Seventy years ago on December 7, the Japanese launched a devastating air raid on United States military installations on the island of Oahu. The attack on Hawaii was the beginning of a coordinated Japanese offensive throughout Asia and the Pacific.
The next day, President Roosevelt asked for and received a declaration of war against the Japanese Empire. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States a few days later. The United States found itself involved in a global conflict of unprecedented scale.
Within a year, American military forces were on the offensive, but the first weeks of the war brought only bad news. Allied bases in Guam, Hong Kong, and New Guinea fell within a few days. British forces in Malaya andAmerican forces in the Philippines were being routed. But a small U.S. garrison on a tiny Pacific atoll called Wake Island gave much needed inspiration to the entire country as they fought off an invasion by Japanese forces.
The 350 Marines, a handful of Navy and Army personnel and over one thousand civilian construction workers on Wake Island were left on their own to face a Japanese invasion fleet of 16 ships. The invasion began in the early morning of December 11th, 1941, with an air raid by planes from Japanese bases in the nearby Marshall Islands…
Despite losing most of their aircraft during the initial attack, the five remaining Wildcats of Marine squadron VMF211 (thereafter known as the Wake Island Avengers) managed to bomb and sink a Japanese destroyer. Accurate fire from Marine shore batteries, assisted by civilian volunteers, sank a light cruiser, a transport and two patrol boats attempting to land Japanese troops. The Japanese fleet was forced to withdraw.
Although Wake ultimately fell to a much larger Japanese force 12 days later, the victory on December 11 by American forces on Wake Island was the first and only defeat the Japanese military suffered in the first six months of the war.
A reunion of the few surviving Wake Island veterans, both military and civilian, is taking place in Guam this week. On December 11 they will visit Wake, 70 years to the day from when they repelled the first invasion attempt by the Japanese Navy. For many it will be the first time they have returned. It is unlikely any of them will be making the trip again. The youngest Wake Island veterans are nearly 90 years old now.
In a branch of the armed forces known for holding its history and traditions dear, the saga of the Wake Island Marines has a special place in the story of the United Stated Marine Corps.
The Americans that participated in the battle of Wake Island in December 1941 were part of the more than 10 million men from nine countries that fought against the Japanese in a vast theater of war that stretched from India to Alaska and south to Australia. Less than 10% of them are still with us today.
Their sacrifices liberated one third of the earth’s people from the brutal oppression of the Japanese Empire, and paved the way for Japan to transform itself from a military dictatorship to a peaceful democracy.