Midway Atoll: History Beyond the Battle

Aerial view of Midway Atoll in 1945.

Aerial view of Midway Atoll in 1945. Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration. Download larger version (jpg, 3.9 MB).

Kelly Keogh, PhD
Maritime Heritage Coordinator/Maritime Archaeologist
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Submarines docked at Midway Atoll.

Submarines docked at Midway Atoll. Click image for credit and larger view.

A pillbox remains in the sand at Eastern Island at Midway Atoll.

A pillbox remains in the sand at Eastern Island at Midway Atoll. Click image for credit and larger view.

One of four cable station buildings remaining at Midway Atoll constructed in 1904.

One of four cable station buildings remaining at Midway Atoll constructed in 1904. Click image for credit and larger view.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and in particular Midway Atoll, became a potential commodity in the mid-19th century. Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna took formal possession of Midway Atoll for the United States in August 1867. Shortly afterward, USS Saginaw, a Civil War-era side-wheel gunboat, was assigned to support improvement efforts at Midway, where a coal depot was to be built in support of transpacific commerce. For six months, Saginaw 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 a course for nearby Kure Atoll to check for castaways before returning to San Francisco, but she wrecked on the reef at Kure Atoll in the middle of the night.

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 Pan American Airways’ “flying clippers”—seaplanes crossing the ocean on their five-day transpacific passage.

With the rise of Imperial Japan in the mid-1930s, the United States was inspired to invest in the improvement of Midway. In 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the lagoon, and 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; French Frigate Shoals also supported a U.S. naval air facility. Midway became an important advance submarine base, and 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.

Midway was of vital importance to both Japanese and American war strategies in World War II, and the raid of June 4, 1942, is one of the most significant events in the history of the naval base. The Battle of Midway took place 100-200 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 to the north, an intense air battle was waged directly over and around the atoll. Thirty-one plane crashes have been conclusively identified by archival research. Of these, 22 were American and nine were Japanese. These crash sites are all considered war graves.

The Battle of Midway is considered the most decisive U.S. victory of that period and is referred to as the turning point of the war in the Pacific. Midway Atoll has since been designated as a National Memorial to the Battle of Midway.

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