Phoenix Islands
by Jack McKillop

Physical Description & History

     The Phoenix Islands are a group of eight atolls and two submerged coral reefs, lying in the central Pacific Ocean east of the Gilbert Islands and west of the Line Islands. The total land area of the eight atolls is 10.65 square-miles (27.6 square-kilometers). Canton Island was the only one of the eight coral atolls that was populated during World War II and the only atoll described in this article. Today, they are a part of the Republic of Kiribati.
     Canton Island (2°49'S, 171°41'W) is the largest, northernmost island of the Phoenix group. The atoll consists of a narrow ribbon of land about 8-miles (13-kilometers) long and 4-miles (6.4-kilometers) wide enclosing a 15 square-mile (40 square-kilometer) lagoon. Total land area is 3.5 square-miles (9 square-kilometers).
     The island was seen by many American whalers and British warships over the years but it was not claimed by the United Kingdom until 1890 when they wanted to establish a telegraph submarine cable station. A total eclipse of the sun occurred on 8 June 1937 and American and New Zealand scientists landed on the island to observe it. The U.S. party build a monument with two American flags on it and claimed the island for the U.S. The British had made an official claim on the Phoenix Islands on 6 August 1936 and two radio operators were placed on Canton on 31 August 1937. The battle of sovereignty escalated to London and Washington and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally placed the island under the control of the U.S. Interior Department on 3 March 1938. Four days later, seven Americans landed on the island. On 6 April 1939, the U.K. and U.S. governments agreed to joint control of the island for the next 40 years as the Canton and Enderbury islands condominium.
     Meanwhile, the U.S. airline Pan American Airways (Pan Am) signed an agreement with the New Zealand government on 22 November 1935 for landing rights at Auckland, New Zealand. Pan Am considered two routes from Hawaii to Auckland, and the one selected was via Canton Island and New Caledonia, French Polynesia. Pan Am developed an extensive airport including a hotel, deepened and cleared the lagoon and other facilities on Canton to accommodate the passengers, crew and aircraft. The first flight left Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii on 23 December 1937 with a Sikorsky S-42B.

Phoenix Islands in World War II

     By 1941, the U.S. was planning for a war in the Pacific and one aspect was airfields that could be used by military aircraft flying from Hawaii to Australia. Initial investigation by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) showed that at least one 5,000-foot (1,524-meter) runway in the direction of the prevailing wind could be prepared on Canton by 15 January 1942. Work began on the airfield and by the Fall of 1943, two compacted guano and coral runways of 7,200- and 9,400-feet (2,195- and 2,865-meters) were completed.
     Canton Island was on the ferry route to:

     After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese patrol bomber flew a reconnaissance mission over Canton and dropped a few bombs which caused no damage. On 16 January 1942,  PBY-5 Catalinas of Patrol Squadron 23 (VP-23) began daily searches of the waters between their temporary base at Canton and Suva in the Fiji Islands to protect the advance of Task Force 8 for its strike against the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. These were the first combat patrols by aircraft in the South Pacific. The next day, USAAF B-17 Flying Fortresses were dispatched from Hickam Field to Canton to fly antisubmarine and search missions in support of the Navy.
     The U.S. Army was tasked with the defense of Canton Island and ground forces, consisting of 1,100 men in two rifle companies, a coast artillery battalion and an aircraft battalion, arrived on 13 February 1942. When the construction of the airfield was completed, a pursuit (fighter) squadron equipped with 25 P-39 Airacobras arrived on 27 March. As the war progressed, USAAF units flying A-24 Daunltesses, B-24 Liberators and P-39s were based here. However, the two major functions of the airfield were (1) to provide a staging point for B-24 Liberators bombing the Gilbert Islands in 1943 and (2)  as a refueling point for transports of the USAAF’s Air Transport Command and the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) en route to the South and Southwest Pacific.
     The end of World War II brought the resumption of commercial aviation between Hawaii and Australia and New Zealand. British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines (BCPA) and Pan Am used the airfield while flying Douglas DC-4s and DC-6s and Lockheed 1049C Constellations.
     A full-scale community was established on the island to support these operations, including an electrical power station, a hotel for the airline passengers' use, a medical dispensary, school for dependent children of station personnel, and other necessary facilities. Since the island was jointly administered, the British and American post offices were both operated from a single building. The American administrator, who was an employee of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration) and island manager for that agency, also served as the U.S. resident administrator under the Department of the Interior and as a U.S. special deputy marshal under the Department of Justice.
     Ultimately, the introduction of long-range jet aircraft spelled the end of Canton's usefulness as an aircraft refueling station, and all airlines ended their operations there by the late 1950s. Canton's airport remained operational, however, as an emergency landing field.
     In 1960 a tracking station for the U.S. Mercury space program was built on Canton. It was utilized through November 1965. The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Space and Missile Systems Organization continued to use the island for missile-tracking operations through 1976. That year marked the complete end of the American presence; the airfield was abandoned and all U.S. personnel were removed. In 1979, Canton became one of the islands of the Republic of Kiribati and was renamed Kanton. The post office was reopened by the government, and the island was repopulated with a few people from the more crowded atolls of the Gilbert Islands, who resided in several of the abandoned residences left over from the Anglo-American presence.
     Kanton is occasionally visited by Republic of Kiribati vessels, the U.S. Coast Guard and various fishing boats. In 2008, Kanton and the rest of the Phoenix Islands became the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), the world's largest marine protected area, covering a total area of 158,495 square-miles (410,500 square-kilometers) of land and ocean. In 2007 it was submitted, together with the rest of the PIPA, as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site.
     As of 2005, the population was 41, down from 61 in 2000. In May 2010 the population was reportedly 24, with 14 adults and 10 children. The island's sole village is named Tebaronga.

Canton Island, Naval Air Facility

     Naval Air Facility Canton Island was established on 13 September 1943 to service seaplane squadrons operating out of Naval Air Station Kaneohe, Territory of Hawaii. Operations from Canton during the war gave the crews combat experience before they were sent to the hot spots in the Pacific. Another task was to provide a minor fleet refueling point.
     In order to construct this facility, the Navy’s Seabees landed on 7 March 1943 and took over the Pan Am hotel and some seaplane installations. They built a 17-hut Quonset village, complete with a sewerage system, power and light, and a water-distribution system. Extensive blasting operations were also begun in the channel and lagoon. The seaplane runways were sounded, their depths charted, and tide and current observations made, with the intention of reworking them to suitability for naval patrol-plane operations. While dredging work was in progress, a construction crew started work on an officers' quarters, an overflow hotel building, which was an expansion of the existing hotel, and several magazines. A seaplane ramp and four prefabricated steel warehouses were also built.
      There were occasional raids by the Japanese on Canton Island during 1943. At 0330 hours local on 23 January, Japanese submarine HIJMS I-8 surfaced and fired forty one  5.5-inch (140-millimeter) shells at the airfield and PBY base on Canton. This was followed on 1 March by a      surprise night attack by Japanese “Betty” bombers (Mitsubishi G4M, Navy Type 1 Attack Bombers) which destroyed several USN aircraft. The final attack occurred on 18 October but the Japanese bombers raiding Canton Island were forced to jettison their bombs at sea because of intense antiaircraft and fighter defense.
     With the invasion of the Gilbert Islands in late 1943, the U.S. Navy dispatched detachments of bombing and patrol squadrons to Canton. These PBY Catalinas, PB4Y-1 Liberators and PV-1 Venturas flew antisubmarine missions and day and night air cover for naval units attacking the Gilbert Islands.
     The island continued as a refueling for NATS until all naval facilities on the island were disestablished on 14 October 1946.