Return To Midway


Fish and Wildlife is handling them through a relationship with a private company, Midway Phoenix, which was created to bring tourists to the island, no more than 100 at a time. The total population never exceeds 250, including staff and an international work force imported from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Thailand. Midway Phoenix has forged alliances with an outfit that handles diving and deep-sea fishing, as well as with the Oceanic Society, which offers “working vacations” involving such activities as spinner dolphin research, beach cleanups, and building restoration.

Last year, Aloha Airlines started regular weekly flights from Honolulu. It was at the Honolulu airport that I first spotted two men wearing navy blue caps emblazoned in gold with U.S.S. Yorktown . William Surgi of Rockville, Maryland, short and energetic, and Norman Ulmer of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, tall and athletic, had been aboard the doomed Yorktown . Surgi told me that he was going to Midway because “I got an e-mail from Gon-ichi Morimoto, a survivor from the carrier Hiryu , about the Japanese plans for a ceremony. We had met once before, and he wrote, ‘You come, I come. You no come, I no come.’” Surgi invited along Ulmer, who had been an enlisted man on the staff of Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, Task Force Seventeen’s commanding officer.

From the runway on Sand it was an easy 10-minute walk to our rooms in the nicely refurbished bachelor officers’ quarters called Charlie and Bravo. The Navy had cleaned up the atoll and cleared out, but it could not erase the essential form of the base, low and white and utilitarian. The sun was going down, and it was warm but the trade winds were blowing, rustling the leaves of the tall ironwood trees that have spread over the island. I fell in beside two women, one from Connecticut and one from Hawaii, who had come with a group of divers. Suddenly, a flock of pale yellow canaries lifted from the ground and fluttered around us like a swirl of leaves; they were descendants of 12 birds left behind in 1912 by one of the superintendents of the old cable station. A “Great Midway Canary Count” done last winter put them at more than 2,500 island-wide.


I checked out my golf cart—bicycles are the only other vehicles—and settled into a comfortable suite in Charlie Barracks. The island seemed empty and utterly quiet, almost haunted. That feeling would not leave me.

The first order of business for everyone, with no exceptions, was an orientation meeting at the Fish and Wildlife office, where the major message was: This is a refuge and not a resort. We were never to get too close to the chicks, which were all over the island. Mother terns do not build nests but lay their eggs almost anywhere, including on the wooden railing just outside the front door of the beach restaurant. The birds, for their part, were remarkably nonchalant about us.

Humans are restricted to one superb mile-long stretch of beach, always delightfully empty. Should one of the excessively solitary monk seals decide to haul up to take a long nap, we were to back off and give it plenty of room. Staying on trails at all times is especially important, we were told, since Bonin petrels and wedge-tailed shearwaters nest in underground burrows that twist and turn all over the place.

A ranger named Jennifer Schramm led us on a historic walking tour. We peered up at the concrete command post, scarred from the bombing during that long-ago air raid, and I thought of John Ford up top, filming as the bombs fell. Reminders of the war are emberMed all over the island as if in memory: The five-inch guns fired by Marines in defense of Midway serve as a memorial now, along with a scattering of plaques and markers and maps detailing the battle. A small cinder-block structure perches on one of the few rises on the otherwise flat island; underneath was hidden the radar room, home to a new technology for the Allies that let Midway’s defenders watch the Japanese planes approach. We wandered along Halsey Drive, passed a cricket pitch set up by the Sri Lankans and used only in the season when no birds inhabit the field, and continued on to Commodore and Nimitz Streets, past the old seaplane hangar and the empty field where Pan American’s hotel, nicknamed the Gooneyville Lodge, stood until it burned in 1957.