The Abandoned Relief of Wake Island
When Adm. William S. Pye took counsel of his fears
“Where oh where, is the United States Navy?”
Within the long list of bad war news coming out of the Pacific in December 1941, one item of good news stood out for the American public. On Dec. 11, 1941, the small Marine and Navy force on the strategic American outpost of Wake Island had repulsed an attempted Japanese amphibious assault, sinking two Japanese destroyers. The gallant success and temporary victory electrified the nation. But that force needed reinforcements fast, or it would be overwhelmed.
In one of his last acts as commander in chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel ordered Task Force 14, containing the aircraft carrier Saratoga and under the command of Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, to ferry supplies and a relief force to reinforce the defenders on Wake. On Dec. 15, Task Force 14 left Pearl Harbor. Three days later, Kimmel was relieved.
The responsibility of prosecuting the U.S. Navy’s war in the Pacific now belonged to Vice Adm. William S. Pye, who would hold the position until Kimmel’s permanent replacement, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, arrived. The fate of the Wake garrison was now in the hands of the Pacific Fleet’s former Battle Force commander, whose flagship California, and almost all of that command, was resting on the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
Pye’s naval career began in 1901 when he graduated from Annapolis. During World War I he was on the staff of the Atlantic Fleet’s commander in chief, where he was awarded the Navy Cross for “exceptionally distinguished” staff work (the Navy Cross did not become a combat valor-only decoration until 1942). With a stocky and pugnacious appearance that made him look more like a beat cop than an admiral, Pye was considered one of the Navy’s best strategic minds. The question now was would Pye act as tough as he looked?
On Saturday, Dec. 6, Kimmel, through his intelligence chief Lt. Cmdr. Edwin T. Layton, asked Pye for his opinion regarding an intelligence report about Japanese fleet movement south, possibly toward the Philippines or the Dutch East Indies. Pye stated, “The Japanese will not go to war with the United States. We are too big, too powerful, and too strong.” Less than twenty-four hours later and covered in oil after having left his sinking flagship, he was beside Kimmel in the War Plans Office of CINCPAC headquarters watching Japanese aircraft turn the Pacific Fleet into so much burning wreckage.
Pye’s appointment as temporary CINCPAC shocked Layton, who vividly recalled the admiral’s Dec. 6 prediction. Others noticed that Pye, after having dismissed the Imperial Japanese Fleet threat out of hand, had now done a complete about face and seemed to be particularly gun-shy about engaging it, especially when he read any intelligence report containing the words “Japanese carrier.” Even so, Pye did not countermand Task Force 14’s mission. He also allowed a diversionary attack on the Japanese-held Marshall Islands by the carrier Lexington to continue.
On Dec. 20 (Dec. 21, Wake time), Pye received a report that the Japanese had renewed their assault on Wake, and that one, possibly two, big Japanese carriers were providing support. Two days later, Pye received from Cmdr. Winfield Scott Cunningham, the overall commander on Wake, the message: enemy on island – issue in doubt. Delayed by fueling problems, Task Force 14 was more than 500 miles from Wake. At about the same time, Pye was handed a message from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark that read, in part, “Wake is now and will continue to be a liability.” He was authorized to evacuate the island. But by then evacuation was impossible.
Fletcher was on the bridge of the Saratoga when he received his latest order from Pye.
After he read it, he said to the staff, “We’re called back to Pearl Harbor.” He then angrily threw his hat onto the deck. The outraged staff officers urged Fletcher to disobey the order. Fletcher refused, believing that Pye knew something that he didn’t. The news rocketed through the ship and fleet and was received with curses. Many men hung their heads and wept.
After Nimitz assumed command, Pye was transferred to the States and made commander of Task Force One based in San Francisco, a surface fleet containing the Pacific Fleet’s remaining operational battleships. In October 1942, he was appointed president of the Naval War College. He retired in 1944, having never received another operational command.
When President Franklin Roosevelt received word of the fall of Wake Island he called the news “worse than Pearl Harbor” and never quite forgave Pye for his decision to abandon its defenders.
As for the Marine Corps, it never forgave him.