Palmyra Atoll
by Jack McKillop

Physical Features

     Palmyra Atoll (05°52' 59"N, 162°04' 58"W) is located about 1,100-miles (1,770-kilometers) south-southwest of Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii and about 405-miles (652-kilometers) north of the Equator. The atoll consists of about 52 small islets of about 250-acres (101-hectares). The atoll is shaped like a horseshoe and incloses three distinct lagoons, each having 20-or-more-fathoms (120-or-more-feet) of water but without openings or passages, even for boats. Today, the islets of the atoll are all connected, except Sand Island in the West and Barren Island in the East. The largest island is Cooper Island in the North, followed by Kaula Island in the South. The northern arch of islets is formed by Strawn Island, Cooper Island, Aviation Island, Quail Island, Whippoorwill Island, followed in the east by Eastern Island, Papala Island, and Pelican Island, and in the south by Bird Island, Holei Island, Engineer Island, Tananger Island, Marine Island, Kaula Island, Paradise Island and Home Island (clockwise).
     The islets are low, the highest being only 6-feet (1.8-meters) above the sea, and covered with bush and coconut trees which are extremely high, from 50-to-60-feet (15-to-18-meters), and are visible in clear weather from a ship's deck 12-to-15-miles (19-to-24-kilometers) away.
     The climate is wet and humid, as evidenced by the dense vegetation. Daytime temperatures average 85°F (29.4°C) year round while rainfall exceeds 100-inches (2.5-metes) per year; yet there are many clear days. The largest islet has an is 46-acres (19-hectares) and the smallest 0.47-acre (0.19-hectares). Freshwater is obtained either by conserving the rainfall or by distillation from sea water. Surrounding the islets and the lagoons is a platform of coral and hard sand on which one can walk from one islet to another, even at high water. At low water parts of the platform are dry. This platform measures 4.75-miles (7.64-kilometers) east and west by 1.5-miles (2.41-kilometers) wide. U. S. Naval installations include roads, runways, and causeways which interconnect about 25 of the larger islets. A dredged channel cuts through the barrier reef into the west lagoon, which serves as the harbor and turning basin for ships of less than 20-foot (6.1-meter) draft, bringing in all food, supplies, general stores, and equipment.


     Palmyra was first sighted in 1798, by an American sea captain while his ship was in transit to Asia, but the first western people did not land on the uninhabited atoll until 7 November 1802. On that date, Captain Sawle of the U.S. registered ship Palmyra was wrecked on the atoll. On 26 February 1862, Kamehameha IV, Fourth King of Hawaii issued a commission to Captain Zenas Bent and Johnson B. Wilkinson, both Hawaiian citizens, to sail to Palmyra and to take possession of the atoll in the king's name and it was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Hawaii on 15 April 1862.
     In 1898, Palmyra was annexed to the United States with the overall U.S. annexation of Hawaii; and on 14 June 1900, it became part of the Territory of Hawaii. In the period preceding the formal annexation of the atoll by the U.S., the British had shown interest for the atoll, and in 1889, the British had even formally annexed it. To end all further British attempts or contestations, a second, separate act of annexation of Palmyra by the U.S. was made in 1911. Meanwhile, word reached Honolulu that British interests had designs on Palmyra so on 17 February 1912, the USS West Virginia (Armored Cruiser No. 5), quietly slipped out of Honolulu, and returned on the February 28th with the announcement that they had taken formal possession of Palmyra in the name of the U.S. on 20 February 1912 and was formally claimed by the U.S. government, still as part of the Territory of Hawaii. In 1934, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra were placed under the Department of the Navy.

Preparations for World War II

     In 1938, the Naval Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives inserted a section in a bill stating, “The Secretary of the Navy is hereby authorized and directed to appoint a board consisting of not less than five officers to investigate and report upon the need, for purposes of national defense, for the establishment of additional submarines, destroyer, mine, and naval air bases on the coasts of the United States, its Territories, and possessions.” This provision was approved by the House and Senate and, according to the directive contained in this act, a Board headed by Admiral Arthur Hepburn was appointed by the Secretary of the Navy. The report of the Hepburn Board was submitted to the Speaker of the House of Representatives on 27 December 1938; the estimated cost of constructing all the projects included in this report was US$326,216,000 ($US5.2 billion in 2011 dollars).
     Both the Senate and House passed bills that authorized and directed the Secretary of the Navy to establish, develop or increase naval aviation facilities at or near Pearl Harbor and Kaneohe Bay, Territory of Hawaii; Midway Islands; Wake Island; Johnston Island; Palmyra Atoll; Kodiak and Sitka, Alaska; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida; and Guam, at a cost not to exceed US$65 million (US$1.042 billion in 2011 dollars).
     Canton, Johnston and Palmyra were to be developed to permit tender-based patrol-plane operations. This would require the dredging of channels into the lagoons to permit entry of small tenders and the clearing of coral heads within the lagoons to provide enough area for full-load take-off. Preliminary surveys were made on Palmyra Atoll during 1938, and the first civilian party to begin construction sailed from Honolulu 14 November 1939. Also in November 1939, the atoll was declared a U.S. Naval defense area, and all foreign, public and private vessels and planes were prohibited.
     Field work at Palmyra began on 27 January 1940. A temporary boat channel, 25-feet (7.62-meters) wide and 5-feet (1.52-meters) deep, was developed during the first two weeks. In March 1940, work was begun to enlarge this channel to a width of 80-feet (24-meters) and a depth of 15-feet (4.57-meters) by use of a dredge towed from Pearl Harbor. Once inside the lagoon, it also dredged access channels to Menge and Cooper islands, the two principal land masses. Following the recommendations of the Hepburn Board, a larger dredge began operations on an 11,000-foot (3,353-meter) seaplane runway and deepened the existing ship channel.
     Later, a revision in plans caused an increase of Palmyra's facilities to support land-based planes. As no single islet provided the necessary length for an airstrip, spoil from the dredging operations was pumped between Menge (05°53' 26"N, 162°05' 30"W) and Cooper (05°53' 18"N, 162°04' 54"W) islands and on the lagoon side of Cooper Island. After this coral fill was rolled, no further treatment was necessary, and the ultimate result was a runway, 5,000-feet (1,524-meters) long and 300-feet (91-meters) wide. A smaller runway, 3,700-by-200-feet (1,128-by-61-meters), also of compacted coral, was constructed on Menge Island, and a concrete seaplane ramp (05°53' 17"N, 162°05' 19"W) was added.
     On 14 April 1941, the Marine Detachment, 1st Defense Battalion, Palmyra Island was established. This unit consisted of 158 men equipped with four 5-inch (127-millimeter) guns, four 3-inch (76-millimeter) anti-aircraft guns, eight 0.50-caliber (12.7-millimeter) heavy machine guns and eight 0.30-caliber (7.62-millimeter) heavy machine guns. To house these men, a second expansion of plans necessitated additional quarters. Four 60-men barracks were built, and extensions were added to a previously completed galley and messhall.
     Naval Air Station Palmyra Island was officially designated a naval air station on 17 August 1941. This NAS was tasked with providing facilities and accomodations to support 36 single-engine aircraft and 12 patrol planes. By 1945, this station had one 60-by-60-by-20-foot (18-by-18-6.1-meter) utility repair hangar, one hardstand and nine revetments and operating under emergency conditions, could accommodate 55 fighters or 40 heavy or medium bombers or 22 B-29 Superfortresses.

Palmyra Atoll during World War II

     When news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached Palmyra, the civilian labor forces were diverted to the construction of defense installations in preparation for an expected attack which occurred at dawn on 24 December. A Japanese submarine surfaced 3,000-yards (1.82-kilometers) south of the main island and began firing on the civilian dredge Sacramento which was anchored in the lagoon and clearly visible between two of Palmyra's numerous tiny islets. Only one hit was registered before the fire of the Marine 5-inch battery drove the submarine under. Damage to the dredge was minor and no one was injured.
     Inter-island transportation, non-existent except by water, became of prime importance in the proposed defense of Palmyra against a Japanese landing. Work was immediately begun on the placing of fill between the islets to form a continuous horseshoe-shaped causeway extending from Strawn Island, on the northwest, around to Home Island on the southwest tip of the atoll. Twelve miles (19-kilometers) of coral highway were constructed on Palmyra.
     In the summer of 1942, the contractors’ forces were replaced by Seabees and because of an increase in air traffic through Palmyra, the Seabees engaged principally in enlarging fuel and ammunition facilities, and building additional quarters and messhalls. Work completed by the Seabees on Cooper Island included a 100-room hotel for transient personnel, two 200,000-U.S. gallon (166,535-Imperial-gallon or 757-kiloliter) tank-farms for aviation gasoline, two 13,500-barrel (567,000-U.S.-gallon or 472,126-Imperial-gallons or 2.1-megaliters), two 17,500-barrel (735,000-U.S.-gallon or 612,015-Imperial-gallon or 2.8-megaliter) fuel-oil tanks, two 17,500-barrel diesel tanks, and additional dredging operations for fueling wharves. On Menge Island, they built two aviation-gasoline tank farms, one of 125,000-U.S.-gallon (104,084-Imperial-gallon or 473-kiloliter) and the other of 175,000-U.S.-gallon (145,718-Imperial-gallon or 662-kiloliter) capacity, a 633-foot (193-meter) sheet-steel bulkhead, a boathouse with five 20-foot (6.1-meter) slips, and a fuel-oil tank-farm. A small emergency landplane runway, 2,400-by-200-foot (732-by-61-meter) emergency runway on Sand Island, and a hospital on Engineer Island.

After World War II

     After the war, the U.S. Naval Supplementary Radio Station, and Direction Finding Station, Palmyra Island, was closed on 16 January 1946 and the station was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard. NAS Palmyra Island was disestablished on 15 February 1947.
     When Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, Palmyra, which had been officially part of  the City and County of Honolulu, was explicitly separated from the new state as an Incorporated Territory of the U.S., administered by U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1962, the U.S. Department of Defense used the atoll for an instrumentation site during high altitude atomic weapon tests over Johnston Island.
     In January 2000, the atoll was purchased by The Nature Conservancy for the purposes
of coral reef conservation and research. The atoll is administered from Washington, D.C. by the Office of Insular Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior. The surrounding waters, out to the 12-mile limit, were transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and designated as the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in 2001. In November 2005, a worldwide team of scientists joined with The Nature Conservancy to launch a new research station on the Palmyra Atoll in order to study Global warming, disappearing coral reefs, invasive species and other global environmental threats.