While many people remember the last stand at the Alamo, or that of George Armstrong Custer, but that of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion (among other units) at Wake Island in 1941 is not so well remembered. In some ways it should be. Less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor, the United States had a chance to avenge Pearl Harbor – a chance that was botched by over caution on the part of a task force commander.
Within hours of the first bombs falling on Pearl Harbor, Wake Island came under attack. Despite losing two-thirds of the F4F Wildcat fighters on the island in an air raid, the Marines and sailors on Wake fought back fiercely, beating back a Japanese invasion attempt on December 11, sinking the destroyers Kisuragi and Hayate. It is the only time that shore guns have repelled an amphibious assault.
The Japanese were not about to give up, and after Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, USN, sent a request for supplies. The quip “Send us more [Japanese troops]” was actually “padding” – additional words inserted into a message to thwart codebreaking efforts. Even though they had sunk two destroyers, the defenders were low on supplies, and help was just under 2,300 miles away.
At Pearl Harbor, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was attempting to assemble a relief force. Here, he made perhaps a fateful mistake by selecting Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to command Task Force 14, centered on USS Saratoga (CV 3). Task Force 11 was to escort USS Tangier (AV 8) to the island, where it would drop off thousands of five-inch and three-inch rounds, and millions of .50 BMG rounds, as well the 4th Marine Defense Battalion, and 14 F2A fighters (the Brewster Buffalo) from VMF-221.
The Imperial Japanese Navy, though, wasn’t idle. Two carriers from the force that attacked Pearl Harbor, the Hiryu and Soryu, under the command of Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, were detached to assist with a second attempt to attack Wake, along with escorts. A larger invasion force, this time with four heavy cruisers, was also sent. On December 22, though, Fletcher made a fateful decision to refuel his destroyers. That McClellanesque decision (Samuel Eliot Morison noted in his History of United States Naval Operations of World War II that the destroyers still had a fair bit of fuel) would seal the fate of Wake Island’s valiant defenders. Still, there was a chance that Tangier could make a run into the Island to deliver the reinforcements.
On December 23, the Japanese made their second attempt to seize the island. This time, the enemy troops got ashore. Commander Cunningham soon realized that this time, the defenders could not beat the attack back. As he was authorizing Major James Devereaux to surrender his forces, Vice Admiral William S. Pye, the acting Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, cancelled the Wake Relief Expedition.
The 433 surviving defenders – not to mention about over a thousand civilians – were taken prisoner. In 1943, a few dozen of those prisoners kept on Wake Island were murdered by their captors. The Buffalos of VMF-221 would be delivered to Midway, along with the 4th Marine Defense Battalion. There, they would be slaughtered during the Battle of Midway, while trying to defend the island from an attack.
Frank Jack Fletcher would command American naval forces in the Battle of the Coral Sea, Task Force 17 at Midway, and American carriers during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. After being wounded when USS Saratoga was torpedoed in August, 1942, he was moved to backwater commands.
Wake Island would remain in Japanese hands until after their surrender in 1945. But it was a costly acquisition for Japan. In addition to the Hayate and Kisuragi, Japan lost a submarine, two transports, as many as 21 aircraft shot down, and at least 820 military personnel. 52 American servicemen died in the siege of Wake Island, alone with 70 civilians. Another 20 American military personnel and 180 civilians perished while in captivity, including those murdered on Wake Island in 1943.
VMF-211 still flies today as VMA-211, called the “Wake Island Avengers.” The squadron saw action in the Vietnam War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. VMF-221 was inactivated in June, 1945. Today, the 1st Marine Defense Battalion is inactive, as is the 4th Marine Defense Battalion.