The Japanese seaplane base at Wotje Island, Wotje Atoll
by Dirk H.R. Spennemann
Wotje (population ~650) is the largest island on Wotje Atoll, some 60 flight minutes north of Majuro and some 50 minutes northeast of Kwajalein. It is the administrative center of Wotje Atoll. As the center of the northwestern district of the Marshall Islands it will soon have the Northern Atolls High School. The island measures about 1000m in width (SW-NE) and 3200m in length (N-S).
The garrison of Wotje, at peak strength in December 1943, consisted on 3,298 men, 2,103 Navy and 429 Army personnel, and 766 civilian (and Korean) construction workers under the command of Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Nobukazu Yoshimi, of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Of these only 1244 or 37.72% survived until surrender in August 1944. Between mid-1943 and Aug. 1945, US aircraft dropped 3500t bombs and US ships shot 1000t shells onto Wotje. While the first attacks were carrier-based and irregular, daily attacks were started after Majuro and Kwajalein had fallen to the US. At the same time, all supply lines to Wotje were cut off, and the Japanese garrison was left to starve. Of the originally 3300 strong Japanese garrison only 1200 (37%) survived. Casualties occurred from air raids, diseases, accidents, and suicides, but mainly from starvation.
At the beginning of WW I 1914 Japan took over the Marshalls and developed a radio station on Wotje Atoll. After the capitulation of the German Empire in 1918, the newly formed League of Nations gave all former German possessions north of the Equator for administration to the Japanese Empire. The Japanese established a centralised district administration in Jaluit, with the internal affairs of Wotje left to be handled by a local atoll authorities, after the radio station had been removed in 1922. The Japanese established a school on the island, which served for the atolls of the central and northern Ratak Chain.
The development of Wotje Atoll was part in the grand strategic scheme. During the 1930s, Wotje had been used as a location for naval maneuvres and sea-plane trials. In order to create a suitable defense system at its perimeter, the Japanese navy decided to develop some of the atolls of the Marshall Islands into bases for seaplanes, for naval surface units submarines, and, with the advent of long-range land-based bombers, as airfields. Wotje was to become the major sea-plane of the Marshall Islands. The development of the Wotje base began in late 1939, when a battalion of Japanese prisoners was drafted for the construction of the airfield. The Japanese constructed an airfield with two runways (34500 and 5000 feet), two hangars and a service apron. In addition, a seaplane ramp and a major pier were built. By end of 1943 there were also several hundred buildings, mainly of wooden construction, and several repair shops. Wotje had gained fame during the war as from here the air raids on Eneen-Kio (Wake Island) were flown. In addition, the only bombing of Hawaii after Pearl Harbor was executed by seaplanes starting from Wotje. Of four the by-passed atolls, Wotje took the heaviest pounding. Of the total 15288.7 of bombs and naval shells delivered against targets on these bases, Wotje received 4508.70t or 29.50%.
The equipment on Wotje
The perimeter of the island, especially the ocean side, bristled with guns, which were a mixture of British and Japanese manufacture: six 150mm (6") coastal defense guns, and six 127 mm (5") twin-mount dual purpose guns. The Japanese Army had brought an additional five 150mm (6") field artillery guns. Both services had an assortment of smaller guns, such as six 37 mm anti tank guns and about 90 heavy and light anti-aircraft guns, and heavy machine guns. In addition, two 120 mm (4 ") ship guns were emplaced as coastal defense guns. These had come from the Goyotsu Maru, a Japanese supply ship which was beached in 1943 off Kimejo Island, south of Wotje Island, after having been attacked by U.S. aircraft. The remains of the vessel can still be seen. There was one radar set (range 50 miles) on island, giving the air wing some 10 minutes warning. During the war two squadrons of planes were temporarily stationed here, namely torpedo bombers (`Kate", "Val") and patrol bombers ("Nell", "Betty"). At the beginning of the war the plane contingent of the 801st squadron, consisted of between 6 and 12 Kawanishi H6K flying boats ("Mavis"), which were later replaced by the larger H8K flying boats ("Emily').
Figure 1. Map of the Japanese installations on Wotje Island, Wotje Atoll
Bibliographic citation for this document
Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (2000). The Japanese seaplane base at Wotje Island, Wotje Atoll, Marshall Islands
Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
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