The Battle of Wake Island was the name for the Japanese invasion of Wake Island in the North Pacific on December 7, 1941. The attack began simultaneously with the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor , with the defenders of Wake Island only having very little time to prepare even makeshift defenses. The battle would go on until December 23, when the defenders finally gave in to the overwhelming Japanese forces and surrendered.

However, they had managed to hold on for quite a significant amount of time, and had done their fair share of damage to the Japanese troops attempting to land. Japanese casualties consisted of two sunk destroyers, one submarine destroyed, two additional transport ships sunk, and 820 men killed with 333 wounded.[1] American casualties were lighter at first with the loss of all twelve aircraft and 120 killed with 49 wounded. However, as the war went on, a number of executions of military and civilian personnel alike occurred on the island increasing the total number casualties.

The Battle

Japanese Bombardment

The Battle for Wake Island would begin at 6:00 AM on December 8 for Wake Island, December 7th for Oahu. As radio operators on Wake first woke up and manned their positions, they received word of a very real attack on Pearl Harbor . Sounding the alarm, military personnel around the island manned gun positions and distributed ammunition while many civilians dug trenches and placed sandbags. At this point, the daily dawn air patrol was taking place and the remaining aircraft were ill prepared to be mobilized immediately. Furthermore, only one runway was operational as the others were still being built. Wake had no radar station, meaning all of its advance warning would either have to come from its air patrols or its spotting towers. At around noon, the first waves of Japanese G3M arriving from Kwajalein atoll . Using the nearby rain clouds and cutting their engines, the Japanese had managed to fly to Wake undetected.[2] Strafing the airfield with onboard 20mm cannons and dropping 50 kg bombs, the bombers had managed to dodge the heavy anti-aircraft flak coming from Wake's batteries and 12.7mm gun positions.

Wake Island Battle Map

A map of American defensive positions on Wake

Coming in for a landing on the island, the four wildcats that had left on patrol came back to see the destruction of a major part of the airfield. Worse still, all eight of the parked wildcats were out of action, with only one being repairable. Then, one of the landing wildcats damaged itself on scattered debris putting it out of action as well. Many of the pilots and ground crew were also dead or wounded, leaving little air defense left on Wake. The primary fuel storage tanks were also on fire. Still able to fly, a Boeing Clipper Flying Boat aircraft later took off with PanAm employees on the island to evacuate to Midway Island.

At the same time the next day, Japanese bombers once again attacked Wake but were intercepted by two Wildcats. The American aircraft had only managed to down one aircraft before pulling back out of fear of being hit by Wake's anti-aircraft fire. On December 10, another wave of Japanese bombers was launched against Wake, damaging much of Wake's gun batteries and detonating a large store of munitions. Once again, another Japanese bomber was downed by American wildcats.

American Response

Hearing of the attacks on Wake and wanting to create a barrier between the United States and Japanese territory, the United States dispatched a relief force consisting of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, seaplane tender USS Tangier, the heavy cruisers Astoria, Mineapolis, and San Francisco, all supported by the fleet oiler USS Neeches and a number of destroyers. The majority of relief supplies and troops were loaded onto the Tangier. The force itself would be commanded by US Admiral Fletcher. On December 15, the task force was dispatched. At the same time, Task Force 11, centered around the USS Lexington was dispatched as a diversion, further supported by the USS Enterprise. However, on December 22, after receiving word that two Japanese aircraft carriers were headed towards Wake, the Task Forces were ordered to turn back.[3]

Japanese Landings

On December 11, the Japanese began their first landing assault with three light cruisers and a detachment of destroyers, patrol boats, and troop transport ships. American marine commander James Devereux ordered all American naval batteries to hold fire until the ships were in range before finally opening fire. Immediately, Battery L based on the Peale islet hit and sunk the Japanese destroyer Hayate. The batteries on Wake continued to score other hits before forcing the fleet to turn back. However, not letting the Japanese escape completely, the last four American wildcats were dispatched to attack the fleet and successfully sunk another destroyer, the Kisaragi.

However, two wildcats were now out of action and more Japanese bombers pounded the island. Before the day ended, around four Japanese bombers had been downed and it is thought that one of the wildcats had managed to destroyed a Japanese submarine nearby. Bombing continued for the rest of the vicious campaign. On December 20, a PBY Catalina aircraft landed in the lagoon of Wake to alert the garrison of evacuation plans and carry mail back to Pearl Harbor. The next day, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed the island, indicating that a new carrier task force was nearby. The renewed invasion would begin on December 23 with a discreet landing made by over 1,000 Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops.[4] American troops and civilians were forced into small pockets of resistance around the island when at 6:30 AM, after the entire Japanese fleet had surrounded the island, the Americans had surrendered. After the battle, the captured Americans were forced to build fortifications on the island in preparation for an American counterstrike before being sent to labor camps in early 1942. In all, some 1,462 civilian and military personnel were taken prisoner. 


  2. Moran, Jim. Wake Island 1941. Osprey Publishing (2001), Page 35

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