Midway Atoll is a 2.4-square-mile atoll in the North Pacific Ocean. Midway is roughly equidistant between North America and Asia. Midway Atoll is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States. Midway continues to be the only island in the Hawaiian archipelago that is not part of the state of Hawaii.
For statistical purposes, Midway is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands. The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing 590,991.50 acres of land and water in the surrounding area, is administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The refuge and most of its surrounding area are part of the larger Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Until 1993, the atoll was the home of the Naval Air Facility Midway Island. The Battle of Midway, which was fought between June 4 and 6, 1942, was one of the most important battles of the Pacific campaign of World War II. The United States Navy defeated a Japanese battle group marking a turning point in the war in the Pacific Theater. USAAF aircraft based at the original Henderson Field on Eastern Island joined the attack against the Japanese fleet, which suffered losses of four carriers and one heavy cruiser.
Approximately 40 to 60 people live on the atoll, which includes staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and contract workers.
Visitation to the atoll is possible only for business reasons (which includes permanent and temporary staff, contractors and volunteers) as the tourism program has been suspended due to budget cutbacks. In 2012, the last year that the visitor program was in operation, 332 people made the trip to Midway. Tours focused on both the unique ecology of Midway as well as its military history. The economy is derived solely from governmental sources and tourist fees. Nearly all supplies must be brought to the island by ship or plane, though a hydroponic greenhouse and garden supply some fresh fruits and vegetables.
As its name suggests, Midway is roughly equidistant between North America and Asia, and lies almost halfway around the world longitudinally from Greenwich, UK. It is near the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, about one-third of the way from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Tokyo, Japan.
Geography and Geology:
Sand Island 1,117
Eastern Island 136
Spit Island 6
Total land 1,549
Midway Atoll is part of a chain of volcanic islands, atolls, and seamounts extending from Hawaii up to the tip of the Aleutian Islands and known as the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain. It consists of a ring-shaped barrier reef nearly five miles in diameter and several sand islets.
The two significant pieces of land, Sand Island and Eastern Island, provide a habitat for millions of seabirds. The island sizes are shown in the table above. The atoll, which has a small population (approximately 60 in 2014, but no indigenous inhabitants), is designated an insular area under the authority of the United States Department of the Interior.
Midway was formed roughly 28 million years ago when the seabed underneath it was over the same hotspot from which the Island of Hawaii is now being formed. In fact, Midway was once a shield volcano, perhaps as large as the island of Lana’i. As the volcano piled up lava flows building the island, its weight depressed the crust and the island slowly subsided over a period of millions of years, a process known as isostatic adjustment.
As the island subsided, a coral reef around the former volcanic island was able to maintain itself near sea level by growing upwards. That reef is now over 516 feet thick. What remains today is a shallow water atoll about 6 miles across. Following Kure Atoll, Midway is the 2nd most northerly atoll in the world.
The atoll has some 20 miles of roads, 4.8 miles of pipelines, one port on Sand Island, and an airfield. As of 2004, Henderson Field airfield at Midway Atoll, with its one active runway has been designated as an emergency diversion airport for aircraft flying under ETOPS rules. Although the FWS closed all airport operations on November 22, 2004, public access to the island was restored from March 2008.
Midway has no indigenous inhabitants and was uninhabited until the 19th century.
The atoll was sighted on July 5, 1859, by Captain N.C. Middlebrooks, commonly known as Captain Brooks, of the sealing ship Gambia. The islands were named the “Middlebrook Islands” or the “Brook Islands”. Brooks claimed Midway for the United States under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized Americans to occupy uninhabited islands temporarily to obtain guano. There is no record of any attempt to mine guano on the island. On August 28, 1867, Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna formally took possession of the atoll for the United States; the name changed to “Midway” sometime after this. The atoll was the first Pacific island annexed by the United States, as the Unincorporated Territory of Midway Island, and was administered by the United States Navy.
The first attempt at settlement was in 1871, when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company started a project of blasting and dredging a ship channel through the reef to the lagoon using money put up by the United States Congress. The purpose was to establish a mid-ocean coaling station to avoid the high taxes imposed at ports controlled by the Hawaiians. The project was shortly a complete failure, and the USS Saginaw evacuated the last of the channel project’s work force in October 1871. The ship ran aground at Kure Atoll, stranding everyone. All were rescued, with the exception of four of the five persons who sailed to Kauai in an open boat to seek help.
Early 20th Century:
These workers introduced many non-native species to the island, including the canary, cycad, Norfolk Island pine, she-oak, coconut, and various deciduous trees; along with ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes, and countless others.
On January 20, 1903, the United States Navy opened a radio station in response to complaints from cable company workers about Japanese squatters and poachers. Between 1904 and 1908, President Roosevelt stationed 21 Marines on the island to end wanton destruction of bird life and keep Midway safe as a U.S. possession, protecting the cable station.
The M-130s island-hopped from San Francisco to China, providing the fastest and most luxurious route to the Far East and bringing tourists to Midway until 1941. Only the very wealthy could afford the trip, which in the 1930s cost more than three times the annual salary of an average American. With Midway on the route between Honolulu and Wake Island, the flying boats landed in the atoll and pulled up to a float offshore in the lagoon. Tourists transferred to a small powerboat that ferried them to a pier, then rode in “woodie” wagons to the Pan Am Hotel or the “Gooneyville Lodge”, named after the ubiquitous “Gooney birds” (albatrosses).
World War II:
The location of Midway in the Pacific became important militarily. Midway was a convenient refueling stop on transpacific flights, and was also an important stop for Navy ships. Beginning in 1940, as tensions with the Japanese rose, Midway was deemed second only to Pearl Harbor in importance to the protection of the U.S. west coast. Airstrips, gun emplacements and a seaplane base quickly materialized on the tiny atoll.
The channel was widened, and Naval Air Station Midway was completed. Midway was also an important submarine base.
On February 14, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8682 to create naval defense areas in the central Pacific territories.
The proclamation established “Midway Island Naval Defensive Sea Area”, which encompassed the territorial waters between the extreme high-water marks and the three-mile marine boundaries surrounding Midway. “Midway Island Naval Airspace Reservation” was also established to restrict access to the airspace over the naval defense sea area. Only U.S. government ships and aircraft were permitted to enter the naval defense areas at Midway Atoll unless authorized by the Secretary of the Navy.
Midway’s importance to the U.S. was brought into focus on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Midway was attacked by two destroyers on the same day, and the Japanese force was successfully repulsed in the first American victory of the war. A Japanese submarine bombarded Midway on February 10, 1942.
Four months later, on June 4, 1942, a major naval battle near Midway resulted in the U.S. Navy inflicting a devastating defeat on the Japanese Navy.
Four Japanese fleet aircraft carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, were sunk, along with the loss of hundreds of Japanese aircraft, losses that the Japanese would never be able to replace. The U.S. lost the aircraft carrier Yorktown, along with a number of its carrier- and land-based aircraft that were either shot down by Japanese forces or bombed on the ground at the airfields. The Battle of Midway was, by most accounts, the beginning of the end of the Japanese Navy’s control of the Pacific Ocean.
Starting in July 1942, one of the Fulton-class submarine tenders was always stationed at the atoll to support submarines patrolling Japanese waters. In 1944, a floating dry dock joined the tender. After the Battle of Midway, a second airfield was developed, this one on Sand Island. This work necessitated enlarging the size of the island through land fill techniques, that when concluded, more than doubled the size of the island.
Korean and Vietnam Wars:
In 1950, the Navy decommissioned Naval Air Station Midway, only to re-commission it again to support the Korean War. Thousands of troops on ships and aircraft stopped at Midway for refueling and emergency repairs. From 1968 to September 10, 1993, Midway Island was a Naval Air Facility.
During the Cold War, the U.S. established an underwater listening post at Midway to track Soviet submarines. The facility remained secret until its demolition at the end of the Cold War. U.S. Navy WV-2 (EC-121K) “Willy Victor” radar aircraft flew night and day as an extension of the Distant Early Warning Line, and antenna fields covered the islands.
With about 3,500 people living on Sand Island, Midway also supported the U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. In June 1969, President Richard Nixon held a secret meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at the Officer-in-Charge house or “Midway House”.
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. With the war in Vietnam over, and with the introduction of reconnaissance satellites and nuclear submarines, Midway’s significance to U.S. national security was diminished. The World War II facilities at Sand and Eastern Islands were listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 28, 1987 and were simultaneously added as a National Historic Landmark.
As part of the Base Realignment and Closure process, the Navy facility on Midway has been operationally closed since September 10, 1993, although the Navy assumed responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination at Naval Air Facility Midway.
Midway was designated an overlay National Wildlife Refuge on April 22, 1988 while still under the primary jurisdiction of the Navy.
From August 1996, the general public could visit the atoll through study eco-tours. This program ended in 2002, but another visitor program was approved and began operating in March 2008. This program operated through 2012, but was suspended for 2013 due to budget cuts.
On October 31, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13022, which transferred the jurisdiction and control of the atoll to the United States Department of the Interior. The FWS assumed management of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The last contingent of Navy personnel left Midway on June 30, 1997 after an ambitious environmental cleanup program was completed.
On September 13, 2000, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt designated the Wildlife Refuge as the Battle of Midway National Memorial. The refuge is now titled as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial.
On June 15, 2006, President George W. Bush designated the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a national monument. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument encompasses 105,564 square nautical miles and includes 3,910 square nautical miles of coral reef habitat. The Monument also includes the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
In 2007, the Monument’s name was changed to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The National Monument is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the State of Hawaii. In 2016 President Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and added the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a fourth co-trustee of the monument.
The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11 caused many deaths among the bird population on Midway. It was reported that a five foot high wave completely submerged the atoll’s reef inlets and Spit Island, killing more than 110,000 nesting seabirds at the National Wildlife Refuge. However, scientists on the island do not think it will have long-term negative impacts on the bird populations.
The usual method of reaching Sand Island, Midway Atoll’s only populated island, is on chartered aircraft landing at Sand Island’s Henderson Field, which also functions as an emergency diversion point runway for transpacific flights.
Unofficial Flag of Midway Atoll:
The top is sky blue, the thin stripe is white for the beach and the turquoise bottom stripe is for the color of the surrounding ocean. The bird, a Laysan Albatross, is white and black.
It was designed for the Memorial Day 2000 event being held at the USS Arizona. The flag was designed by the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge staff with assistance of a National Park Service employee. This flag has no official status, other than that it will be used to represent Midway Island in a Memorial Day ceremony. The flag has the same status as a small US city’s flag – it is accepted as the flag by the inhabitants even though the federal government hasn’t given the flag official status.