This Day in History: Wake Island is returned to American hands

On this day in 1945, Wake Island is finally returned to American hands. The Japanese had been in possession of the island since December 1941.

Wake Island had not fallen without a fight.

That little island is part of a small atoll, lying about halfway between Hawaii and Japan. By the early 1940s, the United States Navy was constructing defenses on the island. The atoll was also a stopping point for some commercial flights.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Wake Island was thus occupied by civilian contractors, military personnel, and Pan Am employees. Word of that attack came early on December 8, local time, because the island is just to the west of the International Date Line.

Would Wake Island be next? The defense battalion was ordered to battle stations and four aircraft were dispatched on patrol. The naval commander on the island, Winfield S. Cunningham, asked the captain of Pan Am’s flying boat if he would patrol the skies as well.

Meanwhile, some civilian contractors wanted to pitch in. United States Marines Corps Major James P. S. Devereux would later recall a man who strode up to him and stood at attention: “Sir, Adams, former seaman United States Navy, reporting for duty. Sir, can you use me?” Another Marine opened a storeroom and handed out weapons to a group of about 50 civilians.

Preparations for the Pan Am patrol were still underway when the Japanese attacked.

“Nobody heard them,” Devereux wrote. “The surf on the reefs around the island made it hard to hear motors, but even so the Japs took no chances. They cut off their motors and came down on us in a silent glide behind the mask of [a rain] squall.”

Within minutes, the Japanese had wrecked Pan Am’s facilities. Fuel tanks were aflame, the runway was damaged, and seven of the eight F4F-3 Wildcat fighters on the ground had been destroyed. Dozens were dead. And that was just the first of two waves.

Americans on the island were determined to avoid a repeat. When the Japanese returned the next day, “we hit them first,” Devereux said. The Japanese still did a lot of damage, but this time our Marines were inflicting damage of their own, too. They withstood multiple attacks before December 11. By then, the Japanese thought they’d softened up the island enough to make a landing.

They were wrong.

As Japanese cruisers and destroyers streamed into the area, Devereux ordered his men to hold their fire until the enemy ships got very close. “It seemed to me,” he later wrote, “that our one slim chance was to draw in the enemy close enough for our 5-inch guns to hit him crippling blows at the start of the attack.”

It worked! The destroyer Hayate became the first Japanese vessel lost in the war. Meanwhile, several Wildcats were in the sky, scoring hits of their own. They sank the destroyer Kisaragi. The Japanese eventually limped away from the engagement with multiple vessels damaged by aerial bombs and shore batteries.

The outnumbered Americans on Wake Island had struck back—perhaps the first real blow since Pearl Harbor.

That wasn’t the end of the Battle for Wake Island, unfortunately. The Japanese had greater numbers and would eventually take the island on December 23. Military and civilians were taken prisoner. Some were executed. Some were held for the rest of the war.

Yet the spirited defense of Wake Island had come at a critical time.

“Wake’s determined defenders held out,” historian Robert J. Cressman writes, “and in so doing provided a badly needed lift to American morale, a ray of hope in the midst of dark clouds of despair.”

P.S. The photo is of the wreckage of a Wildcat. It was flown by Medal of Honor recipient Henry Elrod during this battle.

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