By the Friends of Midway Atoll Vice President, Helen Dunlap
In the cold of January 2001, I went to a travel show at the Chicago Rosemont Convention Center where the concession for Midway Atoll was marketing trips to Midway. I jumped on the opportunity to travel there. While I honestly had little direct knowledge of what I was signing up for, traveling to new places was a family tradition, having done two trips to Africa in the late 60’s. In the early 70’s I lived with a zoologist, a friend of my father’s, who was working in East Africa, and I was lucky to take trips for work to many parts of the world. But Midway was personal. I knew my father was stationed on Midway in June 1941 and I remembered his stories about these birds that would regularly crash land, get up, dust themselves off and dance.
So in late March 2001, off to Midway I went. It was beyond enchanting. In seven days, I learned that albatross and other seabirds were as fascinating as elephants. U.S. interests in Midway were a critical part of the Atoll’s history for well over 100 years and the whole of the Atoll was a mecca for marine trash. I came home and wrote a letter describing my experience to my sister who had been pushing bird watching since she was ten years old.
I remembered the drawings of the gooney birds my father brought home and was lucky enough to find them. Good news that my mother was a saver. The drawings were on newsprint and fragile but more than vibrant representations of the life cycle of the albatross. They were signed by a G. Levin, who I knew nothing about.
I continued to increase my interest and engagement with Midway by joining the Friends of Midway Atoll (FOMA) and later becoming a board member. I traveled to the Atoll at every moment when one could do it with the Oceanic Society in 2012 when I took a framed original drawing to Midway where it is now hanging in the Fish and Wildlife Service office. And in 2017, I returned again to support the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway.
Around 2016, I tried to see if I could possibly identify the artist, G. Levin, as well as explore the experience of my father and others during the war.
A barrier of on-island information was a realization that most of the Battle of Midway was a battle fought at sea and in the air, so the Navy personnel on Midway were important to the history but not typically part of the story.
Nonetheless, I had an opportunity to meet and get to know veterans like Sergeant Fox and Colonel Miniclier who were stationed on Midway during the Battle and learned the Fish and Wildlife Service focused on preserving all aspects of Midway’s story. A turning point for me in this story was a message I received from FOMA President, Wayne Sentman, who shared a Facebook post by Bill Levin from Minnesota who had written about his father, George Levin. Another Navy Ensign, George Lloyd Levin, entered the Navy in June 1941 and by October was stationed on Midway to supervise maintenance of Navy PBY Catalinas and he sketched albatross! It was exciting to connect directly with him and it was clear my father and Bill’s father, George Levin, had shared a war time friendship and the humor of watching a gooney bird land.
As FOMA has had the capacity to increase efforts to share the stories of Midway, the FOMA Board and FWS have been able to increase these important connections. Last fall, thanks to the incredible efforts of Jon Brack and Ann Bell, I had the moment of a lifetime when Brack, FOMA director of An Infamous Day, 80th Anniversary Attacks on Pearl Harbor and Midway Atoll, reached out to Bill Levin and learned that George Levin was stationed on Midway on December 7th, 1941. When Bill was digging around in his father’s memory chest, he located his father’s diary and in the entries dated Dec. 7th – 16th, 1941 – and there was my father, Frank’s, name. The reflection of these two young Ensigns hearing about the bombing of Pearl Harbor while sitting on tiny island 1200 miles northwest of Honolulu sends chills each time I think about it.
As I write these memories, I want to remember that Midway is an unbelievable asset to all. Each time I can share any aspect of this story I hear and see new energy for the preservation of this special place. One cannot look at George Levin’s drawings and not smile.