Sunday, May 1, 2016

Trading Guns for Goonies

The recent evolution from Naval Air Station to Wildlife Refuge is just one of many changes Midway Atoll has experienced in the past 150 years. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were for thousands of years an profoundly important place for the native people inhabiting the archipelago even if they were never permanently inhabited. In Hawaiian cosmology, Papahänaumokuäkea (pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah), as this remote area is known, is believed to be the source of all life, all building up from the humble coral polyp. 

Fast forward to the 19th century. Many European nations as well as the United States were discovering a variety of uses for the remote islands of the Pacific, from whaling to sugar plantations, and the harvesting of bird guano to be used for fertilizer. The first known landing of a Euro-American at Midway Atoll was merchant Captain N.C. Brooks In 1859; in short-order the US “took possession” of the islands.

At the turn of the 20th century the telegraph was the primary mode of long-distance communication and although a cable system spanning the Atlantic was completed in 1866, crossing the Pacific was a more difficult endeavor. The Commercial Pacific Cable Company, founded in 1901, took on the challenge and established a series of cable stations (basically hubs) spanning 6,912 miles across the Pacific with stations at Honolulu, Midway, Guam, and Manila in the Philippines. The station on Sand Island at Midway was established in 1903 and only one of the original buildings still stands. It is a beautiful and elegant building that quickly engages my imagination, making me wonder what it must have been like to be here during those times. 

Office of the Commercial Cable Company on Sand Island, Midway Atoll (photo taken 2016)
It wasn’t long before the worth of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for wildlife was recognized. In 1909, US President Teddy Roosevelt designated the islands as a bird sanctuary as a response to hunters who were decimating populations of the docile birds that bred there to be sold in a lucrative market that supplied feathers for everything from ladies hats to pillows. My grandmother once pulled a box of feathers out of her closet that she said belonged to her mother. Maybe there was a tail feather from a red-tailed tropicbird in there that was taken at Midway?

With tensions building in the 1930s and the prospect of a second world war looming, the US Military turned its attention to Midway Atoll due to its strategic location “midway” between California and Japan. Building of a runway on Eastern Island began in 1940 and the next year U.S. Naval Air Station Midway was commissioned. The base was bombed by Japanese ships on their way to Pearl Harbor and in late 1942 they mounted an air attack on the islands. E.H. Van Blaricom, a gentleman who lives in Wallowa County (the place I call home), was sent to Midway as a young Marine to help fend off the Japanese attack. I had the good fortune of visiting Van shortly before leaving for Midway and hearing his accounts of that harrowing time (including having to hop over barbed wire to swim in the ocean) and it is something I think about often during my time here.

Midway Atoll has played an important role in US miltary history.  Clockwise: World War II era gun on Eastern Island; Veteran E.H. VanBlaricom at his home in Joseph, Oregon (standing to the right of  his friend, Ralph Swinehart); Naval Air Station greeting area at Henderson Field on Sand Island).
The Battle of Midway, an epic naval battle between the better equipped Japanese Fleet and the US Navy took place soon after and was considered both an important turning point in the war and also one of the most important naval battles in US History. There is even a Hollywood movie about it, Midway,  starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda,  and John Coburn, and Toshiro Mifune that is worth watching.

The Naval Air Station at Midway not only persisted but thrived through the 1950s and 1960s thanks to the Korean War and the Cold War with, at times, up to 4,000 personnel stationed there. But with the falling of the Berlin wall and Perestroika in the mid-1980s the need for such a facility became to be questioned. At the same time, the public’s awareness regarding environmental issues was building and the new science of Conservation Biology provided the needed justification for protecting Midway as refuge for wildlife. In 1988, the federal government took the first step towards making Midway a National Wildlife refuge and in 1997 the Navy finally exited the stage. During the ceremony marking the transition from the Department of Defense to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Department of Interior), Secretary of the Navy Dalton remarked that the nation was “Trading Guns for Goonies” ("gooney bird" being the colloquial term for albatross). Since that time, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge has been managed solely for the benefit of wildlife.

Laysan and black-footed albatross inhabit an abandoned runway on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll

One of the most interesting things about living here at Midway is the rich history of the place. Evidence of its complicated past is everywhere, from the lone standing cable station building to the harbor, the old barracks, the war relics, etc. It’s kind of like a ghost town but not really as many of the buildings have been re-purposed here to suit the needs of the refuge. The Naval Commander’s house now serves as the residence of the Refuge Manager, our office is in what was once a ceramics manufacturing shop, and contractors (mostly men from Thailand) share houses that were once reserved for Navy officers.

Buildings once erected to serve the Naval Station are now used to run the wildlife refuge. Clockwise from upper left; Refuge Headquarters occupies what was formerly a ceramics manufacturing shop; Charlie Barracks now houses visiting researchers, houses that once were reserved for Naval Officers now house contractors (mostly men from Thailand) and volunteers; The "Midway House" was formerly the residence of the Naval Commander but now houses the Refuge Manager.
Yesterday, while poking around by the piers I decided to take a look inside the old Harbor Masters Office and found that it was now a Buddhist Temple.
From Harbor Office to Buddhist Temple!

The myriad ways that Midway continues to re-invent itself is simply fascinating and I can look forward to discovering something new nearly every day!

Postscript: Many of the facts and figures included here were gleaned from the US Fish and Wildlife Services “Visitor Binder”, an excellent resource whose authors I extend my sincere appreciation.


  1. Nice. Reminds me a bit of Kwajalein atoll, but with tons of albatrosses.

    1. Tim, You got me wondering how many tons of albatrosses we have here? Back of napkin calculation for Laysan albatross only: 666,044 breeding pairs (2015 estimate), 4.45 kg (avg weight male), 3.7 kg (avg weight female) comes to 2,714,129 kg of albatross or 2,713 metric tons (2,671 imperial tons). To that we could add probably at least another 100 tons of black-footed albatross (most recent estimate is 28,610 breeding pairs and they are a bit heavier).

  2. Almost anything you tell me about Midway is more than I knew. Thanks particularly for the albatross calculations. I look forward to future installments. Wallowa misses you (the county, not the city).

  3. Almost anything you tell me about Midway is more than I knew. Thanks particularly for the albatross calculations. I look forward to future installments. Wallowa misses you (the county, not the city).

  4. Not quite sure where you're going with the gooney bird weights and measures, but I've an acquaintance running a Panamax under a Seychelles' flag who always has a couple hundred or so spare TEUs on board. Let me know if you're interested.

    1. Monsieur Lafite: Perhaps if you read through the previous comments it would make more sense! With regards cargo, how much IPA might your buddies Panamax be able to haul?

  5. Fun with math!! It would seem the humans are significantly outweighed by the birds. I see a movie in the works, "The Day of the Albatross!"
    -M Schindel

    1. There are about 45 people on the atoll right now of which 6 are female. Average weight of a male is 180 lb while females average 163. That sums up to about 3.6 metric tons of humans (4 imperial tons). So the albatross outweigh people by about 780 to 1! Humbling for sure!