Wake of History
Located approximately 2,138 nautical miles west of Honolulu, Hawaii, Wake Atoll is the northernmost atoll in the Marshall Islands geological ridge and perhaps the oldest and northernmost living atoll in the world.
The first visitors to Wake Atoll were probably early navigators from the Marshall Islands, who periodically visited Enen Kio (Wake Atoll in Marshallese) to hunt sea turtles and birds. In modern times, the atoll was sighted by Spanish explorer Mendana in 1568 and was named for British sea captain William Wake, who arrived in 1796.
Wake was formally claimed by the United States during the Spanish American War, when it was possessed for use as a cable station. In 1935, Pan American Airways established a seaplane refueling base and 48-room hotel on Peale Island, becoming the atoll’s first permanent residents.
On December 11, 1941, the U.S. Marine garrison and 1,200 civilians completing construction of a major air and submarine base on Wake were attacked by the Japanese, the only amphibious landing attempt to be repulsed by shore-based guns during World War II in the Pacific. In a second attack on December 23, Wake’s survivors were overwhelmed by Japanese soldiers, who maintained control over the atoll until September 1945. At least two Japanese destroyers, two transport landing craft, and multiple aircraft were lost in the vicinity of Wake Island during the December 1941 assault.
Wake Atoll was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1985 in recognition of its role in World War II. Numerous artifacts from the war remain, perhaps the most famous being the “98 Rock,” a memorial for the 98 U.S. civilian contract POWs who were forced by their Japanese captors to rebuild the airstrip as slave labor, then blindfolded and killed by machine gun on October 5, 1943. An unidentified prisoner escaped, and chiseled “98 US PW 5-10-43″ on a large coral rock near their mass grave. The prisoner was recaptured and beheaded by the Japanese admiral, who was later convicted and executed for war crimes.
Approximately 100 species of corals have been reported at Wake Atoll, a number somewhat lower than found at larger and less isolated neighboring atolls to the south. Fish populations are abundant with at least 323 species recorded, including large populations of the Napoleon wrasse, sharks of several species, and large schools of the bumphead parrotfish, all of which are globally depleted. Foraging populations of the threatened green turtle and resident populations of spinner dolphins are also found at Wake.
The islands support a rare grass species, Lepturus gasparricensis, and were home to the endemic Wake rail until it went extinct during World War II. Wake supports 12 species of resident nesting seabirds and 6 species of migratory shorebirds; all of which are populations of regional significance. Black-footed albatrosses and Laysan albatrosses recently recolonized Wake; one of few northern albatross colonies outside the Hawaiian archipelago.
The atoll and surrounding waters out to 50 nautical miles from shore are part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, established by Presidential Proclamation 8336 on January 6, 2009. For more information, please visit the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument website.