The Commander

A new book by Gabriel M. Brady, published in September 2022, takes a deep dive into the postwar controversy over command of Wake Island during the siege and battle in December 1941. In Wake Island: New Insights into the Past: The Story of Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Cunningham’s Struggle for Justice (revised), Brady steadfastly defends Cunningham as he delves into the events, errors, rivalries, and omissions that elevated the role of Major James P. S. Devereux (USMC) while obscuring that of then-Commander Cunningham (USN). Sadly, Gabe Brady passed away at the end of October after an eight-year battle with cancer, barely a month after his decades-long project came to fruition.

When war came suddenly and without warning to both Pearl Harbor and Wake Island, Cunningham, the newly appointed commander of Naval Air Station Wake Island, had been on island little more than a week. Communications between the besieged island and Pearl Harbor were terse and spotty over the coming weeks, but the fact that the valiant Marines held on quickly turned into front-page news, fueled by a fired-up USMC public relations campaign, and setting the stage for a Marine-dominated saga. Little to nothing was said about the navy and army air corps personnel or civilian contractors also on island, nor, as Brady argues, did Navy public relations make any waves one way or another. When Wake fell to the overwhelming land invasion on December 23, the survivors including Cunningham and Devereux were swept up as POWs and disappeared behind the curtain of war for nearly four years.

In January 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt issued a well-publicized Presidential Unit Citation honoring the Wake detachment of the 1st Defense Battalion, USMC, under command of Major Devereux, and VMF-211 of Marine Aircraft Group 21, commanded by Major Paul Putnam for their valiant defense of Wake. No mention was made of Navy Commander Cunningham. In August 1942 Hollywood capitalized on the dramatic war story by releasing the feature film Wake Island. Among its many inaccuracies were the death of the navy commander in the first raid, lack of civilian aid in the defense, and the annihilation of all defenders in the final battle. Wildly popular across America (and a very effective tool for Marine enlistments and war bond sales), the movie further ingrained the Marine narrative in the public consciousness. Brady highlights these wartime factors as well as underlying interservice rivalries and the sustained momentum of the Marine PR machine through the war.

At the end of the war Devereux returned to a hero’s welcome, unlike Cunningham. As Brady explains, the commander would spend the next thirty years trying to salvage his reputation. Devereux never did set the record straight and within two years had written a self-promoting four-part series for Saturday Evening Post and a full-length book, The Story of Wake Island, cementing his claim to command. Devereux continued to ride the tide of fame in coming decades, retiring with the rank of Brigadier General and serving four terms in Congress (R-MD). The official USMC monograph on the siege and battle of Wake Island, written by Lt. Col. R. D. Heinl, further built up the USMC dominance of events, as did Lt. Col. Walter Baylor’s Last Man off Wake Island, both furthering the Marine line and undermining Cunningham’s claim to command. When Rear Admiral Cunningham came out with his own memoir, Wake Island Command, in 1961, a number of Wake officers and civilians stepped up to his defense and the book received attention, but not enough to turn the long-established tide.

The Cunningham-Devereux controversy is not new, having festered for eighty years. Succinct assessments are found in the appendices in Gregory Urwin’s Facing Fearful Odds and Robert Cressman’s A Magnificent Fight, and support for both sides lie in the many books of the Wake library. Brady’s work adds well-documented archival research, interviews and correspondence with many of the key players, and a fine-tuned evaluation of how Admiral Cunningham got derailed by forces outside his control and the passage of time. While he doesn’t explore any of the holes in Cunningham’s self-defense, Brady remains true to his mission. To me the most telling sections of Gabe Brady’s book deal with the inexplicable passivity of the U. S. Navy in Cunningham’s defense both during and after the war. Whether it was due to flawed records and communications, aversion to owning another failure after Pearl Harbor, or the utter disregard of Rear Admiral Claude Bloch (Cunningham’s commanding officer), the Navy did not have Cunningham’s back. Gabe Brady did, and he did his best to bring the Admiral’s story to light at the end of the day.