Inside the Capitol

Sunday, June 05, 2005

6-10 Wake

FRI, 6-10-05

WAKE ISLAND � In addition to Pearl Harbor, Midway and the Philippines, Wake also was hit on December 7, 1941. Although like the Philippines, Wake is across the International Dateline so the date was December 8, even though it was the same day.
This International Dateline thing can get confusing. We crossed it today, but actually it was yesterday because today became tomorrow when we crossed the line and lost a day. See what I mean? They promise to give it back to us on the way home.
The air attacks on Wake came not from the ships that hit Pearl Harbor and Midway, but from planes based in the Marshall Islands toward which we are headed. Because the attacks came from an unexpected direction, Wake was caught by surprise.
Half its aircraft were destroyed, 57 military and civilian personnel were killed and both its 25,000 gallon aviation fuel tanks were destroyed. The attack planes returned daily until December 11 when a Japanese naval task force of over a dozen ships arrived to invade the tiny island.
This time the Marine defenders were ready. With coastal artillery and their four remaining planes, they sank two destroyers, damaged two more, along with a cruiser, and shot down two bombers.
The Japanese Navy beat a hasty retreat. It was our first victory of the war and was publicized heavily. Hollywood began shooting a movie about it immediately. Public support for the 700 Marines who were holding out against overwhelming odds forced Washington to make an exception to its policy of getting Hitler first.
A task force was ordered from Hawaii with reinforcements, ammunition and replacement aircraft. The wounded would be evacuated along with the 1,100 civilian contractors. Morale soared among the defenders, who knew how important Wake was in America�s march across the Pacific, directly to Japan.
But command of the Pacific naval and land forces had changed following the Pearl Harbor attack. Those commanders took the fall for poor decisions made up the line in Washington. The new command wasn�t ready to begin implementing anything as big as the defense of Wake just two weeks into the war.
Reinforcements were reluctantly sent, but were diverted when the Japanese beat us to the punch at Wake with a huge contingent of ships, planes and troops. On December 23, Wake fell and 470 marines, sailors and airmen, plus 1,146 civilian construction workers were surrendered and taken to serve in prison camps in Japan, China and Manchuria.
Their conditions of imprisonment were just as bad as those suffered by our Bataan troops. One-third did not survive. They were the first prisoners taken by the Japanese. Normally all prisoners were executed, but the Wake defenders had become so popular in the United States that Japanese officials were fearful of their standing in world opinion falling even further.
Several New Mexicans were included among the Wake defenders. Eva Jane Matson of Las Cruces, in her book �It Tolled for New Mexico,� was able to identify some of those New Mexicans taken captive on December 23, 1941.
They are listed as Sgt. Glen G. Gardner, Cpl. Jesse Kenapah, Pvt. George E. Lillard, Sgt. Melvin W. Shellhorn, Cpl. Herman A. Todd, all from the 4th Marine Division. Also captured were Navy RM2c. Robert Epperson and Navy QM1c. Hiram J. Prickett.
Many civilian contractors were kept at Wake to help build facilities. When U.S. forces began their effort to retake Wake in October 1943, the 96 contractors still alive were executed.
Most military analysts figure that even had our Wake reinforcements arrived in time for the battle, Japan would have thrown everything necessary into capturing the strategic island. But it definitely would have further stalled the Japanese march to the south.
Our journey will not stop at Wake. The island is now totally uninhabited and even more isolated than Midway. But the fight to keep Midway six months later served as good evidence that we would have done at least that for Wake had we been prepared.

Still having problems finding a satellite, but they promise it will get better once we get to the South Sea islnds now. Currently, we're sailing through no-man's land with nary an island in sight for days. I know how Columbus felt.


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