On the morning of June 4th, 1942, George Junkin V was preparing to fly his Wildcat fighter jet from the USS Enterprise against the approaching Japanese fleet in the battle for Midway.
The Japanese vessels and planes far outnumbered those of the Americans. The 22 year-old probably felt a mixture of fear and excitement as he took off from the carrier and rose into the air with his squadron of fighters. His adrenaline pumped harder as he sighted the Japanese carriers and destroyers on the horizon. His training overtook his other senses and he kicked into battle mode. George probably felt horror as he watched the planes of fellow comrades shot down in front of him and exhilaration when he in turn destroyed Japanese Zeros. Because of the many brave men like George who flew from the USS Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown carriers and from Eastern Island, the United States won the Battle of Midway. This was the most decisive battle of the Pacific – the Japanese fleet never launched another major offensive nor won a major battle.
George Junkin V fought in many battles in the Pacific. He flew Wildcats and Hellcats and was a Lieutenant Commander. His picture, taken in front of his Hellcat immediately after landing from a battle in the Philippines, was on the front page of the New York Times. From his initial squadron of 18 planes, only two made it to the end of the war. Known to me as Pop Pop, George Junkin V died when I was 12. I was too young to know what an invaluable resource he was, and I wish I could talk to him now about his experiences in WWII and especially his memories of the Battle of Midway.
First impressions of Midway are of the birds; the sights and sounds of the Albatross are overpowering. But now that we have been on Sand Island for seven days, we see more than just the vibrant wildlife – we also see the history. What makes this atoll unique is that along with being a National Wildlife Refuge and a Marine National Monument, it is also a National Memorial – commemorating the Battle of Midway. The atoll has been used as bases for the Pacific Cable Company, Pan American World Airways, and the US Navy. It played a critical role in the WWII war in the Pacific and during the Cold and Vietnam Wars as part of the Distant Early Warning line. Many historic buildings still stand, including the huge seaplane hangar, the Pacific Cable Company headquarters, and a few pillboxes. Some historic buildings are still in use – three giant water tanks still hold the island’s water, the Charlie and Bravo officer barracks houseguests and workers alike, and another airplane hangar stores large equipment.
The designation of this place as a National Memorial means that the Fish & Wildlife Service has to manage the atoll for its historical significance as well as for its natural value. This means maintaining historical buildings as well as dealing with leftover dumps, toxins, and collapsing structures.
For example, lead paint from the uncared-for buildings chips off and contaminates the surrounding soil. Albatross chicks in near-by nests ingest the chips – about 10,000 chicks a year die from lead poisoning. While this is very sad and as the culprits of the contamination we have a responsibility to clean it up, lead poisoning does not actually have a population level affect on the Albatross. For this reason a clean up of lead paint is not a top priority for the Fish & Wildlife Service, whose funds are already stretched as it is. Sometimes historical projects take precedence over conservation projects. For example, the Fish & Wildlife Service recently received a mandate to spend 20 million dollars to stabilize a historic hangar on the island for continued use (not to restore it, but simply to stabilize it). With only five million dollars the Fish & Wildlife Service could completely eradicate Verbesina, the invasive weed that requires constant maintenance to prevent it from overtaking native plants and engulfing wildlife. These examples of historic versus natural management issues highlight the tasks that the Fish & Wildlife Service tackles on Midway – issues that we will all face as future managers ourselves.
So even though Albatross overwhelm the senses and the beauty of the sand and ocean is hard to see beyond, it is important to remember Midway’s past. The history of the Battle of Midway has not been lost, merely buried under the sand, faded in the sun, and covered by Albatross. On Eastern Island we picked up a bullet casing from the battle and peered into a pillbox where men shot into the sky at Japanese fighter jets. In one of the old hangars on Sand Island a steel column bears the scar of a shell explosion. This atoll echoes not only with the clacks and whistles of the Albatross but also with the legacy of men who fought here.