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Wake Island

Map Courtesy CIA World Factbook

Wake Island (also known as Wake Atoll) 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.

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.

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.

On December 8, two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 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 destroyer transports (the P-32 and P-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 naval ship sunk during World War II. The Japanese force withdrew before landing. This was the first Japanese defeat of the war. After the defeat, when asked if he needed anything, the US commander said "Send more Japs".

But 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 US attempted an unsuccessful relief attempt based around the fleet carriers Saratoga and Lexington plus escorts. The carrier forces did not spot each other so no naval battle took place.

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 begain at 02:35 hours where, after a prelimiary bombardment, the destroyer transports P-32 and P-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 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.

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.

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.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Wake Island".