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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Midway Atoll Annexed, August 28, 1867

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Today in 1867, the United States occupied the Midway Islands in the Pacific Ocean. This atoll, less than 2.4 miles in area, was one of the most strategically important spots in the world for the better part of a century.

Midway Atoll is actually part of the Hawaiian archipelago even though it is roughly halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco, California. The atoll itself shelters several small sand islands, only two of which are large enough to be useful. As my father said of his visit to the area in 1952: "It was just a high spot in the middle of the ocean."

Captain N.C. Middlebrooks claimed the Midway Islands for the United States in 1859 under what was known as the Guano Islands Act. This Act, passed by the US Congress in 1856, allowed Americans to temporarily occupy uninhabited islands with the purpose of retrieving guano, or seabird droppings. Guano contains high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen and is useful in the manufacture of fertilizer and gunpowder. Despite the profitable guano deposits on the islands, it was not until after the Civil War that the US formally annexed the atoll. MIdway became the first offshore islands annexed by the United States.

The first people to settle on Midway were employees of the Pacific Mail and Steamship Company, who set about dredging a ship canal through the atoll's reef and blasting out a harbor on Sand Island. The endeavor was funded by the US Congress, who hoped to establish a mid-ocean coaling station that was not under control of the Hawaiian government, which charged steep taxes on visiting ships. Despite a good start, the project failed and the employees were soon on their way home.

Another 30 years would pass before people once again moved onto the islands. In 1903, employees of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company moved onto the island as part of a larger project: the laying of a telegraph cable across the Pacific Ocean. The workers introduced various trees to the atoll to act as windbreaks. Along with the trees came ants, centipedes, roaches and termites. Also in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt granted the US Navy complete control of the islands. The Navy soon opened a radio station there and sent a squad of Marines to keep Japanese poachers from hunting the islands' birds to extinction.

The golden age of flight once again changed Midway's mission. In 1935, Pan American Airlines began operating the China Clipper, a large flying boat that made regular flights between Manila and San Francisco. The plane made several stops along the way and Midway was one of them. The passengers, all of whom had paid enormous sums of money to make the trip, stayed overnight in the Pan Am Hotel, located on one of the atoll's islands. The hotel earned the nickname "Gooneyville Lodge" after the Gooney birds (actually albatrosses) who lived on the islands in large numbers.

As tensions between the United States and Japan began to grow, the US Navy began to militarize the atoll. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the island had become a floating fortress with gun emplacements, two runways and an official designation as a Naval Air Station. Six months later, in June, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy set out to invade and occupy Midway. The American Pacific Fleet, with the aid of some genius codebreakers, was able to intercept the Japanese force before they reached the atoll. Although Midway was attacked, the island's defenses held and the naval battle cost Japan dearly. Although the war would continue for more than three years, the Battle of Midway marked the beginning of the end of Japanese control of the western Pacific.

The Navy decommissioned Naval Air Station Midway in 1950, but was forced to put it back into service in support of naval and air assets being sent to fight the Korean War. The facility remained open after the war and became an important surveillance outpost during the Cold War. The US maintained a top secret listening post on the islands where technicians tracked Soviet submarines using highly sensitive underwater detection equipment. Radar planes took off from the atoll day and night as part of the Distant Early Warning Line and hundreds of radio antennas dotted the tiny landscape.

By the middle of the 1980's, Midway's importance as a strategic outpost had waned. Nuclear-powered submarines and refueling at sea had made the island's job as a refueling station obsolete. Satellites had replaced the radar planes and the end of the Cold War made the underwater listening posts unnecessary. Although the Navy still administered the atoll, it became a National Wildlife Refuge in 1988. The island's facilities closed for good in 1993 and the last Navy personnel left in 1997 after cleaning up decades of environmentally hazardous waste.

Today, Midway Atoll is administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

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