It is well documented that in the ancient Marshallese religion, rituals surrounding the tattooing of tribal chiefs, called Iroijlaplap, were done using human bones, which often required a human sacrifice. It was said that a man could save himself from being sacrificed if he obtained a wing bone from a very large seabird said to have existed on Enen-kio (Wake Atoll). Archaeologists have found evidence of several small encampments, dating to these prehistoric times, which include fire hearths and burned avian bone. These sites, coupled with the current migratory bird colony on Wilkes Island, lend credence to this oral tradition. However, no evidence exists to suggest there was ever a permanent settlement by Marshall Islanders on Wake Island.
The first documented sighting of Wake Island was on October 20, 1568, when Álvaro de Mendaña, a Spanish explorer with two ships, Los Reyes and Todos los Santos, discovered “a low barren island, judged to be eight leagues in circumference,” to which he gave the name of “San Francisco.” Years passed, and in 1796 the island was eventually named for Captain William Wake, master of the British trading schooner Prince William Henry.
On December 20, 1840, the United States Exploring Expedition, commanded by Commodore Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Navy, landed on Wake and surveyed the island. Wilkes described the atoll as “a low coral one, of triangular form and eight feet above the surface.” He also noted that Wake had no fresh water but was covered with shrubs, “the most abundant of which was the tournefortia.” The expedition’s naturalist, Titian Peale, collected many new samples and would later give his name to one of the three islands while Wilkes claimed the one that remained.
Brigadier General Francis Greene stopped at Wake in 1898 and raised the American flag en route to the Philippines during the Spanish–American War. On January 17, 1899 Commander Taussig of the U.S. Navy landed on Wake and took possession of the island for the United States as a planned telegraph cable station.
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 relied upon the U.S. mainland for much of its food and water supplies.
The island remained a refueling point for Pan Am flights for several years and was treated as an island getaway for their pilots and crew. A small but luxurious hotel was constructed on Peale Island to hold guests during their layovers. This structure would become one of the first to be destroyed in the coming onslaught.
On December 8, 1941, the day of the Attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7 in Hawaii), at least 27 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M medium “Nell” bombers flown from bases on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands attacked Wake Island, destroying eight of the 12 F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft belonging to United States Marine Corps Fighter Squadron 211 on the ground. However, the Marine garrison’s defensive emplacements were left intact by the raid, which primarily targeted the aircraft and several large structures.
At the time of the attack, Wake was occupied by the Marine garrison, a group of Pan Am crew and passengers on layover, and civilian construction workers employed by Morrison-Knudsen Corporation with the task of building up the military installment and runway. These civilian workmen became vital constituents in the repelling of several Japanese amphibious landing attempts.
Hearing of the Japanese movement towards Wake, the Pan Am crew hastened to load the sea-plane they were operating with passengers and their luggage. It is said that the plane, being too heavy at the time of take off, was forced to sacrifice passengers’ luggage in order to safely complete the departure. One such piece of cargo was said to be a large case containing nearly $1,000,000 USD in gold which was accompanying a banker on his business trip to China. At the time, China and the US carried out most of their transactions in this currency. The case, weighing a significant lot, was dropped into the lagoon. Of course, this story has yet to be validated and remains a staple of island folklore.
After fighting a grueling 16 day, defensive battle, with denied support from Hawaii, the isolated U.S. garrison was eventually overwhelmed by a reinforced and greatly superior Japanese invasion force on December 23. With the 3″ guns still hot from the battle, most of the captured military personnel and civilians were stripped to their under garments and led off to POW camps in Asia, though some of the civilian laborers were enslaved by the Japanese and tasked with improving the island’s defenses. When all was said and done, American casualties numbered 52 military personnel (Navy and Marine) and approximately 70 civilians were killed. Japanese losses exceeded 700 dead, with some estimates ranging as high as 1,000. Wake’s defenders sank two Japanese destroyers and one submarine, and shot down 24 Japanese aircraft. This would prove to be the first act of American resistance during WWII.
The island would sustain a continued barrage of air attacks by US forces over the following years of Japanese occupation. During this time, the Japanese constantly built and rebuilt embattlements to defend against the US attacks. After a successful American air raid on October 5, 1943, Japanese Admiral Sakaibara ordered the execution of all of the 98 captured Americans who remained on the island. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded, and executed. One prisoner escaped, carving the message “98 US PW 5-10-43” on a large coral rock near where the victims had been hastily buried in a mass grave. This unknown American was soon recaptured and beheaded.
The US would go on to blockade the island, keeping crucial supplies from the Japanese forces. There is a story told of a starving Korean man who was discovered floating on a raft by the American blockade. The Japanese were known for using Koreans as slave labor and many such slaves resided on the occupied island. When questioned upon his arrival at the blockade, the man announced that the island had been cleared of all rats, and that once that food supply was gone, the Japanese had turned to eating the Koreans.
On September 4, 1945, a severely malnourished and defeated Japanese garrison surrendered to a detachment of United States Marines. The battle for Wake island had finally come to an end. Sakaibara was later tried for war crimes and executed on June 18, 1947 on Guam.The remains of the murdered civilians were exhumed and reburied at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in section G.