Chapter 5: Conclusions

The defense of Wake was the first wartime operation conducted by the Marine Corps in defense of an advanced naval base. It was also the first combat test of the Marine defense battalion, although the strength of the Wake detachment was greatly reduced. The main reason for the fall of Wake seems obvious. The enemy in greatly superior strength, supported by amply surface and air forces, was able to effect a lodgment on the atoll and then to apply his ground superiority to overwhelm the dispersed defenders in detail. Had it been possible for U.S. surface force to intervene, or for substantial reinforcements to reach Wake, the results might have been entirely different. But military lessons of some value still may be drawn by a survey of certain specific reasons why the defense was handicapped. These factors were interacting, of course. No single one of them can be clearly isolated within the framework of events which brought military defeat to the atoll.

Japanese procedure for the reduction and seizure of Wake, if not executed with the skill or standards that U.S. forces later attained, was nevertheless orthodox. It consisted essentially of two phases, the preliminary bombardment and the assault landing. The enemy's first landing plan underestimated the amount of preparation required, and he paid for this miscalculation in the defeat of 11 December. But this he corrected in his second attempt.

Lack of radar and other early-warning equipment severely handicapped Marines during preliminary aerial bombardment, and it would be difficult to overstate the seriousness of this shortage. it enabled the initial Japanese raid to destroy over half of VMF-211's fighters on the ground, and the same lack of early warning continued to hamper the effectiveness of those fighter planes which remained in operation. Thus the VMF-2211 pilots never had a chance to plan effective fighter interception against the enemy bombers, and the Japanese could proceed quite methodically with their program for the aerial softening of Wake.

This lack of early warning and the shortage of aircraft can be lumped together as atters of air defense, and air defense depends upon coordinated employment of fighter aircraft, antiaircraft artillery, and the essential warning systems. But on Wake only the antiaircraft artillery--undermanned and partially operational though it was--could be considered fully and consistently effective, and nobody ever expected antiaircraft weapons alone to defend an advanced naval base against air attack. They were there to provide close-in protection to the aviation facilities; the planes were to be the important factor in keeping the enemy away from an island base. Determination and stubbornness of the fighter pilots could not avert the final outcome. The fliers could only exact from the enemy a maximum cost for every bomb dropped. This was


done until the last Grumman was destroyed by massed enemy fighters on 22 December. After that, landing operations against Wake could proceed.

Once the ground combat began, the fundamental weakness of the defense battalion concept as it then existed became starkly underlined. The unit had no infantry component to act as an effective mobile reserve. Most garrison personnel were tied to weapons and battery positions, and Major Devereux could muster only a fraction of his manpower against the invaders even after enemy intentions became apparent. On Wake Island, for example, only about 85 of 200 Marines were readily available to check the assault landing of a thousand Japanese. Militarily speaking, there is something pathetic in the spectacle of Lieutenant Poindexter and his "mobile reserve" of eight men and four machine guns dashing by truck from one threatened point to another in the face of such fantastic odds.

True, at that time trained infantry was almost as scarce as radar. But the fault lay in the defense battalion tables of organization. Later this omission was corrected, and Midway had both infantry and light tanks. Had even one Marine infantry company reinforced with tanks been on Wake, it is possible that the garrison might have thrown the Japanese back into the sea. This is borne out by what happened on Wilkes Island, where Captain Platt was able to annihilate twice his numbers of the enemy by shrewd, coordinated counter-attack. And after daylight on Wake Island, Poindexter, with the makeshift defenders of Camp One added to his "mobile reserve," had assumed the offensive, driven back the Japanese to his front, and regained most of the ground given up during the confused hours of darkness.

After the Japanese had landed in force on the south coast of Wake Island, it appears that the coast artillery and antiaircraft missions of Batteries B and D, respectively, had become of secondary importance in light of the serious enemy ground threat. The military reader might wonder why all available personnel from Batteries B and D, with whom Devereux was still in communication, were not early in the battle brought down to the vicinity of the airfield and employed, together with such few other available Marines, as a mobile reserve to counterattack the main Japanese beachhead. This was partially accomplished at 0530 on the final morning when Captain Godbold was directed to bring the personnel of his battery (D) to the command post for employment as infantry. By this time, however, it was too late for such a small number to influence the outcome of the battle. In this connection, Major Devereux later pointed out that because of the partial failure of communications he never had anything like a clear picture of the situation during the final Japanese attack. For several hours he was in doubt as to the location of the main enemy landing and hence did not consider himself justified in stripping Peale Island of all defenders.

As alluded to above, another major lesson to be derived from this phase of the operation was a re-emphasis of Admiral Mahan's famous dictum the "Communications dominate war." The partial failure of communications, which occurred shortly after the Japanese landing, isolated the defense detachment commander from most of his subordinate units then in action. As a result he not only lost control


over much of the battle, but he also--and perhaps more important to this case--became unavoidably deceived as to the progress of the situation. In ignorance of what happened on Wilkes or at Camp One, he surmised that all was lost in those areas. Buried telephone lines and reliable field radios would have prevented this failure of communication, and the surrender decision would not have been made at that particular stage of the action. The Wake garrison, however, had neither the personnel to dig by hand, nor the machinery to dig by mechanical means, the many miles of ditches which would have been necessary to bury the telephone lines.

Perhaps one of the fundamental reasons for the state of the Wake defenses stemmed from the fact that base development had consistently received priority over defense preparations. That the defensive installation were in as good a condition as they were when the Japanese struck may be credited to the tremendous efforts of the small Marine garrison.

All things taken into account, however, the decision to surrender Wake was reasonable, especially when considered in light of the civilian situation and the fact that relief was no longer in prospect. Marines who fought through the Pacific campaigns would later see many examples of a totally unreasoning enemy who never surrendered but was always defeated. At the same time, insensibly, some might come to believe that unyielding refusal to surrender was the proper role of a defender. Of course this was neither true nor logical. Wake had exacted a full and more than honorable toll from the Japanese, but its defensive resources had been exhausted.

No fighter aircraft remained. only one antiaircraft battery was effectively operational. Enemy dive bombers on 23 December had completely disabled one 5-inch battery (Wilkes) and largely destroyed the fire control instruments of the remaining two. Without airplanes, fire control instruments, radar, spare parts, and personnel to bring the defense to full strength Wake could not carry on. The only answer was surrender. This took place fifteen days after the initial attack, and it was eleven hours after the ighting commenced on shore before Wilkes Island surrendered.

During this period the Marines sustained almost 20 per cent casualties, but they exacted a heavy toll from the Japanese. Nearly 500 enemy had been lost in the abortive landing attempt of 11 December, the defenders on Wilkes Island accounted for nearly 100 in their defeat of the Takano unit, and Poindexter counted approximately 80 enemy bodies during his morning attack from Camp One. Give the Hanna-VMF-211 position credit for at least 20 more kills, and this would bring the Wake total to 700 enemy. Others must have lost their lives on Wake Island landing beaches and elsewhere on the island, although the figure probably would not be great. But in earlier action the atoll antiaircraft and fighter plane fire had downed 21 enemy aircraft and claimed credit for damaging another 11.1

Based on this record, Major Putnam's final VMF-211 report of 21 December would truthfully state that "All hands have behaved splendidly and help up in a manner of which the Marine Corps may well tell."


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[1] A Japanese source says that 51 planes, in addition to those shot down, were damaged by flak over Wake. Nakamura Notebook.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation