Seventy-three years ago today, on June 7, 1942, one of the most consequential military engagements in human history ended. The Battle of Midway lasted three days and effectively halted the expansion of the Japanese Empire into the Pacific. Many books have been written and movies made about this pivotal battle, where thanks to air power naval vessels fought out of sight of one another. But almost forgotten in the military history and commemorations is Midway Island itself, which, if not for its accidental strategic location in the middle of the North Pacific between the United States and Japan, would probably be one of the most obscure specks of dirt on planet Earth. In fact, even despite its history, Midway Island is rapidly becoming obscure–chiefly as a result of the fact that almost no human beings live there anymore, and it’s impossible even to visit the island except in very extreme and unusual circumstances. In its recent history Midway itself has become something of a forbidden island, shrouding itself in mystery and obscurity despite the fact that it gave its name to one of the most famous battles in history.
Lest you think it’s all palm trees and coconuts on Midway, in point of fact it’s a pretty forbidding place for human habitation in the first place. Midway was not even discovered by European-stock people until 1859, when first sighted by an American ship. It’s so remote that it’s hard to get to, fresh water is scarce and you can’t grow much on Midway, though Americans did import various non-native species of trees, plants and insects (including cockroaches). Various schemes for human usage included a coaling station for steamships–a total failure–and a base for workers trying to lay a trans-Pacific telegraph cable. By the 1930s when airplanes came in Midway was a convenient place for an airstrip, both for military and civilian purposes. Pan-Am landed airliners there before World War II. But the main human use of this island was military, especially when a large-scale conflict between the United States and Japan became increasingly likely. Marines were eventually stationed on Midway, and the island became the most important U.S. naval outpost in the Pacific besides Pearl Harbor.
Oil tanks burn at the Midway naval installation on June 4, 1942 after a Japanese air raid. Ironically, Midway’s demise is going to be caused indirectly by the burning of fossil fuels.
Midway was on the forefront of the Pacific War the day it began. On December 7, 1941, while Japanese planes rained bombs on Pearl Harbor farther south, Japanese ships shelled Midway Island and were driven off by shore batteries. The island was bombed again in February 1942. Although only a few air engagements actually took place within sight of the land between June 4 and June 7, 1942, the island gave its name to the decisive air and sea battle that took place in the ocean some distance away. After the Japanese were defeated there, Midway remained an important U.S. Navy facility even after World War II. Forces stopped over, fueled and came and went from Midway during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and well into the 1970s.
Midway’s fortunes began to change in 1978. That year the Navy downgraded the island from a Naval Air Station to a Naval Air Facility, a much smaller installation. Slowly the military presence on the island declined. The Facility was officially closed in 1993. By then it was clear that Midway’s significance was changing from its human and military uses to its environmental characteristics–specifically, a roosting place for Pacific sea birds. It was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge even before the Navy left, and in 1996 President Bill Clinton transferred administration of the island from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Interior. By then Midway’s population, which had peaked at over 2,000 at the height of the VIetnam conflict, was down to just four. Yes, four people. By the turn of this century, most of what lived on Midway either had wings or walked on more than two legs.
Today, the population of albatrosses (“gooney birds”) on Midway outnumbers that of humans by several hundred thousand to one.
Just as Midway found its way to prominence in human history as a result of a human-caused disaster (World War II), its retreat from human history was also caused by a manmade calamity: the Great Recession. In 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began cooperating with a private air carrier to organize eco-tours to the island. They were expensive and cumbersome, but if you wanted to go to Midway badly enough you could get there. The Great Recession and resulting financial pinch, however, meant there was little money left in the U.S. federal budget for this sort of thing. In 2013 the government essentially closed Midway. So far as I know, right now (late spring 2015) a very few Fish & Wildlife volunteers are in residence on the island temporarily, helping sick and injured birds. Mankind is more or less finished with Midway Island.
If you care about environmental issues, this is not necessarily a sad story–in fact it’s quite encouraging. Even with the decaying ruins of World War II-era military installations and environmental pollution–Midway sits in the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch–it’s a step in the right direction to give it back to the birds and sea life who were its only inhabitants until 1859. Unfortunately the story isn’t going to end that way. Midway Island is disappearing thanks to human-caused climate change. A U.S. Geological Survey report conducted in 2013 found a significant chance that climate change-related sea level rise will swallow up Midway sometime during this century. Thus, Midway’s final chapter in history ever, at least above water, will end with yet another human-caused disaster. This poor disappearing island can’t seem to catch a break.
The battle ended 73 years ago. It’s sad and haunting that, 73 years from now, Midway Island will exist only as a part of history–a forbidden and mythical place on par with the Lost Continent of Atlantis.