A Travelers Century Club Visit to Wake Island, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in January 2010
Wake Island from the air #1, 63-second video clip
Wake Island from the air #2, 28-second video clip
Wake Island from the air #3, 30-second video clip
Wake Island from the air #4, 23-second video clip
Wake Island:  Disembarking at the airfield, 37-second video clip

Wake Island:  Invasion Beach, 30-second video clip
Wake Island:  Japanese revetments, 32-second video clip
Wake Island:  Takeoff, 36-second video clip
Guam from the air by night, 40-second video clip

Rowland Burley quickly descended from the gleaming white Continental Airlines 737-800 in the light rain. As his feet touched the freshly-laid blacktop on the runway, he turned to the right, kneeled in a shallow puddle, and kissed the ground.

At 8:38 AM on 11 December 2009 Burley, an Englishman living in Hong Kong who pilots 747-400s for Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., had become one of a relatively small number of tourists in recent decades to visit Wake Island. But the grinning Burley had also just joined a much more exclusive club. By participating in this tour operated by Military Historical Tours of Woodbridge, Virginia, he had become one of fewer than 20 people to visit all of the destinations on the list of the Travelers Century Club (TCC) (www.travelerscenturyclub.org). Based in Los Angeles and boasting over 2,000 members, the club‘s list currently contains 319 destinations worldwide.

What made this occasion even more unique was that five other club members among the 97 paying passengers on our chartered Continental aircraft that morning also completed the TCC list when they stepped onto the tarmac at Wake Island. Bill Altaffer, Dr. Dieter Deppe, Bob Spehar, Audrey Walsworth and Ray Woods -- four Americans and Deppe, a German -- also attained the travel goal of a lifetime. Never have so many club members finished the very difficult TCC list at one time. In all, 53 TCC members from 14 countries participated in the tour. Some remarked that this might have been the greatest concentration of well-traveled people ever assembled.

Most TCC participants had signed up many months in advance for this seldom-offered one-day Wake Island tour, which was priced at USD 1,295 including round trip air from Guam, another American possession situated 2,417 km (1,502 miles) southwest of Wake and 2,507 km (1,558 miles) southeast of Tokyo. In fact, some persistent and patient travelers had even carried over deposits they had made for a longer tour in 2006 which was to have included Wake but which had to be cancelled after powerful Typhoon Ioke devastated Wake Island's air traffic control system in late August of that year.

Lying one-third of the distance from Guam to Hawaii, Wake has been in U. S. hands since it was taken from Spain in 1898 in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. President Roosevelt awarded jurisdiction of the atoll to the U. S. Navy in 1934. Shortly thereafter, in 1935, Pan Am established a seaplane refueling station on Wake in order to enable the airline to begin operating its fabled twice-weekly trans-Pacific Clipper flights. The Clippers were amphibious Sikorsky, Boeing, and Martin aircraft that would depart Alameda or San Francisco, California for a 6-day, 60-hour trip to Manila via Hawaii, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Guam.

Construction of a naval base on Wake had been underway for eleven months when the Japanese invasion took place on 11 December 1941; and Japanese forces then occupied the atoll for the remainder of the war. The atoll was designated a U. S. national historic landmark in 1985. Today Wake Island is administered by the U. S. Air Force from Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. Generally there are round trip flights from Honolulu to Wake twice a month. In addition, a supply barge is towed to the island as required.

Our tour of the island included visits to Invasion Beach, the Japanese-built revetments where enemy aircraft were kept, Drifter's Reef which is the current island watering hole, and the airport terminal building containing a U. S. post office, a one-room museum, and a well-stocked gift shop. Four memorials, a chapel and several old bunkers are all situated within a short walk of the terminal building.

Technical Sergeant Tom Czerwinski was one of a dozen or so support staff from the U. S. Air Force and Continental Airlines who accompanied our Military Historical Tours group from Guam. In preparation for our tour, Czerwinski had ridden one of the supply flights over to Wake round trip from Hickam Air Force Base. During the aircraft's two-hour turnaround, he had taken a quick tour of the island himself to ascertain which sites would be of most interest to a group of about 100 tourists. An Air Force medical specialist and a public affairs official also accompanied the group on the day of our visit.

Our local escort, who joined us for the tour in a yellow U. S. school bus and who hailed from Salem, Oregon, had been employed on Wake for a decade as an environmental specialist. Normally his work involved such things as performing bird counts and conserving natural artifacts. Our escort advised that certain areas around the island which are the responsibility of the U. S. Missile Defense Agency are designated as off limits. However, when questioned, he was unable to confirm whether missiles are in fact positioned on Wake at present.

The tour's finale was a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the sixty-eighth anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Wake Island. In addition to the large TCC contingent, 42 relatives and descendants of war veterans were in our group. Only two individuals who had fought against the Japanese on Wake participated in the tour. Since Military Historical Tours only operates groups to Wake at irregular intervals every few years, ours might have been the final tour to include those who had seen action on Wake.

At the conclusion of the ceremony all tour participants were wanded and our handbags were searched as we re-entered the airport terminal. After a flyover of Wake at dusk, Continental Captain Tom Campanelli smoothly pointed our aircraft toward the blazing sunset in the southwest for the three hour and seven minute flight back to Guam.

It had been a unique day.     


ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 314 of the 319 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com

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