William S. Pye and the Fall of Wake Island
October 9, 2018
In the days following the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was relieved of his post as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet. Considering the nation was suddenly at war, his replacement would have little time to learn the role, as William S. Pye found out over the course of 14 days.
On December 17, 1941, just ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor that killed 2,403 Americans, Vice Admiral Pye took over as Acting Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet. It wasn’t his first time to be on the staff of a fleet’s command, but his short time in charge is chiefly remembered for a difficult decision that became the most controversial of his career.
The Early Career of William S. Pye
Born June 9, 1880, William Satterlee Pye was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN. At only 17 years old, he entered the United States Naval Academy. After graduating, he was commissioned as an Ensign and began his long career.
For the first 14 years of his service, William S. Pye served on multiple ships. He also worked in the US Naval Academy and the Naval War College. In 1916, he became the commissioning officer of USS Jacob Jones (DD-61), a new destroyer. Before the destroyer was sent off to Europe at the start of the US involvement in World War I, Pye joined the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet. His performance in this role earned him a Navy Cross.
In the inter-war years, Pye’s career in the Navy continued to progress. He served as Executive Officer of the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) in 1922-23. Later, he was commander of the minelayer USS Oglala (CM-4) and eventually became captain of USS Nevada (BB-36). As fate would have it, all three of these ships were present during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
A Controversial Decision
By the time now-Vice Admiral William S. Pye took over as Acting Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, the nation was already at war. One of Japan’s first targets, almost simultaneous with the Pearl Harbor attack, was Wake Island, then held by a garrison of US Marines, sailors, and civilian contractors. When Pye took command, Admiral Kimmel had already formulated a plan to send a relief force to help Wake Island fight off Japan’s persistent attacks. On December 11, 1941 the forces of Wake Island successfully repelled an attack, which made the relief effort seem more likely to succeed.
Up until December 22, Pye followed through with Kimmel’s plan, but as the Japanese continued their attempted landings on the island, a decision had to be made. Was Wake Island worth risking the carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) and her large escort fleet? Admiral Pye, the Acting CINCPAC, decided that it wasn’t. He ordered Saratoga and the rest of the relief force back to Pearl Harbor.
Reaction to Pye’s Decision
Many believe Pye acted based on his fear of failing in his position of Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet. Task Force 11 was a large fleet that, if lost to the Japanese, could have completely altered the course of World War II. When he was handed a message from Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark that read “Wake is now and will continue to be a liability,” Pye interpreted it to mean that he was being authorized to evacuate the island. Knowing that the Japanese were continuing their attempts to take Wake Island and relief efforts would put TF 11 at grave risk—something he seemed particularly skittish about—Pye made the decision to abandon the garrison.
“We’re called back to Pearl Harbor,” Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher, commander of Task Force 11, read Pye’s orders to his crew. The news didn’t go down well. They knew that Wake Island was being left to fall into enemy hands. Though some of Fletcher’s staff officers urged him to press forward, the Admiral acted under the assumption that Pye had information he wasn’t privy to.
Pye’s Career After Wake Island
After turning over command of the Pacific Fleet to Admiral Chester Nimitz on December 31, 1941, Pye was assigned to Task Force One as its commander. Until October 1942, Pye and the task force patrolled the US west coast, anticipating a Japanese attack. This would be Pye’s last time commanding operating forces. Until his retirement in March of 1946, Pye served as President of the Naval War College.
William S. Pye passed away on May 4, 1959 in Bethesda, MD, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His decision to abandon Wake Island still a topic of controversy today, more than 75 years later.