Paul Albert Putnam, 78, a retired brigadier general in the Marine Corps who won the Navy Cross at Wake Island during World War II, died of a heart ailment May 21 at a nursing home in Mesa, Ariz. He had lived in Fairfax before moving to Mesa in 1980.

The defense of Wake, an atoll of three islands in the central Pacific, began on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II. It lasted until Dec. 23, when the remnants of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion and its commander, Maj. James P. S. Devereux, surrendered. Their gallant resistance drew widespread admiration in this country. President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to it as "this great fight."

Gen. Putnam, then a major, went to Wake in November 1941 to take command of Marine Fighter Squadron 211, which had 12 planes. In the course of the fighting, all the aircraft were destroyed. Despite continual air attacks and naval bombardment, the Marines turned back an enemy landing attempt on Dec. 11. A second landing was made by 1,500 Japanese on Dec. 23. The Marines held out for 12 hours before they were overwhelmed.

After the surrender, about 100 civilian construction workers were detained on the island to work for the enemy. They were later executed. Some of the marines were executed immediately. The survivors, including Gen. Putnam, who had been wounded, spent the rest of the war in Japanese prison camps. Gen. Putnam was liberated in Japan by the Army in September 1945.

Gen. Putnam was a "mustang," a Marine officer who started his career as an enlisted man. He began as a private in 1923 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1926. He became an aviator in 1929.

He saw his first combat in Nicaragua, where he served several tours of duty in the late 1920s and early 1930s during the U.S. intervention there. He was an instructor in aviation and aerial photography before going to Wake.

After the war, he served at the Air War College in Alabama, the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C., and at the Pentagon. He was promoted to brigadier general on his retirement in 1956.

In addition to the Navy Cross, the second highest decoration for heroism in the naval service after the Medal of Honor, Gen. Putnam held two Purple Heart medals and three Air Medals.

Gen. Putnam was born in Milan, Mich., and reared in Washington, Iowa. He attended Iowa State College. He was a member of several Fairfax civic associations.

Survivors include his wife, Virginia, of Mesa; three daughters, Carol Shudde of Phoenix, Ariz., Peggy Putnam of Casa Grande, Ariz., and Army Lt. Col. J.M. Putnam of Fort Bragg, N.C., and two grandsons.