There’s not much to the tiny Pacific atoll known as Wake. Located roughly half-way between Guam and Hawaii, Wake is a loose u-shaped grouping of an island, three smaller islets and a sand flat, all situated around a beautiful blue lagoon. There’s not much there; in fact, there can’t be. The entire atoll adds up to just over 7 square kilometers of land. Today fewer than 100 people live there full-time.
But Wake was never a good home for people. It was, however, a veritable haven for birds. With no other islands nearby, Wake was a perfect layover point for dozens of seabird species, including multiple kinds of albatrosses, frigate birds and terns. So many birds could be found on Wake during the early twentieth century that it became a gold mine for Japanese poachers, who killed whole flocks of the animals for the global feather trade.
Most of those birds visited Wake as part of their annual migrations, but only one species lived there year-round. The Wake Island rail (Gallirallus wakensis) was a tiny, flightless bird that only reached about 22 centimeters in length. It fed on insects, mollusks and seeds and managed to survive in an ecosystem with no access to fresh water.
What the Wake Island rail could not survive, however, was World War II. U.S. Navy forces occupied the atoll in January 1941 and one of the most famous battles of the war was fought there that December. The Japanese took control of Wake on December 23, 1941, after more than 1,100 people were killed or wounded.
After the American surrender, thousands of Japanese soldiers took up residence on Wake Atoll. In 1944, their supply chain was cut off by the American Navy. With no supplies making their way to the island and little else to eat, the soldiers turned to whatever they could find and catch. The Wake Island rake, unable to fly away and escape, quickly became one of their main sources of protein.
By 1945, the species was gone—eaten out of existence.
Of course, this is hardly the worst thing that happened on Wake. Thousands of people died there, and the Japanese forces committed numerous war crimes on the islands. A permanent memorial commemorates 98 American civilian workers who were executed by machine gun there in 1943.
There are no memorials for the Wake Island rake, however. They’re just gone. Few photos or museum specimens of the birds remain. The number of people still alive who remember them continues to shrink. Only a handful of scientific papers even mention the species. Their extinction is rarely mentioned, not even in the accounts of World War II.
They are just one of the many, many forgotten victims of war.
Photo by William Stephen Grooch from the 1936 book, Skyway to Asia