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Chapter 5: Conclusions

The defense of Wake was the first wartime operation ever conducted the Marine Corps in defense of an advanced naval base. It was also the first combat test of the Marine defense battalion, far reduced in strength though the Wake defense detachment was.

The main reason for the fall of Wake seemed obvious at the time, and remains so: the enemy in greatly superior strength, supported by ample surface and air forces, was able to effect a lodgment on Wake and then to apply his ground superiority so as to overwhelm the defenders at any and virtually all given points. Had it been possible at any time for United States surface forces to intervene, or for substantial reinforcements to reach Wake, the results might have been entirely different.

Even after we accept the foregoing broad reason for the eventual inevitability of Wake's loss, military lessons of some value may be drawn as we survey certain immediate reasons why the defense was handicapped. It should be remembered, however, that all these factors were interacting. No single one can be clearly isolated as responsible for the end product, which in this case was military defeat.

Japanese procedure for the reduction and seizure of Wake, if not executed with the skill or standards which the Marine Corps would demand in an amphibious operation, was nevertheless orthodox in that it consisted essentially of two phases: the first, of preliminary bombardment, or "softening"; the second, of the actual assault landing. As we have seen, the enemy considerably underestimated the amount of preparation required, and consequently paid for his miscalculation in the defeat of 11 December. Following this, he resumed and intensified his preliminary operations and mustered considerably greater means for the second try, which succeeded.

During the first phase, that of preliminary aerial bombardment, the defenders of Wake were severely handicapped from the outset by the lack of radar for early warning. It would be difficult to overstate the effects of this lack, for it was this which also enabled the initial Japanese raid to destroyer over half of VMF-211's fighters on the ground, and it was the lack of early warning which reduced greatly the effectiveness of fighter interception against the daily raids.

Despite the magnificent skill and courage of VMF-211 on the ground and in the air, the lack of fighter interception, early and in force during each raid, permitted the Japanese to proceed quite methodically with their program for the aerial softening of Wake. In fact, the possible effectiveness of an entire squadron or stronger force during the defense of Wake can be readily measured by the yardstick of VMF-211's achievements, never employing more than four airplanes.

Both of the two foregoing handicaps under which the defense was conducted can be lumped together as matters of what is termed air defense. Air defense, just what its name implies, is the coordinated employment of fighter aircraft, antiaircraft artillery, and the essential warning systems, all for the defense of an objective against air attack. Successful air defense depends equally upon all three elements. Of those three, however, on Wake only the antiaircraft artillery--undermanned and partially operational though it was--could be considered fully and consistently effective. Air warning was nonexistent, and fighter interception so weak-in numbers at least--that it could not prevent the enemy bombers from carrying out their missions.

In the first phase of the Japanese siege of Wake, a phase essentially of air defense, the defense force was almost hopelessly handicapped from the start, and

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WRECKAGE ON PEALE as it appeared to the Japanese cameraman who accompained the Occupation Force on 23 December. This picture found its way to the Southwest Pacific, where it was subsequently picked up by U.S. intelligence personnel.

the determination and stubbornness which marked the air defense of Wake, could not avert the final outcome nor do more than exact from the enemy the maximum cost for every bomb dropped. This was resolutely done until the last Grumman had been destroyed by massed enemy fighters on 22 December. After that, landing operations against Wake could proceed.

Once ground combat had commenced on Wake itself, the results could be foreseen. By the desperate expedient of grounding his transports, the enemy insured that a maximum force, well over twice that of the entire defense garrison, could be gotten ashore within the first half hour of the landing. The ultimate size of the landing force, approximately 1,200, was just three times the number of surviving Marines on the atoll. In addition, as we have seen, the defenders were necessarily so tied to their weapons and battery-positions during most of the action that defeat in detail was inevitable.

Had the Wake defense force included but one company of Marine infantry and a platoon of light tanks (such as was eventually added to the defense battalion table of organization), such a reserve might well have been able to dislodge the Japanese by counterattack. The lack of such an element to act as general reserve for the defense permitted the enemy to expand and organize his beachhead at will, and this necessity for a strong mobile reserve, including armor, could be considered one of the major tactical lessons of Wake.

A second major lesson to be derived from this phase of the operation was a reemphasis of Admiral Mahan's famous dictum that "Communications dominate war."

The complete failure of communications, which occurred shortly after the Japanese landing, operated to isolate 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 also--and perhaps more important in this case--he became unavoidably deceived as to the progress of the situation, so that, in ignorance of what had happened on Wilkes or Camp 1, he surmised that all was lost in those areas.

Had it been possible to have buried telephone lines and reliable field radios, this failure of communication, which largely influenced the surrender decision at that particular stage of the action, would not have occurred.

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 could later see many examples of a totally unreasoning

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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 not only exacted a full and more than honorable toll from the Japanese, but, more important in a military sense, its defensive resource, never large, had been to a great extent sapped.

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 fire-control instruments for the remaining two were largely destroyed. Without more airplanes, fire-control instruments, radar, spare parts, and personnel to bring the defense to full strength (all of which and more had been embarked with Task Force 14)--without these Wake could not have carried on. The only answer was surrender.

This took place 15 days after the initial attack, and it was 11 hours after the fighting commenced on shore before the last strongpoint, Wilkes, surrendered in accordance with orders.

The Marine garrison of Wake had sustained almost 20 percent casualties. Although enemy losses will never be accurately known, they must easily have exceeded 1,000 in all.

During the course of the defense, Marines on the ground and in the air had caused the loss of at least four enemy warships, the first major Japanese naval vessels to be sunk during the Pacific war. At least eight more ships sustained appreciable damage. Twenty-one enemy aircraft were shot down by fighters or flak over Wake, and 11 more left the atoll in obviously damaged condition. A total of 51 enemy aircraft had in fact sustained reportable damage from Wake's antiaircraft batteries.

With this record as a basis, Major Putnam's final report, which left the atoll on 21 December, could truthfully state:

All hands have behaved splendidly and held up in a
manner of which the Marine Corps may well tell.

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