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A Place at the Ends of the Earth
In the four-plus centuries since they were first discovered--and promptly forgotten again--the tiny specks of land identified on maps as Wake Island have been described in many unflattering terms.
After finding and circling the atoll in October 1568, Spanish explorer Alvaro de Menda-a de Neyra dismissed it as "useless." The barrier reef surrounding it, coupled with the fierce, unpredictable local currents, made a landing too risky, he decided. In disgust, he sailed away without going ashore, despite the fact that he was short of food and water, had been searching for land for days, and many of his crew were sick with scurvy.
The next officially recorded sighting of Wake didn't take place until 1796, when a British merchant ship, the Prince William Henry, came upon it by accident. The ship's captain, Samuel Wake, knew nothing of Menda-a's earlier visit, so he christened the little landmass "Wake" in honor of himself. But he, too, wanted no part of the reef and the currents, and he departed without ever setting foot on the island that still bears his name.
To understand the treacherous conditions surrounding Wake, picture a towering underwater mountain--a long-extinct volcano--with only the uppermost tips of its crater protruding above the sea. Completely surrounding it about a hundred yards offshore is a jagged coral reef formed over tens of thousands of years. Until a channel was blasted through the reef in the mid-1930s, it continued to make Wake one of the most inaccessible points on the globe.
Much of the reef lurks less than two feet below sea level, and except in a man-made opening, only very small, flat-bottomed boats could safely pass over it. To compound the danger, the ocean's depth just beyond the reef suddenly plunges thousands of feet down the almost perpendicular sides of the submerged prehistoric mountain. This creates perpetually rough seas that send huge waves pounding shoreward.
Even in relatively modern times, ships found no safe anchorage at Wake, and--like those of Menda-a and Samuel Wake--any vessel that ventured near it inevitably did so at its peril. In all likelihood, the reef and the tides claimed numerous small craft over the centuries. But their most notable victim was the German passenger ship Libelle, which crashed on the reef and broke to pieces in March 1866 after being blown off course en route from Honolulu to Hong Kong. The Libelle's anchor and other remnants of the doomed ship were found on Wake seventy-five years later.
On October 15, 1941, some seven weeks before the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, Major James P. S. Devereux arrived on Wake to take command of its small Marine garrison. Devereux's feelings about the place were remarkably similar to those expressed by Menda-a 373 years earlier. The major referred to Wake as "a spit-kit of sand and coral without any reason for being." Many of Devereux's men added their own appraisals: "uninviting," "lonely," "barren," "oppressive," "desolate," "flat and ugly," and "nothing but sand and rocks," to list a few of the milder ones. But Tech Sergeant Charles Holmes, a career Marine from the rolling prairies of North Texas, may have summed it up better than anyone. On first impression, he said, Wake struck him as "the most isolated place in the world."
Unlovely as it was, however, PFC Wiley Sloman was actually glad to be there when he finally made it ashore on November 1, 1941. He would have much preferred to stay at Midway, where he'd been stationed previously, but under the circumstances, he was glad to be anywhere as long as there was land under his feet.
On his way out from Pearl on the U.S.S. Castor, the ship had hit some really nasty weather, and almost everybody on board was seasick except Sloman, who wasn't bothered at all by the rough seas. Not only had he been around plenty of salt water and ships as a kid growing up on the Texas coast, but his great-grandfather had traveled around the world as captain of a three-masted sailing ship, and Sloman figured maybe he'd inherited some of the old man's seaworthiness. But his healthy state turned out to be small comfort when he was assigned to torpedo watch during the worst part of the storm. Then, after reaching Wake, the Castor had sailed around the atoll for four days waiting for the ground swells to ease off before anybody could go ashore.
Sloman grabbed a spot on the first motor launch to leave the Castor, but he quickly learned that the easy life he'd enjoyed on Midway was a thing of the past. He barely got off the launch before they handed him a jackhammer and put him to work cutting holes in the coral to mount corner posts for the Marines' tents. "From then on until the war started, we didn't get much rest," he said. "On Midway, it was good duty, and we were usually through by noon. On Wake, reveille was at 5:00 a.m., and we worked our tails off all day."
Wake Atoll is actually made up of three small islands grouped around a shallow lagoon that was once the crater of the extinct volcano. V-shaped Wake proper, the largest of the three, is separated by narrow channels from Wilkes and Peale islands, just to the west. Together, they form a rough horseshoe shape with its open end pointing west. Peale forms the tip of the upper or northern leg of the horseshoe and Wilkes forms the tip of the lower or southern leg.
Wilkes Island took its name from Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, captain of the U.S. Navy sloop Vincennes and leader of an expedition that visited Wake briefly in 1841. Peale Island was named for Titian R. Peale, a well-known naturalist of the day, who was along on the same expedition. Wilkes's and Peale's opinions of the place were pretty typical, it seems. Peale found it to be "very unpleasant," and Wilkes dismissed it as "unfit for human habitation."
Beyond shimmering-white beaches studded with coral boulders, a low bank rises toward a few slight ridges. Much of the interior is covered with a dense, junglelike growth of brush, vines, and scrubby trees. Most of the native trees grow no more than twelve to fifteen feet tall, and, in 1941, the stately palms that proliferate naturally on most tropical Pacific isles were notably absent. Even in the interior, the terrain remains predominantly flat. The highest point of land is only about twenty-one feet above sea level. On an average of every fifteen years or so, tidal waves sweep across Wake during typhoon season. When they do, every inch of the atoll is subject to flooding.
All three islands put together constitute less than three square miles of land area--about 2,600 acres--in the vast reaches of the western Pacific. Wake is just over 2,000 miles due west of Honolulu. Midway lies nearly 1,200 miles to the northeast, and Guam is almost 1,400 miles farther west. The closest significant points of land are the Marshall, Mariana, and Caroline islands, which were mandated to Japanese control after World War I. In 1941, these islands bristled with hostile armaments and were anything but friendly territory. Major Japanese air bases on Kwajalein Atoll were just over 600 miles away; the giant Japanese naval installation at Truk was only slightly farther.
Except for multitudes of seabirds, including one totally wingless variety, and a particularly bold species of rat (which probably came ashore originally as refugees from some doomed ship), Wake has no native population. For all but the past seventy or so years of its history, the atoll has been totally devoid of human habitation. In addition to its remoteness, its reefs, and its currents, Wake is a "desert island" in the truest sense of the term. It has no natural source of fresh water. When the first permanent residents arrived in the mid-1930s, installing desalinization equipment for seawater and building systems to catch and store rainwater were among their most urgent priorities.
Yet despite all its drawbacks, Wake generated interest in Washington as early as Spanish-American War days, both as a possible site for a trans-Pacific cable station and as a stopping point for U.S. naval units bound for the Far East. Since the British still had a vague claim to the island, and Japanese fishermen also showed up from time to time, U.S. military leaders took steps to solidify Wake's status as American territory.
On Independence Day 1898, an American fleet carrying troops to the Philippines stopped off at Wake. Major General Francis Greene located a break in the barrier reef and went ashore, where he tied a small American flag to a tree limb and claimed the island for the United States. The following January, the U.S. Navy gunboat Bennington visited Wake, and its captain, Commander Edward Taussig, installed a more permanent flag and formally declared Wake a U.S. possession.
Within a few years, the cable station idea was scrapped, after Wake's lack of fresh water came to light, and the cable route was altered in favor of Midway and Guam. By this time, as a result of the U.S. victory over Spain, the United States had acquired a Pacific empire that stretched from Hawaii to the Philippines. Some military planners toyed with the idea of establishing a chain of strategic forward bases to protect these new holdings. If it ever happened, Wake was ideally situated to become part of that chain.
Still, Wake was destined to remain virtually untouched by the outside world--and virtually unknown to the American public--for another three decades. In Washington, the acquisitive imperialism that dominated political thinking during the Spanish-American War era gave way to rigid, head-in-the-sand isolationism following World War I. The size, strength, and influence of America's military diminished steadily through the 1920s and early 1930s. Military leaders lost most of their fiscal clout with an increasingly isolationist Congress. The lawmakers balked at appropriating money for anything related to arms, least of all new bases on faraway islands, and the Great Depression that descended on the country in 1929 made the situation infinitely worse. Domestic recovery was the battle cry, and to hell with vague threats in Europe and Asia.
Then, in 1933, Hitler came to power in Berlin, FDR was inaugurated as president in Washington, and the national political pendulum gradually began to swing back in the opposite direction. But the about-face from isolationism to military preparedness would be an agonizingly slow process--especially for the War Department, the Navy Department, and the admirals and generals.
By the early 1930s, the U.S. Navy had shrunk to little more than a third its size at the end of World War I, and much of what was left of it was old, rusty, and obsolete. The new president, who had served as an assistant secretary of the Navy in 1917 and 1918, was shocked when he discovered its deplorable condition. The Army hadn't fared much better, and the U.S. Marine Corps was barely a shadow of what it had once been.
"When I entered the Marines in June 1939, there were just 16,300 men in the Corps," recalled Corporal John Johnson, who came to Wake as a nineteen-year-old machine gunner from Missouri and later fought with Wiley Sloman on Wilkes. "That was less men than the New York City Police Department."
The change in national attitude would take years to run its course--a delay the depleted military could ill afford. Not until war was painfully imminent would the public and the politicians finally embrace the need for all-out mobilization.
In the meantime, occasional subterfuge by America's military establishment would be essential if the country was to avoid total calamity, or so the military minds in Washington believed. One of the major beneficiaries of that subterfuge--as well as one of the major victims of the delay--was to be Wake Island.
The first small step toward turning Wake into a formidable Pacific fortress came with almost no fanfare and little public notice. On December 29, 1934, while much of Washington was shut down for the Christmas-New Year holidays, FDR signed an executive order placing Wake under the direct jurisdiction of the Navy Department. The Navy, in turn, quickly declared the atoll a bird sanctuary and announced a stringent set of rules to protect its feathered throngs.
It was all a ruse, of course. The Navy's real interest was in airplanes, not birds. A little over two months later, on March 11, 1935, Pan American Airways announced plans to establish the world's first regularly scheduled passenger service from California to the Orient via its soon-to-be-famous "China Clipper" route. One day later, the Navy gave the airline permission to build docking, fueling, and lodging facilities for its Clippers and their passengers on three remote Pacific islands: Wake, Midway, and Guam.
Japan protested loudly when the news broke. The militarists in Tokyo strongly suspected what most private American citizens of the period would never have guessed--that Wake was quietly being groomed for future military use. It was, after all, closer to Tokyo than it was to Honolulu. It was also much nearer to Japan's home islands than Midway, Johnston, or Palmyra, other links in a defensive chain envisioned by Washington as a protective westward shield for Hawaii. While being a mere three- or four-hour bomber flight from the big Japanese bases at Truk and Kwajalein made Wake a prominent target, it also gave the atoll enormous offensive potential. Wake wasn't nearly as exposed or vulnerable to attack as Guam, which was in the middle of the Mariana Islands and encircled by Japanese bases--a fact that had already caused U.S. planners to write off Guam as an immediate loss if war came.
To Japan, all these factors made any U.S. attempt to tamper with Wake's centuries-old status as vacant specks of coral in the middle of nowhere a threat to be reckoned with. Pan Am's Clippers would be the first planes on Wake, true, but the Navy's own PBYs would be next, and the Army's B-17s wouldn't be far behind.
In Tokyo's view, a fortified Wake would be nothing less than a dagger aimed at the very heart of its empire--and thus a target of the highest priority. News of the deal between the U.S. Navy and Pan Am prompted Japanese naval strategists to revise their war plans. Wake would now have to be seized within the first few days of conflict.
Quietly, unobtrusively, an ominous sequence of events had been set in motion. The attack on Pearl Harbor was still more than six and a half years away. But the clock was ticking.
In the second half of the 1930s, most Americans were blissfully unaware that relations between the United States and Japan had been on a downward spiral for decades. Their mental images of the Japanese were still drawn more from the characters in Madame Butterfly--tragically beautiful geishas and funny little slant-eyed men who bowed a lot--than from current reality. Few of them realized that expansion-minded warlords had seized control of Japan's destiny prior to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Fewer still knew that Tokyo had been actively preparing for hostilities with America for the better part of three decades.