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Interactive- U.S. Marines Defend Wake Island, 1941

By John Antal
7/24/2017 • HistoryNet

Choose the correct plan for an American gun crew facing Japanese invaders.

You are U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Woodrow M. Kessler, commander of an eight-man gun crew. Your 5-inch gun, once mounted on a U.S. Navy battle- ship, is part of the defensive shore batteries for Wake Island, a remote American outpost in the Pacific Ocean about 2,300 miles west of Hawaii. Although officially called an “island,” the 2.8-square-mile coral atoll actually consists of three islands: Wake, Wilkes and Peale. Your men and gun are positioned on Toki Point, at the northwest tip of Peale Island.

Just before noon on December 8, 1941 (December 7 in Hawaii), Wake’s small garrison received the shocking news of a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The garrison’s 449 Marines, 68 Sailors and five Soldiers feared the enemy would target Wake next. The 1,146 civilian contractors constructing facilities on Wake immediately volunteered to take up arms and join in the island’s defense.

Japanese bombers soon filled the skies over the atoll. For three days now, waves of enemy aircraft have pounded Wake, killing dozens of defenders, smashing facilities, and destroying all but four of the F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft based at Wake’s small airfield. The situation, however, grew even worse at dawn today, December 11, when a Japanese invasion fleet appeared in the waters to the north.

Moments ago, two Japanese destroyers began approaching Wake’s beaches, transporting a landing force of amphibious assault troops. The ships now open heavy fire with their naval guns, and shells begin raining down all around your dangerously exposed gun position.

Your crew chief, shouting in your ear to be heard over the explosions, asks anxiously, “Lieutenant, shouldn’t you give the command to open fire? The Jap destroyers are well within range of our gun.”

WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, LIEUTENANT KESSLER?

ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION

Wake Island, annexed by the United States in 1899, remained a remote way station serving occasional ships and Pan American Airways passenger flights from America to China until January 1941. Then, increasing tensions with Japan prompted the U.S. to build a military installation on Wake. In August, a 449-man Marine defense battalion landed on the island and emplaced a halfdozen 5-inch guns, a dozen 3- inch anti-aircraft guns, and about 50 light and heavy machine guns. In November 1941, a Marine air squadron of 12 F4F Wildcat fighter planes arrived to bolster these meager defenses.

Occupying a tiny, barren atoll thousands of miles from U.S. Navy surface warship and aircraft carrier support, Wake’s small garrison is at risk of being quickly overrun by even a modest-size invasion force. The Japanese fleet currently lurking near Wake includes nine warships (three cruisers and six destroyers), carries 500 amphibious assault troops, and is supported by numerous bombers flying from enemy bases in the Marshall Islands. Moreover, Japanese control of the waters in this part of the Pacific means that the enemy can prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching Wake’s defenders while still reinforcing the invasion fleet with ships, troops and aircraft. That the Japanese will eventually overrun Wake’s outnumbered defenders seems certain.

The defenders have no avenue of retreat, and the garrison commander has decided that surrender is not an option. The Americans therefore have no choice but to resist as stubbornly as possible for as long as they can hold out. Their mission is to make the Japanese pay dearly for their inevitable victory – and you intend for your 5-inch gun to do its part in accomplishing that goal.

POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION

With the Japanese destroyers rapidly approaching the beach, you know you must decide on a plan now. You quickly develop two possible courses of action.

The first option is to immediately engage the destroyers with your 5-inch gun. Although this exposes your crew to heavy fire from the enemy ships, it gives your men the opportunity to sink or heavily damage the destroyers before they can land the assault troops on the beach.

The alternative is to order your crew to take cover and engage the Japanese after they have come ashore. Once the assault troops are on the open beach, they will lack protective cover and will be extremely vulnerable to your high-explosive shells. This plan, however, puts your gun at risk of being overrun if the Japanese successfully advance beyond the beach.

LIEUTENANT KESSLER’S ORDERS

Shouting over the din of exploding shells, you announce to your gun crew: “Two targets at sea is better than hundreds of targets on the beach once the invasion troops land. Gunner, sight on the lead destroyer. Give ’em all we’ve got and blast ’em out of the water!”

Ignoring the heavy enemy fire, your men spring into action and quickly load a 5-inch shell into the gun’s breech. Once the gunner has the lead destroyer in his sights, he shouts, “Ready!”

You yell,“Fire!” Instantly, the first high-explosive shell arcs toward the target.

 

 Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of 10 books, including “Hell’s Highway” (randomhouse.com).

HISTORICAL NOTE: The heroic defense of Wake Island, led by U.S. Navy Commander Winfield S. Cunningham and comprised mainly of Major James Devereux’s small U.S. Marine garrison, has been called “the Alamo of the Pacific War” because the hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned defenders mounted an extraordinary resistance before finally succumbing to superior numbers. Although the Marines’ 5-inch guns and the few remaining F4F Wildcat fighters turned back the initial Japanese landing attempt on December 11 (sinking two destroyers with the loss of all hands), the Japanese inevitably prevailed when their landing succeeded December 23. Defender casualties were 120 killed, 49 wounded, two missing in action, and 1,537 captured. The Japanese later executed five military prisoners of war and 98 civilians.

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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