by Jack McKillop
Physical Description & History
Johnston Atoll (16°43' 43" N, 169°32' 04" W) is a 1-square-mile (2.7-square-kilometer) atoll in the Pacific Ocean located about 820-miles (1,320-kilometers) west-southwest of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. There are four islands located on a coral reef platform, two natural islands, Johnston Island and Sand Island, which have been expanded by coral dredging, as well as North Island (Akau) and East Island (Hikina), an additional two artificial islands formed by coral dredging. The atoll is roughly 8-miles (13-kilometers) long and 3-miles (4.8-kilometers) wide with a 21-mile (66-kilometer) circumference. Before development, Johnston Island was approximately 3,000-feet (914-meters) long and 600-feet (183-meters) wide. Sand Island, roughly circular in shape, contained 6-acres (2.4-hectares). Both islands were composed of sand and guano overlying the coral and sandstone reef. Vegetation was practically nonexistent, and there was no fresh water.
The American brig Sally grounded on a shoal near Johnston Island on 2 September 1796, but the captain did not name or claim the land. The island was named for Captain Charles J. Johnston, commanding officer of HMS Cornwallis, who claimed its official discovery on 14 December 1807. Johnston Atoll was claimed by both the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1858. The atoll's guano deposits, mined by U.S. interests operating under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, were worked until depletion in about 1890. When the U.S. annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, Johnston Atoll became part of the U.S.
On 29 July 1926, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge signed an Executive Order which established Johnston Atoll as a federal bird refuge and placed it under the control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On 29 December 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred control of Johnston Atoll to the U.S. Navy in order to establish an air station, and also to the Department of the Interior to administer the bird refuge.
Johnston Atoll is an unincorporated territory of the United States, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior as part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Johnston Island, Naval Air Station
The first use of Johnston Island by the U.S. Navy was in 1935, when during the course of patrol-bomber training operations, naval personnel performed some minor construction to develop the atoll for seaplane operation. They erected a few rough buildings and a small boat landing on Sand Island and blasted coral heads within the lagoon to clear a 3,600-foot (1,097-meter) area for use as a runway. A narrow ship-channel was also cut through the reef to afford entrance to the lagoon. The atoll’s lagoon was used by Navy patrol aircraft during Fleet Problem XVIII in 1937.
Further development of Johnston Island was undertaken in 1939 with the purpose of providing facilities to support the operation of one squadron of patrol planes with tender support. Civilian contractors began work on 9 November 1939, at Sand Island, for which the initial development was planned.
During January 1940, a barge equipped with a crane and a 6-foot (1.8-meter) clamshell was brought in and put to work widening and deepening the shallow entrance channel. After the barge had worked its way into the lagoon and had excavated a small turning basin, it was dismantled and moved ashore. A 12-foot (3.7-meter) clamshell dredge arrived on 5 May, and continued the dredging. Within the lagoon, a turning basin, 1,000-feet (305-meters) square, was dredged and a narrow channel projected in the direction of Sand Island. Excavated material was used to make a plane parking area, 800-feet (244-meters) long and 300-feet (91-meters) wide, adjacent to the ship channel and connected to Sand Island by a 2,000-foot (610-meter) causeway. This parking area was equipped with a 60-foot (18-meter) bulkhead, a concrete seaplane ramp, 50 feet (15-meters) wide, supported on steel piles, and two 25,000-U.S. gallon (20,817-Imperial gallon or 94,635-liter) steel tanks for gasoline. The buildings on Sand Island included barracks for 400 men, a messhall, an underground hospital, a radio station, two water tanks with evaporating equipment, an electric power and boiler house, a laundry, and several storehouses. A 100-foot (30-meter) steel tower served as a combination standpipe for the freshwater system and control tower for plane operation.
Johnston Atoll was designated as a Naval Defensive Sea Area and Airspace Reservation on 14 February 1941.
Dredging meanwhile was continued in the lagoon to provide safe water for seaplane runways. Three such runways were developed, the major one, 11,000-feet (3,353-meters) long and 1,000-feet (305-meters) wide, with two cross-runways, each 7,000-feet (2,134-meters) long and 800-feet (244-meters) wide. These were cleared to a depth of 8-feet (2.4-meters) at low tide.
On 30 March 1941, elements of the U.S. Marine’s First Defense Battalion arrived at Johnston Island in high speed minesweeper USS Boggs (DMS-3) to begin construction of defenses.
On 15 August 1941, Naval Air Station Johnston Island was established and used as a refueling station for seaplane patrol squadrons operating from NAS Kaneohe Bay, Territory of Hawaii
In September 1941, work was begun enlarging the land mass of Johnston Island to provide an airstrip. The initial plan called for a filled-in area, 200-feet (69-meters) wide and 2,500 feet (762-meters) long, to be developed along the south shore of the island, but when this area had been completed, the operation was continued to extend the landing mat to a length of 4,000-feet (1,219-meters) and a width of 500-feet (52-meters). Material was obtained from the lagoon dredging. With all operations concentrated on Johnston Island, the contractor vacated the buildings on Sand Island to the naval personnel who moved in to operate the seaplane facilities.
Under the civilian contract, the building program which progressed simultaneously with dredging and runway construction, accomplished the erection of two 400-man barracks, two large mess halls, a 30,000-cubic-foot (850-cubic-meter) cold-storage building, a powerhouse, a 50-bed underground hospital, a freshwater evaporating plant, several shop buildings, three 8-room cottages, 16,000 barrels of fuel storage, and the installation of five 25,000-U.S. gallon (20,817-Imperial gallon or 94,635-liter) gasoline tanks. These features were all usably complete by 7 December 1941.
On 7 December 1941, there were 162 Marines on the island equipped with two 5-inch (12.7-centimeter) guns, four 3-inch (7.62-centimeter) antiaircraft guns, eight 0.50-caliber (12.7-millimeter) heavy machine guns and eight 0.30-caliber (7.62-millimeter) heavy machine guns.
The U.S. Navy transport USS William Ward Burrows (AP-6, ex-SS Santa Rosa) had departed Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii on 29 November en route to Wake Island. She was towing Pan American Barge-7 (PAB-7) and carrying 33 marines, 60 sailors, and 55 civilian contractor's employees to Wake. She also carried 1,819 tons (1,650 metric tonnes) of cargo, general supplies, lumber, refrigerators, a boat, ten trailers, and 20 tons (18 metric tonnes) of gasoline in tins.
On 9 December (8 December in Hawaii), the ship received orders to return to Pearl Harbor. Four days later, she was ordered to take PAB-7 to Johnston Island and she arrived on 15 December. That evening, the ship was at anchor to the south of Johnston Island in an anchorage deemed safe from submarine attack. The ship’s captain posted full submarine lookouts, fully manned the bridge, and put the engine room on five minutes' notice to get underway. Squally weather prevented his using a 40-foot motor launch as picket.
During the evening of 15 December, Japanese submarine HIJMS I-22, which had launched a midget submarine at Pearl Harbor, approached Johnston Island in a small squall and opened fire with her 5.5-inch (14-centimeter) deck-gun at 5,500 yards (5,029 meters). The first two salvos bracketed the island and the third set off an oil tank that fired a nearby power house. The submarine continued to fire at this well-lit target for ten minutes and hit several other buildings. A shell landed 30-yards (27-meters) astern of William Ward Burrows and another shell passed over her forecastle. The transport got underway and escaped to the south and then sailed back to Hawaii.
Landplane facilities on Johnston Island now became a strategic imperative in the defense plans for the Hawaiian Islands. A large hydraulic dredge was brought to the island to speed the work. The dredge remained until January 1943, and completed the main seaplane runway to a length of 5,200-feet (1,585-meters) and a width of 500-feet (152-meters), and extended the north shore of the island to accommodate an auxiliary runway, 3,400-feet (1,036-meters) long by 200-feet (61-meters) wide, and a large seaplane parking area.
All civilian contractors, except for the dredge crew, were replaced by Navy Seabees in July 1942. Seabee construction included two 13,500-barrel diesel tanks, two 17,000-barrel fuel-oil tanks, and thirteen 25,000-U.S. gallon (20,817-Imperial gallon or 94,635-liter) tanks, with associated pumping, filtering, and issuing equipment; a pier, 460-feet (140-meters) long and 30-feet (9-meters) wide, supported on steel piles; a small-boat pier; a float for seaplanes; a concrete power house; a recreation building; an aviation repair shop; 90 Quonset huts for housing; a radio station; and 50 concrete magazines, in addition to the installation of new evaporating equipment which brought the total daily freshwater production to 30,000-U.S. gallons (24,980 Imperial gallons or 113,562 liters).
During the summer of 1943, air traffic increased steadily as the war effort gained momentum. Johnston Island was, in addition to being a base for patrol planes and a submarine fueling stop, rapidly becoming an important stop along the westward air-transport route of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Air Transport Command and the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Transport Service. As a result, it became necessary to increase the length of the main landplane runway to enable it to accommodate heavy long-range bombers and transports. By use of a hydraulic dredge, the island was lengthened 800-feet (244-meters) to provide a 6,000-foot (1,819-meter) runway. Ten-acres (4-hectares) of parking area were also added adjacent to the seaplane operating area.
By the summer of 1944, when the final dredging program and other improvements were substantially complete, Johnston Island covered an area of 160 acres (65 hectares), as compared with its original 40 acres (16 hectares), and could accommodate 13 seaplanes and 76 landplanes.
The naval air station was redesignated Naval Air Facility Johnston Island in February 1947 and inactivated on 13 June 1947. It was then turned over to U.S. Air Force control on 1 July 1948. The airfield was renamed Johnston Island Air Force Base and the Air Force retained operational control until 1962,
The Johnston Atoll area was used during the 1950s and 1960s as an American nuclear weapons test site—for both above-ground and underground nuclear tests. It was also used for a rocket launch site for some of the first American spy satellites. Between 1958 and 1975, several scientific sounding rockets were launched from the island. There were also several nuclear test missiles that were launched from the island in 1962 during the Operation Dominic series of nuclear tests, from a launchpad on the island. Twelve thermonuclear warheads were exploded in all, one of which failed when the PGM-17 Thor carrying it failed to launch.
In 2003, all structures and facilities were removed, and the runway was marked closed. On 22 August 2006, Johnston Island was struck by Hurricane Ioke. The eastern eye-wall passed directly over the atoll, with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour (160 kilometers per hour).
Johnston Atoll is now a part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which was proclaimed by President George W. Bush on 6 January 2009.