It’s no big deal to fly across the Pacific Ocean. As long as you have a Kindle downloaded with books, a sleeping aid, and an aisle seat, you’re ready to go. Shanghai for work? No problem. Bali for sunshine? All set. A once-in-a-lifetime trip across Australia? Your bags are packed. Meanwhile, you don’t even realize how lucky you are.
It used to take weeks, if not months, to cross oceans by boat. The first non-stop transatlantic flight—between Newfoundland and Ireland—didn’t occur until 1919. It took another 12 years (plus more than 41 hours) for the first transpacific flight—between Japan and Washington—to happen. But the journeys remained exclusive and expensive. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that Pan American Airways, the world’s largest airline, became determined to offer regular service between the United States and China. A non-stop flight still wasn’t possible. But Wake Island cut the trip in half at least.
Wake Island is one of the most isolated places in the world. It’s a remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific. It’s one of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, making it an unincorporated territory of the United States. It lies about two thirds of the way between Honolulu and Guam. It also sits just a few hundred miles west of the International Date Line, so it’s the first place in the United States to greet a new day or year. After an airfield was constructed in 1936, it became the stopover point for passengers flying between San Francisco and Hong Kong.
But, if you’ve heard of Wake Island, it probably isn’t because of its aviation history. In December 1941, Wake Island was attacked just hours after Pearl Harbor. Though American forces repelled the first invasion, the islands—there are actually three of them in the atoll—fell to the Japanese 12 days later in what became known as the Battle of Wake Island. Japan then occupied it until the end of the war in 1945.
After World War II, Wake Island became a refueling stop and a staging ground for the United States military. Commercial transpacific flights briefly resumed, though advances in jet aircraft drastically reduced the need for a stop on a long-distance flight. The Wake Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, later incorporated into the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, was established to protect the habitat of migratory and seabirds, as well as the surrounding coral reefs. While the islands remain largely inaccessible. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dream about your own Wake Island stopover one day.