WAKE ISLAND

By Bill Markley

Originally published in the "NEWS"
a publication of the Jimmy Doolittle Air and Space Museum Foundation
Vol XXII, No 3, 2004
Travis Air Museum
Republished here with permission of the editor

December 1966, on radio headset, there is constant flight deck chatter, but I don't seem to hear a word the crew is saying. I am standing behind the left seat pilot and looking out the window of a C-141. The sky is slowly turning orange and blue and seems to extend to infinity. We are at 35,000 feet and have flown nine hours over the Pacific after leaving the California coast at night. My mind is following my eyes as if they are walking together across the orange and blue tinted cloud formations beyond the window. My eyes find a wonderful thick cloud and then my mind wonders about its shape. Yes, this one does look like a face.

Then the plane's wing cuts a slice through its forehead. "Wake tower! Wake lower! This is Air Force 617 descending through 10,000 feet and 50 miles out.", laments the copilot. Starting the landing checklist, he calls my name among those of the crew. "Yes sir." I respond, keying the mike, and then make my way to the cargo compartment. I squeeze along the cargo cat-walk. Down the side of this 41-foot monster I go. passing the last Vietnam-bound truck in the fuselage and checking chains and straps. So far so good. Nothing has come loose during these long airborne hours. "Yes sir. Yes sir," I say over the headset, "Check completed."

Only ten minutes of flying time left. We begin our slow descent toward Wake. What an Island! Wake, she knows. Approaching this "dot" in the middle of the mighty Pacific at day break, the sky is now bright orange. We have left all the cloud faces behind as we descend. Despite its miniscule size, an insignificant particle in the surging vastness of the Pacific, this island speaks loudly to all who have set foot on her and felt her soul. Wake is only three miles of island, a "V" shape ringed by seven miles of reef, looking full circle from the sky. Lost in the Pacific, it seems to wait for another soul-mate to drop by for a visit, to feel and listen to her. Wake will talk to you.

Landing on one leg of this "V" shaped island, we taxi to a stop. The pilots hit the breaks so hard that I am thrown forward, banging my elbow on the door handle. I'm ready to open the aircraft. My gloves are on, for bare skin sticks to the door handle in the coldness of high altitude. When I turn the door handle and crack open the door, a blast of vicious hot air rushes to embrace the cold interior.

As I step outside, my sight is stolen by the intensely blazing sun. My sunglasses are smashed, for I have stepped on them. I try to balance myself by holding my left arm by the elbow. The pilots used both feet, hard on the breaks, stopping 318,000 pounds of Air Force and Army inventory on Wake's only runway. Savoring the | salty air, I feel my clothes tighten and pull at my skin. I am spellbound and standing under the nose wheel trying to adjust my eyes. The sun and heat pierce my clothing like darts. Someone is tapping on my shoulder. I pull back my headset and ask, "Yes? What is it?" The pilots want to know if they can take their feet off the breaks. Are the wheel blocks in? They can't hear me because we've been disconnected since I unplugged myself opening the door.

Wake has only one small terminal. Walking through the door, I look back through a window. Jet engines scream as another C-141 flies past, shaking the ground in front of me. The building trembles and its ceiling fan swings violently, almost falling. One of my pilots sees the fan and laughs, saying sarcastically "I'm glad we are flying jets instead of propellers these days." The out-bound loadmaster looks back at me as the C-141 strains for altitude. We wave. After our aircraft has been refueled and taken on a new crew, Vietnam will have its trucks in six hours. Tomorrow I will pass by this window at over 100 miles per hour. I hope someone waves and notices the fan.

In the crew housing I change into the skimpiest clothing possible, a T-shirt and shorts. My Air Force "boots" are now beach sandals. It seems as if the sun is closer after we landed. I haven't walked more than two feet yet I'm hot, hot. I hear the song "Ride Sally Ride" and walk past Japanese bunkers from WW II. I wonder what the Japanese listened to some twenty years ago? Wake knows. Today Wake is only a stopover for flight crews and a site for military relay communications. Only 200 people live here full time, most from the Philippines. As I walk along the shore, roaring waves lash the island's flanks while tiny crabs race each other to the water. I wonder which one is fastest? Could Wake know? It is hot, very hot. I think of a cold beer. It is time to go to Drifter's Reef, Wake's one and only bar. It attracts everyone on the island, often all at the same time. The bar sits in the middle of the island and on the edge of its lagoon. The tide flows right into the bar! Amazing!

The song I heard was playing on the juke box in the bar. No charge for music, simply pick your play and punch the number. The juke box was sitting on a crate to keep the tide from shorting it out. Some say the island has blacked out a few times. All bar stools are bolted firmly to the floor. Salt water has rusted their legs (and everything else) over the years. No keys are given to lock the doors because all the locks are rusted. I don't think there ever were any keys. The bartender sleeps in the bar, when he sleeps. You can have your choice of beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon or Pabst Blue Ribbon, but you can't have it cold. If the bottles have been sitting in the water the labels float away. As the tide comes in, I put my feet a little higher on the stool. I finally take off my five-pound beach sandals and place them on the bar. Soon there are as many pair of sandals as bottles of beer. Suddenly, someone gives a hell of a yell. He has just played the juke box and, while standing in the water, has gotten shocked. Everyone laughs. "He must be a first timer," says the Filipino bartender, who tells him to grab a stick and punch the records again. The bartender adds "The only doctor on the island is gone. He went to the Philippines just now on that plane." We all look out to sea for the aircraft that had just passed. "You shock dead, you stay dead," he says in broken English. Anyway, he says that there are only about ten songs on the juke box (the record door latch rusted shut years ago) and most of this crowd sings better. We all laugh. This may account for all the beer labels floating everywhere.

Everything about Wake is wet and hot. The island revels in it. The regular afternoon rain squall starts to move in. Strong and with heavy rain, the storm blows shut the only "door" in the Drifter's Reef bar. But then, the crowd doesn't think the door has ever been closed except to see if it fit when the bar was built. All the bars customers, or should I say captives, give a round of applause. Simple things like a closed door to the beach are serious events.

I asked what the movie was this evening and was told it was the Disney thriller "The Shaggy Dog," which would be shown under Wake stars against one side of the bar. This side of the bar was painted for this purpose many years ago. The projector actually stands in the building next door on higher ground to keep it from getting wet. It stands in the garbage exit door for the mess hall! At movie time it was truly astonishing to watch million-dollar pilots struggle to keep their balance while placing one hand over their foreheads to keep the rain off their faces and the other over their bottles to keep it out of their beer. I'm not doing any better than the pilots.

Soon more beer labels float by and one sticks to my leg. Wet sand is up to my ankles. Damn, I wonder if I'll remember what my boots look like. They are on the bar with dozens of others.

The next morning I explore Wake, seeking treasures left behind by the outgoing tide. At one end of the island the hull of a WWII wreck rises from the water only a few feet off shore. As I look at it, images of a "war sinking" flash through my mind. Only Wake knows the story. The island had heard the crying sounds of death. They will remain with the island forever. I soon reach a wooden bridge over the lagoon. I stand and gaze at a beautiful aquarium that captivates me. What vivid colors! There are hundred of fish of every color and size. They parade past me. They are the island's ambassadors. I am seduced by Wake's tranquility and stillness. What a beauty! My eyes follow a brilliant yellow fish swimming slowly. It moves in a circle next to an old decaying war bunker. I am reminded again of death and destruction. Reflecting on the tragedy of war is unavoidable. The island forces you to do so. The fighting here was fierce with many men killed. Who can the island tell? Who will listen? Who will feel? I wonder what it was like for the Japanese, looking out to sea from the tiny slits in these bunkers? They were waiting for American troops to come ashore. Some say that all who lived and died here remain on the island forever. Suddenly, I hear the song "When I was Seventeen" coming from Drifter's Reef. It is accompanied by a piercing scream. Someone forgot to use the stick to punch the numbers. It is time for me to hurry back before I miss my plane.