The Ordeal of Wake Island
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Mjr. Paul Putnam,
Capt. Henry "Baron" Elrod,
Capt. Herbert Freuler

In a remote spot in the vast Pacific ocean, another courageous battle was reaching a climax. Almost halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines, sits a tiny wishbone-shaped atoll named Wake Island. Garrisoned by approximately 500 officers and men, mostly marines, Wake was also on the Japanese timetable for conquest. Again actual invasion was planned.

Major Paul Putnam had led his twelve US Marine Grumman F4F Wildcats from the deck of the Enterprise to Wake previously on December 4th. These blue, stubby Wildcats were new to his pilots and completely unfamiliar to the mechanics on the tiny island. Even with Putnam's squadron, the Wake defenders knew it would be almost impossible to prepare for coming attacks. They had no radar, and little hope that further reinforcements would reach them.

A few hours after the initial wave of bombers struck Pearl Harbor, thirty-six Japanese Betty bombers came in undetected from the south, and blasted Wake. Eight of Putnam's Wildcats were destroyed, but the four that were left put up a gallant fight, which helped delay the final capture of the island for two weeks.

The next day the four Wildcats were waiting for the Bettys. They shot down one, and others were damaged by anti-aircraft fire. On December 10th, Captain Henry "Baron" Elrod destroyed two more enemy bombers in a vicious fight over the island.

Late that night, a Japanese landing force approached Wake. Major James Devereux, the Marine commander, withheld his shore batteries until the Japanese force was only 4500 yards away, and then he let go with every gun on Wake Island. A destroyer was sunk, the first Japanese warship to be sent to the bottom in the war, and several other ships were hit.

In the meantime, Major Putnam's four Wildcats, armed with 100-pound bombs, were bearing down on the retreating ships. The little fighter planes flew out again and again, ten times in all, to attack this fleet of three cruisers, six destroyers and several transports. One of Captain Elrod's bombs scored a direct hit on the destroyer Kisaragi, and then he and Lieutenant Frank "Duke" Therin, raked the doomed ship with their machine guns. It is not known how many hundreds of enemy sailors and assault troops were killed by the fighter pilots of Putnam's squadron, but Japanese Admiral Kajioka gave credit where credit was due. In his diary he wrote, "Dec. 11: Wake Island landing after sunset unsuccessful, because of fighter plane opposition."

Without reinforcements, the fall of Wake was only a matter of time. Yet, the strength of the resistance was so upsetting to the Japanese, that Yamamoto ordered the man who led the force which attacked Pearl Harbor, Admiral Nagumo, to take his 2nd Carrier Division to Wake.

The next morning, December 12th, the Wildcat pilots attacked thirty more Betty bombers, even though only two Grummans were still in flyable condition. Each day the fighters took off to intercept, and each day the mechanics on the ground patched them up, using engines and propellers from other damaged F4Fs.

Then on December 22nd, the inevitable happened. Japanese bombers arrived over Wake with an escort of agile Zero fighters. Captain Herbert Freuler blasted one of the Zeros out of the sky, but soon his plane was hit, as was the other, last remaining Wildcat on Wake.

The few survivors of Putnam's squadron now became infantrymen. Just after midnight on the twenty-third of December, the Japanese finally landed on Wake. The fighting was brief, but furious. Major Putnam was shot through the jaw. Elrod was killed while throwing a hand grenade. By sundown on December 24th Christmas Eve, the American flag had been lowered on Wake Island. Its gallant defenders received the first Presidential citation of the war, but they knew nothing about it until five years later when they were released by the defeated Japanese. Captain Elrod was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

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