The story of the Wake Island defenders in December 1941 has inspired generations of Americans, but the island is so remote that few ever get the chance to see the site of their courage.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff remedied that for his staff on his way back from the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultation in Sydney today.
“We had to have a fuel stop for the plane, so I thought why not at Wake,” Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford told reporters traveling with him.
Dunford had been to the island before when serving as the senior aide to Gen. Carl Mundy, the commandant of the Marine Corps from 1991 to 1995 -- the period covering the 50th anniversary of World War II. “General Mundy used to say that the defense of Wake and the story of Jimmy Devereux was what really inspired him to join the Marine Corps,” the general said.
The then-six-year-old future commandant was not the only one inspired by the defense of Wake Island -- Americans everywhere were electrified by the efforts of the service members there.
Then-Marine Corps Maj. James Devereux was the commander of the 1st Defense Battalion on the island when Japanese forces attacked just a few hours after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese destroyed eight of 12 Marine Corps Grumman Wildcat fighters on the island and raided several more times. Civilian contractors joined with the 450 Marines to hold off any attempt to take the island.
On Dec. 11, 1941, they did just that, holding fire with their coastal artillery until the Japanese approached the island. The gunners sank a Japanese destroyer and a submarine and the four Wildcats sank another Japanese destroyer.
The South Seas Fleet beat a hasty retreat.
But the Japanese came back on December 23 with many more ships, including two of the aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor. They stayed outside the range of Devereux’s guns and hammered their positions as more than 1,500 Japanese marines stormed the beaches. The Wake Island defenders had no choice but to surrender.
“I thought it would be a great place to stop and share the history of Wake Island with the rest of the team,” Dunford said.
Dunford and his staff donned exercise gear and ran the four-mile course, stopping at various World War II sites along the way. Air Force personnel based on the island accompanied the party, pointing out the sites of interest. “What affected all of us was the rock with the 98 carved into it,” the general said.
The rock is a boulder of coral with “98 PW 5-10-43” carved into it. The Japanese killed 98 prisoners of war on the island on Oct. 10, 1943. One of the prisoners escaped, swam the mile-and-a-half channel and carved the inscription. He was later captured and beheaded by the Japanese admiral commanding the captured base.
The general’s run began at the 98 Rock and ended at the Marine Memorial near the airport terminal.
“For me, whenever I go back to those World War II battlefields, you see what 400 Marines did with some sailors, some soldiers, some contractors,” he said. “They killed 700 enemy, they sank a submarine, they sank a couple of ships, they held out under unbelievable conditions. They endured being held as POWs.
“My commitment as we’re leaving here is we are not going to soil the colors on our watch,” he continued. “We’re proud to follow in your footsteps, we’re not going to let you down and we’re going to do you proud.”
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