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.