Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island

By Gregory J. W. Urwin | Go to book overview

IV
"WE PLAN TO USE WAKE AS A BASE"

The U.S. Navy and Wake Island, 1935-1939

"An Exciting--Perhaps Terrifying Future"

Japan, already the dominant power in East Asia, viewed Pan Am's westward lunge as a potent threat. The airline's line of island bases compromised Japan's L-shaped frontier, which stretched from the Mariana Islands down through the Caroline and Marshall chains. The transpacific air route flanked the Carolines and Marshalls from the north and sliced through the Marianas.

On 13 March 1935, Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson announced that permission had been granted Pan American to erect hangars and other aviation facilities on Guam, Midway, and Wake. The next day, Japanese naval authorities registered their objections to the scheme through the Tokyo press. A spokesman for the Imperial Navy Office declared that the projected landing places could be quickly converted into naval bases and "would be a potential danger to Japan because of the proximity of Japan's mandated islands." He branded the American move "a problem requiring serious consideration." Japanese stations in the Bonin, Mariana, Caroline, and Marshall Islands ceased the clear transmission of weather information. They switched from the familiar international code to a system unfamiliar to American meteorologists--a spiteful gesture aimed at Pan Am.1

By planting an air base on Wake Island, Pan American Airways endowed the atoll with strategic value and turned it into a pawn in the escalating power struggle between the United States and Japan. Twenty months before that rivalry exploded into open conflict, a diplomatic historian wrote with remarkable prescience: "When man found wings he needed resting places;

-37-

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