Located 2,298 miles west of Honolulu, lonely Wake Island is the biggest of three small islands of less than three square miles of pristine white sand, coral and rock forming a V-shaped lagoon — surrounded by a reef and sharks. High point on the atoll is just 20 feet above the sea. Natural shade from the hot tropical sun is hard to come by — plant life being a few trees, grasses, low shrubs, but no towering coconut palms
The shallow lagoon and reefs are teaming with colorful fish, sea birds, and hermit crabs dragging their borrowed shells around their corner of the world.
Occasionally, a shark might wander in at high tide through a narrow inlet from the open sea and gets stuck at low tide and have to wait for high water to escape.
Not much happens at Wake Island nowadays, and it’s next to impossible to get a visitor’s permit. But in 1941, just hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Imperial Japanese Navy ship big guns bombarded Wake Island and readied combat troops for attack.
They didn’t make it. Amazingly, the small garrison of about 500 U.S. Marines and Navy held them off — aided by some 1,200 civilian contractors, mostly from Idaho. Aging American artillery even sank two Japanese destroyers, killing 1,000 enemy sailors and Marines.
Battery L on Peale Islet sank the destroyer Hayate at a distance of 4,000 yards with direct hits to her magazines. The ship sank within two minutes, witnessed by jubilant Americans ashore.
Four Navy Wildcats sank the destroyer Kisaragi by bombing the stern, where depth charges were stored.
The Japanese pulled back and the Americans waited. They knew they’d be back.
It was a terrible time for America and for Idaho.
Nearly a year before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy built a base at Wake, and sent 450 men from the First Marine Defense Battalion to defend it. Commander was Maj. James P.S. Devereux of Baltimore.
They were backed up by 12 F4F-3 Wildcat fighters. 68 Navy personnel, and civilians working for Morrison-Knudson, engineering contractors from Boise that had previously built the Hoover Dam, San-Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Trans-Alaska Pipeline and other big-ticket projects.
Founded in 1910 by Harry Morrison and Morris Knudsen, the firm became one of the largest civil engineering and construction companies in the world. In 1954, Time magazine called Morrison “The man who has done more than anyone else to change the face of the earth.”
The company survived World War II and went on to greater glories during the Cold War and beyond. Then it ran into financial troubles, bankruptcies and a series of mergers until in the 1990s, its venerable name remained only in the history books; its assets now belonging to URS Corporation.
It was Pan American World Airways that put Wake Island on the map in 1935 when it built a refueling stop and hotel there for its famed transpacific Clipper flying boat service from the U.S. to Manila and Hong Kong. Wake Island was first discovered in 1568, by Spanish explorer and navigator Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira sailing the Pacific with two ships in search of a gold-rich land mentioned by the Incas.
He circled the atoll and determined that it was waterless and left.
Wake Island even has its own buried treasure story:
In 1866, an iron-hulled German ship from Bremen named Libelle on its way from San Francisco to Hong Kong was wrecked on a reef at Wake during a gale. After water ran low from a 200-gallon tank recovered from the ship, the 22 passengers and some crew decided to sail 1,500 miles to Guam in a 22-foot open longboat commanded by First Mate Rudolph Kausch, with the rest of the crew sailing a 20-foot gig commanded by the Libelle’s Capt. Anton Tobias.
Remarkably, 13 days later Kausch’s longboat made it to Guam, but the gig was lost.
On Guam, the Spanish governor of the Mariana Islands, Francisco Moscoso y Lara sent the schooner Ana with First Mate Kausch aboard back to Wake Island to search for Capt. Tobias and also retrieve the ship’s cargo of coins, precious stones and mercury that he had buried.
They found the treasure but not him or those lost with him.
In 1796, British merchant vessel Prince William Henry’s Capt. Samuel Wake found Wake Island and named it after himself. Forty-five years later, U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes, commander of a Navy exploration expedition arrived at Wake Island aboard the USS Vincennes. He named one of the small islets Peale after naturalist Titian Peale, who accompanied the expedition. The other islet was named Wilkes.
The U.S. acquired Wake Island as spoils of war after defeating the Spanish in the Spanish-American War of 1898. One of the units serving in the war was the 1st Idaho Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
Back to the 23 grim days on Wake Island after Pearl Harbor:
The second Japanese attack on Wake Island was on Dec. 23, 1941, with the Japanese forces reinforced with two aircraft carriers — the Hiryu and Soryu that were in the Pearl Harbor attack — plus 1,500 Japanese marines. Japanese warships bombarded the island, and at 2:35 a.m. the troops stormed ashore. Fighting continued throughout the night and the following morning, but the undermanned Americans were no match. At mid-afternoon, the 15-day siege ended and U.S. forces surrendered.
A casualty report said, “The US Marines lost 49 killed, two missing, and 49 wounded during the 15-day siege, while three US Navy personnel and at least 70 US civilians were killed, including 10 Chamorros” — natives from Guam that worked on the island — “and 12 civilians wounded. 433 US personnel were captured.”
The Japanese suffered about 300 casualties, and lost 28 aircraft.
Worst of all, the Japanese captured all the rest of the men on the island — most being Morrison-Knudsen civilian employees — and forced them into slave labor building bunkers and fortifications on the island.
Wake Island remained enemy-occupied throughout the war.
On Oct. 5, 1943, American naval aircraft from the carrier Lexington raided Wake. Fearing an imminent American invasion, two days later Japanese Rear Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the execution of 98 captive American civilian workers. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and machine-gunned.
On Sept. 4, 1945, the Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of U.S. Marines. The official handover of the island was in a brief ceremony aboard the destroyer escort USS Levy.
Five years later, more drama would return to Wake Island.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur would not have had happy memories of Wake Island. He and President Harry S. Truman didn’t like each other — disagreeing in how to conduct the war in Korea.
On Oct. 15, 1950, MacArthur left the battlefield to meet Truman at Wake to hash things out. The meeting was private so no record of the conversation was kept. Publicly, Truman praised the general and awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal (he received five of them during his career), but six months later, Truman fired him.
Wake Island was alive with activity during the Vietnam War, returning to its old role of being a refueling stop for transpacific air travel.
How anguishing it must have been however for those American troops clad in green fatigues heading for the war zone waiting quietly as their plane was being refueled, wondering if they’d ever make it back home again.
Next to the lagoon on the southwest side of the island is a large coral rock near where the executed Americans were buried in a mass grave. Only one man — whose name is still unknown — escaped. He carved on the rock the words, “98 US PW 5-10-43.” The rock’s still there — along with a plaque added in memoriam of those executed.
Sadly, the escaped man was caught and was personally beheaded by Adm. Sakaibara using a samurai sword. After the war the officer was tried for his crimes and also executed.
Today, 150 Air Force and civilian contractors keep the airport and facilities running on Wake. Activity is limited, but the fishing is good, beachcombing and a swim in the lagoon is fun, and hope remains that the clouds of war will never return to this faraway corner of the world.
May we always remember those who gave their lives to defend it.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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PanAm’s glory days…
“The 1930s were the romantic years of flight. At the beginning of the decade, flying across oceans was a life-risking experience. However, beginning in 1936, Pan Am began to fly across the Pacific. Their aircraft were the beautiful, luxurious, and enormous Clippers. Built by Martin and Boeing, these amazing aircraft flew the rich and famous in style to exotic locations throughout the Pacific.”
— Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor
Find a bone, save a life…
“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 (Wake Island). Small groups would brave traveling to the atoll in hopes of obtaining this bone, saving the life of the potential human sacrifice.”
— Ministry of Public Affairs, Republic of the Marshall Islands
Wake Island crabs…
“For the sake of morale and common decency, the dead had to be removed from the field before they were swarmed by the island’s rapacious crabs. Burial details held back the crustacean horde until a dump truck arrived and transported the bodies to Camp 2, where they were placed in a refrigerated storehouse alongside ham hocks and sides of beef.”
— Weapons and Warfare
Vietnamese refugee camp…
Wake Island became a refugee camp for tens of thousands of Vietnamese escaping their country after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Island or atoll?
Wake Island is “Composed of a reef-enclosed lagoon, the atoll consists of three coral islands… built upon an underwater volcano. The atoll’s central lagoon is the volcano crater; the islands are part of the rim... The northwestern side of the atoll is open, except for the coral reef, which surrounds the atoll and completes the lagoon’s enclosure.”
— U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Send us some cats…
“To spend their off-duty time, the Airmen fish, scuba dive and comb the beach for historic items, marine life and the occasional swept up curiosities. When necessary they also have to use some of their time to battle the nearly unrestrained rat population on the 2.9 square mile island. According to a recent survey, 2.5 million rats are currently roaming the atoll as a result of the eradication of a feral cat population in 2006.”
— U.S. Air Force
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