Cook Islands
by Jack McKillop

Physical Description & History

The Cook Islands are 15 islands in the South Pacific extending from  8°55'S to 21°57'S and 157°19'W to 165°53'W. Total land area is 92.7 square-miles (240 square-kilometers). The islands are divided into two grous, the northern Cook Islands and southern Cook Islands. The northern group are seven low lying, sparsely populated, coral atolls while the southern group, where most of the population lives, consists of eight elevated, fertile, volcanic isles.
     The British explorer, navigator and cartographer Captain James Cook was the first European to see these islands between 1773 and 1777. The southern group of islands were made a protectorate of the United Kingdom in 1888; several islands in the northern group were also declared a British protectorate in the 1890s. On 7 October 1900, New Zealand annexed the islands and the boundaries of New Zealand were extended to include all 15 islands on 11 June 1901. New Zealand administered the islands until 1965 when, following an act of self-determination under United Nations auspices, the Cook Islands became a sovereign state in free association with New Zealand. Queen Elizabeth II is the official head of state.
     Early in 1942, the U.S. Army Air Forces’ (USAAF) Ferrying Command headquarters (redesignated Air Transport Command on 20 June 1942) had been planning an alternate route, or routes, that for safety would run farther south than did the original South Pacific airway. In time, hard fighting on Guadalcanal eliminated the risk that had first inspired the plan, but a secondary consideration survived—the hope that fighter aircraft might be ferried down to the South Pacific and Southwest Pacific. Two islands were selected in the Cook Islands and in November 1942, USAAF engineer aviation battalions landed and built airfields. Upon completion of the airfields in 1943, the U.S. Navy also occupied these two airfields in support of the Naval Air Transport Service which performed a similar mission as the Air Transport Command.

Aitutaki, Naval Air Transport System Base

     Aitutaki Atoll, in the southern group of islands, has a wide surrounding reef and large lagoon that is 5-miles (8-kilometers) across. The atoll consists of 18 islands and islets with a total land area of 6.9 square-miles (17.9 square-kilometers). The largest island, Aitutaki located at the northern end of the atoll, is 6.5 square-miles (16.8 square-kilometers). The highest point on the island is 403-feet (123-meters).
     The barrier reef that forms the basis of Aitutaki Atoll is roughly the shape of an equilateral triangle with sides 7.4-miles (12-kilometers) in length. The southern edge of the triangle is almost totally below the surface of the ocean, and the eastern side is composed of a string of small islands.
     Aitutaki Airfield (18°49' 51"S, 159°45' 51"W), on the northern tip of Aitutaki Island, was built by U.S. Army troops and New Zealand laborers. Two runways were built, both 300-foot (91-meter) wide; the east-west runway was 5,000-feet (1,524-meters) long and the north-south runway was 6,000-feet (1,829-meters) long. In addition to the two runways, two 10,000-foot (3,048-meter) seaplane landing areas were created in the southeastern part of the lagoon by blasting coral reefs in the lagoon.
     This airfield was located 555-miles (893-kilometers) west-southwest of Bora Bora in French Polynesia, 684-miles (1,101-kilometers) south of Tongareva (see below) and 788-miles (1,268-kilometers) east-southeast of Tutuila Airfield on American Samoa. The airfield was a convenient refueling point for aircraft, especially fighters, flying between these points. The first aircraft landed on 22 November 1942.
     The naval base was established in 1943 and closed in September 1944. In 2011, this former military base is known as Aitutaki Airport.

Tongareva, Naval Air Transport System Base

     Tongareva (now Penrhyn) Atoll (8°59'S, 157°58'W) is in the northern group of islands and is the most remote and largest atoll of the 15 Cook Islands. The atoll comprises a ring of coral 48-miles (77-kilometers) around, and just 13-feet (4-meters) above sea level at the highest point and consists of 20 islands and islets. Its superb lagoon covers 90 square-miles (233 square-kilometers). The land area is about 3.8 square-miles (9.8 square-kilometers) while the lagoon is about 108 square-miles (280 square-kilometers). The islands sit atop the highest submarine volcano in the Cook Islands, 15,917-feet (4,876-meters) above the ocean floor and maximum elevation is less than 16-feet (5-meters).
     Construction of the 7,500-foot (2 2865-meter) airstrip (9°01' 00"S, 158°01' 51"W) on Moananui Island began in November 1942 by 1,000 American soldiers that had landed on 8 November. It remained in service with the U.S. Army Air Forces until 20 September 1946. A seaplane base was also built on the eastern side of the atoll. When completed in early 1943, facilities were constructed for the Navy’s Naval Air Transport Service which operated from this airfield until May 1944.
     This airfield is located 684-miles (1,101-kilometers) north of Aitutaki Airfield (see above), 663-miles (1,066-kilometers) northwest of Bora Bora in French Polynesia, 932-miles (1,500-kilometers) east-northeast of Tutuila Airfield on American Samoa, and 2,080-miles (3 219-kilometers) south of Hickam Field, Territory of Hawaii.