Midway Atoll was formed about 28 million years ago when lava flowed from a hot spot in the earth’s crust to form a volcanic island. Once a “high island,” millions of years, wind, and water gradually eroded the island. As its weight pushed downward on the earth’s crust, the island became submerged. The growth of corals resulted in the formation of a circular reef around the former volcanic island. Sand, Eastern, and Spit, the three islands of Midway Atoll, were formed by shifting coral sands within the reef. Midway is the second-to-last atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian chain; only Kure Atoll lies farther to the west.
Ancient Polynesian sailors discovered and settled the windward Hawaiian Islands more than a thousand years ago. Historians do not agree on the exact arrival date of the first Polynesians to Hawaii, but archeological evidence shows they visited Nihoa and Mokumanamana, the only elevated land masses in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. No artifacts or structures from the low-lying atolls and islands to the west have ever been discovered, but traditional chants and oral histories indicate strong spiritual and cultural connections to these remote atolls. As the only island in the chain with reasonable access, Midway Atoll has become a place where small groups of Hawaiian cultural practitioners have gathered to explore and deepen those connections.
Discovery & Annexation
On July 5, 1859, Midway Atoll was discovered by Captain N.C. Brooks of the vessel Gambia. He named the islands the “Middlebrook Islands” and claimed them for the United States under the Guano Islands Act of 1856 which authorized Americans to temporarily occupy uninhabited islands to obtain guano. Consequently, Midway is the only atoll in the Hawaiian Archipelago that does not belong to the State of Hawaiʻi. In 1867, the atoll became the first offshore islands annexed by the United States government and was renamed Midway Atoll.
In January 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt placed Midway Atoll under the control of the U.S. Navy. A few months later, the Commercial Pacific Cable Company brought in the first permanent residents of Midway Atoll. Their mission was to install and maintain a trans-Pacific telegraph cable as part of the first round-the-world communications system. The cable company constructed four two-story buildings. The natural landscape of Midway Atoll was dramatically altered during this period by the intentional and accidental introduction of many non-native plants and animals. Midway Atoll’s canary population dates to this era; in 1910, several pet canaries belonging to an employee of the cable company were released and the canary population now stands at about 500.
In 1935, the Pan American Airlines Flying Clipper Seaplane began using Midway Atoll as a rest stop and refueling station for its trans-Pacific flights. The Clipper planes landed in the lagoon. To house its passengers the airline built a 45-room hotel (named the “Gooneyville Lodge”) which was later used by the military during World War II. Streets and piers were also built at this time. The hotel and staff cottages were later demolished. For a peek into the past, check out F.C. Hadden’s Midway Islands, which was published in 1943; read the book in its entirety here.
World War II
By 1940, the United States was preparing for the possibility of war and the stage was set for the most famous chapter in Midway Atoll’s history. In 1941, a Naval Air Station was commissioned and crews began constructing runways, power plants, barracks and a hospital. On December 7, 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Midway Atoll became the next target. A bombing attack resulted in the death of four Americans including First Lieutenant George Cannon who was the first marine in World War II to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Also hit were the hospital, seaplane hangar and power plant.
The Battle of Midway, from June 4-6, 1942, represented a critical turning point for the U.S. during World War II and resulted in a devastating defeat for the Japanese. Due to some masterful code breaking, the U.S. had advance notice of an imminent attack on Midway Atoll. Although U.S. attack teams were outnumbered and initially outmaneuvered by the more up-to-date Japanese aircraft, U.S. dive bombers eventually scored direct hits on the Japanese carriers causing massive damage and the sinking of all four ships. The Japanese Navy was never able to fully recover.
Several historic monuments commemorating the brave soldiers who fought and died during World War II have been erected on Sand and Eastern Islands. In September 2000, the Secretary of the Interior designated the lands and water of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge as the Battle of Midway National Memorial.
Military Era – Post WW II
Midway Atoll continued its vital military role as a strategic location in the middle of the Pacific. It was a convenient refueling stop on transpacific flights as well as an important stop for Navy ships and submarines. By the late 1950s, the atoll became host to radar aircraft and crews that were part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) system, designed to detect Soviet missile tests, with planes departing the island round the clock to survey the Pacific as far north as the Aleutian Islands. Midway Atoll also housed the Naval Communications Unit to enhance communications with other Pacific bases.
Until the late 1980s, Midway Atoll was a surveillance “listening post” using undersea cables and a hydrophone system to detect foreign submarines in the Pacific. The atoll was also the site of a secret meeting in 1969 between President Nixon and President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam. In 1978, the Naval Air Station Midway was re-designated as the Naval Air Facility and dependents began to depart the island. During the Cold and Vietnam Wars, as many as 5,000 people called Midway Atoll home. Extensive housing, schools and recreational facilities made Midway Atoll a full-fledged community. Many veterans and their families have fond memories of this era.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
In 1988, the Navy invited the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a National Wildlife Refuge on Midway Atoll to protect its wildlife. The jurisdiction of Midway Atoll was transferred from the Navy to the Department of the Interior in 1992 at which time the Navy began a massive environmental cleanup: buildings were demolished and antenna lines, bright lights and toxic soil were removed. A rat eradication project was also successful. The U.S. Navy officially left Midway Atoll on June 30, 1997.
In 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Midway Phoenix Corporation, under a Memorandum of Agreement, started a partnership to implement a visitors program. During this time, visitors were able to join a tour which focused on Midway Atoll NWR’s unique history and abundant wildlife and included options for scuba diving, snorkeling, and deep-sea fishing. Midway Phoenix and USFWS ended the partnership in early 2002.
In later years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened Midway Atoll NWR to visitors on a limited basis but the visitor program was closed in 2013 due to low staffing levels in response to federal budget cuts. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has stated that it hopes to reopen Midway Atoll NWR to commercial tours once the atoll has adequate staffing.
Midway Atoll NWR has an incredibly storied past. FOMA is committed to bringing more of the atoll’s history to life via this website and other outreach activities. We welcome your involvement and support.
Take a virtual tour of the Museum on Midway Atoll NWR to see artifacts and displays about some of the atoll’s remarkable history.