Japan started the Pacific War with an explosive campaign of conquest and attack from Malaysia to Pearl Harbor. For the allies, it was almost entirely bad news. One of the few bright spots in those first few months of the war was the stubborn defense of Wake Island.
After the jump, one of the defenders of that tiny atoll.
Wake was part of string of American bases across the Pacific. It is just over 1000 miles from Midway, and slightly further to Guam. It has no indigenous population, and first became meaningful late in the 19th century as a telegraph station for the trans-oceanic cable. In the 1930s it acquired additional importance as a lay over for Pan Am Airlines on their routes connecting the west coast of the United States to The Philippines and China.
When Japan went to war, they made a priority of severing that line by capturing Wake and Guam. Guam fell quickly. But Wake had been reinforced, starting several months earlier. There were 388 Marines of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, plus Naval medical and technical personnel. Then in December of 1941, 12 Wildcats of VMF-211 (“Marine Fighting 211”) were flown in from the USS Enterprise. This delivery mission assured that the Enterprise was not in Pearl Harbor that first Sunday of December.
On the first day of the war (December 8 on Wake, being on the other side of the International Date Line) the defenders of Wake were not caught asleep. But they had no radar, and no revetments for planes on the ground. So when a standing patrol of four Wildcats missed the incoming Japanese, seven of the eight remaining planes were destroyed on the ground. The surviving five planes would not miss again. In the next two weeks they scored possibly 20 kills before they lost the last of their planes.
The first Japanese invasion attempt was on December 11. The Japanese assumed Wake had been neutralized by three days of heavy bombing. The Marines held fire until Japanese cruisers and destroyers closed to 4000 yds. This was considered point blank range, which the Marines desired since many of their shore batteries didn’t have range finders. When they did open fire, it would be the only time in World War Two when an amphibious assault was defeated by shore based artillery. The destroyer Hayate was sunk by one of the first salvos, and several other ships were seriously damaged. VMF-211 scrambled four planes when the guns opened fire, they attacked with bombs and machine gun fire. Capt Hank Elrod became the first man in history to sink a warship with a fighter type aircraft when he hit and sank the destroyer Kisaragi.
This battle gave rise to another of those persistent myths that are hard to erase. Coded radio messages routinely have extra words and phrases inserted known as “padding” to increase complexity. Apparently when Pearl Harbor inquired what the island’s status was after the battle, the phrases “send us” and “more Japs” were inserted as padding. Somehow this was leaked to the press (perhaps not accidentally! Some one had have kept the padding and deleted the message!) and it was widely distributed as a symbol of defiance. Post war, the surviving defenders were shocked to discover something they had never meant to say was regarded as part of their story.
A relief force was assembled, built around the carriers Enterprise and Lexington, with more fighters and troops. But when intelligence revealed a new Japanese invasion force was also closing on the island, the rescue mission was canceled. CincPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific. Admiral Pye) was unwilling to risk two carriers after the losses at Pearl Harbor, for an island considered expendable. Apparently talk in the task force turned mutinous, and the mission nearly went forward regardless of orders.
Had the mission continued, it would have arrived on December 23, during the second Japanese invasion. The defenders fought until their heavy artillery was spent, they were running low on ammunition, they knew their relief had been canceled, and communications were cut off. They apparently killed about 700 Japanese for 50 losses.
In addition to surviving Navy and Marine personnel, the Japanese captured civilian workers who had been hired by the Navy to upgrade the island’s defenses and airfield. After the military personnel were evacuated to POW camps, the civilians remained behind to finish the construction work for the Japanese. When the work was complete, the 98 civilians were executed.
The fate of civilian workers on Wake Island led to the Navy organizing militarized Construction Battalions, known as “SeaBees”. These workers received basic combat and survival training; to better protect themselves, and get whatever additional protection may come from being in uniform.
This Wildcat is from the Tamiya F4F-4 kit with Superscale decals. It was backdated to an F4F-3 with the conversion set by Just Plane Stuff. I found this a pretty simple build, even with the conversion. Which is funny because the conversion set seems to have a poor reputation. I’ve seen it criticized for fit, texture and detail. But it all works well for me. It seemed to fit well; the texture is slightly different than the kit’s, but not noticeably so under a coat of paint; and the detail complaints strike me as silly. The panels over the wing machine guns, and flotation bags are perhaps raised too proud of where they would be on the actual aircraft. But again, under paint and weathering, I think the “defect” is barely noticeable.
The only real complaint I would have is the cost of buying a Tamiya kit and the conversion. But the wing of the -3 Wildcat is very different from the -4 the kit is meant to represent. So several years back when I bought a couple of these sets, I felt I had no other choice if I wanted to avoid scratch building that I believe is beyond me. More recently, the Chinese company Hobby Boss released a full kit of the F4F-3. This is cheap, and definitely the more practical way to go. But, I have built the FM-2 version of this kit and found numerous problems with it. It was not a fun project. I think the conversion will remain the preferred way to go for me, unless Tamiya eventually releases a F4F-3.
Up Next: Kubelwagen Type 82