Relief map of Wake

Wake (166.644E 19.280N) is a small atoll in the central Pacific some 2000 miles (3200 km) west of Hawaii. It is about 4.5 miles (7.2 km) long and 2.5 miles (4 km) wide with a total land area of 2600 acres (1050 hectares) and consists of three islands. Wake Island, to the south, is V-shaped with both arms about 5300 yards (4800 meters) long. Peale Island is separated from the east arm of Wake by a narrow channel, while Wilkes Island is separated from the west arm of Wake by an even narrower channel. This channel had been dredged to allow boat access into the lagoon, which was shallow and full of coral heads. The islands are flat, with the high point just 21 feet (7 meters) above the high water level, and covered with dense vegetation. They are surrounded by a barrier reef that allows easy boat access only along the southwest coast and which plunges to great depth at its edge, providing no good place to anchor large ships. There is no fresh water supply. The atoll is extremely remote, with the nearest land being the Marshall Islands 450 miles (725 km) to the south. As a potential base, the atoll had so many liabilities that only its strategic location made it of any military interest.

Wake was uninhabited and undeveloped until the Pan American built a seaplane ramp here for its Clipper flying boats in 1935. The U.S. Navy took increasing interest in the atoll as war loomed, and built an airfield and began dredging the lagoon. However, in late 1941 there was still no decent anchorage and cargo ships supplying the island had to be unloaded by lighter. There was also no radar for the airfield, but the island boasted a number of 6” coastal defense guns, 12 3" antiaircraft guns, and 388 Marines of 1 Marine Defense Battalion. A 10' (3 meter) sand berm had been bulldozed along the vegetation line along the southeast coast. The airfield had 25,000 gallons of aviation fuel on hand and, because there were plans to stage B-17 bombers to the Philippines through Wake, the runway was long enough at 5000 feet (1520 meters) to accommodate large aircraft. Air cover was provided by VMF-211 with twelve F4F Wildcats.

Construction of additional facilities was being undertaken by 1216 civilian contractors when war broke out in the Pacific. These were to include two additional runways and a ship channel and turning basin in the lagoon capable of accomodating a tender and submarine base. The civilian contractors were trapped on the island by the Japanese, who insisted on treating them as prisoners of war rather than as civilian internees.

Aerial photograph of assault on Wake Island

U.S. Marine Corps. Via

The Battle of Wake

The Japanese saw the strategic value of seizing Wake in order to break the American air bridge to the Philippines, secure the approaches to Japan, and advance their air power forward towards Midway. Japanese aircraft bombed the atoll shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Without radar direction, the four Wildcats on combat air patrol were unable to intercept the raid, which destroyed the remaining eight aircraft of the squadron.

Three days later, the Japanese attempted a landing, but this initial invasion attempt was repulsed by the coastal guns and the four surviving Wildcats.  The Marine commander, Major James Devereaux, ordered his coastal guns, which were well-concealed, to hold fire until the Japanese moved to within close range. One destroyer, Hayate, was hit in her magazines by the coastal guns and violently exploded with loss of all hands. Light cruiser Yubari, the flagship of the Japanese invasion force, was also hit and suffered moderate damage. At this point, Kajioka had had enough and ordered his ships to withdraw. During the Japanese withdrawal, another destroyer, Kisaragi, was struck in its depth charge racks by a bomb from one of the Wildcats; it, too, exploded violently with the loss of all hand.

Japanese order of battle, first Wake assault

Wake Invasion Force

24 Air Flotilla

U.S. order of battle, first Wake assault

1 Marine Defense Battalion

VMF-211 with 4 Wildcats

Kajioka was determined to redeem his honor by capturing the atoll in his second attempt. Kimmel, emboldened by the Marines' initial success, decided the island could be held if reinforcements of men and critical equipment could be sent to the atoll. This included an SCR-270 early warning radar and three SCR-268 fire control radars loaded on William Ward Burrows, which was on the way to Wake when war broke out, and reinforcements of men and ammunition carried by seaplane tender Tangier. The plan that was eventually put into effect dropped the slow William Ward Burrows, which ended up delivering its radar and supplies to Johnston Island, but Tangier was to dash in to the island, disembark the men and supplies, and embark as many civilian workers as possible. The Saratoga force under Fletcher would provide air cover for Tangier while the Lexington task force under Brown raided Jaluit to the south to pull Japanese land-based aircraft away from Wake.

The plan was put together in haste by staff inexperienced in the realities of wartime operations, and it had a number of problems. None of the carrier task forces would be in position to support another. Enterprise under Halsey was patrolling north of Oahu and could not return and resupply in time to provide meaningful support. McMorris, who came up with the plan, discounted any possibility of intervention by Japan's carrier forces and assumed only 4 Fleet threatened the relief expedition. Although the relief was later characterized (particularly by Morison 1946) as an opportunity to engage the Japanese on favorable terms, Lundstrom (2006) has shown that a fleet engagement was the last thing the American planners had in mind. Unaware of the timetable for the second Japanese invasion attempt, the Americans envisioned a straightforward resupply and evacuation run protected by a strong covering force and with no tight deadline. Logistics for the expedition were amateurish compared with what the Americans achieved later in the war, in part because there was as yet only a single fast oiler equipped with modern underway replenishment gear available, the Neosho, which was assigned to the Lexington force (which was on a tighter schedule.) The Saratoga force found itself dependent on the aged and slow Neches, which could only sustain about 12.75 knots speed, limiting the rate of advance of the entire force.

The relief expedition suffered a number of delays, starting with a delay of one day to get the oiler dispositions sorted out and another one day delay in Saratoga's arrival at Pearl Harbor due to a submarine scare. A further delay was incurred when Fletcher paused just outside air search range of the Japanese to refuel his escorting destroyers. He encountered considerable difficulty doing so: Sea conditions were poor, with moderate winds and a long cross-swell. Navy crews were still relatively inexperienced at underway refueling, and seven oil lines were parted and only four destroyers were refueled in ten hours. Morison (1948) suggests that Fletcher should have left his destroyers behind and made a high-speed run in to attack with Saratoga escorted by his cruisers, but Lundstrom (2006) counters that even Fletcher's cruisers needed refueling before they could engage in high-speed operations.

Meanwhile the Japanese prepared for their second assault on Wake with two weeks of aerial bombardment. During this bombing campaign, the Japanese suffered heavy bomber losses, but destroyed two more of the Wildcats.  The Japanese supported their second landing attempt with a division of heavy cruisers and carrier aircraft from the Hiryu and Soryu.  Elements of 2 Maizuru SNLF (about 900 men) came ashore on the night of 22 December 1941. Two Japanese destroyer-transports were badly damaged by the Marine guns and were deliberately run aground on the southwest coast, while the remaining troops came ashore in six landing craft. The Japanese took heavy casualties but could not be dislodged.

Word of the Japanese landings came as Fletcher's relief expedition continued to refuel some 400 miles northeast of Wake.  By this time Kimmel had been relieved, and the relief attempt was called off by the interim Pacific commander, William Pye, after consulting with his staff. Pye seems to have been deeply affected by a report delivered earlier by Ensign James J. Murphy, who flew a Catalina to Wake with the relief plan. On his return, he had reported that conditions on the atoll were "grim, grim, grim" (Lundstrom 2006). Pye was also influenced by a message from Stark and King stating that "Wake is now and will continue to be a liability" (ibid.) and authorizing its demolition and evacuation if necessary.

The recall order was not well received. A junior gunnery officer remembered Fletcher throwing his cap to the deck in disgust. Talk on the Saratoga became so mutinous that Fitch felt it necessary to leave the bridge. Morison (1946) suggested that Fletcher should have ignored the order and pressed ahead, but Fletcher sensibly assumed that Pye knew something he didn't, and he did no more than linger in the area for several hours, while continuing to refuel, in hopes that Pye would have a change of heart.

A controversy later arose over whether Fletcher was sufficiently aggressive during this campaign. Fletcher clearly was still surface-oriented in his thinking: He flew his flag in Astoria and did not conform his movements to Saratoga, leaving her behind when she turned into the wind to conduct air operations. Morison criticized Fletcher's delay to refuel as well as his decision to obey the recall order, as previously noted. Because of the tremendous influence of Morison's history of the Pacific War, his criticisms became entrenched in postwar historiography, but Admiral Vincent R. Murphy, who was one of McMorris' planners in 1941, described Morison's treatment of the relief expedition as "not even a reasonable facsimile of history" that "does grave injustice to Admiral Fletcher ... [The] failure to relieve Wake was due, not to poor seamanship and want of decisive action, but to the presence of two Jap first line carriers" (Lundstrom 2006.) 

The island was surrendered  to the Japanese after a bitter ground fight lasting into the afternoon of 23 December 1941. Later the Marine commander, Devereaux, claimed that the Navy island commander, Cunningham, had surrendered prematurely, while Cunningham claimed that Devereaux had concurred in the decision. It is clear that many of the Marines were reluctant to surrender until ordered to in person by Devereaux. Casualties were 47 killed and 2 missing for the Marines, along with 70 contractors and 3 Navy personnel killed. The remaining 419 Marines and sailors were taken prisoner. The Japanese took very heavy casualties, estimated at 820 killed and another 1153 wounded during the two assaults.

Historians have argued over the likely outcome had the American relief force pressed on. Many seem to feel that the odds favored the Americans, and an examination of the order of battle suggests that the Japanese carrier force was weak on escorting destroyers and inferior in total number of aircraft. In addition, the force was well to the northwest of Wake, where it was ill-positioned to intervene had the Americans attacked the invasion force from long range. Against this must be weighed the fact that the Japanese were much more experienced and the Americans were, in some cases, flying inferior Buffalo fighters. The Japanese also had the support of long-range land-based bombers and search aircraft flying out of Kwajalein.

Japanese order of battle, second Wake assault

Carrier Reinforcement Force (Abe)
Carrier Division 2 (Yamaguchi)

CV Hiryu

24 A6M Zero

18 B5N Kate

16 D3A Val

CV Soryu

22 A6M Zero

18 B5N Kate

16 D3A Valimages

Cruiser Division 8 (Abe)

CA Tone

CA Chikuma

2-6 DD
Invasion Force  (Kajioka)

Cruiser Division 18 (Marumo)

CL Tenryu

CL Tatsuta

Elements, Destroyer Squadron 6 (Kajioka)

CL Yubari

Elements, Destroyer Division 29

DD Oite

Destroyer Division 30

DD Mochizuki

DD Mutsuki

DD Yayoi

3-4 additional DD



CX Kongo Maru (8624 tons, 16.5 knots)images

CX Kinryu Maru (6524 tons, 11 knots)

2 other AP

Maizuru 2 SNLF (1200 men plus garrison troops)
Support Group  (Goto)

Cruiser Division 6 (Goto)

CA Aoba

CA Kinugasa

CA Furutaka

CA Kako

Destroyer Division 23?
24 Air Flotilla

U.S. order of battle, second Wake assault

1 Marine Defense Battalion

VMF-211 with 2 Wildcats

TF8 (Enterprise)

TF12 (Lexington)

TF14 (Saratoga) with VMF-221 (14 F2A Buffalo)

SS Tambor

SS Triton

Following its capture, the Japanese renamed Wake Tori Shima, "Bird Island." It was garrisoned by 65 Guard Force of 6 Base Force and 13 Independent Mixed Regiment. These initially numbered over 4000 men.

Carrier Raids on Wake

Wake was raided by Halsey on 24 February 1942, who also detached Spruance with a cruiser-destroyer force to shell the atoll. The raid prompted Yamamoto to delay the return of Shokaku and Zuikaku from a refit in the home islands to Truk. However, Japan's other four first-line carriers continued to operate in southeast Asia in support of the pending invasion of Java.

The raid of 5-8 October 1943 was of particular importance to the Gilberts campaign. When a Japanese reconnaissance plane found Pearl Harbor empty of shipping on 17 October, Koga concluded that the Americans were about to assault Wake, and shifted Combined Fleet from Truk to Eniwetok. When no attack materialized by 24 October, Koga concluded that it was a false alarm, shifted Combined Fleet back to Truk, and flew its air groups to Rabaul. This left Combined Fleet unprepared to intervene when the Gilberts were invaded.

Following another carrier raid in October 1944, the Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Sakaibara Shigemitsu, ordered the massacre of 98 American civilian construction workers interned since the fall of the island in 1941. He was hanged for this crime at Guam on 19 June 1947.

By the time the island was surrendered to the Americans on 4 September 1945, the garrison had been reduced to 1261 men. Of the others, some 974 had been evacuated with wounds, about 600 had been killed in air attacks, and 1288 had died of starvation or illness.


Fuller (1992)
Huie (1944)

Lundstrom (2006)
Morison (1948)

Rottman (2002)

Sloan (2003)
Wildenberg (1996)

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