A Brief History of Midway Atoll

Contemporary view of Eastern Island at Midway Atoll.
Contemporary view of Eastern Island at Midway Atoll. Credit: Gleason/NOAA

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and in particular Midway Atoll, became a potential strategic national asset in the mid-19th century. The United States took formal possession of Midway Atoll in August of 1867 by Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna. Shortly afterwards, the USS Saginaw, a Civil War-era side wheel gunboat, was assigned to support improvement efforts at Midway where a coal depot in support of transpacific commerce was to be built. For six months, she served as a support vessel for divers as they labored to clear a channel into the lagoon. In October 1870, the unsuccessful operation was terminated. Saginaw set course for nearby Kure Atoll to check for castaways before returning to San Francisco. The ship would meet a tragic end on the reef at Kure Atoll where she wrecked in the middle of the night.

Pillbox on the beach at Eastern Island, Midway Atoll.
Pillbox on the beach at Eastern Island, Midway Atoll. Credit: Gleason/NOAA

Midway's importance grew for commercial and military planners. The first transpacific cable and station were in operation by 1903. In the 1930s, Midway became a stopover for the Pan American Airways' flying "clippers" (seaplanes) crossing the ocean on their five-day transpacific passage.

The United States was inspired to invest in the improvement of Midway in the mid-1930's with the rise of imperial Japan. In 1938 the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the lagoon during this period and, in 1938, Midway was declared second to Pearl Harbor in terms of naval base development in the Pacific. The construction of the naval air facility at Midway began in 1940. At this time, French Frigate Shoals was also a U.S. naval air facility. Midway also became an important submarine advance base. The reef was dredged to form a channel and harbor to accommodate submarine refit and repair. Patrol vessels of the Hawaiian Sea Frontier forces stationed patrol vessels at most of the islands and atolls (Linville, 2010; Braisted, 1985; Cressman, 1990).

Airplanes landing at Eastern Island at Midway Atoll, 1943.
Airplanes landing at Eastern Island at Midway Atoll, 1943. Credit: NARA

Midway was of vital importance to both Japanese and American war strategies in World War II, and the raid in June 4 of 1942 is one of the most significant events in the history of the naval base. In June 1942, the Battle of Midway took place 100 to 200 miles north of Midway Atoll. Four Japanese aircraft carriers and one American carrier were sunk, and the Japanese military was forced to withdraw from a planned invasion. Although most of the battle took place far north, an intense air fight was waged directly over and around the atoll. Thirty-one crashes have been conclusively identified by archival research. Of these, 22 were American and 9 were Japanese. These crash sites are considered war graves. Midway Atoll has since been designated as a National Memorial to the Battle of Midway.

Braisted, William R. Midway Islands, U.S. Naval Air Station and Submarine Base, 1941-. In United States Navy and Marine Corps Bases, Overseas, Paolo E. Coletta and Jack K. Bauer, eds. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. 1985.
Cressman, Robert et al. A Glorious Page in Our History: the Battle of Midway, Montana: Pictorial Publishing Company, 1990.
Linville, Nicholas J. Maritime Heritage Remote Sensing Survey of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: Archival Research Report. Prepared for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, 2010.

Remembering the Battle of Midway

SBD Dauntless dive bombers from USS Hornet approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma.
SBD "Dauntless" dive bombers from USS Hornet (CV-8) approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the early afternoon of 6 June 1942. Credit: Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives Collection.

One third of the way between Honolulu and Tokyo, Midway Atoll became a critical air and sea base during World War II. The Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942) was one of the most significant battles of the war, marking a major shift in the balance of power between the United States and Japan. The Japanese planned to assault and occupy the atoll in order to threaten an invasion of Hawaiʻi and draw the American naval forces that had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor out into an ambush against the brunt of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The courage and sacrifice of U.S. servicemen ensured that the tables were turned on the Japanese, who ended up ambushed themselves.

Diorama of Japanese air raid on Midway, 4 June 1942.
Diorama of Japanese air raid on Midway, 4 June 1942. Credit: NARA

In May of 2017, a team of maritime archaeologists conducted two weeks of survey to explore the Midway Atoll seafloor for sunken remains from the Battle of Midway. Much of the famous air battle took place near the atoll, and the remnants of dozens of historic aircraft may rest beneath the surface. This project, funded by NOAA's Office of Exploration and Research, aimed to explore and discover sunken aircraft sites that represented the heritage of the Battle of Midway. These sites help us better understand and interpret the human stories associated with this significant battle.