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Information icon(Photo: Megan Nagel/USFWS)

The Midway Atoll You Might Not Know

Midway Atoll is well known as the site of a June 4-7, 1942 battle that was the turning point of World War II in the Pacific.

The inscription on the marker in the photo above reads, in part: “After this Battle of Midway, the United States and its allies forged ahead with ever increasing strength and confidence to final victory.”

What follows are a handful of lesser-known facts about Midway, which is home to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial


Midway Atoll comprises three coral islands
Midway Atoll comprises three coral islands and 580,000 acres of submerged reef and ocean at the far northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago. From left to right, the islands are Sand Island, tiny Spit Island and Eastern Island. They total about 1,549 acres. An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef or a compact string of coral islets that at least partially enclose a shallow lagoon. (Photo: DigitalGlobe Inc)

Midway Atoll has a rich history. The first visitors likely were Polynesians/Hawaiians exploring the Pacific in voyaging canoes. No physical evidence of their visits remains, but historical accounts mention distant low-lying islands with abundant birds and turtles. Captain N.C. Brooks was the first Westerner to “discover” the unoccupied atoll in 1859, and the United States took possession of it soon thereafter. In 1903, Midway became the final link in a global telegraph system, inaugurated by a message from President Theodore Roosevelt. In the late 1930s, the atoll became a landing site for Pan Am Clippers crossing the Pacific Ocean. From 1941 until 1993, it housed a military base. It became a full-fledged national wildlife refuge in 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13022, which transferred it from the Navy to the Department of the Interior. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge.

When Midway was a naval facility, it often housed more than 5,000 residents. Today, roughly 40 refuge staff members, contractors and volunteers live there at any given time.

More about the landscape, geology and history of Midway Atoll.

Take a virtual tour of the refuge.

Photo 2, exoskeleton, horseshoe crab, mispillion harbor, DE, gregory breese, usfws
Midway Atoll, one of the older formations in the Hawaiian Islands chain, provides nesting habitat for millions of seabirds, including Laysan albatross and black-footed albatross. (Photo: David Patte/USFWS)

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is home to 21 breeding seabird species – about 3 million individual birds – including Laysan, black-footed and short-tailed albatross, and Laysan ducks. The Hawaiian name for Midway Atoll is Pihemanu, which means “the loud din or sound of birds.” More about the birds of Midway.


Photo 3, flyway, pintails and more, mattamuskeet nwr, nc, along atlantic flyway, allie stewart, usfws
Wisdom, who nests at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, is the world’s oldest known bird living in the wild. Here she is February 2017 with her chick that hatched just a few days earlier. (Photo: Naomi Blinick/USFWS volunteer)

Wisdom, a Laysan albatross, is at least 68 years old. She has raised at least 10 chicks since 2006 and as many as 40 in her lifetime.


Photo 4, habitat, atlantic puffins, maine coastal islands nwr, usfws
Two endangered species milestones have occurred at Midway Atoll since the turn of the 21st century. One involved short-tailed albatross, above left. Another involved Laysan ducks, above right. (USFWS photos: Left Pete Leary, right Jimmy Breeden)

The Laysan duck is the most endangered duck in the Northern Hemisphere. In 1911, there was just one known breeding female in the only known wild population on Laysan Island, 750 miles from Midway Atoll. In 2004 and 2005, 42 wild Laysan ducks were relocated from Laysan to Midway Atoll. The re-establishment of a second population at Midway reduced the risk of extinction should a catastrophic event occur at Laysan Island, such as a hurricane or avian disease. More about Laysan ducks.

In January 2011, for the first time in recorded history, a short-tailed albatross hatched outside of the islands surrounding Japan. The hatching occurred on Midway Atoll’s Eastern Island. More about short-tailed albatross.

Photo 5, LBJ, song sparrow, prairie pothole region of North Dakota, rick bohn, usfws
Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is not just for birds. Other inhabitants include green sea turtles, top, and Hawaiian monk seals, bottom left.
(USFWS photos: Top Megan Nagel, bottom Dan Clark)

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Marine national monuments help conserve the ocean ecosystem’s delicate balance for fish, plants, seabirds, marine mammals, corals, microorganisms – and humans.  Papahānaumokuākea is the largest of the four marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean. To learn more about them, see “Hope Spots in the Ocean”.


Photo 6 passerine, prothonotary warbler, great dismal swamp nwr, usfws
Marine debris – garbage in the oceans – is a huge problem at Midway Atoll and elsewhere. Plastic items filled the stomach of this albatross chick at Midway and likely contributed to its death. (Photo: John Klavitter/USFWS)

Annually, adult albatrosses bring an estimated 5 tons of plastic – mistaken for floating fish eggs, squid or other seafood – to Midway Atoll and feed it to their chicks. Almost all chicks hatched at Midway have plastic in them. To learn more about the marine debris problem and what you can do about it, see “Oceans of Trash” or this story about a spring cleanup within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.


Photo 7, riparian, little tennessee river, nc, usfws
This Laysan albatross chick survived a 2011 tsunami that washed over much of Midway Atoll and killed thousands of birds.
(Photo: Pete Leary/USFWS)

On March 10, 2011, at 11:36 p.m. local time, a tsunami generated by a powerful, magnitude-9.0 earthquake off Japan struck Midway Atoll. The tsunami completely washed over Spit Island and covered about 60 percent of Eastern Island and 20 percent of Sand Island. Tens of thousands of birds died. Fortunately, no people were hurt.

This 2011 Q&A interview with then-acting refuge manager John Klavitter gives a sense of what it was like that night on Midway.

By the way, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tide/tsunami station at Midway acts as an early warning to the main Hawaiian Islands. It sends data in real time to Honolulu, 1,200 miles to the southeast.


Photo 8, rufous hummingbird, seedskadee nwr, tom koerner, usfws
H. Macauley, who died in 1921, is one of four doctors buried on Midway Atoll. Little is known about Dr. Macauley’s life.
(Photo: Pete Leary/USFWS)

There is a small cemetery on Sand Island. It is known as the Doctors’ Cemetery because four medical doctors are buried there. Their dates of death range from 1906 to 1950.


Photo 9, ungulate, tule elk, san luis nwr complex, steve martarano, usfws
This U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet made an emergency landing for repairs on July 14, 2015. (Photo: David Dow/USFWS)

Henderson Field on Sand Island is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Aviation Administration as an emergency landing runway for commercial and military flights. The U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter above made an emergency landing in July 2015. A year earlier, a United Airlines Boeing 777 – en route from Honolulu to Guam with 348 passengers aboard – was diverted to Midway for a nighttime emergency landing. In 2011, a Delta Air Lines Boeing 747 bound from Honolulu to Osaka, Japan, with about 380 people aboard made an emergency landing because of a cracked windshield (video).


Photo x10 watershed, forested wetland in the pocomoke river watershed, dan murphy,
Sunset over Midway Atoll. (Photo: Forest and Kim Starr)

On any given day, Midway Atoll is the last piece of U.S. territory on which the sun sets. Midway Atoll is just 140 nautical miles east of the International Dateline. Kure Atoll, also U.S. territory, is just 48 nautical miles east of the dateline but, surprisingly, is in a time zone one hour ahead of Midway. So Kure’s day ends earlier.


four doctors buried on Midway Atoll
This June 2012 ceremony commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. (Photo: Pete Leary/USFWS)

In 2000, the Secretary of the Interior designated the lands and waters of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge as the Battle of Midway National Memorial.

The Battle of Midway itself was fought mostly at sea. Only 30 minutes or so of fighting occurred on the atoll. The battle produced one Medal of Honor recipient, Marine Corps Captain Richard E. Fleming. However, Captain Fleming was not the first Midway recipient of the medal.

Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant George H. Cannon received a Medal of Honor for his actions at Midway almost six months before the battle – on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.


Compiled by    | March 28, 2019
Information iconWhite terns at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Megan Nagel/USFWS)