Wake Island

Prewar History of Wake, 1586-1941


Although named[1] for Captain Wake, master of the British trading schooner, Prince William Henry, who is often said to have discovered Wake in 1796,Wake atoll was in fact first sighted more than two centuries earlier, in 1586 by Alvaro de Mendana, a Spanish explorer who, with two ships, Los Reyes and Todos Santos, lay-to off the atoll and finally landed in hopes of replenishing his supply of food and water. Mendana, who found neither food nor water, but only brambles, named it San Francisco, fixed it accurately in latitude and very badly in longitude (east of the Hawaiian group). This error may have been due to primitive pre-Sumner Line methods of navigation.

During the succeeding two centuries, there is no record of Wake save under the title of Lamira (Look Out) or Discierta (Desert Island), both reported in the general vicinity of Wake, on the track of Spanish trans-Pacific treasure ships plying between Mexico and the Philippines. In 1796 Captain Wake arrived, located the atoll accurately, and gave it is eventual name; shortly after, a British fur ship, Halcyon, made a similar landfall and independently reported the discovery.

On 20 December, 1840, Charles Wilkes, USN, the famous Pacific oceanographer and explorer, landed on and surveyed Wake, bringing with him as well the naturalist, Titian Peale, who collected many new specimens, mainly of marine life. From the explorations of Wilkes and Peale, the two lesser islands of the group were eventually to find names,[2] but at this time Wake was of insufficient interest to cause Commodore Wilkes to take possession in the name of the United States.

"Some authorities maintained that the atoll disappeared beneath the waves from time to time, but it was indubitably projecting on the night of 5 March, 1866," wrote Capt. R.A. Dierdorff, USN, in describing the wreck of the German bark, Libelle, Wake's only recorded shipwreck prior to December 1941. The Libelle, bound for Hong Kong from Honolulu, grounded on the reef offshore of the east leg of Wake Island during a storm, and only succeeded in landing survivors (and a money cargo of $300,000) after 3 days. During the next 3 weeks, two ships' boats were fitted out for an attempt to reach Guam, and one (a 22-foot longboat bearing Mme. Anna Bishop, then a famous operatic singer), successfully attained its destination after 18 days at sea; the other, bearing 8 persons, including the ship's master, was never heard of again. Fittings from the Libelle were still found in the sands of Wake as late as 1940, and the unfortunate bark's anchor was salvaged in 1935 and placed as a marker before the entrance to the Pan American Airways hotel. What became of the $300,000 is not known.

For the European and American powers of the middle and end of the 19th Century Wake Island had very little appeal. It was a minute speck in the Pacific, dry, without any sizable vegetation, uninhabited and far away from any other places of interest. Unlike several central Pacific atolls, Wake had not even enough guano to warrant commercial exploitation. In short, none of the powers of that era wanted to have anything to do with it on a larger scale. This situation changed profoundly following the Spanish-American war. The USA had acquired territory overseas from the continental U.S., namely Guam and the Philippines, and found themselves in the dire need of reliable communications between the mainland and its new trans-Pacific possessions. The need for reliable cable stations had become imminent when the U.S. squadron off Manila could not be contacted by the government. Attempts to lay an emergency cable did not eventuate. Wake Island, suitably located in the center of the northern equatorial Pacific, was seen as the ideal spot for a submarine cable relay station. Thus Wake Island was several times claimed for the USA, when several vessels going to or returning from the Philippines stopped and raised the American flag.

On 4 July 1898, Maj. Gen. Francis V. Greene, USN, commanding the Second Detachment, Philippine Expeditionary Force, in the transport Thomas, ordered two boats ashore and raised an American flag ("a 14-inch banner tied to a dead limb"). In the same month Wake was again visited by the U.S., this time by General Merritt from the U.S. Army Transport Thomas.Apparently again in 1898, the U.S. Revenue cutter McCullogh landed a few men on Wake using the channel between Wilkes and Wake for a launch.

Shortly after, on 17 January 1899, the USS Bennington, commanded by Commander Edward D. Taussig, USN, acting on orders from Washington, "took possession of the atoll known as Wake Island, for the United States of America"[3]. A flagstaff was erected, a flag nailed to the mast and a brass plate with an inscription nailed to the base of the flagstaff.

United States of America
William McKinley, President
John D. Long, Secretary of the Navy
Commander E. D. Taussig, U.S.N.,
Commanding 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

The intention in formally acquiring Wake had been to establish a cable station for the Guam-Midway cable, but the absence of fresh water, taken with evidence that Wake at some time previous had been completely inundated, dissuaded Commander Taussig from recommending that the cable station be put into service; as a result, the cable was laid past Wake directly into Guam. After the Bennington departed, although Wake was occasionally visited by trans-Pacific vessels, the only visitor of note was Capt. John J. Pershing, who, in December 1906, landed on Wake and caused a high durability canvas American flag to be hoisted.

It is often assumed and stated that the U.S. annexed Wake from Spain. This is brought about by the date of annexation and the involvement of U.S. troops en route to the Philippines. The Imperial German government, however, alerted by press notices of annexation of Wake in July 1898, reacted immediately and the German Ambassador informed his government of the fact. In the eyes of the Germans, Wake Atoll belonged to the Iroijlaplap (King) of the Northern Ratak Atolls of the Marshall Islands and as such had been obtained from Spain as part of the Imperial German Protectorate of the Marshall Islands. Germany refrained from asserting its ownership by military or other means in order not to upset the good relations with the U.S. and the impending final settlement of a Samoan problem. In addition, Germany was interested in the establishment of a cable station in the area as it, too, needed a cable connection with its newly acquired possessions in the Marianas, Carolines and Belau (Palau).

Thus the German government offered the U.S. first the use, but not ownership, and then even outright cession of one of the northern atolls of the Marshall Islands rather than Wake Atoll. The possession of the Samoan Islands and the economic interests which came with it had been the focus of a serious dispute between Imperial Germany, the U.S., the United Kingdom, as well as the kingdoms of Hawaii and Tonga. After many years of squabbling and near outright naval engagements, a solution began to take shape in diplomatic circles. The German government, which saw Samoa as a prize possession, did not want to endanger the climate of agreement. Thus Wake became a pawn which could be sacrificed.

In the discussions on the future of the Samoan Islands in 1899, the German administration feared that the U.S. government would only acceded to the proposed settlement of British, German and U.S. interests, if it would be compensated with one of

the Marshall or one of the Caroline Islands. Although not used as a cable station, the U.S. retained Wake as a possession.

In June 1902, the U.S. Army Transport Buford stood off the Wake Island Atoll and was met by a launch putting off the island. The launch contained 8 Japanese who claimed to have been left on Wake Island some two months earlier by a Japanese fishing schooner of Yokohama and that they were fishing on the island. Based on this information, the Chief of the Bureau of Equipment requested the Secretary of the Navy to take action, who in turn took up the matter of the removal of the Japanese with the Department of State. The State Department requested information on the details of the original annexation by the U.S. and whether the island at that time had been inhabited by Japanese or had shown any evidence of previous Japanese habitation.

The information was apparently carried by some newspapers, which commented on the impending deportation of the Japanese by a naval vessel to be dispatched for that purpose. This brought about a representation by the Japanese Ambassador to the Secretary of State. In a diplomatic note the Japanese government indicated that it 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 [sic] that they should be properly protected as long as they are engaged in peaceful occupations."

Such Japanese ventures were not uncommon at the time. Using the weakness of the Spanish government Japan annexed Marcus Island outright in 1898, and retained it until the present day. At the turn of the century Japanese bird collectors or `poachers' visited a number of Central Pacific Islands, never asking the governments involved. The Japanese were seen on the Wake Island Atoll in 1902, 1904, and 1906, and were apparently still, or again, on the island in 1908. They were seen on
one of the northernmost atolls of the German Protectorate over the Marshall Islands, Bok-ak Atoll (Taongi), in 1909, on MarcusIsland in 1902, and on Laysan, Lisianski and other northwestern Hawaiian islands, in the late 1890s, 1899, 1901, 1903, 1904, and also in 1908, 1909, 1910, and 1915.

Both the German Government in the case of Bok-ak, and the US Government in the case of Laysan showed action, while in a similar, if not identical case on Wake Island, neither decided to undertake action nor to increase patrols or visits.

On and off, U.S. warships would pass the atoll, and only once a positive act occurred in 1912, when the U.S.S. Supply stopped at Wake Island en route from Guam. A whaleboat landed some men who planted coconut palms brought there from Guam. The coconut palms apparently were lost in a subsequent storm as they were not found during later landings.

By 1914, Germany lost its Pacific possessions altogether and the U.S. ownership of Wake Island was established by default.

Wake slumbered through World War I, still visited only by Japanese fishermen and gatherers of bird feathers.

In subsequent years some writers, such as H. Bywater, possibly due to ignorance of the geographic realities, that is the lack of potential harbor or lagoon entrance, proposed the use of Wake Island as a potential refueling and submarine base in the event of an armed conflict with Japan or Germany. Bywater's suggestions were taken seriously enough that as a result Wake was again surveyed from a military standpoint in 1922, a year after Bywater's publication. The U.S.S. Beaver, a submarine tender returning from Guam to Pearl Harbor conducted the survey.

The atoll was found to have strategic importance because of its location half-way between Midway and Guam, possibly as an aircraft base, but was seen to have little going for it without major construction efforts.

In 1923, the USS Tanager, bearing a joint scientific expedition sponsored by Yale University and the Bishop Museum of Honolulu, based at Wake for approximately 2 weeks (27 July-5 August) while further survey and collection of general scientific data were accomplished. The land area of the atoll was measured,[4] and at this time Wilkes and Peale were formally recognized as separate islands and duly christened with their present namesThe expedition, under the scientific leadership of A. Wetmore of the Bishop Museum established a tent camp on the eastern end of Wilkes Island, close to the pass between Wilkes and Wake. The expedition charted the island, made extensive zoological and botanical observations while the naval vessel under the command of Lt. Cdr. Samuel Wilder King conducted the sounding survey off shore.

The Tanager Expedition of 1923, encountered evidence of a semi-temporary or longer term settlement on Wake Atoll, apparently of Japanese origin. Two camps were encountered, one on the eastern end of Wilkes Islet and one on the eastern end of Peale Islet. From the remains found it appears that the camps had been established by Japanese poachers collecting feathers of the seabirds. To date it cannot be established whether both camps were contemporary or whether they represent two separate occasions. The Tanager Expedition found a single wooden shack and a grave on Wilkes Island. The camp on Peale Island was far more extensive. It is described by Bryan (1959), citing his own field notes, as follows:

" 'The camp consists of the remains of two large frame buildings with galvanized iron roofs, about 18 feet wide. one 20 feet long, one 30 feet long; two smaller buildings; one tank, and one storehouse, raised on posts which are guarded with tin. Scattered were a number of barrels, boxes, two large clay water jars, tin cans and metal kettles. Saw part of a Sydney newspaper, a pile of oakum, bamboo frame with lath trays. There was also a boat, a little larger than a skiff.

Made a copy of a Japanese inscription inside the bunk house. Later this was translated to read something about leaving the island with the date, November 13, 1908."

The Peale settlement was first seen by the crew of the U.S.S Beaver in 1922. The Beaver's commander, Lt. Cdr. S. Pickering mentions in his report that:

"Several huts were seen across the lagoon and these proved to be deserted huts which evidently had been used by Japanese who had visited the island for birds, fish or pearls. We found a number of sake jars, all of which were empty, and a large still which had been unfortunately used only for distilling water. The Japanese poachers camp at the east end of the northwest island [Peale] was roofed with corrugated iron, gutted and fitted with cistern boxes and earthen vessels."

Although most of the equipment seen there by members of the Beaver and Tanager expeditions, was of Japanese origin there was some evidence on non-Japanese visitors among the poachers. The Tanager expedition found:

"A clinker-built row-boat of European design. In the house was found a European chair and scraps of an Australian newspaper which might point to the poachers having had a European navigator. Two briarwood pipes and other articles not used by Japanese furthered this impression."

In addition, the expedition found a 45' boat which had been cut into three parts and had been cached under some scrub.

Near the Peale camp was a small Shinto shrine, comprising some pieces of rough lumber set in coral mounds and a coral- lined path leading to it.

Probably following the recommendations of the Tanager Expedition the Wake Island Atoll was declared a bird sanctuary in June 1926, and placed under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture. Until the mid 1930s, when the development of civilian aviation brought the atoll into the limelight, Wake Island officially bore the designation of a bird sanctuary.

Following the readjustment of the geopolitical situation after the end of World War I, Wake Island Atoll attained a new importance in the eyes of many scholars and politicians. Alfred Thayer Mahan, the naval strategist, was among those who saw the need for the United States to have possession of Pacific islands between Hawaii and Guam.

Studies immediately after WWI did not express any major changes in policies, as readjustments of the situations were still under way. Over time, however, Japan was perceived as a potential threat to regional security mainly in the U.S., as well as in the former British Dominions of Australia and New Zealand.

For a brief explanation of Japanese foreign policy with regard to territorial expansion during the period after the Spanish American War to just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, follow this link >

With its newly acquired League of Nations Mandate over the former German Colony of Micronesia, Japan had come precariously close to the American zone of influence, i.e. Samoa and Hawaii (then a territory). Outposts, held in U.S. hands therefore, were seen of importance as cable relay stations or potential airfields for small flying boats.

Until the late 1920s international trans-Pacific travel was generally by sea. Although aircraft development had undergone serious advances, and although aviation in the Pacific rim countries became more and more common, little happened in the field of trans-Pacific aviation.

The air route across the Pacific was pioneered by Kingsford Smith in 1928 (California- Australia) and 1934 (Australia-California).

In mid-1930s the major airlines of the USA, as well as Japan, investigated the feasibility of long-distance flights across the Pacific. The need for stop over points on the great trans-Pacific air routes to the Philippines and Australia necessitated the establishment of air stations on other atolls scattered in the Central Pacific. A second scramble for islands resulted, with the U.S. again annexing or re-asserting ownership and finally occupying Baker, Howland and Jarvis, while the United Kingdom occupied Canton and Enderbury. The U.S., was also interested in the rights to the two latter atolls, arrived in 1939, at an arrangement with the UK to establish a 50-year joint administration of these atolls.

Wake, located half-way between Midway and Guam, suddenly came back to the fore-front of attention of naval strategists and civil aviation planners alike. Although the project of a trans-Pacific air service was essentially civilian in nature, the Navy had an interest in it, as it would also provide bases for potential use by the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Navy, therefore, was quite cooperative of the project and assisted with a secret survey and with the provision of Navy radio beacons on Midway and Guam, as well as of the naval air station facilities on Guam.

Given this cooperation, then, it is not very astonishing to learn that the government of Japan, on the other hand, felt rather uneasy over the development of a civilian air service coming that close to the Japanese Mandated Territory and publicly denounced it as a scheme to violate the non-fortification clauses of the Washington Treaty. The U.S. Department of State did not consider this to be the case and rejected the Japanese arguments.

Following the demise of the Washington Treaty on the limitation of naval tonnage, the departure of Japan from the League of Nations and following the development of trans-Pacific air travel, the U.S. government was in the need of strengthening the defense of and the support lines for its naval base on Guam, which was surrounded by islands under Japanese control. After Japan's attack on Manchuria a potential conflict with Japan had become more likely than before. Thus islands and atolls suitable for seaplanes and naval vessels, as well as submarines were evaluated.

In the process of this planning, then, the U.S. Navy began to develop the Wake Island and Midway as potential naval air stations. Thus, in order to prevent any other use, Wake Atoll was placed under the jurisdiction of the Navy Department on December 29, 1934. Even before Wake had been developed primarily as a civil air station, its status was changed to a naval air station by the President's Executive Order in 1935, and brought under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy. The order defined the Wake Island Naval Defensive Sea Area with a radius of 10 miles around the atoll, and the Wake Island Naval Airspace Reservation above that area. A contemporary newspaper account details the official U.S. view:

"Wake Island is extremely important. We [the US Navy] could scout 1,015 miles west of Midway, and it would bring us approximately to Wake. Now, if we are in Wake, we can scout 1,500 miles north, south and west of Wake by air, and that is approximately a three or four day's run for a fleet.

The purpose of these islands - Wake, Midway, Johnston and Palmyra - from an aviation standpoint is for observation centers, to give sufficient information to permit the disposition of U.S. Fleet forces."

In1935, Pan American Airways, following its successful use of sea planes in the Caribbean and South America made the decision to extend their routes to the Australia, New Zealand and the Orient. The first step was to begin service to the Phillipines and the company selected Wake as a useful intermediate base for the Philippines run. In early 1935, Pan American Airways sent the S.S. North Haven to survey and then to develop civilian air stations on Midway and Eneen-Kio Atoll. Between the 5th and the 29th of May 1935, the North Haven landed supplies and equipment on Wilkes, which then had to be carried and dragged across that islet and across the lagoon to Peale, where PanAm had decided to develop the air station because of more suitable soil and geology.

In1935, at the urging of PanAm and and the less known support of the U.S. Navy, the Rivers and Harbors Committee of the U.S. Congress authorized the U.S. Navy to send the U.S.S Nitro, nominally an ammunition ship acting as a survey vessel, to Wake Island to amend and update the available maps. The survey was carried out in February and March 1936, and included aerial photography, lagoon hydrology and geology as well as field and ground topography. The resulting map was the sole basis data for some time to come (until well past World War II).

In November and December 1935, Pan American Airways sent its 25-ton seaplane China Clipper on a successful flight from San Francisco to Manila, via Honolulu, Midway, Wake and Guam. The inaugural flight reached Wake Island Atoll, officially named Pan American Airways trans-Pacific Base No 3 on 26 November 1935. Following this inaugural flight, a regular fortnightly service was introduced in 1936, using large Martin-130 seaplanes ("Clipper") on a weekly service from 1937, onwards until in February 1939, the larger Boeing 314 flying boats became available.

One Pan American Clipper was mysteriously lost at sea in July of 1938. A recent book implicates the Japanese in having played a part in its disappearance and later U. S. governments in covering that fact up. For more on this use this link >

For what it was like on the Pan American Clippers, follow this link >

Pan Am Airways set up a complete establishment on Wake Island, comprising a landing dock at the end of long pier, a large hotel and office building, stores, a power plant, radio and weather station and a refrigeration unit, as well a living quarters for the ground crew servicing the aircraft. Farm animals were imported and pens set up. The base was supplied once every six-months by a supply vessel, which brought in food and gasoline. While the gasoline was stored in an open-air gasoline drum dump, the food was stored in the refrigeration plants and the warehouses. In September 1940, Pan American Airways had a ground staff of 16 employees on the atoll. That grew to 60 and then 70 employees in the months before the outbreak of the war.

Although primarily designed as a stop-over and over-night station only, Wake saw some air visitors to stay for more than a night. For the amenities of these visitors PAA had provided in the pre-typhoon years (pre-1940) of the establishment a glass-bottom rowing boat to see the reef corals.

The Pan American operation also featured a method to grow fresh vegetables in hydroponic cultures, which attracted considerable media coverage. On record, the following were cultivated there: lettuce, tomatoes, squash, beans, maize, varieties of melons, papaya, pineapple and even strawberries[5].

In 1938, a Naval Board headed by Rear Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn, USN, former (1936-1938) commander-in-chief U.S. Fleet, recommended that $7.5 million should be expended on Wake Island to develop it into an air base for long-range patrol- plane reconnaissance. In any event, following severe criticism that development of Wake could be seen as an act of aggression.

Wake Island was excluded from the final document (United States, House of Representatives, 1939).

In 1939, the Wake Island Atoll was officially placed under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Navy "for administrative purposes". Although Wake Island had been placed under the jurisdiction of the Navy in December 1934, and made a naval reserve base in 1935, little development took place. The U.S., officially and morally bound to observe the conditions of the various non- fortification clauses, could not openly engage in military construction. Civilian construction, however, was another matter, and such was labeled the expenditure of $2 million on seaplane bases on Wake Island and Midway.

Finally, on December 26, 1940, in belated implementation of the initial Hepburn Board's recommendations, a pioneer partyof the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases (CPNAB) including 80 men and some 2,000 tons of construction equipment sailed for Wake from Oahu in the U.S.S. William Ward Burrows [6], as the advance detachment to commence construction of the Wake Naval Air Base. Main contractor for the Wake Island work was Morrison-Knudsen Co of Boise (Idaho) builders of Hoover Dam.The Burrows made landfall on 9 January 1941, lay-to off Wilkes, and next day commenced landing naval supplies and advance base equipment for development of the base.When in full swing, some 1,100 men worked on Wake under the supervision of Morrison-Knudsen Superintendent Dan Teters.

On February 4, 1941, amid the growing possibility of an armed conflict President Roosevelt signed an Executive Ordermaking Wake Island Atoll a national defense area.

Although Wake Island was primarily to become an air base for patrol planes, the navy saw another strategic reason to develop the island and to deploy garrison forces there. The ultimate design concept for Wake saw a fully operational Naval Air Base, operating both land-based planes and flying boats, a submarine base and a small scale base for surface vessels. In addition, Wake Island was to serve as a key radio direction finding station and was to be equipped with a powerful radar set.

An advance party of the 1st Marine Defense Force arrived on 19 August 1941, and made camp. This detachment was augmented by another 200 marines on 2 November.

In the months before the outbreak of the Pacific war, Wake Island Atoll had been used as a staging base for aircraft such as B-17s ferried to the US bases in the Philippines.

Wake from Space


[1] Wake has borne many names during its 361 years: Wake's Island, Waker's Weeks, Wreck, Helsion, Halcyon, Wilson, Ecueil, Lamira, Discierta, San Francisco, Eneen Kio and (under the Japanese) Otori-Shima, which last refers to what the Japanese considered to be its bird-like shape.

[2] Inasmuch as "Wake Island," so-called, is really an atoll composed of three islands, Wilkes, Wake, and Peale, this appendix describes the atoll as "Wake," and when mentioning the island proper speaks of it as "Wake Island." To the Japanese Wilkes was Ashi-Shima, and Peale, Hani-Shima, while the whole atoll was Otori-Shima.

[3] Extract form inscription on the brass plate affixed to the base of the first flagpole erected on Wake by Commander Taussig.

[4] Wake, the expedition discovered, has a total land area of 2,600 acres.

[5] Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary, 1943, defines hydroponics as "soilless agriculture; the raising of plants in nutrient mineral solutions without earth around the roots."

[6] A detailed and interesting account of this initial naval-base development is contained in "Pioneer Party--Wake Island," U.S. Naval Insittute Proceedings, April 1943, by Capt. R.A. Dierdorff, USN, then commanding officer of the Burrows.

This basic text is from a USMC monograph on the Defense of Wake Island interlaced and expanded with information and photographs from other sources.

Return to "Finding Dad" story >

For the history of the defense of Wake Island during the start of WWII >

For The Massacre At Wake Island by Major Mark E. Hobbs >

For more information and facts including "Firsts " at Wake Island >

Short Summary Of Wake Island Since 1945 -

A 7000-foot runway was paved over the existing coral runway in 1949. The island base played a key role as a refueling stop for aircraft during the Korean War. There was a runway lengthening in 1959 to 9800 feet. In 1975, Wake Island became a Processing Center for Viet Nam refugees. At one time its population was up to 5, 000 during this period. In 1991 the island was used as a fueling station during Desert Storm.

Now, 2003, Wake Island is used primarily by the US Army Space and Strategic Defense Command and for emergency landings of trans-Pacific flights. There are over 700 landings a year on the island.


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