Read the Narrative below and answer the questions that follow. Be prepared to discuss your answers.
Narrative: The Selfless Defenders of Wake Island
The low-flying airplanes were a great surprise to many of the residents of Hawaii on that bright December day in 1941. Seeing military planes was not an unusual sight to the residents on the island, but these planes were different. Flying low to limit radar detection with their bright white body color with the distinctive red sun pained on the wing tips, these planes were here for one reason: to kill.
As soon as the bombs left their wings and plummeted toward the earth to rend destruction to the ships, planes, buildings, soldiers, and sailors down below, the United States was at war. Though the official declaration did not come until the next day, the real war had already begun. But the war was not limited to those on the island paradise of Hawaii.
All across the Pacific, U.S. installations were being attacked. Guam, the Philippines, Midway, and other islands were also subjected to the surprise Japanese attacks. One remote pacific base stood apart from the rest. Its brave defense against overwhelming Japanese forces would stand, not only gave the United States time to begin to regroup its forces, but as importantly, it gave hope and inspiration to the people of the United States that they could and would triumph over the Japanese. This was all thanks to the brave resistance of the soldiers, sailors, and marines on Wake Island.
Wake Island came under the control of the United States in the late 1890’s. Because of its remote location and shallow harbor, uses for the atoll were limited. That was until Pan America, an airline, began to operate a trans-Pacific flight to China. The tiny atoll proved to be a perfect supply base for the long and arduous island hopping trip across the pacific.
In January of 1941 and in response to the growing military tension in the Pacific, the United States began to militarize the island and construct a base. The first permanent garrison was landed in August of the same year. The mix of marines, sailors, and civilians began to build up the defenses on the base in preparation for an attack they hoped would never come. Winfield S. Cunningham arrived to take command of the forces on Wake Island on November 28, 1941. He had only just begun his work of assessing the island’s defense when the whole world changed.
On December 8, 1941 (December 7 in Hawaii because of the International Date Line) the forces of the Empire of Japan attacked. Like at Pearl Harbor, the attack was a complete surprise, and like at Pearl Harbor, the first destruction was flown in by aircraft. The Japanese pilots targeted the exposed airfield, destroying twelve of the fighter planes parked on the runway. This amounted to nearly the entire air defense on the island. Only four serviceable aircraft remained.
Following the attack, preparations were made for the evacuation of many of the civilian personnel on the island. The soldiers on this isolated outpost knew that this was their chance to leave. After all, how much use was their tiny atoll, and what could they do against the overwhelming firepower of the Japanese? However, they knew their responsibility was to stay and defend the island, whatever the cost, and so they would stay.
More air raids followed the following days, destroying a Pan America facility and a civilian hospital. The soldiers on the island continued to dig in and wait for the land invasion they thought was inevitable. Finally, on December 11, the dreaded attack came. Early in the morning, Japanese ships were sighted off the coast. As the ships approached, Major Devereux, commander of the Maine forces, had his men hold their fire. Once they were well inside their range, they unleased their full fury. Shells landed amongst the Japanese ships, wreaking havoc, sinking a destroyer. At the same time, the four remaining aircraft on the island, began dropping bombs, sinking another ship. With their losses mounting rapidly, the Japanese gave up the attack and retreated in order to regroup.
The American forces let out a huge sigh of relief, but they knew they were not out of the woods yet. The American media lit up with the news, praising the bravery and resilience of the soldiers on Wake Island. Those soldiers, however, were in desperate need of supplies and knew they’d need reinforcements if they were to repulse a full-out Japanese assault.
The Navy made an attempt at relieving the besieged island, launching a strong relief fleet. However, facing an enemy of unknown strength and wishing to preserve as much of their fighting capability as possible, the fleet was forced to turn back. Wake Island was on its own.
The next attack came on December 23. This attack was more powerful and well-coordinated than the first. Preceded by a heavy bombardment, 1,500 Japanese soldiers stormed ashore and battered the exhausted Americans. After a full night and a morning of fighting, the Marines knew they had no choice but to surrender.
The price was high. Over 122 lives were lost, including 70 civilians. Those remaining would be forced into Japanese captivity for the remainder of the war. Some were transported off the island to prison camps elsewhere in the Japanese empire. Around 98 prisoners remained on the island, where they would become victims of a senseless mass killing in October of 1943.
All things considered, Wake Island was a loss for the United States. However, the sacrifices of the men on Wake Island were not in vain. They demonstrated to the Japanese the resilience of the American soldier. Their sacrificed inspired countless thousands of Americans to volunteer for the war effort in whatever capacity they could. The phrase “remember Wake Island” became a rallying call for the nation. Through their efforts, the men on Wake Island served the cause of their nation, buying them time and giving them the spirit that would eventually lead them to victory in the Pacific.
- Where is Wake Island and who occupied it in 1941?
- What was the outcome of the battle?
- Imagine you are one of the soldiers on Wake Island. You know the coming battle will likely end in your death or capture. What is your motivation for fighting? How do you think your actions might motivate others?
- How did the actions of the soldiers and civilians on Wake Island help advance the American war effort?
- How can selfless actions help advance a cause?