That time a Navy admiral left Marines hanging during a Japanese attack
What is not as well known is that there was an effort to try to either relieve or evacuate the Marines from Wake Island. Samuel Eliot Morison described that operation in “The Rising Sun in the Pacific,” Volume III of his 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.
Within days of the Pearl Harbor attack, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel started the effort to help the Marines on Wake.
Kimmel saw a chance to catch part of the Japanese fleet by surprise using Wake as a form of bait. Given that Wake was 2,300 miles from Pearl Harbor, there was no time to waste.
That said, the expedition still took time. All three carriers in the Pacific Fleet would take part. But there were a few problems. The
USS Saratoga (CV 3) was the carrier that had the planes of VMF-221, 14 F2A Brewster Buffalo fighters (utter pieces of junk, but that is another story). In a fateful decision, Kimmel put Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher in charge of Task Force 14, which had the mission to steam into Wake Island.
Fletcher would command from the cruiser USS Astoria (CA 34).
Vice Adm. William F. Halsey, in command of Task Force 8 on the USS Enterprise (CV 6), would be held in reserve. Vice Adm. Wilson Brown, on board the USS Lexington (CV 2), would carry out a diversionary raid on the Marshall Islands.
Shortly after the expedition departed, Kimmel was relieved by Vice Adm. William Pye, pending the arrival of Chester W. Nimitz at Pearl Harbor. The expedition made its way towards Wake, but Fletcher was seemingly obsessed with his destroyers’ fuel state. Much as the Civil War-era Gen. George McClellan temporized about pressing the attack against Robert E. Lee in late 1862, Fletcher would take time the Marines could not afford to get the fuel he thought he needed for his ships.
Even after messages from the Marines on Wake reported the presence of enemy dive bombers and their desperate situation, he chose to fuel on Dec. 22. Morison would note that the destroyer with the least amount of fuel still had almost 90,000 barrels of fuel oil in its tanks.
Even with the difficult refueling, the USS Saratoga was 425 miles from Wake at 0800 on Dec. 23, where the Marines were in desperate combat with the Japanese. Pye called off the Wake Relief Expedition when word of the landings reached Pearl Harbor. Morison notes that the Marines had actually wiped out the invasion force on Wilkes Island, and it took time to convince the hard-fighting Marines to surrender. They would spend almost four years in Japanese prison camps. Almost 100 of them would be massacred on Oct. 5, 1943.
Inexplicably, Fletcher would still be assigned seagoing commands after the failure of the Wake Relief Expedition. The USS Lexington would be lost during the Battle of the Coral Sea. The USS Yorktown (CV 5) would be sunk at the Battle of Midway (where Fletcher did the smart thing and let Raymond Spruance take the lead).
Fletcher would leave Marines hanging again at Guadalcanal, when a decision to pull back the carriers would lead to the disastrous Battle of Savo Island, where the USS Astoria and three other heavy cruisers would be sunk.
Fletcher was wounded when the USS Saratoga was torpedoed at the end of August, 1942. After that, he’d be shunted off to backwater commands until the end of World War II. He died in 1975.