Captain N.C. Brooks discovered Midway aboard the Gambia from Honolulu in 1859. He claimed Midway for the U.S., based on the Guano Acts of 1856, which authorized Americans to temporarily occupy uninhabited islands to obtain guano. No evidence points to native peoples ever living on Midway. The Atoll's original name, "Middlebrooks," reflected its position between the U.S. west coast and Japan, and the captain who discovered it. The United States took formal possession of the unoccupied islands in 1867. Later, the name was changed to Midway. Hidden beneath the salty Pacific, the coral atolls along the northwestern Hawaiian chain put an abrupt end to many a daring seafarer's adventure. Though the first intentional settlers arrived in 1903, earlier castaways spent many a day struggling to survive on these harsh islands. For example, the General Siegel and the Wandering Minstrel wrecked on Midway's reefs in 1886 and 1888.
Early depictions of Sand Island describe it as a low, sandy island with little vegetation. When he first arrived in 1903, the Commercial Pacific Cable Company operations manager said that Midway was unfit for human habitation, and then initiated the long process of introducing hundreds of new species of flora and fauna to Midway. Eastern Island appeared to possess more shrub vegetation. During this period, the superintendent imported soil from Honolulu and Guam to make a fresh vegetable garden and decorate the grounds. By 1921, approximately 9,000 tons of imported soil changed the sandy landscape forever. Today, the last living descendants of the Cable Company's legacy still flutter about: their pet canaries. The cycad palm, Norfolk Island Pine, ironwood, coconut, the deciduous trees, everything seen around the cable compound is alien. Since Midway lacked both trees and herbivorous animals, the ironwood trees spread unchecked throughout the Atoll. What else came in with the soil? Ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes; millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.
The cable, laid in portions from San Francisco to Honolulu to Midway to Guam to the Philippines, carried the first round-the-world message from President Theodore Roosevelt on July 4, 1903. He wished "a happy Independence Day to the U.S., its territories and properties . . ." After only a brief time at Midway, the Cable Station personnel realized that Japanese poachers landed on the atoll frequently to fish and collect bird feathers and eggs. President Teddy Roosevelt sent 21 Marines to stop the wanton destruction of birdlife, and to keep Midway safe as a U.S. possession. The Marines dug a freshwater well and lived in tents near the compound. The four main Cable Company buildings, constructed of steel beams and concrete with twelve-inch thick first-story walls, have fought a tough battle with termites, corrosion, and shifting sands for nearly a century.
In 1935, China Clipper operations began. This large flying boat, run by Pan American Airlines, island-hopped from San Francisco to China, providing the fastest and most luxurious route to the Orient, and bringing tourists to Midway until 1941. Only the super rich could afford a Clipper trip, which in the 1930s was over three times the annual salary of the average American. Only folks like Earnest Hemingway had the honor of meeting the goonies face to face. The large seaplanes landed in the quiet atoll waters and pulled up to a float offshore. Tourists were loaded onto a small powerboat which whisked them to a pier, where finally they would ride in "woody" wagons to the Pan Am Hotel or "Gooneyville Lodge."
Over the years, Pan Am used several different models of "Clippers". The book, "Wings to the Orient", deeply details the associated aviation history for those who wish to explore the design variations further. Based on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, the Clippers flew from Honolulu to Midway, then on to Wake, Guam, Manila, and Macau. Other routes were also explored, especially with the onslaught of the Pacific war, which ended Clipper operations at Midway on December 8, 1941. In 1947, a Clipper landed at Midway again, in the faded hope that somehow the Clipper days could be revived, but with the new aircraft technology developed during WWII, the days of the Clipper were over.
During World War II, the U.S. utilized a great military intelligence advantage over the Japanese, in both their radar capabilities and code breaking. The radar on Midway gave position, bearing, and altitude. Intelligence experts discovered that the Japanese planned to attack an unknown site referred to as "AF." To test the theory that Midway was the target, a disinformation message regarding Midway's freshwater supply was sent out over open communication channels. The Japanese intercepted the message and redistributed it in their JN 25 code, saying that "AF" needed freshwater. This strengthened intelligence allowed Admiral Nimitz to reinforce Midway's defenses and station additional bombers, fighters, and torpedo aircraft on Eastern Island in preparation for the suspected attack.
The Japanese wanted naval/air superiority in the Western Pacific. Above all, they needed to ensure the safety of their homeland and protection of the Emperor. After Doolittle's April 18, 1942, raid against Tokyo, Japanese war planners believed that they must widen their zone of defense and somehow destroy the remaining U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific. They believed by attacking the Aleutians in Alaska, the U.S. carriers would race to their rescue, where the Japanese carriers could intercept and destroy them at sea, moving on to wipe out Midway's aircraft. Afterward, a gigantic armada could bombard Midway and launch an amphibious invasion of 5,000 Japanese Marines on the U.S. Naval Air Station, which was defended by approximately 4,000 personnel in total, including noncombatants.
At the end of the Battle of Midway, all four Japanese carriers involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor had been sunk, while the United States lost the carrier Yorktown. The Japanese lost 256 of their finest aircraft, and more than 200 of their most experienced pilots and several thousand sailors perished. The Japanese Navy never fully recovered and its expansion into the Pacific had been stopped. American naval power in the Pacific was restored. The American victory at Midway was the turning point of the Pacific campaign of World War II.
In 1950, the Navy decommissioned Naval Air Station Midway, only to re-commision it again to support the Korean conflict. Again, Midway supported Far Eastern operations. Thousands of troops on ships and planes stopped at Midway for refueling and emergency repairs.
During the Cold War, the U.S. established a super secret underwater listening post at Midway in an attempt to track Soviet submarines. These sensitive devices could pick up whale songs for miles and the facility remained top-secret until its demolition at the end of the Cold War. "Willy Victor" radar planes flew night and day as part of the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning), and antenna fields covered the islands.
With about 3,500 people living on Sand Island, Midway supported the Vietnam effort. The Officer-in-Charge house or "Midway House" was used in June 1969, when President Nixon met "secretly" with Republic of South Vietnam President Thieu.
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 conflict in Vietnam over, and the introduction of spy satellites and nuclear submarines, Midway's significance to National security began to diminish.
In 1988, Midway Atoll became an "overlay" national wildlife refuge, still subject to primary jurisdiction of the Navy. In 1993, N.A.F. operations shutdown completely. As part of the base realignment and closure process, the Navy removed over 100 underground fuel tanks and cleaned up the Atoll.
During the transfer ceremony from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Interior in April of 1997, the Secretary of the Navy said "we've traded guns for gooneys", and hopefully Midway will never need to be used for war purposes again, but instead, a place for wildlife research and recreation, and to protect the memory of those who sacrificed their lives here, so that we can protect our environment today.
In August of 1996, Midway opened to public vistation. On October 31, 1996, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13022 putting Midway under Department of Interior jurisdiction. The formal transfer occurred during a ceremony on April 6, 1997. On June 30, 1997, the last Navy personnel boarded a C5-A cargo plane, and left Midway to the goonies.
* This articles is based on public domain content located at http://midway.fws.gov/past/default.htm.
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