Inside the Capitol

Sunday, June 05, 2005

6-8 Midway Island

WED, 6-08-05

MIDWAY ISLAND � This tiny coral atoll at the far end of the Hawaiian archipelago, some 1,200 miles from Honolulu, was an important location during the first half of the 20th century because it is midway across the Pacific.
The location was important in 1903 when the trans-Pacific cable was laid. That brought the first inhabitants to the island. Then, in 1935, Pan American World Airways established a refueling base for its clipper flying boats. It also built a hotel for its passengers, heading to Manila from San Francisco, a 64-hour flight.
As war with Japan began to appear unavoidable, the U.S. Navy established a base on Midway early in 1941. The Japanese Navy also recognized the value of Midway and made it a December 7 target.
The U.S. base at Midway received warnings of the Pearl Harbor attack, but unlike the bases in the Philippines, it acted quickly to prepare and was able to put up enough opposition to discourage the enemy planes that bombed the island that evening.
But six months later the Japanese were back. They wanted Midway for launching further attacks on Hawaii and they didn�t want reconnaissance planes flying out of Midway to spot their maneuvers. U.S. forces were out numbered and made some mistakes on the first day, such as trying to take out ships using high-flying heavy bombers.
During World War I, airplanes were still in their infancy. They were fragile and used mainly for reconnaissance. By World War II, airplanes could be used for offensive purposes. Gen. Billy Mitchell forecast that back in the 1920s, but the old warhorses, who still preferred the cavalry, wouldn�t hear of it.
So it took some experimenting. By the second day of the Midway battle, we were using dive bombers and torpedo bombers on the Japanese armada. In six minutes of battle, we sank three Japanese aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser, breaking the back of the navy. In the four days of battle, over 100 of Japan�s top fighter pilots also perished. Its air force never posed a serious threat again.
The U.S. Navy called Midway the turning point of the war. And from a naval standpoint, it was. But for the Marines, the turning point was Guadacanal, a few months later. And that�s where this trip headed now.
Midway now is mainly a wildlife sanctuary for the Laysan albatross. Over a million of them spend most of the year on the island, inhabiting every inch of ground not covered by concrete or asphalt. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now is plowing up the old runways to give the gooney birds more room.
Our stop at the island is one of only two tourist visits this year. The other will be in October. To accommodate our visit, the Fish and Wildlife Service flew in about a dozen of its volunteers from the four major Hawaiian islands to augment its 40 permanent employees.
New Mexico currently is wrestling with the possible closing of Cannon Air Force Base. The Pentagon says Clovis will be the hardest hit community in this latest round of base closings.
But Midway may have been hit harder than any place ever has been. Following the 1993 round of base closings, Midway�s population plummeted from 4,000 to 40. And if there weren�t a million birds there, the population would be zero.
Obviously, there is no native population to be disadvantaged by the closing, but it also means the infrastructure for a town of 4,000 goes to waste. On Midway, these facilities still are used, but there is a large amount of inefficiency when, for instance, a power plant designed for 4,000 remains operational to serve 40 people.
Coincidently, the hero of the bombing of Midway was Marine Lt. George H. Cannon, who was seriously hurt. He wouldn�t leave his command post until he was sure all the injured were treated. The delay cost him his life. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Satellite reception isn't always the best in the middle of the Pacific, I'm learning. I'll try to stay far enough ahead so that won't be a problem.


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