Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields:

Western Pacific Islands

© 2001, © 2014 by Paul Freeman. Revised 5/19/14.

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French Frigate Shoals NAF - Guam Northwest AAF / Guam Northwest AFB (revised 2/25/14)

Johnston Atoll Airport (revised 5/19/14) - Leone Airfield (added 12/24/09) - Midway Eastern Island - Palmyra Atoll Airfield (added 10/4/09)

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Leone Airfield, Taputimu, American Samoa

14.35 South / 170.78 West (Southwest of Hawaii)

A 1967 view by Don Cole looking south along the former runway of Leone Airfield (courtesy of the Feleti Barstow Public Library via Jonathan Westerling).



Jonathan Westerling reported, “Anyone who visits American Samoa today flies into Pago Pago airport –

originally built by the Navy at the beginning of World War II.

The Navy built a second airfield on Tutuila Island (American Samoa) at the beginning of the war.

This second airstrip was to be used for bomber & fighters & was constructed in the village of Leone in the southwest corner of the Island.

Known then as Leone Airfield, it was a secondary strip to the larger Tafuna Airfield which is today the international airport.

Nine months were spent constructing the runway which may have the distinction of seeing the least use of any in the Pacific!

The runway was listed with dimensions varying from 3,000'-6,000' long & 200'-400' wide.”



The first reference to the Leone Airfield is in a 1945 report “United States Naval History of Tutuila”

by USNR Lt. Cmdr. John Burke (courtesy of the American Samoa Historic Preservation Office, via Jonathan Westerling).

The report read, “In conjunction with the airstrip at Tafuna,

an emergency airstrip was under construction at Leone which was 300' by 3,000'.

It was started early in 1943 - probably in January.

The Leone airstrip was completed on 30 September 1943.

It was abandoned, however, in early 1945 because of turbulent air currents & lack of use.

Only 2 planes landed on the airstrip.”



The 1947 publication “Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II” (courtesy of Jonathan Westerling)

added “The 11th Battalion at Tutuila .... constructed Leone Airfield, a 6,000' by 400' foot bomber strip,

surfaced with volcanic cinders, and necessary supportive facilities.”



According to the American Samoa Government's “Samoan Historical Calendar”,

Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson's co-host on "The Tonight Show" was stationed there during his Marine service.



A 1984 aerial view by Don Cole looking west at the Leone High School,

whose campus sits in the middle of the runway of Leone Airfield (courtesy of the American Samoa Public Library via Jonathan Westerling).



According to the 1994 report “American Samoa In World War II” prepared for the American Samoa Department of Parks & Recreation,

The outline of the Leone airstrip is still clearly visible.

At least 2 school buildings are located on the northern end of the strip & homes have been built on the southern end.”

According to Jonathan Westerling, “The schools which are located on the old runway are the Leone High School & the Midkiff Middle School.”



The 2001 USGS topo map of Tutuila shows the abandoned runway of Leone Airfield as a straight-line road between Leone & Taputimu (courtesy of Jonathan Westerling).



A September 29, 2009 aerial view of the remains of Leone Airfield.

Jonathan Westerling reported, “The Remnants of Leone Airfield can be seen from the air

with a straight clearance road starting from the WVUV-AM radio tower to Midkiff Elementary School.”



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Palmyra Atoll Airfield (P16, PLPA), Palmyra Atoll

5.88 North / 162.08 West (Southwest of Hawaii)

A June 30, 1944 Navy layout of the facilities on Palmyra (courtesy of Ron Plante) depicted a total of 3 runways.



In 1934, Palmyra Atoll was placed under the Department of the Navy.



When the U.S. Navy took over to use the atoll as a Naval Air Station on August 15, 1941,

the atoll was owned privately by American citizens, including Hawaiians.



According to the 11/03 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss),

Rear Admiral Claude Bloch announced the establishment of Naval Air Station Palmyra Island on 8/15/41,

officially opening the air station.”



According to the 11/03 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss),

Two Army B-17s, the 1st of many, visited briefly from Hawaii for anti-submarine patrol soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The 5,000' Runway 6 on Cooper Island was completed on 1/1/42.

Another 3,700' runway was built on adjoining Menge Island.”



The earliest aircraft accident to be recorded on the Palmyra airfield was in June 16, 1942.

A U.S. Army Air Force Douglas C-53 (41-20069) flew from Honolulu to Palmyra, where it was damaged beyond repair.



According to the 11/03 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss),

Eighteen 18 P-39s arrived on 10/24/42, only to depart on 11/2.

Long-range AAF B-24s also made frequent visits on the way to the South Pacific.

Contract civilian pilots from Pan American Airways, Consolidated Aircraft, and United Airlines,

flying cargo & personnel to the South Pacific, also refueled at Palmyra.”



According to the 11/03 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss),

Runway 6 was expanded in 3/44, giving it a total length of 6,160'.

A 2,500' emergency runway on Sand Island was completed on 5/15/43,

all built of compacted coral.



The earliest depiction which has been located of the Palmyra airfield was a June 30, 1944 Navy layout (courtesy of Ron Plante).

It depicted a total of 3 runways: a 6,000' northeast/southwest strip on the east side of Cooper Island,

a 3,661' northwest/southeast strip on the west side of Cooper Island,

and a 2,400' northeast/southwest strip taking up almost all of tiny Sand Island on the southwest side of the Atoll.

A seaplane runway was depicted in the central lagoon,

and a CAA radio beacon was depicted on Paradise Island on the south side of the Atoll.



According to John Voss, Palmyra “was used as a fueling point for aircraft traveling between Hawaii & Australia during WWII.

Grumman F4Fs and Brewster F2As (VMF-211) were based at Palmyra for local defense.”



A closeup from the June 30, 1944 Navy layout of Palmyra (courtesy of Ron Plante) depicted the smallest of Palmyra's 3 runways,

labeled simply as a “2,400' landplane runway” which took up most of Sand Island, located southwest of the main Palmyra facilities.

It is not known if this 3rd runway was ever actually used.



According to the 11/03 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss),

Air-sea rescue was initiated at the station on 8/6/44, with the arrival of a PBY-5A.”



A June 30, 1945 Navy layout of the facilities on Palmyra (courtesy of Ron Plante) depicted 2 runways on the main island,

along with a large number of buildings, revetments, and other facilities.



An undated (WW2 era?) Navy layout of the facilities on Palmyra (courtesy of Ron Plante) depicted 2 rolled coral runways (measuring 5,360' & 3,600'),

along with a seaplane landing & takeoff area in the central lagoon, and an aeronautical radio beacon on Paradise Island to the southwest.

It described the field as having a control tower southeast of the runway intersection.

There were said to be airport buildings west of the field, but no hangars.

It also described the Sand Island Airstrip as having a 2,500' northeast/southwest coral runway, on the southwest corner of Palmyra.



An undated (WW2 era?) Navy aerial view (courtesy of Ron Plante) looking northeast along Palmyra's primary runway.



According to the 11/03 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss),

NAS Palmyra Island was disestablished on 2/15/47,

but it had played an important role in the supply route to the South Pacific,

and was also a base from which patrol aircraft could protect the Hawaiian Sea Frontier.”



After the war, the former property owners (the Fullard-Leo family)

fought for the return of Palmyra all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court & won in 1947.



According to the 11/03 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss),

The island was operated for a few years by the CAA before being abandoned.”



When Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, Palmyra, which had been officially part of the City & County of Honolulu,

was explicitly separated from the new state as an Incorporated Territory of the U.S., administered by U.S. Department of Interior.



In 1962, the U.S. Department of Defense used the atoll for an instrumentation site during high altitude atomic weapon tests over Johnston Island.



The last recorded aircraft accident on Plamyra Island was on January 5, 1980,

when a Lockheed 18 Lodestar N163R owned by Fred Sorenson

was carrying 7 amateur radio operators from Honolulu to Palmyra.

While approaching the airstrip the pilot estimated a crosswind gusting to 15 knots.

However, below tree level the wind was calm.

The Lodestar swerved off the runway & collided with trees.

There were no fatalities but the aircraft was totalled.

N163R was pushed up into the trees on the southwest end of the runway, where it has remained ever since.



An undated (1980-2009) photo of the remains of Lodestar N163R off the southwest end of the Palmyra runway.



In July 1990, Peter Savio of Honolulu took a lease on the atoll until the year 2065 & formed the Palmyra Development Company.



A 1991 NOAA nautical chart depicted the single remaining runway on Cooper Island,

along with the radio towers on Paradise Island.



In January 2000, the atoll was purchased by The Nature Conservancy for the purposes of coral reef conservation & research.



According to the 11/03 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss),

The Nature Conservancy cleared the 6,000' Cooper Island airfield in 2000.



Two August 2003 photos of a Gulfstream I on Palmyra's runway.



According to the 11/03 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss),

Today Palmyra has returned to jungle except for the 6,000' Cooper Island airfield the Nature Conservancy cleared.

The runways on Mengle & Sand Island are overgrown,

and the many wooden buildings remaining left by the Navy have long since rotted & collapsed.

A few abandoned concrete structures remain, but they too are mostly overgrown by jungle.”



A June 22, 2005 photo looking southwest along Palmyra's runway.



An August 1, 2005 aerial view of Palmyra showed the single remaining runway on Cooper Island.

Only a small northwest portion of the northwest/southeast runway remained recognizable.



An August 1, 2005 aerial view looking northeast along the single remaining runway on Cooper Island.



In November 2005, a worldwide team of scientists joined with The Nature Conservancy

to launch a new research station on the Palmyra Atoll in order to study Global warming,

disappearing coral reefs, invasive species and other global environmental threats.



In 2008, Dennis Girardot (Palmyra Station Manager for The Nature Conservancy) reported,

We are still using one of the original runways here for flying scientists, donors and staff in to our facility here.

It is still loose coral & we need to do an upgrade on it in order to continue it's use from Hawaii.”



As of 2009, the “Palmyra (Cooper) Airport” is still listed with the FAA as a private airfield, with designators P16 & PLPA.

The remarks include, “Restricted, emergency only.”

The airfield consists of a single 5,000' treated coral Runway 6/24.



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Guam Northwest Army Airfield / Guam Northwest Air Force Base,

Agafo Gumas, Guam

13.62 North / 144.86 West (Southwest of Hawaii)

A circa 1945 aerial view (courtesy of Larry Miller & the 315th Bomb Wing Page)

looking northwest at a B-29 bomber, tail # 42-63674, of the 315th Bomb Wing, 501st Bomb Group

in flight over Guam Northwest Field.



Northwest Field was constructed in 1944-45 near Ritidian Point on the northwest end of the island of Guam.

Construction was accomplished by the Army Air Corp 1865th Aviation Engineering Battalion

and Navy Construction Battalions (SeaBees).

Deployed ground echelon personnel also assisted in construction, prior to the arrival of their Groups air echelon.



Guam Northwest Field became the home of the 20th Air Force, 315th Bomb Wing, equipped with the Boeing B-29 bomber.

The first units to arrive at Northwest Field were personnel of the 315th Wing HQ, 16th & 501st Bomb Groups in April, 1945.

The 331st & 502nd Bomb Groups arrived in May, 1945.

The first B-29s arrived there in May of 1945 after undergoing crew training in the states.



The field ultimately had 2 runways, the north & south runways.

The south runway was the 1st to be completed.

However, when the first 315th aircraft were deployed to Guam,

the south runway was still under construction & they had to land at nearby North Field

(which eventually became today's Andersen AFB).

.

When the main air echelons of the 16th & 501st Bomb Groups arrived the south runway was complete, but the taxiways were not.

Aircraft had to be towed to their parking spaces over the rough coral.

By the time the air echelons of the 331st & 502nd Bomb Groups arrived, both runways were complete.



A 1940s aerial view (courtesy of Larry Miller & the 315th Bomb Wing Page) looking southeast at Northwest Field.

Note the large number of B-29s parked on the field.



The 331st Bomb Group used the ramp space in the center of the base,

the 502nd Bomb Group used the area on the east side,

and the 16th & 501st Bomb Groups used ramp space on the west side.



A B-29B of the 501st Bomb Group taking off from Northwest Field on June 26, 1945 (courtesy of Larry Miller & the 315th Bomb Wing Page)

for first Empire mission flown by the 16th & 501st Bomb Groups.

Note the B-29B's characteristic radar antenna “wing” visible under the fuselage between the main landing gear.



Northwest Field's 315th Bomb Wing was primarily equipped with the somewhat rare B-29B version of the bomber.

The distinction of the "B"-model was to save weight by removing all of the B-29's guns & sighting equipment except the tail gun.

The weight savings gave the B-29B a slight increase in speed & range.

The 15th & final mission of the 315th Bomb Wing & the final mission of the war

was a round trip of over 3,650 miles to the Nippon Oil Company at Tsuchizakiminato

on the north west coast of Honshu, the main island of Japan.



The B-29B also had 2 new radar units installed.

The AN/APQ-7 Eagle Radar was used for bombing & navigation,

and the AN/APG-15 was used for aiming the tail gun.

These 2 radar units gave the B-29B a distinctive shape

as the APQ-7 antenna appeared as a small wing under the fuselage (between the 2 bomb bay doors)

and the APG-15 added a ball-shaped antenna to the tail of the aircraft below the tail guns.



A circa 1945 photo of a B-29B's tail turret at Northwest Field (courtesy of Larry Miller & the 315th Bomb Wing Page).

Note the B-29B's characteristic spherical tail gun radome,

as well as the central 20mm gun (which was eventually removed, leaving the normal tail gun armament of twin 0.50-caliber guns).



An August 1945 plan of the extensive facilities of Northwest Field (courtesy of AFHRA via Ron Plante).



A May-June 1946 photo by Ken Moore of a P-47 being boresighted at Guam Northwest Field (courtesy of Larry Miller & the 315th Bomb Wing Page).

Ken recalled, “The outfit was the 7th Fighter Command, 21st Fighter Group, 46th Fighter Squadron.

I was with the 46th Fighter Squadron & was an armorer.

We were the only Fighter Group attached to the 20th Air Force.”



The earliest aeronautical chart depiction which has been located of Guam Northwest Field

was on a 1958 World Aeronautical Chart.

It depicted “Northwest Guam AFB” as an active airfield.



The last aeronautical chart depiction which has been located of Guam Northwest Field

was on the June 1971 Hawaiian Islands & Marianas Islands Sectional Chart (courtesy of Ron Plante).

It depicted “Northwest AFB” as being open for emergency use only, and having 2 paved runways, with the longest being 8,500'.



John Voss recalled, “When I visited Guam I made an attempt to get on to Northwest Field but was unsuccessful

as the north end of the island fell under the jurisdiction of Anderson AFB as there was a lot of B-52 activity at the time ( i.e. Vietnam War).”



Northwest Field was closed as an airfield at some point between 1958-80,

as the 1980 USGS topo map labeled the runways of “Andersen Air Force Base (Northwest Field)” as an “Abandoned Airfield”.

Note the street grid for the huge ammunition bunker complex to the southeast of the airfield – built during the Vietnam War?



A 1992 aerial view by Ron Plante, looking northeast along the Guam Northwest runways, taken from a flying club Cessna 150.

Note the 2 radomes which were built along the south ramp.



A circa 2006 aerial view of Guam Northwest Field (courtesy of Ron Plante) showed the 2 runways, ramps, and numerous taxiways.

Note the huge ammunition bunker complex to the southeast of the airfield,

and the 2 radomes on the south ramp.



An undated aerial view looking southwest along Guam Northwest Field's runways.



An article in the 7/28/08 issue of Aviation Week magazine (courtesy of Ron Plante)

described how the Air Force was reusing Northwest Field for training purposes:

Northwest Field, a 2,000-acre base used for World War II B-29 night bombing operations, was long deserted.

But its 8,400' twin runways, made with an extremely strong combination of crushed coral & limestone

with 1.5” of asphalt on top, and a maze of taxiways remain intact.

It’s now the heart of a rehabilitation and construction effort costing more than $200 million to provide barracks, vehicle facilities,

simulators, classrooms, armories, warehousing and training sites for these highly specialized forces.

A total of 89 projects encompass the building of 80+ facilities that include roads,

water tanks, pump houses, utilities as well as an electrical grid and substation.

The winding taxiways that once allowed the dispersal of hundreds of B-29 heavy bombers are now overhung by jungle.

In a clever piece of innovation, they are being used for practicing defense & reaction against convoy ambushes.

Other new construction includes weapons ranges, field exercise areas

and an unused residential area that has been turned into an urban assault course.

The south runway has been opened for helicopter & air-drop operations

and may eventually be used as a C-130 landing site.”



An undated aerial view looking south at Guam Northwest Field

from a 4/14/10 USAF news article about the field (courtesy of Ron Plante).



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French Frigate Shoals Naval Air Facility,

Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals

23.87 North / 166.28 West (Northwest of Hawaii)

Aerial view of French Frigate Shoals in 1943. National Archives photo.

 

This location is one of the most spectacular & distinctive airfields in the world.

It most closely resembles an aircraft carrier,

in that nearly every available acre of land of the island is taken up by its runway.

 

The French Frigate Shoals consist of a crescent-shaped atoll of small islands, 18 miles in diameter.

They are located 550 miles northwest of Honolulu.

 

The islands first played a part in WW2 when they were included in Japanese plans

to be used to refuel seaplanes from submarines in the sheltered waters of the atoll,

as part of their campaign to conquer Midway Island.

 Such a refueling was successfully carried out in 1942 by two H8K Emily flying boats,

which was refueled by a submarine within the French Frigate Shoals atoll.

The seaplanes then mounted a bombing raid on Pearl Harbor,

although they were thwarted from hitting their targets by inclement weather.

 

Later in 1942, elements of the 5th Seabee Battalion arrived on Tern Island to begin construction of an airfield.

The island was only a few hundred feet long, yet was expanded by dredged coral

to create 3,100' x 275' runway & a ramp area sufficient for 24 single engine aircraft.

The expanded island's area encompassed 27 acres, of which 20 were taken up by the airfield.

On the meager remaining land, partially buried Quonset Huts were erected to serve as housing,

painted white to blend in with the surrounding coral.

The typical complement was 118 men, who rotated from Pearl Harbor on a three month tour.

 

The station was commissioned in 1943 as an auxiliary of NAS Pearl Harbor.

It served as an emergency landing strip & refueling stop for fighter squadrons transiting between Hawaii & Midway,

and provided surveillance of the surrounding area.

It was protected by a variety of anti-aircraft artillery.

 

After the end of WW2, the island was swept clean by a tidal wave in 1946,

after which point the base was closed by the Navy.

 

In 1952, the Coast Guard built a LORAN navigation beacon tower on the island,

along with a 20 man supporting facility.

The runway was used for a weekly mail & supply flight.

The Coast Guard installation continued in operation until 1979.

 

A 1961 NOAA aerial photo of French Frigate Shoals.

 

French Frigate Shoals Airfield, as depicted on the 1963 Pacific Enroute Chart (courtesy of John Voss).

 

Tern Island also played an interesting role during the early days of space flight.

During 1961-63, the Pacific Missile Range had a portable tracking station located at one end of the island,

operated by the Bendix Radio company, and staffed with 6-10 people.

 

PMR tracked not only the USAF Discoverer spacecraft but also the Soviet Union's space efforts,

including their first manned mission.

The PMR personnel lived in the Quonset Hut located about halfway down the runway,

and later, during the Starfish atomic tests, two house trailers were shipped to the island.

 

An Air Force C-130, conducting a run down the runway at French Frigate Shoals,

during which it performing a mid-air retrieval of a satellite tracking data canister. Undated.



 A Coast Guard C-123 landing on French Frigate Shoals in the 1960s.

 

Aerial view from the 1960s, by Bill Wood.

 

An unusual shot of a CH-3B Sea King in USAF markings, by Jerry Lentz.

The helicopter visited French Frigate Shoals during the 1960s,

while assigned to a missile tracking ship visiting the island.

 

The Tern Island runway was used by specially equipped C-130s from Hickam AFB.

The C-130 had a rig hanging out the rear cargo door that was usually used for snagging in mid-air

the parachute of a descending Discoverer satellite capsule.

When the French Frigate Shoals tracking installation obtained data from a particularly important track,

The data tapes would be put in a fiberglass canister,

attached by a nylon rope to a grappling hook at the top of a pole erected on the runway.

This would be snagged by the C-130 in mid-air above the runway.

They would not land on FFS because the coral sand would be ingested in the engines when the props reversed.

After PMR left Tern Island, tracking was conducted on specially outfitted ships such as the USNS Longview.

USAF helicopters assigned to these ships (such as the UH-3 in the above photo)

would occasionally pay a visit to French Frigate Shoals if they were within range.

 

In recent years, Tern Island became part of the Hawaiian & Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

A ranger station occupies the former Coast Guard buildings,

and is occupied by small groups of researchers.

The runway continues to be used for occasional personnel transfer & supply flights.

 

See also:

http://www.letarc.net/ffsavion/

http://www.radiojerry.com/frigate/

http://www.letarc.net/ffsavion/

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Henderson Field, Midway Eastern Island

28.2 North / 177.33 West (Northwest of Hawaii)

Aerial view of Eastern Island in 1944, looking north. National Archives photo.

 

The Midway Islands are best known as the location of the pivotal battle of the Pacific Theatre of WW2.

The Midway coral atoll is approximately five miles in diameter.

The atoll has 2 islands: Sand Island (which has an area of 1,201 acres),

and the smaller Eastern Island (with 334 acres).

 

Naval Air Station Midway Islands was commissioned in 1941.

It consisted of a seaplane facility on Sand Island & a landplane airfield on Eastern Island.

The Eastern Island airfield initially comprised three runways, 2 hangars & a barracks,

 

Midway was shelled by a Japanese destroyer on the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack,

and was shelled by a submarine several months later.

During the climatic Battle of Midway in 1942,

the Japanese were so sure of their victory that they deliberately spared the runways of Eastern Island

for their use after the capture of the island.

That didn't happen, due to their overwhelming defeat in the waters surrounding Midway.

Aircraft of the Navy, Marine Corps & Army operated from Eastern Island,

and helped to turn back the Japanese Fleet.

 

After the Battle of Midway,

the airfield on Eastern Island was named in honor of Major Lofton Henserson, who perished in the battle.

Work also commenced on a larger airfield on Sand Island.

 

By the end of WW2, Eastern Island's airfield had a total of three asphalt runways:

6/24 (5,300' long), 3/21 (4,500'), and 12/30 (3,250'),

 

The airfields on the 2 Midway Islands,

as depicted on the 1963 Pacific Enroute Chart (courtesy of John Voss).

 

The airfield on Eastern Island was abandoned after WW2,

as the longer runways on Sand Island were more suitable for modern aircraft.

 

Eastern Island has been uninhabited since 1970.

 

The airfield & port facilities on Sand Island continued in use by the Navy until 1993,

at which point the islands were transferred to the Department of the Interior,

to become part of the Hawaiian & Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The airfield on Sand Island has remained open as a civil field,

operated by a government contractor.

 

A recent aerial view looking southeast at Eastern Island, showing the 3 runways which remain intact.



Ted Brattstrom reported in 2008, “The runways are there - but the there are no buildings left on Eastern Island.

Some revetments are still present, and one of the runways had lights

and was a backup / emergency strip in the late 1990s when Midway Phoenix was running tourists to the island.

I would not have wanted to land there, as they were not cutting the weeds on the runway... it would have been a little too exciting.”



See also: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/midway.htm

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Johnston Atoll Airport (PJON), Johnston Atol

16.73 North / 169.54 West (Southwest of Hawaii)

A 1949 aerial view (courtesy of Sarge Dick Clelland) looking northeast at the Johnston Island airfield.



Located 717 nautical miles southwest of Oahu, Johnston Atoll is one of the most isolated atolls in the world.

Johnston Atoll is a broad shallow platform of approximately 50 square miles

with a marginal reef emergent only on the northwest.

The atoll consists of four coral islands: Johnston Island, Sand Island, North Island, and East Island.

At just over 625 acres, Johnston Island is the largest island

and the base for all operations & management activities, including all personnel & community support functions.

 

Johnston Atoll was accidentally discovered in 1796 by Captain Joseph Pierpont of the American Brig Sally.

He published a notice of his ship's grounding in several American newspapers in 1797,

giving an accurate position & noting the 2 original islands (Johnston & Sand) and the incomplete marginal reef.

Lt. William Smith of HMS Cornwallis named the larger island for his ship's captain, Charles Johnston,

after sighting it briefly in 1807.

 

During the late 1800s, the Atoll was claimed by both the Kingdom of Hawaii & the US.

This claim was settled when Hawaii became a US Territory.

In 1934 Franklin Roosevelt placed the atoll under the control of the Navy.

Navy development began in earnest in 1936 with reef blasting,

dredging, landfilling & grading & construction on the islands.



The atoll was briefly shelled by Japanese naval units shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack but combat soon shifted west

and the island's role changed from an outpost to an aircraft & submarine stopover & refueling base.



Johnston was transferred again in 1948 to the Air Force.



The earliest depiction which has been located of the Johnston Island Airfield was a 1949 aerial view (courtesy of Sarge Dick Clelland).

It depicted an unpaved runway running the length of the island,

and at least one aircraft parked on the north side.



A 1951 photo by Clark Schadle of “of Base Operations on Johnson Island.

I was 6 years old & we were returning from a Army tour in Guam & our military transport had lost an engine & another started running rough.

The crew diverted to Johnson Island & we were stuck there for 3 days.

The dependents from the flight were all taken to the hospital & it was underground on Johnson Island as a child I thought that was neat!”



Chuck Salge recalled, "In 1953, my mother & I departed Parks AFB, CA on a flight to Guam.

On that flight, our plane developed engine trouble & made an emergency landing at Johnston Island.

We spent the night & awoke to 'water in every direction'"!



A 1956 photo by Richard Potter of a C-124 Globemaster at Johnston.



Dick Potter recalled, "I was stationed at Johnston Island AFB from Jan 1956 to Dec 1956 in the Fire Dept.

When I first arrived, there were some civilians & dependents on the island along with about 300 Air Force personnel.

The dependents & most of the active duty personnel left in May (I think)

and the base was pretty much closed down except for emergency landings.

We got 2 'turnarounds' a week.

At first they were C-97s, then we started getting C-121s (or R7Vs when the Navy came down).

I was 18 years old at the time I was there,

and thought that year would never end.

However I do have some fond memories & am still in touch with an old pal that was there at the same time."



A circa 1956 postcard of the facilities at Johnston,

taken from the control tower looking south (courtesy of Richard Potter).



A 1956 photo by Richard Potter of the fire trucks of the Johnston Island Fire Department.



Johnston Island AFB was depicted on the 1956 Johnston Island World Aeronautical Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)

as having a 5,900' runway.



In the late 50's & early 60's a series of high altitude nuclear tests brought new activity & attention to Johnston Atoll.

A series of dredge & fill projects completed in 1964 brought the size of Johnston Island up to 625 acres from its original 46,

increased Sand Island from 10 to 22 acres, and added 2 manmade islands, North (Akau) and East (Hikina) of 25 & 18 acres.

 

The atoll became contaminated with plutonium through 2 aborted missile launches

during high altitude nuclear weapons testing conducted in 1962.

 

Johnston Island AFB, as depicted on the 1963 Pacific Enroute Chart (courtesy of John Voss).

 

The base post office & control tower at Johnston Atoll, 1964, with a C-54 departing in the background (photo by George Miller).

 

Beginning in 1964 a series of large open-air biological weapon tests was conducted downwind of Johnston Atoll.

The American strategic bioweapon tests involved a number of ships positioned around Johnston Atoll,

upwind from a number of barges loaded with rhesus monkey test subjects

which were exposed to agents dispensed from aircraft.

 

The Air Force retained operational control of Johnston Atoll until 1962,

with the exception of 4 months in 1958 when Joint Task Force 7 held operational control.

From 1962-63, Joint Task Force 8 & the Atomic Energy Commission jointly held operational control of Johnston Atoll

for the purpose of conducting high-altitude atmospheric nuclear testing operations.



In 1963, the Congressionally mandated Safeguard C provision to the Limited Test Ban Treaty

(and subsequent Nuclear Testing Treaties) formed the basis for maintaining Johnston Atoll as a readiness-to-test site

should the resumption of atmospheric nuclear testing be deemed essential to our national security.



Joint Task Force 8 retained operational control of Johnston Atoll from 1963-70

as the Limited Test Ban Treaty came into force identifying Johnston Atoll as the principal overseas readiness-to-test base.

In 1970, Johnston Atoll was again transferred to the Air Force.



Chemical weapons have been stored on Johnston Island since 1971.



A 1981 Defense Nuclear Agency Master Plan for Johnston Atoll (courtesy of Eric Patrick).



In 1993, Congress zero-funded the Johnston Atoll Safeguard C mission

and defined the military mission as storage & destruction of chemical weapons.

 

A 1990 NOAA nautical chart of Johnston Atoll.

 

An undated but recent aerial view of Johnston Atoll.

 

Since 1990, an extensive operation on Johnston Island has performed the deactivation & destruction

of 400,000 rockets, bombs, projectiles, mortars, and mines containing chemical weapons.

The last of the chemical stockpile was destroyed in 2000.

 

The chemical weapon destruction facilities were being closed down in 2002,

with the island to revert to being a US Wildlife Refuge in 2008.

 

Despite the extraordinary security on the island & unknown to most travelers heading to Hawaii,

Johnston was the designated alternative landing site for long-range twin-engine aircraft.

 

Greg Zieber recalled, "I lived & worked on Johnston Island for 6.5 years, 1994 to mid 2000.

There were several times that the runway was used for emergency landings.

Small civil aviation type aircraft (Cessna for example), large commercial jet aircraft including a Quantas 747,

and various military aircraft also used the airfield for bona fide declared emergencies.

Some examples were low on fuel due to high headwinds, loss of cabin pressure,

passengers in need of medical attention, bird strikes etc.

Aloha Airlines also made weekly scheduled flights to the island carrying civilian & military personnel,

and also for refueling before continuing down range to the Marshall Islands.

In the 1990's there were flights almost daily, and some days saw up to 3 aircraft."

 

The US Army, which operated the chemical weapons destruction facility,

said in 2001 that they planned to begin to decommissioning the runway in 2002.

That would make it fail to qualify under the "extended-range twin-engine operations" (ETOPS) rules

which apply to twin engine airliners such as the 737, 757, 767, 777, MD80/90, A300/310, A319/320/321, and A330.

 

The problem for airline operators from Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand & Fiji

heading toward Hawaii is that Johnston cannot be easily replaced.

Air New Zealand spokesman David Beatson said in 2002

that Johnston will be their designated alternative "while it is available."

He said his firm was considering using Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands,

1,420 miles southwest of Johnston.

The only other possible alternative is the bleak Kiribati atoll of Kanton, 1,300 miles to the south of Johnston.

Only a handful of people live there.

 

"At this point, we are not considering using Kanton, as it currently does not meet ETOPS standards,

and that is a fundamental requirement from our perspective," Beatson said.

 

ETOPS requires twin-engine aircraft to operate for up to 180 minutes from an "en route" alternative airport.

Boeing 767s are the most widely used aircraft for ETOPS.

 

Most flights from Asia to the mainland US will not be affected by the loss of Johnston

as they fly a circular route to the north & alternative airports are available across the Aleutians, Russia & Alaska.

Mid-Pacific operators also have alternatives at Midway Island, Saipan in the Northern Marianas & Wake Island.

 

Continental Air Micronesia served the island commercially, touching down between Honolulu & Majuro.

When the aircraft landed it was surrounded by armed soldiers & passengers were not allowed to leave the aircraft.

With a bleak look to it, fierce heat & wind & the knowledge of what was on the island,

there was seldom any incentive to get off.

 

As of 2003, the airfield at Johnston Atoll consisted of a single 9,000' asphalt/concrete Runway 5/23,

a parallel taxiway, and a large paved ramp along the southeast side of the runway.

 

A recent (undated, but submitted in 2004) photo of the runway at Johnston, marked as closed (courtesy of Ron Plante).

 

A recent photo (undated, but submitted in 2004 by Ron Plante) of the former housing area at Johnston,

showing that all of the buildings have been removed.

The runway is visible at top-left.

This photo depicts the same area as that shown in the 1956 photo several paragraphs below.



A circa 2000-2006 photo (courtesy of Ron Plante) looking northeast along Johnston's abandoned runway.



Thanks to John Voss for information about Johnston Atoll Airport.

 

See also:

http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/facility/johnston_atoll.htm

http://203.97.34.63/regional14.htm



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