Was WAKE ISLAND Surrendered Prematurely?
Cunningham, Gregory R
Startling comments by Cmdr. Winfield Scott Cunningham, the US Naval aviator in command of the Wake Island garrison, lends further credence to the controversy that Marine Maj. James Devereaux overestimated the strength of the Japanese invasion
The surrender of Wake Island to the forces of Imperial Japan on 23 December 1941 was a terrible blow to America’s pride and morale. While the island itself was largely unknown to most Americans prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the fact that an American possession had actually fallen to the enemy after a bitter two-week battle accentuated how terribly unprepared we were to wage a war in the distant Pacific. Although Wake Island actually held no strategic significance, its loss combined with that of Guam and the Japanese invasion of Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines served to paint a most disheartening (and accurate) picture of America’s inability to contain Japan’s ruthless quest for Pacific dominance.
Full details of the last desperate hours of fighting on Wake Island would not become known until after the war’s end when Wake’s surviving defenders returned home. From the eye-witness testimony of these survivors emerged an often cloudy recanting of exactly what transpired among Wake’s embattled Marines as Japanese invaders swarmed over the three islands comprising Wake Island’s lagoon. Out of these often confusing and contested statements by Wake’s military commanders one cannot avoid the fact that certain rushes to judgment were made in the immediate post-war environment. One of these contentions is the role played by Cmdr. Winfield Scott “Spiv” Cunningham, USN, who took command of the tiny outpost barely a week before the Japanese unleashed their Pacific onslaught on 7 December 1941. Commander Cunningham’s amazing life story is now the subject of a new article by his great-nephew, Gregory Robert Cunningham. This masterful thesis assesses many divergent opinions which, viewed in contemporary context shed considerable light on the question: “Was Wake Island surrendered prematurely?” Here is Winfield Scott Cunningham’s Wake Island story:
After 18-months on the USS Wright, Cmdr. Winfield Scott Cunningham was hoping for Stateside duty to be with his wife and daughter. Instead, orders were received on 8 October 1941 to report to the Commandant, 14th Naval District, for duty as Commanding Officer of the new Naval Air Station Johnston Island. He was given ten days leave starting 10 October, but leave was canceled on 14 October. A Naval message was wired to the USS Wright, “Understand COMDR Winfield S. Cunningham ordered Command NAS Johnston Island. Account present emergency recommend cancellation Cunningham’s leave and he be directed report COMFOURTEEN for temporary duty as OINC all Naval activities Wake Island.” Cmdr. Cunningham thought to himself, “Well, at least Wake has trees. I felt it was a good omen since, on my first cruise as the Wright’s navigator, I had hit it right on the button. It is a low island, only 21-ft above the sea at its highest point, and finding it without radio aids to navigate by in a weary old ship was a feat of which any navigator could justly be proud.”
As the international situation worsened, Cunningham reported for duty on 28 November 1941 as Officer in Charge, All Naval Activities, Wake Island.
Winfield Scott Cunningham’s entire peacetime service had prepared him for command at Wake almost as if it was planned. On tours of duty in destroyers, cruisers and battleships over a period of years, Winfield had been battery officer, fire control officer, and senior aviator in charge of observation, all of which functions had made him thoroughly familiar with the very 5-in guns which would defend Wake’s shoreline.
As for the air defense, the planes in his own Fighting Five squadron had been predecessors of the very F4F-3 Wildcats that would serve with such heroic futility on Wake. Winfield had learned the jobs of a fighter squadron all the way from dive-bombing to the more mundane duties of administration. It was not by chance that the regulations stated only a Naval aviator was qualified to assume command of bases such as Wake.
Before leaving for Wake, Capt. J.B. Earle, Chief of Staff for Adm. Claude Bloch, Commandant of the 14th Naval District, briefed Cmdr. Cunningham. It was emphasized that completion of the Naval Air Station’s construction was the top priority. Neither manpower nor equipment was to be diverted from the job to aid in work on the atoll’s defense. There was not much concern for international events at the meeting. This made Winfield feel that he may not be going into the hornet’s nest after all. Commander Cunningham said, “When I sailed for my new command, I had no hint from my superiors that they considered war imminent and no suggestion of how Wake might fit into the top-echelon strategy in the event war did come. As it turned out, I got direct instructions later, when the fighting began. A dispatch from Pearl ordered me to put into effect the provisions of a document known as WPL-46, containing plans in the event of war with Japan. The only hitch was that, on all Wake Island, there was no copy of WPL-46.”
As a fitting farewell to its navigator, it was the USS Wright that delivered Cmdr. Cunningham and other Wake-bound personnel to their new assignments. The Wright also released for temporary duty on Wake Cmdr. Campbell Keene who was with the ship’s air department. He was to command a detachment that would help the flying boats in and out of Wake and control their activities. Commander Keene, by reason of his seniority, would become Cmdr. Cunningham’s second in command.
On Cunningham’s arrival to Wake on 28 November, he replaced Maj. James Devereux who was acting island commander. Major Devereux would continue as commander of the Marine First Defense Battalion, but he now reported to Cmdr. Cunningham. As officer in charge of all Naval activities, Cunningham would be responsible for Wake’s defense as well as its development.
After a few days of observation and coordinating defense and work assignments a CONFIDENTIAL progress and readiness report, typed by Cunningham’s yeoman Glenn Tripp, was delivered to the Commandant 14th Naval District, which summarized the situation at Wake Island just five days before World War Two would start for the United States. The report’s heading and date is US Naval Air Station, Wake Island, 3 December 1941 and it states:
From:Officer-in-Charge, Naval Activities, Wake Island.
To:Commandant, 14th Naval District.
Subject: Progress and Readiness Report.
Reference:(a) Com 14 ltr. L9-3/NA38 (5984) of 1 August 1941.
The report required by reference (a), is hereby submitted:
(1) The officers now assigned and present at the Naval Air Station are the Officer-in-Charge and a supply officer, Ensign J.J. Davis, (SC) USN. There are 28 enlisted men attached. The Marine Defense Battalion is composed of 13 officers and 383 enlisted men. Also at the Marine Camp are one officer and 48 enlisted men who arrived in the USS Wright and who are attached to the Marine Fighter Squadron due Wake 4 December 1941.
(2) On temporary duty at Wake, in connection with operations of Patrol Wing Two, there is now Cmdr. C. Keene, USN., in charge, one Ensign, D-V (G) USNR, two Ensigns C-V (S) USNR, and 30 enlisted men.
(3) Captain Wilson, Signal Corps, USA, and five enlisted men of the Signal Corps, are now present on temporary duty in connection with communications incident to Army flights.
(4) The forgoing officer and enlisted personnel, permanent and temporary are considered adequate to handle the situation as at present set up with the following exception:
(A) The Defense Battalion should be brought up to full strength in order properly to prepare and man all required stations.
(B) Air station personnel should be brought up to strength as soon as possible in order to relieve the Defense Battalion of extra duty in connection with air station activities.
(C) The general situation in regard to assembly of outfit and stores has not been sized up fully as yet. At present there are inadequate storage facilities completed. This situation is expected to improve within a reasonable time.
(D) Facilities for caring for sick and injured personnel are inadequate. Any increase in the number of cases would be difficult to handle due to lack of space and equipment at the Marine Camp. It is to be noted that several cases have been landed from submarines. The contractors’ hospital is constantly filled. Recommendations for increase in facilities at Marine Camp are being made in separate correspondence.
(E) A signal searchlight is urgently needed for signal purposes. The light at present in use is homemade and is inadequate to the demands of the station.
Commander, US Navy
The report emphasized that the Defense Battalion should immediately be brought up to strength if the island and Naval Air Base was to be properly defended. This shortage of men was to have a direct effect on the survival of this key United States forward base. The lack of hospital facilities for “any increase in the number of cases” is a dark foreshadowing for what was soon to happen. The first few days at Wake Island for Cmdr. Cunningham were the calm before a storm.
The storm came to Wake Island on the morning of 8 December 1941 (7 December in Hawaii). Commander Cunningham was finishing his morning coffee when the radioman came running up with a message from Pearl Harbor, “Pearl Harbor under attack. This is not a drill.” Cunningham immediately sent word to the defense battalion to go to battle stations and informed the air commander Maj. Paul Putnam to have four of the squadron’s planes in the air at all times until further notice. The other eight planes would have to be dispersed as widely as possible on the ground, to protect them from surprise attack. With no radar on the island and the roar of the surf so loud, enemy planes could approach at anytime with little warning. The planes would have to be the island’s eyes and ears.
The Pan Am Clipper, which departed for Midway Island that morning, was recalled and was forced to dump its fuel on its return to Wake. ROTC Ens. James J. Davis, supply and accounting officer, knew something unusual had happened when he saw the Clipper return.
Ensign Davis said, “I heard the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor when I was at our command headquarters in Camp Two. I went to a conference with Cmdr. Cunningham and the skipper of the Pan Am Clipper. He agreed to fly a big circle around the island and see if he could see any ships or enemy planes. A pair of Wildcats would fly cover for him.” Two of the fighters were just getting ready to provide the scouting escort when the 27 Japanese bombers came out of a rain squall from the south.
Dispersal of the planes became a major concern. Protective bunkers were under construction, but incomplete. The area around the airstrip was just too rough to safely place them without blocking the strip. There were no spare parts if any of the planes were damaged. The only acceptable location was the parking area. That left only 50 yards between each plane. Not very much space, but the airborne patrol should be able to give ample warning. This proved to be disastrous.
The hopeful warning from the patrol was not to come, because they were at 12,000-ft when the enemy’s 27 twin-tailed bombers slipped under the low-lying clouds at about 2000-ft around noon. They came in from the south in three eight-plane Vs, while Wake’s Wildcats patrolled to the north. The war had come to Wake. The ten-minute raid produced destruction everywhere.
The enemy bombers in the lead group scored direct hits on four planes fueling for the relief patrol and three others were destroyed by fire. The 25,000-gal aviation gas tank was hit and 50-gal fuel drums exploded like giant firecrackers. Of the 55 officers and men in the vicinity, 23 were either dead or dying. Eleven others were injured. The second and third V-formation struck the civilian Camp Two and the military Camp One where the Pan American installation was also based, incurred equal destruction. The civilian contractors were gathering for the noon meal. Dozens were killed. The defense battalion itself had suffered no casualties, but everyone was shaken by the destruction. They were down, but not beaten. Revenge would come a few days later.
At three o’clock on the morning of 11 December, Cmdr. Cunningham was roused by the telephone. Here is the conversation as retold by Cmdr. Cunningham, “Captain, this is Gunner Hamas at the battalion command post. Major Devereux reports ships sighted on the horizon. He requests permission to illuminate with searchlights.” Cunningham responded, “No. Don’t use the searchlights. And don’t commence firing until further orders.”
If they were indeed Japanese ships Cunningham knew he only had six old 5-in guns and would need the enemy to come in at close range. Winfield would wait hoping to lure the enemy closer.
Captain E.B. Greey, Officer-in-Charge of Construction, confirmed the above conversation when he reported to the Marine Historical Section on 26 February 1948, “Commander Cunningham’s post-war report is correct. For the first few days of hostilities, Cmdr. Cunningham, Cmdr. Keene and L/Cmdr. Greey continued to occupy cottage ‘C.’ On the morning of 11 December 1941, about three hours before dawn, the field telephone connected with the J-line brought a call for Cmdr. Cunningham. His portion of the conversation, which was overheard by the undersigned, was in substance to withhold all fire until the ships were close to the island. Upon the completion of the call, Cmdr. Cunningham advised us those ships, which undoubtedly were hostile, and had been sighted by the lookout tower. He directed we alert certain personnel and immediately departed for the communications center which, at that date, was located in the magazine used later for Island Command Post. Orders to Battery Commanders would have been given by Maj. Devereux.”
Wake lay inactive but alert as the tiny specks on the horizon grew larger. At five o’clock, the advance ships were 4-mi off of Peacock Point. The enemy opened fire. The Wake guns remained silent. They did not want to show their hand yet. The enemy kept shelling and grew bolder. The telephone rang at Cunningham’s command post – it was Hamas again. He said, “Captain, Lt. McAlister reports a destroyer, range four-six hundred, off Kuku Point. Lieutenant Barninger has ships in his sights off Peacock. Major Devereux ordered me to notify you.”
It was 6:15. Wake’s silence was over. “What are we waiting for, John? Cut loose at them!” Gunner Hamas relayed the orders to the batteries around the atoll and the 5-in guns opened up.
Corporal Martin Greska, USMC, had an important job that morning of 11 December. He acted as the sight for the 5-in guns, Battery B, Toki Point, on Peale Island, under Lt. Kessler. Corporal Greska also confirmed the above orders given by Cmdr. Cunningham. Corporal Greska said, “On the eleventh, the Japanese tried to invade us with a small fleet. Our officer (Kessler) was told to hold fire until Cmdr. Cunningham gave the word. When we began to fire, we hit two of the ships. One blew up and sank while we watched (the Japanese destroyer Hayate. that ‘blew up’ was actually destroyed by the 5-in Battery L on Wilkes). Our guns and the Wildcat fighters sank another ship. After the cruiser (flagship Yubari) was fit by a 5-incher, the Japs turned around and steamed out of range in what the Japanese called one of the worst defeats in Japanese Naval history.”
Battery B was able to damage the destroyer Yayoi, and the destroyer Kisaragi was destroyed by Capt. Elrod in his Wildcat.
Theodore A. Abraham, Jr. would write in his book, Do You Understand, Huh? A POW’s Lament, 1941-1945, a similar description of the trap that Cunningham set for the Japanese. Abraham worked as the medical secretary at the hospital under Dr. Lawton Shank. After the second Japanese bombing raid on 9 December destroyed the hospital they were ordered to move to an underground bunker to protect the wounded. Dr. Shank (the contractors’ surgeon) and Lt. Gustave Mason Kahn (only surgeon attached to the Marine Detachment) had their hands full.
Abraham overheard a conversation held between Dr. Kahn and Cmdr. Cunningham made on the hospital’s field phone soon after the raid attempt on 11 December. Dr. Kahn said, “Spiv, this is Gus. What in the hell is going on out there? Are the Japs about to invade us?” When Dr. Kahn hung-up he was visibly relieved as he retold his conversation to the staff present. The Japanese had attempted a landing. They had several transports, destroyers and light cruisers. Commander Cunningham had given orders not to fire on them until they were well within range. When we opened up on them, we inflicted considerable damage. Commander Cunningham ended by telling Dr. Kahn, “We beat them back, but you can be sure that they will be back.”
The Japanese tried to attempt a landing with 450 troops, but they were in for a surprise. They believed that their bombers had destroyed the island’s defensive weapons. When the island did not respond to there own bombardment they grew bold and came in close. When the Wake defenders opened up they hit hard and devastating. Despite a heavy sea, the Japanese were beginning to put their troops into small boats when Wake opened up. The commander of the invasion fleet, R/Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka, was on the light cruiser Yubari when one of the first salvos slammed into his ship. As Adm. Kajioka pulled his battered flagship out of range he left behind the destroyer Hayate that was sunk by Battery L on Wilkes. The destroyers Oite, Kisaragi, Yayoi, a Naval transport, a patrol boat, and one of Adm. Marumo’s light cruisers limped away. Captain Elrod of the Marine fighter squadron flew out and sunk the retreating Kisaragi, which had depth charges lining its deck.
After the war a Japanese authority would write, “It was one of the most humiliating defeats our Navy had ever suffered.” It was the first victory of the war for our forces. The two destroyers that were sunk were the first enemy ships to be sunk by US Naval forces since the fighting had begun. In fact it was the only Japanese invasion force repelled at the beaches in the whole war. The fact that little Wake Island had turned back an invasion fleet would be an incalculable boost to the morale of a nation dazed by the destruction at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were beaten, but they would return.
The Wake defenders were elated, but they were not out of the frying pan. Air raids continued and inflicted huge amounts of damage. A Navy PBY bomber arrived on Wake Island, 20 December at 3:30, bringing secret orders relating to a relief force that was on its way to Wake. Commander Cunningham had a report typed up marked CONFIDENTIAL pertaining to the conditions at Wake and what the relief forces would find when they arrived on 24 December. It would fly out on the returning PBY. The Commander did not know it at the time, but it would be the final written report from Wake Island. The report read as follows:
From: Commanding Officer, NAS Wake.
To: Commandant, 14th Naval District.
Subject: Report on Conditions at Wake Island.
1. The first raid on Wake came just before noon, 8 December 1941. Wake had four fighters in the air, and the battery was in condition one. Remaining eight fighters were on ground spotted about 100-yd apart. They were being serviced with ammunition and bombs. A force of about 27 two-engine landplanes glided out of low clouds directly over landing field and released a heavy load of light and a few heavy bombs. An extremely heavy and accurate strafing attack was carried on at the same time. Four planes received direct bomb hits and three others were set on fire. The eighth was struck several times, but was later put into commission. Tents about the field were riddled. Two large gasoline tanks and a large number of filled drums were set on fire. Three officers and 21 men on the field were killed or received wounds from which they died. One 1500-gal gas truck was destroyed.
2. The formation continued over Camp Two, strafing this area. Immediately thereafter Pan Air was heavily bombed and machine-gunned. The hotel burned and nearly all facilities were burned or wrecked. A large number of gasoline drums were fired. Five Camorra employees of Pan Air killed.
3. The Pan Air Clipper, Capt. Hamilton commanding, had been unloaded preparatory to use as a patrol plane. At about 1250 he took off for Midway with all Pan Air white personnel, and all passengers excepting Mr. H.P. Havener of the Bureau of the Budget, who remains and is well.
4. Immediate steps were taken to disperse personnel, distribute food and water supplies, and get aviation gasoline divided into small amounts. These measures have been continued to date, together with construction of open banked-up plane emplacements and two covered hangers in which work can be done at night, though they are by no means bomb-proof.
5. The second raid occurred at 1130 9 December 1941 was delivered by about 25 planes from about 8000-ft. The attack was concentrated on camp two and the Naval Air Station. The contractors’ hospital, a number of barracks buildings, aero logical building, construction material and spare parts storehouse, machine shop, garage and blacksmith shop, air station storehouse filled with stores and advance base equipment, were destroyed. The radio station was riddled and a large part of equipment destroyed. Many other buildings and a large percentage of equipment were damaged. Two bombers were shot down. Others believed damaged.
6. Two-hospital units and a communications center were established in three empty magazines. Due to several near hits in raid of 19 December, these are being removed to dugouts in a less dangerous location. Five more service deaths occurred in second raid, and a number of civilian deaths. Some of those killed were wounded in hospital.
7. Later raids added to damage to buildings and equipment. Raid of 14 December destroyed one airplane on ground and killed two men. Otherwise, raids since 9 December have produced no casualties and relatively little damage to defenses. However, there have been many heavy bombs, which have fallen very close to objectives.
8. Our escape from serious damage may be attributed to the effectiveness of AA fire and the heroic actions of fighter pilots, who had never failed to push home attacks against heavy fire. The performance of these pilots is deserving of all praise. They have attacked air and surface targets alike with equal abandon. That none has been shot down is a miracle. Their planes (two now remain) are full of bullet holes. Two forced landings, fortunately without injury to pilots, have occurred with loss of planes.
9. The AA battery has been fighting with only about 50-percent of necessary fire control equipment. Four guns are useless against aircraft. One gun unit is actually being controlled by data received from another unit several miles distant.
10. Only 1 and 3 units’ anti-aircraft (3-in ammunition) remains. W. S. Cunningham
Despite the present conditions, Cmdr. Cunningham sent out what would be his final letter home for the next few years. He wanted to ensure that his family knew that everything was fine even though the situation was far from good. The same PBY would carry a letter dated Wake, 20 December 1941 that said, “Dear Wife and Kid, We are having a jolly time here and everything is in good shape. I am well and propose to stay that way. Hope you are both in the pink and having a good holiday season. Trust you haven’t worried about me, for you know I always land on my feet. You know what Jay McGlynn said. The situation is good and is getting better. Before long you won’t hear of a Japanese east of Tokyo. The climate is good, the food isn’t bad, and I only have to wash my face once a day. Baths even scarcer, though we work in a swim now and then. You know I am waiting only for the time of our joining. Circumstances may delay it a little longer, but it will surely come. All my love dears. Spiv.” That time for joining took longer than both would ever dream.
A new and dangerous surprise arrived on 22 December in the form of 29 bombers and 18 carrier escort fighters arriving over the island. Aircraft carriers had to be in the vicinity. An urgent message was sent out to Pearl marked Urgent: “The promised relief force must hurry their approach.”
Admiral Kajioka was given another chance to save face. With Naval reinforcements, support from two aircraft carriers, and 2000 troops, he returned on the early morning of 23 December 1941. They were not taking a chance of another humiliating defeat. No moon was up to help the defenders see the approaching enemy as there was on the 11th.
Shortly after midnight, watchers reported barges and landing boats near the beach on the south shore of Wake and Wilkes. This time, the enemy had crept in silent and unseen with no preliminary bombardment. The enemy ships commenced firing. At 2:50 am, a message was sent to the Pacific Commander in Chief: “ISLAND UNDER GUNFIRE. APPARENTLY LANDING.” At 3:19, a chilling reply came from Adm. Pye’s headquarters: “NO FRIENDLY VESSELS SHOULD BE IN YOUR IMMEDIATE VICINITY TODAY. KEEP ME INFORMED.” The relief force was delayed and would be shortly recalled. Wake was now on their own.
After the war, Cmdr. Cunningham learned that the relief force was only 625-mi away before it was recalled. Cunningham believed if the relief forces were able to soiree forth, not only would Wake have been saved, but also a great Naval victory could have been won. It was one of the darkest marks on the Navy’s entire war record. When considering the full story by Adm. Joseph Reeves, former Fleet Commander in Chief, he considered the recall a disgrace. Reeves was quoted as saying, “By Gad! I used to say a man had to be both a fighter and know how to fight. Now all I want is a man who fights.” Historian and retired R/Adm. Samuel E. Morison wrote to retired R/Adm. Cunningham 30 March 1960 and said, “It seems to me that the abortive expedition to relieve Wake Island, and not Pearl Harbor, marks the all-time low for the United States Navy.”
The invaders grounded two destroyer transports off the south shore of Wake and sent troops ashore from both. Two barges unloaded onto the beach at Wilkes. Two other landing craft put men ashore on Wake east of the channel entrance. As these landings began, the bulk of the active defense on Wake fell to mobile forces comprised of Marines, sailors and civilians, for a major portion of the defense battalion’s strength was immobilized at the 3and 5-in guns. The only clear factor that emerged as the battle began was the overwhelming numerical superiority of the invaders.
The battle raged back and forth for hours. Cut communication lines disrupted communication around the island early. Reports were few and sketchy. At 5:00, Cunningham sent a message to Adm. Pye: “ENEMY ON ISLAND. ISSUE IN DOUBT.” Japanese flags could be seen on Wilkes at daylight and it was assumed that it had fallen to the enemy. In fact, it was a bright spot for the defenders. A force of 100 troops was landed there and was wiped out by the defenders’ counter attacks. The carrier planes started swarming over the island at dawn.
At 6:30, Maj. Devereux reported that his lines were being heavy pressed and he believed he could not hold out much longer. Cunningham informed Devereux that no friendly forces were in the vicinity. He asked Devereux if he believed it would be justified to surrender to prevent further loss of life. They had to think about the over-1000 unarmed civilians. Devereux said, “It is solely up to the commanding officer.” Cunningham took a deep breath and authorized Devereux to surrender if he felt he could no longer hold out.
After the war, Maj. Devereux would claim that the above conversation did not take place and he was “shocked” about the decision to surrender. He said the possibility of surrendering on 23 December was “farthest from my mind,” but later confirmed it was the right decision. The facts show a different story. The above discussion between Maj. Devereux and Cmdr. Cunningham was confirmed by a signed deposition by then second-in-command Cmdr. Campbell Keene. On 20 December 1946, Capt. Keene reported to the Secretary of the Navy that, “About one-hour after daylight on the morning of 23 December 1941, I picked up the telephone and found both Cmdr. Cunningham and Maj. Devereux on the wire. Major Devereux was at this time reporting that he was being hard-pressed at his command post by the Japanese, and that he did not believe he could hold out much longer. Commander Cunningham told him, if he did not feel he was able to continue fighting, to surrender. A discussion ensued as to the advisability of surrendering or continuing the battle. During the discussion, Maj. Devereux said, ‘You know Wilkes (Island) has fallen.’ Commander Cunningham answered in the affirmative. Major Devereux then stated he did not feel he should make the decision to surrender, that decision should be made only by the Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Cunningham himself. After a slight pause, Cmdr. Cunningham informed Maj. Devereux that he was authorized surrender of the island and for him to make the necessary steps to affect it. Major Devereux answered that he was not certain of his ability to contact the Japanese Commander and asked Cmdr. Cunningham also to attempt to make contact with the enemy. Commander Cunningham answered that he would see what he could do. I had heard reports of the fighting which had been going on during the night and knew the situation was serious, but no thought of surrender had entered my mind until I overheard the above conservation. It is obvious that there had been prior conversations between the two Commanders of which I had no knowledge.”
Cunningham hung up the phone and sent a final dispatch to the Commander in Chief, reporting two destroyers grounded on the beach and the enemy fleet moving in. All codes, ciphers and secret orders were destroyed and the communications transmitter antenna taken down. At this point, the antenna was good only as a target for Japanese planes. No more messages were going to be sent out. Time was running out.
At 7:30, Devereux called back asking whether Cunningham had been able to reach the Japanese by radio. Cunningham had not been able. Devereux repeated that he could not hold out much longer. Cunningham thought they had already resolved the issue and repeated his order that he was authorized to surrender. Devereux asked Cunningham to try and contact the enemy, because he was not sure of his ability to contact them. Cunningham responded, “I’ll see what I could do.” Before Cunningham could do anything, it was all over. Devereux had rigged a white flag and moved south towards the enemy.
Cunningham drove back to his damaged cottage, shaved, washed his face and put on a clean blue uniform. He drove down the road and surrendered. Private FC Jack E. Davis who was with Battery G on Wilkes Island would describe, while fighting back tears, the following at The Defenders of Wake Island gettogether on 16 August 2001 in Quantico, Virginia: “When I looked across the channel and saw Cmdr. Cunningham coming down the road, surrounded by Japanese, wearing his dress blues, I knew it was over.” Retired Master Sergeant Ewing Laporte wrote on 10 September 2001, “I was there, about 75-yds from Cmdr. Cunningham when he drove up to attain the surrender. In his dress blues, he made a formidable figure. It is shameful the enemy was spiteful, hateful and sadistic. To this day, I have no liking for anything Japanese.”
The Japanese paid a high price for Wake’s surrender. The Japanese lost hundreds in their efforts to capture Wake Island, especially in the sinking of two of their ships. Almost 100 Japanese lost their lives on Wilkes alone. The American’s gained a new battle cry – “Remember Wake.”
Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Dec 2005
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