“(T)ake possession in our name of Palmyra Island, the said Island being situated in longtitude 161° 53′ west and in latitude 6° 4′ north not having been taken possession of by any other government or any other people …”
“… by erecting thereon a short pole with the Hawaiian flag wrapped round it and interring at the foot thereof a bottle well corked containing a paper signed by (Zenas Bent) in the following form viz: …”
“… Visited and taken possession of by order of His Majesty King Kamehameha IV, for him and his successors on the Hawaiian throne by the undersigned in the Schooner Louisa this day of . . . . . . . . . . . . 186. . . . . . .” (Kamehameha IV and Kuhina Nui, March 1, 1862) (Bent did so on April 15, 1862.)
Lot Kamehameha, the Minister of the Interior, duly issued a proclamation on June 18, 1862 as follows: “Whereas, On the 15th day of April, 1862, Palmyra Island, in latitude 5° 50′ North, and longitude 161° 53′ West, was taken possession of, with the usual formalities …”
“… by Captain Zenas Bent, he being duly authorized to do so, in the name of Kamehameha IV, King of the Hawaiian Islands. Therefore, This is to give notice, that the said island, so taken possession of, is henceforth to be considered and respected as part of the Domain of the King of the Hawaiian Islands.” (Lot Kamehameha, Minister of Interior)
Later legal decisions note that ownership of Palmyra was held privately, initially in the name of Bent and Johnson B Wilkinson. Palmyra Atoll was a part of the Territory of Hawaii prior to Hawaii’s entering the Union on August 21, 1959. Congress expressly excluded Palmyra from the State of Hawaii by section 2 of the Hawaii Statehood Act. (DOI)
Palmyra Atoll is situated nine hundred sixty miles south by west of Honolulu and three hundred fifty-two miles north of the Equator. The atoll has an area of about one and one-half square miles with numerous islets in the shape of a horse shoe surrounding two lagoons.
The climate is wet and humid, as the dense vegetation evidences. Palmyra lies near the zone where the northeast and southeast trade winds meet. The contact between these bodies of air forces the warmer air to rise, to become cooled and to drop its moisture in the form of tropical rain.
“‘Don’t wait to get fresh milk from Honolulu. Use the cow of the Pacific.’ The coconut is known as the cow of the Pacific. Its milk is very nourishing. I said, ‘Get me two nuts and I’ll show you how to make both cream and milk.’” (Fullard-Leo)
Palmyra Atoll is the northernmost atoll in the Line Islands Archipelago halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa. The atoll received its name from the American vessel Palmyra under the command of Captain Sawle, who sought shelter there on November 7, 1802.
The Palmyra group is a coral covered atoll of about fifty islets, some with trees, and extends – reefs, intervening water and land – 5 2/3 sea miles in an easterly and westerly direction and 1 1/3 sea miles northwardly and southwardly. (US Supreme Court)
One prior owner, Judge Henry Cooper Sr made short visits to Palmyra in 1913 and 1914 for two to three weeks and built a house there in 1913. The judge’s house collapsed by 1938.
In 1920 and 1921 the Palmyra Copra Company was actively engaged on the island under a lease from Cooper. On August 19, 1922, the Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo bought all but two of the Palmyra islands.
As a militaristic Japan made inroads into China in the 1930s, concern heightened for the security of Wake, Midway, Johnston, and Palmyra Islands, the outposts protecting Hawaii, a vital staging area for a war in the Pacific.
In 1934, Palmyra Atoll was placed under the Department of the Navy. According to the November 3 issue of The Coast Defense Journal (courtesy of John Voss), “Rear Admiral Claude Bloch announced the establishment of Naval Air Station Palmyra Island on 8/15/41, officially opening the air station.”
“They used (the atoll) during the war as a base; constructed two hospitals there to bring the wounded from the west and southwest Pacific”. (Fullard-Leo)
On December 23, 1941, a little more than two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine surfaced offshore at Palmyra Island, 1,000 miles south of Hawai‘i, and opened fire.
The enemy’s target that day: a new U.S. Naval Air Station that was still under construction. Specifically, enemy guns focused on the “Sacramento,” a US Corps of Engineers dredge anchored in the atoll’s central lagoon.
The Sacramento was hit, but only lightly, and when U.S. forces promptly returned fire, the Japanese vessel submerged, never to be seen again. That incident marked the only war-time attack on Palmyra. From then on, until the fighting ended in 1945, the atoll served as a strategic Pacific outpost for the U.S. military. (TNC)
Around the atoll’s periphery, pill boxes were built for defense while further inland a line of small coastal gun emplacements and command posts were installed. Roads, waterlines, warehouses, barracks, a mess hall, radio station, cold storage plant, ammunitions depot, hospital and other elements of a modern infrastructure were also constructed.
The primary mission of the Palmyra Naval Air Station was to serve as a troop transport and re-servicing and staging point for U.S. aircraft and small ships en-route to the south and southwest Pacific.
Palmyra’s growth in personnel, from 112 men on December 7, 1941, to the maximum of 2,410 men in August of 1943, and its subsequent reduction to 428 men in July of 1945, traces its importance in the early years of the war and its later decline. (TNC)
After several private transfers, title is now held by The Nature Conservancy. It is an incorporated Territory of the US. On January 18, 2001, the Secretary of the Interior signed Secretary’s Order No. 3224, which transferred all executive, legislative and judicial authority from the Office of Insular Affairs to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Palmyra is part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the Central Pacific Ocean that ranges from Wake Atoll in the northwest to Jarvis Island in the southeast. The seven atolls and islands included within the monument are farther from human population centers than any other US area. (Lots of information here is from TNC, DOI &US Supreme Court.)