Ususally, when we’re faced with a crisis, our first reaction is some degree of shock. In a figurative (or maybe even literal) sense, we stand there, staring blankly and not really focusing on anything, with our arms hanging at our sides, not really knowing what to do. Eventually, our wits return, and we can begin assessing our situation and reacting to it.
That’s kind of how things work.
At the time of the Japanese attacks in December of 1941, many in the U.S. military did much the same. There was the initial surprise. It was followed by the “thousand-yard stare”, as the Japanese rolled over objective after objective all over the South Pacific. And then came the chance to respond, which really didn’t get underway until Doolittle and Midway several months later.
But during that time, there were many instances where soldiers in harm’s way put forth a super-human effort. Over the years, we’ve discussed Bataan and Corregidor as places where our military men, facing terrible odds and no real hope of rescue, gave an incredible accounting for themselves.
The garrison at Wake Island is another example.
For the men stationed there, it must have been a pretty lonely existence. The island measured a couple of square miles, so there wasn’t much to see. It was situated in the middle of nowhere, about 1,500 miles from anything, so there wasn’t anywhere to go.
And as for defenses, well, they were pretty pathetic as well. Some 5-inch guns from a deceased battleship comprised the big iron. There were a couple of ancient 3-inch guns that didn’t fully function, some heavy machine guns, a handful of anti-aircraft weapons, and whatever small arms the 450 men (a Marine Defense Battalion and a smattering of others) carried on their hips. Oh, and there was a Marine fighter squadron with a dozen F4F Wildcats.
Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake was targeted by Japanese bombers. They concentrated on the air defenses, destroying eight of the twelve aircraft (the other four were flying defense). There were some subsequent attacks, but all of this was the prelude to the main action.
On December 11, 1941, a Japanese landing force arrived to take over. It included three cruisers, a half-dozen destroyers, and a pair of troop transports carrying the invasion sortie of 450 soldiers. The expectation was one of a fairly easy landing and occupation.
Wake’s defenders, however, had different ideas. They met their unwelcome visitors with all the firepower they could muster. The men manning the five-inchers succeeded in sinking a destroyer and heavily damaging a cruiser. In the air, the remaining Wildcats dropped bombs and successfully blew the tail off another Japanese destroyer, sending her to the bottom with all hands.
All of a sudden, this little skirmish had turned into a crisis for the Japanese, and they were the ones staring in shock. Hopelessly out-gunned, this little garrison was putting a pasting on a much larger invasion force. And for the first time in the war, the Japanese withdrew from an objective to regroup.
For the men at Wake, it was an awesome sight to see a Japanese force falling below the horizon in retreat. Commander Winfield Cunningham, when ordering a long list of supplies, humorously included more enemy soldiers to fight. But as we know, the small atoll was under siege, and no supplies or reinforcements would arrive. The Pacific belonged to the Japanese, so Wake was on its own.
But Wake would manage to hold out for another two weeks against overwhelming pressure…a pretty remarkable feat considering the circumstances.