Johnston Atoll

Johnston Atoll
Kalama Atoll (Hawaiian)
United States Minor Outlying Islands


Unofficial Flag
Anthem: "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Map of Johnston Atoll
Johnston Atoll

Location in the Pacific Ocean

Coordinates: US 16°44′13″N 169°31′26″W / 16.73694°N 169.52389°W / 16.73694; -169.52389Coordinates: US 16°44′13″N 169°31′26″W / 16.73694°N 169.52389°W / 16.73694; -169.52389
Country United States
Status unorganized, unincorporated territory
Claimed by U.S. March 19, 1858
Named for Captain Charles J. Johnston, HMS Cornwallis
  Type administered as a National Wildlife Refuge
  Body United States Fish and Wildlife Service
  Superintendent Susan White, Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
  Total 1.03 sq mi (2.67 km2)
  EEZ 157,389 sq mi (407,635 km2)
Highest elevation (Sand Island) 30 ft (10 m)
Lowest elevation (Pacific Ocean) 0 ft (0 m)
Time zone Hawaii–Aleutian Time Zone (UTC-10)
Geocode 127
ISO 3166 code UM
Currency US dollar (USD)

Johnston Atoll, also known as Kalama Atoll to Native Hawaiians, is an unincorporated territory of the United States currently administered by the United States Air Force (USAF) of the United States Department of Defense. The islands are visited annually by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public entry is only by special-use permit from the United States Air Force.

For nearly 70 years, the atoll was under the control of the American military. In that time it was used as a bird sanctuary, as a naval refueling depot, as an airbase, for nuclear and biological weapons testing, for space recovery, as a secret missile base, and as a chemical weapon and Agent Orange storage and disposal site. These activities left the area environmentally contaminated and remediation and monitoring continue.


Johnston Atoll is located between the Marshall Islands and the Hawaiian Islands

The Johnston Atoll is a deserted 1,300 ha (3,200 acres) atoll in the North Pacific Ocean located about 750 nmi (860 mi; 1,390 km) southwest of the island of Hawai'i and is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands.[1] The atoll, which is located on a coral reef platform, has four islands. Johnston (or Kalama) Island and Sand Island are both enlarged natural features, while Akau (North) and Hikina (East) are two artificial islands formed by coral dredging.[1] By 1964, dredge and fill operations had increased the size of Johnston Island to 596 acres (241 ha) from its original 46 acres (19 ha), also increased Sand Island from 10 to 22 acres (4.0 to 8.9 ha), and added two new islands, North and East, of 25 and 18 acres (10.1 and 7.3 ha).[2]

The four islands compose a total land area of 2.67 square kilometres (1.03 square miles).[1] Due to the atoll's tilt, much of the reef on the southeast portion has subsided. But even though it does not have an encircling reef crest, the reef crest on the northwest portion of the atoll does provide for a shallow lagoon, with depths ranging from 3–10 m (9.8–32.8 ft). The climate is tropical but generally dry. Northeast trade winds are consistent and there is little seasonal temperature variation.[1] With elevation ranging from sea level to 5 m (16 ft) at Summit Peak, the islands contain some low-growing vegetation and palm trees on mostly flat terrain and no natural fresh water resources.[1]

Island Size in
1942 (ha)
Final Size in
1964 (ha)
Johnston Island 19 241
Sand Island 4 9
North (Akau) Island - 10
East (Hikina) Island - 7
Total land area 23 267
Johnston Atoll 13,000 13,000
The size of Johnston Island was quadrupled in size by coral dredging.


The unofficial flag of Johnston Atoll was flown below the Stars and Stripes. The double bird holding 4 stars represents both the Air Force and the Fish and Wildlife Service, while the four stars denote the atoll's islands; the white is for coral and the aquamarine for the surrounding ocean.[3]

Early history

The first Western record of the atoll was on September 2, 1796 when the Boston-based American brig Sally accidentally grounded on a shoal near the islands. The ship's captain, Joseph Pierpont, published his experience in several American newspapers the following year giving an accurate position of Johnston and Sand Island along with part of the reef. However, he did not name or lay claim to the area.[4] The islands were not officially named until Captain Charles J. Johnston of the Royal Naval ship HMS Cornwallis sighted them on December 14, 1807. In the following years, an occasional vessel stopped, but generally one look was enough.

The Guano Islands Act, enacted on August 18, 1856, was federal legislation passed by the U.S. Congress that enabled citizens of the U.S. to take possession of islands containing guano deposits. In 1858 William Parker and R. F. Ryan, chartered the schooner Palestine specifically to find Johnston Atoll. They located guano on the atoll in March 1858 and they proceeded to claim the island. By 1858, Johnston Atoll was claimed by both the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii. In June 1858, Samuel Allen, sailing on the Kalama, tore down the U.S. flag and raised the Hawaiian flag renaming the atoll Kalama. The larger island was renamed Kalama Island, and the nearby smaller island was called Cornwallis.[5]

Returning on July 27, 1858, the Captain of the Palestine again hoisted the American flag and reasserted the rights of the United States. The same day, the atoll was declared part of the domain of King Kamehameha IV.[5] On this visit however the Palestine left two crew members on the island to gather phosphate. While Palestine was at the atoll and these two men were still on the island, a July 27, 1858 proclamation of Kamehameha IV declared the annexation of this island to Hawaii stating that it was "derelict and abandoned." However, later that year King Kamehameha revoked the lease granted to Samuel Allen when the King learned that the atoll had been claimed previously by the United States.[6] However, this did not prevent the Hawaiian Territory from making use of the Atoll or asserting ownership.

By 1890 the atoll's guano deposits had been almost entirely depleted (mined out) by U.S. interests operating under the Guano Islands Act. In 1892, HMS Champion made a survey and map of the island, hoping that it might be suitable as a telegraph cable station. On January 16, 1893, the Hawaiian Legation at London reported a diplomatic conference over this temporary occupation of the island. However, the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown on January 17, 1893. When in 1898 Hawaii became an integral part of the United States during the Spanish–American War, the name of Johnston Island was omitted from the list of Hawaiian Islands. On September 11, 1909, Johnston was leased by the Territory of Hawaii to a private citizen for fifteen years. A board shed was built on the southeast side of the larger island, and a small tramline run up onto the slope of the low hill, to facilitate the removal of guano. Apparently neither the quantity nor the quality of the guano was sufficient to pay for gathering it so that the project was soon abandoned.[5]

National Wildlife Refuge since 1926

USS Tanager (AM-5) with members of the 1923 Tanager Expedition

The Tanager Expedition was a joint expedition sponsored by the Department of Agriculture and the Bishop Museum of Hawaii and visited the Atoll in 1923. The expedition to the atoll consisted of two teams accompanied by destroyer convoys, with the first departing Honolulu on July 7, 1923 aboard the USS Whippoorwill (AM-35), which conducted the first survey of Johnston Island in the 20th century. Aerial survey and mapping flights over Johnston were conducted with a Douglas DT-2 floatplane carried on her fantail, which was hoisted into the water for take off. From July 10–22, 1923, the atoll was recorded in a pioneering aerial photography project. The USS Tanager (AM-5) left Honolulu on July 16 and joined up with the Whippoorwill to complete the survey and then traveled to Wake Island to complete surveys there.[7] Tents were pitched on the southwest beach of fine white sand, and a rather thorough biological survey was made of the island. Hundreds of sea birds, of a dozen kinds, were the principal inhabitants, together with lizards, insects, and hermit crabs. The reefs and shallow water abounded with fish and other marine life.[5]

USS Whippoorwill (AM-35)

On June 29, 1926 by Executive Order 4467, President Calvin Coolidge established Johnston Island Reservation as a federal bird refuge and placed it under the control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a "refuge and breeding ground for native birds."[8] Johnston Atoll was added to the United States National Wildlife Refuge system in 1926, and renamed the Johnston Island National Wildlife Refuge in 1940.[9] The Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect the tropical ecosystem and the wildlife that it harbors.[10] However, the Department of Agriculture had no ships, and the Navy was interested in the Atoll for strategic reasons, so with Executive Order 6935 on December 29, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed the islands under the "control and jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Navy for administrative purposes," but subject to use as a refuge and breeding ground for native birds, under the Department of Interior.

On February 14, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8682 to create naval defenses areas in the central Pacific territories. The proclamation established "Johnston Island Naval Defensive Sea Area" which encompassed the territorial waters between the extreme high-water marks and the three-mile marine boundaries surrounding the atoll. "Johnston Island Naval Airspace Reservation" was also established to restrict access to the airspace over the naval defense sea area. Only U.S. government ships and aircraft were permitted to enter the naval defense areas at Johnston unless authorized by the Secretary of the Navy.

In 1990, two full-time U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel, a Refuge Manager and a biologist, were stationed on Johnston Atoll to handle the increase in biological, contaminant, and resource conflict activities.[11] After the military mission on the island ended in 2004, the Atoll was administered by the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The outer islets and water rights were managed cooperatively by the Fish and Wildlife Service with some of the actual Johnston Island land mass remaining under control of the Air Force for environmental remediation and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) for plutonium cleanup purposes. However, on January 6, 2009, under authority of section 2 of the Antiquities Act, The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument was established by President George W. Bush to administer and protect Johnston Island along with six other Pacific islands.[12] The national monument includes Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge within its boundaries and contains 696 acres (2.82 km2) of land and over 800,000 acres (3,200 km2) of water area.[13]

Military control 1934–2004

On December 29, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt with Executive Order 6935 transferred control of Johnston Atoll to the United States Navy under the 14th Naval District, Pearl Harbor, in order to establish an air station, and also to the Department of the Interior to administer the bird refuge. In 1948 the U.S Air Force assumed control of the Atoll.[14] During the Operation Hardtack nuclear test series from April 22 – August 19, 1958 administration of Johnston Atoll was assigned to the Commander of Joint Task Force 7. After the tests were completed, the island reverted to the command of the US Air Force.[15]

From 1963 to 1970 the Navy's Joint Task force 8 and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) held joint operational control of the island during high altitude nuclear testing operations.[16]

In 1970 Operational control was handed back to the Air Force until July 1973 when Defense Special Weapons Agency was given host-management responsibility by the Secretary of Defense.[16] Over the years, sequential descendant organizations have been the Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA) from 1959 to 1971, the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) from 1971 to 1996, and the Defense Special Weapons Agency (DSWA) from 1996 to 1998. In 1998, Defense Special Weapons Agency, and selected elements of the Office of Secretary of Defense were combined to form the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).[17] In 1999 host-management responsibility transferred from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency once again to the Air Force until the Air Force mission ended in 2004 and the base was closed.[16]

Sand Island seaplane base

Aerial approach to the former base on Johnston Island (top). The ship channel is visible as a darker blue area starting at left and continuing up around the right side of Johnston Island, with Sand Island on the near side (bottom).

In 1935 personnel from the US Navy's Patrol Wing Two carried out some minor construction to develop the atoll for seaplane operation. In 1936, the Navy began the first of many changes to enlarge the atoll's land area. They erected some buildings and a boat landing on Sand Island and blasted coral to clear a 3,600 feet (1,100 m) seaplane landing.[18] Several seaplanes made flights from Hawaii to Johnston, such as that of a squadron of six aircraft in November, 1935. One of the most spectacular of these was on April 8, 1937, when two VP-6's made the round trip in ten and a half hours, to bring back a sick seaman.[5]

In November 1939 further work was commenced on Sand Island by civilian contractors to allow the operation of one squadron of patrol planes with tender support. Part of the lagoon was dredged and the excavated material was used to make a parking area connected by a 2,000-foot (610 m) causeway to Sand Island. Three seaplane landings were cleared, one 11,000 feet (3,400 m) by 1,000 feet (300 m) and two cross-landings each 7,000 feet (2,100 m) by 800 feet (240 m) and dredged to a depth of 8 feet (2.4 m). Sand Island had barracks built for 400 men, a mess hall, underground hospital, radio station, water tanks and a 100 feet (30 m) steel control tower.[18] In December 1943 an additional 10 acres (4.0 hectares) of parking was added to the seaplane base.[18]

On May 26, 1942 a United States Navy Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina wrecked at Johnston Atoll. The Catalina pilot made a normal power landing and immediately applied throttle for take-off. At a speed of about fifty knots the plane swerved to the left and then continued into a violent waterloop. The hull of the plane was broken open and the Catalina sank immediately.[19] After the war on March 27, 1949 a PBY-6A Catalina had to make a forced landing during flight from Kwajalein to Johnston Island. The plane was damaged beyond repair and the crew of 11 was rescued nine hours later by a Navy ship which sank the plane by gunfire.[20] During 1958, a proposed support agreement for Navy Seaplane operations at Johnston Island was under discussion though it was never completed because a requirement for the operation failed to materialize.[11]


By September 1941 construction of an airfield on Johnston Island commenced. A 4,000 feet (1,200 m) by 500 feet (150 m) runway was built together with two 400-man barracks, two mess halls, a cold-storage building, an underground hospital, a fresh-water plant, shop buildings, and fuel storage. The runway was complete by December 7, 1941, though in December 1943 the 99th Naval Construction Battalion arrived at the atoll and proceeded to lengthen the runway to 6,000 feet (1,800 m).[18] The runway was subsequently lengthened and improved as the island was enlarged.

During WWII Johnston Atoll was used as a refueling base for submarines, and also as an aircraft refueling stop for American bombers transiting the Pacific Ocean, including the Boeing B-29 Enola Gay.[21] By 1944, the atoll was one of the busiest air transport terminals in the Pacific. Air Transport Command aeromedical evacuation planes stopped at Johnston en route to Hawaii. Following V-J Day on August 14, 1945, Johnston Atoll saw the flow of men and aircraft that had been coming from the mainland into the Pacific turn around. By 1947, over 1,300 B-29 and B-24 bombers had passed through the Marianas, Kwajalein, Johnston Island, and Oahu en route to Mather Field and civilian life.

Continental Air Micronesia served the island commercially, touching down between Honolulu and Majuro. When an aircraft landed it was surrounded by armed soldiers and the passengers were not allowed to leave the aircraft. Aloha Airlines also made weekly scheduled flights to the island carrying civilian and military personnel, in the 1990s there were flights almost daily, and some days saw up to 3 arrivals.[22] Just prior to movement of the chemical munitions to Johnston Atoll, the Surgeon General, Public Health Service, reviewed the shipment and the Johnston Atoll storage plans. His recommendations caused the Secretary of Defense in December 1970 to issue instructions suspending missile launches and all non-essential aircraft flights. As a result, Air Micronesia service was immediately discontinued, and missile firings were terminated with the exception of two 1975 satellite launches deemed critical to the islands mission.[11]

There were many times when the runway was needed for emergency landings for both civil and military aircraft, including one landing by a Qantas Boeing 747. When the runway was decommissioned, it could no longer be used as a potential emergency landing place when planning flight routes across the Pacific Ocean. As of 2003, the airfield at Johnston Atoll consisted of an unmaintained closed single 9,000 feet (2,700 m) asphalt/concrete runway 5/23, a parallel taxiway, and a large paved ramp along the south-east side of the runway.[22]

World War II 1941–1945

In February 1941 Johnston Atoll was designated as a Naval Defensive Sea Area and Airspace Reservation. On the day the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, USS Indianapolis (CA-35) was out of her home port of Pearl Harbor, to make a simulated bombardment at Johnston Island. Japan's strike at Pearl Harbor occurred as the ship was unloading marines, civilians and stores on the atoll.[23] On December 15, 1941 the atoll was shelled outside the reef by a Japanese submarine, which had been part of the attack on Pearl Harbor eight days earlier. Several buildings including the power station were hit, but no personnel were injured.[24] Additional Japanese shelling occurred on December 22 and 23, 1941. On all occasions Johnston Atoll's coastal artillery guns returned fire, driving off the sub.

In July 1942 the civilian contractors at the atoll were replaced by 500 men from the 5th and 10th Naval Construction Battalions, who expanded the fuel storage and water production at the base and built additional facilities. The 5th Battalion departed in January 1943.[24] In December 1943 the 99th Naval Construction Battalion arrived at the atoll and proceeded to lengthen the runway to 6,000 feet (1,800 m) and add an additional 10 acres (4.0 ha) of parking to the seaplane base.[25]

Coast Guard mission 1957–1992

Sand Island and former U.S. Coast Guard LORAN Station

On January 25, 1957, the Department of Treasury was granted a 5-year permit for the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to operate and maintain a Long Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) transmitting station on Johnston Atoll. Two years later in December 1959. The Secretary of Defense approved the Secretary of the Treasury's request to use Sand Island for U.S. Coast Guard LORAN A and C station sites. The USCG was granted permission to install a LORAN A and C station on Sand Island to be manned by U.S. Coast Guard personnel through June 30, 1992. The permit for a LORAN station to operate on Johnston Island was terminated in 1962. On November 1, 1957, a new United States Coast Guard LORAN-A station was commissioned. By 1958 the Coast Guard LORAN Station at Sand Island began transmitting on a 24-hour basis, thus establishing a new LORAN rate in the Central Pacific. The new rate between Johnston Island and French Frigate Shoal gave a higher order of accuracy for fixing positions in the steamship lanes from Oahu, Hawaii, to Midway Island. In the past, this was impossible in some areas along this important shipping route. The U.S. Coast Guard LORAN-A Station on Sand Island ceased transmitting on June 30, 1961 when the station began transmitting from the LORAN-C station and was using a larger 625-foot antenna by 1979. The LORAN-C station was disestablished on July 1, 1992 and all Coast Guard personnel, electronic equipment, and property departed the atoll that month. Buildings on Sand Island were transferred to other activities. LORAN whip antennas on Johnston and Sand Islands were removed, and the 625-foot LORAN tower and antenna were demolished on December 3, 1992. The LORAN A and C station and buildings on Sand Island were then dismantled and removed.[26][27]

National nuclear weapon test site 1958–1963


Between 1958 and 1975, Johnston Atoll area was used as an American national nuclear test site for atmospheric and high-altitude nuclear explosions. In 1958 Johnston Atoll participated in the "Hardtack I" nuclear test. The U.S. military used Johnston atoll for two nuclear tests during the series. The August 1, 1958 test codenamed "Teak" and the August 12, 1958 test codenamed "Orange" both involved 3.8-megaton explosions from rockets launched from Johnston Atoll. Johnston Island is also known to have been used to launch 124 sounding rockets reaching up to 1,158 kilometres (720 miles) altitude with scientific and data instrumentation either in support of nuclear tests or in experiments related to anti-satellite technology.[28][29]

Array of sounding rockets with instruments for making scientific measurements of high-altitude nuclear tests during liftoff preparations in the Scientific Row area on Johnston Island

Eight PGM-17 Thor missiles, the first operational ballistic missiles deployed by the U.S. Air Force (USAF), were to be launched from Johnston Island in 1962 as part of "Operation Fishbowl" under the "Operation Dominic" Pacific Ocean nuclear tests. The first "Operation Fishbowl" launch was a successful R&D flight with no warhead. In the end, "Operation Fishbowl" produced four successful high altitude explosions during the Dominic series: "Starfish Prime", "Checkmate", "Bluegill Triple Prime", and "Kingfish". In addition, it produced one near high altitude nuclear explosion, "Tightrope."

One of these, "Starfish Prime" on July 9, 1962, was a 1.4 megaton explosion, created by a W49 warhead at an altitude of 400 kilometres (250 miles). It created a very brief fireball visible over a wide area and a bright artificial aurora that was visible for several minutes in Hawaii. "Starfish Prime" also produced an electromagnetic pulse that disrupted power and communications as far away as Hawaii. It also pumped enough radiation into the Van Allen belts to destroy or seriously degrade seven orbiting satellites.

The final Fishbowl launch that used a Thor missile carried the "Kingfish" 400 kiloton warhead up to its 98 kilometres (61 miles) detonation altitude. Although it was officially one of the Operation Fishbowl tests, it is sometimes not listed among high-altitude nuclear tests because of its lower detonation altitude. "Tightrope" was the final test of Operation Fishbowl and detonated on November 3, 1962. It launched on a Nike-Hercules missile, and detonated at a lower altitude than the other Fishbowl tests. "At Johnston Island, there was an intense white flash. Even with high-density goggles, the burst was too bright to view, even for a few seconds. A distinct thermal pulse was also felt on the bare skin. A yellow-orange disc was formed, which transformed itself into a purple doughnut. A glowing purple cloud was faintly visible for a few minutes."[30] The nuclear yield was reported in most official documents only as being less than 20 kilotons. One report by the U.S. federal government reported the "Tightrope" test yield as 10 kilotons.[31] Seven rockets carrying scientific instrumentation were launched from Johnston Island in support of the Tightrope test, which was the final atmospheric test conducted by the United States.


Nuclear-armed Thor missile explodes and burns on the launch pad at Johnston Island during the failed "Bluegill Prime" nuclear test, July 25, 1962

The "Fishbowl" series included four failures, all of which were deliberately disrupted by range safety officers when the missiles systems failed during launch and were aborted. The second launch of the Fishbowl series, "Bluegill", carried an active warhead. Bluegill was "lost" by a defective range safety tracking radar and had to be destroyed 10 minutes after liftoff even though it probably ascended successfully. The subsequent nuclear weapon launch failures from Johnston Atoll caused serious contamination to the island and surrounding areas with weapons-grade plutonium and americium that remains an issue to this day.

The failure of the "Bluegill" launch created in effect a dirty bomb but did not release the nuclear warhead's plutonium debris onto Johnston Atoll as the missile fell into the ocean south of the island and was not recovered. However, the "Starfish", "Bluegill Prime", and "Bluegill Double Prime" test launch failures in 1962 scattered radioactive debris over Johnston Island contaminating it, the lagoon, and Sand Island with plutonium for decades.[15][32]

Johnston Island Launch Emplacement One (LE1) after a Thor missile launch failure and explosion contaminated the island with Plutonium during the Operation "Bluegill Prime" nuclear test, July, 1962

"Starfish", a high altitude Thor launched nuclear test scheduled for June 20, 1962, was the first to contaminate the atoll. The rocket with the 1.45 Mt Starfish device (W49 warhead and the MK-4 Re-entry vehicle) on its nose was launched that evening, but the Thor missile engine cut out only 59 seconds after launch. The range safety officer sent a destruct signal 65 seconds after launch, and the missile was destroyed at approximately 10.6 kilometres (6.6 miles) altitude. The warhead high explosive detonated in 1-point safe fashion, destroying the warhead without producing nuclear yield. Large pieces of the plutonium contaminated missile including pieces of the warhead, booster rocket, engine, re-entry vehicle and missile parts fell back on Johnston Island. More wreckage along with plutonium contamination was found on nearby Sand Island.

"Bluegill Prime," the second attempt to launch the payload which failed last time was scheduled for 23:15 (local) on July 25, 1962. It too was a genuine disaster and caused the most serious plutonium contamination on the island. The Thor missile was carrying one pod, two re-entry vehicles and the W50 nuclear warhead. The missile engine malfunctioned immediately after ignition, and the range safety officer fired the destruct system while the missile was still on the launch pad. The Johnston Island launch complex was demolished in the subsequent explosions and fire which burned through the night. The launch emplacement and portions of the island were contaminated with radioactive plutonium spread by the explosion, fire and wind-blown smoke.

Inspection of Thor rocket engine remains on Johnston Island after failure of "Bluegill Prime" nuclear test attempt, July 1962

Afterward, the Johnston Island launch complex was heavily damaged and contaminated with plutonium. Missile launches and nuclear testing halted until the radioactive debris was dumped and soils were recovered and the launch emplacement rebuilt. Three months of repairs, decontamination, and rebuilding the LE1 as well as the backup pad LE2 were necessary before tests could resume. In an effort to continue with the testing program, U.S. troops were sent in to do a rapid cleanup. The troops scrubbed down the revetments and launch pad, carted away debris and removed the top layer of coral around the contaminated launch pad. The plutonium-contaminated rubbish was dumped in the lagoon, polluting the surrounding marine environment. More than 550 drums of contaminated material were dumped in the ocean off Johnston from 1964–1965. At the time of the Bluegill Prime disaster, the top fill around the launch pad was scraped by a bulldozer and grader. It was then dumped into the lagoon to make a ramp, so the rest of the debris could be loaded onto landing craft to be dumped out into the ocean. An estimated 10 percent of the plutonium from the test device was in the fill used to make the ramp. Then the ramp was covered and placed into a 25 acres (100,000 m2) landfill on the island during 1962 dredging to extend the island. The lagoon was again dredged in 1963–1964 and used to expand Johnston Island from 220 acres (89 ha) to 625 acres (253 ha) recontaminating additional portions of the island.

PGM-17 Thor missile at Johnston Island

On October 15, 1962 the "Bluegill Double Prime" test also misfired. During the test, the rocket was destroyed at a height of 109,000 feet after it malfunctioned 90 seconds into the flight. U.S. Defense Department officials confirm that when the rocket was destroyed, it contributed to the radioactive pollution on the island.

In 1963, the U.S. Senate ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which contained a provision known as "Safeguard C". Safeguard C was the basis for maintaining Johnston Atoll as a "ready to test" above-ground nuclear testing site should atmospheric nuclear testing ever be deemed to be necessary again. In 1993, Congress appropriated no funds for the Johnston Atoll "Safeguard C" mission, bringing it to an end.

Anti-satellite mission 1962–1975

Main article: Program 437

Program 437 turned the PGM-17 Thor into an operational anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon system, a capability that was kept top secret even after it was deployed. The Program 437 mission was approved for development by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on November 20, 1962 and based at the Atoll. Program 437 used modified Thor missiles that had been returned from deployment in Great Britain and was the second deployed U.S. operational nuclear anti-satellite operation. Eighteen more suborbital Thor launches took place from Johnston Island during the 1964–1975 period in support of Program 437. In 1965–1966 four Program 437 Thors were launched with 'Alternate Payloads' for satellite inspection. This was evidently an elaboration of the system to allow visual verification of the target before destroying it. These flights may have been related to the late 1960s Program 922, a non-nuclear version of Thor with infrared homing and a high-explosive warhead. Thors were kept positioned and active near the two Johnston Island launch pads after 1964. However, partly because of the Vietnam war, in October 1970 the Department of Defense had transferred Program 437 to standby status as an economic measure. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks led to Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that prohibited 'interference with national means of verification', which meant that ASAT's were not allowed, by treaty, to attack Russian spy satellites. Thors were removed from Johnston Atoll and were stored in mothballed war-reserve condition at Vandenberg AFB from 1970 until the anti-satellite mission of Johnston Island facilities was ceased on August 10, 1974, and the program was officially discontinued on April 1, 1975, when any possibility of restoring the ASAT program was finally terminated. Eighteen Thor launches in support of the Program 437 Alternate Payload (AP) mission took place from Johnston Atoll's Launch emplacements.[29]

Baker-Nunn satellite tracking camera station

The Space Detection and Tracking System or SPADATS was operated by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) along with the U.S. Air Force Spacetrack system, The Navy Space Surveillance System and Canadian Forces Air Defense Command Satellite Tracking Unit plus the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory operated a dozen 3.5 ton Baker-Nunn Camera systems for satellite cataloging of man-made satellites. The U.S. Air Force had ten Baker-Nunn camera stations around the world mostly from 1960 to 1977 with a phase-out beginning in 1964.[33] The Baker-Nunn space camera station was constructed on Sand Island and was functioning by 1965.[11] USAF 18th Surveillance Squadron operated the Baker-Nunn camera at a station built along the causeway on Sand Island until 1975 when a contract to operate the four remaining Air Force stations was awarded to Bendix Field Engineering Corporation. In about 1977, the camera at Sand Island was moved to South Korea.[5] Baker-Nunn were rendered obsolete with the IOC of 3 GEODSS optical tracking sites at Taegu, Korea; Mt Haleakala, Maui, and White Sands missile Range. A fourth site was operational in 1985 at Diego Garcia, and a proposed 5th site in Portugal was cancelled. The Taegu, Korea site was closed due to encroaching city lights. GEODSS tracked satellites at night, though the MIT Lincoln lab test site, co-located with Site 1 at White sands did track asteroids in daytime as proof of concept in the early 1980s.


Johnston Island Recovery Operations Center

A U.S. military JC-130 aircraft retrieving a film capsule under parachute. Credit: National Reconnaissance Office

Satellite and Missile Observation System Project (SAMOS-E) or "E-6" was a relatively short-lived series of United States visual reconnaissance satellites in the early 1960s. SAMOS was also known by the unclassified terms Program 101 and Program 201.[34] The Air Force program was used as a cover for the initial development of the Central Intelligence Agency's Key Hole (including Corona and Gambit) reconnaissance satellites systems.[35] Imaging was performed with film cameras and television surveillance from polar low Earth orbits with film canisters returning via capsule and parachute with mid-air retrieval. SAMOS was first launched in 1960, but not operational until 1963 with all of the missions being launched from Vandenberg AFB.[36]

Corona film capsule recovery sequence. Credit: CIA Directorate of Science and Technology

During the early months of the SAMOS program it was essential not only to hide the Corona and GAMBIT technical efforts under a screen of SAMOS activity, but also to make the orbital vehicle portions of the two systems resemble one another in outward appearance. Thus, some of the configuration details of SAMOS were decided less by engineering logic than by the need to camouflage GAMBIT and thus, in theory, a GAMBIT could be launched without alerting many people to its real nature. Problems relative to tracking networks, communications, and recovery were resolved with the decision in late February 1961 to use Johnston Island as the film capsule descent and recovery zone for the program.[37] On July 10, 1961 work was initiated on four buildings of the Johnston Island Recovery Operations Center for the National Reconnaissance Office. Men from the Johnston Atoll facility would recover the parachuting film canister capsules with a radar equipped JC-130 aircraft by capturing them in the air with a specialized recovery apparatus.[38] The recovery center was also responsible for collecting the radioactive scientific data pods dropped from missiles following launch and nuclear detonation.[39]

Biological warfare test site 1965

In the lead up to biological warfare testing in the Pacific under Project 112 and Project SHAD, a new virus was discovered during the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program by teams from the Smithsonian's Division of Birds aboard a U.S Army tugboat involved in the program. Initially, the name of that effort was to be called the Pacific Ornithological Observation Project but this was changed for obvious reasons.[40] First isolated in 1964 the tick-borne virus was discovered in Ornithodores capensis ticks, found in a nest of common noddy terns (Anous stolidus) at Sand Island, Johnston Atoll. It was designated Johnston Atoll Virus and is related to Influenza Viruses.[41]

In February, March, and April 1965 Johnston Atoll was used to launch biological attacks against U.S. Army and Navy vessels 100 miles (160 kilometres) south-west of Johnston island in vulnerability, defense and decontamination tests conducted by the Deseret Test Center during Project SHAD under Project 112. Test DTC 64-4 (Deseret Test Center) was originally called "RED BEVA" (Biological EVAluation) though the name was later changed to "Shady Grove" likely for operational security reasons. The biological agents released during this test included Francisella tularensis (formerly called Pasteurella tularensis) (Agent UL), the causative agent of Tularemia; Coxiella burnetii (Agent OU), causative agent of Q fever; and Bacillus globigii (Agent BG).[42] During Project SHAD, Bacillus globigii was used to simulate biological warfare agents (such as Anthrax), because it was then considered a contaminant with little health consequence to humans however, it is now considered a human pathogen.[43] Ships equipped with the E-2 multi-head disseminator and A-4C aircraft equipped with Aero 14B spray tanks released live pathogenic agents in nine aerial and four surface trials in phase B of the test series on February 12 – March 15, 1965 and in four aerial trials in phase D of the test series on March 22 – April 3, 1965.[42] According to Project SHAD veteran Jack Alderson who commanded the Army tugs, area three at Johnston Atoll was located at the most downwind part of the island and consisted of an collapsible Nissen hut to be used for weapons preparation and some communications.[44]

Chemical weapon storage 1971–2001

In 1970, Congress redefined the island's military mission as the storage and destruction of chemical weapons. The Army leased 41 acres (17 ha) on the Atoll to store chemical weapons held in Okinawa, Japan. Johnston Atoll became a chemical weapons storage site in 1971 holding about 6.6 percent of the U.S. military chemical weapon arsenal.[32] The Chemical weapons were brought from Okinawa under Operation Red Hat with the re-deployment of the 267th Chemical Company and consisted of rockets, mines, artillery projectiles, and bulk 1-ton containers filled with Sarin, Agent VX, vomiting agent, and blister agent such as mustard gas. Chemical weapons from Germany and World War II era weapons from the Solomon Islands were also stored on the island after 1990.[45] Chemical agents were stored in the high security Red Hat Storage Area (RHSA) which included hardened igloos in the weapon storage area, the Red Hat building (#850), two Red Hat hazardous waste warehouses (#851 and #852), an open storage area, and security entrances and guard towers.

Some of the other weapons stored at the site were shipped from U.S. stockpiles in West Germany in 1990. These shipments followed a 1986 agreement between the U.S. and Germany to move the munitions.[46] Merchant ships carrying the munitions left Germany under Operation Golden Python and Operation Steel Box in October 1990 and arrived at Johnston Island November 6, 1990. Although the ships were unloaded within nine days, the unpacking and storing of munitions continued into 1991.[47] The remainder of the chemical weapons was a small number of World War II era weapons shipped from the Solomon Islands.[48]

Agent Orange storage 1972–1977

Leaking Agent Orange Barrels in storage at Johnston Atoll circa 1973

Agent Orange was brought to Johnston Atoll from South Vietnam and Gulfport, Mississippi in 1972 under Operation Pacer IVY and stored on the northwest corner of the island known as the Herbicide Orange Storage site but dubbed the "Agent Orange Yard". The Agent Orange was eventually destroyed during Operation Pacer HO on the Dutch incineration ship MT Vulcanus in the Summer of 1977. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that 1,800,000 gallons of Herbicide Orange were stored at Johnston Island in the Pacific and that an additional 480,000 gallons stored at Gulfport, Mississippi was brought to Johnston Atoll for destruction.[49] Leaking barrels during the storage and spills during re-drumming operations contaminated both the storage area and the lagoon with herbicide residue and its toxic contaminant 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin.

Chemical weapon demilitarization mission 1990–2000

Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) building
Main article: JACADS

The Army's Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) was the first full-scale chemical weapons disposal facility. Built to incinerate chemical munitions on the island, planning started in 1981, construction began in 1985, and was completed five years later. Following completion of construction and facility characterization, JACADS began operational verification testing (OVT) in June 1990. From 1990 until 1993, the Army conducted four planned periods of Operational Verification Testing (OVT), required by Public Law 100-456. OVT was completed in March 1993, having demonstrated that the reverse assembly incineration technology was effective and that JACADS operations met all environmental parameters. The OVT process enabled the Army to gain critical insight into the factors that establish a safe and effective rate of destruction for all munitions and agent types. Only after this critical testing period did the Army proceed with full-scale disposal operations at JACADS. Transition to full-scale operations started in May 1993 but the facility did not begin full-scale operations until August 1993.

Chemical weapons from the Solomon Islands in 1991 and from West Germany in 1990 as part of Operation Steel Box were also brought to Johnston Atoll for disposal. All of the chemical weapons once stored on Johnston Island were demilitarized and the agents incinerated at JACADS with the process completing in 2000 followed by the destruction of legacy hazardous waste material associated with chemical weapon storage and cleanup. JACADS was demolished by 2003 and the island was stripped of its remaining infrastructure and environmentally remediated.[45]

Closure and remaining structures

In 2003, structures and facilities, including those used in JACADS, were removed, and the runway was marked closed. The last flight out for official personnel was June 15, 2004. After this date, the base was completely deserted, with the only structures left standing being the Joint Operations Center (JOC) building at the east end of the runway, chemical bunkers in the weapon storage area and at least one Quonset hut.[50]

Built in 1964, the JOC is a 4-floor concrete and steel administration building for the island that has no windows and was built to withstand a category IV tropical cyclone as well as atmospheric nuclear tests. The building remains standing but was gutted entirely in 2004, during an asbestos abatement project. All doors of the JOC except one have been welded shut. The ground floor has a side building attached which served as a facility for decontamination that contained three long snaking corridors and 55 shower heads one could walk through during decontamination.[51]

Rows of bunkers in the Red Hat Storage Area remain intact however an agreement was established between the U.S. Army and EPA Region IX on August 21, 2003, that the Munitions Demilitarization Building (MDB) at JACADS would be demolished and the bunkers in the RHSA used for disposal of construction rubble and debris. After placement of the debris inside the bunkers, they were secured and the entries blocked with a concrete block barrier (a.k.a. King Tut Block) to prevent access to the bunker interior.[11]

Contamination and cleanup

Over the years, leaks of Agent Orange as well as chemical weapon leaks in the weapon storage area occurred where caustic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide were used to mitigate toxic agents during cleanup. Larger spills of nerve and mustard agent within the MCD at JACADS also took place. Small releases of chemical weapon components from JACADS were cited by the EPA. Multiple studies of the Johnston Atoll environment and ecology have been conducted and the Atoll is likely the most studied island in the Pacific.[11]

Dr. Lisa Lobel's work at the Atoll on the impact of PCB contamination in reef damselfish (Abudefduf sordidus) demonstrated that embryonic abnormalities could be utilized as a metric for comparing contaminated and uncontaminated areas.[52] Some PCB contamination in the lagoon was traced to Coast Guard disposal practices of PCB laden electrical transformers.

In 1962 Plutonium pollution following three failed nuclear missile launches was heaviest near the destroyed launch emplacement, in the lagoon offshore of the launch pad and near Sand Island. The contaminated launch site was stripped, the debris gathered and buried in the island's 1962 expansion. A comprehensive radiological survey was completed in 1980 to record transuranic contamination remaining from the 1962 THOR missile aborts. The Air Force also initiated research on methods to remove dioxin contamination from soil resulting from leakage of the stored Herbicide Orange.[11] Since then, U.S. defense authorities have surveyed the island in a series of studies.

Contaminated structures were dismantled and isolated within the former THOR Launch Emplacement No. 1 (LE-1) as a start for the cleanup program. About 45,000 tons of soil contaminated with radioactive isotopes was collected and placed into a fenced area covering 24 acres (10 ha) on the north of the island. The area was known as the Radiological Control Area, but dubbed "The Pluto' Yard" because its heavy contamination with highly radioactive Plutonium.[15][53] The Pluto yard is on the site of the LE1 emplactment where the 1962 missile explosion occurred and also where a highly contaminated loading ramp was buried that was made for loading plutonium contaminated debris onto small boats that was dumped at sea. Remediation included a plutonium "mining" operation called the Johnston Atoll Plutonium Contaminated Soil Cleanup Project. The collected radioactive soil and other debris was buried in a landfill created within the former LE-1 area from June 2002 through November 11, 2002. Remediation at the Radiation Control Area included the construction of a 61 centimeters thick cap of coral sealing the landfill. Permanent markers were placed at each corner of the landfill to identify the landfill area.[11]


The atoll was placed up for auction via the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) in 2005 before it was withdrawn. The stripped Johnston Island was briefly offered for sale with several deed restrictions in 2005 as a "residence or vacation getaway," with potential usage for "eco-tourism" by the GSA's Office of Real Property Utilization and Disposal. The proposed sale included the unique postal zip code 96558, formerly assigned to the Armed Forces in the Pacific. The proposed sale did not include running water, electricity, or activation of the closed runway. The details of the offering were outlined on GSA's website and in a newsletter of the Center for Land Use Interpretation as unusual real estate listing # 6384, Johnston Island.[54][55]

On August 22, 2006, Johnston Island was struck by Hurricane Ioke. The eastern eye-wall passed directly over the atoll, with winds exceeding 100 mph (160 km/h). Twelve people were on the island when the hurricane struck, part of a crew sent to the island to deliver a USAF contractor who sampled groundwater contamination levels. All 12 survived and one wrote a first hand account taking shelter from the storm in the JOC building.[51]

On December 9, 2007, the United States Coast Guard swept the runway at Johnston Island of debris and used the runway in the removal and rescue of an ill Taiwanese fisherman to Oahu, Hawaii. The fisherman was transferred from the Taiwanese fishing vessel Sheng Yi Tsai No. 166 to the Coast Guard buoy tender Kukui on December 6, 2007. The fisherman was transported to the island, and then picked up by a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules rescue plane from Kodiak, Alaska.[56]

Since the base was closed, the atoll has been visited by many vessels crossing the Pacific, as the deserted atoll has a strong lure due to the activities once performed there. Visitors have blogged about stopping there during a trip, or have posted photos of their visits.[57]

In 2010, a Fish and Wildlife survey team identified a swarm of Anoplolepis ants that had invaded the island. The crazy ants are particularly destructive to the native wildlife, and needed to be eradicated. The "Crazy Ant Strike Team" project was led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who successfully reduced the ant numbers 99% by 2013 and continue to work towards a full eradication of the species. The team camped in a bunker that was previously used as a fall out shelter and office.[58][59]


Historical population

Johnston Atoll has never had any indigenous inhabitants, although during the late part of the 20th century, there were averages of about 300 American military personnel and 1,000 civilian contractors present at any given time.[1]

The primary means of transportation to this island was the airport which had a paved military runway or alternatively by ship via a pier and ship channel through the atoll's coral reef system. The islands were wired with 13 outgoing and 10 incoming commercial telephone lines, a 60-channel submarine cable, 22 DSN circuits by satellite, an Autodin with standard remote terminal, a digital telephone switch, the Military Affiliated Radio System (MARS station), a UHF/VHF air-ground radio, and a link to the Pacific Consolidated Telecommunications Network (PCTN) satellite. Amateur radio operators occasionally transmitted from the island, using the KH3 callsign prefix.[5] The United States Undersea Cable Corporation were awarded contracts to lay underwater cable in the Pacific. A cable known as "Wet Wash C" was laid in 1966 between Makua, Oahu, Hawaii and the U.S. Air Force base on Johnston Island. USNS Neptune surveyed the route and laid 769 nm of cable and 45 repeaters. These cables were manufactured by the Simplex Wire and Cable Company with the repeaters being supplied by Felten and Guilleaume. In 1993 a satellite communication ground station was added to augment the atolls communications capability.

Johnston Atoll's economic activity was limited to providing services to American military and contractor personnel residing on the island. The Island was regularly resupplied by ship or barge and all foodstuffs and manufactured goods were imported. The base had six 2.5 megawatt (MW) electrical generators using diesel engines. The runway was also available to commercial airlines for emergency landings (a fairly common event), and for many years it was a regular stop on Continental Micronesia airline's "island hopper" service between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands.

There were no official license plates issued for use on Johnston Atoll. U.S. government vehicles were issued U.S. government license plates and private vehicles retained the plates from which they were registered. According to reputable license plate collectors, a number of "Johnston Atoll license plates" were created as souvenirs, and have even been sold on-line to collectors, but they were not officially issued.[60][61]


About 300 species of fish have been recorded from the reefs and inshore waters of the atoll. It is also visited by green turtles and Hawaiian monk seals. Seabird species recorded as breeding on the atoll include Bulwer's petrel, wedge-tailed shearwater, Christmas shearwater, white-tailed tropicbird, red-tailed tropicbird, brown booby, red-footed booby, masked booby, great frigatebird, spectacled tern, sooty tern, brown noddy, black noddy and white tern. It is visited by migratory shorebirds, including the Pacific golden plover, wandering tattler, bristle-thighed curlew, ruddy turnstone and sanderling.[62]


Site Location Notes
Red Hat Storage Area 16°43′24″N 169°32′21″W / 16.7234°N 169.5393°W / 16.7234; -169.5393 (Red Hat Storage Area) a.k.a. the "Red Hat Area"
Radiological Control Area 16°43′49″N 169°32′14″W / 16.7303°N 169.5371°W / 16.7303; -169.5371 (Radiological Control Area) a.k.a. the "Pluto' Yard" (Plutonium Yard)
Site Herbicide Orange Storage Site 16°43′49″N 169°32′09″W / 16.7304°N 169.5359°W / 16.7304; -169.5359 (Herbicide Orange Storage Site) a.k.a. Agent Orange Yard
JACADS building 16°43′29″N 169°31′58″W / 16.7248°N 169.5327°W / 16.7248; -169.5327 (JACADS building)
Joint Operations Center building (JOC) 16°44′08″N 169°31′24″W / 16.7355°N 169.5233°W / 16.7355; -169.5233 (Joint Operations Center building)
Scientific Row 16°43′29″N 169°32′24″W / 16.7246°N 169.5399°W / 16.7246; -169.5399 (Scientific Row)
Runway 5/23 (closed) 16°43′38″N 169°32′18″W / 16.7271°N 169.5384°W / 16.7271; -169.5384 (Runway 5/23 (closed))
Navy Pier 16°44′09″N 169°31′40″W / 16.7359°N 169.5279°W / 16.7359; -169.5279 (Navy Pier)
Wharf Area and Demilitarization Zone L 16°44′03″N 169°31′52″W / 16.7342°N 169.5310°W / 16.7342; -169.5310 (Wharf Area and Demilitarization Zone L)
Hama Point 16°43′49″N 169°31′16″W / 16.7304°N 169.5212°W / 16.7304; -169.5212 (Hama Point)
Bunker buildings 746 through 761 16°43′30″N 169°32′12″W / 16.7250°N 169.5367°W / 16.7250; -169.5367 (Bunker buildings 746 through 761)
Southwest Area 16°43′15″N 169°32′40″W / 16.7209°N 169.5444°W / 16.7209; -169.5444 (Southwest Area)
Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST) building 16°44′8″N 169°31′31″W / 16.73556°N 169.52528°W / 16.73556; -169.52528 (Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST) building)

Launch facilities

Component Location Notes
Johnston Island LC1 Redstone launch complex. Pad 1 16°44′11″N 169°31′20″W / 16.7365°N 169.5222°W / 16.7365; -169.5222 (LC2 Redstone launch complex Pad 2)
Johnston Island LC2 Redstone launch complex. Pad 2 16°44′13″N 169°31′21″W / 16.7369°N 169.5226°W / 16.7369; -169.5226 (LC2 Redstone launch complex Pad 2)
Johnston Island HAD23 Tomahawk Sandia launch complex. HAD Launcher 23 16°44′15″N 169°31′33″W / 16.7375°N 169.5258°W / 16.7375; -169.5258 (HAD23 launch complex)
Johnston Island UL6 Sandhawk launch complex. Universal Launcher 6 16°44′15″N 169°31′33″W / 16.7374°N 169.5257°W / 16.7374; -169.5257 (UL6 launch complex)
Johnston Island LE1 Thor-Delta launch complex. Launch Emplacement 1 16°43′44″N 169°32′23″W / 16.7288°N 169.5398°W / 16.7288; -169.5398 (LE1 launch complex)
Johnston Island LE2 Thor-Delta launch complex. Launch Emplacement 2 16°43′44″N 169°32′23″W / 16.7288°N 169.5398°W / 16.7288; -169.5398 (LE2 launch complex)
Johnston Island S Johnston Island Operation Dominic south launchers 16°44′13″N 169°31′26″W / 16.7370°N 169.5240°W / 16.7370; -169.5240 (south launchers)

See also


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