Christmas '44 — 2003 Edition

   Traditionally, our Christmas '44 page features a tribute to the men who fought during the Battle of the Bulge on the last Christmas of World War II. We'll keep up that tradition, but we'll also feature (further below) an eloquent remembrance (by DefenseWatch's Patrick Hayes) of the heroic defense of Wake Island during Christmas 1941, just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor violently shattered any American illusions of "peace in our time." While there was no snow on Wake that awful first Christmas of the war, there was plenty of the same kind of bravery exhibited by the American boys at the Bulge three years later during that last awful Christmas of the war — more payments made toward the gift of freedom we still enjoy today.

   This page is adorned with gently falling white flakes. We hope it serves to create a "memory church" of sorts ... a solitary pocket of silence in the war-torn woods of Belgium, where similar feathery snowflakes fell three score winters ago, weaving a soft white blanket atop the dead and smoothing the shell-ravaged earth, if only for a brief time.

A poem by Bernard J. McKearney
World War II veteran
From: "Rendezvous with Destiny, A History of the 101st Airborne Division"
 by Leonard Rapport and Arthur Northwood, Jr.
Published by: Sean Konecky, Konecky & Konecky Books

The Hills of Bastogne

The crops should be full in Belgium this year,
The soil should be fertile, but the price has been dear,

The wheat should be red on the hills of Bastogne
For its roots have been drenched by the blood of our own.

Battered and reeling we stand in their way,
It's here we are, and here we will stay.

Embittered, wrathful, we watch our pals fall,
God, where's the end, the end of it all?

Confident and powerful, they strike at our lines,
But we beat them back, fighting for time.

Berserk with fury, they are hitting us now,
Flesh against steel - we hold - but how?

For each day that we stay, more mothers must grieve.
For each hill that we hold more men must we leave.

Yes, honor the men who will some day come home,
But pray for the men 'neath the hills of Bastogne.

'Twas The Night before Christmas in Hell
(originally published December 24, 2002)

By Patrick Hayes

The star shinning bright over the low, broken down structure is actually a flare. The structure is a bunker and the fanciful rat-tat-tat-tat drumbeat is not a Christmas carol, but a machine gun opening up on the line.

"Peace on Earth" has been a subtitle for Christmas for a very long time now. However, as those who have been or are currently in harm's way know, many around the world do not share the same sense of Christmas, much less "peace," as do Americans.

Confronting other cultures has been a fact over the course of American history since Navy Lt. Stephen Decatur landed Lt. Presley N. O'Bannon and 12 U.S. Marines on the shores of Tripoli in April 1805, to help take Derna - the first time the American flag was raised over foreign soil. It was also the first time Americans dealt with Muslim fanatics.

In the intervening years, the U.S. military has dealt with others who, either secularly or religiously, do not accept Christmas the same way we do in the West. On one extreme were the communists. On the other, religions, in addition to Islam, such as Japanese Shinto.

On Dec. 7, 1941, as another Christmas season approached, Americans were caught flat-footed when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The "Day of Infamy," however, did not end with the underhanded Japanese attack on Hawaii. Many Americans were cut off in China, on Guam, on the Philippine Islands - and on Wake Island.

So this is a Christmas story - of sorts - from 61 years ago.

WAKE ISLAND DEFENDERSFrom 0650 on the morning of Dec. 8 to Dec. 23, that year, 449 Marines withstood unrelenting Japanese bombardment and attacks on the wishbone-shaped atoll of Wake Island, located in the north Pacific Ocean about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii. The small force included 388 Marines from the 1st Defense Battalion under the command of Maj. James P.S. Devereux; 61 men from the 211 VMF Marine Fighter Squadron (Grumman F4F Wildcats), under the command of Maj. Paul A. Putnam; 68 Navy personnel, including the island's commanding officer, Cmdr. Winfield Scott Cunningham; five Army communications personnel, 70 civilian Pan American Airlines workers, and 1,146 civilian contract construction workers. Only the Marines were armed - with side arms and Springfield 1903 bolt-action rifles - in addition to a few automatic weapons.

On the morning of Dec. 8, four of the Grumman Wildcats had taken off to patrol the north in search of the Japanese. Before noon, 36 twin-engine bombers approaching from the south attacked the island. Without radar, with low visibility and the constant pounding of the surf, the defenders did not detect the Japanese attack until 15 seconds before the first bombs fell. Within the first ten minutes of constant bombing, the Japanese destroyed seven of the eight remaining Grumman fighters. Twenty-three aviation Marines and ten civilians were killed, and 11 Marines were wounded.

The civilian construction workers helped to tend the wounded and worked with the Marines to block and mine the landing strip to prevent enemy planes from landing.

The Japanese pounded Wake Island nonstop for the next two days. With few places left to keep out of the fire and shrapnel, only three of the Grummans were left operational. But using salvage and know-how, the Marines kept those remaining aircraft flying and were later able to add to the number.

During one enemy raid, Lt. David D. Kliewer and Tech. Sgt. William J. Hamilton shot down one of the bombers, while Capt. Henry T. Elrod shot down two more.

Adding to the dire situation, several snafus further up the chain of command worked against the Marines and other Americans on the Island. After repeated requests to Pearl Harbor, the Marines were refused permission to use of the civilian construction workers to help bury the vulnerable communications lines that ran from the CP to the shore batteries, allowing the enemy to destroy the wires during the repeated bombing raids.

At Pearl Harbor, a shaken Pacific Fleet command tried to organize a relief mission built around the aircraft carriers USS Lexington, USS Enterprise and USS Saratoga to save the beleaguered island. But senior fleet officials, paralyzed by indecisiveness in the wake of the Dec. 7 attack, stalled on the request out of fear that the task force - particularly the irreplaceable carriers - might be lost to the Japanese.

Meanwhile, the Japanese were decimating Wake Island, hitting the gun batteries and destroying the ammunition dumps, as well as the barracks, radio station and machine shops. The Japanese even struck the hospital despite its clear markings, killing four Marines, 55 civilians and several Navy corpsmen.

At 0500 on Dec. 11, the Japanese attacked the island in force with cruisers, destroyers and troop transports loaded down with Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops - the Japanese version of Marines. They opened fire on Wake with heavy guns, continuing to move in closer to cover the landing. Maj. Devereux's Marines manned six five-inch guns and about 12 three-inch guns. He held his fire.

By 0615, the new Japanese light cruiser Yubari, accompanied by three destroyers, closed to within 4,500 yards of the shore. Devereux gave the order to fire. The five-inch guns of A Battery, Commanded by 1st Lt. Clarence A. Barninger, opened up. The Yubari was hit three times. It turned, trailing smoke, and fled from the battle.

Across the island, L Battery's five-inch guns, commanded by 2nd Lt John A. McAlister, opened up and sank the destroyer Hayate - the first Japanese surface ship sunk by Americans in the war. The Marine gunners stopped firing to let out a cheer. However, old salt and China Marine, Plt. Sgt. Henry A. Bedell, got them back into action, shouting, "Knock it off, you bastards. Get back on the guns. What d'ya think this is, a ball game?"

The Marines immediately began firing again and promptly hit a second destroyer and the first transport ship, repelling the other two transports. Their fire was so rapid and so accurate that they also found and hit another light cruiser, which turned and ran from the fight.

On a different part of the island, 1st Lt. Woodrow W. Kessler's Marine gunners of B Battery hit another destroyer.

The pilots of VMF 211 took to the sky in the Grumman Wildcats, led by Maj. Putnam, and chased the Japanese ships out to sea, strafing and dropping 100-pound bombs. Then, they returned to Wake, reloaded, gassed up and went back out after the Japanese ships.

The Marine Grummans damaged two warships and a transport, and Capt. Elrod sank the destroyer Kisaragi, from which there were no survivors. (It seems the Japanese ships were in too much of a hurry to get out of the firing line to bother about their comrades.)

During the attack on Dec. 11, three Japanese bombers had also been shot down and four other limped back out to sea. Without stepping foot on Wake, the Japanese forces had lost 500 men and, miraculously, there were no American casualties that day. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison later wrote, "The eleventh day of December 1941 should always be a proud day in the history of the (Marine) Corps. Never again, in this Pacific war, did coast defense guns beat off an amphibious landing."

However, the Japanese were determined to take the strategically located island, which had been annexed by the United States in 1899. By Dec. 14, two more Grummans had been destroyed and the Marines were at one point down to a single fighter. However, by Dec. 17, the Marines were able to rebuild four operational planes by cannibalizing other aircraft for parts.

On Dec. 20, a Navy PBY landed at the island, bringing news of the planned Navy relief expedition. But just two hours after the PBY took off the next morning, the first Japanese carrier-based dive-bombers and fighter planes attacked Wake Island in preparation for another attempted landing. In that attack, D Battery was almost destroyed.

By Dec. 22, only two Grumman fighters were operational. Capt. Herbert C. Frealer and 2nd Lt. Carl R. Davidson took off to attack 33 carrier dive-bombers and six Zero fighters heading for Wake. As Davidson dived on one of the bombers, a Zero shot him down. Freuler attacked and shot down a Zero before another got on his tail and fired. He was wounded twice, but managed to crash-land his plane on the island.

Their last plane gone, the remaining VMF 211 Marines joined with the defense battalion as riflemen.

The American relief armada never arrived. On Dec. 22, the Saratoga was still 600 miles away from Wake, and its task force commander, Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher spent the day refueling.

At 0215 on Dec. 23, the Marines spotted the approaching Japanese landing force of an estimated 1,500 Special Naval Landing Force troops. A force of six heavy cruisers, six destroyers and two aircraft carriers was escorting the landing force.

At 0235, the landing troops headed for the southern beach under naval supporting gunfire. Marine Gunner Clarence B. McKinstry, who commanded F Battery, started the land-based fighting by firing a .50 cal machine gun into the approaching landing barges. On the main part of the island, 85 remaining Marines defended against a force of over 1,000 Japanese. Marine 2nd Lt. Robert M. Hanna put a gun crew together to man a nearby three-inch gun on a slight rise. He brought it to bear on the two destroyer-transports disembarking the landing teams and fired 15 rounds into the beached ships.

As the three-inch gun fired over their heads, Capt. Elrod and the remaining VMF Marines fought off several hundred Japanese troops for six hours, until all but one of the Marines was dead, including Capt. Elrod, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic combat flying and leading Marines on the ground.

Cut off in small groups, some joined by civilian workers, the Marines continued to beat back repeated enemy attacks and bayonet charges.

The Japanese captured the remnants of the hospital and tied up wounded Marines with telephone wire.

At 0515 on Dec. 23, the island's commanding officer, Cmdr. Cunningham, sent a message to Pearl Harbor, stating, "Enemy on island - issue in doubt."

Although the Marines continued to fight, the defensive line was too thin to hold and many of the pockets were overrun and cut off.

At Pearl Harbor, Vice Adm. William S. Pye, the temporary Pacific Fleet commander, after the relief of Adm. Husband Kimmel following the Japanese attack there, ordered the relief ships to return to Pearl. It was later reported that on the Saratoga there was near mutiny as sailors and Marines voiced their anger and outrage at the order, unable to help their comrades on Wake.

On the south end of Wake, Gunner McKinstry joined his small force with 2nd Lt. McAlister. From there, they blocked the Japanese advance towards the main part of the island.

Not far away, Capt. Wesley McC. Platt managed to maintain withering machinegun fire on the advancing Japanese. As dawn broke, he led Platoon Sgt. Raymond L. Coulson and eight Marines against a strong Japanese position of some 100 troops. The savagery and surprise of their attack drove the numerically superior Japanese force back towards the McKinstry-McAlister position. McAlister counterattacked from his position with 24 Marines and the McAlister and Platt teams joined forces, wiping out the remaining Japanese force.

All the time the Marines fought, they were under continuous attack by Japanese dive-bombers.

At 0730 on Dec. 23, with the Marines under constant ground and aerial attack, Navy Cmdr. Cunningham ordered Maj. Devereux to cease fighting and surrender the island. The order was not well received among the Marines, either intentionally or due to the lost communications with the individual units, and even those who did receive the order continued to fight. The hand-to-hand combat raged on for several more hours.

Finally, Devereux had to go to each defensive position and verbally order the men to lay down their weapons.

The heroic defense of Wake Island was over.

The victorious Japanese troops took 1,200 survivors (a majority of which were civilians) prisoner. The Americans were still waiting for a counter-attack. On Jan. 12, they were loaded onto transports that immediately set sail for Shanghai, China. During that trip, the Americans were constantly beaten and starved. Japanese guards also beheaded two Marines and three sailors.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the holiday sitting around a fire, opening presents or sipping eggnog with family members and friends, let us remember the valiant defenders of Wake Island who went through a Christmas in hell those long years ago - and let us also pause to toast those young men and women in uniform today who stand on guard in the cold and dark in faraway and hostile lands.

Patrick Hayes is a Senior Editor of DefenseWatch.