Wake Island

Introduction The US annexed Wake Island in 1899 for a cable station. An important air and naval base was constructed in 1940-41. In December 1941, the island was captured by the Japanese and held until the end of World War II. In subsequent years, Wake was developed as a stopover and refueling site for military and commercial aircraft transiting the Pacific. Since 1974, the island's airstrip has been used by the US military, as well as for emergency landings. All operations on the island were suspended and all personnel evacuated in August 2006 with the approach of super typhoon IOKE (category 5), which struck the island with sustained winds of 250 kph and a 6 m storm surge inflicting major damage. A US Air Force assessment and repair team returned to the island in September and restored limited function to the airfield and facilities. The future status of activities on the island will be determined upon completion of the survey and assessment.

Pre-European discovery

Some scant indigenous Marshallese oral tradition suggests that prior to European exploration, nearby Marshall Islanders traveled to what is now Wake Island, which the travelers called Enen-kio after a small orange shrub-flower said to have been found on the atoll. In ancient Marshallese religion, rituals surrounding the tattooing of tribal chiefs, called Iroijlaplap, were done using certain fresh human bones, which required a human sacrifice. A man could save himself from being sacrificed if he obtained a wing bone from a certain very large seabird said to have existed on Enen-kio. Small groups would therefore brave traveling to the atoll in hope of obtaining and returning with this bone, thus saving the life of the potential human sacrifice.

Based upon this oral tradition along with concepts of first-usage lands rights claims commonly held in Micronesian cultures as legitimate for settling indigenous land disputes, a small separatist group of Marshall Island descendents who call themselves the Kingdom of EnenKio lay claim to Wake Island. The Marshall Islands and U.S. governments, who also have competing claims over the island, vigorously deny the claim. No evidence suggests there was ever a permanent settlement of Marshall Islanders on Wake Island.

European discovery and exploration

On October 20, 1568, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra, a Spanish explorer with two ships, Los Reyes and Todos Santos, discovered "a low barren island, judged to be eight leagues in circumference," to which he gave the name of "San Francisco." The island was eventually named for Captain William Wake, master of the British trading schooner, Prince William Henry, who visited in 1796.

JN Reynolds's 1828 report to the US House of Representatives describes Capt. Edward Gardner's discovery of a 25-mile (40 km) long island situated at 19°15' N, 166°32' E, with a reef at the eastern edge, while captaining the Bellona in 1823. The island was "covered with wood, having a very green and rural appearance" and was probably, Reynolds concludes, Wake Island. It was placed on charts of the time by John Arrowsmith.

On December 20, 1840, the United States Exploring Expedition commanded by Commodore Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Navy, landed on and surveyed Wake. 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 and that it was covered with shrubs, "the most abundant of which was the tournefortia." The expedition's naturalist, Titian Peale, collected many new specimens, including an egg from a short-tailed albatross and various marine life specimens.

Wreck of the Libelle

Wake Island first received international attention with the wreck of the Libelle. On the night of March 4, 1866, the 650 ton barque Libelle of Bremen, Germany, struck the eastern reef of Wake Island during a gale. The ship was under the command of Captain Tobias and en route from San Francisco to Hong Kong. Among its passengers were opera singer Anna Bishop (ex wife of the celebrated French harpist Nicolas Bochsa), her husband Martin Schultz (a New York diamond merchant), and three other members of an English opera troupe.

After 21 days, the 30 stranded passengers and crew set sail in a longboat and a gig for the then Spanish island of Guam. The longboat, containing the opera troupe, Mr. Schultz and other passengers, arrived on Guam April 8. The gig, commanded by the Libelle's captain, was lost at sea. While stranded on Wake Island, Captain Tobias had buried valuable cargo including 1,000 flasks (34,500 kg) of mercury, coins and precious stones worth approximately $150,000, and at least five ships conducted salvage operations in their recovery. The plight of the Libelle, its passengers and cargo was reported by many newspapers.

American possession

Wake Island was annexed as empty territory by the United States on January 17, 1899. In 1935, Pan American Airways constructed a small village, nicknamed "PAAville", to service flights on its U.S.-China route. The village was the first human settlement on the island and relied upon the U.S. mainland for its food and water supplies; it remained in operation up to the day of the first Japanese air raid.

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,[13] 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.

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

World War II

Battle of Wake Island
Main article: Battle of Wake Island

On December 8, 1941, the same day as the Attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake being on the opposite side of the International Date Line), at least 27 Japanese medium "Nell" bombers flown from bases on Kwajelein in the Marshall Island group attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the 12 F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft belonging to Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-211 on the ground. All of the Marine garrison's defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the aircraft.

The garrison — supplemented by civilian volunteers — repelled several Japanese landing attempts. An American journalist reported that after the initial Japanese amphibious assault was beaten back with heavy losses, the American commander was asked by his superiors if he needed anything, to which the commander sent back the message "Send us more Japs!", a reply which became a popular legend. However, when Lt. Col. Devereux learned after the war that he was credited with that message he pointed out that he was not the commander, contrary to the reports, 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."

Winfield S. Cunningham, Commander, US Navy, was in charge of Wake Island. He had ordered 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 the Japanese code breakers. This was put back together at Pearl Harbor and became part of the lore of WWII. Cunningham and Deveraux each wrote books about the battle and the aftermaths and imprisonment.

The garrison was eventually overwhelmed by the numerically superior Japanese invasion force. American casualties were 52 military personnel and approximately 70 civilians killed. Japanese losses exceeded 700 killed, with some estimates ranging as high as 1,000; in addition, the Japanese lost two destroyers, one submarine and 24 aircraft.

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

Capt 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 fighting on the ground to defend the island. Many of his comrades were also highly decorated for their roles in the fighting. The Wake Island Device was created for American veterans of the battle.

Japanese occupation and surrender

The Japanese-occupied island (called Otori-Shima or "Bird Island" for its birdlike shape) was bombed several times by American air forces; 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, the Japanese garrison commander Rear Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the execution of the 98 captured American civilian forced laborers remaining on the island. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and machine-gunned. One of the prisoners escaped the massacre, 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. The unknown American was recaptured and beheaded. After the war, Sakaibara and his subordinate, Lt. Cmdr. Tachibana, were sentenced to death for this and other war crimes. Tachibana's sentence was later commuted to life in prison. The murdered civilian POWs were reburied in Honolulu Memorial, Hawaii.

On September 4, 1945, the remaining Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of the United States Marine Corps. In a brief ceremony, the handover of Wake was officially conducted.


On October 14, 1950, the island served as a one-day meeting site between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry S. Truman, meeting to discuss strategy for the Korean War hostilities that had broken out four months earlier.

Since 1974, 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 a year on the island. There are also two offshore anchorages for large ships. On September 16, 1985, the World War II-related resources on Peale, Wilkes, and Wake Islands were designated a National Historic Landmark (and thereby also listed on the National Register of Historic Places).

The United States military personnel have left, and there are no indigenous inhabitants. Wake, with an undelineated maritime boundary with them, is claimed by the Marshall Islands, and some civilian personnel ("contractor inhabitants") remain. As of August 2006, an estimated 200 contractor personnel were present. The island remains a strategic location in the North Pacific Ocean and serves as an emergency landing location for transpacific flights. Some World War II facilities and wreckage remain on the islands.

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. Launches take place from 19°17′24″N 166°37′05″E.

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 that ended the Vietnam War.

Territorial claim by the Republic of the Marshall Islands

The territorial claim by the Republic of the Marshall Islands on Wake Atoll leaves a certain amount of 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. However, the atoll was formally annexed by the U.S. in the 19th century and is still administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs.

Geography Location: Oceania, atoll in the North Pacific Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to the Northern Mariana Islands
Geographic coordinates: 19 17 N, 166 39 E
Map references: Oceania
Area: total: 6.5 sq km
land: 6.5 sq km
water: 0 sq km
Area - comparative: about 11 times the size of The Mall in Washington, DC
Land boundaries: 0 km
Coastline: 19.3 km
Maritime claims: territorial sea: 12 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
Climate: tropical
Terrain: atoll of three low coral islands, Peale, Wake, and Wilkes, built up on an underwater volcano; central lagoon is former crater, islands are part of the rim
Elevation extremes: lowest point: Pacific Ocean 0 m
highest point: unnamed location 6 m
Natural resources: none
Land use: arable land: 0%
permanent crops: 0%
other: 100% (2005)
Irrigated land: 0 sq km
Natural hazards: occasional typhoons
Environment - current issues: NA
Geography - note: strategic location in the North Pacific Ocean; emergency landing location for transpacific flights
People Population: no indigenous inhabitants
note: since super typhoon IOKE, a small military contingent along with 75 contractor personnel have returned to the island to conduct clean-up and restore basic operations on the island (July 2008 est.)
Government Country name: conventional long form: none
conventional short form: Wake Island
Dependency status: unorganized, unincorporated territory of the US; administered from Washington, DC, by the Department of the Interior; activities in the atoll are currently conducted by the US Air Force
Legal system: the laws of the US, where applicable, apply
Flag description: the flag of the US is used
Economy Economy - overview: Economic activity is limited to providing services to military personnel and contractors located on the island. All food and manufactured goods must be imported.
Electricity - production: NA kWh
Communications Telephone system: general assessment: satellite communications; 2 DSN circuits off the Overseas Telephone System (OTS)
domestic: NA
international: NA
Radio broadcast stations: AM 0, FM 0, shortwave 0 (Armed Forces Radio/Television Service (AFRTS) radio service provided by satellite (2005)
Television broadcast stations: 0 (2005)
Transportation Airports: 1 (2007)
Airports - with paved runways: total: 1
2,438 to 3,047 m: 1 (2007)
Ports and terminals: none; two offshore anchorages for large ships
Transportation - note: there are no commercial or civilian flights to and from Wake Island, except in direct support of island missions; emergency landing is available
Military Military - note: defense is the responsibility of the US; the US Air Force is responsible for overall administration and operation of the island; the launch support facility is administered by the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA)
Transnational Issues Disputes - international: claimed by Marshall Islands