First Battle of Wake Island

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Wake Island, an American territory approximately 2000 miles west of Hawaii, was captured by the Japanese in December 1941, but not without a substantial battle over two weeks. It was recaptured in 1945 in the Second Battle of Wake Island.


Just before Pearl Harbor, Task Force 2, under Vice Admiral William Halsey, reinforced Wake. Once they were clear of the local area, he split off the USS Enterprise (CV-6), three heavy cruisers and nine destroyers, and designated them Task Force 8. Task Force 2 would feint away from TF 8, which, without the older battleships, was capable of 30 knots. Before departing, Halsey asked Pacific Fleet commander Husband Kimmel, with respect to the Japanese sensitivity about waters they considered in their sphere of influence, "How far do you want me to go?"

Kimmel replied, "Goddammit, use your common sense!" Halsey later said "I consider that a fine an order as a subordinate ever received.".[1]

When TF8 was out of signal range of TF2 and Pearl, he had the Enterprise's captain, George Murray, issue Battle Order No. 1, which included:

  1. The Enterprise is now operating under war conditions
  2. At any time, day or night, we must be ready for instant action
  3. Enemy submarines may be encountered.

He ordered all aircraft armed with live ammunition, and to sink any ship encountered and shoot down any aircraft, having confirmed no Allied shipping was in the area. This was a shock to the task force staff, as only three knew the real mission. His operation officer, William Buracker, confirmed he authorized it, and said "Goddamit, Admiral, you can't start a private war of your own! Who's going to take the responsibility?"

Halsey, who had decided war would ocome in days or hours, and that the delivery of the aircraft was essential, resolved to destroy any Japanese reconnaissance forces before they could report his position. They delivered the planes and turned back to Pearl on December 4, planning to reenter on December 7, but was delayed by the need to fuel destroyers. [2]

First attack

On 11 December, it was attacked by a Japanese force under Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, with a light cruiser, six destroyers, and 560 landing troops — was thrown back by a small United States Marine Corps garrison under Major James Devereux, and other island defense forces under Commander Winfred Cunningham, USN. They had a small Marine air squadron with a few fighters.

The Japanese started with three days of bombing, which caused significant damage. Two U.S. submarines, covering the island, spotted the reinforced invasion convoy and gave warning, but their torpedo attacks had no effect.

As the convoy approached, Marine shore batteries responded, sinking the destroyer IJN Hayate and damaging others. Light bombs dropped by a Marine F4F Wildcat sunk another, IJN Kisaragi.[3]

First relief plan

After being pleasantly surprised Wake at held, the Pacific Fleet staff looked at their alternatives. Japan was still bombing the island, and it was uncertain when a new invasion could be launched, or what heavy surface ships might be in the area. Kimmel's war plans officer, Captain Charles "Soc" McMorris, believed no carriers were targeted against Wake, but there were suggestions that the returning Pearl Harbor striking force might at least sortie against it.[4]

While reinforcing Wake has long been discussed, and the Marine 4th Defense Battalion, then at Pearl, had initially been designated, the question has to be asked if Wake was really defensible. Valor alone might not have been enough, if there were no covering warships available and the Japanese bombing prevented improvement of the airfield and base defenses.

McMorris estimated that all 1,500 personnel on Wake could be transported by the available seaplane tender, USS Tangier (AV-9), which was to have carried the 4th Defense Battalion. He wrote "She should not go until air protection is available." Should it be decided to evacuate Wake, which he recommended against, he suggested the "promptest measure" would be to have Tangier assigned to a task force formed around the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) and escorting destroyers. [5]

Refined relief plan

Kimmel and McMorris planned a complex relief operation, using all available resources. [6]

Fletcher and TF 14

On the 15th, Kimmel ordered Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to take Task Force 14 to Wake. His assignment was based on seniority; he was a cruiser, not a carrier, admiral. Fitch, embarked in Saratoga, was the senior aviator, but junior to Fletcher.

It was soon realized, however, that only two oilers were available for TF 14, the faster of the two, USS Neosho, only able to do 18 knots. With that as the limiting speed, the task force could not reach Wake earlier than daylight on the 23rd.[7]

Pye replaces Kimmel

Kimmel reported to Washington, and Vice Admiral Pye became acting fleet commander, keeping his own staff rather than Kimmel's. Rear Admiral Milo Draemel, his chief of staff, said it was to rein in McMorris. Pye and Draemel were concerned about the scattering of the three remaining U.S. carriers, of which TF 14 had one. There were concerns about Fletcher exposing the Saratoga during flight operations, aggravated by intelligence that reported Japanese carrier aircraft in the Wake area.[8]

Fletcher himself grew increasingly concerned that he could effectively refuel, although this is quite controversial in the U.S. Navy. Samuel Eliot Morison pointed out that Saratoga herself had abundant fuel and the capability to refuel other ships, so Fletcher was not limited to the oilers. There was, however, question if any of the potential refuelers was adequately trained. [9] Layton describes Pye as a more cautious commander than Kimmel, and mentioned that Pye's staff operation was actually split: while he used his own operations officer, he still was dependent on Kimmel's intelligence and plans staff.[10]

Based on warnings of strong Japanese land-based air in the Marshalls, Kimmel, as one of his last orders, gave Brown the option of attacking Jaluit, Makin, or retiring in the face of superior forces. Brown had also discovered, at gunnery practice, that much of the antiaircraft ammunition for his cruisers was defective. [11] Brown selected Makin. Pye, considering new reports of Japanese aircraft on Makin, ordered Brown to shift to join Fletcher at a rendesvous and refueling point. With hindsight, had Fletcher continued without delay, he could have been in position to attack the second landing force. Layton suggests it was Pye, not Fletcher as usually suggested, who was the more hesitant of the two commanders.[12]

Second invasion

On the 23rd, still refueling, Fletcher learned of a new attack on Wake. Pye recalled the force, although McMorris urged a fleet action. Wake, meanwhile, had signaled "enemy on island. Issue in doubt." Only a few minutes after the recall order, Wake radioed that it was surrendering. Morison wrote that Fletcher could still have "turned a blind eye" and attacked the Japanese carriers. None of the at-sea carrier task forces, however, were close enough to support one another. [13]

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz arrived at Pearl on the 25th, and said, while he was "disappointed", it was "water over the dam." There have been many what-ifs, and pro- and anti-Fletcher factions.


  1. E. B. Potter (1985), Bull Halsey, U.S. Naval Institute, ISBN 0870211463, pp. 3-5
  2. William F. Halsey and J. Bryan III (1947), Admiral Halsey's Story, McGraw-Hill, pp. 75-76
  3. Robert J. Cressman, 'Humbled by Sizeable Casualties', A MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island, United States Marine Corps
  4. John B. Lundstrom (2006), Black shoe carrier admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal, U.S. Naval Institute, p. 13M}}
  5. Robert J. Cressman, 'Still No Help', A MAGNIFICENT FIGHT: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island, United States Marine Corps
  6. Edwin T. Layton, Roger Pineau and John Costello (1985), "And I was There": Pearl Harbor and Midway: Breaking the Secrets, William Morrow & Company p. 334
  7. Lundstrom, pp. 25-28
  8. Lundstrom, pp. 30-31
  9. Lundstrom, pp. 35-36
  10. Layton, p. 339, citing Morison, Volume III, p. 250
  11. Layton, p. 340
  12. Layton, pp. 344-346
  13. Lundstrom, pp. 40-41