Browse Exhibits (2 total)

The History of HAM Radio on Palmyra


Since the 1940's, Palmyra has been a popular destination for any ham radio operators adventurous enough to traverse the Pacific.  For those who aren't familiar with the amateur radio community, registered operators embark on what they call DXpeditions.  These involve a small group of operators traveling to a specific place, and broadcasting their signal. They then track how many connections are made to other operators, and where those connections are located.

From as early as 1916, radio enthusiasts have carried equipment to some of the most dangerous, exotic, and hard to reach parts of the planet.  From Antarctica to Oahu, trips and connections are tracked using QSL cards, which document various key elements of a confirmed communication between the DXpeditioners and the receiver, such as date, frequency, location, and name.

The first documented trip to Palmyra was in 1944, and since then its been visited by over 25 DxPeditions and counting.  The island's history with operators is far from over, and the last 80 years of visits include some harrowing and historic events.

This exhibit hopes to share the more interesting moments from that history, and honor the many brave hams who ventured to Palmyra's shores with their radios, to reach out around the world.  We've included a full gallery of QSL cards from 1947 to 2000, and tales of how radio operators saved the lives of strangers, sometimes with very unseen consequences, and how their own lives were changed by the atoll.

I want to personally thank the many amateur radio operators who shared their stories, pictures, and other materials with me, without which this exhibit, and much of this archive, would not have been possible.


Palmyra's Residents

Roger with his pet boobie Felix.
Despite Palmyra's natural remoteness, a wide range of groups and individuals have called it home over the last 200 years, even if only for brief periods.  Since its discovery in 1798, most residents have come as employees and workers for the harvesting and production of copra (the dried meat of the coconut, used to extract coconut oil), and fishing ventures.  Its use as a refueling station by the Navy during the second world war dramatically changed the physical shape of Palmyra, making it much more accessible to pleasure craft, scientists, researchers, and adventurers, who have since spent long stretches of time living alongside the creatures and plant life of the islands.  While few of these residents interacted with each other, and were often separated by decades of time, the things each left behind would have strong impacts on how those that came next lived and worked on Palmyra.  
For instance, before the earliest attempts at coconut production on the islands, starting in the 1860’s, the many islets were almost entirely covered in a small variety of bushes and pisionia trees.  By the early 1900’s, however, there were thousands of coconut trees, and a growing population of rats from the various visiting sailors.  After the clearing of nearly all vegetation by the military during World War 2*, and the reforming of the islands and lagoons, what has grown back bears little resemblance to the atoll’s original plant life, and includes a variety of species from very different environments.
These residents have almost always been accompanied by locals from the nearby (relatively speaking) islands, such as Fanning and Kiribati, descendants of Palmyra’s earliest visitors.  Unfortunately, because the atoll's coral surfaces and beaches were washed over with rising sea water during storms every few years, little evidence of visitors before the 1800’s has been found.  Perhaps in the future, as the island is returned more and more to its pre-discovery state through valiant conservation efforts, evidence of Palmyra’s first visitors and their activities will come to light.  For now, we can rely on stories like those in this exhibit to speak of the atoll’s history in housing the men and women bold enough to venture there.
*This exhibit does not include discussions of the nearly 6,000 servicemen who occupied Palmyra during World War 2 and their activities, as there is a good deal of information from that time both in the archive and other places.

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