History of Johnston Atoll

Johnston Atoll
EO-1 Satellite Image of Johnston Atoll.
Johnston Atoll
Johnston Atoll
Location of Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean

16°45′N 169°31′W / 16.750°N 169.517°W / 16.750; -169.517Coordinates: 16°45′N 169°31′W / 16.750°N 169.517°W / 16.750; -169.517

Archipelago North Pacific
Total islands 4
Area 2.67 km2 (1.031 sq mi)
Highest elevation 2 m (7 ft)
 United States
Johnston Atoll is under the administration of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service
Population 0
Additional information

Johnston Atoll is an uninhabited 1.03 sq mi (2.7 km2) atoll in the North Pacific Ocean[1] about 750 nmi (860 mi; 1,390 km) southwest of the Hawaii Islands. The atoll, which is located on a coral reef platform, comprises four islands. Johnston and Sand islands are both enlarged natural features, while North (Akau) and East (Hikina) are two artificial islands formed by coral dredging.[1] Johnston Atoll is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands.

For nearly 70 years, the atoll was under the control of the American military. In that time it was used as an airbase, a naval refuelling depot and a weapons testing area. In the mid-1980s, the atoll became a facility for chemical weapons disposal. In 2004 the military base was closed; island control was handed over to civilian authorities.

Johnston is an unincorporated territory of the United States administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior as part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.


Early history

The first Western record of the atoll was on September 2, 1796 when the 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.[2] 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 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 under the Guano Islands Act. 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. On July 27, 1858, the atoll was declared part of the domain of King Kamehameha IV. However, later that year King Kamehameha revoked the lease granted to Allen when the King learned that the atoll had been claimed previously by the United States.[3] By 1890 the atoll's entire guano deposits had been depleted (mined out) by U.S. interests operating under the Guano Islands Act.

From July 10 to 22, 1923, the atoll was recorded in a pioneering aerial photography project.

In 1923 by Executive Order No. 4467, President Calvin Coolidge established Johnston Atoll as a federal bird refuge and placed it under the control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Military control

On December 29, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred control of Johnston Atoll to the United States Navy in order to establish an air station, and also to the Department of the Interior to administer the bird refuge.

Seaplane base

In 1935 personnel from the US Navy's Patrol Wing Two carried out some minor construction to develop the atoll for seaplane operation. 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.[4] 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 plane parking area connected by a 2,000 feet (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). On Sand Island barracks were built for 400 men, a messhall, underground hospital, radio station, water tanks and a 100 feet (30 m) steel control tower.[5]

In February 1941 Johnston Atoll was designated as a Naval Defensive Sea Area and Airspace Reservation.


In 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 messhalls, a cold-storage building, an underground hospital, a fresh-water plant, shop buildings and fuel storage. The base was complete by December 7, 1941.[5]

World War II

On December 15, 1941 the atoll was shelled by a Japanese submarine outside the reef, several buildings were hit, but no personnel were injured.[5]

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.[5] 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.[6]


On November 1, 1957, a United States Coast Guard LORAN-A station was commissioned (on Sand Island) which switched to a LORAN-C station in 1979. The station was disestablished on July 1, 1992.

Weapons testing

The Johnston Atoll area was used during the 1950s and 1960s as an American nuclear weapons test site—for both above-ground and underground nuclear tests. Later on, it became the site of a chemical weapons depot and the site of the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS). All of the chemical weapons that were once stored on Johnston Island have been incinerated, and that process was completed in 2000 and JACADS demolished by 2003.

Between 1958 and 1975, several scientific sounding rockets were launched from Johnston Island.[7] There were also several nuclear test missiles that were launched from Johnston Island in 1962 during the "Operation Dominic" series of nuclear tests, from a launchpad at 16°44′13″N 169°31′26″W / 16.7370°N 169.5240°W / 16.7370; -169.5240. Twelve thermonuclear warheads were exploded in all, one of which was deliberately disrupted when the PGM-17 Thor carrying it failed to launch scattering plutonium debris over the island. Afterwards, the radioactive debris and soils were placed in a 25 acres (100,000 m2) landfill on the island, along with residue from Agent Orange containers returned from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, PCBs, PAHs, dioxins, and sarin nerve gas from the Soviet Union and East Germany.

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. Congress redefined the island's military mission as the storage and destruction of chemical weapons.


It was used for rocket-launched nuclear tests in the 1950s. In the 1960s it was the site for the operational Program 437 anti-satellite system. Several sounding rockets were also launched over the years. Known to have been used for 124 launches from 1958 to 1975, reaching up to 1158 kilometers altitude.[8]