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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

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While the Marines on Wake were turning back Kajioka's assault, Bill Halsey and Enterprise were patrolling north and west of Hawaii, as they would for much of the first weeks of the war. At lunch, Halsey addressed the men of Enterprise's air group. While no record exists of what Halsey said, one pilot's impression is telling: "The Japs had better look out for that man."

Wake Island from air: 1943
American dive-bombers over Wake, in October 1943.

Just a few hours later, the airmen had lent substance to this observation. In three separate incidents, patrolling Enterprise pilots found Japanese submarines running on the surface. While two of the subs escaped - one likely damaged - the third sub, I-70, didn't. It choose to remain surfaced and fight it out with Lt. C. E. Dickinson's Dauntless. Dickinson scored a near miss which apparently sprung the sub's hull, as the sub slowed, settled and sunk, leaving behind a oil slick on the surface.

After the first assault on Wake was repelled, Kimmel's staff in Pearl Harbor formulated plans for relieving the island. The plans were complicated by the fact that the forces left afloat were widely scattered. The carrier Lexington and Task Force 11 were far southwest of Wake, Saratoga and Task Force 16 were approaching Hawaii from the west coast, and Enterprise's Task Force 8 was the only naval force near Hawaii. With the political fallout from the Pearl Harbor weighing more heavily on Kimmel day by day, he ordered the seaplane tender Tangier to Wake, with the 4th Marine Defense Battalion embarked.

Tangier and an accompanying oiler were to be escorted by Admiral Frank Fletcher's Saratoga force, but with Task Force 16 making slower progress than expected, Tangier departed Pearl Harbor on December 15 with no escort, followed a day later by Saratoga and her escorts. Meanwhile, the Marines and civilians on Wake endured nearly daily bombing raids, often by land-based bombers late in the morning, and flying boats in the late afternoon. Heroic efforts by Marine and civilian mechanics managed to keep two to four Wildcats in good working order, while some of the ruined aircraft were placed on the airfield as decoys. Despite the appalling odds, Wake's pilots and gunners took a steady toll on the attacking Japanese squadrons.

On December 17, Kimmel was relieved of his command by Admiral W. S. Pye, former commander of the Battle Force, most of which was now lying in the Pearl Harbor mud. On Pye's orders, the Lexington force was ordered to cancel a raid on Makin - in the Gilberts - and sail northeast to support Saratoga and the Wake relief force. Meanwhile, Fletcher, instructed to keep his ships well-fueled in preparedness for any surface action, made slow progress towards Wake, unable to sail faster than his oiler Neches: on average, 12 knots.

By December 21, eleven days after the Wake Island Marines had repelled the first assault on the atoll, Fletcher and Saratoga were still 600 miles from Wake. The Japanese were much closer, and in much greater force. A day earlier, Admiral Kajioka had sortied from Kwajalein with a second assault force, this time reinforced with four heavy cruisers. In the north, the carriers Soryu and Hiryu were detached from the Pearl Harbor strike force, their planes pouncing on Wake on December 21. Wake's last two Marine Wildcats scrambled into the air, and though badly outnumbered managed to down a Zero before being forced down themselves. But Wake was now bereft of air defense, and the promised relief mission nowhere in sight: in fact, at the time of the raid, Fletcher's force was refueling and, due to heavy seas, sailing away from Wake.

On receiving word of the carrier-based raid, Pye's resolve began to weaken. Fearing that Saratoga and Lexington were sailing into a trap, and not knowing the disposition of Japan's carriers, he ordered both task forces not to approach closer than 200 miles to Wake. Tangier, instead of landing reinforcements and supplies on Wake, was ordered to evacuate the atoll. The same day, however, Pye also lifted restrictions on Lexington's and Enterprise's operating areas, in hopes they could more effectively support Fletcher.

But, it was too little, too late. Under cover of night, Kajioka's force had approached close to the island, and before daybreak on the 23rd commenced landing the 1000-strong Maizuru 2nd Special Naval Landing Force. On Wilkes island, 70 Marines, armed with little more than vintage 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles and hand grenades, set one transport on fire, and trapped the landing Japanese on the beach. Four hours later, that landing had been defeated, but on Wake island, two hundred Marines faced hundreds of Imperial Marines. The atoll commander, Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, radioed his superiors in Hawaii: "ENEMY ON ISLAND ISSUE IN DOUBT". (Not quite two years later, the last three words would return to chill Nimitz and his command, when they were radioed from the beaches of Tarawa.)

The Pacific command's response left Cunningham and Marine commander, Major James Devereux, with few options. The nearest American carrier, Fletcher's Saratoga, was still a day away. Tangier, the relief ship, was even further off. A half hour later, Wake surrendered. At nearly the same time, Pye, reasoning that "Wake is a liability" ordered the relief forces to turn back.

The Consequences

The fall of Wake was a tremendous blow to American morale, not to mention that of the Navy's. When Pye's orders to withdraw reached Saratoga, an enraged Fletcher finally had to leave the bridge, where the talk had grown "mutinous". Aboard Enterprise, the crew struggled through two somber Christmas Eves (due to crossing the International Date Line), as men contemplated the fate of the Marine airmen they'd delivered to Wake just a few weeks before. What made the loss more bitter was the perception - perhaps accurate - that Wake's loss was unnecessary.

Holding Wake indefinitely may have been untenable, due to the land- and carrier-based airpower Japan could bring to bear. What seems more likely is that a more vigorous and concerted effort on the U.S. Navy's part could have saved the Marines and civilians on Wake. However, not possessing the benefit of hindsight, Pye could not justify risking his precious carriers - the only effective Navy surface forces in the Pacific - on a relief mission, in the face of possibly overwhelming enemy forces. Years after the war, the Marine commander James Devereux seemed to concur with Pye's decision: "I think it was wise ... to pull back."

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