History of Wake Island

Controversy revolves around the tropical paradise of Wake Island, part of Eneen-Kio Atoll, the collection of three islands also known as Wake Atoll, located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The island is claimed by both the United States and the Marshall Islands. It is further claimed as an independent sovereignty in the name of the Kingdom of EnenKio.

Wake Island

The World Factbook, published by the CIA, states that the 2.5-square-mile Wake Island has no arable land, no crops, no forests or woodland, no indigenous inhabitants.

The population consists (as of the latest record from January 2001) of only one US Army civilian and 123 civilian contractor personnel. The island is economically insignificant, as all food and manufactured goods must be imported.

There is no domestic or international telephone system, no radio service, no television broadcasting. There isn’t even a harbor. However, despite its lack of agriculture or an economy, the island is rich in historical significance, warranting a lengthy and subsequently fascinating lesson on the history of Wake Atoll.

Discovered by Spain

According to Theodore Leverett’s history of the island on the Flags of the World website, “Wake Island was first discovered by the Spaniard Álvaro de Mendana in 1586, who named it San Francisco and claimed it in the name of the King of Spain. This claim was internationally recognized, the atoll being viewed as worthless…

In 1796 the Englishman Captain Samuel Wake of the merchant vessel Prince William Henry rediscovered it. He gave the atoll its present name, also carried by its largest island… On December 20, 1840, the USS Vincennes brought the explorer Charles Wilkes and the naturalist Titian Peale to the island where they conducted a series of surveys and eventually lent their names to the other two islands of the atoll…

The Treaties of Paris and Washington

During the Spanish-American War, an American troop convoy bound for the Philippines (then owned by Spain) stopped off at Wake. Major General Francis V. Greene hoisted the Stars and Stripes, then with 45 stars, there on July 4, 1898… The subsequent peace treaty [signed with Spain in December 1898 and approved by the US Senate in February 1899] which ended the war transferred Wake to the United States.”

The Treaty of Paris, signed by officials from the United States of America and the Spanish Empire on December 10, 1898, relinquished all Spanish claim of sovereignty over and title to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the island of Guam in the Marianas, all islands in the West Indies under Spanish sovereignty, and all islands within approximately 116 degrees and 127 degrees longitude east near and including the Philippine Island archipelago.

Concept and Diagram © Richard D. LeCour
Satellite Imagery © TerraMetrics

An amendment three years later (the Treaty of Washington) added several additional islands located southwest of the island chain of Palawan that had been omitted from the original treaty. No other specific islands or locations of any kind were mentioned.

Wake Island did not fall within the boundaries of either the Treaty of Paris of 1898 or the Treaty of Washington of 1900 as the atoll is located at approximately 166 degrees of longitude east of Greenwich.

This directly contradicts the common misconception that Wake Island was included in the spoils of war between the United States and Spain, as insisted upon by such historians as Stanley K. Schultz, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, but the language of both treaties is indisputable — neither of them include the tiny atoll 1,300 nautical miles east of Guam.

Wake as a US Military Base

However the island was acquired, the US Navy recognized the potential of Wake as a military base and contributed both materially and financially to the construction of Pan American facilities.

John Godfrey Borger
Photo © The Borger Family

The historical recollections of the original Pan American World Airways and the newsletter of The Pan Am Historical Foundation quote the then 21-year-old Junior Assistant Engineer for the S.S. North Haven, regarding the initial construction of the airbase.

“On March 27, 1935, the S.S. North Haven embarked from San Francisco for Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam, and Manila, to prepare bases for Pan Am’s flying boats to cross the Pacific. Wake was totally uninhabited; all we had on it were a hydrographic chart with no detail, and an article in National Geographic magazine…

We loaded into the ship 12 prefabricated buildings for Midway, and 12 for Wake. We loaded for each base two diesel engines to generate electricity, two windmills to pump water up and get water pressure, a Caterpillar tractor with interchangeable bulldozer blade and crane, and 4,000-gallon tanks for both aviation gas and water… On the deck we loaded two 38-foot power launches, one for Midway and one for Wake, and a 26-foot launch for Guam, intended for air-sea rescue…

Wake is made up of three islands. It’s true it was uninhabited except for birds; we had to wear hats. We’d planned to put the station on Wilkes Island, which is open to the sea, but the survey team found it was too low in the water. So was Wake Island. But Peale Island, on the far side of the lagoon, was okay. We unloaded the cargo into a storage yard on Wilkes Island, then built a 50-yard railroad (somebody by inspiration had brought light-gauge railroad track) to the lagoon. We put the small launch on a barge and, with the help of the tractor, we shoved it across the knee-deep channel between Wake and Wilkes. The launch towed the barges of cargo across the lagoon to Peale Island. Wake depended on rainfall for water, so we rigged canvases on the roofs, drained them into underground tanks, then pumped the water up to the windmills.

We had to clear the coral heads to provide a six-foot deep open landing area in the Wake lagoon for the M-130 to land. So we hung a length of a light-gauge railroad track six feet deep under a barge, and a launch towed the barge back and forth across the lagoon. When the track hit coral, it shook the barge, wakened the guy sleeping on it, and he threw a cork buoy with an anchor to mark the spot. Then Bill Mullahey and I, in a rowboat, rowed out to the buoys. Bill put on goggles he’d made out of bamboo, took a bamboo spear, and dove down and inspected the coral head… Bill surfaced and said, give me six, or eight, sticks of dynamite, dove back down and tied them to the coral. He resurfaced, I rowed us upwind as far as we could, and he pressed a magneto button and blew up the coral. We rowed back, picked up the fish the blast had killed, and brought them back for dinner. We did this [until] we cleared a pie-shaped landing area [where we] built a 400-foot dock.”

– John G. Borger

After the completion of the airbase and a 48-room hotel, Wake Island became one of the stopping points on regular Pan American flights for servicing and refueling of the famous “Pan Am Clippers”, four-engined flying boats. Pan American published a 24-page brochure in 1937 to promote the transpacific China Clipper service from San Francisco to Hawaii, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, Manila, and its final destination of Hong Kong.

“A tiny pinpoint on the vast Pacific’s map — five thousand miles from America’s mainland. A land unheard of until a few years ago — uninhabited, until the coming of the airway pioneers — became the scene of one of the most dramatic struggles in the history of American transportation. Here hardship, toil and thrilling courage overcame tremendous odds to set in final place four thousand tons of materials. Scarcely eight hours from Midway — another change in time — you are ashore in the early afternoon and the island is yours to explore… Down paths lined with magnolia are living quarters for the base staff, the power plant, the big refrigerators, a little hospital, a pergola where you will find an unusual collection of the little atoll’s lore – bits from ancient sailing craft that came to grief on the treacherous reefs that so effectively shelter the lagoon’s water for the flying clipper ships; heaps of coral in fantastic designs; sea shells of every form. Along the arcs of glistening beach you can find all these for yourself — and perhaps a dozen little hollow balls of glass — floats from Japanese fishing nets that have drifted half way across the Pacific…

Wake Island, so newly added to the world’s travel map, is already becoming a favorite vacation spot for travel-wise voyageurs. A beautiful, unspoiled land a world away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. A land reserved to those who fly, where every comfort and convenience, excellent food and expert attention are as much a part of your stay as the breath-taking sunsets, the soft thundering of the sea and its magnificent thirty-foot surf. Not soon can one forget these rainbow waters, soft deep sands, the friendly sun, the cool sweet trade winds blown from across the broadest sea.”

James W. Wensyel, in his article titled Odyssey Of The Wake Island Prisoners, states that the US Navy never lost sight of Wake Island’s military potential and turned the commercial airfield into a full-fledged defensive fortification, complete with 449 Marines, 71 Naval personnel, 5 Army radio operators, and 12 fixed-wing Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats fighter planes, all under the overall command of Commander Winfield S. Cunningham.

Japan Seizes Wake in World War II

“War with Japan was imminent, and an airstrip on Wake, about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, would allow American heavy bombers to strike the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. And, if Guam were lost to the Japanese, Wake would be one of the closest American outposts to the Japanese mainland… [Early on the morning of December 8, 1941,] at 8:50 the Marines raised the American flag on its staff, something Marines did every morning all over the world… Not long after the flag raising, 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 Nell bombers crossed Wake in three V-formations. Soon their fragmentation bombs, accompanied by a steady drumming of machine-gun fire, tore the island to pieces… Japanese land-based aircraft from Roi in the Marshalls, later joined by aircraft from approaching Japanese carriers, pounded the atoll day after day. Before each attack, a dwindling number of American Wildcat fighters rose to meet them.

At 3 a.m. on December 11, a Japanese invasion task force commanded by Rear Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka, consisting of a light cruiser, six destroyers, two troop carriers and two armed merchantmen, confidently approached Wake’s beaches. Marine gunners let them close to 4,500 yards before their 5-inch naval guns opened fire. Their patience was rewarded with the sinking of one Japanese destroyer and damaging of the cruiser and three additional destroyers.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy National Archives

Kajioka retreated, now knowing that Wake would not be taken without a fight. By the 21st, the last of the Wildcats had been destroyed in dogfights over the atoll… Japanese airplanes now roamed over the island at will, pounding American positions in preparation for a renewed attempt to seize the atoll.

In the dark, rain-swept early morning hours of December 23rd, Kajioka returned, his fleet bolstered by four heavy cruisers and various other warships, including landing craft, to assault Wake’s beaches with more than 900 well-trained infantrymen of the Special Naval Landing Force. At 2:35 a.m., the first Japanese landing barge ground ashore.

Soon a desperate battle was being fought across the atoll between groups of men fighting with rifles, bayonets, grenades and fists. The Americans fought hard, but more Japanese landed and pushed them toward the island’s center… Reports from the three islands were discouraging; there were simply too many Japanese and too few Americans… Cunningham, as the ranking officer, made the inevitable decision to surrender… Stunned defenders threw away rifle bolts, destroyed delicate range-finding instruments, drained hydraulic fluid from recoil cylinders and then surrendered. Eighty-one Marines, eight sailors and 82 civilian construction workers had been killed or wounded. The Japanese, however, paid a heavy price for their victory. The fight for Wake Island had cost them two destroyers and one submarine sunk, seven additional ships damaged, 21 aircraft shot down and almost 1,000 men killed.

Enraged by their losses, the Japanese treated their prisoners — military and civilian — brutally. Some were stripped naked, others to their underwear. Most had their hands tied behind their backs with telephone wire, with a second wire looped tightly from their necks to their wrists so that if they lowered their arms they would strangle themselves… The prisoners were then jammed into two suffocating concrete ammunition bunkers. Later they were herded to the airstrip and made to sit, naked, on the blistering hot concrete. When the Japanese set up machine guns nearby, most of the prisoners expected to be executed. That night, bone-chilling winds replaced the heat. The prisoners sat there, still waiting for food, water or medical treatment. The unfortunate prisoners remained sitting on the airstrip for two days. Finally, they were given food, much of it spoiled by the heat, and water, contaminated from being placed in unclean gasoline drums. Piles of assorted clothing seized earlier were placed before them… After returning his prisoners’ clothes, Kajioka, resplendent in white dress uniform and gleaming samurai sword, read a proclamation to the assembled prisoners. When he concluded, a Japanese interpreter informed the Americans that ‘the Emperor has graciously presented you with your lives.’”

After World War II

The defense of Wake was testimony to the valor and professionalism of the Marine garrison and its officers, December 11th being the only successful thwarting of an attempted amphibious landing by enemy forces in the Pacific throughout the war. The tale of the heroic battle for Wake Island inspired American soldiers worldwide. Almost four long years later, World War II ended, the prisoners were released, and control of the island was returned to the United States by the Japanese.

After a 7000-foot runway was paved over the existing coral runway in 1949, the island base also played a key role as a refueling stop for aircraft during the Korean War. And, as a result of the foresighted runway lengthening in 1959 to 9800 feet, the island was able to participate in Desert Storm in 1991, once again as a fueling station. Today, the former commercial airbase 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.

An understanding of the history of Wake Island is fundamental for understanding the claims made by the Marshall Islands and the Kingdom of EnenKio.

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