Composed of a reef-enclosed lagoon, the atoll consists of three coral islands (Peale, Wake and Wilkes), built upon an underwater volcano. The atoll's central lagoon is the volcano crater; the islands are part of the rim. Wake Island, the main or center section of the "wishbone", is much the largest of the three islands. "V"-shaped and pointed towards the southeast, Wake Island comprises the outer perimeter of the eastern half of the atoll. Peale and Wilkes Islands continue the open ends of the prongs of the "wishbone" on the north and south respectively. The northwestern side of the atoll is open, except for the coral reef, which surrounds the atoll and completes the lagoon's enclosure.
The surface of the three islands is a smooth roll of disintegrated coral, interspersed with boulders, which are most numerous on Wilkes and the southern leg of Wake Island, where they range to five or six feet in diameter. Trees, thick tropic shrub growth (often with thorns) and grasses are scattered through the islands and provide much opportunity for natural concealment. Vegetation is densest on the south leg of Wake Island, west and south of the airfield. Trees sometimes reach a height of 20 to 25 feet, but the towering coconut palms found on most atolls are missing.
The first visitors to Wake Atoll were probably early navigators from the Marshall Islands, who periodically visited Enen Kio (Wake Atoll in Marshallese) to hunt sea turtles and birds. In modern times, the atoll was sighted by Spanish explorer Mendana in 1568 and was named for British sea captain William Wake, who arrived in 1796.
Wake was formally claimed by the United States during the Spanish American War, when it was possessed for use as a cable station. In 1935, Pan American Airways established a seaplane refueling base and 48-room hotel on Peale Island, becoming the atoll’s first permanent residents.
On December 11, 1941, the U.S. Marine garrison and 1,200 civilians completing construction of a major air and submarine base on Wake were attacked by the Japanese, the only amphibious landing attempt to be repulsed by shore-based guns during World War II in the Pacific. In a second attack on December 23, Wake’s survivors were overwhelmed by Japanese soldiers, who maintained control over the atoll until September 1945. At least two Japanese destroyers, two transport landing craft, and multiple aircraft were lost in the vicinity of Wake Island during the December 1941 assault.
Wake Atoll was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1985 in recognition of its role in World War II. Numerous artifacts from the war remain, perhaps the most famous being the “98 Rock,” a memorial for the 98 U.S. civilian contract POWs who were forced by their Japanese captors to rebuild the airstrip as slave labor, then blindfolded and killed by machine gun on October 5, 1943. An unidentified prisoner escaped, and chiseled "98 US PW 5-10-43" on a large coral rock near their mass grave. The prisoner was recaptured and beheaded by the Japanese admiral, who was later convicted and executed for war crimes
The atoll was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 in recognition of its role in World War II.