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Posted: February 19, 2013 10:04 p.m.

Mecca: Elrod fights to end

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Kisaragi, the Japanese destroyer sunk by Elrod.

Wake Island is a pint-sized coral atoll in the middle of nowhere, 2,300 miles west of Honolulu and 1,510 miles east of Guam. This tiny speck of sand and palm trees actually consists of three islands — Wake, Wiles and Peale — with a combined shoreline of 12 miles. The highest elevation is 20 feet. History would record Wake Island as the only battle in World War II where an amphibious assault failed when a ragtag group of American marines, sailors, civilian workers and 45 Chamorro Islanders turned back a Japanese invasion.

Turner County was established on Aug. 18, 1905, in Georgia with Ashburn as its county seat. Northeast of Ashburn in the middle of nowhere is a pint-sized town called Rebecca. The city’s land mass is 0.8 of a mile. In 2000, a census recorded the population at 246. A little more than a month after the founding of Turner County, Henry Talmage Elrod was born in Rebecca on Sept. 27, smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

Fate would fuse the small-town Georgia boy to an equally tiny island in the north Pacific Ocean. During the Battle for Wake Island, Elrod would engage 22 enemy aircraft singlehandedly, be the first American to destroy a major Japanese naval vessel from a fighter aircraft, assume command of soldiers on one flank of the ground defenses, and be the first American in World War II to receive the Medal of Honor. He was also the first Marine pilot Medal of Honor recipient to be married to a Marine.

Elrod attended the University of Georgia and Yale University before enlisting in the Marine Corps in December 1927.

He earned the gold bars of a 2nd Lieutenant in February 1931. After more than a year at the Marine Corps Basic School in Philadelphia, student aviator Elrod reported to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., where he pinned on his wings in February 1935.

Transferred to Quantico, Elrod served as an aviator and pulled duty as the officer in charge of his squadron’s personnel, schooling and welfare. Transferred to San Diego, Calif., in 1938, he served in a variety of rolls until dispatched to the Hawaiian area in January 1941.

Dec. 4, 1941 – three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: Elrod, now a captain with fighter squadron VMF-211, flies one of 12 F4F Wildcats to Wake Island. Since Wake Island is on the opposite side of the international date line, history records Dec. 8 as the date the Japanese attacked the island, only hours after the assault on Pearl Harbor.

During the initial air strike on Wake, Japanese bombers from the Marshall Islands destroyed eight of the 12 Wildcats on the ground. The remaining four Wildcats were in the air on patrol, but failed to see the enemy bombers due to limited visibility.

Dec. 11 – the Japanese attempt an invasion of Wake Island using three light cruisers, six destroyers, two patrol boats, and two transports with 450 special Naval landing troops. Against this armada stood 449 U.S. Marines, including pilots, 68 Navy personnel, five Army, more than a thousand civilians and 45 Chamorro Islanders.

The defenders waited until the Japanese ships were well within range. When they did fire, salvos from a shore battery hit the magazine of the Japanese destroyer Hayate. She exploded and sank within two minutes, carrying down her entire crew of 167 men. The shore batteries scored damaging hits on three more Japanese warships.

In the air, the remaining four Wildcats of VMF-211 were on the prowl. Capt. Elrod spotted 22 incoming Japanese aircraft and engaged them by his lonesome. He shot down two. Then Elrod participated in strafing runs and low-altitude bombing against Japanese shipping. Another Marine fighter pilot confirmed that at least one of Elrod’s 100 pound small-caliber bombs hit the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi. Elrod had put the bomb in the right place, near the extra load of depth charges aboard the Kisaragi. The same pilot later saw the Kisaragi blow up. Like the Hayate, the Kisaragi carried all 167 of her crew to a watery grave.

Capt. Elrod limped back to base with a perforated oil line and other battle damage from anti-aircraft fire. He landed safely, but his Wildcat was totaled.

Elrod became a grunt, fighting on the ground in command of one flank of the defending forces.
The Japanese fleet reported they had been “humbled by sizable casualties” and retired to the Marshall Islands to lick their wounds.

Humiliated, exasperated, and seeking revenge, the Japanese returned on Dec. 23 with most of the same ships, plus two aircraft carriers, two battleships, and 2,500 additional troops. Over-whelmed by the firepower and sheer numbers of the assault force, the defenders of Wake Island surrendered after more than 12 hours of fierce combat, much of it hand to hand.

Capt. Elrod conducted an exceptional land defense in his sector. He and his men repelled several attacks while providing cover fire for unarmed ammunition carriers. During one attack, Elrod captured an enemy automatic weapon, gave his weapon to another man, and then they fought on as best they could.

As he provided cover fire for his men carrying ammunition to a gun emplacement, Elrod was hit and fell mortally wounded. The Georgia boy from the middle of nowhere fought and died for his country in the middle of nowhere.
Their stubborn yet heroic defense of Wake Island cost the Americans 120 killed, 49 wounded, two missing in action, 12 aircraft, and internment for the remaining 433 military personnel and 1,104 civilians. Five military POWs would eventually be executed, along with 98 civilians.

The Japanese cost for this tiny speck of sand was 820 killed, more than 300 wounded, one light cruiser heavily damaged, two destroyers sunk, two transports sunk, one submarine sunk by an American sub, a dozen or more airplanes lost, another score damaged, and a four-year occupation of an island in the middle of nowhere.

On Nov. 8, 1946, Elrod posthumously received the rank of major, and his widow was presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman for her husband’s courageous defense of Wake Island. Initially buried on Wake Island, Major Henry Talmage Elrod was re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery in October 1947.

Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and free-lance writer. Contact Pete at aveteransstory@gmail.com and visit his website at aveteransstory.us.

 

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