fore were not finished. After participating
in filming the popular aviation movie “Dive
Bomber” the previous spring, VMF-211
traded their F3F-2 biplanes for the Wildcats at the end of September; the pilots
had less than 20 hours’ flight experience
in their new mount. None of the 47 ground
support personnel were experienced
airframe or engine mechanics; the two
senior Gunnery Sergeants were both ordnancemen. The island’s air-ground radio
set consistently malfunctioned.
Major Putnam was a veteran of the “banana wars” in Nicaragua. Promoted Major in August, he had joined VMF-211 as
Executive Officer in October. His acting
executive officer was 36-year old Captain
Henry T. Elrod, a Marine since 1927 and an
aviator since 1935. Known to fellow Marines as “Hammerin’ Henry,” he had been
a squadron member since September
Since the Wildcats arrived, they had flown
four-plane patrols at dawn and just before sunset in hopes of spotting incoming
Japanese attackers and providing warning in time to launch the other fighters.
Word of the attack at Pearl arrived at
0830 hours local time, Monday December 8. Soon after, Major Putnam’s morning patrol landed. Captain Elrod led 2nd
Lieutenants Carl R. Davidson and John E.
Kinney, and Tech Sergeant William Hamilton on a second patrol. Climbing to
12,000 feet through an overcast, they split
in two, with Elrod and Davidson heading
southeast while Kinney and Hamilton
headed southwest. Any Japanese attack
would most likely come from the Marshall
Islands 600 miles to the south, the nearest Japanese-controlled territory.
Wake, the enemy had flown beneath them, of keeping the three remaining Wildcats
out of sight under the cloud deck in the flying. They set about salvaging evesquall-filled sky.
rything they could strip from the wreckage. Defensive works were created at
At 1158 hours, Major Putnam spotted dots a fever pitch. The three Wildcats were
in the sky to the south which quickly re- now protected by sandbagged revetments.
solved themselves as the bombers. The- Construction equipment was driven onto
re was no time to get the other Wildcats the airstrip when it was not in use, to preairborne; they were close together in the vent a possible Japanese air landing.
paved parking. Putnam wished the attack
had been delayed two hours, when the Kinney and Hamilton, joined by Aviation
sandbagged revetments would be rea- Machinist’s Mate 1/c James F. Hesson,
dy. Now, the eight Wildcats were sitting managed to replace the most heavilyducks.
-damaged blade on Elrod’s Wildcat; by
dawn on December 9 they reported four
Marines and civilian workers ran for re- Wildcats were available. The three woucently-dug slit trenches while the bom- ld eventually work wonders of improbers wheeled around to approach their visation in keeping airplanes in shape to
bombing point. Anti-aircraft Battery D fight throughout the battle. Major Putopened up fire. The bombers couldn’t nam wrote of them: “These three, with the
miss from 1,500 feet. In minutes, seven assistance of volunteers among the civiWildcats were blown apart and set afire lian workmen, did a truly remarkable and
while bomb splinters savaged the eighth. almost magical job. With almost no tools
The two 12,500-gallon aviation fuel tanks and a complete lack of normal equipment,
were set afire. The bombers came around they performed all types of repair and reagain, lower; their gunners strafed repea- placement work. They changed engines
tedly. When they left 10 minutes later, fla- and propellers from one airplane to anomes from the gas tanks flood the parking ther, and even completely built new engiarea, setting other gasoline drums on fire. nes and propellers salvaged from wrecks.
The oxygen tanks exploded when the fla- They replaced minor parts and assembmes reached them; tools and spares were lies, and repaired damage to fuselages
smashed to pieces. The malfunctioning and wings and landing gear; all this in spiradio was wrecked beyond repair. Camp te of the fact they were working with new
One, where the Marines lived, was wiped types with which they had no previous
out along with the fresh food supplies.
experience and were without instruction
Wake’s aerial defenders had lost two- manuals of any kind. In the opinion of the
-thirds of their strength and most of squadron commander, their performance
the fuel needed to fly and fight. The four was the outstanding event of the whole
airborne Wildcats were unaware of the campaign.”
battle beneath the clouds until Lieutenant General Quarters sounded at 0500 hours
Kinney spotted the smoke from the bur- on December 9. Forty-five minutes later
ning fuel supply rising through the clouds. the four Wildcats took off for the dawn
Suddenly, the bombers emerged into clear patrol, flying 80 miles to the south and
air. Kinney, with Hamilton on his wing, di- returning at 0730 hours to report they
ved after them, but lost them in the clouds. had seen nothing. Major Putnam led two
Short on fuel, they turned back to Wake. Wildcats off at 1100 hours, followed by 2nd
When Elrod landed, he bounced to the Lieutenant David Kliewer and Sergeant
side of the runway and damaged his prop. Hamilton. The four fighters were at 14,000
At about the time the Wildcats took off, 34
G3M2 Type 96 bombers of the 24th Air Flotilla’s Chitose Kōkūtai, soon to be known
to Allied fliers as “Nell,” descended from
10,000 feet to 1,500 feet to approach Wake
beneath the overcast behind a rain squall.
By the time Elrod and Davidson reached Squadron maintenance officer Kinney and
their search limit and turned back toward Sergeant Hamilton were put in charge
feet when 26 G3Ms were spotted approaching at 13,000 feet. Kliewer and Hamilton
managed to dive on the formation’s stragglers and set one afire. As the bombers
closed, Batteries D and E opened fire and
the Wildcats pulled away. Twelve of 25
bombers were holed by defending AA, but
all returned to their base successfully .
On December 10, the bombers arrived at
1045 hours and focused their attack on
outlying Wilkes Island. Captain Elrod led
the defending Wildcats in a dive through
the formation from rear to front. By the
time he pulled out, two bombers were
headed for the ocean below, wings wrapped in fire.
On December 11, the Japanese invasion
force, composed of the light cruisers Yubari, Tenryū, and Tatsuta; destroyers Yayoi,
Mutsuki, Kisaragi, Hayate, Oite, and Asanagi, and two older destroyers converted
Wrecked F4F-3 Wildcats of VMF-211 photographed after the fall of Wake Island, December 23, 1941.