Wake Island

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For other uses, see Wake Island (disambiguation).
Wake Island - NASA NLT Landsat 7 (Visible Color) Satellite Image
Wake Island - NASA NLT Landsat 7 (Visible Color) Satellite Image

Wake Island (also known as Wake Atoll) is a coral atoll (having a coastline of 12 miles (19.3 kilometers)) in the North Pacific Ocean, located about two-thirds of the way from Honolulu (2,300 statute miles or 3,700 km west) to Guam (1,510 miles or 2,430 km east). It is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States administered by the Office of Insular Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior. Wake is located to the west of the International Date Line and is one day ahead of the 50 states. Access to the island is restricted and all current activities on the island are managed by the United States Air Force, the United States Army and by Chugach McKinley, Inc., a civilian base operations and maintenance services company.

Although Wake is officially called an island in the singular form, it is actually an atoll comprised of three islands (Wake, Wilkes, and Peale) 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. The largest island (also known as Wake Island) is the center of activity on the atoll and is home to a 9,800 foot runway.



Wake Island
  • Geographic coordinates: 19°17′ N 166°36′ E
  • Area (land): 2.5 mi² (6.5 km²)
  • Coastline: 12.0 mi (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 feet (0 meters)
    • highest point: unnamed location, 20 feet (6 m)


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 Samuel Wake, master of the British trading schooner, Prince William Henry, who visited in 1796.

On December 20, 1840, the United States Exploring Expedition commanded by Commodore Charles Wilkes, USN, 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.

The Wreck of the Libelle

Wake Island first received international attention with the wreck of the Libelle. On the night of March 4, 1866 the 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, 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 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 1000 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 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.

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 Major James P.S. Devereux. Others on the island were 68 U.S. Naval personnel and about 1,221 civilian workers.

They were armed with six old 5" (127 mm) cannons, removed from a scrapped cruiser, 12 3" (76.2 mm) M3 anti-aircraft guns (with only a single working anti-aircraft sight between them), 18 Browning M2 heavy machine guns and 30 heavy, medium and light, water or air-cooled machine guns in different conditions but all were operational.

World War II

The Battle of Wake Island

On December 8, 1941 the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor (Wake being on the opposite side of the International Date Line), 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 on the ground. All of the Marine garrison's defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the Naval aircraft.

Early on the morning of December 11, the garrison, with the support of the four remaining Wildcats, repulsed the first Japanese landing attempt by the South Seas Force, which included the light cruisers Yubari, Tenryu, and Tatsuta; the destroyers Yayoi, Mutski, Kisaragi, Hayate, Oite, and Asanagi; two old destroyers which had been redesignated as patrol boats (Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33), and two troop transport ships containing 450 Japanese marines. The U.S. Marines fired at the invasion fleet with their six 5 inch (127 mm) 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 warship sunk during World War II. The Japanese force withdrew before landing. The first battle of Wake Island also marked the only occasion in all of World War II when an amphibious assault was defeated by shore-based guns.

The continuing siege and frequent Japanese air attacks on the Wake garrison continued, without resupply for the Americans. 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, on December 23, composed most of the same ships from the first attempt with some new additions, plus 1,500 Japanese marines. The landings began at 02:35 hours where, after a preliminary bombardment, the ex-destroyers Patrol Boat No. 32 and Patrol Boat No. 33 were beached and burned in their attempts to land the invasion force. After a full night and morning of fighting, the Wake garrison surrendered to the Japanese by mid-afternoon.

The U.S. Marines lost only 49 killed during the entire 15-day siege while three U.S. Navy personnel and at least 70 civilians were killed. The Japanese losses were recorded at between 700 to 900 killed with at least 1,000 more wounded, in addition to the two destroyers lost in the first invasion attempt, as well as at least 20 land-based and carrier aircraft. The Japanese captured all of the men remaining on the island, of whom the majority were civilian contractors employed with Morrison-Knudsen Company.

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. A special military decoration, the Wake Island Device was also created to honor those who had fought in the defense of the island.

Task Force 14

On December 17 by the order of the commander of the Pacific Fleet admiral Husband E. Kimmel Task Force 14 left Pearl Harbor and headed for Wake Island. The projected U.S. relief attempt by Admiral Wilson Brown's Task Force Fourteen (ZO14) consisted of fleet carriers Saratoga and Lexington, the fleet tanker USNS Neches, the troop transport ship USS Tangier, three cruisers USS Astoria, USS Minneapolis, USS San Francisco and ten destroyers,. The convoy carried the 4th Marine Coastal Defense Batallion, the VMF-221 fighter squadron equipped with F2A Brewster Buffalo fighters, along with 9,000 five-inch (127 mm) rounds, 12,000 three-inch (76.2) mm rounds, and 3,000,000 .50 cal. (12.7 mm) rounds as well as a large amount of ammunition for mortars and other batallion small arms.

On December 22 at 21:00 the task force received orders signed by Vice Admiral William S. Pye Acting Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, to return to Pearl Harbor for fear of losses, so no naval battle took place.

Japanese Occupation and Surrender

The surrender of the Japanese garrison on Wake island - September 4, 1945. Shigematsu Sakaibara is the Japanese officer in the right-foreground
The surrender of the Japanese garrison on Wake island - September 4, 1945. Shigematsu Sakaibara is the Japanese officer in the right-foreground

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). 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.


Wake Island's Main Lagoon
Wake Island's Main Lagoon

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 19° 17′ 24″ N, 166° 37′ 05″ E. These rockets are launched for the test of anti missile systems and for atmospheric re-entry tests.

Video Games

Several games based on World War II scenarios make mention or even feature a 'Wake Island' map or location. The most noted of this is from the Digital Illusions CE/ Electronic Arts game Battlefield 1942. Wake Island quickly became a favorite among gamers of Battlefield 1942 because of its size, and the fact that it allowed for spectacular dogfighting between the two opposing teams. In EA's latest Battlefield game, Battlefield 2 the 1.03 Patch released on the 5th of October added a new map to the current line up called "Wake Island 2007" This version of Wake Island was based on its BF1942 counterpart but instead had the Chinese People's Army as the antagonists instead of the Japanese. Wake Island 2007 differs from its older sister in that only one team has an Aircraft Carrier and that the Chinese team already has control of the island. This scenario is set up so that the United States Marine Corps forces must take the island back.


  • Sloan, Bill. Given up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand at Wake Island. Bantam Books, 2003. ISBN 0-55-380302-6
  • This article incorporates information from The World Factbook, which is in the public domain.

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