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Palmyra Island lies 352 nautical miles north of the equator. It is about 120 miles northwestward of Washington Island, 200 miles northwest of Fanning Island, 33 miles southeastward of Kingman Reef, and 960 miles south by west of Honolulu.
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The atoll consists of about 50 small islets, having a total area of about 250 acres, in a horse shoe surrounding three lagoons. The islets stand but 5 or 6 feet above sea level, but dense vegetation rises to a height of 75 to 90 feet, making the island visible from the deck of a ship at about 15 miles, when it is clear.
Surrounding the islets and the lagoons is a platform of coral and hard sand. Upon this one can walk from one islet to another, even at high water. At low water parts of the platform are dry. This platform measures 4.3/4 miles east and west by 1.1/2 miles wide.
Palm trees and lagoon, Palmyra Atoll, 2000
From its eastern end a shoal extends eastward for two miles. From its western end it is shoal for about five miles, the inner mile of which is thickly dotted with coral heads. On this western shoal ships may anchor in 4 to 10 fathoms. The anchorage should be approached from the west, as shallow water extends westward from Sawle Point and Penguin Spit. Landing is difficult because of the many coral heads. At high water it is possible to work a boat along the north side of Penguin Spit, up to Home Islands. At low water it is better to land on the north side of the spit, much of which is dry. All of the northern and southern edge of the platform is marked by a line of breakers.
Aerial photographs of Palmyra courtesy of James Sinnott
The three lagoons are separated by arms of the platform reef. They reach depths of from 120 to 160 feet. The western lagoon is the largest, but "islets" and a "peninsula" of reef platform prevent it from being a good landing place for seaplanes. If these reefs and those which separate the lagoon basins were removed, the atoll would make a splendid sea-airbase.
The climate is wet and humid, as evidenced by the dense vegetation. The rainfall doubtless exceeds 100 inches a year. Yet there are many clear sunny days. A record kept for over a year, 1920-1921, shows 290 clear days as against 114 rainy or cloudy days. Palmyra lies near the zone where the northeast and southeast trade winds meet. It has been suggested that the contact between these bodies of air forced the warmer to rise, become cooled, and drop its moisture in the form of tropical rain.
Palmyra Atoll, 1938
About 16 species of plants have been recorded from Palmyra. These are discussed by J.F. Rock (1916) and E. Christophersen (1927). Most conspicuous are the coconut palms. Most of these have been planted, but now they are propagating themselves abundantly. There are no coconuts growing on about ten islets on the northeast side. Here Pisonia trees and Scaevola are dominant. Tree heliotropes fringe the shores of most of the islets. There are two kinds of pandanus, and a few islets on the southeast have Ochrosia trees. The undergrowth consists of a dense stand of birds-nest and polypody ferns, herbs and vines.
There are the usual species of sea and migratory birds. Hermit crabs, coconut crabs, and land crabs are large and numerous. There is a small but interesting insect fauna; no butterflies and no mosquitoes. The lagoons and reefs are famous for their marine life and highly coloured fishes. There is no trace of early inhabitants.
Aerial view, Palmyra Atoll, 2000
On the night of June 13, 1798, Captain Edmund Fanning, in the American ship Betsy, was nearly wrecked on a reef to the northwest of Washington Island. It probably was Kingman Reef, according to Fanning's description, which goes on to say: "Bearing away again on our course around its north side, I went aloft, and with the aid of a glass could plainly see the land over it, far to the south." He adds, "Captain S. MacKay ... in command of the schooner Brothers ... visited this land, which has received the name of Palmyra's Island, a few years after our discovery of it."
The island received its name from the American vessel Palmyra, Captain Sawle, which sought shelter there November 7, 1802. It also was known as Samarang Island, from the visit of the ship Samarang, Captain Scott, September 15, 1840.
Edward Lucett describes the visit he made in search of a wrecked whaler, July 21, 1848, in his "Rovings in the Pacific." On October 19, 1859, Dr. Gerrit P. Judd landed from the brig Josephine and laid claim to Palmyra for the American Guano Co., for which he was agent. Apparently this claim never was recognized at Washington and no guano was dug.
April 15, 1862, Captain Zenas Bent landed and took formal possession for the Hawaiian government, in accordance with a royal commission issued to him by Kamehameha IV. He planted vegetables and left a white man and four Hawaiians on the island. Formal announcement was made of this by Kamehameha IV, through his Minister of Interior, June 18, 1862.
Earlier workers return home to the U.S., 1939
Captain Bent sold his rights to Palmyra to his partner, J.B. Wilkinson, December 24, 1862. After Wilkinson's death, June 25, 1866, they passed through various hands, including the Pacific Navigation Co., which sent a man and his wife to the island for a year, in September, 1885.
In 1889, the island was formally annexed to Great Britain by Commander Nichols of H.M.S. Cormorant. However, Palmyra was specifically included among the Hawaiian Islands by Act of the 55th U.S. Congress, approved July 7, 1898. June 23, 1911, Judge Henry E. Cooper, of Honolulu, purchased one claim of the island, and April 30, 1912, he bought out another. After considerable legal proceedings he was granted a title.
Meanwhile word reached Honolulu that British interests had designs on Palmyra. On February 17, 1912, the U.S. cruiser West Virginia, in command of Rear Admiral W.H.H. Southerland, quietly slipped out of Honolulu, and returned on the 28th with the announcement that they had taken formal possession of Palmyra in the name of the United States February 20-21. In October 1920, an organization called the Palmyra Development Co. sent Mr. and Mrs. William Meng and Edwin Benner, Jr., to Palmyra for a year, to investigate copra possibilities. They reported a fine climate and plenty of coconuts, but the venture showed that the distance from market and cost of transportation were against the project.
On August 19, 1922, Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo, of Honolulu, acquired title from Judge Cooper to all except two isles. After the death of Judge Cooper, May 14, 1929, title to these two, known as Home Islets, passed to his heirs.
The United States Navy has been constructing a base on Palmyra. Preliminary surveys were made during 1938, and the first party to begin construction sailed from Honolulu November 14, 1939. The question of ownership has been under dispute in the U.S. District Court.
The atoll has been declared a U.S. Naval defense area, and all foreign public and private vessels and planes are prohibited. It is to be hoped that the construction of a naval air base will not destroy the natural beauty and scientific value of this, one of the most interesting atolls under the American flag.
Rusting relic, Palmyra lagoon, 2000
Palmyra Island was almost lost during World War 2 not through any enemy action but rather the activities of the U.S. Navy. The 76th U.S. Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees) dredged a channel during World War II so that ships could enter the protected lagoons and bulldozed coral rubble into a long, unpaved landing strip for refuelling transpacific supply planes. By the time the war ended the military was reluctant to lose its mid-ocean depot. The Fullard-Leos spent years fighting for Palmyra's return until the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in 1947 that they had title.
View of Barren Island
Left: Low tide Right: Whipporwill islet courtesy of James Sinnott
The property remained in the hands of this family until the year 2000. There had been many offers to buy the island from people who wanted to turn it into something useful such as a big resort, an offshore bank, a commercial fish processing plant and an equatorial launch site for missiles and satellites. Twenty years ago there were howls of outrage when the U.S. Government sent a team of inspectors to scout the atoll as a possible site to store nuclear waste. All these were rejected as the Fullard-Leos chose to leave Palmyra exactly as it was.
Fortunately now, the island should retain its peaceful qualities for generations to come. The Nature Conservancy concluded years of negotiations and finally took title to Palmyra for thirty million U.S. dollars. The island was felt to be unique as no settlers had ever colonized it, nobody's survival had ever depended on cutting down the forest or culling the lagoon or killing off the bird life. That is why Palmyra Atoll still has large, healthy, mature fish, forest, and birds in abundance. Indeed, this atoll has more red-footed boobies than anywhere but the Galapagos Islands. Palmyra is their only breeding site in 450,000 square miles of ocean. There is probably nothing left in the Pacific quite like Palmyra.
A Palmyra Letter by Idelle S. Meng - 24 June, 1942
Palmyra Postcard and Picture Gallery
World War II Images of Palmyra
Palmyra Picture Gallery