One of the most gripping tales of World War II in the Pacific was the battle of Wake Island, commencing on the same day as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Wake Island, actually three small islands arranged in a horseshoe shape known as an atoll, was the location of the first permanent military station built by the Navy in January 1941. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the garrison on Wake Island consisted of 449 Marine officers and men, and 68 naval personnel. There were also more than 1,200 civilian contractors. All personnel were subordinate to naval Commander Winfield S. Cunningham.
Armament at the ready consisted of a dozen 76.2 mm anti-aircraft guns, six 5” cannons which had been salvaged from an old scuttled cruiser, and around fifty machines guns of various size and working order.
Wake Island is on the other side of the International Date Line. Thus it was on 8 December 1941 that the news broke about Pearl Harbor, and simultaneously the small garrison was attacked by a number of Japanese medium bombers, destroying all but four of the twelve F4F Wildcatfighters of the VMF-211 Fighter Squadron
Three days later, Japan tried to land on Wake Island, but were tricked into getting too close to the island before the Marines opened up with their 5” cannons. They managed to sink the Japanese destroyer Hayate and seriously damage most of the others in the fleet. The four remaining Wildcats successfully sunk another Japanese destroyer, the Kisagari.
Several “firsts” occurred during this landing attempt. Hayate was the first Japanese naval vessel sunk in WWII, as well as the first Japanese defeat of the war. It was also the only instance in the entire war that saw an amphibious assault defeated solely by land-based guns.
The Japanese were determined to take the island, so – because of the resistance encountered during the first landing attempt – they sent two aircraft carriers, the Soryu and the Hiryu, to help in the second landing assault. The Americans were assaulted relentlessly in Japan’s attempt to “soften up” the island for their next assault. Meanwhile, Admiral Wilson Brown was ordered to set sail from Pearl Harbor to re-supply and reinforce the island’s personnel. The reinforcements consisted of the VMF-221 Fighter Squadron, who flew the F2A Brewster Buffalo fighters, and a large supply of ammunition and additional small arms, and the 4th Marine Coastal Defense Battalion. But on 22 December, they were ordered by Vice Admiral William Pye (Acting CinCPAC) to abort the mission and return to Pearl Harbor, for fear of losses.
At 0230 hours on 23 December the Japanese launched their second invasion attempt, and heavy resistance caused some serious losses on the part of the Japanese. But by mid-afternoon the following day, the Americans surrendered. Losses were comparatively light for the Americans with 121 Navy, Marine, and civilian personnel killed after fifteen days of intense battle. The Japanese lost as many as 900 killed and 1,000 or more wounded.
Japan occupies the island from that point until their surrender in 1945. Using the captive Americans as forced labor, they installed more formidable fortifications, but were bombed thoroughly and often by American bombers. Former president George H.W. Bush flew his first sortie over the island.
On 5 October 1943, fighters from the USS Yorktown carried out a successful raid, which led to one of the darker episodes of the war in the Pacific. Fearing an invasion, Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara issued orders to execute the remaining 98 civilian contract workers on the island who had been doing forced labor. They were taken out, blindfolded, machine-gunned, and buried in a mass grave. One unknown man somehow escaped the malignant and carved an inscription, “98 US PW 5-10-43” on a large coral rock near the site of the mass grave. The inscription is still visible to this day and is a Wake Island landmark.
The man was captured again within a few weeks and personally beheaded by the malignant Sakaibara. On 4 September 1945, the Japanese garrison surrendered to the US Marines, and all Japanese officers were taken into custody. While there, several of them wrote notes telling of the massacre and committed hara-kiri. Sakaibara and his immediate subordinate were convicted of war crimes, and while the subordinate’s death sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison, Sakaibara was executed.