It was fought on and around the atoll formed by Wake Island and its islets of Peale and Wilkes Islands by the air, land and naval forces of the Empire of Japan against those of the United States of America, with Marines playing a prominent role on both sides.
The Marines were armed with six 5"/51 shore batteries, removed from a scrapped battleship; twelve 3"/50 M3 antiaircraft guns (with only a single working anti-aircraft sight between them); 18 Browning M2 heavy machine guns; and 30 heavy, medium and light water- and air-cooled .30 caliber machine guns of various manufacture and operating condition.
On November 28 1941, U.S. Navy Commander Winfield S. Cunningham reported to Wake to assume overall command of U.S. forces on the island. He had less than two weeks to examine defenses and assess his men before war began.
On December 8, 1941, the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake being on the opposite side of the International Date Line), 36 Japanese medium bombers flown from bases on the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the twelve F4F-3 Wildcat fighter aircraft belonging to Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-211 on the ground. All of the Marine garrison’s defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the naval aircraft. Of 55 Marine aviation personnel – 23 were killed/DOW and 11 were wounded and 10 Chamorro civilian employess of Pan American Airways were also killed.
Early on the morning of December 11, the garrison, with the support of the four remaining Wildcats, repulsed the first Japanese landing attempt by the South Seas Force, which included the light cruisers Yubari, Tenryū, and Tatsuta; the destroyers Yayoi, Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Hayate, Oite, and Asanagi; two old destroyers converted to patrol boats (Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33), and two troop transport ships containing 450 Special Naval Landing Force troops.
The U.S. Marines fired at the invasion fleet with their six 5-inch (127 mm) coastal artillery guns. Major Deveroux, the Marine commander under Cunningham, ordered the gunners to hold their fire until the enemy moved within range of the coastal defenses. They then succeeded in sinking the Hayate with a direct hit to her magazines and striking the Yubari's superstructure eleven times. The four Wildcats also succeeded in sinking another destroyer, the Kisaragi, by dropping a bomb on her stern where the depth charges were stored. Both Japanese destroyers were lost with all hands, with Hayate becoming the first Japanese surface warship to be sunk during World War II. The Japanese force withdrew before landing. This was the first Japanese defeat of the war. The first battle of Wake Island also marked the only occasion in World War II when an amphibious assault was repulsed by shore-based guns.
After the initial raid was fought off, American news media reported that when queried about reinforcement and resupply, Cunningham had quipped “Send us more Japs!” In fact, Commander Cunningham sent a long list of critical equipment—including gunsights, spare parts, and fire-control radar—to his immediate superior: Commandant, 14th Naval District. It is believed that the quip was actually padding (a technique of adding nonsense text to a message to make cryptanalysis more difficult).
But the continuing siege and frequent Japanese air attacks on the Wake garrison continued, without resupply for the Americans. The initial resistance offered by the garrison prompted the Japanese Navy to detach two aircraft carriers (Sōryū and Hiryū) from the force that attacked Pearl Harbor to support the second landing attempt.
The projected U.S. relief attempt by Admiral Frank Fletcher's Task Force 11 (TF-11) and supported Admiral Wilson Brown’s Task Force 14 (TF-14) consisted of the fleet carrier Saratoga, the fleet oiler USNS Neches, the seaplane tender Tangier, the cruisers Astoria, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, and ten destroyers. The convoy carried the 4th Marine Coastal Defense Battalion, the VMF-221 fighter squadron equipped with F2A Brewster Buffalo fighters, along with 9,000 five-inch (127 mm) rounds, 12,000 three-inch (76.2 mm) rounds, and 3,000,000 .50 cal. (12.7 mm) rounds as well as a large amount of ammunition for mortars and other battalion small arms. Task Force 14 (TF-14) with the fleet carrier Lexington, three heavy cruisers, eight destroyers and one oiler was to undertake a raid on the Marshall Islands to divert Japanese attention.
On December 22 at 21:00, after receiving information indicating the presence of two IJN carriers and two fast battleships near Wake Island Vice Admiral William S. Pye, the Acting Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, ordered TF-14 to return to Pearl Harbor.for fear of losses. (At the Battle of Midway Pye ordered battleships to patrol from the West Coast-in case of a Japanese attack; after Wake and Midway he never commanded forces in battle again).
The second Japanese invasion force came on December 23, composed mostly of the same ships from the first attempt with some new additions, plus 1,500 Japanese marines. The landings began at 02:35 where, after a preliminary bombardment, the ex-destroyers Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33 were beached and burned in their attempts to land the invasion force. After a full night and morning of fighting, the Wake garrison surrendered to the Japanese by mid-afternoon.
The U.S. Marines lost 47 killed and 2 MIA during the entire 15-day siege, while three U.S. Navy personnel and at least 70 civilians were killed. Japanese losses were recorded at between 700 to 900 killed, with at least 1,000 more wounded, in addition to the two destroyers lost in the first invasion attempt and at least 28 land-based and carrier aircraft either shot down or damaged. The Japanese captured all men remaining on the island, the majority of whom were civilian contractors employed with Morrison-Knudsen Company.
Captain Henry T. Elrod, one of the pilots from VMF-211, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his action on the island during the second landing attempt, having shot down two Japanese A6M Zero fighters. A special military decoration, the Wake Island Device, was also created to honor those who had fought in the defense of the island.
Fearing an imminent invasion, the Japanese reinforced Wake Island with more formidable defenses. The American captives were ordered to build a series of bunkers and fortifications on Wake. The Japanese brought in an naval artillery gun. The United States Navy established a submarine blockade instead of an amphibious invasion on Wake Island. As a result, the Japanese garrison starved. On February 24, 1942, aircraft from the carrier Enterprise attacked the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. United States forces bombed the island periodically from 1942 until Japan’s surrender in 1945. On July 8, 1943, B-24 Liberators in transit from Midway Island struck the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. George H. W. Bush also conducted his first mission as an aviator over Wake Island. After this, Wake was occasionally raided but never attacked en masse.
On October 5, 1943, American naval aircraft from USS Yorktown raided Wake. Two days later, fearing an imminent invasion, Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the murder of the 98 captured American civilian workers remaining on the island, kept to perform forced labor for the Japanese. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and machine-gunned. One of the prisoners (whose name has never been discovered) escaped the massacre, apparently returning to the site to carve the message 98 US PW 5-10-43 on a large coral rock near where the victims had been hastily buried in a mass grave. The unknown American was recaptured, after which Sakaibara personally beheaded him with a katana. The inscription on the rock can still be seen and is a Wake Island landmark.
On September 4, 1945, the remaining Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of United States Marines. The handover of Wake was officially conducted in a brief ceremony aboard the USS Levy (DE-162). After the war, Sakaibara and his subordinate, Lieutenant-Commander Tachibana, were sentenced to death for the massacre and other war crimes. Several Japanese officers in American custody had committed suicide over the incident, leaving written statements that incriminated Sakaibara. Tachibana’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison. The murdered civilian POWs were reburied after the war in Honolulu Memorial, Hawaii.
A 2003 television documentary, Wake Island: Alamo of the Pacific, included interviews with both U.S. Marines and Japanese sailors who took part in the fighting. The film received a 2004 Emmy nomination for music and sound.
The landings are also mentioned in the submarine simulation game "Silent Hunter 4" but appear not to be portrayed in game.