Wake Island Airfield, Terminal Building, Wake Island

Date added: April 05, 2022 Categories: Wake Island Military Facility Air Fields

The Wake Island airfield played an important and central role in transpacific commercial airline and developments after World War II (WWII). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operations of airport facilities at Midway, Wake, and Guam became part of the federal airways; links in the air routes over the Pacific; and part of Pan American World Airways' (Pan Am) Pacific airline operations. Wake Island airfield served as a key refueling station for transpacific flights until the early 1970s when technological advances in aircraft design resulted in higher-efficiency jet aircraft with longer-range capabilities and lessened the need for refueling stops.

The last scheduled Pan Am passenger flight landed at Wake Island in June 1972. In July 1972, the FAA turned over administration of the island to the USAF Military Airlift Command (MAC); legal ownership stayed with the Department of the Interior.

On 27 December 1972, the Chief of Staff of the USAF directed MAC to phase out en route support activity at Wake Island effective 30 June 1973. On 1 July 1973, Pacific Air Force resumed control of Wake Atoll to provide support for the U.S. Army's HAVE MILL project (Athena missile launch program). On 1 July 1973, Detachment 4, 15 Air Base Wing (ABW) assumed responsibility for Wake Island.

By March 1975, there were USAF personnel; Kentron, Hawaii Ltd. (mostly Filipinos) contractors; and four tenants, including a small number of USCG, National Weather Service, Royal Air Force, and Pan Am personnel. In 1975, Wake Island supported operations BABYLIFT and NEWLIFE.

From 26 April to 25 May 1975, a total of 64 flights with 12,500 Vietnamese evacuees were processed through Wake Island in support of OPERATION NEWLIFE.

From 1975 and into the 1980s, operations resumed at Wake to provide standby for emergency recovery. However, in practice the atoll supported Navy and Marine TRANSPAC exercises, serviced civil aircraft with fuel, and served as a patient transfer point for injured seamen. The base also supported the NWS, AT&T, NOAA, Navy's Military Sealift Command, and a detachment of U.S. Marine Corps personnel. There were seven Air Force personnel and 200 Kentron Hawaii Ltd. contractors (BOS) on Wake Island.

In 1986, Intelsom Support Services, Inc., won a five-year BOS contract which included support for twenty-five U.S. supervisors and 152 Thailand workers.

In 1987, US Army Strategic Defense Command (USASDC) selected Wake Island as a missile launch site to support Project Starbird of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program.

During the early 1990s, Wake Island supported military operations, including Desert Shield, FIERY VIGIL, and Desert Storm, as a fueling station.

In 1993, the USAF terminated its operation of Wake Atoll, but retained real property accountability. On 1 October 1994, the U.S. Army assumed administrative command of Wake Island. Wake Island became part of the U.S. Army's Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) command, home to the Reagan Test Site. Wake Island was administered by Detachment 1 of the 15th Logistics Group, 15 ABW Group of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (USASMDC) - Huntsville. The U.S. Army operated the island under a caretaker permit from the USAF and it became known as the Wake Island Launch Center.

In October 2002, the USAF resumed direct responsibility for atoll operations. Real estate accountability was transferred from the 15 ABW to the 13 ABW and then to Detachment 1 of the 15th Logistics Group, 15 AW where it resides as of January 2005. Tenants include the U.S. Geological Survey, the Missile Defense Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USAF Technical Applications Command, and the National Weather Service.

General background on Wake Island Airfield immediately after World War II

The end of WWII in the Pacific saw a substantial readjustment of the U.S. military and strategic priorities. The war also marked the beginning of a new epoch in American history, one in which the nation's newly assumed international responsibilities seriously altered many traditional relationships. Japan was defeated and was no longer the primary enemy in the Pacific. On 2 September 1945, Japan formally surrendered, signing the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. The occupation of Japan by Allied Forces lasted until 28 April 1952.

The beginning of the Cold War saw new strategic priorities and an increasing U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. The communists under MaoTse-tung overthrew the Nationalist government in China. In this atmosphere of tension, French Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia appeared to be falling under the spell of local communist nationalists like Ho Chi Minh. The U.S. feared a "domino effect," suspecting that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to communism, the others would surely follow.

This changing global picture also had its effects on the role of Wake Island. Before the end of the war, strategic plans for the post-war period were drawn up and a base on Wake Island was again contemplated. After the recapture, the U.S. Navy once again had jurisdiction over the atoll. The continued occupation of Wake Island was important to prevent its use by other countries.

... a number of very small islands with no permanent inhabitants (Wake, Midway) also serve America's military needs. Technological developments, economic crises and political reappraisals lead to frequent changes in appreciations of strategic requirements, but it can be assumed that the United States will at least continue to attach importance to denying politically hostile foreign powers access to such facilities. The significance of this factor is clear when one considers the future of American Pacific dependencies (Smith, Microstates and Micronesia).

During the years immediately following WWII, international air travel began to increase in both the military and commercial sectors. In the late 1940s, transpacific flights gained in frequency and benefited from cutting edge technology. However, technology was not advanced enough to eliminate the need for refueling on these long-distance flights. Wake Island occupied a prime geographic position in the Pacific Ocean, resting midway between Saigon and the United States, and midway between Guam and Honolulu. It was a natural choice for the blossoming transpacific air and sea shipping industries and a convenient stopping point for the many military and contract personnel involved in the United States' on-going occupation of Japan and involvement in Southeast Asia. Wake Island rapidly evolved to take its place as an essential mid-oceanic servicing and refueling hub.

Following WWII, Pan Am sought to re-establish its exclusively international prewar network. Pan Am returned to Wake Island for the first time in November 1945 with an advance team of Pan Am engineers who surveyed the island assessing requirements to re-establish a regular commercial airline route through Wake Island. This was the catalyst for the subsequent economic development and growth on the island. Pan Am resumed regular passenger service through Wake Island in July of 1946.

By mid 1947, with significantly increasing transpacific travel, the U.S. Navy delegated administrative responsibility of Wake Atoll to the CAA. The CAA took over the maintenance and operations of airport facilities at Midway, Wake, and Guam, which became part of the federal airways and links in the air routes over the Pacific.

Other commercial airlines joined Pan Am in establishing operations at Wake Island, including Trans-Ocean Airlines, British Overseas Airline Corporation, and Philippine Airlines. By 1947, Transocean Airlines had made arrangements with the U.S. government to operate its own facilities on the island with additional personnel. Philippine Airlines began operating flights.

Peak Wake Island Post-World War II Years: 1950 to 1972

In late June 1950, the United States entered into the war against North Korea. Wake Island took on new importance because of its mid-Pacific location. It became a critical refueling stop for aircraft going into the Korean theater. The largest single user of Wake Island was MATS, which sent as many flights through Wake Island as all the private operations combined. When the USAF was created as a separate service in 1947, MATS was established to support the new Department of Defense, with responsibility for its support falling to the Department of the Air Force. MATS continued to function as a military airline until it was replaced by MAC in 1965.

On July 6, the airlift of men, supplies, and goods to the Korean front began. In June 1950, eight airplanes landed each week on Wake Island. By July, an average of thirty airlift aircraft arrived and departed daily. By September, the number had grown to 120 aircraft per day. During the airlift, Pan Am carried 114,271 passengers and 23,000 pounds of cargo. For more than two years, Wake Island was a keystone to the success of air operation to Korea.

In 1951, the CAA contracted for a survey of housing, restaurant, and related facilities on Wake Island. The report of the survey describes Quonset huts serving as the primary building type. The report provides a vivid picture of Wake Island living conditions:

It was the Civil Aeronautics Administration which recognized that commercial aviation would be well served by adding Wake Island as a link in the airways that were circling the world. This island base also figured in bringing about the enactment of Public Law 647.

The physical characteristics of the present housing and feeding structures can best be summarized by describing them as inadequate, outmoded, economically impractical to maintain, and in need of immediate replacement. Their generally unsavory appearance and dilapidated condition is readily apparent to any observer to the extent that foreign travelers through Wake might well question the well publicized American claim of "know how" and efficiency.

The CAA began making improvements to the facilities, the pace of which accelerated with the island's population boom lasting through the early 1970s. The first Drifter's Bar was built near the harbor area, additional power and pump stations were constructed, and the first Wake Atoll school was opened in 1951.

On 16 September 1952, Typhoon Olive passed over Wake Island, totally destroying 85 percent to 90 percent of the buildings on the island. Reconstruction of island facilities cost approximately $10 million. The CAA built or remodeled residences during 1952 and 1953; maintenance shops and warehouses, dining hall, dormitories, infrastructure, and recreational facilities continued to be built throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

In the years following Typhoon Olive in 1952 until 1971, the island's population grew rapidly and the most significant building occurred. The population grew from 349 in 1950 to 1,097 in 1960 to 1,650 in 1970. This was in direct response to the dizzying number of aircraft passing through Wake Island, as many as 50 planes a day, going to and from Guam, Korea, Vietnam, and other Pacific Rim locations. During the year 1959, there were 1,732 commercial aviation, 2,284 general aviation, and 6,518 military aviation flights (a total of 10,534) through Wake Island. In 1959, there was a total of twenty-seven weekly passenger-carrying commercial airline flights. The FAA controlled airspace within a 190-mile radius of Wake Island for overflying aircraft. Wake Island underlay a busy oceanic route and the tower handled approximately 5,000 overflights a year.

With the population boom came the development of a variety of facilities and amenities. These included housing, a school, a greenhouse, a bowling alley, a golf course, a chapel, a bar, a softball field, a post office, and a gift shop on the island. In 1957, the FAA (the CAA changed to FAA in June 1951) constructed a control tower (building 1601). In 1959, the FAA began another extension of the runway from 7,000' to 9,800' (phased and completed in 1964) to accommodate new jet traffic. In 1960, the new MATS billeting was constructed. A new passenger terminal (building 1502) was constructed in a new location in 1962 replacing a Quonset hut built by the Navy. A nondenominational chapel (B106) was constructed near the new airport terminal. The chapel was prefabricated in the Orient and shipped to Wake Island. Also during this time, the USCG had a small but permanent long- range navigation (LORAN) radar facility on the atoll. A USCG station was established on Peale Island in 1971.

Residents recall life on Wake Island fondly. Two generations of the Raleigh family lived at Wake Island. As a child, Maureen Raleigh lived on the atoll from 1959 through 1960 (age 9 and 10) while her father, a Pan Am employee, was stationed there. Ms. Raleigh's grandmother had been to Wake earlier (in 1949), while her husband worked on the runway. The younger Ms. Raleigh describes life on the atoll in 1959-1960 as a small community: "There were about 2,000 FAA or Pan Am employees and dependents. The work force was predominately Philippine. There was an open-air theater, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, a little church, and a lot of cocktail parties." According to Ms. Raleigh, Pan Am employees were motivated to move to Wake because there were no taxes and it was a good stepping stone for advancement within the organization. However, the maximum stay allowed was two years. Pan Am felt that the island was too isolated for a longer stay. Also, the school only went to a certain grade, so parents with children of a certain age needed to return to the states.

In 1962, the basic island responsibility for Wake's civil administration was transferred by President John F. Kennedy from the U.S. Navy to the Department of the Interior (Executive Order 11048 [4 September 1962]). Concurrently, the Secretary of the Interior and the Administrator of the FAA entered into an agreement that provided for all executive, legislative, and judicial authorities to be exercised by persons designated by the Administrator, FAA. The Wake Island Code, issued in September as part of FAA regulations, provided the necessary regulations and procedures for administering the island. Therefore, it was necessary for the FAA to perform many secondary functions to support the primary functions of air traffic control and airport operations. These functions included the entire range of services needed to maintain a small municipality, such as civil government, roads, utilities, housing, supplying food and other necessities, medical services, police, and fire protection. These services were furnished to other tenants of Wake Island.

Airlift again became important during the Vietnam conflict. Airlift was one of the first aspects of U.S. military aid to the government of South Vietnam beginning in December 1961 and continuing throughout the 1960s. In May 1965, Pan Am's Wake Island station handled a total of eighty-three transits, including forty-two of its own aircraft. In July 1966, Pan Am handled a total of 443 transits, 105 of which were Pan Am flights, including troop charters and 338 transits by ten other airlines. This represented an increase of more than 500 percent from the year before. During September 1966, 11,389 transient personnel passed through Wake Island. In October, there were 1,296 employees from nineteen different organizations on the island, and 535 dependents of the employees. The total island population was 1,831.

Typhoon Sarah, a major tropical storm with winds exceeding 140 miles per hour, hit Wake Island on 16 September 1967. The storm, accompanied by towering, wind-whipped waves, ripped off housetops, smashed windows and walls, and knocked out the island's electrical power, air traffic control center, and all navigation aids. In total, Typhoon Sarah caused $5 million in damages on Wake Island. Approximately 95 percent of island buildings were damaged and half of the FAA employee housing was destroyed. Due to damage to the family housing, sanitation system, and fresh water supply, 25 percent of Wake's population had to be evacuated. A taxiway parallel to the runway was completed in 1968. It was not until 1970 that the last of the damaged houses were replaced and the last of $294,439 in FAA personnel claims from the typhoon were paid. In 1970, the new and existing Drifter's Bar (building 1109) and four holes of the golf course were also completed.

Wake Island quickly rebounded after Typhoon Sarah. In 1969, Wake Island was included in the United Service Organizations (USO) entertainment circuit. The first show was held on 16 July 1969. During the same year, Bob Hope, Jerry Colona, Peter Leeds, Anita Bryant, the Nicolas Brothers, Carrol Baker, Miss USA, and others visited Wake Island as part of USO tours. By 1970, the island population was 1,650, and various tenant organizations had taken up residence on the island to support operations there. The largest employer was the Facilities Management Corporation (FMC), a contractor for MAC. The second-largest employer of Wake Island residents was the FAA. Interestingly, wives and children of FAA employees outnumbered all of the FAA and other employees with the exception of the employees of FMC. In 1971, the population of Wake Island grew to 1,763 residents.

Although the number of employees on Wake Island increased, the island was beginning to diminish in its role as a vital staging area of MAC aircraft and contract carriers on the Southeast Asia airlift. In 1970, the number of aircraft landing and departing from Wake Island decreased by 17.1 percent (4,989 aircraft) from the 1969 level. The decrease reflected the tapering off of air support operations in the Far East and the introduction of increasing numbers of large transport aircraft with greater airlift capabilities.

Civil aviation also decreased by 1970, and the number of passengers dropped to 1,180 for the entire year. In the early 1970s, higher-efficiency jet aircraft with longer-range capabilities lessened the need for Wake Island Airfield as a refueling stop. Pan Am filed with the FAA to eliminate weekly stops at Wake Island. The main reason was the replacement of their Boeing 707s with 747s, which could fly longer and faster than earlier aircraft. This change saved as much as $500,000 a year. Another blow to the island economy came when the USAF declined to plan overflights with their C-5A, C-124, and C-133 aircraft. The only aircraft that would use the island was the USAF C-141. This spelled the waning of Wake Island's aviation and social heyday.

Wake Island's future as a standby airport was predicted: "Today, with about 100 flights crisscrossing the Pacific each week, Wake is extremely important to Pacific travel. However, already Pan American, during the months of the jet stream winds, overflies Wake on its Japan-Hawai flights. Tomorrow, with jet airplanes, Wake will probably become a standby airport".

The steady decrease in air traffic control activities at Wake Island was apparent by 1971, and was expected to continue into the future. In 1971, the FAA conducted a study of the continuation of the department's responsibility for Wake Island. The study concluded that Wake Island was primarily a military base funded and operated by the FAA. Since a high in fiscal year 1967 (even with a typhoon), Wake Island had seen a steady decrease in takeoffs and landings. Fiscal year 1970 had seen 20 percent less airport control tower activities over the previous year. In fiscal year 1971, 90 percent of the operations had been in support of the military. The decline in use by civil and military agencies was a permanent trend. The other users did not contribute their fair share of the $6.8 million annual operating costs according to the FAA study.

In 1971, the population of Wake Atoll began to decline precipitously. The FAA decided it would no longer retain its administrative role, and only 50 of the 252 people employed by the FAA on Wake Island would be retained. The 1971 study conducted by the FAA determined that between $20 and $30 million was spent by the agency on Wake Island, and another $4 to $5 million of capital improvements would be needed to keep the island functioning. The FAA also felt the USAF was not contributing a sufficient amount of funds to support the island.

June 1972 heralded the last scheduled Pan Am passenger flight. In July 1972, the FAA turned over administration of the island to MAC, although legal ownership stayed with the Department of the Interior. The demand for Wake Island services was further reduced as the military minimized its operations during the Vietnam Conflict. July 1972 brought the last scheduled Pan Am cargo flight through Wake Island. This marked the end of the heyday of Wake Island's commercial history.

Wake Island served a vital role for military and commercial aircraft during the 1950s and 1960s when it provided needed refueling for military airlift and civilian passenger service for the Korean War, Vietnam Conflict, and air travel elsewhere in the Pacific Rim. Wake Island's aviation facilities also guarded the approach to Hawaii. It is estimated that more than 3 million passengers have set foot on Wake Atoll. The need for Wake Island services gradually diminished as aviation technology advanced. By the early 1970s, Wake was no longer considered vital for the defense of the United States, but sufficiently important that its use was denied to other nations that were possibly hostile to the United States.

The 1971 FAA analysis that concluded the future of Wake Island turned on its central Pacific location proved to be perceptive. Again, it was primarily the military who found later Cold War-related uses for the island, first as a remote missile test launch site, then as a Southeast Asia refugee processing center and emergency landing field. This transition from a military and commercial aircraft refueling and maintenance stop was initiated at the end of December 1972 at the direction of the USAF, and reflected the importance of the Pacific arena to Cold War geopolitics.

On 27 December 1972, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) directed MAC to phase out en route support activity at Wake Island effective 30 June 1973. On 1 July 1973, Pacific Air Forces resumed control of Wake Atoll to provide support for the U.S. Army's HAVE MILL project on a reimbursable basis. Project HAVE MILL was an Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO) Athena missile launch program in support of the Army's Advanced Ballistic Missile Defense Agency (ABMDA) detection and discrimination programs.

By the beginning of 1974, Wake Island was manned by seven officers, seventeen airmen, and fifty-eight civilians, and tasked to support the HAVE MILL project, maintain a VORTAC navigation aid, and provide a safe haven to ships and aircraft in time of trouble. By March 1975, there were five USAF personnel, 200 base operating support contractors from Kentron Hawaii Ltd, Hawaii (mostly Filipinos), and four tenants, including a small number of USCG, National Weather Service, Royal Air Force, and Pan Am personnel. South California Oil had decided to withdraw from its contract because the company was losing money, Pan Am had let its contract lapse, and the Athena launches were completed. There appeared to be no projects for Wake that would support its operating costs of $2 million.

1975: South Vietnamese Refuge Operation NEWLIFE

Near the end of the Vietnam Conflict, the North Vietnamese army launched a general offensive in late January 1975, two years after the cease fire had been established by the Paris Peace Accord. During the first week of April, North Vietnamese communist forces attacking from the south pushed into Long An Province, south of Saigon, thereby threatening to cut Highway 4, Saigon's main connection to the Mekong Delta. This would have precluded reinforcements from being moved north to assist in the coming battle for Saigon. The South Vietnamese military soon collapsed as a cogent fighting force and the North Vietnamese continued the attack all the way to Saigon. South Vietnam surrendered unconditionally on 30 April 1975. The war's end caused hundreds of thousands of citizens to flee the country, fearing for their lives.

On 3 April 1975, in response to appeals from South Vietnam's ambassador to the United Nations and various humanitarian agencies, President Gerald Ford announced that money from a $2 million special foreign aid children's fund would be used to fly 2,000 South Vietnamese orphans to new homes in the United States. He directed American officials in Saigon to act immediately to cut red tape and remove obstacles preventing the children's departure, stating that aircraft especially equipped to accommodate the orphans would begin evacuation flights within 36 to 48 hours.

The operations evolved in two phases, Operations BABYLIFT and NEWLIFE. Operation BABYLIFT focused on the evacuation of orphans. During Operation NEWLIFE, the focus shifted to the politically sensitive refugees. From 4 April to 3 September 1975, U.S. forces supported the movement of almost 100,000 orphans, refugees, and evacuees from Southeast Asia to the United States.

On 23 April, newspapers carried a story that the U.S. Congress had decided to admit 130,000 refugees to the United States. On this same day, Colonel Richard L. Thompson (Hickam AFB) announced a plan to use Wake Island as a staging area for refugees and developed a plan to open closed shelters that had been boarded up as a typhoon precaution when the base was put on standby. The 15 ABW would greet 92,126 refugees at different locations before the use of Wake Island as a staging area was over.

Preparations on Wake Island Airport began in early April. A thirty-five-member Prime Beef Team arrived to ready the island for a maximum of 8,000 refugees. The team opened the Pan Am housing area by removing the typhoon boarding, restoring rooms, and moving furniture out to be replaced with cots. Brackish water was hooked up for showers and toilets. Most housing could not have potable water faucets installed, so potable water points were set up and refugees had to obtain their water with buckets. The team constructed 237 family units, four dining halls, two refugee supply points, one orderly room, one nurses' quarters, two storage buildings, two schools, four dormitories to house task force and additional contractor personnel, and two senior non-commissioned officers' dormitories usable for the mission. It was estimated that Wake Island could handle 9,500 persons, if necessary, estimating 30 to 35 square feet per person. Area 300 was in poor shape with no water, although Areas 100 and 200 had adequate utilities. The school was estimated to handle 300 to 500 persons. Heel Point housing was open. Areas A, B, and C could handle 7,743 billeting.

Vehicles, equipment, supplies, and personnel were shipped to Wake Island. Over a three-day period, 200 line items were purchased and shipped, weighing in excess of 822,000 pounds and totaling more than 71,000 cubic feet. Water was a critical factor. Wake Island had a 5.8-million-gallon storage capacity and a catch basin. There were 2.5 million gallons in storage, and two good rains during this time provided approximately 4.5 million gallons. Daily consumption was estimated at 70,000 to 80,000 gallons per day. To conserve, water rationing was established.

The first plane carrying 180 refugees arrived, which nearly doubled the population of the island instantly. The refugees were processed on Wake and held until final transportation to the United States was arranged. Processing included punching an IBM card for each individual with family name, first and second name, date of birth, current location, and sex; assigning billets and meal tickets; and using locator services to reunite families. Planes began to arrive every two hours. It took one hour and forty-five minutes to process 180 people, so there was only fifteen minutes to rest between flights.

A total of 64 flights arrived at Wake resulting in 12,650 evacuees being processed from 26 April to 25 May. Operations at Wake Island went from one plane a week to one plane per hour, and up to 1,500 people per day being processed. When it was over, a total of 2,307,035 pounds of supplies had been shipped, including more than 37,700 pounds of clothing.

After Operation NEWLIFE and into the 1980s, operations resumed at Wake Island to provide standby for emergency recovery. However, in practice the atoll supported Navy and Marine exercises, serviced civil aircraft with fuel, and served as a patient transfer point for injured seamen. The base also supported the National Weather Service, AT&T, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command, a detachment of U.S. Marine Corps personnel, and a missile launch site for the U.S. Army.