Last week I got a rare opportunity to take an amazing trip. I got to go to Midway Island the focal point of the battle that turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific. It’s a place that very few people ever get to go and as a history buff, and especially a World War II history buff, and ESPECIALLY as a World War II in the Pacific history buff…there was no way I wasn’t going.
Trivia: One of the first books on World War II that I ever read, when I was but a young boy, was Gordon Prange’s "Miracle at Midway". Great book.
So I showed up at 8:45AM to catch our charter flight, got checked in, met up with some of my friends, listened to a briefing from one of the Fish and Wildlife experts, then we boarded the charter plane.
The flight to Midway is about 2.5 hours and it went pretty smoothly. One very clever thing – on the flight over they showed the movie "Midway" starring Charlton Heston. It’s a pretty good movie; has a remarkable cast (including Pat Morita, Eddie Albert, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Robert Mitchum and others…) and was a fun and entertaining way to tell the basic story of the battle of Midway. It’s not a documentary, it’s Hollywood, but it is pretty good and gave everybody at least the essentials of what happened there.
Flying in the pilot took the islands down the left side of the aircraft first, then swung around so that those of us on the right side could get a look too. Very nice of him.
We touched down, every face pressed to a window, and were immediately struck by just how many Laysan Albatross there are on this island. Hundreds of thousands of the big birds, everywhere you look and most places you step! In fact you really can’t walk more than a few steps on this island without checking to make sure you don’t step on one of these fellows. They aren’t unfriendly, but one ranger cautions us that they sometimes bite if you get too close so we’re careful.
We disembark the aircraft – they tell us we can leave our bags on board (we were only allowed carry-ons, but that’s o.k. because it was just a day trip) if we want to and we get down onto the tarmac and then the cameras really swing into action.
First up on the agenda was a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the battle. Our guest keynote was General Stackpole of the Marines and our guests of honor included Master Chief Chuck Wheeler, who served aboard USS Enterprise (CV-6) during the battle.
After that ceremony concluded we went over to the Battle of Midway memorial and had a lei laying ceremony featuring a couple of the battle veterans who were in attendance.
With that ceremony concluded we broke up into four groups and took guided walking tours into the main part of the "town". We heard the story of the island, saw a lot of great buildings and were taken finally into the theater to see a 17 minute film about the Battle of Midway including a lot of footage shot by John Ford during the battle.
Wandering the Island
After the movie we were dismissed to spend the next few hours wandering the island on our own before gathering for an evening reception prior to our flight home. Konrad, Neil and I decided to make a loop around the east side of the island to check out some things we hadn’t seen yet and, honestly, we couldn’t have planned that much better. We saw pretty much everything we wanted to on our loop and made it to the reception just about with perfect timing.
Considering I had run the San Diego Marathon just a few days before I did have some concerns about being sore, but I have to say that for the most part my legs felt pretty good during the hike.
Here are a few highlights:
The Albatross – Like I said, there were Albatross (AKA "Gooney Birds") EVERYWHERE. One of the fascinating things was getting to watch their elaborate mating dances and hear their unique sounds. They make some sounds that sound sort of like a horse whinnying and sometimes they click their beaks in such a way that actually sounds like applause.
The white ones (pictured) are the adults. The dark colored ones are juveniles; many of whom are not yet capable of flight. We did see quite a few of the juveniles stretching their wings which the rangers told us was them working on learning to fly – even though they weren’t quite strong enough yet.
The Stores – Like most "towns" Midway does have a few small stores and buildings to service the residents. There was a barber shop, a bicycle repair shop (bicycles and golf carts are the two primary modes of transportation on the island), a store and even a bowling alley!
The Bowling Alley – One of the bigger surprises was that Midway has a fairly nice bowling alley that was as well-equipped as just about any bowling alley I’ve seen. I’m not sure how much use it gets, but I’m sure it’s a popular gathering place in the evenings.
The Monuments – Less surprising was that there are a number of monuments on the island. Monuments to the battle, to service personnel, even to the Japanese who died in the battle.
One of the more unexpected monuments was erected years BEFORE the battle and that is a monument to some Japanese fishermen who died near Midway Island. An interesting tribute to the men of the American forces is that even after the battle, while we were at open war with the Japanese, this monument (which is not military in nature) was undisturbed. Any animosity they might have had towards their enemy did not affect their respect for this monument to the fallen Japanese fishermen.
We were told that while the monument is maintained, it has not been restored. It’s in remarkably good condition considering that.
The Buildings – most of the buildings we saw were present and in service during the battle 66 years ago, and some of them do reflect battle damage suffered back then. The seaplane hangar (pictured at left below) is actually only half of the original building. If you’ve seen the footage of the battle you may have seen the building burning furiously from the attack – it was the other half of this building, which used to be in the empty area on the left side of this building.
The command post (pictured at right below) took a lot of hits during the battle and even some hits before the Battle of Midway; a couple of Japanese destroyers shelled Midway on 7 December 1941 and one of those rounds entered the command post through a second-floor window causing serious injuries and even one fatality.
The Animals – Midway is a nature preserve and in addition to the ubiquitous albatross there are also monk seals and turtles hanging around on the beaches. We spotted one big monk seal taking a nap on the beach by the pier and looking VERY comfortable, and several giant sea turtles sunning themselves a short distance away.
The Landing Craft – There is a big scrap pile not far from the seaplane hangar and among the items there (which include several trucks, small boats and miscellaneous metal and other trash) is this landing craft. Apparently they’re having trouble finding somebody willing to come pick up this scrap and take it away – if I had a big barge I’d be tempted to.
Anyhow, Konrad and I couldn’t resist so we stepped up onto the ramp of the landing craft and had Neil take a few pictures for us.
This doesn’t look like a combat landing craft to me – rather it looks more like a supply vessel but it’s still an interesting craft and was fun to see in that environment.
The Cable Houses – Midway Island was a stop on the first transpacific cable line and these buildings are the oldest on the island. This complex was constructed in 1904-1905 and though heavily in disrepair now they are still fascinating to see.
The Albatross Sculpture – Carved by a Navy dentist in 1972 this very tall wooden sculpture of a Laysan Albatross stands in front of the Navy monument. It was carved from a single piece of Mahogany that washed ashore and is proudly maintained to this day by the rangers on Midway.
It’s actually seems taller in person than it looks in this picture and you can’t see it in this photo but they have "banded" the left foot with a red band. An inside joke that the Fish and Wildlife folks get a good chuckle out of. (with the statue banded they can more easily keep track of where it goes)
The lady on the right in this photo is one of the conservationists on the island and the wife of the assistant director. She spent a few minutes telling us about the history of the statue before directing us to the seaplane hangar (where her husband happened to be).
The Veterans – One of the highlights of the trip, of course, was getting to spend some time talking with the veterans who served thru the battle and on the island. Chief Wheeler and Alan Lloyd had some of the best and most interesting stories about their experiences and the war in general.
The Evening Reception
Our day on the island concluded with a reception on North Beach at Captain Brooks. Finger foods, drinks and good company was a nice way to end our day. After all day walking around the island, drinking our bottled water, it was nice to get a flavored drink (Pepsi in my case; beer for some of the others).
Finally it was time for us to head back to the airfield and catch our flight home. One interesting thing – for the safety of the albatross our aircraft has to wait until after dark to take off. I’m not completely clear on why that is, but we assume that after dark the birds don’t fly much so the chances of the plane hitting and killing any of them goes way down. And sure enough, after take-off, the pilot came on the PA and announced that we did not hit any birds on take-off.
An amazing trip. The photos you see here aren’t even 10% of the pictures I took on the island and I’m looking forward to seeing the photos that others from our group came up with.
Couple of interesting Midway facts:
- There are between 30 and 40 full-time residents of the island; all of whom are involved in the conservation of the island and its wildlife or supporting that mission. Many of them are Thai nationals.
- There are only a few motor vehicles in use on the island; including the ambulance. Most people get around on foot, bicycle or in one of the many electric golf carts.