The American Equatorial and Phoenix Islands

The Phoenix Islands group in the mid-1930s was uninhabited. Consisting of the islands of Canton, Enderbury, Phoenix, Birnie, McKean, Garner, Hull, Sydney and the Carondelet Reef, they are now referred to as: Kanton or Canton, Enderbury, Phoenix, Birnie, Orona, Nikumaroro, Manra, and Carondelet Reef, and are part of the nation of Kiritbati. Geographically, these islands straddle the dry/wet boundary of rainfall located near the equator, so some islands appear to be lush with vegetation, whereas others hardly have any groundcover at all.

By the late 1920s, the US and British governments independently were considering many of the mid-Pacific islands as possible stepping stones for commercial, and possibly military, purposes. With Pan American Airways undertaking cross-Pacific air travel and mail service in 1935, more serious consideration by various parties began. Probably spurred by the president of PAA, Juan Trippe, the US Navy began to consider occupying many of the mid-Pacific Islands by the end of 1934, as PAA needed stops from Honolulu if it was to seriously garner the American /Australian/ New Zealand air mail routes it was coveting. PAA managed to sign a contract with New Zealand for air mail services, despite not having plane equipment available. There was just one problem with that contract: New Zealand wanted reciprocal rights for British airlines to land in the US, as they were most interested in connections to Canada. Clearly, Hawaii was a necessary key to any cross-Pacific air routes, but the US government was adamant that no foreign government be allowed to land any planes in Hawaii, due to the large military bases located there.

Based upon national security reasons, the US government blocked any attempts by Great Britain for reciprocal landing rights. Britain, of course, resented this, and attempted to leverage the US into ceding landing rights in Hawaii. Having already gained sovereignty over most of the islands between Hawaii and the Australian region, Britain began to gather in any other islands that it possibly could claim rights to. If Britain could claim an island essential for PAA to stop at while en route to New Zealand, perhaps that could convince the US to cede reciprocal landing rights in Hawaii. Similarly, the US began the same practice of claiming islands, as utilization of islands by PAA could also be used militarily, if necessary, as advance bases for Hawaii. Thus, the great island grab race was on.1

The Sovereignty Cruises

In March, 1935, the Bureau of Air Commerce, under the Department of Commerce, began formally colonizing the islands of Baker, Howland, and Jarvis. The administrator of this project was William Miller of the BAC, with help from the US Coast Guard to ferry supplies and provisions to the islands from Hawaii. The first colonists were US Army soldiers, appropriately renouncing their commissions to become civilians. However, great discord arose among each of the islands’ four colonists, and it was decided that better suited individuals could be found from the Kamehameha School in Honolulu, devoted solely to teaching Hawaiian natives. The thought at the time was that Hawaiian natives could handle the harsh environments and isolation, as reprovisioning cruises were every 3 months or so. There was no radio communication between the islands and Hawaii, raising concerns about health emergencies, etc. The colonists were instructed in taking meteorological and tidal observations, and in keeping a diary of daily events. (Many of these diaries still exist, and are fascinating to read.) Meanwhile, the meteorological observations were forwarded to the Department of Agriculture and to Pan American Airways. Preliminary surveys of the islands indicate that Jarvis was the best suited for runways.

In March, 1936, an abrupt removal of the colonists from the islands was undertaken. Behind the scenes, an interdepartmental fight was goin on between the Department of Commerce and Interior. FDR finally decided the dispute in favor of Interior, and signed a proclamation of sovereignty on May 13, delegating administration to the Department of Interior. The Division of Territories and Island Possessions, headed by Dr. Ernest Gruening, sought out Richard Black, who served Admiral Byrd in Antarctica, to be the administrator of the Equatorial Islands, and would be based in Honolulu. The recolonization of the island began in June, 1936, but neither Miller nor Black was available to oversee the landing of men and supplies from the US Coast Guard ships. Miller was temporarily assigned to the Department of Interior to train Black, and both served on the next cruise for reprovisioning. After this cruise, Miller went back to the Bureau of Air Commerce, and Black took over. By this time, Chinese radio operators were added to each island, so that daily communication of weather and health issues could be handled. When Black took over, he was still considering Jarvis as the prime island for construction of runways. It wasn’t until Earhart discussed Howland with William Miller as a possible landing site that Howland became the primary site. With prodding from Earhart and Miller, FDR approved a Works Project Administration effort for building the runways on Howland, early in 1937. To date, no airplane has ever landed on Howland, although Baker supported landing operations during World War II.

The Equatorial Islands were continuously inhabited until February, 1942, when evacuations were undertaken due to bombing of Howland by the Japanese in December, 1941. Two colonists died in service: one in 1938 due to a ruptured appendix; the other of wounds suffered during the bombing of Howland.

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands, thickly inhabited, were administered by Great Britain through the Western Pacific High Commission. A serious overpopulation problem prompted consideration of moving individuals to the Phoenix Islands. Along with the aeronautical pressures, surveys of the Phoenix Islands were conducted by H.M.S. Wellington in August, 1935,2 which resulted in the first modern, if not terribly accurate, map of the atoll. The cruiser H.M.S. Leith visited the Phoenix Islands in February, 1937, placing placards on all of the islands stating the island was in possession of HM King George VI, and hoisting the Union Jack. Based upon the ship logs, the individual visits lasted approximately one hour or less.

The Battle of Canton Island

On June 8, 1937, a total eclipse of the sun was expected to cross the mid-Pacific, and the Phoenix Islands appeared to be well situated for viewing. Independently, a joint US Navy/National Geographic and a British scientific team planned on setting up equipment on either Enderbury or Canton Islands. The US team, staging out of Honolulu, left on May 6 aboard the USS Avocet, a seaplane tender, headed to Enderbury. Based upon advice from the US State Department, no notification was provided to Great Britain about this visit, as it would add credence to their possible claim of sovereignty.

Upon arrival on May 13th, it was determined that landing equipment would be too hazardous, and the ship moved to Canton Island, which had decidedly better conditions for landing equipment and men ashore. The first night, however, the ship’s anchor slipped off the sandy bottom, and the Avocet had to cruise under steam that night. The next day, a better moorage was found, a dock set up on the beach, and equipment rapidly loaded onto land. Events progressed reasonably, until H.M.S. Wellington showed up on May 26 with their own eclipse equipment. The Wellington requested the Avocet to vacate its mooring, as other moorings for the Wellington were insufficient. An apocryphal account indicates that shots over one another’s bows were made, but that is doubtful. Nevertheless, the Avocet refused to vacate, so the Wellington had to make do. Both ships radioed their respective governments, and protests were filed back and forth, as should good bureaucracies. Each party raised a plinth and raised monument, with plaques proclaiming sovereignty and flags. The eclipse on June 8 was viewed successfully, and each party vacated Canton just as soon as equipment could be loaded aboard ship. Thus, the First Battle of Canton ended in a draw.3

Also in May, 1937, John William Jones of the Burns-Philp Company, arrived in the Phoenix Islands with 38 Tokelau natives, to plant coconuts and work copra. His primary location was Hull, but Sydney was also worked for copra. In November, 1937, the Itasca visited Hull, and the official Equatorial Island Cruise Report written by the Department of Interior representatives had this to say:

... Arrived at Hull about 8:30A.M [November 13, 1937]. After looking over island reef for boat passages to lagoon, stood up to camp site where British colors were flying. A boat put out carrying two paddlers and Mr. John William Jones. He arrived in May, 1937, on the Burns-Philp boat Makoa which was wrecked on the reef at campsite. Her ribs alone remain now on the reef. In June Mr. Jones was named Deputy Administrator of Phoenix Group, under Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. He has 38 Tokelau natives working and planting coconuts (seven married couples) and expects to ship about ninety tons copra a year, almost negligible amount it seems. Natives came with him in June. In October he placed eleven natives on Sydney Island, but whether by his 38 foot open sailing boat (he is a Master Mariner, from England) or in some ship, was not learned. He has sailed to Sydney and back, we found. He asked us to take a row-boat to Sydney, which we are doing. A letter written by one of his natives explains this. We offered him use of our radio but he declined. Later he took Mr. Kelhner aside and said "I don't know who those other people are but I'll tell you that I have radio power enough to work Australia." Earlier he said over a glass of beer, after we talked of Baker and Howland and of getting coconuts for them, "Why didn't you people take these islands (Phoenix) when you were taking islands. Your claim to them is as good as ours," etc.

Mr. Jones told us of the wreck of the Norwich City lying on Gardner Island. She struck in 1919, and the Makoa saw her recently and stated there was much good material aboard her such as anchors, winches, etc. The bodies of nine men lost in the wreck, drowned or killed by sharks (he said) were buried ashore, but wild pigs dug them up and their skeletons now lie on the beach. The survivors were taken off the island.4

A tentative agreement was reached between Washington and London that the various claims to the islands of the Phoenix Group would be negotiated, and that further claims to sovereignty would be placed on hold, as would further colonization. Britain did not live up to their bargain, placing two British agents, G. V. Langdale and F. H. Rostier, and a Gilbertese servant, were landed on Canton on August 31, 1937, receiving supplies from British warships every six months or so.5 A radio station was established. Black and Gruening visited Canton on November 15, 1937, and the two British agents clearly knew what was about. Gruening had requested permission from the US State Department for a tour of the Phoenix Islands, and was rebuffed, as negotiations were ongoing with the British. Eventually, he was allowed to visit the islands, so long as nothing was done to provoke the British. Clearly, though, this visit to the Phoenix Islands was a precursor to colonization by the US.

Negotiations had broken down between the British and the US, so FDR acceded to action: direct inhabitation of Enderbury and Canton to strengthen the claim of US sovereignty rights. Under great secrecy, the Roger B. Taney sailed from Honolulu with provisions for Howland, Baker, and Jarvis, along with a full complement of gear and colonists for the two Phoenix Islands. On March 6, 1938, the Taney landed at Enderbury, offloading supplies and personnel. Conspicuous on the beach was a new plaque installed in October, 1937, by Harry Maude, in charge of the Phoenix Island Settlement Scheme, who landed Gilbertese colonists on Gardner, Hull, and Sydney Islands. On March 7, 1938, the Taney sailed to Canton, landing supplies and personnel after finding the Union Jack flying. Langdale was still in charge, but Rositier had been replaced by Tom Manning. Black, along with Captain Coffin of the Taney, informed the British agents that they were acting under orders from the US government to set up a permanent camp and aerological station. The actual dialog was recorded in the official Equatorial Cruise Report:

8:17AM: Black: This is a bit embarrassing. I have instructions from my government to land and establish a camp here, partly for scientific reasons and partly other things.
Langdale: That's interesting. We can only say that you are landing on British Territory. Of course, we cannot prevent your landing.6
Additional information can be found in an undated report made by Richard Black:
I [Black] then remarked that conversations were being held between Washington and London concerning actual sovereignty, and that I was merely following explicit orders from Washington. Mr. Langdale then invited me into the house where he showed me his commission and a copy of an Order in Council as printed in the Western Pacific High Commission Gazette dated April 8, 1938 [sic - 1937], at Suva, Fiji, extending the limits of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony to include the entire Phoenix Group. I informed him that copies of the letter instrument were on file in Washington and Honolulu. He then asked if it was our intention to hoist American colors and he was informed that this was part of the plan. When he officially protested this act I answered that the now joint claim of ownership to Canton Island was a question to be settled by the two Governments. He agreed that the matter was one for diplomats, and we passed pleasant remarks about our respective inexperience in diplomatic contact.7
Thus ended the Second Battle of Canton, fought without firing a single round. Eventually, the two governments agreed to jointly administer Canton in a condominium fashion, with signatures on August 10, 1938. The agreement provided access to the British to share aeronautical facilities on Canton, but no commercial ventures by the British were undertaken. Shortly thereafter, Pan American Airways began to build their hotel and landing facilities, and started operations in 1939. During World War II, Canton became an important naval base for both the British and Americans.
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