The First Man to Sink a Japanese Warship – The Battle Of Wake Island

A U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber over Wake Island, 1943.

Most people believe that although the Japanese succeeded in bombing Pearl Harbor during WWII, they never managed to occupy so much as an inch of American soil, but this is not quite true. They held some 2.73 square miles of it until the end of the war – resulting in an occupation that many Americans paid for with their lives.

One man who paid for it was Henry Talmage “Hammerin’ Hank” Elrod. He was born on September 27, 1905, in Turner County, Georgia. Elrod studied at the University of Georgia, and later, at Yale University, before deciding to take up aviation.

In December 1927, he joined the Marine Corps. After a year, he was sent to the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida where he became a company officer and student aviator. By February 1931, he was a Marine second lieutenant.

Major Henry T. Elrod Photo Credit
Major Henry T. Elrod.

After earning his wings in February 1935, he became a Marine Aviator at the Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. He transferred to San Diego, California in July 1938. There he was assigned to a squadron as their material, parachute, and personnel officer. By January 1941, he was in Hawaii.

On December 4 that year he headed to Wake Island with 12 planes and pilots, as well as the ground crew of the VMF-211 fighter squadron. Located west of Honolulu and east of Guam, Wake Island measures some 2.73 square miles; if you exclude its lagoon. As it is the easternmost part of the US, it’s motto is: “Where America’s Day Really Begins.”

With a war raging in Europe, the US Navy built a military base there in January 1941. By August 19, it hosted its first permanent military garrison – the 1st Marine Defense Battalion with 450 men under Major James Patrick Sinnott Devereux. There were also 12 F4F-3 Wildcat fighters commanded by Major Paul Albert Putnam.

Aerial view of Wake Island Photo Credit
Aerial view of Wake Island

The island housed 68 US Navy personnel and 1,221 civilians who worked for the Morrison-Knudsen Civil Engineering Company. Another 45 Chamorros (native Mariana Islanders) served the Pan American Airways facility that had been there since 1935.

On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The following day, four Wildcats took off from Wake Island for a routine patrol mission, but poor visibility prevented them from seeing the oncoming Japanese bombers.

Eight Wildcats were destroyed on the ground, and 23 Marines killed. The Pan Am employees were evacuated to Hawaii, but not the Chamorros. On December 9, two more raids took out the civilian hospital, the Pan Am facility, and the munitions depot at the cost of two downed Japanese bombers.