Wake Island

Wake Island (/ˈweɪk/; also known as Wake Atoll) is a coral atoll located in the western Pacific Ocean in the northeastern part of the Micronesia subregion, 2,416 km (1501 mi) east of Guam, 1,438 km (894 mi) north of Majuro in the Marshall Islands and 3,698 km (2,298 mi) west of Honolulu. It is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States, administered by the Office of Insular Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior. There are about 85 people living on its 2.85 square miles. Access to the island is restricted, and all activities on the island are managed by the United States Air Force. There is also a missile facility operated by the United States Army. The largest island, Wake Island, is the center of activity on the atoll and is the location of Wake Island Airfield (IATA: AWK, ICAO: PWAK), which has a 9,800-foot (3,000 m) runway.

On January 5, 2009, President George W. Bush included the atoll as a part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. For statistical purposes, Wake is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands.


Wake Island derives its name from British sea captain Samuel Wake, who discovered the atoll in 1796 while in command of the Prince William Henry. The name is sometimes attributed to Captain William Wake, who also is reported to have discovered the atoll from the Prince William Henry in 1792.


Wake is located to the west of the International Date Line and sits in the Wake Island Time Zone (UTC+12), one day ahead of the 50 U.S. states, two-thirds of the way between Honolulu, 2,300 statute miles (3,700 km) to the east and Guam, 1,510 statute miles (2,430 km) to the west. The closest land is the uninhabited Bokak Atoll 348 miles to the south east.

Although Wake is officially called an island in the singular form, it is actually an atoll comprising three islands and a reef surrounding a central lagoon:

Referring to the atoll as an island is the result of a pre-World War II desire by the United States Navy to distinguish Wake from other atolls, most of which were Japanese territory.


Wake Island lies in the tropical zone, but it is subject to periodic temperate storms during the winter. Sea surface temperatures are warm all year long, reaching above 80 °F (27 °C) in summer and autumn. Typhoons occasionally pass over the island.


On September 16, 1967, at 10:40 pm local time, the eye of Typhoon Sarah passed over the island. Sustained winds in the eyewall were 130 knots (241 km/h), from the north before the eye, and from the south afterward. All non-reinforced structures were demolished. There were no serious injuries, and the majority of the civilian population was evacuated after the storm.

On August 28, 2006, the United States Air Force evacuated all 188 residents and suspended all operations as category 5 Super Typhoon Ioke headed toward Wake. By August 31, the southwestern eyewall of the storm passed over the island, with winds well over 185 miles per hour (298 km/h), driving a 20 ft (6 m) storm surge and waves directly into the lagoon inflicting major damage. A US Air Force assessment and repair team returned to the island in September 2006 and restored limited function to the airfield and facilities leading ultimately to a full return to normal operations.



Indigenous Marshallese oral tradition suggests that before European exploration, nearby Marshall Islanders traveled to what is now Wake Island, which the travelers called Enen-kio (Marshallese new orthography: Ä€nen-kio, [æ̯ænʲɛ̯ɛnʲ(e͡ɤ)-ɡɯ͡ii̯ɛ͡É"É"̯]) after a small orange shrub-flower said to have been found on the atoll. In the ancient Marshallese religion, rituals surrounding the tattooing of tribal chiefs, called Iroijlaplap, were done using fresh human bones, which required a human sacrifice. A man could save himself from being sacrificed if he obtained a wing bone from a very large seabird said to have existed on Enen-kio. Small groups would brave traveling to the atoll in hopes of obtaining this bone, saving the life of the potential human sacrifice. No archaeological evidence has been found to suggest that there was ever a permanent or temporary settlement by Marshall Islanders on Wake Island.


Discovery and rediscovery

In 1567, Spanish explorer and navigator Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra set off on two ships, Los Reyes and Todos los Santos, from Callao, Peru on an expedition to search for a gold-rich land in the South Pacific, mentioned in Inca tradition. After discovering Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands but not finding gold, the expedition headed north and on October 2, 1568, the eve of the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, discovered Wake Island, "a low barren island, judged to be eight leagues in circumference", which the captain named San Francisco. The ships were in dire need of water and the crew was suffering from scurvy but after circling the island, it was determined that Wake was water-less and had "not a cocoanut nor a pandanus" and in fact, "there was nothing on it but sea-birds, and sandy places covered with bushes." In 1743, the British ship HMS Centurion under the command of Commodore George Anson captured the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Covadonga near Samar in the Philippines. Charts taken by Anson of the Spanish Galleon route between Manila and Acapulco showed Desierta (desert) and La Mira (look out) as Spanish names given to islands in the approximate location of Wake.

In 1796, Captain Samuel Wake of the British merchantman Price William Henry rediscovered Wake Island, naming the atoll for himself. Soon thereafter the 80 ton British fur trading brig Halcyon arrived at Wake and Master Charles William Barkley, unaware of Captain Wake's discovery, named the atoll Halcyon Island in honor of his ship.

Although Wake Island was one of the most isolated atolls in the world, charts and ship log books reported islands at various coordinates in the general vicinity of Wake. Some other names given for islands that were probably independent discoveries of Wake Island include Discerta, Douglas Island, Eceuil (on French charts), Halcyon Island, Helsion Island, Haystrous Island, Halverd Island, Lamira, Maloon's Island, San Francisco, Waker's Island, Weeks Island, Wilson Island and Wreck Island.

In 1823, Captain Edward Gardner, while in command of the whaling ship HMS Bellona, discovered an island at 19°15′00″N 166°32′00″E, which he judged to be 20 or 25 miles long. The island was "covered with wood, having a very green and rural appearance". This report is considered to be another sighting of Wake Island.

United States Exploring Expedition

On December 20, 1841, the United States Exploring Expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, arrived at Wake on the USS Vincennes and sent several boats to survey the island. Wilkes described the atoll as "a low coral one, of triangular form and eight feet above the surface. It has a large lagoon in the centre, which was well filled with fish of a variety of species among these were some fine mullet." He also noted that Wake had no fresh water but was covered with shrubs, "the most abundant of which was the tournefortia." The expedition's naturalist, Titian Peale, collected an egg from a short-tailed albatross and added other specimens, including a Polynesian rat, to the natural history collections of the expedition. Wilkes also reported that "from appearances, the island must be at times submerged, or the sea makes a complete breach over it."

The wreck and salvage of the Libelle

Wake Island first received international attention with the wreck of the barque Libelle. On the night of March 4, 1866, the 650 ton iron-hulled Libelle, of Bremen, Germany, struck the eastern reef of Wake Island during a gale. Commanded by Captain Anton Tobias, the ship was en route from San Francisco to Hong Kong. Among its passengers were the 50 year old English-born opera singer Madame Anna Bishop (on the first leg of a Far East tour), her second husband and New York diamond merchant Martin Schultz, pianist and vocalist Charles Lascelles, the first Consul General of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to the Court of Japan Eugene Van Reed and Japanese military officer Yabe Kisaboro. After a night on board the vessel now stuck on the reef, the passengers and crew reached the shore with very limited supplies such as some bedding, a barrel of beef, several bags of flour and some kegs of wine. After three days of searching and digging on the island for water the crew was able to recover a 200-gallon water tank from the wrecked ship. Valuable cargo was also recovered and buried on the island including some of the 1,000 flasks of mercury (quicksilver), as well as coins and precious stones valued at $93,943.08. After three weeks with a dwindling water supply and no sign of rescue, the passengers and crew decided to leave Wake and attempt to sail to Guam (the center of the Spanish colony of the Mariana Islands) on the two remaining boats from the Libelle. The 22 passengers and some of the crew sailed in the 22 foot longboat under the command of the first mate Rudolf Kausch and the remainder of the crew sailed with Captain Tobias in the 20 foot gig. On April 8, 1866, after thirteen days of frequent squalls, short rations, and tropical sun, the longboat reached Guam. Unfortunately, the gig, commanded by the captain, was lost at sea.

The Spanish Governor of the Mariana Islands, Francisco Moscoso y Lara, welcomed and provided aid to the Libelle shipwreck survivors on Guam. He also ordered the schooner Ana, owned and commanded by his son-in-law George H. Johnston, to be dispatched with the first mate Kausch to search for the missing gig and then sail on to Wake Island to confirm the shipwreck story and recover the buried treasure. The Ana departed Guam on April 10 and, after two days at Wake Island, found and salvaged the buried coins and precious stones as well as a small quantity of the quicksilver. Over the next two years other ships sailed to the shipwreck site to conduct salvage operations. In January 1867, the American schooner, Caroline Mills brought a diving suit, then commonly known as "submarine armour", to the Libelle wreck site. Only a few flasks of quicksilver were recovered using the diving suit so Captain Nickols decided to abandon the effort. On May 9, 1867, the sloop Hokulele from Honolulu, with a party headed by Thomas R. Foster, arrived at Wake and was joined by a brig from China. The Chinese captain did not reveal his ship's name. Together the two ships recovered 495 flasks of the quicksilver with 247 flasks going to the Hokulele. In October 1867, the Honolulu schooner Moi Wahine arrived at Wake and Captain English, Thomas R. Foster (who also sailed with the Hokulele) and nine Hawaiian divers were landed on the island with part of their supplies. Captain Zenas Bent, first mate Mr. White and seven Hawaiian seamen remained on board the ship. In the evening on the second day, when the winds picked up and shifted, the crew of the schooner pulled anchor and put out to sea to avoid striking the reef. The next day the Moi Wahine did not return having perished in a gale, stranding the salvage party on Wake. Fortunately, one piece of equipment that was unloaded from the ship was an apparatus for distilling water. With plenty of potable water, fish, birds and eggs, the men were able to survive and live without serious inconvenience. After five months, the British brig Cleo arrived at Wake, rescued the castaways and recovered 240 flasks of quicksilver, some copper, anchor and chain.

The wreck of the Dashing Wave

On July 29, 1870, the British tea clipper Dashing Wave, under the command of Captain Henry Vandervord, sailed out of Foochoo, China en route to Sydney. On August 31, "the weather was very thick, and it was blowing a heavy gale from the eastward, attended with violent squalls, and a tremendous sea." At 10:30 p.m. breakers were seen and the ship struck the reef at Wake Island. Overnight the vessel began to break up and at 10:00 a.m. the crew succeeded in launching the longboat over the lee side. In the chaos of the evacuation, the captain secured a chart and nautical instruments, but no compass. The crew loaded a case of wine, some bread and two buckets, but no drinking water. Since Wake Island appeared to have neither food nor water, the captain and his twelve-man crew quickly departed, crafting a makeshift sail by attaching a blanket to an oar. With no water, each man was allotted a glass of wine per day until a heavy rain shower came on the sixth day. After thirty one days of hardship, drifting westward in the longboat, they eventually reached Kosrae (Strong's Island) in the Caroline Islands. Captain Vandervord attributed the loss of the Dashing Wave to the erroneous manner in which Wake Island "is laid down in the charts. It is very low, and not easily seen even on a clear night."

American possession

With the annexation of Hawaii and the seizing of Guam and the Philippines during the Spanishâ€"American War, the United States began to consider unclaimed and uninhabited Wake Island, located approximately halfway between Honolulu and Manila, as a good location for a telegraph cable station and a coaling station. On July 4, 1898, United States Army Brigadier General Francis Greene of the 2nd Brigade, Philippine Expeditionary Force, stopped at Wake Island and raised the American flag while en route to the Philippines on the SS China.

On January 17, 1899, under orders from President William Mckinley, Commander Edward D. Taussig of the USS Bennington landed on Wake and formally took possession of the island for the United States. After a 21-gun salute, the flag was raised and a brass plate was affixed to the flagstaff with the following inscription:

"United States of America
William McKinley, President;
John D. Long, Secretary of the Navy.
Commander Edward D. Taussig, U.S.N.,
Commander U.S.S. Bennington,
this 17th day of January, 1899, took
possession of the Atoll known as Wake
Island for the United States of America."

Although the proposed route for the submarine cable would be shorter by 137 miles, Midway, and not Wake Island, was chosen as the location for the cable station between Honolulu and Guam. Rear Admiral Royal Bird Bradford, chief of the United States Navy’s Bureau of Equipment, stated before the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce on January 17, 1902 that “Wake Island seems at times to be swept by the sea. It is only a few feet above the level of the ocean, and if a cable station were established there very expensive works would be required; besides it has no harbor, while the Midway Islands are perfectly habitable and have a fair harbor for vessels of eighteen feet draught.”

On June 23, 1902 the USAT Buford, commanded by Captain Croskey and bound for Manila, spotted a ship’s boat on the beach as it passed closely by Wake Island. Soon thereafter the boat was launched by Japanese on the island and sailed out to meet the transport. The Japanese told Captain Croskey that they been put on the island by a schooner from Yokohama and that they were gathering guano and drying fish. The captain suspected that they were also engaged in pearl hunting. The Japanese revealed that one of their party needed medical attention and the captain determined from their descriptions of the symptoms that the illness was most likely beriberi. They informed Captain Croskey that they did not need any provisions or water and that they were expecting the Japanese schooner to return in a month or so. The Japanese men declined the offer to be taken on the transport to Manila and they were given some medical supplies for the sick man, some tobacco and a few incidentals.

After the USAT Buford reached Manila, Captain Croskey reported on the presence of Japanese at Wake Island. He also learned that the USAT Sheridan had a similar encounter at Wake with the Japanese men. The incident was brought to the attention of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles Darling who at once informed the State Department and suggested that an explanation from the Japanese Government was needed. In August 1902 Japanese Minister Takahira Kogorō provided a diplomatic note stating that the Japanese Government had "No claim whatever to make on the sovereignty of the island, but that if any subjects are found on the island the Imperial Government expects that they should be properly protected as long as they are engaged in peaceful occupations."

Wake Island was now clearly a territory of the United States but during this period was only occasionally visited by passing American ships. One notable visit occurred in December 1906 when U.S. States Army General John J. Pershing, later commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, stopped at Wake on the USAT Thomas and hoisted a 45-star U.S. flag that was improvised out of sail canvas.

Feather poaching

With limited fresh water resources, no harbor and no plans for development, Wake Island remained a remote uninhabited Pacific island in the early twentieth century. It did however have a large seabird population which attracted Japanese feather poachers. The global demand for feathers and plumage was driven by the millinery industry and popular European fashion designs for hats while other demand came from pillow and bedspread manufacturers. Japanese poachers set up camps to harvest feathers on many remote islands in the Central Pacific. The feather trade was primarily focused on Laysan albatross, black-footed albatross, masked booby, lesser frigatebird, greater frigatebird, sooty tern and various other species of tern. On February 6, 1904, Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans arrived at Wake Island on the USS Adams and observed Japanese collecting feathers and catching sharks for their fins. Abandoned feather poaching camps were seen by the submarine tender USS Beaver in 1922 and the USS Tanager in 1923. Although feather collecting and plumage exploitation had been outlawed in the territorial United States, there is no record of any enforcement actions at Wake Island.

Japanese castaways

In January 1908 the Japanese ship Toyoshima Maru, en route from Tateyama, Japan to the South Pacific, encountered a heavy storm that disabled the ship and swept the captain and five of the crew overboard. The thirty six remaining crew members managed to make landfall on Wake Island where they faced five months of great hardship, disease and starvation. In May 1908, the Brazilian Navy training ship Benjamin Constant, while on a voyage around the world, passed by the island and spotted a tattered red distress flag. Unable to land a boat, the crew of the Benjamin Constant executed a challenging three day rescue operation using rope and cable in order to bring on board the twenty survivors and transport them to Yokohama.

USS Beaver strategic survey

In his 1921 book Sea-Power in the Pacific: A Study of the American-Japanese Naval Problem, Hector C. Bywater recommended establishing a well-defended fueling station at Wake Island in order provide coal and oil for United States Navy ships engaged in future operations against Japan. On June 19, 1922 the submarine tender USS Beaver landed an investigating party to determine the practicality and feasibility of establish a naval fueling station on Wake Island. Lieutenant Commander Sherwood Picking noted that the boat channel was choked with coral heads and that the lagoon was very shallow and not over fifteen feet in depth and therefore Wake would not be able to serve as a base for surface vessels. He suggested clearing the channel to the lagoon for "loaded motor sailing launches" so that parties on shore can receive supplies from passing ships and he strongly recommended that Wake be used as a base for aircraft. Picking stated that, "If the long heralded trans Pacific flight ever takes place, Wake Island should certainly be occupied and used as an intermediate resting and fueling port."

Tanager Expedition

In 1923, a joint expedition by the Bureau of the Biological Survey (U.S. Department of Agriculture), the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and the United States Navy was organized to conduct a thorough biological reconnaissance of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, then administered by the Biological Survey as the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation. On February 1, 1923, Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace contacted Secretary of Navy Edwin Denby to request Navy participation and to recommended expanding the expedition to Johnston, Midway and Wake, all islands not administered by the Department of Agriculture. On July 27, 1923 the USS Tanager, a World War I minesweeper, brought the Tanager Expedition to Wake Island under the leadership of ornithologist Alexander Wetmore and a tent camp was established on the eastern end of Wilkes. From July 27 to August 5 the expedition charted the atoll, made extensive zoological and botanical observations and gathered specimens for the Bishop Museum while the naval vessel under the command of Lieutenant Commander Samuel Wilder King conducted a sounding survey off shore. Other achievements at Wake included examinations of three abandoned Japanese feather poaching camps, scientific observations of the now extinct Wake Island rail and confirmation that Wake Island is an atoll comprising three islands with a central lagoon. Wetmore named the southwest island for Charles Wilkes who had led the United States Exploring Expedition to Wake in 1841. The northwest island was named for Titian Peale, the chief naturalist of the 1841 expedition.

Pan American Airways and the Flying Clippers

In 1931, Juan Trippe, president of the world's largest airline, Pan American Airways (PAA), wanted to expanded globally by offering passenger air service between the United States and China. To cross the Pacific Ocean his planes would need to island-hop, stopping at various points for refueling and maintenance. He first tried to plot the route on his globe but it showed only open sea between Midway and Guam. Next he went to the New York Public Library and "discovered" a little-known coral atoll named Wake Island by studying 19th century clipper ship logs.

On May 9, 1935, the 6,700 ton freighter SS North Haven arrived at Wake Island with 113 construction workers and the necessary equipment to construct the Pan American village and clear the lagoon for a flying boat landing area. Wilkes was by far the best spot for ferrying supplies and workers ashore however the chief engineer of the expedition, Charles R. Russell, determined that Peale Island was the best site for Pan American facilities. Cargo was lightered from ship to shore and then transported across Wilkes to the lagoon on an improvised 2000-foot narrow-gauge railway nicknamed the "Wilkes Island Rail Road." Cargo was then transferred to another barge and towed across the lagoon to Peale Island. In the lagoon divers used dynamite to remove hundreds of thousands of coral heads. The village on Peale was nicknamed "PAAville" and was the first human settlement on the Wake, relying upon the U.S. mainland for much of its food and water supplies. Wake Island is credited as being one of the early successes of hydroponics, which enabled Pan American Airways to grow vegetables for its passengers, as it was very expensive to airlift in fresh vegetables and the island lacked natural soil.

PAAville remained in operation up to the day of the first Japanese air raid in World War II (see below).

Military buildup

In January 1941, the United States Navy constructed a military base on the atoll. On August 19, the first permanent military garrison, elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, totaling 449 officers and men, were stationed on the island, commanded by Navy Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham. Also on the island were 68 U.S. Naval personnel and about 1,221 civilian workers from the U.S. firm Morrison-Knudsen Corporation.

They were armed with six used 5 inch/51 cal (127 mm) guns, removed from a scrapped battleship; twelve 3 inch/50 cal (76.2 mm) M3 anti-aircraft guns (with only a single working anti-aircraft director among them); eighteen Browning M2 .50 caliber heavy machine guns; and thirty heavy, medium, and light, water or air-cooled Browning M1917 .30 caliber machine guns in various conditions but all operational.

World War II

Battle of Wake Island

On December 8, 1941, the day of the Attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7 in Hawaii, which is on the other side of the International Date Line), at least 27 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M medium "Nell" bombers flown from bases on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the 12 F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft belonging to United States Marine Corps Fighter Squadron 211 (VMF-211) on the ground. The Marine garrison's defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the aircraft.

The garrison â€" supplemented by civilian construction workers employed by Morrison-Knudsen Corporation â€" repelled several Japanese landing attempts. An American journalist reported that after the initial Japanese amphibious assault was beaten back with heavy losses on December 11, the American commander was asked by his superiors if he needed anything. Popular legend has it that commander James Devereux sent back the message, "Send us more Japs!" â€" a reply which became famous a but is a myth and was never actually said. When Major James Devereux, USMC, after the war learned that he was credited with that message, he pointed out that contrary to reports he was not the commander on Wake Island and denied sending that message. "As far as I know, it wasn't sent at all. None of us was that much of a damn fool. We already had more Japs than we could handle." In reality, Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, USN, was in overall charge of Wake Island, not Devereux. Cunningham ordered that coded messages be sent during operations, and a junior officer had added "send us" and "more Japs" to the beginning and end of a message to confuse Japanese code breakers. This was put together at Pearl Harbor and passed on as part of the message. Cunningham and Devereux both wrote books about the battle and their Japanese imprisonment ordeal.

The US Navy attempted to provide support from Hawaii, but had suffered great losses at Pearl Harbor. The relief fleet they managed to organize was delayed by bad weather. The isolated U.S. garrison was overwhelmed by a reinforced and greatly superior Japanese invasion force on December 23. American casualties numbered 52 military personnel (Navy and Marine) and approximately 70 civilians killed. Japanese losses exceeded 700 dead, with some estimates ranging as high as 1,000. Wake's defenders sank two Japanese destroyers and one submarine, and shot down 24 Japanese aircraft. The relief fleet, en route, on hearing of the island's loss, turned back.

In the aftermath of the battle, most of the captured civilians and military personnel were sent to POW camps in Asia, though some of the civilian laborers were enslaved by the Japanese and tasked with improving the island's defenses.

Captain Henry T. Elrod, USMC, one of the pilots from VMF-211, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for shooting down two Japanese Zero fighters, sinking a destroyer and later fighting on foot, when his plane was destroyed, to defend the island. Many of his comrades were also highly decorated for their part in the fighting. The Wake Island Device was created for American veterans of the battle to wear on their Navy or Marine Corps Expeditionary Medals.

Japanese occupation and surrender

The island's Japanese garrison was composed of the IJN 65th Guard Unit (2,000 men), Japan Navy Captain Shigematsu Sakaibara and the IJA units which became 13th Independent Mixed Regiment (1,939 men) under command of Colonel Shigeji Chikamori. The Japanese-occupied island (called by them Otori-Shima (大鳥島) or "Big Bird Island" for its birdlike shape) was bombed several times by American aircraft; one of these raids was the first mission for future United States President George H. W. Bush.

After a successful American air raid on October 5, 1943, Sakaibara ordered the execution of all of the 98 captured Americans who remained on the island. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded, and machine-gunned. One prisoner escaped, carving the message "98 US PW 5-10-43" on a large coral rock near where the victims had been hastily buried in a mass grave. This unknown American was soon recaptured and beheaded. Sakaibara and his subordinate, Lieutenant Commander Tachibana, were later sentenced to death after conviction for this and other war crimes. Tachibana's sentence was later commuted to life in prison. Shigematsu Sakaibara was executed on June 18, 1947 on Guam. The remains of the murdered civilians were exhumed and reburied at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in section G.

On September 4, 1945, the Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of United States Marines. The handover of Wake was conducted in a brief ceremony. After the war, a speckled granite memorial stone inscribed with the words, "The 98 Rock / Inscribed by an unknown P.O.W.," was attached to the The 98 Rock. A bronze plaque nearby lists the names of the 98.

The hard conditions for the Japanese garrison during the late part of the war led to the extinction of the Wake Island Rail.


With the end of hostilities with Japan and the increase in international air travel driven in part by war-time advances in aeronautics, Wake Island became a critical mid-Pacific base for the servicing and refueling of military and commercial aircraft. The United States Navy resumed control of the island and in October 1945, 400 Seabees from the 85th Naval Construction Battalion arrived at Wake to clear the island of the effects of the war and to build basic facilities for a Naval Air Base. The air base was completed in March 1946 and on September 24, 1946, regular commercial passenger service was resumed by Pan American Airways (Pan Am). The era of the flying boats was nearly over so Pan Am switched to longer range, faster and more profitable airplanes that could land on Wake’s new coral runway. Other airlines that established transpacific routes through Wake included British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), Philippine Airlines and Transocean Airlines. Due to the substantial increase in the number of commercial flights, on July 1, 1947, the Navy transferred administration, operations and maintenance of the facilities at Wake to the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA). In 1949, the CAA upgraded the runway by paving over the coral surface and extending its length to 7,000 feet.

In June 1950, the Korean War began with the United States leading United Nations forces against North Korea. In July, the Korean Airlift was started and the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) used the airfield and facilities at Wake Island as a key mid-Pacific refueling stop for its mission of transporting men and supplies to the Korean front. By September 1950, 120 military aircraft were landing at Wake per day. On October 15, 1950, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur met at the Wake Island Conference to discuss progress and war strategy for the Korean Peninsula. They chose to meet at Wake Island because of its closer proximity to Korea so that General MacArthur would not have to be away from the troops in the field for long. During 1953, the last year of the war, more than 85 percent of the air traffic through Wake was military or civilian contract carriers supporting the Korean war effort.

Subsequently the island was used for strategic defense and operations during the Cold War. It was administered by the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command (formerly known as the United States Army Space and Strategic Defense Command). Since 1974, Wake Island has served as a launch platform for military rockets involved in testing anti-missile systems and atmospheric re-entry trials. In conjunction with the aerospace use, the island's airstrip, Wake Island Airfield, has been used by the U.S. military and some commercial cargo planes, as well as for emergency landings. There are over 700 landings of all types a year on the island. There are also two offshore anchorages for large ships.

From late April until the middle of August 1975, Wake Island was used as a refugee camp for more than 8,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled their homeland after the fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War with a communist victory.

The island remains a strategic location in the North Pacific Ocean and serves as an emergency landing location for twin-engined ETOPS commercial transpacific flights passing overhead. Some World War II facilities and wreckage remain on the island.

Protected statuses

On September 16, 1985, the World War IIâ€"related resources on Peale, Wilkes, and Wake Islands were designated a National Historic Landmark. Preserving the remains of World War II items from the Battle of Wake Island was the goal of the designation. It is thereby also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On January 16, 2009, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne created Wake Island National Wildlife Refuge in consultation with the Air Force. The refuge covers a total of 495,515 acres (2,005.28 km2), nearly all of which is submerged lands within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the island. Under the refuge a rare grass species, Lepturus gasparricensis, is protected and the black footed and Laysan albatrosses have been reintroduced. However, the one species endemic to Wake Island, the Wake Island Rail, became extinct between 1942 and 1945 as a result of hunting for food by the large contingent of occupying Japanese troops. On January 6, 2009, President George W. Bush included the atoll as a part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.


As Wake Island doesn't currently have any permanent inhabitants, the U.S. military acts as the governing body of the territory. However, Wake Island does have an acting governor, Gordon O. Tanner. All U.S. federal laws apply to the territory. As Wake Island is an Unincorporated Unorganized territory, certain parts of U.S. constitution such as nationality and land rights do not apply to Wake Island.


The economy of Wake Island is very limited; the only active economic activities are providing services to military personnel and contractors.

Territorial claim by the Marshall Islands

The territorial claim by the Republic of the Marshall Islands on Wake Atoll leaves some ambiguity regarding the actual or hypothetical role of the U.S. military, responsible under agreement for the defense of Marshallese territory in the event of any strategic crisis or hostilities involving Wake. A small separatist group, known as the Kingdom of EnenKio, also claims the island. However, the atoll was formally annexed by the United States at the end of the 19th century and is administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs.

Popular culture references

  • Wake Island is a recurring map in the Battlefield first-person shooter series. It appears in Battlefield 1942, Battlefield 2, Battlefield 2142, Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield 1943 and Battlefield 3, as a principal game map. It also appears in the game War Thunder.
  • The 1942 Hollywood movie, Wake Island, starring Brian Donlevy, Robert Preston and Macdonald Carey, tells the story of the U.S. fight to hold the island from the invading Japanese in December 1941.
  • It has been made into a 'Workshop' map in the game Company of Heroes 2, this is playable online and in skirmish mode.
  • ARMA 3 Battle Royale added this map as well.
  • In the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis's grandfather was one of Wake Island's defenders in 1941, managing to smuggle his wristwatch out to his son before the island fell to the Japanese. The story is recounted to Willis's character, Butch Coolidge, by Captain Koons, played by Christopher Walken.

See also



  • Drechsler, Bernd; Begerow, Thomas; Pawlik, Peter-Michael (2007). Den Tod vor Augen : die unglückliche Reise der Bremer Bark Libelle in den Jahren 1864 bis 1866 (in German). Bremen: Hauschild. ISBN 978-3-89757-333-8. 
  • Heine, Dwight; Anderson, Jon A. (1971). "Enen-kio: Island of the Kio Flower". Micronesian Reporter 14 (4): 34â€"37. ISSN 0026-2781. 
  • L, Klemen (1999â€"2000). "Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941â€"1942". 
  • Sloan, Bill (2003). Given Up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand at Wake Island. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-58567-3. 
  • Urwin, Gregory J. W. (2002) [1997]. Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-9562-6. 

Further reading

External links

  • Wake Island travel guide from Wikivoyage
  • Wake Island â€" Pacific Wreck Database
  • Wake Island (1942) at the Internet Movie Database
  • Wake Island: Alamo of the Pacific (2003) at the Internet Movie Database
  • Current Weather, Wake Island
  • AirNav â€" Wake Island Airfield â€" Airport details, facilities and navigational aids
  • Rocket launches at Wake Island
  • The Defense of Wake â€" United States Marine Corps historical monograph
  • Surrender of Wake by the Japanese â€" Marines in World War II
  • U.S. Army Strategic and Missile Defense Command â€" Logistics, flight schedules, facilities
  • Photographic history of the 1975 Vietnamese refugee camp on Wake Island

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