Howland Island as seen by Literary Digest in 1937

Today we present a historical retrospective of Howland Island that appeared in the February 1999 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, with the headline,The Story of Howland Island: by the Literary Digest, September 18, 1937.”

The Literary Digest was an American general interest magazine published by Funk and Wagnalls.  Founded by Isaac Kaufmann Funk in 1890, it eventually merged with two similar weekly magazines, Public Opinion and Current OpinionBoldface emphasis mine throughout.

During those anxious weeks of late June and early July of this summer when the eyes of the whole world were following the fruitless search for Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Frank [sic]Noonan, the name of Howland Island often appeared in the newspapers.  To the average newspaper reader, it was vaguely “one of those islands in the Pacific.”

The Government House on Howland Island during the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project.  Photo taken Jan. 23, 1937.

This pinpoint in the Pacific — this Lima bean of an island in the Largest of oceans — has a story as bizarre, as adventurous, as ironic, as contradictory as anything in the early novels of H. G. Wells.  Imagine a sandpit a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, nowhere more than fifteen feet above sea level, and frequently hidden in the surf’s white foam, almost directly on the Equator, nearly 2,000 miles south of Honolulu and 2.400 miles from New Zealand, with nothing but guano, birds, pigweed, rats, burning sun — and the best runways and approaches of any landing field in the world!

The history of Howland Island is brief.  In fact, as far as its present importance goes, it may be said to be only a little more than two years old.  For it was two years ago that the United States Department of Commerce took formal possession of Howland Island, together with two other tiny Pacific islands — Baker Island, forty miles to the south across the equator, and Jarvis Island, more than one thousand miles to the east.  Howland and Baker Islands lie not only almost exactly on the Equator, but are close to the International Date Line meridian.

It is true.  Howland Island was known before as a rich source of guano.  In 1842, Captain George E. Necker of New Bedford, searching for guano deposits, came upon Howland Island and reported its existence, and for thirty some years afterwards the island was visited, much to the annoyance of the thousands of birds — booby, frigate, and tern — that breed there, for its profitable, if unsavory yield.  With the decline of this industry, due to more efficient means of producing fertilizer, interest in the island died and only a few rough graves are left to mark where New England seamen used to land.

With the development of air commerce, however, the situation of Howland Island on a direct air route between Hawaii and Australia, and possibly between the United States and New Zealand, became obvious to both England and the United States, and almost simultaneously the two countries raced to get possession of the tiny scraps of sand and coral as a base for air commerce or national defense — or both.  The United States won the race (by a few days) and in April 1935, the US. Coast Guard Cutter ltasca slipped down from Honolulu to land colonists on each of the three line islands— Howland, Baker and Jarvis.  The colonists were boys from the Kamehameha School in Hawaii — four boys to each island — and their job was to take and keep possession for the United States.  Since then relays of Hawaiian schoolboys have lived there, making meteorological observations and maintaining title for the United States.  The first expedition was kept secret, and not until nearly eight months later did the news leak out that the three little islands had been colonized and were undisputedly American territory.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane (earlier known as the USCGC William J. Duane) was a cutter in the U.S. Coast Guard.  Her keel was laid on May 1, 1935 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Philadelphia, Penn.  She was launched on June 3, 1936 as a search and rescue and law enforcement vessel.  After fitting out, she departed the Philadelphia Navy Yard on October 16, 1936 and arrived at Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 24.  She was then assigned to temporary duty in Honolulu, and arrived there on December 9, 1936, to participate in the U.S. colonization efforts of the Line Islands in the Pacific.

On the thirteenth of May in the following year, Howland, Baker and Jarvis islands were placed under the Department of the Interior: a few weeks later, an appropriation was made for their administration, and on Jan. 8, 1937, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter William J. Duane sailed from Honolulu equipped with men and materials to build an airport on Howland Island under the direction of Robert L. Campbell, the airport expert of the Bureau of Air Commerce.

The expedition was one of those rarities — a triumph of inter-departmental cooperation.  From the Army came Captain H. A. Meyer, Procurement Officer, and Lieutenant Charles F. Brown, Air Corps Observer, together with several others.  From the Navy came Lieutenant Charles L. Lee and David H. Ellsworth, Naval Photographer.  The Department of the Interior contributed You Fai Lure and Bak Sung Kim, student aerologists and radio operators, and laborers as well.

The Department of the Interior, the Army Air Corps, the Navy, and the Works Progress Administration in Hawaii supplied the materials, which included two five-ton tractors, a farm-type harrow, a concrete and steel roller, matlocks, axes, plows, cane knives, a field kitchen, flood lamps, radio transmitting and receiving apparatus, and food and water, together with many other items.

The appalling hazards of the job ahead began with the problem of landing.  There is nothing resembling a harbor at Howland Island, and there are plenty of jagged reefs and heavy swells.  A large boat can’t get within a quarter of a mile of the place.  Small boats and pontoons are the only means of getting ashore. It requires little imagination to picture the difficulties of surf-riding a tractor-laden pontoon without mishap.  Further complications presented by this remarkably inhospitable isle are the poisonous sea urchins, seaweed, and coral that infest its waters, scars from which many members of the crew will carry for the rest of their lives.

Howland itself is a kind of nightmare.  A rim that is six to eight feet higher than the center makes the island into an oblong bowl of sandy soil with outcroppings of coral and everywhere malodorous mounds of guano.  (Thirty thousand tons of it is the estimate, which is a large amount for a space that is half a mile by a mile and a half!)  The only native vegetation is pigweed, a tough coarse plant, and a few stunted leafless kou trees, although the colonists have planted a few trees.  Wildlife is represented by thousands of birds that continually do fly in great clouds by night as well as by day.  These birds, incidentally, present the greatest danger to the aviator because of their vast numbers and the fact that they are constantly on the wing.  The only way to disperse them is by shotgun fire.

A look at the teeming wildlife on Howland Island, so overpopulated with “10,000 frigates, 8,000 boobies (albatrosses), and 14,000 terns,” according to Army Lt. Daniel A. Cooper, writing in July 1937, that many doubted that Amelia Earhart really intended to land there when she disappeared on July 2, 1937.

Two harmless reptiles, the Gecko lizard and the snake-eyed skink, cause little trouble — but the rats!  The loathsome creatures swarm over the island, literally by the thousands.  Five hundred to a thousand rats a night were killed by the crew in the following ingenious manner: An oil drum was sunk into the ground, half filled with water with a liberal sprinkling of cracker crumbs, and by morning it was filled to the top with drowned rats.  An appetizing before breakfast ceremony was the pouring of a libation of gasoline over the whole business and setting fire to it.  But in spite of this wholesale slaughter there were always more rats.  They were everywhere.  More than once a man woke up at night to find a rat on his face, licking his lips for particles of food.

To add to the horrors of the working conditions, the smell from the guano was ever present — an intolerable stench made even worse by the tropical sun.  Moreover, the guano dust was so poisonous that men had to bathe several times a day prevent dangerous boils.  No rain lays this dust or cools the parched earth, for a strange phenomenon of the island is its lack of rainfall in a region where one would expect rain almost daily.  Observers say that rain squalls approaching the island split in two before they reach it, and rain will be seen beating on the ocean on all sides while none falls on the island itself.  The only explanation offered for this eccentricity is that possibly it is caused by a column of heated air rising from the hot sand.

Despite the savage natural handicaps of the place, there is some slight evidence of South Sea Islander occupation.  There are marks of digging and remains of low flat mounds which may have been the foundations for primitive huts.  Traces of footpaths remain, and in 1862 fragments of a canoe, a few bits of bamboo, a blue bead, and a human skeleton were discovered — all that was left to tell of a lonely tragedy.

The waters surrounding Howland Island abound not only with poisonous seaweed and coral, but with edible tropical fish which can be caught with spears.  It is clear, however, that without proper equipment, life could not be supported there more than a day or two.  The heat, the tack of water, and the ferocious rats are a deadly triumvirate.

The three runways built in the face of such formidable handicaps were made of guano, sand and coral. These materials, packed hard, have all the characteristics of pavement.  One runway is 5,200 feet long, another is 3.023 feet long, and a third measures 2,439 feet.  Each of them is 150 feet wide.  Fifteen thousand cubic feet of soil had to be moved in the course of the construction.

The small lighthouse was also built in 1937 but was doomed to a short life.  Sadly, history had other plans for Earhart, and she never reached the island. It is thought that she most likely crashed in the waters just north of Howland Island.  The island’s short history as a settled colony ended with heavy bombing from Japanese aircraft during WWII.  The station has been inactive since 1942 – the structure is now considered a “day beacon.”  The island is now a national wildlife refuge.

Ironically enough, the airport was rushed to completion in order that Amelia Earhart might land on it in the course of what proved to be, tragically, her last flight.  She was scheduled to reach Howland in March, but after her crack-up in Honolulu she changed her route and flew the other way around the island.  The very person for whom the airport was finished under such hardships never reached it.

Howland Island was linked with Miss Earhart’s name some months later when it was the center of the seventeen-day search for the lost fliers conducted by planes and ships of the United States Navy.  During that time four thousand men had an opportunity to familiarize themselves with nearly a quarter of a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, vast areas of which had never before been flown over by naval planes.

If it seems odd to think that only land planes can land on this ocean airport, you are reminded that there are strong arguments in-favor of fast land planes instead of the heavier and slower sea planes for a possible air service to the Antipodes — one of the strongest arguments being the lack of possible airports for refueling en route.  To be sure Pan American uses giant amphibians on her Honolulu to Manila route, but the mid-ocean airports along the way, on Midway and Wake lands, are very different affairs from what might be done on the line islands.  Midway and Wake both have central lagoons of sheltered water in which flying boats can land, but no seaplane could come to rest in the savage surf that beats on Howland, Baker and Jarvis.

Meanwhile these three steppingstones — neglected for years, and now, suddenly, solicitously cherished by the United States — stand waiting.  Whether or not they will ever prove practical as airports is still problematical.  (Two of them — Howland and Baker — are so near each other that there seems little chance that both would be needed.)  It may be that their ancient inhabitants, the birds, will prove too deadly a hazard for propellers’ whirling blades.  Perhaps their tiny size will ever render them too difficult as targets.  (End of “The Story of Howland Island: by the Literary Digest, September 18, 1937.”)

Among the great ironies of the Earhart saga is that Amelia’s failure to find Howland Island ended the U.S. military’s hopes that the three islands could be used for retaliatory or reconnaissance purposes . . . and the crisscrossing Howland runways again became a refuge for birds, Fred Goerner wrote in The Search for Amelia Earhart“The abandonment of the islands as possible air bases was only one of the prices military aviation paid prior to the war for the loss of Amelia and Fred.  When the Army attempted to demonstrate that land planes could fly over great stretches of ocean to bomb a target or accomplish photo-reconnaissance missions, skeptics pointed to the Howland Island failure.  Whether or not Jarvis, Baker, and Howland could have provided a striking force sufficient to hamper the Japanese will never been known.

A cruel postscript came four years later, when, after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese land-based warplanes bombed the runways and strafed the lighthouse at Howland, killing or wounding several Hawaiian personnel assigned there.  On the lighthouse, a plaque honoring Amelia was shattered by Japanese machine-gun bullets.

No aircraft has ever landed on Howland, and all attempts at habitation were abandoned after 1944, according to Wikipedia.

6 responses

  1. It would certainly appear that this obscure spot was all part of their plan form the beginning as a stop-off point, but did they realize how difficult it would be spot from the air? A speck of land in a vast body of water? Was there some alternative?

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  2. It’s a good thing Earhart never landed on Howland as the “runway” curves to the left near the end. You can clearly see this now on Google maps. They probably didn’t know it when they built it because you can’t see that from the ground. The curve is visible from space or from the air. It curved to track with the island perimeter.

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  3. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    I don’t believe for a moment that Fred Noonan’s navigation failed. Amelia and Fred found Howland Island alright, they just didn’t land there. Instead, using Howland as a last positive navigational point, they took up a new course for the Marshalls, and destiny.

    All best,

    William

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  4. Because the ocean levels have increased from global warming in recent decades, I bet Howland Island was bigger in 1937. The shoreline has probably receded as the ice caps have melted back.

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  5. Michael L Morrison | Reply

    What do all those rats EAT??

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    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      Michael,

      Rats will eat seabirds, their eggs, small reptiles, and if necessary, each other.

      All best,

      William

      Like

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