Island for Sale

No, it’s not one of the Hawaiian islands, those are already all taken. But it’s the closest you can get: Johnston Atoll is around 750 miles (1200 km) SW of Kaua’i. And it has all the trappings of a tropical paradise: 4 islands making up almost 700 acres in a blue lagoon, 20 miles of fringing reef, migrating birds, incredible diving, palm trees, deserted beaches, not to mention a runway to land your private A380 (747′s are old school now).

Johnston Island with the runway, and smaller Sand Island in the forground, atoll reef not shown:

JohnstonIsland
Source: propertydisposal.gsa.gov

BUT… the source of that photo should give you pause, because the US government hasn’t been kind to isolated islands in the Pacific, and Johnston is no exception. The “listing” for this island on the “property disposal” website gives us a few clues:

The deed will contain use restrictions because the atoll was used by the Defense Department for storage of chemical munitions and as a missile test site in the 1950′s and 60′s. The island can be used as a residence or vacation getaway but it does not have utilities or a water supply. The airstrip and the golf course are closed.

After reading that, the big thought in my mind was “Can the airstrip and golf course be rehabilitated?” But you should really be thinking “When the government admits to a missile test site and chemical munitions storage, what is it really hiding?”

Fortunately, the CLUI (Center for Land Use Interpretation and maybe government website interpretation) fills us in on the details: the missiles were of course nuclear warheads detonated above the island, the munitions storage was actually a chemical weapons incinerator, and the government forgot to mention the open-air biological weapon tests. While all that was supposedly cleaned up, again according to the government, there is the little detail of radioactive debris from failed nuclear rockets which first rained down on the area and was then buried in a containment structure that will be breached by the ocean in 50 years. When CLUI says “industriously exotic” they don’t mean regular industry in an exotic location.

Another great blog about Kaua’i called Island Breath has a long article about what it was like to live and work on Johnston Island. It also answers further questions like “Do you really think they were able to collect all the little pieces of a plutonium rocket that exploded above the atoll?” (No.) It’s haunting to think it was fully inhabited (except for children and schools) several years ago and then they just razed everything, swept up any “hot” debris and left the island to the birds.

You would think that leaving all the housing and recreational buildings would increase the value, but no:

JohnstonMostRecently
Source: propertydisposal.gsa.gov

And now it can all be yours. One detail I like from the governmnent website is that it seems like you get your own zip code in Hawaii (96558, formerly a zip code assigned to the Armed Forces in the Pacific). How cool is that.

This post is going to be tricky to tie to Kaua’i, but I finally figured it out with a bold theory. Some people here complain about vog, the volcanic smog that sometimes is blown across the state from the Big Island. When the volcano is really active and winds blow the wrong direction, vog travels 300 miles to Kaua’i in concentrations strong enough to give people headaches and nausea. So, the final, unanswered question is “Did any fallout, radioactive debris, bio-agents, or chemical weapons residue so freely released in the air above Johnston Atoll ever reach Kaua’i?”

Update: A map comparing the distances:

JohnstonKauaiMap
750 miles to Johnston from Kauai, just over twice the distance to the Big Island
Source: Google Earth. Click image to download location into Google Earth.

And some history of the populations on Johnston Atoll:

1797-1900 US, British, and Hawaiian ships visit the islands and try to claim them [Jane Resture]
Sept 1909 One lucky person leased the whole place from the Territory of Hawaii to mine guano [ibid.]
1920′s The island is made a bird sanctuary and naturalists conduct surveys [ibid.]
1930-1940′s The island is given to the US Navy who begin dredging and bulldozing to establish a plane and submarine refueling base [globalsecurity.org doesn't give much population info but has a detailed description of the chemical weapons work]
Johnston Island enlarged but before full expansion by the military
Johnston1958

Source: http://home.earthlink.net/~markinthepacific/
1950-90′s Johnston island is expanded from original 46 acres to 625 to host an average of 1,100 US military and civilian contractor personnel [Answers.com]
Jan 2004 Around 200 people finishing the cleanup [ibid.]
May 2005 All US government personnel left the island [CIA World Factbook, though it was June according to markinthepacific]

With all of those “alumni,” there is even a message board and a website for the now dispersed community, with their own theme songs, beautiful underwater photos, and a video slideshow of life on the island. The slideshow has photos of some of the chemical weapons, the amazing infrastructure built to process them, the final dismantlement, and through it all, the people and sights on the island. Another island resident has posted a lot of photos up until his departure on the second to last flight. It really is/was a fascinating microcosm.

Printed from: http://great-hikes.com/blog/island-for-sale/.
© 2014.

39 Comments   »

  1. Mark says:

    Perhaps you could buy the island as a long-term investment. What’s the half-life of radioactive waste and incincerated biological weapons?

  2. Dave says:

    Was there for a year, loved it except being away from the family, best assignment the Army gave me!!!

  3. Marc says:

    I was there on Sand Island as a Coast Guard Radioman in 1974-75. Unbelievable numbers of fish, including gamefish and various types of shark. The near end (photo) of Sand Island was so heavily populated with nesting seabirds at one time of year that it was virtually one bird per square yard. I hope it’s reverted to what it always ought to have been. BTW, the island is now a sanctuary, not for sale, so far as I know.

  4. Ryan says:

    I, too, spent a year there and completely agree with dave. I wish I had gotten there sooner and stayed longer. And no, it is not for sale. Gone to the birds.

  5. Joe Mazzola says:

    I also was there. Worked on and off 1968 to 1972 as a civilian Fireman. Very deselect but extremly hard to beat the climet and water recreation.

  6. David says:

    I was stationed on J I for 18 months in 4/1987 to 10/88. Was the best tour I ever did. Softball, bowling (I was the Manager) :) I was assigned to the Motorpool. Partied at the Tiki club and made coral boxes on my off time. WHAT A TOUR!!!

  7. Jack Attebury says:

    I was on project 437 with the Thor on JI from 1965 to 1970. I went there from Vandenberg CA 98 days at a time for 5 tours.
    It holds a lot of fond memories for me. I was one of the first “Pacific Atoll Divers” and help build several of the diving rafts. I worked the Pads (1&2)and had no problems with radiation. I don’t think it is a problem.

  8. John says:

    I was there from 4/75 to 5/76. It was a whole ‘nother world. The chemical muntions that were stored there were eventually incinerated on the island. I do n’t know what happened with the Agent Orange nor the radioactive (plutonium) waste from the warhead that was destructed right after launch. I do know it was one of the most memorable periods of my life.

  9. wayne yonce says:

    I was on Johnston in 1946 as an 18 year old member of the Naval Air transport squardon VR-12 detachment.We seviced R5D transport aircraft.My last duty station before discharge from the WW II Navy.

  10. Marty Kiepke says:

    I served in the U.S. Navy for a year in 1968. I went diving in the lagoon and thought it was a good duty station. It has a nice climate year round. We took the base colonel out on weekly fishing trips and spent 60 days on bikini atoll while stationed there.

  11. Terry Peacock says:

    I was there in 1952-53 with my father, a Captain in the USAF. Wow, what an experience. My brother and I used to play in the old WWII gun bunkers, not to mention the various aircraft wrecks around the island.

  12. Ed Shepard says:

    I was on JI in 1970-71 in the Air Force, Helped to build the bunkers, would love to hear from some of the guys from that era, when did they start bringing woman to the island???

  13. Ralph Simmons says:

    I was on the rock in ’88. I was in charge of 2 teams installing the temporary back up generators. Best 6 month TDY I ever did. It would be great to have a JI reunion.

  14. Roy Whitehead says:

    I was 18 , station on JI in 1952-53 for a long year. All my teeth were pulled in a very small room w/ no air cond.. But ther were no ac any where. JI was a mile long . I could write a book about that year in a young boy life!!

  15. Bill Taylor says:

    I was stationed on Sand Island 8/73-9/74 with the Coast Guard. Too many great memories to count. I have written a few of the stories and included some pictures at my blog-billtaylorcsp.wordpress.com
    if interested.

  16. David Borden says:

    I was on Island from 1995 to 2003. I met people that I will charish forever and my wife. It was the best part of my life. I will never see anything as great as the water and coral as there is there. I sometimes wish it never ended.

  17. William Lindsey III says:

    Was a contractor on Johnston in 1980. Dismantled the missile silos and launch facilities, as well as the LOX plant. Prepped all of he material for export to Hawaii.
    Mel Kaneshiro and I loaded all 500,000. empty bbls that once contained Agent Orange onto a Young Brothers, HTB barge for transport to Flynn-Lerner on sand Island Road, Honolulu Hawaii.

  18. William Lindsey III says:

    The Army Chemical Corp pumped all of the Agent Orange from 500,000 bbls onto the chemical incinerator ship Vulcan. The Agent Orange was supposedly incinerated at sea, away from the Island.
    One contaminated missile launch facility and silo was left intact and surrounded by cyclone fencing due to radiation.

  19. Dan Roncalli says:

    Had bought the whole lock stock and barrel of Sand Island; Akau, and Hikina are national wildlife refuge operations; the news that Johnston was for sale was actually limited to Sand; sorry, no longer for sale. It’s all real clean when I’m not gasping (kidding–no gasping; listen Ma, no asthma), and the bird-watching is tremendous; hey, what was that? We love to take the grandkids flying about on our day’s off, which is all the time. Best to all you fellow old contract civilians.

  20. Andy says:

    Hi Dan, are you saying you’re the new owner? I admit I never followed up on this story, nor did I track down all the details of what was for sale–you know how blogs are. I vaguely remember reading they had withdrawn the sale, but obviously, I haven’t followed the story and don’t know what really happened.

    This post has attracted some visits and comments from Johnston veterans, so I’d love to follow up if you have more details for me. Leave a comment or email me, andy a t great-hikes dot com.

  21. Ted Fullard says:

    Like Jack, I too was on JI with project 437 out of Vandenberg, but from 65 to 68. I still have my Atoll Divers patch someware. Didn’t have a bowling alley when I was there, but I did learn how to carve leather.

  22. Barry says:

    I worked at Johnston atoll on the jacads project in 1995. Rocket disposal project. After the chemical was processed it came out of the plant as a green crystall. A lot of the guys I worked with handled the crystals with no Ill effects. The only harmful substance after processing was heavy metals which is bad but nothing like gb and vx gas. I carried a gas mask and two shots of atrapine the whole time I was there. There was plutonium in the ground that they tried to deal with. They had no success while I was there. Plutonium was also found in the surrounding coral (relatively small amounts). I remember the red hat area that I was not allowed to enter. Who knows what was held in all those bunkers besides bombs and rockets from all over the world. Green peace tried to enter the lagoon once and was told if they came within so many miles that they would be blown out of the water (they turned and left). You can’t get there from here. The rock.

  23. Mike Bill says:

    I agree the Rock was a great place to serve. I was there from 1969 to 1970. Saw two launches and that island shook with the force of a small earthquake. Interesting facts on the internet about submarine surveys of the island; some indicate a cave (indicating limestone) half way down to the sea floor. My father also was on the island during WWII as it was a refueling base for submarines during that time. Great part of history the island played also check out the first experiences with EMP.

  24. Vincent Dancause says:

    I was stationed on JI on and off from Oct 66 to Nov 68. Was a great place to be stationed.

  25. craig says:

    Is there anyone who could send me photos of what life was like there? For those that have been there, would you say the dangers of the chemicals pose any risk to current or future inhabitants.
    Please send pictures to craigkoller35 (at) yahoo (dot) com

  26. Rob Honeycutt says:

    I was there from 63 to 64 as a Crypto Communications Tech in USAF. Was great duty, a beautiful place. Too bad it was spoiled by all the nasty stuff. I dont seem to have suffered any ill effects so far..keeping my fingers crossed.

  27. John Poston says:

    I also had the opportunity to serve on JI in 1971-1972. During that time the Navy moved Mustard and Nerve gas to be stored in the newly built bunkers. The Army had about 150 personnel responsible for moving the chemicals from the ship to the bunkers. All personnel on the Island were required to carry Atropene injectors in case of a spill, which there were none. General Westmoreland came to the island to thank the Army for a perfect job, but dressed down a soldier for uniform discrepancy. Never thought much of the guy after that. The fishing was fantastic, and so was the scuba. There were a lot of great things to do, scuba, tennis, golf, racquetball, and bowling to mention a few. Got to manage the bowling alley (4 lanes), but the downside was there were no women!

  28. Charles Slade says:

    Can’t believe it’s for sale, I’m sure the Gov’t has included some strict clauses in the deed, seeing how there is Pu still buried there, enough to arm several missiles with absolute devastating payloads. A functional runway to fly the material out. There’s a reason it was left to the birds and i don’t think it will ever be for sale!

  29. Andy says:

    Hi Charles, thanks for that perspective, that thought was nagging me too. I wrote this article a while ago, but I never followed up to see what happened. I seem to remember hearing the military withdrew the sales offer, probably for the reasons you state. Why was it ever listed in the first place? A mistake in the bureaucracy? Testing the real-estate market? If anyone knows, feel free to leave a comment.

  30. Gary R Edwards says:

    Two Trips from Vanndenburg 70 & 71
    Fuel System Maint. Lox Clean Room.
    Scuba Diving, Sailing,
    Shark fishin at shit shoot for six foot sharks for the big rige in harbor. Largest 1275 LBS. 15 ft.

  31. Nathan McFadden says:

    I was stationed out there from 4/95-4/96. I was an MP straight out of basic and schooling. I had a fantastic time with memories to last the rest of my life. The only problem was that being my first duty station it gave me an unrealistic expectation of what Army life was like. lol

  32. Mike shockey says:

    I was there 69 to 70. Usaf postal services. After two weeks i developed red rash all over my body. I am not sure what caused it. VA doctors call it psoriasis. Still have it today. Loved my tour there. Steak night every thursday, swimming, shark fishing at the shit chute. Only place i have ever been where beer was cheaper than coke.

  33. bo says:

    I really want to visit that atoll

  34. John Martin says:

    Had the pleasure of serving on JI Sep 1972 – Sep 1973 as a USAF comm maintenance tech. Logged a lot of dives and did a lot of sailing. Additional duty on the decon team, so got the see all the bad stuff. Spend some good times at the rigger loft. Remember steak night every Saturday. Don’t miss all the blood samples I had to give.

  35. RolandB says:

    I spent a delightful year on JI in 1971-72. If anyone wants a perspective or pix email me.
    Rsbnontw at gmail dot com
    Roland

  36. Bill P. says:

    As a contractor I spent two different tours at JI resurfacing the runway there in 1996 and again in 2000. It was the absolute best duty ever! We were able to check out gear for scuba diving and take boats to and around the surrounding islands. The coral is like none other there, including the sharks! Also taking deep sea fishing trips out on the old WW2 landing crafts that had been converted.
    Some of my best memories!

  37. Barry Nesja says:

    I was on J.I. all of 1954. I was in the air weather service sending up weather balloons. It is a shame what the government has done to that peaceful little island!

  38. Neil C. Hamilton says:

    Retired First Sgt, MP sergeant when on JA from 1976-77

  39. Frank Matranga says:

    I was there in 1958, before they began making it bigger. it is a shame
    what they did to that island. It was
    a clean island always breezy and
    the beaches were clean . Now i under
    stand that tons of garbage wash up
    on it every year. Plastic of every kind
    Nets and it has been polluted with
    the waste from the testing years and
    then a incinerator of all things.
    I only hope the birds survive all that
    we have done to it. I would have
    liked to have spent a month on that
    island,enjoying the sun the water
    and the quietness.But that will never
    come again,only fond memories remain.

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