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60 Years After War, Life's a Beach on Midway

Geography: Sixty years after the U.S. defeated Japan to secure a key port in World War II, 30 people call the isolated island home.


MIDWAY ATOLL — For visitors who land on Midway, stepping off the plane 1,200 miles from the next town is like stepping back in time.

Silence is broken only by the resident avian population--thousands upon thousands of gooney birds who greet arrivals with a wary stare and a peck on the feet if they wander too close.

Pristine beaches appear untouched by humans, beckoning newcomers to a lagoon so clear it might as well be filled with bottled water.

"It's so peaceful and serene," said 68-year-old Harold Willenborg, who served in the Navy on this remotest of Pacific outposts from 1960-62. "That pristine beach--it is just fabulous."

Sixty years ago, Midway was anything but serene. From June 4-6, 1942, it was the site of a pivotal World War II battle.

For three days, American dive bombers and fighter pilots fended off the Japanese naval fleet's attempt to secure Midway, sinking four of the fleet's carriers.

For the remainder of the war, the atoll provided a key port for U.S. ships and submarines that allowed them to remain in the theater of battle without having to return to Pearl Harbor or the U.S. mainland for maintenance.

Today, there is not even a car on Midway, only a bus and a van that once shuttled tourists around. Getting around the 2.5 square miles of Midway calls for a golf cart, a bicycle or--the preferred method--walking.

Scattered buildings, fueling stations, barracks and even a shuttered shopping mall serve as a reminder of when the atoll served as a Navy base and was home to about 1,500 people.

Now, about 30 people--mostly employees who oversee the atoll's minimal infrastructure--call Midway home.

The Navy has been gone since 1993, replaced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which took over the atoll in 1996 as a national wildlife refuge and contracted with a private company to offer public access through environmental tours.

But today there is no public access to the atoll. Midway Phoenix Corp. and its 150 or so employees pulled out in March, citing high operating costs. The government is in the process of finding a new tour operator.

"That will all come back to us eventually," said Tim Bodeen, the refuge manager on Midway.

"It's just a slow process. Everything at Midway, the time length is always accentuated because logistically it's hard. You've just got to learn to be very patient."

For now, Bodeen and the rest of the population seem content in their isolation.

Supplies are flown in about once a month by a charter flight, and once or twice a year a military supply ship passes by the atoll, which is about 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian islands.

There is no TV--who needs to watch "Survivor" in a setting like this?

There is no newspaper service.

There is no long-distance telephone service. A single satellite phone--which also services the island's sole Internet computer--connects Midway to the outside world.

To John Klavitter, that's not all bad.

"I haven't missed current events at all," said Klavitter, a wildlife biologist for the refuge.

"When I came out here, the war on terrorism was going on and for me, in my mind, it sort of ended. I haven't thought about it in the three months that I've been here.

"In some ways, it's sort of refreshing. I know I have a patriotic duty to be informed and so forth, but in some ways it puts me at ease--I don't have as much to worry about."

Bodeen has been living at Midway since January. His wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 7, joined him last month for what they expect to be a two- to three-year stay.

"I'm a little concerned that I'm sort of falling off the map and I won't be able to keep contact as easily, but I'm hoping that it'll be OK," Stephanie Bodeen said.

She said the length of their stay may depend on how home-schooling goes with their children.

It didn't take her daughters long to get acquainted with the island. The day they arrived they discovered most of what there is to do.

In addition to the beaches, hiking trails and other outdoor activities, a bowling alley and pottery shop, both leftover from the Navy, have been restored, while some workers say they plan to try to restore an old movie theater. There also is a music room and library.

Former residents say the island is what you make of it.

"You made your own fun," said Richard Kelley, 54, a former Navy weather officer who lived on Midway with his wife and two young sons from 1976-78.

"It was like a tiny American town--with nothing around for 1,200 miles."

Others who have spent time on Midway say the key is building friendships.

"You get bonded out there," said former sailor Willenborg. "You've got to be out there to know the camaraderie that goes on. You either hated it or you loved it. Most of the people loved the island."

He also discovered an added bonus: "There were no department stores where your wife could spend money."

Klavitter and his wife arrived on Midway from Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.

"One thing that we love about being out here is the commute," said Klavitter, 33. "I commute three minutes on my bicycle to work versus 40 minutes in the car in Kona.

"There is, I think, a lot more things that I love about being out here versus things I miss."

Kelley agreed.

"Your lifestyle got totally adjusted," he said. "If you were into nightclubs and parties and multiplex cinemas, that was not the place to go. But if you're into family kind of things, the beach, outdoor activities, that was the place to go.

"It was just a very, very different existence."

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