|Micronesia (Marshall Islands)|
717 nautical miles southwest of Oahu, and 450 nm south of French Frigate
Shoals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands it is one of the most isolated
atolls in the world. It rests on the core of an ancient volcanic island
now buried under a limestone cap thousands of feet thick which resulted
from 70 million years of reef growth on the slowly sinking island.
Today, 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 and management activities, including all personnel and community support functions.
Johnston Island and Sand Island are natural islands, which have been expanded by coral dredging; North Island (Akau) and East Island (Hikina) are manmade islands formed from coral dredging. The four small islands of Johnston Atoll are home to over 200 species of fish, 32 species of coral, and 20 species of native and migratory birds.
There are about 960 civilian and 250 military personnel assigned to the island. The Johnston Atoll mission is to support the US Army chemical weapon storage and destruction program. Closed to the public, the atoll is an unincorporated territory of the US administered by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency [formerly Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA)] and managed cooperatively by DNA and the Fish and Wildlife Service of the US Department of the Interior as part of the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Johnston Atoll has also been used by the military since the mid-1930s, serving as a refueling point for aircraft and submarines during World War II and as a base for airlift operations during the Korean War. It was also the site of several air atomic tests during the early 1960s.
Johnston Atoll is a military installation whose base operating support services are provided primarily by contractors. In addition to providing base support for the U.S. Army's chemical destruction operation, DSWA provides base support for the Army-Air Force Exchange Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and various other contractors who support a variety of island functions. The Pacific Division, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, administers the base operating support contract for JA with Kalama Services.
Having completed the transition process between August and December 1995, Kalama Services, a joint venture of Holmes & Narver Services Incorporated, SERCo Incorporated, and Burns & Roe Services, reached full performance on 1 January 1996. Kalama performs a full range of base operating support services to maintain the island infrastructure and community viability, such as fresh water and power production, housing, food service, fire protection, law enforcement, clinical health support, and recreational activities.
Atoll was accidentally discovered on September 2, 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 and noting the two original islands (Johnston and Sand) and the
incomplete marginal reef. No traces or records of any earlier visitations
or occupations by Polynesians or Europeans during their voyages of
discovery exist. Lt. William Smith of HMS Cornwallis named the larger
island for his ship's captain, Charles J. Johnston, after sighting it
briefly on Decernber 14, 1807.
The Guano Act of 1856 granted Americans the privilege of removing guano, the accumulation of sea bird excrement, from nearly 30 central Pacific islands claimed by the United States. For several years guano was removed from Johnston and Sand Islands before the operation was abandoned in the late 1800's. During the late 1800s, the Atoll was claimed by both the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United States. This claim was settled when Hawaii became a U.S. Territory.
In 1923 the Biological Survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bishop Museum visited the islands with a scientific expedition to study the bird and marine life. Their findings resulted in Executive Order 4467 of President Calvin Coolidge designating the islands as a bird refuge. In 1934 by Executive Order 6935, Franklin D. Roosevelt placed the atoll under the Navy while retaining the earlier provisions for refuge designation and protection.
In 1934, Johnston Atoll was transferred to and managed by the U.S. Navy. Navy development began in earnest in 1936 with reef blasting, dredging, landfilling and grading and 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 and submarine stopover and refueling base.
World War 2
Johnston Island, set off by itself in the open sea southwest of Hawaii,
proved to be a favorite target of Japanese submarines in the first month
of the war. It was too close to the Pacific Fleet base at Pearl and too
limited in area to make it a prize worth risking an amphibious assault,
but its strategic location, like an arrowhead pointing at the Japanese
Marshalls, made damage to its air facilities well worth the risk of
bombardment attempts. The airfield on the atoll's namesake, Johnston
Island, was only partially completed on 7 December, but temporary seaplane
handling facilities were in operation at Sand Islet, the only other land
area within the fringing reef. There was no permanent patrol plane
complement, but Johnston was an important refueling stop and a couple of
PBYs were usually anchored in the lagoon.
The news of the outbreak of war created a flurry of activity on Johnston, and the civilian contractor's employees turned to at top speed to erect additional earthworks around the Marine guns and to prepare bomb shelters. No Japanese ship or submarine made its appearance on 7 December, perhaps because the first day of war found the Indianapolis and five destroyer minesweepers at Johnston testing the performance of the Higgins landing boat on coral reefs. These ships were immediately recalled toward Pearl to form part of the extensive search pattern for the enemy carrier force, and Johnston's defense rested with its own slim garrison. Major Francis B. Loomis, Jr., Executive Officer of the 1st Defense Battalion, caught while returning to Pearl by air from an inspection of the western outposts, assumed command of the Johnston detachment as senior Marine officer present.
Shortly after dark on 12 December a submarine surfaced 8,000 yards off Sand Islet and began firing green star clusters which burst high over the island. The 5-inch battery could not pick up the vessel in its sights, but it fired on star shell in the general direction of the submarine. The submarine ceased firing immediately as she evidently was not seeking a duel.
The next enemy attack came at dusk three days later. The supply ship Burrows had delivered a barge load of supplies originally intended for the Wake garrison and picked up 77 civilian construction employees for return to Pearl when a sentry atop Johnston's water tower spotted a flash to seaward and sounded general quarters. The flash had been spotted by the batteries also, and the 5-inch control estimated the range at 9,000 yards. The 3-inch director and height finder made out two ships, one larger than the other. The first two enemy salvos bracketed Johnston and the third struck near the contractor's power house and set off a 1,200-gallon oil tank which immediately fired the building. A strong wind whipped up 50-foot flames from the oil fire, and "as observed from the Naval Air Station at Sand Islet, Johnston Island seemed doomed." The Japanese continued to fire for ten minutes at this well-lighted target and they hit several other buildings. The 5-inch guns delivered searching fire, and just as the Marines were convinced they were hitting close aboard their targets, the enemy fire ceased abruptly.
The enemy vessels had fired from the obscuring mists of a small squall and spotters ashore never clearly saw their targets, but the defenders believed that they had engaged two surface vessels, probably a light cruiser and a destroyer. Later analysis indicated, however, that one or more submarines had made this attack. Fortunately no one in the garrison was hurt by the enemy fire, although flames and fragments caused considerable damage to the power house and water distilling machinery. The Burrows, although clearly outlined by the fire, was not harmed. The fact that its anchorage area was known to be studded with submerged coral heads probably discouraged the Japanese from attempting an underwater attack, and Johnston's 5-inch battery ruled out a surface approach.
During the exchange of fire one of the Marines' 5-inch guns went out of action. Its counter-recoil mechanism failed. After this the long-range defense of the island rested with one gun until 18 December when two patrol bombers from Pearl arrived to join the garrison. This gun was enough, however, to scare off an enemy submarine which fired star shells over Sand Islet after dark on 21 December. Again the simple expedient of firing in the probable direction of the enemy was enough to silence the submarine. The next night, just as the ready duty PBY landed in the lagoon, another submarine, perhaps the same one that had fired illumination over Sand, fired six shells at the islets. Both 5-inchers on Johnston now were back in action and each gun fired ten rounds before the submarine submerged. The patrol plane was just lifting from the water as the last enemy shot was fired. Only one shell hit Sand, but that one knocked down the CAA homing tower and slightly wounded one Marine.
Johnston Island was clearly a discouraging place to attack, and the shelling of 22 December marked the last enemy attempt at surface bombardment. It was just as well that the Japanese decided to avoid Johnston, because reinforcement from Pearl soon had the atoll bursting at its seams with men and guns. An additional 5-inch and a 3-inch battery, 16 more machine guns, and the men to man them arrived on 30 December. In January a provisional infantry company was sent and eventually the garrison included even light tanks. The expected permanent Marine fighter complement never got settled in at Johnston's airfield. The island became instead a ferrying and refueling stop for planes going between Pearl and the South and Southwest Pacific.
After the War
It was transferred again in 1948 to the Air Force. In the late 50's and early 60's a series of highitude nuclear tests brought new activity and attention to Johnston atoll. A series of dredge and 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 two manmade islands, North (Akau) and East (Hikina) of 25 and 18 acres.
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 to 1963, Joint Task Force 8 and the Atomic Energy Commission jointly held operational control of Johnston Atoll for the purpose of conducting high-altitude atmospheric nuclear testing operations. Joint Task Force 8 retained operational control of Johnston Atoll from 1963 to 1970 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. Host-management responsibility for Johnston Atoll was given by the Deputy Secretary of Defense in July 1973 to DSWA (formerly the Defense Nuclear Agency), which continues to perform that mission.
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. In November 1993, Congress zero-funded the Johnston Atoll Safeguard C mission and defined the military mission as storage and destruction of chemical weapons.
In 1999, the host base management responsibilities for Johnston Atoll (JA) transferred from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to the Air Force. The 15th Contracting Squadron at Hickam Air Force Base manages the tenants of Johnston Atoll. The US Army operates JACADS on the atoll as a tenant unit of the 15th Air Base Wing, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
Under direction from the Department of Defense at the time of the transfer, DTRA remains responsible for completing the plutonium cleanup project on the atoll, with a goal of achieving a safe level for humans and the environment. The atoll became contaminated with plutonium through two aborted missile launches during high altitude nuclear weapons testing conducted in 1962. On February 1, 2000, DTRA sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS), and the Air Force, requesting their review and concurrence with DTRA's proposed standard of 40 piocuries per gram (pCi/g) of plutonium in the soil as a final radiological cleanup standard. The cleanup level for Enewetak Atoll, also in the Pacific, was 60 pCi/g for agricultural areas and 40 pCi/g for residential areas. The proposed cleanup level for Rocky Flats, which is near Denver CO, will be between 35 and 600 pCi/g.
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.
Chemical weapons have been stored on Johnston Island since 1971. The weapons stored at Johnston Island include rockets, projectiles, mines, mortars, and ton containers, containing both nerve and mustard agents. The chemical munitions stockpile stored at Johnston Atoll originated from four locations. The Army leased 41 acres in 1971 to store chemical weapons formerly held in Okinawa, which were transferred to the atoll from Okinawa during Operation Red Hat in 1971. In 1972, the Air Force moved Agent Orange stocks to Johnston Atoll [these stocks were destroyed in 1977]. In November 1990, chemical weapon stocks from the Federal Republic of Germany were transferred to Johnston Atoll for destruction in Operation Steel Box. In 1991, range-recovered chemical munitions were brought from the Solomon Islands. Before destruction operations began in 1990, JACADS stored approximately 6.6% of the total US stockpile.
In 1981, the Army began planning for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS). Construction began in 1986. It is the world's first full-scale facility built to destroy chemical weapons. The design is based on technologies used for years by the Army and industry. 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 safe 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 munition 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. The facility actually did not begin full-scale operations until August 1993.
Approaching hurricanes in both 1993 and 1994 necessitated facility shutdown and the evacuation of more than 1,100 soldiers, Department of the Army civilians, and Army contractors from Johnston Island to Hawaii. During each of these instances, JACADS production was disrupted for a period of time. As a result of the hurricane striking Johnston Island in August 1994, JACADS production was disrupted for approximately 70 days. This time was required to repair damaged installation infrastructure needed to sustain the presence of the work force and to provide power and water supply critical to JACADS processing.
JACADS has already disposed of all of its stockpiled M55 nerve agent rockets, one-ton containers filled with mustard and GB nerve agent, one class of mustard-filled projectiles and nerve agent bombs. All rockets, projectiles, bombs and ton containers filled with GB have been safely destroyed at JACADS. This amounted to the disposal of approximately 74 percent of all chemical agent and munitions stored on the island. As of 08 October 2000 JACADS had destroyed 1,979 tons of an original 2,031 tons, with 52 tons remaining. When all of the munitions are destroyed, the facility will be dismantled. By 2003, the Army expects to depart the atoll. Once this occurs, the Air Force expects to return the atoll to the USF&WS to continue its national wildlife refuge operations.