- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

Everyone knows that 60 years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States suffered a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor that cost more than 2,400 American lives and launched the nation into a world war. What few people remember is that another attack took place on the same day, and that assault gave America its first chance to fight back and show the world how we respond when provoked by an enemy.

Located more than 2,000 miles from Hawaii, the men on Wake Island were informed about Pearl Harbor just hours before they themselves were hit. Wake's fighters didn't have the new invention called radar, and the crashing of the waves around the tiny atoll was so loud that they couldn't hear the approach of the Japanese bombers. They didn't even have enough bunkers to protect the 500 Marines, sailors and soldiers on the island let alone the more than 1,500 civilian construction workers there at the start of the war. By any estimate, Wake Island's inhabitants were little more than sitting ducks waiting helplessly for the inevitable end to come.

Yet the outnumbered and outgunned men of Wake held out for two weeks, sank two Japanese destroyers and damaged several other ships. They killed at least 400 Japanese sailors and pilots, shot down at least seven bombers and damaged more than 20 other aircraft. The island's defenders were also the only fighting force during the entire Second World War to repel an amphibious landing.

In 1941, the American facility on Wake was our nearest outpost to the Japanese home islands and an important refueling base for the Clipper, the trans-Pacific airboat operated by Pan American Airlines. Pre-war plans existed to make Wake an important naval base in U.S. Pacific fleet operations. The island's strategic value also made it one of Japan's first targets in its war against the western powers. To stop the Imperial Navy, Wake's defenders had 12 F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft (which were reduced to just four after the first attack), and a handful of poorly equipped, undermanned artillery batteries.

Fortunately, however, Winfield Cunningham, the commander of the naval air base, Maj. James Devereux, the leader of the island's Marine contingent, and Maj. Paul Putnam, the commander of Wake's pilots, were imaginative, resourceful and courageous leaders. Devereux protected the island's few anti-aircraft guns by having the batteries moved nearly every night and setting up decoys in the old positions to fool the Japanese bombers the next day. Putnam and his pilots kept their Wildcats flying despite having no spare parts and no trained mechanics to make repairs. And Cunningham and Devereux had the island's artillery hold fire until the warships leading the first amphibious landing attempt on Dec. 10 were close enough to be hit with the island's guns. As a result, the Japanese lost two destroyers, several other ships were seriously damaged and the landing was stopped.

To an America incensed by Japan's assault, the news of Wake's bloodying of the enemy was a powerful tonic in a troubled time. One of the war's first rallying cries was coined when Devereux supposedly told the War Department to "Send us more Japs" when asked what supplies he needed after beating back the failed landing attempt. Wake's defenders became the war's first American heroes and role models for the millions of their countrymen who rushed to join the fledgling war effort.

As energizing as Wake's stand was to the nation, it was ultimately a lost cause. Much of the Pacific Fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. could not risk its remaining warships to relieve the doomed island and rescue its defenders. The Japanese Navy regrouped, called in several of the aircraft carriers that had been used to strike Hawaii and launched a second landing on Dec. 22. The island was overrun and the defenders were forced to surrender. Even so, Wake's warriors battled nobly and made the Japanese pay an exceptionally high price for their victory.

The island's defenders continued the fight even after being taken prisoner. When some of the men were put to work repairing roads in occupied China and Japan, they sabotaged the highways and made them impassable. When ordered to refurbish rifles for the Japanese Army, the Americans lost parts and polished the rifles to the point where the metal was too thin to be fired. Wake's fighters also made several attempts to escape from the POW camps.

Wake's warriors were rewarded with numerous medals and honors after their ordeal. One of Wake's pilots Marine Captain Henry Elrod posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courage in defending the island during the final Japanese attack. Cunningham later became an admiral. Devereux was elected to Congress from Maryland, and several of Wake's Marine officers (including Devereux) became generals and served with distinction in Korea and Vietnam.

But, perhaps the most important tribute to the men who fought on Wake Island could be that the nation they fought for may still take time to remember their valor and sacrifice 60 years later.

Eric Christiansen is a freelance writer living in Virginia.

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