Midway Atoll

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Unincorporated U.S. Territory

Midway Islands
Anthem: "The Star-Spangled Banner"
Midway Atoll aerial photo 2008.JPG
Satellite image of Midway Atoll
USA Hawaii island chain location map.svg
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Unincorporated U.S. Territory
The Midway Atoll on the map
Pacific Ocean laea location map.svg
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Unincorporated U.S. Territory
Unincorporated U.S. Territory (Pacific Ocean)
Coordinates: 28°12′N177°21′W / 28.200°N 177.350°W / 28.200; -177.350 Coordinates: 28°12′N177°21′W / 28.200°N 177.350°W / 28.200; -177.350
CountryFlag of the United States.svg  United States
Country subdivision United States Minor Outlying Islands
Claimed by U.SAugust 28, 1867
  Total25.6 sq mi (66.3 km2)
  Land2.4 sq mi (6.2 km2)
  Lagoon23.2 sq mi (60.1 km2)
  Density0.0/sq mi (0.0/km2)
Time zone Samoa Time (UTC−11:00)
Map showing the location of Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian island chain Hawaiianislandchain USGS.png
Map showing the location of Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian island chain

Midway Atoll (colloquial: Midway Islands; Hawaiian: Pihemanu Kauihelani) is a 2.4-square-mile (6.2 km2) atoll in the North Pacific Ocean at 28°12′N177°21′W / 28.200°N 177.350°W / 28.200; -177.350 . Midway is roughly equidistant between North America and Asia. Midway Atoll is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States. Midway continues to be the only island in the Hawaiian archipelago that is not part of the state of Hawaii. [1] Unlike the other Hawaiian islands, Midway observes Samoa Time (UTC−11:00, i.e., eleven hours behind Coordinated Universal Time), which is one hour behind the time in the state of Hawaii. For statistical purposes, Midway is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands. The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing 590,991.50 acres (239,165.77 ha) [2] of land and water in the surrounding area, is administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The refuge and most of its surrounding area are part of the larger Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.


Until 1993, the atoll was the home of the Naval Air Facility Midway Island. The Battle of Midway, which was fought from June 4 until June 6, 1942, was a critical Allied victory of the Pacific campaign of World War II. The United States Navy successfully defended the atoll from a Japanese invasion, defeating a Japanese battle group, marking a turning point in the war in the Pacific Theater. USAAF aircraft based at the original Henderson Field on Eastern Island joined the attack against the Japanese fleet, which suffered losses of four carriers and one heavy cruiser.

Approximately 100 to 200 people live on the atoll, which includes staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and contract workers. Visitation to the atoll is possible only for business reasons (which includes permanent and temporary staff, contractors and volunteers) as the tourism program has been suspended due to budget cutbacks. In 2012, the last year that the visitor program was in operation, 332 people made the trip to Midway. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] Tours focused on both the unique ecology of Midway as well as its military history. The economy is derived solely from governmental sources and tourist fees. Nearly all supplies must be brought to the island by ship or plane, though a hydroponic greenhouse and garden supply some fresh fruits and vegetables.


As its name suggests, Midway is roughly equidistant between North America and Asia, and lies almost halfway around the world longitudinally from Greenwich, UK. It is near the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, about one-third of the way from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Tokyo, Japan. Midway island is not considered part of the State of Hawaii due to the passage of the Hawaii Organic Act, which formally annexed Hawaii to the United States as a territory, only defined Hawaii as "the islands acquired by the United States of America under an Act of Congress entitled 'Joint resolution to provide for annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States,' approved July seventh, eighteen hundred and ninety-eight." Although it could be argued that Midway became part of Hawaii when Middlebrooks discovered it in 1859, it was assumed at the time that Midway was independently acquired by the U.S. when Reynolds visited in 1867, and so was not considered part of the Territory.

In defining which islands the State of Hawaii would inherit from the Territory, the Hawaii Admissions Act clarified the question, specifically excluding Midway (along with Palmyra Island, Johnston Island, and Kingman Reef) from the jurisdiction of the state. [8]

Midway Atoll is approximately 140 nautical miles (259 km; 161 mi) east of the International Date Line, about 2,800 nautical miles (5,200 km; 3,200 mi) west of San Francisco, and 2,200 nautical miles (4,100 km; 2,500 mi) east of Tokyo.

Geography and geology

Sand Island1,117452
Eastern Island336136
Spit Island156
Total land1,549627
Submerged reef/ocean580,392234,876


Midway Atoll is part of a chain of volcanic islands, atolls, and seamounts extending from Hawaii up to the tip of the Aleutian Islands and known as the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain. It consists of a ring-shaped barrier reef nearly five miles in diameter [10] and several sand islets. The two significant pieces of land, Sand Island and Eastern Island, provide a habitat for millions of seabirds. The island sizes are shown in the table above. The atoll, which has a small population (approximately 60 in 2014, [11] but no indigenous inhabitants), is designated an insular area under the authority of the United States Department of the Interior.

Midway was formed roughly 28 million years ago when the seabed underneath it was over the same hotspot from which the Island of Hawaii is now being formed. In fact, Midway was once a shield volcano, perhaps as large as the island of Lana'i. As the volcano piled up lava flows building the island, its weight depressed the crust and the island slowly subsided over a period of millions of years, a process known as isostatic adjustment.

As the island subsided, a coral reef around the former volcanic island was able to maintain itself near sea level by growing upwards. That reef is now over 516 feet (157 m) thick [12] (in the lagoon, 1,261 feet (384 m), comprised mostly post-Miocene limestones with a layer of upper Miocene (Tertiary g) sediments and lower Miocene (Tertiary e) limestones at the bottom overlying the basalts). What remains today is a shallow water atoll about 6 miles (9.7 km) across. Following Kure Atoll, Midway is the 2nd most northerly atoll in the world.


The atoll has some 20 miles (32 km) of roads, 4.8 miles (7.7 km) of pipelines, one port on Sand Island (World Port Index Nr. 56328, MIDWAY ISLAND), and an airfield. As of 2004, Henderson Field airfield at Midway Atoll, with its one active runway (rwy 06/24, around 8,000 feet (2,400 m) long) has been designated as an emergency diversion airport for aircraft flying under ETOPS rules. Although the FWS closed all airport operations on November 22, 2004, public access to the island was restored from March 2008. [13]

Eastern Island Airstrip is a disused airfield which was in use by U.S. forces during the Battle of Midway. It is mostly constructed of Marston Mat and was built by the United States Navy Seabees.

Verbesina encelioides panoramic.jpg
360 degree panoramic view of the low-lying landscape of Eastern Island, Midway Atoll


Despite being located at 28°12'N which is north of the Tropic of Cancer, Midway Atoll has a tropical savanna climate (Köppen Aw) [14] with very pleasant year-round temperatures. Rainfall is evenly distributed throughout the year, with only two months being able to be classified as dry season months (May and June).

Climate data for Midway Atoll
Record high °F (°C)80
Average high °F (°C)70.0
Average low °F (°C)62.2
Record low °F (°C)51
Average precipitation inches (mm)4.85
Average precipitation days1614121199151515141416160
Source: Western Regional Climate Center [15]


Historical population
1900 21
1910 3566.7%
1920 31−11.4%
1930 3616.1%
1940 4371,113.9%
1950 416−4.8%
1960 2,356466.3%
1970 2,220−5.8%
1980 453−79.6%
1990 13−97.1%
2000 4−69.2%
2010 0−100.0%
Est. 201440 [16]

Midway has no indigenous inhabitants and was uninhabited until the 19th century.

19th century

The atoll was sighted on July 5, 1859, by Captain N.C. Middlebrooks, commonly known as Captain Brooks, of the sealing ship Gambia. The islands were named the "Middlebrook Islands" or the "Brook Islands". Brooks claimed Midway for the United States under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized Americans to occupy uninhabited islands temporarily to obtain guano. There is no record of any attempt to mine guano on the island. On August 28, 1867, Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna formally took possession of the atoll for the United States; [17] the name changed to "Midway" some time after this. The atoll was the first Pacific island annexed by the United States, as the Unincorporated Territory of Midway Island, and was administered by the United States Navy.

The buildings of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company date back to 1903 (2008). Starr 080531-4733 Midway Island Cable station building (nb 643) in May 2008 with cocos nucifera.jpg
The buildings of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company date back to 1903 (2008).

The first attempt at settlement was in 1871, when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company started a project of blasting and dredging a ship channel through the reef to the lagoon using money put up by the United States Congress. The purpose was to establish a mid-ocean coaling station to avoid the high taxes imposed at ports controlled by the Kingdom of Hawaii. The project was shortly a complete failure, and the USS Saginaw evacuated the last of the channel project's work force in October 1871. The ship ran aground at Kure Atoll, stranding everyone. All were rescued, with the exception of four of the five persons who sailed to Kauai in an open boat to seek help.

Early 20th century

Midway Atoll in November 1941, looking west Aerial view of Midway Atoll on 24 November 1941 (80-G-451086).jpg
Midway Atoll in November 1941, looking west

In 1903, workers for the Commercial Pacific Cable Company took up residence on the island as part of the effort to lay a trans-Pacific telegraph cable. These workers introduced many non-native species to the island, including the canary, cycad, Norfolk Island pine, she-oak, coconut, and various deciduous trees; along with ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes, and countless others.[ citation needed ]

On January 20, 1903, the United States Navy opened a radio station in response to complaints from cable company workers about Japanese squatters and poachers. Between 1904 and 1908, President Roosevelt stationed 21 Marines on the island to end wanton destruction of bird life and keep Midway safe as a U.S. possession, protecting the cable station.

In 1935, operations began for the Martin M-130 flying boats operated by Pan American Airlines. The M-130s island-hopped from San Francisco to China, providing the fastest and most luxurious route to the Far East and bringing tourists to Midway until 1941. Only the very wealthy could afford the trip, which in the 1930s cost more than three times the annual salary of an average American. With Midway on the route between Honolulu and Wake Island, the flying boats landed in the atoll and pulled up to a float offshore in the lagoon. Tourists transferred to the Pan Am Hotel or the "Gooneyville Lodge", named after the ubiquitous "Gooney birds" (albatrosses).

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Burning oil tanks during the Battle of Midway
LocationSand Island, Midway Islands, United States Minor Outlying Islands
Architect United States Navy
NRHP reference # 87001302
Significant dates
Added to NRHPMay 28, 1987 [18] [19]
Designated NHLDMay 28, 1987 [20]

World War II

The location of Midway in the Pacific became important militarily. Midway was a convenient refueling stop on transpacific flights, and was also an important stop for Navy ships. Beginning in 1940, as tensions with the Japanese rose, Midway was deemed second only to Pearl Harbor in importance to the protection of the U.S. west coast. Airstrips, gun emplacements and a seaplane base quickly materialized on the tiny atoll. [21]

The channel was widened, and Naval Air Station Midway was completed. Midway was also an important submarine base. [21]

On February 14, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8682 to create naval defense areas in the central Pacific territories. The proclamation established "Midway Island Naval Defensive Sea Area", which encompassed the territorial waters between the extreme high-water marks and the three-mile marine boundaries surrounding Midway. "Midway Island Naval Airspace Reservation" was also established to restrict access to the airspace over the naval defense sea area. Only U.S. government ships and aircraft were permitted to enter the naval defense areas at Midway Atoll unless authorized by the Secretary of the Navy.

Midway's importance to the U.S. was brought into focus on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Midway was attacked by two destroyers on the same day, [21] and the Japanese force was successfully repulsed in the first American victory of the war. A Japanese submarine bombarded Midway on February 10, 1942. [22]

Four months later, on June 4, 1942, a major naval battle near Midway resulted in the U.S. Navy inflicting a devastating defeat on the Japanese Navy. Four Japanese fleet aircraft carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, were sunk, along with the loss of hundreds of Japanese aircraft, losses that the Japanese would never be able to replace. The U.S. lost the aircraft carrier Yorktown, along with a number of its carrier- and land-based aircraft that were either shot down by Japanese forces or bombed on the ground at the airfields. The Battle of Midway was, by most accounts, the beginning of the end of the Japanese Navy's control of the Pacific Ocean.

Starting in July 1942, a submarine tender was always stationed at the atoll to support submarines patrolling Japanese waters. In 1944, a floating dry dock joined the tender. [23] After the Battle of Midway, a second airfield was developed, this one on Sand Island. This work necessitated enlarging the size of the island through land fill techniques, that when concluded, more than doubled the size of the island.

Korean and Vietnam Wars

From August 1, 1941 to 1945, it was occupied by U.S. military forces. In 1950, the Navy decommissioned Naval Air Station Midway, only to re-commission it again to support the Korean War. Thousands of troops on ships and aircraft stopped at Midway for refueling and emergency repairs. From 1968 to September 10, 1993, Midway Island was a Naval Air Facility.

During the Cold War, the U.S. established an underwater listening post at Midway to track Soviet submarines. The facility remained secret until its demolition at the end of the Cold War. U.S. Navy WV-2 (EC-121K) "Willy Victor" radar aircraft flew night and day as an extension of the Distant Early Warning Line, and antenna fields covered the islands.

With about 3,500 people living on Sand Island, Midway also supported the U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. In June 1969, President Richard Nixon held a secret meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at the Officer-in-Charge house or "Midway House".

Civilian handover

In 1978, the Navy downgraded Midway from a Naval Air Station to a Naval Air Facility and large numbers of personnel and dependents began leaving the island. With the war in Vietnam over, and with the introduction of reconnaissance satellites and nuclear submarines, Midway's significance to U.S. national security was diminished. The World War II facilities at Sand and Eastern Islands were listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 28, 1987 and were simultaneously added as a National Historic Landmark. [20]

As part of the Base Realignment and Closure process, the Navy facility on Midway has been operationally closed since September 10, 1993, although the Navy assumed responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination at Naval Air Facility Midway.

2011 tsunami

The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11 caused many deaths among the bird population on Midway. [24] It was reported that a 1.5 m (5 ft) high wave completely submerged the atoll's reef inlets and Spit Island, killing more than 110,000 nesting seabirds at the National Wildlife Refuge. [25] However, scientists on the island do not think it will have long-term negative impacts on the bird populations. [26]

A U.S. Geological Survey study found that the Midway Atoll, Laysan, and Pacific islands like them could become inundated and unfit to live on during the 21st century, due to increased storm waves and rising sea levels. [27] [28]

National Wildlife Refuge

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial
IUCN category IV (habitat/species management area)
Starr 080531-4748 Pritchardia sp..jpg
Navy memorial and gooney monument with Laysan albatross chicks
LocationMidway Atoll
Area2,365.3 km2 (913.2 sq mi) [29]
Governing body United States Fish & Wildlife Service
Website Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial

Midway was designated an overlay National Wildlife Refuge on April 22, 1988 while still under the primary jurisdiction of the Navy.

From August 1996, the general public could visit the atoll through study ecotours. [30] This program ended in 2002, [31] but another visitor program was approved and began operating in March 2008. [13] [32] This program operated through 2012, but was suspended for 2013 due to budget cuts. [5]

On October 31, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13022, which transferred the jurisdiction and control of the atoll to the United States Department of the Interior. The FWS assumed management of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The last contingent of Navy personnel left Midway on June 30, 1997 after an ambitious environmental cleanup program was completed.

On September 13, 2000, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt designated the Wildlife Refuge as the Battle of Midway National Memorial. [33] The refuge is now titled as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial.

On June 15, 2006, President George W. Bush designated the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a national monument. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument encompasses 105,564 square nautical miles (139,798 sq mi; 362,074 km2), and includes 3,910 square nautical miles (5,178 sq mi; 13,411 km2) of coral reef habitat. [34] The Monument also includes the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2007, the Monument's name was changed to Papahānaumokuākea (Hawaiian pronunciation:  [ˈpɐpəˈhaːnɔuˈmokuˈaːkeə] ) Marine National Monument. [35] [36] [37] The National Monument is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the State of Hawaii. In 2016 President Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and added the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a fourth co-trustee of the monument.


Albatrosses at Midway Atoll US Navy 100602-N-7498L-021 More than a million Laysan Albatrosses occupy the entire Midway atoll.jpg
Albatrosses at Midway Atoll

Midway Atoll is a critical habitat in the central Pacific Ocean which includes breeding habitat for 17 seabird species. A number of native species rely on the island, which is now home to 67–70% of the world's Laysan albatross population, and 34–39% of the global population of black-footed albatross. [38] A very small number of the very rare short-tailed albatross also have been observed. Fewer than 2,200 individuals of this species are believed to exist due to excessive feather hunting in the late nineteenth century. [39] In 2007-8, the US Fish and Wildlife Service translocated 42 endangered Laysan ducks to the atoll as part of their efforts to conserve the species.

Over 250 different species of marine life are found in the 300,000 acres (120,000 ha) of lagoon and surrounding waters. The critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals raise their pups on the beaches, relying on the atoll's reef fish, squid, octopus and crustaceans. Green sea turtles, another threatened species, occasionally nest on the island. The first was found in 2006 on Spit Island and another in 2007 on Sand Island. A resident pod of 300 spinner dolphins live in the lagoons and nearshore waters. [40]

The islands of Midway Atoll have been extensively altered as a result of human habitation. Starting in 1869 with the project to blast the reefs and create a port on Sand Island, the environment of Midway atoll has experienced profound changes.

A number of invasive exotics have been introduced; for example, ironwood trees from Australia were planted to act as windbreaks. Seventy-five percent of the 200 species of plants on Midway are non-native. Recent efforts have focused on removing non-native plant species and re-planting native species.

Lead paint on the buildings still poses an environmental hazard (avian lead poisoning) to the albatross population of the island. The cost of stripping the paint is estimated to be $5 million. [41] Paint removal is expected to be finished by 2017. [42]


Marine debris with Laysan albatross chicks Starr 080603-5640 Tournefortia argentea.jpg
Marine debris with Laysan albatross chicks

Midway Atoll, in common with all the Hawaiian Islands, receives substantial amounts of marine debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Consisting of ninety percent plastic, this debris accumulates on the beaches of Midway. This garbage represents a hazard to the bird population of the island. Twenty tons of plastic debris washes up on Midway every year, with five tons of that debris being fed to Albatross chicks. [43] The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates at least 100 pounds (45 kg) of plastic washes up every week. [44]

Of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses that inhabit Midway, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive system. [45] Approximately one-third of the chicks die. [46] These deaths are attributed to the albatrosses confusing brightly colored plastic with marine animals (such as squid and fish) for food. [47] Recent results suggest that oceanic plastic develops a chemical signature that is normally used by seabirds to locate food items. [48]

Because albatross chicks do not develop the reflex to regurgitate until they are four months old, they cannot expel the plastic pieces. Albatrosses are not the only species to suffer from the plastic pollution; sea turtles and monk seals also consume the debris. [47] All kinds of plastic items wash upon the shores, from cigarette lighters to toothbrushes and toys. An albatross on Midway can have up to 50% of its intestinal tract filled with plastic. [44]


The usual method of reaching Sand Island, Midway Atoll's only populated island, is on chartered aircraft landing at Sand Island's Henderson Field, which also functions as an emergency diversion point runway for transpacific flights.

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Kure Atoll An atoll in the Pacific Ocean in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Kure Atoll or Ocean Island is an atoll in the Pacific Ocean 48 nautical miles beyond Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at 28°25′N178°20′W. The only land of significant size is called Green Island and is a habitat for hundreds of thousands of seabirds. A short, unused and unmaintained runway and a portion of one building, both from a former United States Coast Guard LORAN station, are located on the island. Politically, it is part of Hawaii, although separated from the rest of the state by Midway, which is a separate unorganized territory. Green Island, in addition to being the nesting grounds of tens of thousands of seabirds, has recorded several vagrant terrestrial birds including snow bunting, eyebrowed thrush, brambling, olive-backed pipit, black kite, Steller's sea eagle and Chinese sparrowhawk. It is currently managed as a Widllife Bird Sanctuary by the State of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resource--Division of Forestry and Wildlife as one of the co-trustees of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument with support from Kure Atoll Conservancy.

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Lofton R. Henderson recipient of the Purple Heart medal

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The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is a group of unorganized, mostly unincorporated United States Pacific Island territories managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the United States Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States Department of Commerce. These remote refuges are "the most widespread collection of marine- and terrestrial-life protected areas on the planet under a single country's jurisdiction". They protect many endemic species including corals, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, seabirds, water birds, land birds, insects, and vegetation not found elsewhere.

USNS <i>Vindicator</i> (T-AGOS-3)

USNS Vindicator (T-AGOS-3) was a United States Navy Stalwart-class modified tactical auxiliary general ocean surveillance ship that was in service from 1984 to 1993. Vindicator then served in the United States Coast Guard from 1994 to 2001 as the medium endurance cutter USCGC Vindicator (WMEC-3). Since 2004, she has been in commission in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fleet as the oceanographic research ship NOAAS Hi'ialakai.

Tanager Expedition a series of five biological surveys of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

The TanagerExpedition was a series of five biological surveys of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands conducted in partnership between the Bureau of Biological Survey and the Bishop Museum, with the assistance of the U.S. Navy. Four expeditions occurred from April to August 1923, and a fifth in July 1924. Led by Lieutenant Commander Samuel Wilder King on the minesweeper USS Tanager (AM-5), and Alexander Wetmore directing the team of scientists, the expedition studied the plant animal life, and geology of the central Pacific islands. Noted members of the team include archaeologist Kenneth Emory and herpetologist Chapman Grant.

World War II Facilities at Midway United States historic place

The World War II Facilities at Midway were built as part of the fortification leading up to World War II. The Midway Atoll's unique location halfway between the United States and Japan ensured it would hold a strategic position. This island was the site of the pivotal Battle of Midway which shifted the balance of sea power in the Pacific towards the United States.

Naval Air Facility Midway Island

Naval Air Station Midway Island, also known as NAS Midway, Naval Air Facility Midway, and NAF Midway, was a U.S. Naval Air Station in the Midway Atoll, the northernmost group of the Hawaiian archipelago. It was in operation from 1941 to 1993, and played an important role in trans-Pacific aviation during those years. Through its lifetime, the facility was variously designated as a Naval Air Station, a Naval Air Facility, and a naval base. It was finally closed on 1 October 1993.


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Further reading

Natural history

Military history