Relief of Wake Island

Lance McMillan

DISCLAIMER: I have been informed that multiple people have complained to Lance about the "lies" being spread in this document. To those who engaged in such behaviors, folks, this is a REPLAY of a GAME. It's not a history of the REAL THING. Thank you for understanding this important distinction in the future. -mst

On 23 December, 1941, the Japanese initiated operations to execute their second invasion of Wake Island. A covering force, consisting of the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, and several cruisers, approached the island from the west as the transports carrying the assault force built around the Yokosuka SNLF sortied from Kwajalein. At the same time, a U.S. relief force, built around the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise, was approaching the island from the east. Neither side was aware of the other's presence.

The Japanese commander's plan was simple: close the island and bomb its defenses into oblivion, trusting in his land-based reconnaissance assets to warn him of any approaching Yankee ships. The U.S. commander, VADM "Bull" Shirley, aware of his vulnerability while operating in the vicinity of Japanese land-based aircraft, decided to try and sneak his carriers in from the southeast, hoping to ambush the slow moving Japanese transports he knew would be coming up from Kwajalein.

Starting at dawn, a near constant stream of Japanese aircraft began flying over the island trying to crater the runway. A wing of Nells, operating out of Eniwetok, began with a dawn raid; they achieved limited success while losing a few of their number to the tiny handful of pieced-together Wildcats that VMF-211 could put up as CAP. Around noon, after two successive raids of carrier-based bombers plastered the island, the last of Maj. Devereaux's operational Wildcats was downed by Zeros escorting the final strike on the island. The airstrip, however, was never completely shut down and remained functional throughout the day.

At almost the same time as the final Marine plane was lost, a lone Mavis, returning to Wotje from a fruitless patrol to the northeast, spotted the Enterprise passing just to the north of her base. Aware that his ships had been seen, VADM Shirley quickly dashed inside flight-transfer range and flew off some 20 Marine Buffaloes aboard Saratoga to Wake as soon as the ship was in range. He then abruptly changed course towards to NE, trying to get out of Japanese land-based bomber range. Meanwhile, VADM Jimmu-san, the Japanese Task Force commander aboard Hiryu, ordered his ships to close on the last reported position of the U.S. carriers.

As the sun set, the American carriers again changed course and headed directly for Wake, hoping that by morning they would be within range for the Buffalos now flying from there to be able to provide extended CAP coverage during what promised to be a very active next day. USS Tangier, a seaplane tender hastily been pressed into service as an emergency transport, loaded with supplies and reinforcements destined for Wake, had been loitering about 700 miles to the north-east of the island. VADM Shirley, believing the way was now clear for Tangier to close on Wake, ordered the slow-moving transport and her escorting destroyers to commence their approach.

Through the night, the Japanese carrier and invasion forces converged on a point about 200 miles south-west of Wake. They rendezvoused about an hour after sunrise and it was there that a Dauntless scout off Enterprise found them. Meanwhile, another scout from Saratoga mistakenly reported sighting the escorts from the same group of ships about 100 miles north of their actual location. The resulting confusion in Flag Plot aboard Enterprise caused a dozen VS-16 SBDs to be sent out against empty ocean. However, VADM Shirley correctly surmised the primary target was the first one and launched a massive 80-plane strike against it.

Aboard Hiryu, VADM Jimmu-san was under no such confusion as to the location of his enemies. One of Chikuma's floatplanes had radioed back a report on the location and composition of the U.S. Task Force shortly after sunrise. Jimmu-san ordered half his fighters up on CAP and launched every available aircraft against the Americans.

Although one wave of 20 Vals got lost enroute to the target, the experienced Japanese airmen caught the Yankees by surprise. Escorting Zeros bounced the Wildcats on CAP, splashing every one before they could react. Some 25 Vals dove in on Enterprise, and even though AA fire only managed to shoot down a few, the 'Big E' emerged from the spouts of a dozen near misses without a scratch. Poor Saratoga, however, was not so lucky: 25 Kates set up a carefully orchestrated Anvil attack and, although half the Kates fell to intensive AA fire during their approach, three torpedoes smashed into the stern of the great ship. With over a hundred feet of her back end blown off and uncontrolled progressive flooding all along her port side, Saratoga rapidly developed a steep list and capsized, taking almost 700 crewmen with her to the bottom.

The joyous Japanese aircrews, however, would have their victory celebrations cut short when they discovered that their flagship had been dealt a fatal blow. During their absence, VADM Shirley's planes had arrived over the Japanese Task Force in a tight group and, although nearly half of them were shot down by Zeros during their approach, two well-placed bombs smashed into Hiryu. One hit destroyed her forward elevator, and another penetrated through the hangar and into the avgas pump room. The resulting explosion ripped through the hangar deck and ignited a dozen uncontrolled fires. Within an hour, realizing that Hiryu was doomed, VADM Jimmu-san ordered abandon ship and shifted his flag to Soryu.

Both sides, stunned by the sudden loss of half their main striking power, pulled back slightly from Wake to regroup but continued to closely monitor the movements of their foes. The Americans, however, quickly lost contact on the surviving Japanese carrier.

Around noon, VADM Jimmu-san ordered a handful of his surviving Kates to strike at the remaining American carrier at extreme range. He realized that this small group of planes had little chance of hitting their target, but he hoped their attack would confuse the U.S. commander and possibly disrupt his CAP. Amazingly, several of the Kates managed to get past the 25 Buffaloes and Wildcats on CAP, soar over the ineffective American anti-aircraft fire, and very nearly cripple Enterprise with a near miss.

As a shaken VADM Shirley watched the attackers fly off, he received word from a USS Tambor, a picket sub to the south, that the surviving Japanese carrier had been relocated and was rapidly closing on his position. With his fighters out of fuel and ammo after the futile engagement with departing Kates, and aware that he'd been tailed by floatplanes most of the afternoon, Shirley threw every remaining plane at the enemy flattop's position, hoping to take them down before Enterprise was attacked again. Forty-five Dauntlesses went up in two waves. The largest group, of about 30 planes, found Soryu and, after losing over two-thirds of their number, managed a single hit on her after quarter; the other fifteen, mostly survivors from Saratoga's airwing, ran into a rain squall and never found the target. Although the damage to Soryu was hardly critical, firefighting efforts were disorganized and allowed the small fire the hit had caused in a paint locker to gradually spread until it reached the ready torpedo storage magazine in the hanger. Witnesses aboard the light cruiser Tenryu, steaming in lifeguard station astern of Soryu, later said the explosion literally blasted the entire back half of the flight deck a hundred feet up into the air. VADM Jimmu-san was again forced to shift his flag, this time to the cruiser Chikuma, and watch as his flagship slipped beneath the waves. In the confusion, a spread of erratically running torpedoes fired by USS Tambor was barely noticed as they passed up the starboard side Jimmu-san's new flagship. The Admiral's aide politely refrained from laughing when he heard Jimmu-san mutter, "oh good, at last a lucky break!"

The Japanese, however, were soon to receive reports that somewhat mitigated the tragedy of their second carrier loss of the day. About a half hour before Soryu was hit, Jimmu-san had ordered a 40 plane strike on the remaining American carrier that his scouts had been tracking all day. The well planned strike found the Enterprise waiting to recover her planes and with minimal CAP on station. Fearing another deadly Anvil attack, U.S. air defenses concentrated on the Kates and succeeded in downing all but a tiny handful. Wildly turning to avoid the bombs dropped by the diving Vals, Enterprise's luck held and she again emerged unscathed. Unfortunately, in avoiding the bombs she forgot the torpedoes. One inbound torpedo got through and detonated under Enterprise's stern, jamming her rudders hard over, flooding after steering and buckling the port shaft. Reduced to a maximum speed of fourteen knots, she was unable to conduct further air operations and would probably require an extensive drydocking period to repair.

Fearing the Japanese cruisers would surprise his ships in the approaching darkness, VADM Shirley detached a flotilla of destroyers to form a picket line to his south. Almost as if filling a prediction, an hour after sunset the bulk of the Japanese Task Force ran directly into DESFLOT-11's position and all four destroyers were sunk without any appreciable damage to the Japanese cruisers.

Throughout the night, "Bull" Shirley's force shepherded the damaged Enterprise northeastwards, trying to escape the enemy cruisers they knew were searching for them. Wanting to maintain a powerful force to crush the Americans should he encounter them, VADM Jimmu-san kept his force in a tight column, but the hoped for nighttime encounter never happened. Having kept his floatplanes stowed to minimize collateral damage in the anticipated night action, Jimmu-san was late getting searchplanes aloft. Tone and Chikuma finally put floatplanes up mid-morning and soon spotted the slow-moving American formation 100 miles to the north-east. The Japanese Task Force detached their transport group and proceeded towards the enemy at flank speed.

It was as the mid-day meal was being served that General Quarters rang out throughout the U.S. force: lookouts had spotted the smoke of the approaching Japanese ships. The ensuing surface action was primarily a gunnery duel, as the American cruisers attempted to interpose themselves between the Japanese and the damaged Enterprise. The fall of American shot was not particularly accurate and distributed over the entire length of the Japanese cruiser line. Kinugasa suffered a quick end when a hit on her torpedo mount caused a catastrophic secondary detonation that tore a gaping hole in her side; she went dead in the water, slowly foundered, sinking by the stern. Fires started by multiple hits on Chikuma's flight deck spread to her after fireroom and caused her to lose all power and fall out of line. The U.S. line suffered heavily too, with major structural damage aboard Minneapolis, and San Francisco; fires aboard Salt Lake City spread to her forward powder room and caused a magazine detonation that blew her in half. A group of Japanese destroyers made a high-speed run on the fleeing Enterprise, hoping to hit her with long-lance torpedoes, but were intercepted by an inner screen of U.S. destroyers. At the last minute, the Japanese ships shifted their targets and two American greyhounds were sunk by the deadly Japanese fish. As chaos took over the battle area, most American ships withdrew to the west, drawing the Japanese off with them. This move allowed the damaged USN ships, including Enterprise, to dodge behind a smoke screen laid by their destroyers and sneak off, undetected by the Japanese, to the north.

Suddenly, VADM Jimmu-san was handed a report from submarine I-134, which had been patrolling off of Wake Island. The sub had conducted an unsuccessful attack on a Yankee transport anchored offshore that was discharging boatloads of troops! Alarmed that these reinforcements might prevent the invasion force from being able to capture the island, Jimmu-san broke off his pursuit of the fleeing American ships, transferred his flag to the undamaged Tone, and turned back towards Wake.

At this point, things aboard the Japanese flagship began to deteriorate into confusion. As the sun set, Jimmu-san's own transport group, 200 miles to the south, reported sighting an enemy carrier on the horizon (the report was later proven to be erroneous); an hour later, I-134 reported being driven off by American destroyers near Wake as she attempted to launch another attack on the enemy transport; then, around 2200 hours, the damaged Chikuma, who had fallen far astern of the rest of his battlegroup, reported she was being taken under fire by a large force of enemy warships. Chikuma's radio went dead a few moments later. Suddenly there seemed to be Yankee dogs all around!

At midnight, with Northampton down by the bows after taking a torpedo forward when she brashly approached too close to a dying, but far from dead Chikuma, VADM Shirley decided he'd had enough. He ordered all forces, including the USS Tangier, to withdraw northwards at best speed. Tangier had only been able to offload a tiny portion of her cargo to the island. "Bull" Shirley felt guilty about abandoning the brave Marines on Wake, but his force had been reduced to nearly half it's original size, Tangier had reported being under almost constant submarine attack and, in the darkness, Shirley was concerned about the dismal possibility of running into the powerful Japanese cruiser group he knew was still steaming in the area. It was time to get away with what little he still had that was still afloat, content in the knowledge that he'd definitely given the Japanese a black eye. A final enquiry to Maj. Devereaux back on Wake, as to what if anything else that could be done to help the Marines ashore, yielded the defiant reply "Send us more Japs!"

At first light on 26 December, 1941, the second Japanese invasion of Wake Island began in earnest. First, the Japanese cruisers stood offshore and shelled the airfield, catching half the Buffaloes sitting on the airstrip and silencing the shore batteries. Then the initial assault waves of SNLF infantry stormed the beach; by mid-afternoon, with their entire complement of troops and heavy weapons ashore, the Japanese troop commander announced he was confident of eventually securing the island. With that, the invasion flotilla withdrew under the threat of continuing but repeatedly unsuccessful attacks by an increasingly brash U.S. submarine; USS Tambor exhausted her entire store of torpedoes taking shots at the IJN cruisers offshore, but never achieved a single hit. However, VADM Jimmu-san, concerned that any further losses might jeopardize his chances at getting another command, decided that he'd had enough - content to let the successful capture of Wake stand as his symbol of triumph, he ordered his ships back to Eniwetok.

The formal surrender of the island's defenders occurred the next morning. Reinforced by two companies of Marine riflemen, the island's defenders had inflicted over 60% casualties on the elite SNLF shock troops before they ran out of ammo. It was a bitter irony that the bullets the Marines so desperately needed were still aboard USS Tangier; she had actually brought them to the island but had not been able to offload them before she had been ordered to retreat. Marines would forever afterwards claim the Navy had been "cowards" for abandoning their brothers on Wake, forgetting about the great risks and enormous losses that had been suffered in getting Tangier to the island for even a few hours.

Taking the island had been far more expensive than the Imperial Navy had ever though possible. For them, the outcome had definite implications on upcoming operations in the Dutch East Indies...


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Last modified 21.10.2001