For anyone questioning the reach of the federal government shutdown, consider Wake Island.
Not much more than military-plane refueling and classified operations occur on the unincorporated U.S. territory, a coral atoll located between Hawaii and Guam, about 6,700 miles (10,780 kilometers) from the legislative standoff in Washington.
That was about to change this week with the arrival of a dozen ham-radio operators who thought they’d won approval for a two-week commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the World War II massacre of almost 100 U.S. civilian contractors on Wake Island by the Japanese on Oct. 7, 1943.
Instead, after months of preparation, the trip is on ice because of a paperwork delay the group attributes to the partial federal shutdown, which started Oct. 1 as Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on a stopgap spending measure.
“They made it sound like it was just unfortunate timing,” said Craig Thompson, 61, one of the expedition’s leaders. “At the level that it was at, they were focused on what they had to do to shut down government, to prepare their budgets and deal with all of the other changes that were going on.”
The operation was of special interest to tens of thousands of ham operators inside and outside the U.S. The hobbyists collect contacts with all countries and islands in a practice known as DXing. Because Wake Island hasn’t had a major radio expedition since 1998, there’s great demand for its confirmation of a contact there.
All the paperwork was in place, except for final travel orders that needed one last Pentagon signature, said Thompson, an electronics company owner from central Illinois who is a veteran of radio expeditions to other remote locales, including Midway Island and Swains Island in the Pacific Ocean.
“Due to the U.S. Government shutdown, the Wake Island K9W Forgotten 98’s Commemorative DXpedition is now on hold pending a revised schedule,” a notice posted on the group’s website says in a reference that includes its special call sign.
The U.S. Air Force manages Wake and access is restricted. The group was to fly commercial on Oct. 2 to Honolulu, where they would have then boarded a military flight today to Wake.
The decision to cancel was made late on Oct. 1 after determining the group probably wouldn’t get final approval in time to catch the second flight, flown once every two weeks.
“They believed in the commemoration of these 98 people,” Thompson said of the military. “Unfortunately, we are going to lose the significance of the Oct. 7 date, because that was actually when it happened.”
Wake Island was annexed by the U.S. in 1899 for a cable station for trans-Pacific communications, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. An air and naval base was built during 1940 and 1941, and in December 1941, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the island was captured by the Japanese and held until the end of the war.
Some of the contractor prisoners of war killed on the island have yet to be identified and were interred in a military cemetery in Honolulu, Thompson said. Publicity about the expedition has already caused international attention and some people have brought forward DNA samples in hopes of repatriating the remains of missing family members, he said.
Since 1974, the island’s airstrip has been used by the U.S. military, as well as for emergency landings. There are about 150 military personnel and civilian contractors on the island charged with maintaining the airfield and communications facilities, according to the Factbook.
Sometimes those workers are ham operators, although one person isn’t able to make the tens of thousands of contacts the expedition was planning during its around-the-clock operation.
The trip’s budget is about $140,000, Thompson said, with operators investing a minimum of $9,000 of their own money. Costs include reimbursing the government for the Boeing DC-8 flight from Honolulu to Wake.
“This was actually revenue neutral to the government,” Thompson said. “All it would have done was make their flight more efficient. We were filling seats that wouldn’t have been filled.”
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