Wake Military Rosters
After writing the blog post “Last Man Standing” a few weeks ago, declaring Pearson Riddle, Jr., the last living civilian survivor of Wake Island, I knew I couldn’t justify the title without also researching the military personnel stationed on Wake in 1941. While my focus has always been on the civilian side of the Wake story, I have long intended to verify the military rosters and fill in their personal data. That “back burner” project came due, and over the last several weeks I have worked with dedicated researcher Mark Stevens to achieve a full accounting of the military defenders of the island, all of whom have now passed away. The “last man standing” on the military side was Pvt James P. Mitchell, who died last year in August 2021.
A total of 524 officers and enlisted men were stationed on Wake on December 8, 1941, when the Japanese attacked on December 8, 1941: 449 Marines, 69 Navy, and 6 Army Air Corps. Only Major Walter Baylor left the island before capture, under orders to depart on the PBY that landed briefly on Wake December 20. Through the siege and battle 46 Marines and 3 bluejackets were killed in action and another Marine died after capture. In January 1942, during transport of the majority of civilian and military POWs on the Nitta Maru, the Japanese brutally executed five enlisted men – two Marines and three sailors – in retaliation for Japanese losses in the taking of Wake Island. By the end of the war, another 14 Marines and 5 Navy had died in POW camps.
Records show that many of Wake’s officers and enlisted men remained in the service years after the war. Gravestones and obituaries mark the achievement of advanced military ranks among numerous survivors of the USMC First Defense Battalion, USMC Air Group 21-VMF 211, and Naval Air Station Wake Island. By my count, seven Marine officers retired as generals: Major James P. S. Devereaux (who subsequently served three terms as US Congressman from Maryland), Captain Bryghte Godbold, First Lieutenant John Kinney, Major George Potter, Major Paul Putnam, Captain Herbert Freuler, and Captain Frank C. Tharin, who retired with the highest rank of the Wake Marines, Lieutenant General. On the Navy side, Commanders Winfield S. Cunningham and Campbell Keene both retired as Rear Admirals. Dozens of other Wake military personnel, both officers and enlisted, received promotions as they continued to serve the nation in the Korean War and beyond.
My thanks to Mark Stevens, whom I first met at a Wake Survivors reunion about ten years ago, for his sustained commitment to the Wake Island men. He and his wife Glorene have created a Wake Island Defenders virtual cemetery on the website Findagrave.com with links to nearly 800 memorials and gravesites, including almost all the military personnel and over two hundred of the civilians. I am deeply grateful to them for sharing their work and continuing to help me solve remaining mysteries. I have posted the revised and expanded military rosters under the “Wake Rosters” tab and, as always, welcome any corrections or queries for additional information from my full database. I will continue to revise the rosters with added information.
We are deeply grateful to the defenders of Wake Island for their service and we will never forget them.