Wake Island, a small coral atoll approximately 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, is notable as the site of the first lengthy battle between U.S. and Japanese forces.
The United States took possession of Wake Island in 1898, though the island meant little until 1935, when it became an important refueling stop for Pan American Airways Clippers flying between San Francisco and Manila in the Philippines. The U.S. military also took notice of Wake Island, and in 1938, funds were allocated to build air and submarine support bases there. Construction was delayed until 1941, when a civilian crew of 1,200 workers arrived, along with a small navy and marine contingent and an army communications unit. The base was completed by November, and a 388-man marine defense detachment was based there, supported by a variety of heavy guns, many of them scavenged from old World War I battleships.
The Japanese attacked Wake Island the same day they attacked Pearl Harbor. Japanese bombers out of Kwajalein destroyed seven F4F Wildcat fighters on the ground and heavily damaged the base. A Pan American Clipper loaded with tires for the P-40 Warhawks of the fabled Flying Tigers in China was caught on Wake at the time of the attack. Once the Japanese bombers left, the tires were unloaded and burned to keep them out of Japanese hands, and the plane took off.
The American defenders of Wake Island managed to get in a few good hits of their own on December 11 when they damaged three Japanese cruisers, two destroyers, and other ships that were part of an invasion force. The Japanese responded by bombing and shelling Wake Island for twelve consecutive days, then landing an invasion force on December 23. Unable to mount a defense, Navy Commander Winfield Cunningham surrendered.
The Japanese eventually placed 4,400 troops on Wake Island, but the island proved to be of little use. It was bombed repeatedly by U.S. planes, and ships commonly used it as an artillery range. Supplies were slow in reaching the men stationed there, and many suffered from malnutrition. Fewer than 1,200 were left alive when Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, commander of the Japanese force on Wake, surrendered on September 4, 1945. Sakaibara was tried for war crimes and was executed on June 18, 1947.