Nadir of the Navy: Operations to Relieve Wake Island
December 1941

   As Japanese strike planes departed the ruins that once had been the U.S. battleforce, pre-war U.S. plans for the conduct of operations in the Pacific had been turned upside-down. Where there had been a scheme for the battlefleet's supposed operations, the carrier force, now the only potent arm of the Pacific Fleet, had no such pre-planned assignments, and December 1941 was a bad time to work them out. However, a small island outpost could have used support just then.

    This was Wake Island, a small, triangle-like atoll with its upper side deeply indented with a lagoon and with little plant life or elevations. Wake Island had been expected to work as an intermediate base for the fleet on its Warplan Orange journey to the Philippines. It housed an airstrip on the main island and a seaplane base used by PanAm on a smaller atoll to the north-west, Wilkes Island.

    Wake was Admiral Husband Kimmel's (CinCPac's) westernmost leg of the strategic tripod comprising Wake, Midway and Hawaii. It had been reinforced, but hardly measurably so, over the previous months. Only days before Pearl Harbor, Bill Halsey's Enterprise TF had delivered twelve Marine F4F-3 Wildcat fighters of VMF-211 to the island, making up its only aerial defense. From the beginning of hostilities, Wake had been under attack by land-based IJN bombers operating from the Marshall Islands to Wake's south.

    Admiral Kimmel was determined not to let Wake fall to the Japanese, but signs certainly were not in favor of such a goal. Guam, situated in the southern Marianas and the only island of that group not Japanese-occupied, fell on 10 December to Imperial troops.

    The admiral's only hope lay in his carrier forces, but these were thinly spread and of doubtful value even though only so because they were untried. Kimmel had two large carriers at his immediate disposal. One was Lexington, under Vice-Admiral Wilson Brown, the other Enterprise, under Vice-Admiral William Halsey, both in Hawaiian waters. A third carrier, Saratoga under Rear-Admiral Frank Fletcher, was making up speed in its transfer from the West Coast, and scheduled to arrive at Pearl Harbor 13 December 1941. Kimmel elected to wait for her; Wake would have to hold out. 
Saratoga arrived a day late, but already, she was planned into the relief of Wake.

   Matters were still simple: Wake was under aerial siege and required planes, men, and stores. The lift for all this equipment would be provided by the seaplane tender Tangier, under Captain Clifton A. Sprague. Frank Fletcher would escort her with Saratoga, the two other carriers performing duties of various kinds. Wilson Brown would strike south into the Marshall Islands, hopefully drawing a response from Japanese air officers that would allow Tangier to land at Wake. Bill Halsey would maintain station to the south of Midway, there forming a kind of strategic reserve should anything go wrong with Fletcher. Halsey would be in no position to aid Brown.

    Kimmel's preparations, however, would have availed him nothing had not the small, 450 Marine garrison fought off gallantly the first Japanese attempt at invasion. 
    With the first light of December 11th, Japanese naval forces had approached Wake. The force was almost arrogantly small and insufficent, and the Marines were going to show the Japanese. Three old light cruisers, carrying only fourteen guns, and six destroyers, old ones dating from the early 20's, were put in charge of providing cover, support, and escort to two even older destroyers reconfigured for troop carrying and two Maru-type large transports. 
Starting with a short bombardment, the Japanese forces quickly bore in for shorter-ranged fire, and shortly after 0600, the Marine's coastal batteries, unharmed by any previous attack, opened up on the light cruiser Yubari, and a converted destroyer stupid enough to stagger into range. The light cruiser escaped lightly; but the destroyer, hit severely, lost all power and drifted ashore on Wake, with high losses.

    The two Marus had not been out of range either when the shooting started, and now tried to flee on orders from Rear-Admiral Kajioka in charge of the force. Destroyers swarmed toward the island batteries to allow the freighters to retire, but failed. Hayate, one of their own, was blown up by accurate fire. Kajioka had had enough, but not the Marines. VMF-211 had sortied their last fighters. Although the Marine fighters carried no bombs, they went over the IJN vessels, firing their four .50 calibers. Amazingly, destroyer Kisaragi blew up in fantastic pyrotechnics, her depth-charges having been hit by Marine strafings.

    Japan had been hit hard, not so much because it had lost three ships, but because it had failed to estimate the enemy correctly and not been sensible enough to expect resistance of the kind; and it blundered right again, showing a too cautious approach to the problem and too little imagination.

    South Seas Fleet, responsible for the effort, called the matter to the attention of the Combined Fleet staff, which ordered the light fleet carriers Hiryu and Soryu of Carrier Division Two, to detach from Kido Butai (the Pearl Harbor strike force) together with Tone and Chikuma and two destroyers and proceed south under command of Rear-Admiral Abe Hiroaki.

    Both sides were going to mark time before they came close to their respective goals, invading Wake and defending Wake respectively. Kimmel dispatched Neches, Fletcher's oilier, and Tangier on December 16th heading toward Wake, with the rest of the force following. Saratoga refueled at Pearl Harbor and took aboard Marine Brewster Buffalo fighters from VMF-221. She sailed out of the harbor at midday, December 16th.

    Not much after her departure, Admiral Kimmel received expected news: he was relieved of command of the Pacific Fleet, effective immediately, with command passing on Vice-Admiral William S. Pye and then, on January 1st, on Admiral Chester William Nimitz. Pye let proceed the operation, for the moment.

    Japan's new reinforcements were still dangerously small, a victim to the prevailing belief of shattered American morale and resulting inability to mount effective counter-operations. Operations of the 24th Air Flottila and the two light fleet carriers were renewed starting 12th December with additional air strikes against the American garrison. The new date for invasion was set for December 23rd, with the carriers backing from the behind and four heavy cruisers of the 6th Heavy Cruiser Division under Rear-Admiral Goto Aritomo providing fire support.

    Had the Japanese asked the Americans for advice on how to deploy themselves, they could not have created more favorable circumstances for a U.S. carrier raid on their exposed landing forces, but it was not to be; various reasons were responsible.

    Leaving Pearl Harbor, Fletcher had received with his orders an instruction that was going to ruin Admiral Kimmel's only chance to improve his reputation. In it, the Saratoga group was ordered to refuel at every possible opportunity, presumably in order to be able to add high-speed runs in case of dangers. Fletcher complied with his orders, which resulted in his forces moving at a leisurely 12 knots - the maximum speed of the oilier Neches. Halsey and Enterprise, south of Midway, retained no tanker support, while Brown and Lexington had the oilier Neosho, faster than Neches, for their longer, faster voyage south.

    Slow movements were the reason for the unhindered Japanese landing on Wake on December 23rd, and nothing else, especially not Japanese planning. After a sustained preparatory bombardment, SNLF troops stormed the island. 
At this point, Fletcher was still 200nm miles out, with Tangier somewhat behind him. His attack squadrons were roughly within range of the invaders, but not his fighters. Fletcher was determined to attack the Japanese, but he was not to get a chance. Vice-Admiral Pye had decided otherwise. The interim CinCPac was in a critical situation. The fall of Wake would shatter American morale, already heading towards a breaking point. However, he could not risk the loss of Saratoga, and would not. Pye ordered Fletcher to abandon his mission; Fletcher, though shocked, complied. The gallant defenders of Wake would be left alone, and had to surrender on Christmas Day 1941 after inflicting severe casualties on Japanese invaders.

    Judging the relief of Wake, or better, the failure to relieve the island, is difficult, because it is a defeat that was preventable, but also one for which no one can be made responsible. Only questions remain: why was Halsey not used in a relief, but as reserve? Why was Fletcher ordered to refuel as often as possible?

    Wake marked the lowest point in U.S. Navy morale ever reached. A victory at Wake would have heightened spirits, but it would not have achieved anything of importance, strategically. Wake would have been another Midway, but more dangerous to defend. It would have been impossible to retain in the long-term - likely, even the short term would have been impossible. COMAIRPAC retained no aerial reserves of note, and the Brewster Buffalo fighters aboard Saratoga would not have held the line for long against Kido Butai's Zero fighters. 

    Wake would certainly have attracted the attention of major Japanese forces, and certainly that of Admiral Nagumo's four remaining flattops. There was no way U.S. forces could have withstood such an attack, not in early 1942. 
Thus, it must be judged, the relief of Wake, if it had been executed, probably would have succeeded but should not have, and it is neither a fault of Pye's, who can not be blamed for failing to risk the entire Pacific Fleet as interim CinCPac, nor Fletcher's, nor Kimmel's. 

    In the same way it must be judged that Japan was extraordinarily lucky in securing Wake without heavy losses, as the first landing attempt certainly would have warranted and the second landing attempt certainly would have caused had not Fletcher been ordered to retire