Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tour of Wake

We were able to go ashore at Wake this morning prior to our final day of diving at this beautiful island. We were met at the dock in the small harbor on the south side of the island by Scott Sweistac, the MDA liaison officer for the island. Having lived on the island for the past eight years, Scott is a wealth of knowledge and took our eager crew on a tour of the island while talking about its history and the effects of the recent typhoon. It is amazing that with a category 5 typhoon having it the island a mere six months ago, there is relatively little damage. Scott noted with some amusement that most of the structures built either during or prior to the war remained standing while most of the recent construction was decimated. I guess they really don't build them like the used to. A notable exception was the sea wall on the east coast of the island which took the brunt of the storm's fury. Its concrete blocks, nearly 12 feet square and filled with coral rubble were tossed nearly 100 feet up the beach where they remain.

Scott introduced us to the island at an area known as POW rock where some of the 98 POWs who remained on the island during the war are comemorated. After temporarily escaping, one of the 98 carved their names into a large coral head on the beach near the lagoon. While most of the American POWs were sent back to mainland China or Japan, these 98 remained and were responsible for many of the constructions projects on the island before their final execution. It was a sobering message with which to begin our tour.

Following POW rock we made our way around the island visiting many of the aircraft revetment areas, shore batteries, pill boxes, and command bunkers. All stark reminders that this island has not always been able to maintain the tranquil beauty seen today nestled in and amongst the somber remains of its more distant past.

Evidence of the war is everywhere and there are many areas we could not walk for fear of unexploded ordinance: mines, grenades, bombs, artillery shells and the like. We had also been warned about the possibility of running across human remains and had been counseled on proper documenting procedures should this occur. The small museum in the main building "downtown" holds a host of artifacts that have been recovered from the island, its beaches, lagoon and near-shore waters.

Today approximately 250 people live on Wake, but it has supported a population nearly ten times that in the past when both the FAA and Pan American Airways maintained facilities here. PanAM clippers were once seen bobbing in the lagoon and children could be heard in the playgrounds of of the elementary and high school. There was a hotel, bar, and extensive housing facilities. Many of these are slowly being reclaimed by the island.


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