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The opening credits note that W. R. Burnett and Frank Butler's screenplay was based on official records of the United States Marine Corps. The film opens with the following written foreword: "In this picture the action at Wake Island has been recorded as accurately and factually as possible. However, the names of the characters are fictional and any similarity to the personal characteristics of the officers and men of the detachment is not intended. America and Americans have long been used to victory but the great names of her military history-Valley Forge-Custer's Last Stand-The Lost Battalion-represent the dark hours. There, small groups of men fought savagely to the death because in dying they gave eternal life to the ideas for which they died. Such a group was Marine Fighting Squadron 211 of Marine Aircraft Group 21 and the Wake Detachment of the First Defense Battalion, United States Marine Corps, the units which comprised the garrison at Wake Island." Wake Island is considered by many modern film historians to be the first film about World War II to deal factually with the grim realities of battle, and also was the first to be produced with the supervision of the War Department. According to modern sources, Paramount held up production on the closing sequence of the film to see if United States forces could recapture Wake Island. As depicted in the film, Wake Island fell to the Japanese on December 23, 1941 when, after having defended the island against Japanese attack since December 7, 1941, the Marines were battered by a full scale attack. Although the film shows the Marines fighting to their deaths, U.S. forces did, in fact, surrender to the Japanese. Modern historical sources note that the Marines killed over 800 Japanese soldiers, while 120 Americans lost their lives and 1,500 were taken prisoner. After the fall of Wake Island, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hailed the Marines for their "heroic and historic defense."
The script received the official approval of the Marine Corps and the Navy department in Washington, D.C., and production was supervised by the U.S. Navy. Pre-production Hollywood Reporter news items reported that Fred MacMurray, William Holden, Lynne Overman, Buck Jones, Richard Denning and Richard Arlen were initially cast in the film. Wake Island was shot primarily on location in and around Salton Sea, in Imperial Valley, CA. Information in the Paramount Collection indicates that the production encountered many delays due to severe weather conditions, such as wind and sandstorms. An additional $16,000 was added to the cost of location shooting because the company had to grade areas at the location. According to Paramount press information, the actual Wake Island encampment was recreated for the production, including a runway designed by the same engineer who built the runway at Wake Island. Hollywood Reporter news items indicate that the air field was turned over to the Navy for military use after production ended.
Some scenes were also shot on location in San Diego, CA and Salt Lake City, UT. Hollywood Reporter news items reported that on April 27, 1942, when air scenes of Japanese attack planes were filmed over the Great Salt Lake, UT, citizens were notified through the media that any planes with "Rising Sun" insignias were prop planes and not real Japanese fighter planes. The planes for this scene were manufactured by Ryan Aeronautical Corp. of San Diego, CA, and were used because they resembled the Japanese Nakajima 97, which was reportedly the type of plane used to attack Wake Island. Extras portraying Japanese soldiers were played by Filipino and Chinese actors, as in early 1942, the U.S. government required the detention in internment camps of all Japanese and Japanese-American citizens. Because of the newly initiated military draft, Paramount had to arrange for many of its staff and crew to enlist at a draft board while on location. The original story, written by an unidentified Paramount staff member, was purchased for one dollar. The film's final cost was $826,061.18, approximately $175,000.00 over budget.
Wake Island was previewed in August 1942 at the Marine Corps Bases in Quantico, VA, and Camp Elliott in San Diego, CA. The film had its premiere in two theaters in Los Angeles. At one theater, forty Marine recruits were sworn into service onstage. Proceeds from the New York premiere went to the U.S. Marine Corps Fund. The film was voted one of the Ten Best of 1942 by Film Daily and was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor, William Bendix; Best Direction, John Farrow; and Best Writing (Original Screenplay), W. R. Burnett and Frank Butler. Brian Donlevy and Robert Preston reprised their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of the story on October 26, 1942.