Return To Midway

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The American commanders figured that the Japanese carriers would now be refueling their planes and thus vulnerable, with aircraft, bombs, and gasoline all on deck. The Enterprise , Hornet , and Yorktown launched every available plane, hurtling them in batches at the incredulous Japanese. Wave after wave went in, and each was repelled, until at ten twenty-six that morning, dive-bombers from the U.S. fleet screamed down on the carriers Kaga , Akagi , and Soryu . Their decks were strewn with planes and fuel and bombs, and within five minutes, all three Japanese carriers were blazing and on their way to the bottom. At about noon, planes from the remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu , found the Yorktown and scored direct hits; the call to abandon ship went out. At five that afternoon, American dive-bombers would find and sink the Hiryu .

Rear Admiral Yamaguchi—the father of Munetoshi and Hiroko, who were with me on Midway—was a Princeton man whose “temper was matched only by his courage,” in the words of the historian John Toland. Yamaguchi chose to go down with the Hiryu . By the end of the day, the Japanese had lost all their four carriers. Stunned, the invincible fleet withdrew, leaving Midway unconquered. Although the war in the Pacific was far from over, after the Battle of Midway the Japanese were at best fighting a holding action. It was a dazzling victory for the Americans and one of the most astonishing reversals in the history of warfare.

When the U.S. Navy finally left, in 1997, the atoll transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Miday Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. As the rangers like to say, they traded “guns for gooneys,” gooney being the name for the albatross. The atoll is the world’s largest breeding ground for the Laysan albatross and contains the world’s second-largest black-footed albatross colony. It also serves as home base for such magnificent seabirds as the red-footed booby and the great frigate bird. More than 250 species of fish inhabit the lagoon, along with endangered green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals and a colony of 300 spinner dolphins that leap and frolic almost every morning. Midway is the American Galápagos.

NO MORE THAN 100 TOURISTS CAN VISIT AT A TIME, AND THE UTTERLY QUIET ISLAND SEEMS ALMOST HAUNTED. THIS IS A REFUGE AND NOT A RESORT.

“Midway has a changing cast of characters,” Ron Anglin, the manager of the refuge, told me, referring to the 17 species of seabird that nest there. Starting in November, the albatross return to do their distinctive mating dances, dipping and preening and stretching in a rhythmic, ornithological version of the macarena. Soon albatross babies, some 400,000 of them, are everywhere, perched on sandy little mounds in every field and open space, waiting for their parents to come feed them. Visitors spend their days weaving among the unperturbed chicks, then go to sleep at night listening to the soft lowing and clacking noises of a million albatross.

Late in the spring, the young birds begin to stretch their wings. They try to get their big feet flapping and run to get aloft. It is comic to watch: The juvenile birds fall on their faces, pick themselves up, and try again. The laughter stops when some fall into the water and become prey to the sharks that enter the lagoon only at that time of year. Ultimately, most of the young albatross take to the air to spend years at sea before returning.

 
 

In the summer, white terns nest on the island. One afternoon, I ducked under a flowering tree to read a historical marker; suddenly a tern was beating its wings in my face and screeching at me. I glanced up to see a fluffy chick perched on a branch only inches away. I backed off and watched wide-eyed as the mother tern crammed a fish, perhaps three inches long, down the baby’s throat.

The Navy left behind an impressive infrastructure, including a row of precisely designed officer’s houses, barracks, a mess hall, a movie theater where Betty Hutton once entertained troops, a bowling alley, and a gymnasium. During the war, three or four movies a day were shown. While this “Midway Mall” remains the center of activity, and an occasional war documentary is still shown in the barnlike theater, it is hard to imagine 4,000 people on the island. The waters, long off-limits to commerial fishing, teem with deep-sea fish. The diving is wondrous, and so is the snorkeling, revealing exotic species seen nowhere else. The coral sand beaches are beyond beautiful, swimming is a joy in the calm, clear waters, and the bird watching is spellbinding. It would seem a shame to exclude humans altogether, especially history buffs and those with ecotravel sensibilities.