The US annexed Wake Island in 1899 for a cable station. An important
air and naval base was constructed in 1940-41. In December 1941, the island
was captured by the Japanese and held until the end of World War II. In
subsequent years, Wake was developed as a stopover and refueling site for
military and commercial aircraft transiting the Pacific. Since 1974, the
island's airstrip has been used by the US military and some commercial
cargo planes, as well as for emergency landings. There are over 700 landings
a year on the island.
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
World War Two
Although the atoll went to general quarters upon hearing of the Pearl
Harbor attack, a combination of a lack of radar, loud surf noises (which
made sound-detectors practically useless), and heavy cloud cover rendered
it possible for the Japanese to achieve a surprise attack shortly before
noon on 8 December. Twenty-seven planes emerged from the low-hanging clouds
and bombed and strafed the airfield, destroying seven of VMF-211's F4F-3's
and killing or wounding 62 percent of the aviation personnel on the island.
Over the next two weeks, the Japanese bombed Wake almost incessantly,
softening up the atoll for invasion. The first attempt met with failure
on 11 December, when shore batteries and VMF-211's remaining F4F-3's sank
two Japanese destroyers, Kisaragi and Hay ate, and damaged the light cruiser
Yubari, the flagship of the invasion force.
The setback suffered on 11 December forced the Japanese to bring up
reinforcementsincluding two of the homeward-bound Pearl Harbor striking
force carriersand carrier-based planes began hitting the atoll on 21 December.
The following day, the last two flyable Wildcatsthere had never been more
than four operational over the two-week defense of Wakewent up to do battle
with Japanese. One crippled Wildcat returned, so badly shot-up that it
With the aviation element now disposed of, the Japanese felt confident
that they could land. Accordingly, at 0200 on 23 December 1941, the enemy
managed to establish a beachhead, running two old destroyer-transports
ashore in the process under heavy gunfire. After bitter fighting, the men
of the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force managed to overcome the defending
marines but not without sustaining heavy casualties. Wilkes was the last
island to surrender, on the afternoon of the 23d.
The island was attacked repeatedly for the duration of the war by the
United States. 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.
By means of Executive Order No. 11048, Part I (September 5, 1962), the
President of the United States made the Secretary of the Interior responsible
for the civil administration of the atoll. The order vested in the Secretary
all executive and legislative authority necessary for that administration
and all judicial authority other than the authority of the U.S. District
Court for the District of Hawaii.
The Congress has extended the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court
for the District of Hawaii to all civil and criminal cases arising on or
within Wake Atoll. All civil acts and deeds consummated and taking place
in the atoll or in the waters adjacent to the atoll are deemed to have
been consummated or committed on the high seas on board a U.S. merchant
vessel or other U.S. vessel. According to U.S. maritime law, the court
adjudicates or adjudges these acts or deeds and, as appropriate, punishes
them. To effect this purpose, U.S. maritime law has been extended over
the atoll. U.S. laws relating to juries and jury trials apply to the trial
of such cases before the U.S. District Court in Honolulu. Title 48, U.S.
Code, section 644a.
The atoll has approximately 302 inhabitants. Since October 1, 1994,
the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (within the Office of the Secretary
of Defense) has funded Wake's actual administration, which the U.S. Army
Space and Strategic Defense Command (SSDC) carries out under a use permit.