"Every Marine is, first and foremost, a rifleman. All other conditions are secondary." - Gen. Alfred M. Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps
The charred, twisted wreckage of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was still burning on the morning of December 8, 1941, when the first U.S. Marine lookouts on Wake Island noticed a couple strangely warship-shaped outlines looming ominously on the cloudy gray horizon. The lookout took a deep breath, swallowed hard, radioed the contact in to their commanders, and kept their eyes fixed on the cloud of low-flying fighter-bombers that were silently silhouetted against the sky in almost perfect formation.
The five hundred Marine defenders of Wake Island – a tiny Pacific atoll measuring less than three miles in total area – were about to become the first Americans to come face-to-face with enemy soldiers in World War II.
Marine Corps Captain Henry T. “Hammerin’ Hank” Elrod was circling high above the cloud cover in his Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat when he heard the frantic call over the radio to scramble all remaining fighters. His squadron, VMF-211, was deployed to Wake just a few days earlier, and had been flying patrols in anticipation of something big going down, but the last thing he probably expected was to single-handedly end up facing the entire goddamn Japanese Navy on half a tank of gas.
But Elrod was a pro. A fourteen-year vet. And he wasn’t about to just sit there in his cockpit like an asshole when there were motherfuckers to fight.
He slammed the stick forward, dove down from the clouds, and came face to face with a formation of twenty-two Japanese aircraft, ranging from Nell-class bombers to the infamous and ultra-deadly A6M Zero.
He flipped the safety off his guns and opened fire.
Careening propeller-first into an epic aerial shitstorm at speeds in excess of 300 miles an hour, Hammerin’ Hank ferociously, single-handedly charged the entire swarming field of deadly bombers and fighters, weaving through tracer fire and spewing out an ungodly stream of fire from a six-pack of Browning .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the wings of his aircraft. Living a real-life World War II Ikaruga or 1942, Elrod picked out targets and avoided a bullet hell of gunfire, doing his best to disrupt the enemy formations even as they were unloading their explosives on the Marine positions across the island. He was soon joined by the shattered remains of VMF-211 – of the squadron’s twelve Wildcats only four remained operational after the initial Japanese attack. The rest had been blown to shit on the tarmac without ever even firing a bullet in anger.
The Marines dove and weaved through the Japanese formation, picking out targets and strafing them, then trying to get the hell out of there before the faster, more maneuverable, and all-around-just-better Japanese Zeroes closed in on them.
In the furious, high-intensity battle that raged high above the exploding tropical paradise below, Hammerin’ Hank Elrod managed to score two confirmed kills on Japanese aircraft, knocking out a pair of Zeroes and scoring the first air-to-air kills the Marines would achieve in the Second World War.
Despite the heroics of Elrod and VMF-211, it wasn’t nearly enough to stall the onslaught. The shelling and bombing plastered Marine positions for days. Before they’d even had a chance to get up in the air and take the fight to the enemy a second time, eight the island’s twelve fighter aircraft were destroyed on the ground, lit up by enemy fire. Ammo dumps burst into massive explosions as thousands of coastal artillery shells and .50-caliber bullets exploded simultaneously in an amazingly-dangerous fireworks display, hardcore Japanese bomber pilots expertly nailing their targets with high-explosive bombs delivered at speeds that would melt your brain.
Then, at five AM on the morning of December 11, the Japanese began their full-scale assault of the island. Elrod hopped out of his rack and scrambled to the tarmac once again.
Streaming towards the coast of Wake Island in the early hours of December 11 were nearly a dozen hardcore, full-modern Japanese destroyers, each one barking fire from a battery of 5-inch cannons. Six Marine artillery positions on the coast returned fire with ruthless efficiency, doing their best to make life miserable for these warships and the transport ships and aircraft supporting them, many of these repurposed guns (they'd been pulled off of scrapped battleships) scoring direct hits and making the attackers think twice about getting within firing range of the Marine guns.
Careening ahead at 318 miles an hour, with a pair of 100-pound bombs strapped under his Wildcat (having high explosives strapped to your wings doesn't exactly do much for his maneuverability), Hammerin’ Hank Elrod and his two wingmen charged into the fray yet again. Flying in low, he began making strafing runs at the enemy warships, screaming head-first into a storm of bullets that were being sprayed from dozens of Japanese ship-mounted anti-aircraft guns across the fleet – all of which were trained on one of the only three targets they had available.
This shit is terrifying. Nerves of steel.
Swerving and barrel-rolling around like a fucking madman, Elrod avoided danger, but before long one of the enemy gunners found his mark. With a sickening clank, a bullet ripped into the fuel line of Elrod’s Wildcat, sending off alarms and klaxons and other annoying bullshit all through the cockpit. Pushing on, Elrod made one more pass, this time at the Japanese Destroyer Kisaragi, a 1,468-ton warship that was unloading on the coastal Marine positions with a quad of heavy 120mmguns – weapons that fired a high-explosive shell that was roughly the same weight as a fully-grown German Shepherd. Diving down through a stream of 7.7mm machine gun fire, Elrod lined up his bombs (a manually-operated iron sights type of thing, fuck this HUD new-fangled guided weapons bullshit), and released them onto the stern of the Japanese warship.
The Kasaragi, which happened to be carrying a double-load of depth charges to deal with any possible American submarines, exploded, cracked in half, and sank. Elrod would be the first American fighter pilot to take out an enemy warship in the war.
The damage to Elrod’s plane forced him down, but accurate fire from the Marines and a determined resistance drove the Japanese attack back. The enemy fleet withdrew to the Marshall Islands to regroup, letting Elrod get the first sleep he’d had in three days.
They came back on December 23rd. And they had reinforcements.
Repeated attacks between the 11th and the 23rd had destroyed all of the Marine ships and aircraft on Wake Island, leaving just a little under 500 men to try and hold out against an invasion fleet featuring two aircraft carriers, a couple heavy cruises, and a fucking shit-ton of destroyers and escort ships. The Marines had heard that reinforcements were coming – Task Group 14 was assembling at Pearl Harbor and preparing to come to their aid – but it was pretty obvious when the Marines were staring at a sea of transports loaded with more than 2,500 hardcore Japanese troops from the Special Naval Landing Force that this was going to be Wake Island’s Last Stand.
Even though he didn’t have a plane to fly, Elrod was the perfect example of how every Marine is a rifleman before he’s anything else. As one of the few surviving Marine Corps officer on the island, Elrod was assigned to command a platoon of infantry and hold the extreme flank of the American position against the inevitable Japanese attack. His makeshift group consisted of surviving crew members and pilots of his squadron, a handful of Marine artillerists whose guns had been destroyed, and a couple Wake Island civilians that weren’t particularly interested in seeing their homes overrun by the Japanese Empire, all of whom were now finding themselves forced to fight like front-line infantry. They dug trenches, set up firing positions, and sighted down their machine gun barrels as the first wave of enemy transports approached the shore.
The Japanese hit the beach hard, and fought like fucking samurai. Officers charged through the surf with goddamn katanas, leading battle-hardened warriors who screamed into the fray with rifles and bayonets.
Hammerin’ Hank was there to meet them.
Ordering his gunners to fire and keep fucking firing and for the love of god never stop firing that fucking gun, Elrod urged his Marines on, repositioning them to defend the flank and meet the Japanese assault at all directions. He ordered his civilian troops to constantly sprint back and forth between the front lines and the ammo dump to ensure that the Marines working the machine guns always had a steady stream of bullets and supplies, and he made it is personal mission to make sure those civilians were given adequate covering fire while they made their ultra-deadly 100-meter dashes to and from the lines. Personally standing in full view of the enemy, laying down a curtain of suppressive fire with a captured Japanese machine gun (Elrod had already given his M1 rifle and pistol to other Marines earlier in the campaign), Elrod defiantly stood against the enemy attack, inspiring his troops to fight for everything they had.
With enemy troops clawing their way through the withering fire, closing in on Marine positions from every direction, a bullet struck Elrod in the chest, dropping him into the sand. The Japanese swarmed over the trenches, capturing or killing the defenders, and seizing the island. They would hold Wake Island throughout the course of World War II.
For single-handedly taking on two full-strength squadrons of Japanese aircraft, killing two enemy planes, blowing the fuck out of a destroyer, and then bravely commanding a valiant stand against impossible odds, Captain Henry T. Elrod was posthumously promoted to Major and he became the first Marine Corps aviator to receive the Medal of Honor. Today the main road leading to Marine Corps Officer Candidate School is named in his honor, as is a really awesome-looking guided missile frigate.
When Arlington National Cemetery has its annual event to honor American war dead on Memorial Day this Monday, Major Henry T. Elrod's gravestone will be just one among a seemingly-endless row of brave soldiers who fell in combat.