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The Relief Of Wake Island 1941

November 8 2006 at 11:15 AM
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GyG  (Login Dick Gaines)
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The Defense of Wake Island
by Lieutenant Colonel R.D. Heinl, Jr., USMC
Historical Section, Division of Public
Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps


In his first message after the Pearl Harbor
holocaust, President Roosevelt had warned the
American people to be prepared for word of the
fall of Wake. Yet before the gutted Arizona's
hulk had ceased burning at Pearl Harbor, thought
was being given and initial action taken to
attempt a relief or reinforcement of Wake.
There were many commitments to be made, however,
and few resources available. With the core of the
fleet on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, there could
be little question, for the time being, of a
sustained and aggressive fleet defense. Wake, as
well as the other outer islands, would stand or
fall largely by its own strength and by the
ability of its Marine garrison, perhaps slightly
augmented from the small resources at Pearl
Harbor, to keep from being snuffed out like Guam.

To reinforce these islands--Johnston, Palmyra,
and Midway were the key points in the inner
defensive area about Pearl--available Marine
forces on Oahu included two defense battalions,
the Third and the Fourth;[15] elements of the
First Defense Battalion; and miscellaneous
barracks and ships' detachment personnel. If
personnel were to be found for the relief of
Wake, it would constitute a charge against this
meager balance.

From the standpoint of matériel, it was fortunate
that a stock-pile of base-defense equipment and
advanced base supplies (including radar) was
already on hand at Pearl Harbor in the hands of
the Marine defense Force quartermaster. Fighter
aircraft, next to radar the most crucial need on
Wake, were already en route to Pearl from San
Diego, from which the USS Saratoga, with Marine
Fighting Squadron 221 embarked, had departed at
maximum speed on 8 December, at 1019 (west
longitude time--this would be 9 December on

By 9 December,[16] Admiral Kimmel's staff had
laid general plans for an attempt to relieve
Wake. On 10 December, the next day, these had

The expedition to Wake itself would be sent
forward under cover of Task Force 14 to be
composed of one carrier (Saratoga, still bearing
VMF-211), Cruiser Division 6 (three heavy
cruisers, Astoria, Minneapolis, San Francisco),
and Destroyer Squadron 4 (9 destroyers), the
Tangier, a seaplane tender suitably adapted for
transportation of troops and equipment, and a
fleet oiler (Neches). To divert the Japanese in
the Marshalls and to provide strategic support,
Task Force 11, a similar force (less transports)
built around the USS Lexington, would strike
enemy forces and bases supposed to exist at
Jaluit, 814 miles south of Wake. In general
support of Task Forces 8 and 14, Vice Admiral
Halsey, in USS Enterprise, commanding a third
similar task force, would operate west of
Johnston Island.

Marine ground units for the relief of Wake would
consist of selected elements and equipment from
the Fourth Defense Battalion, which, on 10
December, were alerted for immediate embarkation.
Batteries went into march order, fire-control
instruments were checked for any minute flaw, and
troops were issued clothing as well as the
hand-etched monel-metal identification tags,
still as novel as the steel helmets which all
hands had donned on the 7th. Among the Marines,
the destination was secret, but like many such it
was badly kept: "We're headed for Wake" was the
word which circulated all day on 10 December. By
nightfall substantial progress had been made in
equipping the tiny relief force for departure,
and assembly of supplies by black-out, no simple
task in those days, was well along.

Late on 10 December, however, came further orders
to delay the preparation and return troops and
weapons to their former battery positions. This
delay--which on troop levels appeared to be a
cancellation of the whole project--was occasioned
by two factors: (1) necessity to await arrival of
Saratoga with VMF-221, then making all speed from
San Diego; and (2) desire by CinCPac's staff to
complete an over-all estimate of the Pacific

On 12 December, at early dawn, the relief force
began loading equipment and supplies aboard the
Tangier, which was berthed at Navy Yard Pier 10.
Having received at least partial information from
Wake as to the beleaguered island's most pressing
needs, Marine supply activities at Pearl Harbor
could furnish the following critical items: Three
complete sets of fire-control instruments and
data-transmission systems for 3-inch antiaircraft
batteries, plus additional electrical
data-transmission cables, and ordnance tools and
Replacements--plus needed spare items--for all
5-inch seacoast fire-control and ordnance gear
previously damaged.
More than 3 million rounds of belted .50 and .30
caliber machine-gun ammunition, plus ample rifle
and pistol ammunition and grenades. Barbed wire,
antipersonnel mines, and additional engineer
tools were also included.
Nine thousand rounds of 5-inch shell and 12,000
rounds of 3-inch shell. The latter, equipped with
new type 30-second mechanical time fuzes, would
give the Wake antiaircraft batteries a higher
ceiling and far more dependable ballistic
performance than the World War I 21-second
powder-train antiaircraft fuzes with which they
were supplied.
Most important in this critical cargo, however,
was radar--something unfamiliar even as a word to
many Marines of those days. One early warning
set, an SCR-270, and a primitive fire-control
radar, the SCR-268, were stowed aft on the
flight-deck of the Tangier.

As the loading swirled to completion on 13
December, the following Marine relief force,
commanded by First Lt. R.D. Heinl, Jr.,[17]
embarked aboard the Tangier:

Battery F, Fourth Defense Battalion, FMF (3-inch
Battery B, Fourth Defense Battalion, FMF (5-inch
Provisional ground and antiaircraft machine-gun
detachment from Batteries H and I, Fourth Defense
Battalion, FMF
Provisional headquarters and service detachment
from H & S Battery, Fourth Defense Battalion, FMF
Detachment of VMF-221

While all this loading was being carried out,
Cruiser Division 6, commanded by Rear Admiral
Frank J. Fletcher, USN, remained in Pearl Harbor,
awaiting arrival of the Saratoga with her load of
aircraft for Wake, and the venerable Neches, of a
class well-known for its slowness (12 knots with
a fair wind was maximum speed), stood by to act
as task force train.

By nightfall on 13 December, loading and
embarkation were completed, and the Tangier
shifted to a berth in upper Pearl Harbor. After
darkness on the next day, 14 December, Saratoga
arrived in the Hawaiian area, but was unable to
enter Pearl by night while the antisubmarine nets
were closed. At 0900 next morning, 15 December,
Saratoga stood in and commenced to refuel, and,
at 1600 the same day, the Tangier, Neches, and a
temporary escort of four destroyers stood out of
Pearl in a twilight sortie, to rendezvous later
at sea with Saratoga and Cruiser Division 6.

Help, it seemed, was enroute to the defenders of

On 15 December,[13] the Tangier, Neches and a
temporary escort of four destroyers had sortied
by twilight from Pearl Harbor, while the
Saratoga, loaded with planes and pilots of
VMF-221 (Major Verne J. McCavl), was fueling
inside the harbor for the trip forward to Wake.
The Pacific Fleet operation order which directed
the relief attempt directed Task Force 14 to
depart Pearl in two task groups. The train,
consisting of Tangier, Neches, and escort, would
leave early and rendezvous next day with the
Saratoga task group. The mission of the task
force was to deliver supplies, reinforcements and
aircraft to Wake, evacuate wounded (together with
a portion of the civilians), and return to Pearl.
VMF-221 was to be flown off to Wake as soon as
possible. The train was to be protected from air,
submarine, and surface attacks while unloading at
Wake (anchored to buoys in the roadstead off
Wilkes channel), but the Saratoga was to remain
out of visual range of Wake and clear of the
lines of approach to Wake from enemy bases.
Fueling at sea might be carried out at discretion
of the task force commander (Rear Admiral Frank
Jack Fletcher, USN), and the Neches would then be
released for independent return to Pearl. The
task force was to arrive at Wake on 23 December,
east longitude date.

At 1115 next day, 16 December, the fighting
elements of the task force having completed a
somewhat delayed fueling, sortied from Pearl
Harbor, one carrier, three heavy cruisers and
nine destroyers in all. That afternoon they
joined up with the train at a rendezvous
southwest of Oahu, and the westward voyage to
Wake began.

In spite of the impatience which chafed all hands
to reach Wake, the speed of advance of Task Force
14 was considerably curtailed by the maximum
speed of its slowest component, the old Neches,
which could only make 12 knots, and, with the
zig-zagging considered necessary in the no-man's
sea west of the Hawaiian Islands, the actual
advance was even less.

To the Marines and seamen of Task Force 14, which
constituted the first westward naval sally of the
war, the waters beyond sight of Oahu seemed very
lonely waters indeed. No contact, either friendly
or enemy, varied the tenseness of the run. Aboard
the Tangier each day there was down general
quarters followed by a morning of such training
for the embarked Marines as was possible. To
introduce the antiaircraft personnel to radar,
indoctrinatory lectures were put on by the
technicians who had come aboard just prior to
sailing. The radar sets themselves were stowed
aft on the flight deck, still mysterious and
puzzling to all hands, both officers and men.

The few available maps and charts of Wake
received intense study. In anticipation that
Wake's 3-inch guns might have to deliver direct,
local-control fire on ships or ground targets,
improvised forward-area sights were designed and
turned out in the ship's machine shops, while the
machine-gun detachment commander contrived with
the ship's force to construct special slings with
which his .50 caliber antiaircraft machine guns
could be hoisted from ship to barges in the full
ready position to ward off enemy attacks while
unloading. The 5-inch seacoast men stayed in
practice by standing their share of condition
watches on the after 5-inch gun of the Tangier.
All Marine antiaircraft machine guns were of
course set up and manned on the superstructure.

Disembarkation and unloading at Wake were the
subject of many conferences. Since entrance into
the lagoon would be impossible, troops and
supplies would have to be lightered in. If
vitally injured during the tedious process, it
was stated that the Tangier would be run aground
should this be necessary to ensure delivery of
the vital cargo.

On 18 December, as Task Force 14 plodded
westward, CinCPac, mindful of the possibility of
dangerous confusion about Wake, ordered Task
Group 7.2, the Wake submarine patrol, to withdraw
from that vicinity and operate near Rongelap. On
21 December, intelligence available at Pearl
Harbor indicated a heavy concentration of
shore-based Japanese aviation strength in the
Marshalls, with the possibility that hostile
surface forces might be encountered astride Task
Force 14's approach to Wake. Task Force 11,
operating to the southeast with the Lexington,
was therefore ordered to act in support of Task
Force 14. By this date, also, it was known at
Pearl that enemy carriers in unknown strength
were operating to the northwest of Wake. CinCPac
surmised that the Soryu might be one of them a
highly accurate deduction.

Meanwhile, at 2000 on 21 December, the relief
force had reached a point only 627 miles east of
Wake. By the next morning at 0800, there remained
but 515 miles to go. Aboard the Astoria, the task
force commander was in touch with the urgent
situation on Wake, as CinCPac was relaying all of
the Wake reports to the relieving force, which,
however, maintained strict radio silence.

Although the destroyers' fuel supply was
reasonably adequate, their margin, in the event
of a fight near Wake, seemed slim to Admiral
Fletcher, and, on the 22d, rather than pressing
in toward Wake, he commenced to fuel destroyers
from the Neches, steaming slowly northward on a
track which brought the force no nearer its
destination. After all-day difficulties which
slowed fueling, the task force again turned
generally westward during the night of 22-23
December, and, by 0800, 23 December, at the very
moment when Commander Cunningham was ordering
Major Devereux to arrange the surrender of Wake,
the relieving force was but 425 miles distant.
The 0800 position of the Saratoga on 23 December,
in 173º15' east longitude and 22º30' north
latitude, was the nearest that relief was to
approach Wake.

During the night of 22-23 December (21-22
December, it was at Pearl), where the closeness
of the race against time was forcefully
apprehended, Admiral Pye, acting as CinCPac
pending arrival of Admiral Nimitz from
Washington, was in conference with Capt. Charles
H. McMorris, USN, and Rear Admiral Milo F.
Draemel, USN, both of the CinCPac staff. The
question was whether or not to risk losing what
was left of the Pacific fleet in what might well
be a vain attempt to relieve Wake. During the
night, as a compromise measure, it was decided to
send in the Tangier, a fast new ship, to Wake by
herself, fly off the Marine fighters from the
Saratoga at maximum range, and retire. But before
Admiral Fletcher could execute this hazardous
decision (which would have spelled destruction
for the Tangier and her relief force of Marines),
the orders were countermanded. To add to the
difficulties of decision, Admiral Pye knew that
Wake was already, in the minds of many, written
off as lost, and that some doubted if we could
continue holding, even if this crisis was

Finally, as day was breaking over Makalapa, the
decision was reached. At 0811, Hawaiian time,
some two and a half hours before Wake was to
surrender, Task Force 14 was recalled.

Aboard the Astoria, Saratoga, and Tangier,
reactions varied from astonishment to shame and
anger. There were even some staff officers who
counseled Admiral Fletcher to disregard orders
and make a dash in to Wake. They did not now that
at this very moment, some four enemy heavy
cruisers (Cruiser Division 6) were patrolling
east of Wake, separated from any Japanese carrier
air support by hundreds of miles,[14] a sitting
target for the airmen of the Saratoga; nor did
they know that the Japanese attack force was
disposed about Wake with no apparent measures for
security against surface attack. Had all this
been known, the story of Wake might have been
very different.

But it was not known, and Task Force 14, which
might have relieved Wake, spent most of 23
December refueling its cruisers, and that night
retired on Midway.



R.W. "Dick" Gaines
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"Gunny G"
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952- (Plt #437PISC)-'72
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