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The Midway Islands are actually an atoll with three islets, Sand, Eastern, and Spit, on the southern end of a lagoon. Famous for the World War II Battle of Midway, today only about fifty people live on the atoll, who are mostly staff and contract workers of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and its tourism program has been suspended.

The atoll is situated about halfway between North America and Asia, which is what made it an important base during World War II. Hawaii is about 1,500 miles to the east-southeast of the Midway Islands.

Midway Atoll is part of a chain of atolls and volcanic islands that runs from Hawaii to the tip of the Aleutian Islands. Although its total land area is only 2.4 square miles, the atoll has more than 85,000 acres of reef area. It consists of a ring-shaped barrier reef and several sand islets, only three of which are significant enough to have names. Midway was once a shield volcano, and it is thought that it was once the size of Lana'i, the sixth-largest of the Hawaiian Islands. The weight of the lava flows building the island depressed the crust, and the island slowly subsided to its current size, and a coral reef formed.

Sand Island is by far the largest of the three islets, with a land mass of about 1,200 acres. Today, Sand Island has about twenty miles of roads and nearly five miles of pipelines, one port, and an airfield. Henderson Field, on Sand Island, is a public airport that is used as an emergency diversion point, and to provide access to the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

With a land mass of 334 acres, Eastern Island is much smaller than Sand. Located to the east of Sand and Spit, Eastern is home to a disused airfield that was in use during the Battle of Midway and is now part of the National Wildlife Refuge.

Also part of the Wildlife Refuge, Spit Island lies between Sand and Eastern. The island is small, with a land mass of only six acres.

The islands were probably visited by Polynesian people prior to their discovery by Europeans, but there is no evidence that they were inhabited for any length of time. The atoll was first sighted by Captain N.C. Middlebrooks in 1859, and named the Middlebrook Islands, and sometimes listed as the Brook Islands. Brooks claimed the islands for the United States, but they were not formally taken possession of until 1867, at which time the name was changed to Midway. The atoll was the first Pacific island annexed by the United States.

In 1871, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company began dredging a ship canal through the Midway's reef system using funds appropriated by the US Congress. The project was a failure. In 1903, employees of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company built housing structures on the islands to use as a base for stringing a trans-Pacific telegraph cable. While there, the workers introduced several species that were not indigenous to the island, including canaries, cycads, Norfolk island pine, coconut trees, and several deciduous trees, along with such pests as ants, centipedes, cockroaches, and termites.

In response to reports of Japanese squatters and poachers, the US Navy opened a radio station at Midway, later stationing twenty-one Marines on the island to protect the cable station and to discourage another country from claiming it. In 1935, Pan American Airlines began operations there for its Martin M-130 flying boats, which island-hopped from San Francisco to China.

At the onset of World War II, the location of the Midway Atoll became important to US military strategies. Initially, it served as a fuel stop for trans-Pacific flights. Even prior to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Midway was viewed as second only to Pearl Harbor in importance for the protection of the West Coast of the United States mainland. The channel was widened, and Naval Air Station Midway was opened. Soon, Midway also became a significant submarine base. A Japanese submarine bombarded Midway in February of 1942. Four months later, the Battle of Midway began, in which the Japanese Navy suffered a devastating defeat. The Sand Island airfield was not constructed until after the Battle of Midway. In order to accomplish this, landfill more than doubled the size of Sand Island.

Midway was designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1988, and the public was allowed to visit the atoll from 1996 to 2002. Another visitor program began in 2008 but was suspended in 2013 due to budget cuts. Currently, the island is under the jurisdiction of the US Department of the Interior, while the US Forest and Wildlife Service manages the refuge. It has since been designated as a national monument.



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