River Views

by Malcolm Macdonald, August 27, 2013

August 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, but it’s also the anniversary of Midway Atoll formally becoming a United States possession. The proclamation was made by Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna in 1867.

The acquisition of the islands that make up the Midway Atoll differs from the stereotypical colonial conquest. Midway was uninhabited when first spotted by the Hawaiian barque Gambia in 1859. The word barque comes to us from a combination of etymological roots; one source being an early Irish word for boat, the other deriving from Latin to French and related to “barge.” In the 1859 context a barque meant a sailing vessel of three or more masts.

Midway’s islands were uninhabited because much of its land is nothing more than sand. As its name implies Midway sits half way across the Pacific between Asia and North America, just 140 miles east of the International Date Line. Midway lies near the northwestern end of the lengthy Hawaiian archipelago. Most of its coral reefs protrude no more than a few feet above sea level, contributing to many shipwrecks.

As many readers know the Battle of Midway proved a pivotal point in World War II. What most readers probably are unaware of is that Midway was already a naval air station in the 1930s. Pan American Airways’ so-called Clipper airships started trans-continental passenger service across the Pacific in 1936 with the lagoon at Midway one of the stopover points for the flying boats. An even littler known aspect of Midway’s history began almost as soon as the Pan Am Clipper’s first flight. The possibility of accidental or intentional transport of plants bearing disease and insect pests led the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association to set up an inspection post on Midway. Entomologist Fred Hadden was assigned to Midway, not only to inspect aircraft passing through Midway, but also to fumigate each and every plane landing there.

As tensions between the US and Japan mounted, the United States government contracted with a private firm out of Detroit to build a military air base on Midway. Hundreds of civilian contractors from nail pounders to crane operators to surveyors were employed for that purpose at wages far outstripping what the laborers could make back at home. Most of these civilian workers signed contracts that bound them to the job in Midway for several months.

One of them was my great uncle, Leonard Ward. Leonard had been a rodeo cowboy for nearly 20 years prior to accepting the Midway contract. He had been the All-Around Rodeo champion of 1934, ranking nearly as high for several years before and a couple of years after. Nearing 40 years of age, he’d suffered a severe leg break at a Salinas rodeo two years before taking the job on Midway.

Leonard’s contract on Midway concluded in early November, 1941. At that point, he chose to take a more lucrative deal to work a similar construction job on Wake Atoll. Less than a month later, Wake was attacked by Japanese planes only hours after Pearl Harbor. 1,500 civilians and 400 or so Navy and Marines surrendered Wake to the Japanese on December 23, 1941.

At the end of the first week of June, 1942, one of Uncle Leonard’s fellow POWs, Leroy Myers, then barely an adult, was ordered by the Japanese to shimmy up the tallest crane on Wake to oil its highest parts. From his shaky perch, several dozen feet above the ground, Leroy could see far out to sea, spotting smoke rising from the remnants of the Japanese fleet as it retreated from its defeat at Midway.

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