As a historical and natural interpreter for many years, I find one of the most fascinating aspects of history is that our understanding of the past always changes over time. New evidence comes to light (excavations reveal old burial sites, etc.) and sometimes our understanding changes not because the facts do, but because the times we live through change our perceptions. Currently, we are reminded that human efforts spring forth, then fade, possibly to live again, possibly in a greatly-to-slightly changed format.
Long ago battlefields, even crucial ones, of the ancient and medieval world have returned to either their natural state; or have found new human purpose as farms, or been subsumed beneath the expansion of towns and cities. Few WWII sites embody that transition from critical strategic site to natural area like Midway Island National Wildlife Refuge. The area that featured so prominently in the turnaround of the Pacific war is in many ways returning to a pre-war state. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (for whom I was once an interpretive ranger) helped provide information about Midway—today. Midway, the furthest western point of the Hawaiian archipelago, is and has been a stopping point for flyers since time immemorial.
In the years immediately prewar, it was a stopover refueling site for Pan-American Airlines famous “Pacific Clipper” aircraft. The strategic value of runways and facilities enticed Japanese interest, leading to the famous battle of June 4-7, 1942. But Pan American aircraft weren’t the only flyers using the island.
One of the birds that use Midway for resting and nesting is as accomplished a flyer as the “clipper” airplanes were. Laysan albatross use their 10-11 foot wingspan to soar for many miles over the ocean, seeking fish. Three quarters of all the Laysan Albatross in the world use Midway for nesting.
Note that there is no one island actually called Midway.
Midway is the name of the atoll, which is comprised of three main islands, Sand, Spit, and Eastern; as well as smaller ones. Atolls form as oceanic volcanoes erupt and grow above the water line, then erode to sea level. In the case of Midway, that process began 28 million years ago, making it the second oldest of the Hawaiian chain. Underwater coral reefs ring the eroding mountain, which can leave a few islands behind as high ground. The coral ring remains, and an atoll is born. It is a beautiful place, mostly flat sandy islands, full of seabirds—hundreds of thousands, maybe millions.
Their eggs, flesh, and guano drew interest after the islands were first seen by modern sailors in 1859. And later settlers’ families also harvested seal and turtle meat.
In 1903, Midway was placed under Naval control by Teddy Roosevelt as he had placed our first National Parks—Yosemite and Yellowstone—under Army jurisdiction. In 1909, Midway was included in the Hawaiian Islands Reservation for Protection of Native Birds. Now came the first permanent settlers, the Commerical Pacific Cable Company, appointed custodians of Midway by the Navy. Midway was integral to the first transglobal cable, and message. On July 4, 1903 “Happy Independence Day to America, her territories and possessions” took nine minutes to circle the world. The company had significant impact on the atoll, including the introduction of non-native species. The islands would soon change again. In 1935, Pan American World Airways set up an airbase, including a 45 room hotel with a pool for once a week Pacific Clipper seaplane servicing, including a 45 room hotel. No airplane could traverse the Pacific without a layover at that time.
All these peacetime enterprises came to a halt as war loomed. Midway’s strategic significance was not lost to either American or Japanese planners. Both considered what a conflict with the other might entail. In 1938, the Navy began dredging a channel between Eastern and Sand islands, and constructed an air base on Eastern Island and sub and seaplane facilities on Sand. In June 1942, the war came to Midway. You can learn much, much more about the Battle for Midway through our Museum’s online offerings, and in our exhibit galleries, but suffice to say it took brains, brawn, courage, and incredible luck and timing to pull off the American victory.
In 2000, the Battle of Midway National Memorial designation was bestowed on the area “so that the heroic courage and sacrifice of those who fought against overwhelming odds to win an incredible victory will never be forgotten…” WWII remnants remain. Old ammunition magazines, a pillbox, and gun emplacements on Sand Island comprise a National Historic Landmark.
Midway sites on the National Register of Historic Places include the cable company buildings, Marine barracks, seaplane hangar and ramps, torpedo shops, radar buildings, and Eastern island runways. Human commercial interest in the area has, for now, died down. And, if not radically changed by human activity, nature returns. Seventy five percent of all Laysan albatross nest here—the largest colony on the planet.
These amazing birds fly seven to 10 days away from their nest to collect fish, then return to feed chicks, a round trip of up to 800 miles. And the oldest known wild bird (at 69!) is one of them. But Laysan albatross are not the only birds at Midway. Midway also holds the largest colony of Black-footed albatross.
But Short-Tailed albatross numbers plummeted from an estimated seven million birds to zero with hope for a slow rebuild. The culprit was probably rats, brought to the island on ships. But a more recent threat to the seabird life is garbage.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates over five tons of human garbage is deposited by the ocean annually at Midway. But Midway is also a place of birth and abundance. US Fish and Wildlife Service staff and volunteers make annual trips to the islands for cleanup (bring your umbrella!) The crushing impact of introduced species on bird populations has been mitigated, but always needs monitoring to enable this rebirth of the islands as a home for some of the most magnificent creatures of our planet. In closing, here’s some of the animals that did, and still do, reside at Midway, now that the tide of World War II has washed over the islands.
At one point there were only 11 Laysan ducks left in the world, all on their namesake island, near Midway. Rats, and other introduced creatures (including rabbits!) had taken their toll. Rabbits had destroyed the vegetation they hid in and ate. These birds don’t fly from danger, which historically had only been frigatebirds. They freeze in the grass—not much help against ground predators, and if the grass is gone—oops! This story reminds us that any creature only following one way of life can become endangered or even extinct if circumstances change. The rabbits, of course, overconsumed their resources and starved, the remainders were eradicated, and by the 1950s the ducks had recovered to about 500. In the early years of this century, some were moved to Midway, thrived, and have improved the chances the duck will survive into the future. Highly endangered Hawaiian monk seals are Midway’s only indigenous mammals.
The seals, in small numbers but critical to species recovery, show the value of refuges in helping endangered species recover. Green sea turtles use the now quiet beaches for nesting.
Below the waterline, can still be found coral reef habitats, but human impact, whether from important wartime functions which have evolved at Midway, or floating in from who knows where, require willing hands to help Midway’s return to its natural state.
The best way to close this is to honor volunteerism. Whether at Midway National Wildlife Refuge or at The National WWII Museum, whether during challenging or “normal” times, the desire to simply “help the cause” drives widely varied people to give their time.
If you find yourself in New Orleans, contact the Museum’s volunteer office to explore how you might help.
Walt Burgoyne is the former Assistant Director of Education for Interpretation at The National WWII Museum.