WAKE ISLAND -- By history and by blood, the United States is a Pacific nation and nothing says that better than this remote coral atoll, Feb. 3, 2018.
To the Greatest Generation, Wake Island was a rallying call. It was the site of the first unsuccessful attack by Japanese forces on Dec. 11, 1941 -- four days after the Japanese fleet devastated Pearl Harbor.
But it has been a strategic possession for the United States since the 19th century, when it was seen as a coaling station and possible site for a trans-Pacific telegraph. Today, it is a 21st-century base crucial to testing of America’s ballistic missile defense program. It also is a waystation for the more than 400 military aircraft that stop at the airfield each year to refuel.
This was why Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopped at Wake. He is on a trip to Australia and Thailand to hold counterpart visits with close American allies. He will then stop in Guam, where he will meet with U.S. service members based there.
His trip is all part of underscoring America as a Pacific power.
About 100 personnel are based here, reporting to the Pacific Air Forces Regional Support Center in Alaska. The unit has a large footprint in the Pacific. There are four active-duty airmen at the base and the rest are contractor personnel, said Air Force Capt. Marc Bleha, the current commander.
The base is getting a facelift with new water lines in place and solar panels being installed, Bleha said. “Our mission set is to manage the 400-plus aircraft that come in here per year,” Bleha said. “Missile Defense Agency does various types of testing on different platforms. Some of it is live-firing, some of it is imaging. It just depends on what MDA has scheduled. The last live fire, they had ATK Orbital … and that was launched from here. [They also had] imaging, which was primarily the Army part of the Missile Defense Agency.”
When the agency does come in they bring 50 to 100 people. “It’s not that dramatic a change,” Breha said. “We’re designed to flex in that manner.”
History is literally underfoot on the small island. The bunkers that the defenders of Wake fought from still exist. Plaques commemorate the defense of Wake. The airfield tower where President Harry S. Truman met with General of the Army Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War is still there. And as part of the renovation project, engineers hit a 500-pound bomb while digging a trench.
The bomb, the bunkers, the plaques, the tower all serve to remind Bleha of the history of America in the Pacific. The testing of missile defense assets serves to remind him that this continues.