Amid mounting tensions in the Pacific, the U.S. government is investing a lot of money on infrastructure at an isolated atoll, Wake Island, best known as the site of a heroic World War II battle.
Little information is publicly available about Wake, a secretive military base on a cluster of three small islands far out into the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Japan. Wake is operated by the U.S. Air Force through Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, and is located within the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Wake Island is linked together in history with Pearl Harbor because both were hit by successful Japanese surprise attacks during a 24-hour period in December 1941.
Now Wake is at the forefront of a new military buildup in the North Pacific. A review of federal contracting information and defense industry press releases confirm that the United States government has committed hundreds of millions of dollars for work at Wake in the past few years.
Lt. Col. Rebecca Corbin, commander of the Alaska-based 611th Civil Engineering Squadron, acknowledged in an email that a military buildup is underway at Wake.
“The increased activity in recent times is not an illusion,” she wrote. “There are indeed a lot of changes happening on that small atoll.”
The Pacific Air Force Regional Support Center is “pouring a lot of investment into the infrastructure and the contracted support to that location,” she wrote, including a new contract that will manage airfield operations, accommodations for workers and public works projects.
The spending includes more than $200 million for facilities operations in the past seven years to an Alaska-based firm called Chugach Federal Solutions for what was labeled “Phase-In Wake Island,” according to USASpending.gov, a federal website that tracks government spending. In September, another Alaska-based corporation announced it had received a $470 million, 12-year contract for airfield support at three military bases, including Wake Island.
In February, a firm called Aecom was awarded an $87 million contract for work at Wake Island.
None of these companies responded to requests for comment.
In the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017, the U.S. committed $11.7 million for construction of a test support facility at Wake, at the same time it committed $86 million for a ballistic missile defense site at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, about 700 miles from Wake. The contract on Wake appears to have been awarded to a construction company based on Guam to construct a metal building that would provide work space for 60 deployed personnel during Missile Defense Agency test events.
That same year, the federal government also committed $27 million for an upgraded electrical distribution system, according to a press release.
The work on both projects was expected to be completed by early 2019.
In Washington on Monday, Navy Vice Adm. Jon Hill delivered a public presentation on the effectiveness of a March 25 missile defense test over the Pacific, where an intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from Kwajalein, tracked by what Hill called “two powerful radars,” including one at Wake Island. Two ground-based interceptors in California were launched soon after, and both successfully collided with the ICBM target and destroyed it, Hill said.
Hillʻs presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, posted on a Defense Department website, suggests that Wake is being revitalized as a center of military operations in the Pacific as part of what is called a “layered missile defense system.”
Hill said it was important for the U.S. to beef up its missile defense capabilities because of what he called “near-peer competitors” who are designing and fielding advanced missiles that are harder to track.
The U.S. is facing a number of new challenges in the Pacific, including continuing tensions with North Korea and increasingly militarism from China and an ongoing trade war. China has established numerous military installations on islands in the South China Sea, including airfields, missile, radar and helicopter infrastructure.
Other countries are bulking up their military presence as well. Japan opened bases at home in March for surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, according to the Japan Times.
Corbin said in the email that U.S. buildup has been going on for awhile.
“Huge projects have been underway in the last two to three years,” she said, including the removal of scrap metal and tons of solid waste material.
She said that the U.S. government has committed $120 million for infrastructure there, as well as repairing a taxiway and aircraft parking ramp for $87 million. A solar power system was also constructed, she said.
“Wake Island has always been a geographically important location for military activities, including refueling,” she wrote. “The re-investments done of late are not to increase activity or capacity but rather replace aged infrastructure. After waiting years for investment dollars, the advocacy and planning of the Pacific Air Forces Regional Support Center is finally paying off.”
Wake Island is in many ways an odd place to have such strategic importance.
A tiny 5-square-mile coral atoll that was uninhabited for centuries, Wake has no water supply, with residents relying on rain water and reverse osmosis, and is only marginally habitable. It was formally claimed by the United States in 1899, and when global air travel began, Pan American Airways established an outpost at Wake Island in the 1930s as a mid-Pacific refueling station for trans-Pacific air traffic. A small hotel operated there for the convenience of air travelers.
The importance of the island grew as the Japanese became more militarily aggressive in Asia. The U.S. military buildup at Wake Island in the late 1930s came in response to the belief that the Japanese were fortifying their island possessions, including the Northern Mariana and Marshall Islands, and that the U.S. needed to play catch up by establishing bases of its own.
But the U.S. moved too slowly and Americans were caught unprepared when the Japanese struck the same day at Guam, Midway, Pearl Harbor and Wake Island.
There were about 500 servicemen and 1,200 civilian contractors working at Wake Island on Dec. 8, 1941, just across the international date line from Hawaii on Dec. 7. They fought off the Japanese attack for about three weeks but finally surrendered on Dec. 23.
“It was a desperate fight against overwhelming odds,” said Daniel Martinez, the National Park Service chief historian at Pearl Harbor National Memorial. “They held off attempts to invade. It fell just before Christmas … There was incredible bravery among the pilots and their success in the defense of Wake Island is legendary.”
Most of the surviving Americans were sent to prisoner of war camps in Asia, while some were enslaved. Some 98 civilian contract workers were kept alive on the island until 1943, when they were summarily executed.
The remains of the Americans who had lost their lives were eventually returned to the United States for burial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
After the war, Wake Island once again retreated into solitude and isolation. It was used as a fueling stop by American forces during the Vietnam War, and in 2006, it was hit by a fierce typhoon that caused major damage to the surviving infrastructure on the island.
In 2009, the United States once again underscored its ownership and military control of Wake Island when President George W. Bush issued a proclamation creating the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. The measure was promoted as an effort to preserve and protect marine life. But the proclamation also made clear that the Secretary of Defense would continue to manage Wake Island, although in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Commerce.
In 2014, President Barack Obama expanded the boundaries of the monument out to 200 nautical miles, increasing the protected area to 490,000 square miles.
Few outsiders are permitted to visit Wake Island.
“Itʻs always been a closed community,” said Carl Baker, executive director of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, a military affairs think tank, who visited Wake Island briefly during the Vietnam War. “There are no real inhabitants there.”
“Wake has been kept much more isolated” than Midway Island, where tour groups are permitted to visit, Baker said. “They maintain strict control on who goes in there.”
He said the real significance of Wake is its runway because it provides a unique place in the Pacific where jets can be diverted to land safely if they develop mechanical problems in the air.
But he said that U.S. interest in the Pacific has increased in the past three years as China has developed its own military presence in the area.
“Wake is tightly guarded from the public eye,” said historian Bonita Gilbert, author of the 2012 book “Building for War: The Epic Saga of the Civilian Contractors and Marines of Wake Island in World War II.”
When she visited in 2011, Gilbert said severe and unrepaired damage from Typhoon Ioke in 2006 had left housing on the island uninhabitable. But in the past few years, much has been done to upgrade infrastructure and facilities.
“Operations have escalated in the past six years with missile tests and displays by North Korea and Russia in 2013 and 2014, and China’s new ICBM on display in the parade last week,” Gilbert wrote in an email.
Robert Lodge, president of McKay Lodge, an Ohio-based conservation laboratory, said he was hired in 2010 to survey deteriorating historic relics left behind from World War II. Wake Island is a national historic landmark.
“I had a feeling our project was a facade, a fake exercise because of a mandate to do environmental work,” he said in a telephone interview. “Just go out and do a survey and that takes care of the obligation.”
He said he observed a number of contractors hard at work, with trucks busily hauling materials to a place somewhere on the island where other visitors did not go.
“When I was there something secretive was going on,” he said, which he said he was told involved installing missiles on the site, though he could not see the work underway.
When he was there, Lodge described grim living conditions with few recreational amenities available.
“Night rat hunting is a big island sport, and a necessity,” he wrote.
Living conditions on Wake Island appear to have improved recently.
Recent job postings by Chugach, an Alaska-based company that has provided installation support services at Wake Island, told job applicants they will work at Wake Island, “a critical component of the Ballistic Missile Defense System.”
The ads offer applicants “free room and board” and “excellent leisure facilities.”
“Apply today for the unique opportunity to work and live in a tropical paradise,” the ad reads. “Imagine spending your leisure time beachcombing, lounging in the crystal blue lagoon, diving, and hooking into world-class shore fishing.”
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.