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The gallant defense of Wake Island

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"A Magnificent Fight": The Battle for Wake Island by Robert J. Cressman. Naval Institute Press, 1995. 324 pp., b&w photos, $29.95 (hardbound)

On the opening day of the Pacific War, Wake was bombed and strafed by island-based planes of the Japanese navy. When the raiders left, seven Grumman F4F Wildcats were wrecked on the ground.

With five remaining fighters, U.S. Marine Corps pilots defended the atoll for two desperate weeks. They shot down two Mitsubishi G3M land-based bombers, two Nakajima B5N carrier bombers, and a Kawanishi flying boat--and sank a destroyer with a device intended for water-filled practice bombs. They cannibalized wrecked Wildcats and refilled oxygen bottles from tanks belonging to the welders who had been building the island defenses. And when their last Wildcat was shot down, they took up rifles and fought as infantrymen.

The defense of Wake is an old story, but Cressman uses Japanese accounts to freshen and inform the telling. He can get carried away with nomenclature (writing "a shotai of three kansen" when "a flight of three Zeros" would be easier and no less accurate) but in battle after battle he identifies the pilots in opposing aircraft, and confirms or denies 54-year-old victory claims. He makes good use of Japanese photos, too, including the B5N that darkens the sky on the dust jacket.

A relief force was dispatched from Hawaii, built around the carrier Saratoga with two fighter squadrons, including 14 Brewster F2A Buffaloes that were to land on Wake and replace the lost Wildcats. Their ETA was Christmas Eve. The Japanese got there first, and the Americans turned away without launching a plane or firing a shot. As so often in that winter of 1941-42, the United States was a day late and a carrier short.

[This review first appeared in Air&Space/Smithsonian magazine. The book is still available from "Marketplace" sellers.]

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