Population of Wake doubles during recent TRANSPAC

  • Published
  • By Capt. Amy Hansen
  • 11th Air Force Public Affairs
Wake Island Airfield's regular billeting of 182 male beds and 16 female beds was recently near to capacity as a joint TRANSPAC movement made its way from Hawaii to Japan.

Although the tiny 3-island atoll in the mid-Pacific known as Wake Island has only about 135 permanent party workers, it can support nearly twice as many people during military deployments across the Pacific Ocean, known here as TRANSPACs.

"Basically, a TRANSPAC is any fighter movement across the Pacific that brings along support," said Maj. Tammy Dotson, 611th Detachment 1 commander on Wake. These movements are also commonly called fighter drags or Coronet missions.

During the most recent outbound TRANSPAC, a crew of F-18 Hornet pilots and maintenance specialists from VMFA-115, based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., stopped at Wake on their way to MCAS Iwakuni in Japan.

According to Major Dotson, Wake is a perfect crew rest and refueling spot due to its location, roughly 2,000 miles west of Hawaii and 2,000 miles east of Japan.

"We're here as part of a TRANSPAC going to Iwakuni in support of the unit deployment program," said Capt. Torrey Brissette, VMFA-115 pilot. "At Iwakuni we will be training in support of Marine Air Group 12 for several months."

Sgt. Joshua Upton, VMFA-115 airframe mechanic, was part of the trail maintenance crew handpicked to keep the Hornets flying on their 10,000-mile journey from South Carolina to Japan. "Our goal is just to get the jets over the pond. Even though these are the oldest aircraft in the Marine Corps, we haven't had too many problems," he said.

The Hornets were accompanied by a Hawaii Air National Guard KC-135 from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, a KC-10 from the 9th Air Refueling Squadron at Travis AFB, Calif., and a C-17 from the 517th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

"Basically, we are here in support of the Marines and their deployment of the F-18s," said 1st Lt. Andre Silva, 517th AS pilot. "We're stuck here because there is a typhoon outside of Japan, but it's been nice getting to hang out with the Marines. We don't usually get to do that."

Troops supporting the TRANSPAC found many things to do in the turquoise lagoon or on the 5 by 2.5-mile atoll while waiting for the super-typhoon to pass.

"Wake is nice. There is a surprising amount to do here, like snorkeling, kayaking, and sailing," said Captain Brissette.

Regarding staying on Wake for a few days instead of just overnight, Sergeant Upton said, "It's nice in a way--this time I was able to get in the water. You see it and it's so pretty, probably the clearest I've ever seen."

"I don't mind being stuck here a few days," said Senior Airman Nicholas Kenny, 517th AS loadmaster. "It's the awesomest snorkeling I've ever done."

Some crews also went hiking to see the historical artifacts and buildings from Wake's much-storied role in World War II. Just after Pearl Harbor was bombed in December of 1941, Wake Island came under Japanese attack from the air and sea. About 2,000 Marines and civilian contractors repelled the first attack and sank a Japanese destroyer, providing the U.S. with a morale boost when it was desperately needed.

Unfortunately, a few weeks later, the Japanese returned with a much larger naval contingent and forced the surrender of the island. Most of the U.S. survivors spent the rest of World War II as prisoners of war, and Wake was under Japanese control until the end of the war.

"It's really cool to walk around and see the bunkers and everything. It was awesome seeing the things we learned about in Marine history," said Captain Brissette.

After World War II, Wake changed hands a number of times, with the U.S. Navy, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of the Army all taking a turn managing the airfield. Now the U.S. Air Force runs operations on the atoll, which technically belongs to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Wake's main purpose is to support military contingency operations, emergency diverts, trans-pacific missions, and miscellaneous missions with the approval of the 15th Air Wing senior airfield authority at Hickam AFB, according to a 2010 memorandum signed by Gen. Gary North, Pacific Air Forces commander. Civilian air traffic is not generally allowed.

The airfield and the runway, which at nearly 10,000 feet is the longest in the Pacific Islands, are operated by a crew of contractors from Chugach Federal Solutions, Inc, with the oversight of four Air Force personnel from the 611th Air Support Group.

The contractors, including over 100 workers from Thailand, run everything from base operations to the dining hall. When a TRANSPAC comes through, the contractors kick into high gear to deliver nearly twice as many daily meals, prepare and clean hundreds of billeting rooms, and deconflict more than 20 aircraft as they land and depart, in addition to showing visitors some island-style hospitality.

"The Thais made us feel really welcome," said 1st Lt. Ben Golata, 9th ARS first pilot. "We went fishing and caught a yellowfin tuna. Then we ate sashimi at the Ioke beach house."

The welcoming attitude found on Wake is particularly impressive since about 16 scheduled inbound and outbound TRANSPACs come through each year, according to Major Dotson.
"This is my first experience with TRANSPACS. It's been a great, great learning experience and I've put all my problem solving abilities to the test," she said.

"We are happy to be in a strategic location and serve as part of the fight, and it's great that the people who stop over here are part of the joint mission."