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Wake Atoll

THE OHIO CONSERVATION CENTER: Survey, Design and Training for the Stabilization of WWII Historic Ferro-Concrete Structures (also Objects and Monuments) on Wake Atoll (Wake Island)

The abridged survey Report with images can be found here: WAKE ISLAND REPORT

On December 31, 2010, McKay Lodge, Inc. president Robert Lodge completed his study for the preservation of historic Japanese World War II ferro-concrete structures on tiny Wake Atoll in the Pacific area of Micronesia. Commonly referred to as “Wake Island,” this is just one of three islands that make up “Wake Atoll.” Work began in September 2010 with a two week field survey of the three islands that make up the tiny coral atoll – the rim of an old volcano sitting a bit above the water – and concluded with a materials and methodology prescription in a report for work to be carried out by civilian contractors on the atoll maintaining a U.S. Air Force base of operations there.

The U.S. Air Force, Chugach Alaska Corporation, Foothill Engineering Consultants, Inc., and TEC, Inc. have contracted with McKay Lodge Art Conservation Laboratory, Inc. to aid in the stabilization of the most significant WWII historic features of Wake Island National Historic Landmark (NHL).

Following the survey, Lodge conducted a training class in ferro-concrete wall stabilization methods and materials with the base contract personnel. Materials for this class were shipped by McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory from Hawaii ahead of the trip.

Wake Atoll, Architectural preservation, Architectural conservation

The atoll is famously NOT OPEN for visitors by the public. Civilians having official business there can come and go only once every two weeks on a combined passenger/cargo plane from Honolulu. They show a movie and the food is good. The flight to and from Honolulu is 3-4 hours depending on which way you are going.

There was a dorm for visitors, housing for the civilian contractors, a dining hall serving two menus of unbelievably hot spicy Thai and the usual “American” foods amazingly varied and nicely prepared by the chiefs three times a day, and there was one doctor and a nurse. A small library, open 24 hours every day, was neatly kept but rodents had eaten the card catalog – so you had to just browse.

Living creatures on the island, aside from humans, are birds, hermit crabs and rats. That’s it. Well small lizards too. The birds stay safely where the government wants them, on the ecological “reservation” maintained and protected just for them. Driving at night involves dodging an enormous population of nocturnal rats and slow moving hermit crabs, crabs that for some reason seem to have an urgent but painfully slow need to leave the beaches and cross the one, single road on the atoll to get somewhere, who knows where, every night, again and again. A “crunch” while night driving is not a pleasant experience. Rats we can figure out more easily – they have a fast scurry back and forth for real, rumored and, very probably, picturesquely imagined tiny bits of rat-suitable edibles. Night rat hunting is a big island sport, and a necessity. Cats were considered for rat control but ruled out on the basis of dangerous ecological intervention (like which could be a worse over-population problem? Well, let’s leave that one alone).

The bowling alley was destroyed by a 30 foot “rogue wave” that swept over the islands several years ago. Bowling is now available only on the remains of a 1930’s Pan American Airways ramp for their China Clipper planes and that is just a short half hour kayak trip away from the “downtown” to an area near mass Japanese cremations and mass slaughter and burial of Americans on the island.

Wake Atoll, Bowling on Wake Island

The Americans, construction contractors for the Marines and for Pan American Airways, built the over 100 concrete structures for the Japanese as POW laborers, then, when work was done, all were slaughtered. Ten pins are available as well a few bowling balls on the concrete. Re-setting pins by hand gets tiresome quickly.

For two weeks, Robert Lodge and the company’s archaeology intern, Ricky Workman (BA, College of Wooster, Ohio), trekked in the heat, trucked in a manual shift Ford Ranger pick-up, and kayaked to study close to 100 cement and coral pillboxes, blockhouses and gun placements of the Japanese who won over the island from our U.S. Marines in December 1942. This was an event that stirred the U.S. public enormously due to the valor of the marines in fighting against incredible odds and relentless airpower and ship firepower. The surprise Japanese attack and invasion of Wake Atoll took place on the very day following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

These structures were built of cement, coral, reinforcing steel and seawater. The chlorides in the seawater caused extreme corrosion and then spalling of the concrete structures. Storms tossed some around and some ended up in the ocean from beach erosion.

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Wake Island, or properly “Wake Atoll” has been designated a National Historic Landmark. A National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a “building, site, structure, object, or district, that is officially recognized by the United States government for its historical significance. Out of more than 80,000 places on the National Register of Historic Places only about 2,430 are NHL’s”.

Most Americans today have forgotten or never knew much about Wake Atoll. It is a small three-island atoll sitting in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles north of the Marshall Islands and 2,300 miles west of Honolulu.

Wake Atoll became a symbol of hope for Americans when its defense force repulsed Japanese attacks shortly after Pearl Harbor. When Japanese forces captured Wake Atoll later, in December 1941, this removed a threat to their line of defense from Tokyo to the Marshall Islands. The Landmark includes World War II-related resources on Peale, Wilkes, and Wake Islands, the three islands in the coral atoll that comprise Wake.

On a warm, pacific day in 1941, U.S. Marines and Navy men alike waited in chow line for what could be their final meals. The frantic message had come through that morning uncoded, violating a dozen military orders: “Hickam Field Hawaii and Pearl Harbor have been attacked by Jap dive-bombers. This is the real thing. This is no drill.” Their orders were clear; to defend Wake Island from imminent Japanese invasion.

Many of those men never received that meal of hotcakes and syrup; a notion that remained with them throughout the ensuing 16 day battle and four long years of POW captivity. Shortly before noon on December 8th, a mere 5 hours after the assault on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese planes arrived at Wake Island. They dropped from thirteen thousand feet down to one thousand five hundred feet, revealing their rising sun insignia, and began an assault of bombing and strafing that lasted a short but devastating 10 minutes.

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During a short, two week period in September and October 2010, Robert Lodge, accompanied by company conservation intern Rik Workman, would formulate a plan to survey and analyze all historic features on Wake Atoll. Their mission: To determine what means, if any, could be taken to preserve the quickly deteriorating historical monuments.

While a daunting task, they set out each day with specific goals in mind. The first objective was to document as many of the historic features on the island as possible for future study. It was understood that already many of the once present structures had fell victim to time and deprivation. The military had little long-term thought in mind while constructing the hundreds of pillboxes, bunkers, blockhouses, and gun revetments on island. This can be seen in the use of seawater while mixing their concrete. The salts in such water react harshly with ferrous metals, causing accelerated deterioration through oxidation (rust). It was determined that most of the ferro-concrete structures on Wake were exposed to nearly 60% loss of good steel in their rebar. This loss caused many of the ceilings and facades to spall away, leaving the interior rebar even more exposed to the sea air. Now, what was to be done to save these structures?

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Some of the most interesting relics included torpedoes, 3-inch anti-aircraft guns, anchors from downed Japanese vessels, engines from downed planes, and an 8-inch land defense gun. All such relics had been collected by island residents throughout the years and assembled into makeshift displays viewable by the public. While a notable first step, these icons of a war long past have been left unprotected from the tropical climate. Each of such artifacts has suffered greatly from corrosion.

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The second objective was to educate the local contractors in the preventative forms of conservation that would be necessary to maintain such important remnants. With a methodology in mind, and a translator present, Mr. Lodge gave an imperative lecture on the topic of conserving Wake Island’s delicate historic structures and artifacts. With proper instruction in conservation methods, adequate materials to do such work in hand, and a new respect for the heritage of Wake Island, the stewards of this historic landmark are well suited to do what is necessary to maintain Wake’s treasures for future generations.

The Wake Island NHL is in serious trouble. Resources are decaying at an alarming rate and the atoll’s residents and visitors are not receiving proper education on how to care for cultural resources and the benefits these resources provide. If improvements are not made to protect the cultural resources and comply with NHPA Section 110 procedures, it is doubtful the NHL will contain any intact and meaningful cultural resources within the next 20 years.”-May 2000

The Cultural Resources Management Plan (CRMP) was produced to integrate the preservation and enhancement of Wake Island National Historic Landmark (NHL) with the mission of the Wake Island Airfield, which primarily functions as a United States Department of Defense (DoD) facility. The CRMP was produced by Foothill Engineering Consultants, Inc. (FEC) of Golden, Colorado,

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Wake Atoll History

Alvaro de Mendana, a Spanish explorer, first sighted the tiny atolls in 1586. His ships were running low on food and water; however, when he went ashore he found no water and no food—only sand, coral, and some scrubby growth of brush. He took his men back to the boats, named the speck of coral San Francisco, and then sailed on.

The English seafarer Samuel Wake, captain of the trading ship Prince William Henry, found the island next in 1796. He fixed its position in the Pacific Ocean by taking exact longitude and latitude measurements, then gave the islands his own name and sailed away.

Americans first visited Wake when the USS Vincennes stopped there on December 20, 1840. Charles Wilkes, a well-known explorer, surveyed one of the atolls and gave it his own name. On the same ship was a naturalist, Titian Peale. He collected marine life in the lagoon and named the other atoll Peale, after himself.

During the 1930’s airplane travel swooped down and changed forever the face of Wake Island. Pan American Airways was in the process of expanding its flights across the Pacific using the four-engine “clipper” flying boats that landed on water. The large lagoon made a perfect landing field, and not a single shovel of dirt had to be turned. Pan Am had made flights from San Francisco to Tokyo and Manila, but now they needed way stations along the route to stop for fuel and to let passengers relax ashore. Wake perfectly matched their needs. In May 1935 ships arrived with materials, and construction began on the seaplane base, the Pan Am office, and a small hotel for passengers. At this time, too, the U.S. Navy made public that it recognized the military value of the island and did a complete survey.

As far back as 1930, war planners in Tokyo and Washington D.C. were constantly planning strategies for attacks on and defenses from their real and imagined enemies. Both the Japanese and Americans knew and valued the strategic location Wake Atoll held in the Pacific. It was the “high ground,” and whoever controlled it would find it much easier to be master the entire western Pacific.

The Japanese strategy included the surprise attack on Hawaii, but with no plans to capture it. At the same time they intended to attack Wake, take it in one day, and then move on to Guam and Midway.

After immobilizing Americas fleet during a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese attention turned to the capture of Wake Atoll. The initial attack, which occurred 5 hours after Pearl Harbor, caught Wake when it was nearly defenseless. The construction of the military base was hardly underway, leaving the island open to assault.

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The first attack involved accurate bombing and continued strafing by 34 Japanese pilots, leaving behind a trail of destruction. 7 of Wakes 12 fighter planes were completely destroyed and two were heavily damaged and would only serve as parts. The brave men on Wake, including Marines, Navy, and civilian contractors, would spend the next 16 days defending the island from Japanese invasion. They worked tirelessly and repelled attack after attack. This honorable attempt would serve has the first American victories in the Pacific.

While Japan suffered humiliating losses from a small force on an island that was supposed to be taken in hours, invasion was eminent. On December 23rd, 1941, an overpowering force of Japanese took control of the island after an official surrender by Wakes commanding officers.

The soldiers were stripped and taken to POW camps in Japan while the civilian contractors were forced to do labor for the Japanese controlling Wake Island. Japan would control the island for the next four years. At the time of eminent surrender, the Japanese higher command ordered the massacre of the 98 civilian contractors, a tragedy that would not go unpunished. That command was sentenced to death for war crimes at the close of WWII.

Today Wake Atoll serves as a refueling and emergency landing station for trans-pacific flights. Receiving only one civilian aircraft every two weeks, the station serves mostly military purposes. However, the island is kept as a physical monument to those who suffered and fought bravely for their countries. With the help of conservation, this historical landmark will remain for many more years, and not be forgotten.

The abridged survey Report with images can be found here: WAKE ISLAND REPORT

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