Part of the equatorial “Line Islands” and “Pacific Remote Islands,” Baker, Howland and Jarvis Islands were first formed as fringing reefs around islands formed by volcanoes (approximately 120-75 million years ago). As the volcanoes subsided, the coral reefs grew upward forming low coral islands.
Howland Island lies 1,650 sea miles to the southwest of Honolulu, and 48 miles north of the equator. It and Baker Island, which lies about 35 miles to the south and a little east, are located northwest of the Phoenix group, and are 1,000 miles west of Jarvis.
There is evidence to suggest that Howland Island was the site of prehistoric settlement, probably in the form of a single community utilizing several adjacent islands. Archaeological sites have been discovered on Manra and Orona, which suggest two distinct groups of settlers, one from eastern Polynesia and one from Micronesia.
US whaling ships first sighted the islands in 1822. The islands are habitat for birds. Alfred G Benson and Charles H Judd took formal possession of the islands (as well as Jarvis Island) in 1857 in the name of the American Guano Company of New York (consistent with the Guano Act of August 18, 1856.)
The Guano Act stated that “when any citizen of the United States discovers a guano deposit on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same island, rock, or key, it appertains to the United States.”
“The Peruvian Government has monopolized the supply of Guano throughout the United States … on account of said monopoly, the Farmers of this country have hithertofore been obliged to pay for said article about $50 a ton … it is the duty of the American Government to assert its sovereignty over any and all barren and uninhabitable guano islands of the ocean which have been or hereafter may be discovered by citizens of the United States …” (American Guano Company Prospectus, 1856)
“This Company own(s) an island in the Pacific Ocean, covered with a deposit of more than two hundred million tons of ammoniated guano and have dispatched a ship, agent, and men, to maintain possession thereof.” (American Guano Company Prospectus, 1856)
Rich guano deposits were mined throughout the later part of the 19th century, however, the guano business gradually disappeared, just before the turn of the century. Thoughts of and activities on the islands disappeared.
Then, in mid-1930s, the US Bureau of Air Commerce (later known as Department of Commerce) was looking for sites along the air route between Australia and California to support trans-Pacific flight operations (non-stop, trans-Pacific flying was not yet possible, so islands were looked to as potential sites for the construction of intermediate landing areas.)
The United States reasserted its claim to the islands in 1935 (followed by President Franklin D Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 7368 to clarify American sovereignty and jurisdiction over the islands, on May 13, 1936.)
To affirm a claim, international law required non-military occupation of all neutral islands for at least one year. An American colony was established.
The US Bureau of Air Commerce believed that native Hawaiian men would be best suited for the role as colonizers and they turned to Kamehameha Schools graduates to fill the role.
“They looked for someone that had some Hawaiian background. And that’s why they came to Kamehameha Schools to see if they can get someone from the school to participate because of our descendance as part-Hawaiians, that we would be used to the South Pacific or wherever.” (James Carroll, colonist)
School administration selected the participants based on various academic, citizenship and ROTC-related criteria, as well as their meeting specified requirements for the job: “The boys have to be grown-up, know how to fish in the native manner, swim excellently and handle a boat, that they be disciplined, friendly, and unattached, that they could stand the rigors of a South Seas existence.”
On March 30, 1935, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Itasca departed in secrecy from Honolulu Harbor with 6 young Hawaiians aboard (all recent graduates of Kamehameha Schools) and 12 furloughed army personnel, whose purpose was to occupy the barren islands of Baker, Howland and Jarvis for 3-months.
“Once you get there, you wish you never got there. You know, you’re on this island just all by yourself and it’s, you know, nothing there at all. Just birds, birds, millions and millions of birds. And you just don’t know what to do with yourself, you know. It takes you a while to adjust to that, but once you adjust to it, it’s fine.” (Elvin Mattson, colonist)
The American colonists were landed from the Itasca, April 3, 1935. They have built a lighthouse, substantial dwellings and attempt to grow various plants.
Cruises by Coast Guard cutters made provisioning trips approximately every three months to refit and rotate the colonists stationed on each island. Soon plans were put into place to build airfields on the islands and permanent structures were built.
In addition to their basic duties of collecting meteorological data for the government, the colonists kept busy by building and improving their camps, clearing land, growing vegetables, attempting reforestation and collecting scientific data for the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.
In their free time, they would fish, dive, swim, surf/bodysurf, lift weights, box, play football, hunt rats, experiment with bird recipes, play music, sing and find other ways of occupying themselves.
Tragedy struck twice: Carl Kahalewai, a graduate of McKinley High School, died of appendicitis while he was being rushed home for an emergency operation; and on December 8, 1941, when the islands of Howland and Baker were bombed and shelled by the Japanese, Joseph Keliʻihananui and Richard “Dickie” Whaley were killed.
Howland Island played a role in the tragic disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred J Noonan during their around-the-world flight in 1937. They left Lae, New Guinea and headed for Howland Island; the Itasca was at Howland Island to guide Earhart to the island once she arrived in the vicinity – they didn’t arrive and were never seen again. A lighthouse (later a day beacon) was built on Howland Island in Earhart’s honor.
The colonists were removed, following Japanese attacks on the islands in 1942. US military personnel occupied the islands during World War II. The islands have remained unoccupied since that time, but they are visited annually by US Fish and Wildlife personnel because the islands are a National Wildlife Refuge and later part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
During the 7 years of colonization (1936-1942,) more than 130 young men participated in the project, the majority of whom were Hawaiian; none of the islands were ever used for commercial aviation, but the islands eventually served military purposes. (Pan American Airways used Canton (Kanton) Island for its trans-Pacific flight flying boat operations.)
As early as 1939, members of previous trips formed a club to “perpetuate the fellowship of Hawaiian youths who have served as colonists on American equatorial islands.” Initially they were called the “Hui Kupu ʻĀina,” which suggests the idea of sprouting, growing and increasing land.
By 1946 the group’s name had changed to “Hui Panalāʻau,” which has been variously translated as “club of settlers of the southern islands,” “holders of the land society” and “society of colonists.” (Lots of information and images here are from Bishop Museum.)