Wake, Defense of

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WAKE, DEFENSE OF (8–23 December 1941). The resolute defense of Wake Atoll by a small force of U.S. Marines against an overwhelming Japanese assault provided the only encouragement America could claim during the dark days after Pearl Harbor. Wake, a mid-Pacific atoll flanked by the Japanese-held Marshall and Mariana islands, was garrisoned by 449 marines, under navy Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham and marine Major James P. S. Devereux, armed with artillery, antiaircraft guns, small arms, and a marine fighting squadron (VMF-211) with twelve Grumman F4F-3 fighters.

Lacking radar, Wake was surprised by the initial Japanese air onslaught and lost seven Grummans on the ground. By heroic feats of maintenance, VMF-211 kept two to four fighters airborne daily through 22 December, when the last defending planes were shot down. Twenty-one Japanese aircraft were destroyed over Wake.

The first Japanese ground attack on 11 December was repulsed: two enemy destroyers were sunk, seven other warships and transports were damaged, and some 700 Japanese killed. This was the only time in the Pacific war that an amphibious assault by either side was ever defeated. As Japanese bombers pounded Wake in preparation for another, stronger landing, a U.S. carrier task force bringing ground and aviation reinforcements attempted to reach Wake, but failed because of the commander's decision to refuel rather than press ahead of the Japanese.

Wake fell on 23 December, eleven hours after landings commanded by Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka that cost the attackers two more destroyers and approximately 300 casualties. Eighty-one U.S. marines were killed or wounded throughout the defense.


Cressman, Robert. A Magnificent Fight: The Battle for Wake Island. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Devereux, James P. S. The Story of Wake Island. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1947.

Urwin, Gregory J. W. Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Robert Debs.HeinlJr./a. r.

See alsoAircraft, Fighter ; Marine Corps, United States ; Marshall Islands ; Midway, Battle of ; World War II ; World War II, Navy in .