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Wake Island

Wake Island is an atoll (having a coastline of 19.3 kilometers) in the North Pacific Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to the Northern Mariana Islands. Due to its position relative to the IDL, it is one day ahead of the 50 states. Wake comprises three coral islands formed from an underwater volcano. Its central lagoon is the former crater and the island is part of the rim. As an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States, it is technically administered by the Office of Insular Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior, but all current activities on the island are managed by the United States Air Force.



Wake Island
  • Geographic coordinates:
  • Area (land): 6.5 km²
  • Coastline: 19.3 km
  • Maritime claims
    • exclusive economic zone: 200 nm (370.4 km)
    • territorial sea: 12 nm (22.2 km)
  • Climate: tropical, with occasional typhoons
  • Elevation extremes:
    • lowest point: Pacific Ocean 0 m
    • highest point: unnamed location 6 m


Discovery and settlement

On October 20, 1568, the expedition of Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra discovered "a low barren island, judged to be eight leagues in circumference," to which he gave the name of "San Francisco.” The British visited it in 1796 and named it after Captain William Wake. The U.S. Navy visited the island in 1841 and named the two smallers islands after naturalist Titian Peale, a civilian, and Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the captain of the vessel, who later was involved in the Trent Affair. It was annexed 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 remained in operation up to the day of the first Japanese air raid.

World War II

1941 — The Battle of Wake Island

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 Major James P.S. Devereux . Others on the island were 68 U.S. Naval personel and about 1,221 civilian workers. On December 8, 1941, 16 Japanese medium bombers flown from bases on the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the twelve F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft belonging to Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-211 . All of the Marine garrison's defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the Naval aircraft. On the early morning of December 11, 1941 the garrison, with the support of the four remaining Wildcats, repulsed the first Japanese landing attempt (the only unsuccessful amphibious invasion attempt of World War II). A Japanese invansion fleet making up of the light cruisers Yubari, Tenryu, and Tatsuta with six escorting destroyers the Yayoi, Mutski, Kisaragi, Hayate, Oite, and Asanagi along with two destroyer transports, the P-32 and P-33, and two troop transport ships containing 450 Naval Infantry attempted a landing where the Marines fired at the invasion fleet with their six 5-inch coastal artillery guns, sinking the Hayate and damaging most of the other ships. The four Wildcats also succeeded in sinking another destroyer, the Kisaragi. Hayate was the first Japanese naval ship sunk during World War II.

But the continuing siege and frequent Japanese air attacks on the United States Wake Island garrison continued. The garrison, without resupply, fell to the 1,500-strong Japanese Special Landing Force on December 23, 1941 (the same day that General Douglas MacArthur began the withdrawal from Manila to Bataan). The initial resistance offered by the garrison prompted the Japanese Navy to detach two aircraft carriers (Soryu and Hiryu) from the force which attacked Pearl Harbor to support the second landing attempt. The second Japanese invasion force composed most of the same ships from the first attempt on December 11 with some new additions and the destroyer transports P-32 and P-33 which were beached and burned in their attempts to land the invasion force. Captain Henry T. Elrod, one of the pilots from VMF-211, was awarded the United States Medal of Honor posthumously for his action on the Island during the Japanese landings on the 23rd for shooting down two Japanese Zero fighters. After a full night and morning of fighting, the Wake garrison surrendered to the Japanese by mid-afternoon. The Marines lost only 49 killed during the entire 15-day siege while three Naval personnel and at least 70 civilans were killed. The Japanese losses, were recored at between 700 to 900 killed with at least 1,000 more wounded, in addition to the two destroyers lost in the Decembter 11 invasion attempt as well as at least 20 land-based and carrier aircraft. The Japanese captured all of men remaining on the island (of whom the majority were civilian contractors employed with Morrison-Knudsen Company). The story of the men was memorialized in the 1942 film Wake Island. A special military decoration, the Wake Island Device was also created to honor those who had fought in the defense of the island.


On February 24, 1942, USS Enterprise attacked the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. The United States forces bombed the island from 1942 until Japan's surrender in 1945. On July 8, 1943, B-24 Liberators in transit from Midway Island bombed the Japanese garrison on Wake Island. George H. W. Bush also conducted his first mission as an aviator over Wake Island. Afterwards, Wake was occasionally raided, but never attacked en masse.

On October 5, 1943, carrier planes from USS Yorktown conducted an extremely successful raid. Two days later, fearing an imminent invasion, Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the execution of 98 captured American contract workers remaining on the island who had been doing forced labour for the Japanese. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and machine-gunned. One of the prisoners (whose name has never been discovered) escaped the massacre, apparently returning to the site to carve the message 98 US PW 5-10-43 on a large coral rock near where the murdered Americans had been hastily buried in a mass grave. This unknown American was re-captured within a few weeks, after which Sakaibara personally beheaded him with a sword. The inscription on the rock can still be seen and is a Wake Island landmark. After the war, Sakaibara and his subordinate, Lieutenant-Commander Tachibana, were sentenced to death for this and other crimes (several Japanese officers in American custody had committed suicide over the incident, leaving written statements that incriminated Sakaibara, and Tachibana's sentence was later commuted to life in prison).

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.


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, the island's airstrip 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.

The United States military personnel have left and there are no indigenous inhabitants. Wake is claimed by the Marshall Islands and some civilian personnel ("contractor inhabitants") remain. As of July 2004, an estimated 200 contractor personnel were present. The island remains a strategic location in the North Pacific Ocean. The island serves as an emergency landing location for transpacific flights. Some World War II facilities and wreckage remain on the islands.

Since 1974 from Wake Island military rockets were launched at . These rockets are launched for the test of anti missile systems and for atmospheric re-entry tests.


  • Sloan, Bill. Given up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand at Wake Island. Bantam Books, 2003. ISBN 0-55-380302-6

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Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13