|A satalite view of Midway Atoll, its two largest islands and lagoon.
Technically the one of nothwestern outliers of the Hawaiian archipelago, Midway Atoll lies in mid-Pacific isolation roughly half way between North America and Asia. It may have been encountered by far-ranging Polynesian mariners, but it apparently had never been inhabited when Captain N.C. Middlebrooks a/k/a Captain Brooks of the American sealer Gambia spotted it on July 5, 1859. He modestly named the small islands of the atoll after himself and dubiously claimed them under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized Americans to occupy uninhabited islands temporarily to obtain guano they highly prized bird poop used for fertilizer. Despite the pretext neither the Captain nor no one after actually went into the guano mining business.
Perhaps it was because the U.S. was soon busy with its fratricidal Civil War, but the lonely atoll was promptly mostly forgotten. Then in the years after the war some seamen began to think that it might be a useful spot for long-at-sea whalers or perhaps a fueling and water station for the burgeoning trade with China, Japan, and the Orient. On August 28, 1867, Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna formally took possession of the atoll for the United States. Shortly after that it’s was name changed to Midway on official charts. It was the first Pacific island and overseas possession annexed by the U.S. and was designated as the Unincorporated Territory of Midway Island administered by the Navy.
|Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna formally claimed Midway in 1867
It was not an auspicious start for a far-flung empire. It was so inconsequential that the British did not try to register any claim to the island as they usually did to any speck in the Pacific. The problem was that the lagoon of the atoll, which might make an attractive harbor was inaccessible to seagoing ships because of it impenetrable reef.
Hoping to use the atoll as a coaling station, in 1871 the Pacific Mail Steamship Company somehow—one suspects encouraging emoluments may have changed hands—wrung money from Congress to attempt to blast and dredge a passage through the reef. A construction crew was landed, evidently the first ever inhabitants. The expensive project was a failure and after a few months the Navy had to dispatch a ship to rescue the abandoned and nearly starving workers. The USS Saginaw ran aground on Kure Atoll, 40 miles further east of Midway stranding both its crew and the workers. Eventually all were rescued except for four of the five intrepid souls who sailed to Kauai in an open boat for help.
The atoll languished once again unused for 32 more years until the Commercial Pacific Cable Company established a supply station for the ships laying that communications link in 1903. Personnel at the station complained to the Navy that Japanese fishermen were visiting the islands and “poaching” from the vast seabird rookeries. Surely they were not worried about the loss of the birds. But they were probably suspicious the Japanese were spying on the cable project. So evidently was the Navy which responded by establishing a radio station for quick communication. From 1904 and 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt stationed a platoon of 21 Marines assert U.S. sovereignty discourage further unauthorized visits from the Japanese. That was the beginning of the Navy’s on the islands.
|The Midway Cable Station compound in 1913.
Even the handful of civilians and Naval personnel had a devastating effect on the atoll’s fragile ecosystem by introducing many non-native species including canaries, plants like cycad, Norfolk Island pine, she-oak, coconut, and various deciduous trees, plus ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes, and other creepy-crawlers.
Through the 1930’s as Japan’s aggressive expansionism became more threatening Naval facilities on the atoll slowly grew and it became considered a strategic asset for the Pacific Fleet. But it got a major boost in public consciousness in 1935 when Pan American Airlines made it a stop for their island hopping Martin M-130 flying boats flying from San Francisco to China. Pan Am built a luxury hotel nicknamed the Gooneyville Lodge in honor of the islands’ famous albatrosses for the wealthy tourist laying over between the stops in Honolulu and Wake Island.
|The Philippine Clipper, a Pan Am Martin M-130 flying boat, tied up in Midway lagoon.
When tensions with Japan raised even more sharply the Navy began major improvements to their Midway facilities in 1940 and ’41 with airstrips, gun emplacements, and a seaplane base quickly added. In February of ’41 President Franklin Roosevelt established the Midway Island Naval Defensive Sea Area and the Midway Island Naval Airspace Reservation to strictly control access to the atoll by land and sea. Other than the Pan Am flights, all non-Naval flights to the islands had to be personally cleared by the Secretary of the Navy.
On December 7, 1949 the island defenses successfully repelled an attack by Japanese destroyers which was touted as the first American victory of the war. Unlike Wake Island which fell after withstanding air raids, naval bombardments, and one landing attempt before falling on December 23, Midway remained in U.S. hands, a virtual stationary aircraft carrier deep in hostile waters. In February another submarine based attack was repulsed.
Of course Midway is most famous not so much for what happened on the islands of the atoll—although they did come under air attack—but for the epic battle in the vast ocean around it that broke out on June 4, 1942.
The Japanese with a massive force of 4 aircraft carriers, 2 Battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 12 destroyers, and 248 carrier-based aircraft hoped to lure the battered American carriers into a trap, destroy the last fighting capacity of the U.S. Navy, and capture Midway in preparation for an assault on Hawaii. Instead Naval Intelligence had cracked the Japanese code and was fully aware of the operation. Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet (CinCPac) planned an ambush of the Japanese with an inferior force. He had at his disposal three of the Navy’s surviving carriers—a taskforce including the Enterprise and Hornet under the temporary command of Admiral Raymond Spruance and another led by the damaged Yorktown speeding from Pearl Harbor with a slapped together air crew and still under repair as she sailed under Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who had overall command of both taskforces.
On Midway itself there were four squadrons of PBYs—for long-range reconnaissance duties, and 6 brand-new TBF-1 Avengers; the Marine Corps 19 SBD Dauntlesses, 7 F4F-3 Wildcats, 17 SB2U-3 Vindicators dive bombers, and 21 F2A-3s, the latter two types of aircraft already obsolete; and the Army Airforce a squadron of 17 B-17 Flying Fortresses and 8 B-26 Marauders equipped with torpedoes for a total of 126 aircraft.
|An official U.S. Navy diorama of the Japanes air raid on Midway on June 4, 1942 which set off the great naval Battle of Midway.
When the Japanese carrier force attacked Midway, the U.S. Navy sprang its trap. In three days of fighting the Imperial Navy lost all four of the they had engaged—Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu and a heavy cruiser. On the American side the Yorktown was heavily damaged and at the end torpedoed and sunk by an enemy submarine along with a single destroyer.
The Americans lost just those two ships, about 150 aircraft and 307 killed. The Japanese lost the four carriers and the heavy cruiser plus a second cruiser heavily damaged, 340 aircraft, and 3.057 killed. The lop-sided victory ended Japanese naval superiority in the Pacific and cost ships, planes, men—particularly pilots and aircraft technicians—which could not be easily replaced while American industry and a vast reservoir of men quickly greatly expanded their capacity.
Most historians consider the Battle of Midway to be the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
After the battle the Navy beefed up its Midway Naval Air Station and built a foreword base for submarine operations. Army Airforce heavy bombers pounded Japanese controlled Wake Island and supported General Douglas MacArthur’s island hopping campaign.
The Naval Air Station, decommissioned at war’s end, was recommissioned in support of the Korean War and continued in operations through the Vietnam War. The Navy also had a top secret underwater listening post to monitor Soviet submarine activity and WV-2 Willy Victor radar aircraft flew night and day as an extension of the Distant Early Warning Line.
At the peak of the Cold War more than 3,000 Naval personnel and civilian employees were station on the atoll, most at facilities on Sand Island. But the end of the Vietnam War and the development of satellite technologies to replace its intelligence gathering capabilities caused the Department of Defense to start winding down activity. In 1978, the Navy downgraded Midway from a Naval Air Station to a Naval Air Facility and large numbers of personnel and dependents began leaving the island. In 1993 as part of the Base Realignment and Closure program the Navy closed all of its facilities although some personnel continued to perform environmental clean-up, mostly from oil spills and expended or un-exploded ordinance as result of World War II action.
Previously World War II facilities on Sand and Eastern Islands were designated National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks in 1987 and the whole atoll was made a National Wildlife Refuge for the tens of thousands of sea birds in it rookery. The Navy maintained control until President Bill Clinton transferred jurisdiction to the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife service.
|Today on Midway the seabird rookery coexists with relics of the World War II Battle at the Midway National Wildlife Refuge.
There has been no regular passenger service to Midway since the Navy closed its bases and no hotel facilities for tourists. Periodically the atoll has been opened to specially organized ecotourism and occasional tours for veterans and military history buffs. The last program was suspended during the government shut down face off in 2012 and never officially resumed, although special chartered flights can be arranged. Last year less than 350 people made the expensive visit.
There are no longer any permanent residents on Midway, although at any given time there may be up to 40 FWS service personnel on temporary assignment there.
America’s first overseas possession is now a part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It is an unorganized, unincorporated U.S. territory and for statistical purposes it is listed as part of the U. S. Minor Outlying Islands.
The lonely atoll seems to be slipping back into the sleepy obscurity in which it was found all of those years ago.