Views of a 6/7 year old – Midway 1951-1952
When I was six years old in 1951, we moved to the naval base on Midway. I remember my dad saying that “it was the end of the world”, however to a six or seven year old boy, it was a paradise. We took the ship from the US mainland to Hawaii and most everyone got sick from food poisoning. There was constant rocking and we were kept deep below the main deck. For some reason most of us kids didn’t get sick. When we arrived in Honolulu, I saw my first hula dancers on the docks and I got my first leis as I got off the ship. We stayed in Waikiki for a few days. From Honolulu, we boarded a C47 transport plane and flew on to Midway Island. From the plane, I could see the islands as they came into view from the window. There were two islands, the main island called Sand Island and the other smaller island called Eastern Island.
After settling in to our house, my brother and I had complete freedom of the island and we usually only came home to eat and sleep. One day my father took us to the pier to do some fishing. He baited his hook with a small fish and threw the line into the water, instantly it was hit by what seemed to be a very large fish he fought for almost 20 minutes. When he finally pulled it in, it was a shark about a 3 foot long.
Valleys Restaurant sign
Before going to Midway Island we lived next door to Howard Valley. He owned Valleys Restaurant (an upscale restaurant on 5th avenue in San Diego CA). One day the sign on the front of his restaurant was stolen. Soon after we arrived on Midway Island my father went to the enlisted man’s club, there was Valleys Restaurant sign.
Sea wall and garbage dump
One day I went to the seawall where the sailors had a daily ritual of dumping garbage from the night before. I watched, as the fish from all over the lagoon would come in to feed on the garbage. Suddenly a monster shark probably 15 to 20 feet long came in after the fish that were feeding on the garbage. I was standing on top of the seawall and the shark was below me within a few feet when it turned around. I had never seen anything like it and it was hard to believe that I was so close; I could have reached out and touched it. What an experience for a six year old.
Refrigerated food locker
One day a small team of sailors were given the task of painting the inside of the islands refrigerated food storage locker. They decided to paint it with creosote, the same paint used to paint railroad ties. Creosote is used on railroad ties because of its penetrating power. It ruined all of the fresh meat and milk for the island. For almost a month, all we ate was fish and drank powdered milk until the food storage locker could be fixed and restocked.
Tidal wave 1952
On November 4, 1952, we were warned that a 14 foot tidal wave (tsunamis) was going to hit Midway. We all evacuated to a concrete bunker in the center of the island. When the tidal wave was supposed to hit, I was told, the highest place on the island where we were, was about 7 feet above sea level and the tidal wave was supposed to be 14 feet. It was a pretty frightening time, fortunately the tidal wave was split by the reef and most of it went around the two little islands. The wave was only a couple of feet high when it finally hit the island. The main damage on the island where the wave first hit was the Officers Club booze locker. It was destroyed with wood strung everywhere and the finest booze on the island disappeared. I think it was assumed that all of those bottles broke and were buried in the sand. It turns out that they must have floated maybe on the crest of the wave, and were deposited intact spread all over our school playground buried in about 4 inches of sand about 1/8 of a mile away. At that distance, no one ever dreamed that the finest collection of booze would be buried in the sand of our playground.
It didn’t take long for my older brother to discover the buried treasure. I remember during recess my brother and I along with a couple of friends, went outside instead of playing games inside. We used a gaffe (a along rod with a hook on the end used to haul big fish on to a boat) and we would drag it back and forth in the sand across the playground until we heard a clink. We would then mark the spot with an X and continue until we heard another clink and another clink. We came back after school dug up the bottles and took them home. The enlisted sailors paid us $.25 a bottle, we were rich! My father of course was the biggest buyer; our pantry was lined with the finest officer’s booze.
Big party at the Ripingill house
A short time after the tidal wave, my father decided to have a big party at our house and invited everyone on the island. That morning my brother and I along with a few other children were invited to go fishing around the reef that surrounded Midway and Sand Island with some of the sailors. We probably only fished for a few of hours and nearly filled a very large chest with fish. That chest was about 4 feet wide 3 feet high and 5 feet long. When we returned to the dock the sailors cleaned all of the fish, cut them up into 1-inch square chunks, and brought them to the Ripingill house to be cooked.
My mother and other enlisted wives brought their deep fryers made hush puppies of cornbread rolled into 1-inch balls. The chunks of fish were rolled in batter and the fish and hush puppies were all deep-fried. The sailors brought plenty of beer and my father provided the finest booze collection available on the island. I remember that during the party a couple of the sailors grabbed a goony bird and poured a can of beer into it. When you are six years old, it was really funny to watch a drunken goony bird walk down the street.
Abandoned underground hospital
Most of Midway Island that was not paved with roads or runway was covered with scaevola bushes that were about 8 to 10 feet tall. As a six year old, it was great fun to play in the scaevola bushes, the inside was nearly hollow. We spent a great deal of our time exploring them. We discovered a funny looking vent inside one of the scaevola bushes. When we removed the vent cover, we found it led to an abandoned underground hospital or so we thought. It’s possible that it was an underground Command Center. There was a honeycomb of rooms and hallways and it was like having our very own Fort. There were no lights so we had to carry lanterns in order to use the Fort. We discovered a corner of the ceiling that was caved in by a live 500 pound bomb that had been dropped from a Japanese bomber during the Battle of Midway. It stood in the corner upright like a Samurai waiting to release its furry. Of course, we had to report it. The sailors came, disarmed the bomb and removed it but they also closed off all of the entrances and vent pipes to the underground hospital so we could no longer use it as a Fort. We were ok with that because we found an abandoned aircraft hangar and started using that as our Fort. I remember we had to climb up a pretty precarious ladder in order to get to the “Ready Room” where we could sleep.
One day a ship came from Japan and brought cargo to our store that included some very unusual sandals that we had never seen before. The sole was made from seaweed (sea grass) dried and woven to about 1/2 inch thick. There was this piece a fabric rising in the front of the sandal in the middle. Attached to it was red velvet ribbon that extended on each side of the sandal to the back of the sandal where it was fastened on each side.
In order to put the sandal on, you had to slide the fabric between your big toe and the rest of your toes to slip into it.
We found that you could only walk forward and not backward in the sandals. If you walked backward, you would step right out of them. So we called them “Go Aheads”. They didn’t last very long. The straps pulled out of the sole. Today we call them flip flops.
My brother Ranny, his friends and I built a tree Fort across the street from our house. My father managed to find two old telephones with a hand crank generator and we strung wires between the tree Fort and our bedroom so we could communicate. It was a great novelty when we first put it in.
Gooney Bird landing
Not far from our tree Fort was a big open field we called Gooney Bird landing. The albatross (we called them Gooney Birds) on Midway Island would go to sea for months at a time. When they returned, it was like a flock of B17 coming in very slowly with their flaps down. They were so used to landing on water without having to put their feet down, that they would land at Gooney Bird landing with their feet up, hit the ground, and tumble repeatedly. They would shake themselves, tuck their beak in their wings and then look around to see who saw them, moan by putting their beak up in the air as if thanking the Gooney god for a safe landing and, go off about their business. One night we decided to pitch our tents and sleep out in the area of Gooney Bird landing while the Gooneys were away. It began to rain and then the Gooney Birds began to return. When they came in for a landing, they hit our tents and knocked them over. We all got wet and decided to go home.
Gooney Bird dance
I was six and seven years old when I lived on Midway Island. The Gooney Birds used to dance and sometimes two or three birds at a time would dance. A woman on this web site mentioned that this is a courting or mating dance. I think that gooneys just like to dance. I found it was great fun to dance with one bird bobbing and weaving like they normally do. To begin a dance I remember I would walk up to a gooney face to face about three feet away and stair him in the eyes until he was staring back. Then I would start bobbing and weaving until he began to dance with me. After a few minutes, I would put my hand up against my armpit, lift my elbow, tuck my head under my arm and the gooney would tuck his beak under its wing. We both would straighten up and point our heads to the sky and moan as if asking the gooney bird god to bless this dance. Sometimes we would be joined by a third bird and the three of us would dance. When three gooneys dance they form a triangle and the three birds would point themselves to the center of the triangle. I guess that acknowledges the other two birds. When a third bird would join my dance, we would all orient ourselves to the center of the triangle. Great memories for a 6 year old who didn’t realize it was a mating dance. When the dance was over, I often wondered what that strange look from the bird was for.
2 civilian cars
When we arrived on Midway Island there were only 2 civilian cars. Shortly after our arrival, the 2 enlisted sailors that owned the cars got drunk and had a severe accident involving both cars that destroyed them. After that, the only civilian vehicle on the island was a Japanese bicycle we called “The Camel”. Nobody claimed ownership of “The Camel”. If you saw it leaning against a tree and you needed to go somewhere, you would simply ride it to wherever you wanted to go; lean it against a tree and somebody else might take it and do the same.
I was given a bicycle
On my birthday, I was given a bicycle that looked like it was brand-new. Apparently, my father found an old rusty bicycle frame in the junkyard on the island and spent a great deal of time restoring it. He had to order some parts from the mainland to finish the job. There was only one other bicycle on the island. I was pretty proud of my bicycle. Something as valuable and unusual as a bicycle would never be taken home to the mainland. I gave it to a friend when I left.
Visit to Eastern Island
One day my dad took us on a visit to Eastern Island. It had been abandoned, probably 10 years before, after the Battle of Midway on June 6, 1942. During that battle, the U.S. Navy was afraid that the Japanese were going to take the island and they drove all of the vehicles off the end of the pier. The water was about 20 feet deep and it was so clear that you could see all of the vehicles as if they had been driven off the pier yesterday. There were bullet holes in the buildings, the concrete runways, flight line, and taxiways had chips in them from the machine guns of the Japanese aircraft. All of the sandbags were still in place for the antiaircraft gun mounts and bunkers. It was quite a site.