Phoenix Islands

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The Phoenix Islands are now part of Kiribati (pronounced 'kiribas').

Colonial name Current name TIGHAR Map / Description
Birnie Island Birnie
Canton Island Abariringa Kanton
Carondelet Reef (submerged)
Enderbury Island Enderbury
Gardner Island Nikumaroro Map of TIGHAR's finds on Niku
Hull Island Orona Orona
McKean Island McKean
Phoenix Island Rawaki Rawaki
Sydney Island Manra Manra
Winslow Reef (submerged)
KI Phoenix islands.PNG

American and British Interest in the Phoenix Islands

Ric Gillespie, Forum, 28 April 2011.
There is a natural tendency to see everything that happened in the Pacific in the mid-to-late 1930s as a precursor to Pearl Harbor - but that's a mistake. True, U.S. and British strategic planning included contingencies that contemplated a possible war with Japan but that does not explain U.S./British competition for ownership of Canton. That was not about war. That was about money.
The U.S. and Great Britain were competitors for the embryonic transoceanic airline market. Pan Am's CEO, Juan Trippe, had been frustrated in his efforts to open the lucrative North Atlantic routes. His big Sikorsky flying boats could do the job but the Brits had refused to grant landing rights in Newfoundland and Northern Ireland. The U.S was willing to grant reciprocal landing rights but the Brits didn't have an airplane that could carry sufficient payload to make money on the long-haul routes. In 1935, Trippe turned to the Pacific where he could land his boats in U.S.-owned sheltered water in Hawaii, Midway, and Wake, and get landing rights in U.S.-dominated Manila. By 1937, Pan Am was flying mail and scheduled passenger service across the northern Pacific. The next big prize was service to "the Antipodes" (New Zealand and Australia). Anticipating aeronautical advancements that would allow land planes to fly transoceanic routes, the U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce had finagled the annexation of lagoon-less Jarvis, Howland and Baker islands hoping to eventually construct an airfield that would serve as a mid-Pacific refueling point - but for the moment the flying boat was king. Islands on the Hawaii/New Zealand route are scarce. Islands with landable lagoons are rarer. Suddenly the previously worthless Phoenix Group was golden. Canton, Sydney, Hull and Gardner all have big lagoons so the Brits took great pains to make sure the islands were properly placarded as the property of His Majesty. Canton was the best of the lot, so when the British eclipse party arrived in June 1937 to find a U.S. Navy ship there and the stars and stripes flying over the island, the guano hit the fan. British concern over reinforcing their claim of sovereignty to the Phoenix Group was the principal motivating factor in the establishment of the Phoenix Island Settlement Scheme and the colonization of Gardner, Sydney and Hull.
Ultimately, in 1939, the two countries agreed to share Canton and Pan Am began landing Boeing 314s in the lagoon. That same year, with war clouds gathering in Europe and tensions rising in Asia, the U.S. decided it needed to know more about the islands of the south central Pacific and sent USS Bushnell on a mapping survey. By early 1941 the diplomatic situation with Japan had deteriorated to the point that the islands were the focus of strategic concern. The Army started building an airfield on Canton in January and in June a squadron of Navy PBYs was sent down from Hawaii to fly photo missions over the Phoenix Group.