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Appendix II: Prewar History of Wake, 1586-1941

Although named[1] for Captain Wake, master of the British trading schooner, Prince William Henry, who is often said to have discovered Wake in 1796, Wake atoll was in fact first sighted more than two centuries earlier, in 1586 by Alvaro de Mendana, a Spanish explorer who, with two ships, Los Reyes and Todos Santos, lay-to off the atoll and finally landed in hopes of replenishing his supply of food and water. Mendana, who found neither food nor water, but only brambles, named it San Francisco, fixed it accurately in latitude and very badly in longitude (east of the Hawaiian group). This error may have been due to primitive pre-Sumner Line methods of navigation.

During the succeeding two centuries, there is no record of Wake save under the title of Lamira (Look Out) or Discierta (Desert Island), both reported in the general vicinity of Wake, on the track of Spanish trans-Pacific treasure ships plying between Mexico and the Philippines. In 1796 Captain Wake arrived, located the atoll accurately, and gave it is eventual name; shortly after, a British fur ship, Halcyon, made a similar landfall and independently reported the discovery.

On 20 December, 1840, Charles Wilkes, USN, the famous Pacific oceanographer and explorer, landed on and surveyed Wake, bringing with him as well the naturalist, Titian Peale, who collected many new specimens, mainly of marine life. From the explorations of Wilkes and Peale, the two lesser islands of the group were eventually to find names,[2] but at this time Wake was of insufficient interest to cause Commodore Wilkes to take possession in the name of the United States.

"Some authorities maintained that the atoll disappeared beneath the waves from time to time, but it was indubitably projecting on the night of 5 March, 1866," wrote Capt. R.A. Dierdorff, USN, in describing the wreck of the German bark, Libelle, Wake's only recorded shipwreck prior to December 1941.

The Libelle, bound for Hong Kong from Honolulu, grounded on the reef offshore of the east leg of Wake Island during a storm, and only succeeded in landing survivors (and a money cargo of $300,000) after 3 days. During the next 3 weeks, two ships' boats were fitted out for an attempt to reach Guam, and one (a 22-foot longboat bearing Mme. Anna Bishop, then a famous operatic singer), successfully attained its destination after 18 days at sea; the other, bearing 8 persons, including the ship's master, was never heard of again. Fittings from the Libelle were still found in the sands of Wake as late as 1940, and the unfortunate bark's anchor was salvaged in 1935 and placed as a marker before the entrance to the Pan American Airways hotel. What became of the $300,000 is not known.

On 4 July 1898, Maj. Gen. Francis V. Greene, USN, commanding the Second Detachment,

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Philippine Expeditionary Force, in the transport Thomas, ordered two boats ashore and raised an American flag ("a 14-inch banner tied to a dead limb"). Shortly after, on 17 January 1899, the USS Bennington, commanded by Commander Edward D. Taussig, USN, acting on orders from Washington, "took possession of the atoll known as Wake Island, for the United States of America."[3]

The first intention in formally acquiring Wake had been to establish a cable station thereat for Guam-Midway cable, but the absence of fresh water, taken with evidence that Wake at some time previous had been completely inundated, dissuaded Commander Taussig from recommending that the cable station be put into service; as a result, the cable was laid past Wake directly into Guam. After the Bennington departed, although Wake was occasionally visited by trans-Pacific vessels, the only visitor of note was Capt. John J. Pershing, who, in December 1906, landed on Wake and caused a high durability canvas American flag to be hoisted.

Wake slumbered through World War I, still visited only by Japanese fishermen and gatherers of bird feathers, but in 1922 the USS Beaver, a submarine tender, made the first--and still the basic--survey of Wake. In 1923, the USS Tanager, bearing a joint scientific expedition sponsored by Yale University and the Bishop Museum of Honolulu, based at Wake for approximately 2 weeks (27 July-5 August) while further survey and collection of general scientific data were accomplished. The land area of the atoll was measured,[4] and at this time Wilkes and Peale were formally recognized as separate islands and duly christened with their present names.

In 1934, by Executive order, jurisdiction over Wake was passed to the Navy Department, and, less than a year after, in 1935, Pan American Airways, extending their routes to the Antipodes and Orient, selected Wake as a useful intermediate base for the Philippines run.

The Navy Department, quick to sense the potential military value of Pan American's base development of Wake, cooperated with the project by despatching the USS Nitro, nominally an ammunition ship, but nevertheless man-of-all-work for the prewar Naval Transportation Service, to bring the 1922-23 surveys up to date. Two of the Nitro's boats, hardly amphibious landing craft, were lost in the surf during this project.

Between 5 and 29 May 1935, Pan American's air base construction vessel, North Haven, landed supplies and equipment on Wilkes for eventual rehandling to Peale which, because of its more suitable soil and geology, had been selected as site for the PAA seaplane base. By the time of North Haven's return to Wake, after a month's voyage westward to Manila, the project was well under way, and, w months later, on 9 August a Pan American clipper made the first aerial landing in the atoll.

From 1935 until 1940, when two typhoons swept Wake with resultant extensive damage to the now elaborate Pan American facilities, development and use of the base were steady but uneventful. A hotel was built, farm animals imported, and hydroponic truck farming commenced.[5]

On 26 December 1940, in implementation of the Hepburn Board's recommendations, a pioneer party including 80 men and some 2,000 tons of equipment, sailed for Wake from Oahu in the USS William Ward Burrows,[6] as the advance detachment to commence establishment of a naval air station on Peale. The Burrows made here landfall on 9 January 1941, lay-to off Wilkes, and next day commenced landing naval supplies and advance base equipment for development of the base.


[1] Wake has borne many names during its 361 years: Wake's Island, Waker's Weeks, Wreck, Helsion, Halcyon, Wilson, Ecueil, Lamira, Discierta, San Francisco, and (under the Japanese) Otori-Shima, which last refers to what the Japanese considered to be its bird-like shape.

[2] Inasmuch as "Wake Island," so-called, is really an atoll composed of three islands, Wilkes, Wake, and Peale, this appendix describes the atoll as "Wake," and when mentioning the island proper speaks of it as "Wake Island." To the Japanese Wilkes was Ashi-Shima, and Peale, Hani-Shima, while the whole atoll was Otori-Shima.

[3] Extract form inscription on the brass plate affixed to the base of the first flagpole erected on Wake by Commander Taussig.

[4] Wake, the expedition discovered, has a total land area of 2,600 acres.

[5] Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary, 1943, defines hydroponics as "soilless agriculture; the raising of plants in nutrient mineral solutions without earth around the roots."

[6] A detailed and interesting account of this initial naval-base development is contained in "Pioneer Party--Wake Island," U.S. Naval Insittute Proceedings, April 1943, by Capt. R.A. Dierdorff, USN, then commanding officer of the Burrows.

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