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 raid.
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 was un-useable.
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.
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