Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Monday, 1 August 2016

A Thousand Slimy Things Lived On...and So Did I

Midway Atoll has changed from a source of guano., to a 1930s Pan-Am refueling stop, to a WWII critical battle site, to a Vietnam refueling stop for old military aircraft and then to a U.S bird sanctuary.

There are currently 400,000 nesting pairs of Gooney birds (Albatross) on Midway, about 70% of the world population. The birds arrive in August and stay until late Fall. The mating ritual involves throwing back the head, flapping wings and yodeling in perfect synchronization for days on end. They are graceful in flight but ofter suffer midair collisions.  They frequently crash and tumble on takeoff rolls and on landing. They won't move from the nest if approached by humans or vehicles.

 Overhead the albatross
Hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves
In labyrinths of coral caves
An echo of a distant time
Comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine. 
-Pink Floyd


I stayed in this barracks a number of times after a 10 hour, 2,300 mile, flight from Japan. The Navy was our host and we showered and brushed our teeth in salt water. I often had diarhea here and first thought it was the water until someone told me that it came from eating raw snakes and eels days earlier in Okinawa.

The birds have to be in synch because they take turns shielding the nest from the sun, which kills many of the baby chicks every year. Up to 1,000 a day die in the hot sun and are hauled off to the incinerator....it is survival of the fittest...mother nature takes her toll.


Midway was the turning point in the Pacific war. The U.S. sank four Japanese heavy carriers here with great losses of their best pilots and airplanes. Japan never recovered from these losses. U.S. Navy code breakers allowed the Navy to learn the exact date (June 2, 1942) of the attack on Midway and position an inferior force to lie in wait.

For reasons not entirely understood the wandering albatross have a deferred mating pattern and do not return to Midway to mate until they are 8 or nine years old. Recently, a bird tagged in 1958 returned to mate which says something about lifespan..

 
The Breaking of JN-25
Breaking the Japanese code known to Americans as JN-25 was daunting. It consisted of approximately 45,000 five-digit numbers, each number representing a word or phrase. For transmission, the five-digit numbers were super-enciphered using an additive table. Breaking the code meant using mathematical analysis to strip off the additive, then analyzing usage patterns over time, determining the meaning of the five-digit numbers. T

AF Is Short of Water
In the spring of 1942, Japanese intercepts began to make references to a pending operation in which the objective was designated as "AF." In an effort to alleviate any doubt, in mid-May the commanding officer of the Midway installation was instructed to send a message in the clear indicating that the installation's water distillation plant had suffered serious damage and that fresh water was needed immediately. Shortly after the transmission, an intercepted Japanese intelligence report indicated that "AF is short of water." Armed with this information, Nimitz began to draw up plans to move his carriers to a point northeast of Midway.

The Gooney Bird's long wings are ill-suited to powered flight and most species lack the muscles and energy to undertake sustained flapping flight. Albatrosses in calm seas are forced to rest on the ocean's surface until the wind picks up again. 


I logged 2,800 hours of flying time at this C-124 navigator's station.  There is a lot of primitive WWII era gear here, including the APN-9 Loran A oscilloscope and a crappy radar. The best navigation aid was dead reckoning, followed by the bubble sextant.

The maximum takeoff weight of a C-124 is 197,000 pounds. Once, one of my pilots, wanting to fly 3,300 miles to Tacoma, had the empty airplane refueled to 110 percent of the allowable maximum weight.. We took off in the pre-dawn darkness, lumbering slowly to the very end of the runway and lifting off into the darkest night I can remember about five feet above the ocean. It took what seemed forever to get high enough that dipping a wing into the water was no longer a possibility.

 When taking off, albatrosses need to take a run up to allow enough air to move under the wing to provide lift.


The C-124 was designed for 5,000 hours of flight time, but often hit 50,000. It had the largest piston driven engines ever mounted on an airplane. The wings developed cracks and sometimes broke off in heavy turbulence. The last one was retired from the National Guard in 1974.

Gooney birds have been recorded flying non-stop over 4,000 miles to find food for the chicks. It's possible that the strenuous mating dance, which lasts for days, is a survival mechanism. The birds have to each be fit enough to share gathering food and sheltering the nest for months.


Above is a picture of Midway on December 7, 1941  after a sneak attack..

The picture below is the flight engineer's station on the C-124. They would do things like throws the levers to kick in the superchargers if we had to climb above 8,000 feet to get over a mountain range.

When a bird first returns to the colony it will dance with many partners, but after a number of years the number of birds an individual will interact with drops, until one partner is chosen and a pair is formed. They then continue to perfect an individual dance language that will eventually be unique to that one pair and last for life.


Young Phred Firecloud, the navigator.


Midway Atoll is about 1,200 miles from Hawaii. The atoll was formed about 28 million years ago by a volcano. The atoll is over the same hot spot that formed the Hawaiian Islands. The volcano gradually sank under its own weight, but the coral growth kept the atoll above water. This subsidence process is called isotonic adjustment.The atoll was claimed by a Captain Middleton for the U.S. in 1859 under the 1856 Uninhabited Island Guano Act.


Things change fast on the human scale of time, from the Battle of Midway to a bird sanctuary in my lifetime.


And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I. 
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Coleridge

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