There are numerous isolated military bases around the world, but few as remote as Johnston Atoll. Located in the central Pacific and comprising little more than a vast runway, it’s not hard to imagine what sort of “under the radar” pursuits went on here over the years.
Johnston Atoll, a United States territory, is a remote group of islands covering 50 square miles. Chief among them is Johnston Island, with its now abandoned military base. In 1926, an executive order established Johnston Atoll as a federal bird refuge, but control was transferred to the U.S. Navy in 1934 and the impressive runway still seen today was established. Soon after, the former wildlife reserve became a nuclear weapons test site.
Originally a natural island atop a coral reef about 750 nautical miles west of Hawaii, Johnston Island has been enlarged tremendously over the years by coral dredging. The result: a semi man-made island providing space for a expansive military base with accommodation for more than 1,000 people at its zenith.
As a U.S. Navy base, Johnston Atoll provided support and docking facilities for warships, such as the USS Lansing (above), in one of the most isolated regions of the Pacific Ocean. The military runway (9,000 feet-long in its final incarnation) provided the main means of transport to and from Johnston Island, while the atoll was wired with 13 outgoing and 10 incoming commercial telephone lines.
Between 1958 and 1975, Johnston Atoll was used as a nuclear test site for underground and above-ground nuclear weapons. Several nuclear test missiles were launched from the atoll during “Operation Dominic” in 1962. The image above (left) shows the ethereal glow of a high altitude nuclear test. The second image shows the remains of a rocket engine after a failed test showered Johnston Island with plutonium debris.
Johnston Atoll also served as a launch platform for some of America’s first spy satellites and other scientific rockets. But by 1993, its military mission had been scaled down to handle the storage and destruction of chemical weapons. A 25 acre landfill on Johnston Island holds radioactive debris from the failed 1962 nuclear test, along with chemical residue from Vietnam and sarin nerve gas from the former Soviet Union.
A report published in 1992 claimed that the much hypothesised ‘Aurora spyplane‘ - once thought to have replaced the SR-71 Blackbird but now mainly discounted – used a Pacific atoll as a staging point. It says:
“…Aurora was being flown from a base in the Nevada desert to an atoll in the Pacific, then on to Scotland to refuel before returning to the US at night.”
Could the atoll referenced above possibly be Johnston Atoll? Its remote location and long runway would surely make it an ideal Pacific hiding place for a top secret hypersonic aircraft, if the report is correct…
In 2003, jurisdiction of Johnston Atoll was finally turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service. All structures and facilities on the base were destroyed, and runway was marked closed by a giant cross at each end. The images above, clearly showing where the buildings stood and roads ran, indicate how extensive the abandoned airbase once was. Johnston Atoll is now part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
The images above (and below) are published with the permission of Mark Eggerich, who was based on Johnston Island when he took these photographs. They offer an insight into what life was like on the atoll, with swimming pool, water sports centre and bar/restaurant. The images below, also by Mark, depict the final demolition.
The end of an era for Johnston Atoll!