, leaving two of their number at the bottom of the sea off Wake. No damage from the bombs on Wake, but Capt Herbert C Freuler and Captain Elrod received armor piercing bullets in the engines of their planes. Elrod crashed on the beach, his plane a total loss; Freuler landed his safely and it was back in commission shortly afterwards.

The Japs came again on the next day, Friday, December 12, but antiaircraft guns and fighters drove them off. Their bombs did no damage. Late Friday afternoon Second Lieut David D Kliewer, on evening patrol, sighted an enemy submarine prowling 10 miles south of Wake. He dove at the sub, strafing her with .50 caliber bullets, and as he pulled out of his dive he let his two bombs go. Both hit, and the sub went to the bottom.

As the garrison at Wake summed up their position on the night of December 12, their casualties were eight destroyed Grumman F4F-3s, less than 30 Marine victims. The Japanese casualties were one submarine, one light cruiser, two destroyers, one gunboat, three bombers and an unknown number of dead. They might get Wake, but they were paying. Saturday, December 13, was quiet, but on Sunday the Japs came back with 32 bombers. They hit the airport, got one plane — a direct bomb hit — and one plane crashed on the takeoff. The bombers respected the Marine antiaircraft by this time and stayed up over 22,000 feet. Three Marine fighters remained.

At dawn the next day, Monday, December 15, two four-engined seaplanes raided, but most of their bombs hit in the lagoon. At 11 o'clock that morning 27 bombers came over and the Marine planes shot two of them out of formation and into the sea off Wake. That afternoon a Marine fighter crashed on takeoff. Two Marine planes remained.

The island was still fighting back, and on December 16th at 12:30 PM 41 Jap bombers bombed the island, inflicting no damage on the aviation field, but blowing up a dynamite dump on Wilkes Islet. At 5:30 PM a lone four-engined patrol seaplane dropped four bombs which hit in the lagoon. Captain Tharin attacked this plane and shot it down in flames.

The next day, December 17, saw another heavy attack by 32 bombers. This hit the diesel oil dump and the defense battalion tent encampment. No damage to aviation and all the defense battalion's guns remained in commission.

December 18 saw no bombs on Wake Island, but the Jap had not forgotten the lonely outpost. At midday, a lone, twin-engined plane flew over the island, very high and in a straight line. It dropped no bombs, but to the pilots of Marfitron 211 its mission was obvious. The Jap now had detailed aerial photographs of Wake Island. He would be back.

He came the next day in force. Twenty-seven of his bombers pasted the wooded area south of the runway. The photographer had evidently decided that there were unlimited planes in that area. There were none.

December 20, was a day of bad weather. The US Navy patrol plane, which had flown in sometime during the night, left Wake on that morning and there was no more detailed news from the island.

Only a series of terse dispatches.

On the 22nd, the dispatches report, the Jap made his big attack. The last two Marine planes went up, and there must have been a great concentration of bombers over Wake. Captain Freuler piloted one of the two battered Grummans. He was wounded, made a crash landing. A second lieutenant, whose name cannot be released, took off in the other. He never returned. The dispatch said "lost."

There never were more than four Marine planes in the air at one time during the battle, and frequently only one or two. The mechanics had made new planes out of wrecks. The Marines on the island were placed there with a job to do. They were to defend the island. What happened after the radio was put out of commission is lost in the deep water west of Midway.

On December 22nd the enemy was on the island.

In official Navy language: "The issue was in doubt."

This article was originally published in the May, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 5, pp 45-46, 74, 76, 78.
The original article includes 2 photos, one of the harbor, one of a Wildcat.
Photos are not credited.