Excerpt from Seismic Summer

Dublin Core


Excerpt from Seismic Summer


While traveling with the crew of the Dwyn Wen in 1963, as part of the Scripps Institutes study of seafloor seismology, Marge Bradner recorded her experiences of the voyage and the islands they visited.

This detailed and fascinating excerpt features a unique record of what Palmyra was like just 20 years after the Naval occupation ended. Though several groups had been to the atoll to monitor nuclear tests and man radio stations, much of the island had returned to a more natural state, with buildings, runways, and all manner of other things hiding in the palm trees and undergrowth.

This is a fairly long entry, but well worth the read for its descriptions of the islets and especially accuurate (mostly anyway) summary of Palmyra's history up to that point, including a number of details often overlooked by other histories from the time.


Marge Bradner


Scripps Institute of Oceanography Archives




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The shore boat was full. I balanced the land station batteries with one hand and myself with the other. My airline bag lay at my feet packed for a night ashore at the ‘Palmyra Hilton.’ My evening “wrap,” a sweat shirt, drooped over my shoulders.

We did not land at the dock but at a concrete ramp extending several feet into the lagoon. Brightly colored fish flashed away as we approached shallow water. Stan lashed our emergency strobe light on a post by the ramp, to mark the place at night.

My first step on land was not the rolling gait of the sailor. Land felt firm and solid beneath my feet. Ahead of us loomed a deserted warehouse, to the right large water tanks and another dilapidated building. To the left I saw a tangle of lines in a badly sagging condition, but I didn’t have much time to look around. The first order of business was to set up the land station.

On the summer seismic expedition it was important to take simultaneous measurements on the ocean bottom and on land in order to compare the frequency and amplitude of the wave patterns. We wanted to learn whether the two sets of data were initiated from the same source or whether they were unrelated.

Gordon and Brad discussed the proper location for the station. It must be stable and protected from wind and man made movements. Gordon suggested the Guard House over near the air strip. Guard house? Air strip?

“Let’s get this show on the road!” Gordon and Brad carried on an extensive conversation about technical matters while they transported the equipment. I followed along with my share of gear but my mind wandered to non-scientific concerns. We passed some overflowing water tanks. The pure sweet fresh water was running off into the lagoon. It was all I could do to continue with my appointed task and not stop immediately for a lingering shower. An open door of a small building revealed four white porcelain toilets. The wind rose suddenly, and another rain squall struck, drenching us and our equipment within seconds. It let up soon, and evaporation dried us almost immediately; and then we were wet again from perspiration and the humidity.

We reached the Guard House and entered. There was a great scurrying of rats disappearing into holes and crevices. A rat-chewed mattress on a broken rusted bed and an antiquated refrigerator were the only furniture. A few high windows gave the tendrils of the encroaching jungle an entry for attacking and recapturing this outpost. By flashlight Brad set up the land station and adjusted the intricate mechanisms and set the roll of tape. We left to join the rest of our shipmates who by now had come to shore.

“Stay back by the road, Marge, John’s taking a shower.”
“I found a jeep!”
“Do you know there’s a theatre over beyond the Hilton!”
And from Brad, “Everyone please stay at least 100 yards from the Guard House at all times!”
“Do we need any more anchors for the spheres? There’s enough scrap iron around here to sink the whole DWYN WEN!”
“The airstrip must be at least a mile long. Do you suppose a plane could land without tangling in the weeds?”
“Anyone for some fresh coconut milk?”

From our algae expert, “I’ve never seen any squishy stinky algae like this before.”
“Hey John, I found a couple of bicycles!”

“There must be at least a hundred rat infested beds in the barracks!”

“You’d better not go over there Marge, they didn’t know how to spell.”

The area had obviously been a military base, but surging vegetation and jungle rot had engulfed most of the buildings and overrun the roads so completely that few details were recognizable. I recalled the one sentence in Oliver’s book about this place. “Palmyra Atoll was a major transport station during World War II.”

That was twenty years ago. How many people had been here? What had they done? Were they ever under attack? How often had people been on the island and who were they? Had there ever been a Polynesian settlement here?

Jay was busy at the radio giving mid-Pacific weather reports to the weather station in Honolulu.
Gordon was in his laboratory recording the attenuated ocean swells as they passed Palmyra on their path across the Pacific. This station was one of six set up along the great circle route from Antarctica to the Arctic. The Swell Attenuation Study was an experimental program that worked hand in hand with the seismic program. For many years, Dr. Walter Munk at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics in La Jolla, had been interested in the action of the waves across the Pacific Ocean. For the first time an attempt was being made to track the ocean swells across the Pacific. The large storms that originate around Antarctica at the southern end of New Zealand, during southern winter, create wave swells that travel across the Pacific, passing the low lying atolls, volcanic islands, ships at sea and finally reach the other end of the Great Circle in Alaska. Wave stations were set up at six points along this route: Cape Palliser, New Zealand; Vailoatai, American Samoa; Palmyra Atoll; Oahu, Hawaii; on board the FLIP (Floating Instrument Platform), anchored in the open sea halfway between Hawaii and Alaska; and finally at Yakatat, Alaska.

Ocean waves and swell produced from distant storms are attenuated as they travel from their origin. A pressure sensing device, which is planted in shallow water to measure the fluctuating pressure on the sea bottom, is the primary instrument in the swell study. Using this device, and computers to unravel the maze of information, direction of travel of ocean swell can be determined. In fact, directional accuracy within a few degrees can be attained, even when the swell is only tenths of an inch in height.

One aim of the summer study was to discover relationships between land and ocean bottom microseisms, and the surface swell activity. Our first simultaneous recordings were being done here on Palmyra. The sphere was dropped to the depths of the lagoon; the instruments in the ocean surf sent their data to punch the tape in Gordon’s lab.; the magnetic tape in the land station recorded land microseisms.

This was not the time for interruptions. So I stayed in the village to get the lay of the land and to investigate our accommodations for a night on shore.

The village consisted of six concrete slabs, with battered and torn canvas tents, open on all side to wind and weather and rain. I dropped my bag off at the Hilton. I knew it was the hotel because on a tattered piece of canvas the words ‘Palmyra Hilton’ were written in large block letters of fluorescent orange paint. Inside were four army cots, each draped with a canopy of very fine mosquito netting. a rusty folding chair completed the furnishings.

Gordon’s tent radiated color, warmth and hospitality. His brightly colored lava lavas hung from a line stretching the full length of the platform. The recording instrument made a cheerful click click as it punched the data tape.

Jay’s tent was more austere. It also doubled as the first aid station and medical supply depot.
The center of activity on Palmyra was the radio shack. The slab and tent were the same as the others. Along one side stood the massive ham radio station with the call letters W6FAY prominently displayed. Regularly scheduled calls were made to the other experimental stations. Weather reports were broadcast daily. Honolulu was on the air when I entered. “What is the present weather condition on Palmyra?”

“Just a minute, I’ll look.” Jay wiggled his toes in the puddle of water under the radio bench. “Raining again, wind from the southwest, not much change.”

This tent also included the commissary, dining room and large rat proof storage cupboard called the ‘Bank of America.’ The stock of food did not look too appealing! Canned goods exclusively, since fresh food was unavailable and dehydrated foods could not withstand the constant high humidity. Our DWYN WEN dinner invitation was readily accepted.

Royd and Jack outdid themselves......a seven course Chinese feast. They had been hoarding specialties from Kailua for just such an evening. We gorged on sweet and sour pork, bean shoots, chicken almond, chow mein, melon soup. Over coffee and cigars, we learned the story of Palmyra.

Legend had it that a pirate ship laden with Spanish gold made land-fall here in the days of lucrative trading between the orient and the old world. The seas were infested with cut-throat pirates and buccaneers. Mutiny and disease were incipient crew mates on every ship. One ship hove to, while a party went ashore to investigate possible sources of fresh food and water. Neither was available; nor was there a native population. It was the perfect place for burying the heavily laden chests of wealth to be retrieved at a later date. Perhaps the galleon foundered on Kingman Reef or some other shoaling waters, or was dashed about and sunk in heavy seas or was boarded and burned.

The ship was sunk but some of the crew returned to distant shores and reported the store of Spanish gold on Palmyra. Perhaps the ever growing atoll has locked it permanently in its clutches; perhaps the bull dozers building the airstrip have buried it under tons of dead coral; perhaps it is just below the overgrown jungle or under a few inches of sand in the lagoon.

Anthropological research has never uncovered a Polynesian settlement on this atoll. However, since it is the farthest north of the Line Islands, it is safe to assume that during the migration from the lower Line Islands and Tahiti to the Hawaiian chain, Polynesian canoes stopped here briefly. Perhaps they found the atoll too wet and uninviting to support a settlement so they continued on to the islands a thousand miles to the north.

The first recorded history of the atoll comes from the log of the American ship PALMYRA which discovered the atoll in 1802. It was not until 60 years later that Palmyra was claimed by any country. Formal possession was taken in the name of the United States of America by an agent of the American Guano Company, but no record exists, that America ever recognized the claim. Since no nation claimed this small piece of real estate, two Britons petitioned His Hawaiian Majesty Kamehameha IV for permission to add Palmyra to the Kingdom of Hawaii. On June 18, 1862, by royal proclamation Palmyra became “part of the domain of the King of the Hawaiian Islands.”

Notwithstanding these claims the atoll was annexed to Great Britain in 1889. This claim was apparently never officially ratified, although Palmyra was mapped as British until as late as 1910. Finally, upon annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States in 1898, the atoll became a part of the United States by its specific mention in the President’s message to Congress.

Honolulu became aware that British interests had designs on Palmyra so the cruiser WEST VIRGINIA quietly slipped out of Honolulu and returned a few weeks later with the announcement that they had taken formal possession of Palmyra in thename of the United States on February 20-21, 1912.
Until Hawaii became a state, Palmyra was incorporated in the Territory of Hawaii and governed from Honolulu. The atoll is now under the administration of the Department of the Interior.

The ownership and title to the islands passed through many hands. Colonization was attempted. Coconut trees were planted and copra production tried sporadically. But the atoll was not practical for colonization or for copra. The distance from markets and the cost of transportation were too great.
In 1912, Judge Cooper of Honolulu started the long legal process of examining titles, and filed petition for title. Notices were posted, not upon the land, which was too far away, but upon the Honolulu Court House. Later all but Home Island was sold to the Fullard-Leo family who was interested in the commercial fishing, coconut crop and eventual tourist development of the atoll. The 1929 depression and, later, World War II discouraged these developments.

Palmyra has long been of interest to the scientist. Joseph Rock made one of the first botanical surveys of the area in 1913. Since that time not only have botanists found the area interesting, but also ichthyologists, ornithologists, zoologists, marine biologists and oceanographers. The flora and fauna of the atoll are well documented, as are the toxic reef fish.

During the early 1930s not much went on at Palmyra. An occasional ship passed or stopped. The sampan ISLANDER from Hawaii was the only frequent visitor.

The first great change to this isolated atoll was caused by a piece of paper, the Hepburn Report, dated Dec. 27, 1938. As a result of this report Palmyra was fortified.

Palmyra was a strategic location, and the U.S. Navy commenced construction of an air base in 1939. At that time Edwin H. Bryan, Jr. wrote “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.”

The modifications to the contours of the atoll were tremendous. All of the major islands of the atoll ring were joined by a roadway which was created by bulldozing many small islets together and using fill from the lagoon. The two western lagoons were dredged and merged into one to create a seaplane runway. Several of the larger islets were compacted and leveled for the construction of a 6,000 ft. land plane airstrip. A causeway was constructed across the reef-flat to accommodate the beacon and radio towers. A channel was dredged for a ship entrance into the lagoon, creating another island to be used as a fighter airstrip.

With the outbreak of war, fortifications were rapidly completed. Bunker, gun emplacements, ammunition storage vaults and pill boxes were built on all parts of the islands facing seaward. Barbed wire entanglements were strung across all the reef-flats and vegetation was leveled to provide cross-firing ranges. About two thousand men occupied the station. Palmyra was a very small station, and it quickly slid into the quiet backwaters of the war as our fleet moved farther and farther toward Japanese home waters. This is not to say that Palmyra was unimportant – in fact she was vitally important in protecting the Hawaiian Islands in the early phases of the war. One reason that the initial attack on Pearl Harbor came from the north was the Japanese fear of detection by Palmyra and other outposts to the south. The Japanese shelled Palmyra early in the war but made no attempt to occupy it.

The sudden end of the war brought the period of heavy population to a dramatic close. Shortly after the close of hostilities in 1945 it is said that a carrier came by one day, and loaded nearly all the homesick sailors and GIs aboard. The departure was so sudden that typewriters were left with unfinished letters in the rollers, and washing machines in the post laundry clogged with dirty clothes.

The Navy pulled out at the end of the war, leaving behind the remnants of a once bustling transport station. Remaining on the island was one civilian worker, Otto Hornung, who became known as the Hermit of Palmyra. For the next several years Otto was the only resident. Except for a few trips to Honolulu, he did not leave the island. He acted as overseer and watchman for the owners.

The Civil Aeronautics Authority took over the atoll in the late 1940s and operated a radio beacon and weather station for a few years. Employees and families numbering several hundred persons raised ornamental plants and planted vegetable gardens. Otto saw the CAA come and go. Occasionally a few scientists would stop by to study and take samples of poisonous fish and marine algae, leaving after a short visit to complete their research in their laboratories at home.

The International Geophysical Year in 1957-58 included a world wide experimental program. Otto became involved. He went to Jarvis Island, one of the small islands along the equator, to act as an observer for IGY. He never returned to Palmyra. He suffered a fatal heart attack on Jarvis and was buried there with full military honors.

IGY observers were sent to Palmyra in 1957. A young couple, Jack and Leah Wheeler, who lived on their boat in the lagoon, sent reports of their observations by radio to Fanning Island. Except for a few weeks when Leah was taken to Fanning to give birth to their second child, they lived on Palmyra for the year.
IGY marked the start of the use of Palmyra by the physical scientists. In 1962 a transient population of a few dozen men spent almost three months on Palmyra under the Department of Defense. They set up and operated a tracking station for the atomic bomb operations being held near Christmas Island farther south in the Line Island Group. The Palmyra station was one of many established by Joint Task Force EIGHT for measuring background radiation levels and collecting environmental samples.

Gordon and Jay had started to tell us about their own trip to Palmyra on the MALABAR VIII when Brad noticed the time. Ten p.m. was zero hour for the simultaneous measurements across the Pacific. The scientists rushed off, followed by the crew. I stayed on board with Jack and Royd to help clean up the galley.

Later that evening we returned to shore across the calm lagoon, against a background of silhouetted palms, a star sprinkled sky, the flap-flap of wavelets gently caressing the shore, the fluttering of the wings of a bird, and the splash of a fish breaking water. We felt completely alone. For thousands of square miles, it seemed, there was not another ship, another island, another human being. We guided the shore boat toward the flashing strobe and made our way to the radio shack.

At first we could hear only the humming of a voice. As we approached, our crew cast elongated shadows from the dim light hanging over the radio station. Gordon hunched over the controls.....heavy set, black bearded, foreign looking, speaking a strange tongue. The only word we recognized was the international conclusion to each message “OVER.” Gordon was speaking to friends and relatives of his Gilbertese wife.
Jay returned to the controls. He made contact with a ham operator in San Diego. “Want to talk with anyone in the San Diego area?”

“Yes!” was my immediate answer. “Would it be possible to talk with Bari?”

“Easy, what’s the phone number?”

I didn’t remember. But the name and address of the people with whom she was staying, a quick perusal of the phone book by the San Diego ham, the dialing, the ring, the answer. The explanations of ham phone patches seemed to take a longtime....and then.


“Hi, is Bari there?”

“She’s out for the evening.” Then I remembered this was the night of the Midshipmen’s Ball. We had planned the dress and the accessories together a month before. I was disappointed, but glad to learn that she was well and happy and enjoying her job. I bubbled on for some time on the beauties and excitement of sailing the Pacific. Others on the crew made contact with families and friends. Royd’s father was a ham in Chicago. The San Diego ham contacted a Chicago ham who in turn contacted Royd’s father. During the evening we learned that Royd’s friend Melanie was as beautiful as ever, that Jerry’s income tax return had been sent to Sacramento and that John’s family was well and happy. I noticed that none of the fellows called a special girl friend. I realized why, when I thought of the difficulty of talking about my daughter and personal business with a full audience and countless airwave kibitzers listening to every word.

Jay continued with his ham contacts.....the United States, Europe, Asia, ships at sea; by the end of the evening ham operators all over the world knew that the DWYN WEN was at Palmyra and that she set a very fine table.

We said goodnight to the crew as they headed back to the ship. Brad and I retired to the Palmyra Hilton. At night the island comes alive with crawling things. Hundreds of hermit crabs covered the platform of our tent, and land crabs scurried across the floor. Biting insects zoomed to the attack.

We climbed into our cots and tucked the netting snugly around the mattress. It was raining again. Perspiration kept me almost as wet as if I had been outside. However, I did fall into a sound damp sleep almost immediately.

Dawn. Today I would look around and see what the atoll was really like. We ate breakfast with Gordon and Jay from the limited larder in the radio shack. It was easy to see why a meal on board the DWYN WEN was such a treat. Canned fruit juice, canned brown bread, canned bacon and instant coffee filled the empty spots but did not have the appeal of the freshly brewed coffee, cinnamon rolls, scrambled eggs and sausage available on board ship. Gordon and Jay were basically gourmets, but they were not able to add native protein to their meager supplies. The meat of the crabs, who live on a diet of coconuts, was too oily for frequent consumption, and the reef fish were known to be toxic.

One anachronism on the atoll was a Rhode Island Red chicken, BETTY. No one knew from where she had come, how long she had been there or how she had survived. Gordon and Jay fed her daily from left over K-rations that dated back to the war, but they never thought of eating her. She was company. She was a friend.We first met Betty when she strutted into the radio shack to listen to the broadcasting; she attentively watched the thousands of feet of tape coming from the wave recording apparatus; but she never ventured near the Guard House while the land station was there.

During the morning the crew and I explored Cooper Island, which had been created in 1939 by bull-dozing many small islets together and using fill from the lagoon. This is now the largest island, and an airstrip extends for its full length. The airstrip is still useable. Twice during the summer a small plane from Honolulu landed with supplies, equipment and mail for the resident population of two. Dense tropical growth encroached on the runway, and wherever the asphalt had decayed, a solid stinky mass of Palmyra algae appeared. A bulletin board listing the scheduled flights hung from a crippled control tower. The last scheduled flight had left the island more than twenty years before.

“I’ve found another guard house!” came from John, who was ahead of us. We could see him standing on a vine covered mound a few feet higher than the surrounding jungle. We ran to investigate the structure which was half underground. The walls were of massive concrete inlaid with pipes and valves. There were no windows. We concluded that this must have been a storage vault for the hi-octane gasoline. Many years ago a coconut had fallen on top of this structure. Now there stood a forty foot palm crowned with a generous crop of fresh green coconuts. We sampled one and decided there is no more refreshing drink in the world.

The atoll was an unofficial bird sanctuary. There are no natural enemies. We were always followed on open ground by hundreds of large frigate birds, gannets (or boobys) and fairy terns.

We crossed the island by hacking the vines away with machetes or walking on top of the waist high tangle of twisted broken trees. We came to a less densely covered area that looked as if it might have been a path and followed it to a one-room wooden building with a tangled mass covered door opening. The floor was almost completely decayed; the walls tilted at rakish angles; the roof was held in place only by the dense foliage attaching it to the surrounding jungle. Rats and crabs scurried as we cautiously made a partial entrance. This might have been a photographic lab. Rotted legs had collapsed under one end of the work bench; remains of acid-stained pans might have held photographic developer; a few nails not yet falling from the walls might have supported a line for drying negatives.

We continued chapping our way through the underbrush until we finally reached the ocean side of Cooper Island. The hundred yard distance had taken us more than an hour to negotiate. Our arms and legs were covered with cuts and scratches. The reef extended a quarter of a mile at this point. It was low tide. In some spots the live coral was covered by just a few inches of water. Upon turning over a piece of coral we found dozens of the tiny money cowries used by the Polynesians in making the beautiful shell leis. Empty cowries, cones and killer-clams lay everywhere. The gentle waves over the reef at high tide had washed in thousands of shells. No one had been there to scavenge them for twenty years. I could not take a step without crushing the delicate purple sea urchin shells. I started collecting but soon gave up. It would have been impossible to carry even a small percentage of those I would like to have added to our collection at home.

The military preparations for the attack that never came were very much in evidence around the outer reefs. Massive concrete gun emplacements were spaced every few hundred feet, some now marooned on the reef. Some were overgrown a few feet from shore. The ever changing contours of the earth and the continual building up of the reef have reshaped the shore line so that the concrete boxes are found in unnatural places and at distorted angles.

The quarters for the men who had manned these pill boxes lay a few yards inland. Built of wood, they have all but returned to the earth. Only a few floorboards, an occasional wall or a twisted rusty army cot remain.

Each of us carried a piece of cheese, some raisins and a few crackers so that we would not have to go back to the ship for lunch. We followed the coast and circled back toward the settlement. The war time jeep road had almost completely disappeared except near the settlement where we could occasionally detect evidence of recent use. The IGY recording stations and the nuclear tracking stations must have been set up in this area. The paths from this area back to the village were well-defined.

We had reached the hub of activity of twenty years ago. The barracks were set back in a coconut grove. In front was a cleared area with a hard surface that had been used for tennis or volley ball. The standards were rusting away but still in place. The movie theatre must have doubled for variety shows as there were dressing rooms in back. Perhaps screen personalities had entertained there. Other buildings around this area could have been officers’ quarters, post-exchange, post office. They were far too deteriorated in 1963 to tell just what their use had been. The Officers Club occupied the most beautiful spot on Cooper Island. It faced the lagoon with a wide, once screened in, verandah looking across the lagoon toward Sand Island and the sea.

At the center of this once active Major Naval Transport Station stood the dock, the wharf and the warehouse. Water tanks still collect rain water from the roof of the immense warehouse building. Rain is the only source of fresh water, and 180 inches per year was enough to supply the war time military population and subsequent transients. The dock was long enough to accommodate several large freighters at once. This is the dock that had been reported in bad condition in 1951 and that Gordon had recommended against our using. Footing was a little precarious as we avoided the broken and missing planks.

The warehouse itself was at least two hundred feet long. It still contained spools of cables, drums of oil, rope, stoves, refrigerators, pipes, winches, loading equipment. The office, a wire cage near the main entrance, must have seen very busy days during the war when supplies and equipment arrived by ship or plane and had to be duly inventoried, requisitioned and catalogued before they could be loaded for the onward journey. In this enervating sleepy tropical atoll, one could imagine a young ensign tearing his hair to meet plane departures, shipping dates and red tape. When Palmyra was deactivated the necessary files were removed and placed in the archives in Washington. Everything that was not essential for navy records was abandoned on the island.

Returning to the village, we found unexpected refreshments just outside the mess tent. Brad and Gordon, after completing their measurements, had harvested the salad of kings, Heart of Palm. This is a rarely eaten delicacy since a palm tree must be destroyed to reach the heart. At the more expensive restaurants it is possible to order a Heart of Palm salad for an exorbitant price. Here on Palmyra the young trees were so numerous that it was impossible for all of them to grow to maturity. Taking a tree from a thick clump did not destroy the natural beauty. Some time ago, a row of palms was cut down to give a clear view of the channel from the village. This area was called Heart of Palm Farm. The trees have already grown back. To harvest heart of palm a mature coconut palm is felled. The fronds are stripped as far down as possible. The outer leaves are stripped away, to expose the heart where the immature palm fronds are in the process of formation. A stalk about two inches in diameter and about two feet long is removed. These immature fronds fall apart like a fan.They are very pale green, as crisp as celery, but as tender as the inner leaves of butter lettuce. The taste is difficult to describe. It is not sweet or tart; it does not have a pronounced flavor nor is it bland. It might be likened to ultra thin slices of water chestnuts marinated in coconut milk. We ate great pieces of it, knowing that never again would we have a chance to gorge ourselves on such a delicacy.

It had been a full day, and we were ready for the quick easy supper that was waiting for us on shipboard....two-inch thick T-bone steaks barbecued on deck in the anchor pans of the seismic spheres. Brad agreed that the time had come to break out the case of beer which had been chilling in the refrigerator since early morning. The condensation on the chilled bottles enhanced our enjoyment.
When the evening rain came we grabbed what we could of the dinner remains and headed below to the salon. Washing dishes was easy when we were anchored in a calm lagoon. After dinner a mock serious discussion of island politics and village officials enlivened the coffee hour until......
“I nominate Gordon Groves as Mayor of Palmyra.” The nomination was duly seconded and carried by an enthusiastic voice vote. Jay was unanimously elected Postmaster General. Now that we had officials, I broached a frivolous project....cancel stamps with a Palmyra postmark.

The island is an American possession, so ordinary 8¢ airmail stamps would suffice. Concentric circles made the outline of the cancellation, a cross bar made room for the date. PALMYRA ISLAND - POLYNESIAN PARADISE appeared at the top. G. GROVES - MAYOR J. CARR - POSTMASTER GENERAL appeared at the bottom. As each cancellation was finished it was signed by Gordon and Jay. We cancelled stamps on eight envelopes. Four of them were eventually delivered to the post office at Pago Pago, American Samoa, as mail from Palmyra, and finally reached their destinations in La Jolla and Chicago. These cancellations are unique in our daughter’s sizable collection.

The best and only hotel in thousands of square miles was waiting for us. We were becoming quite attached to it. The hermit crabs became our friends; the fast moving land crabs the villains....that is until we met the coconut crab.

I lingered over coffee the next morning before doing the washing. The washing machine was rather primitive but most effective......a large garbage can filled about a third full of rain water and a liberal supply of detergent. The plunger and agitator was a long handled plumber’s helper. My aching back and tired shoulders were forgotten when I produced the whitest line on Palmyra. I admired it on the line for a moment and then the rain started. I took it down and finally dried it in our suite at the Hilton. My one remaining problem was how to get it back to the ship in a dry condition. Mission was accomplished during a prolonged dry spell of almost three-quarters of an hour in the late afternoon. I was fed; the washing was done; I was ready to continue exploring. With thirteen men around, I didn’t expect any difficulty in finding a companion. But I was a little late. The scientists were all busy with their work. The first mate was on watch....someone always had to be on board. The skipper had his ears glued to the radio....besides he wasn’t the exploring type. So.....off I went alone to see what I could see without getting lost.

The airstrip seemed to be the best place to start. When I got to the end I could decide what to do next. The airstrip runs from West Lagoon to the outer reef. The runway parallels West Lagoon, Center Lagoon and East Lagoon. I could see the ocean far ahead and West Lagoon in the distance behind. About halfway along the airstrip I had a moment of alarm when thousands of birds took wing. The growth had nearly covered the strip at this point. The birds were not visible until I was upon them. They flew around me making a terrific racket, and followed me to the end of the runway, a few even farther. I did not go out onto the reef alone, but I did stand and look and dream.

Being alone and isolated was not lonely. Thoughts tumbled over one another with great rapidity. I thought of the growth of a coral atoll, the billions of small animals building endlessly to create a piece of ground. A bird with a seed stops to rest and a plant results. A coconut drifts thousands of miles across the ocean onto this protruding piece of earth and a tree grows. Finally an outrigger canoe filled with adventuresome Polynesians arrives and a community is built. This is carrying the daydream too far with Palmyra; natives never settled here.

Dreamily I edged along the shore. There was a sand beach a few feet wide. I followed this until I was stopped by one of the misshapen gun emplacements. This one was at an odd angle, the seaward corner embedded into the coral a foot or more. The dense jungle had entwined around it. I was able to make my way over the top, but on the other side, the heavy undergrowth had pushed to the water’s edge and out onto the reef. Footing was precarious and I did not want to make my way out over the coral flats around this tangled mass. What to do.....head back to the settlement? This was much too quick a finish to my solo safari on Palmyra. I knew the lagoon was only a few dozen feet away. I headed toward it breaking branches, climbing over decaying fallen trees. A few tortuous feet and I came across a cleared space. That is, there were no large trees and bushes.....only a mound covered with sprouting coconuts unable to take root. I realized that this must be the site of another underground storage. Travel across the cleared space was not easy. With every third step my foot would sink through the accumulated debris to a depth of a foot or two.Another patch of dense jungle and I reached the lagoon. It was beautiful! The water was calm and still, unlike the continual mild turbulence on the ocean side of the atoll. All around the lagoon stretched a thin strip of earth on which tropical foliage grew abundantly. Off to my left lay a small opening. At one time that had been a channel entrance to the lagoon from the sea. Time and tides and encroaching growth had closed the channel. The remains of a small wrecked ship was in the clutches of the jungle. I surveyed the situation to see how I could make my way from this spot on the lagoon, around the lagoon and eventually back to the settlement. The survey didn’t take long. It was impossible without wading. As I was considering this an inquisitive black tipped shark made a circle around the shadow cast by my body on the lagoon surface. I gave up the idea and headed back in the direction from which I had come, when I heard a tremendous crashing, breaking cracking sound.

I turned and looked and saw nothing. The growth was thick. A few moments later a machete came into view chapping away at the tangled vines. Friends and companions! It was Jack and Royd and John and George. George was carrying a huge Japanese fishing float that he had just found on the reef. The men were tattered and scratched and dirty but excited.

We decided next to investigate the outward islets. To get there we had to get across the lagoon to the causeway. Now we all faced the problem that I had faced a few moments before. The jungle was impenetrable and the water was shark infested. We huddled together and waded in knee deep water. The lead man and the last man used the machetes to ward off the sharks. They killed two in the first fifty yards.

Another decision had to be made. We had to pass a small inlet. The water there was deeper. We could attempt to wade across the narrow channel or cut a path through the jungle again. Not one of us wanted to chance the deeper water where the sharks might be bigger.

Back to the interior. The total width of the land between lagoon and sea was only fifteen to twenty feet, but once we were two feet from either the lagoon or the shore it became black and dark, and neither sea nor lagoon was visible. Our two machetes were large and heavy and sharp. After an hour of clearing our way we reached the Cooper Island end of the causeway.

When we were out in the open, the birds again joined us. The sun was hot. We were tired and thirsty. The machetes again came into good use as George cut down several fresh green coconuts and we drank our fill of the thirst quenching coconut water. Refreshed, we headed across the causeway.

The island on the far side of the causeway was a breeding ground for the gannets or, as they are better known, boobies. The next were built only a few feet off the ground in the low leafy trees. We were able to approach to within a few inches of the fluffy white chicks and within a foot of the adolescent birds before they took uneasy flight. The parent birds would watch from a safe distance while we admired and photographed their offspring.

It was getting late. We made a hurried retreat before darkness fell. The return trip was uneventful and much quicker. We had learned to follow the signs of the former jeep road. The road led back to the airstrip which we could follow easily to the settlement.

I took a long fresh water shower and shampooed my hair and got into a clean bathing suit before going back to the ship to make preparations for leaving Palmyra.

Departure was set for early the next morning. I wondered how Samoa, our next scheduled landfall, would seem. Palmyra was lovely that evening. Could any other atoll or island in the South Pacific be so beautiful? Jerry was on watch strumming a Tahitian tune on his guitar. The shore boat eased up to the ladder and I slowly swung myself on deck.

Something was wrong! Jack was quietly setting things out for a dinner on deck. There was no horseplay among the three stooges. The skipper was checking and rechecking lines silently. I looked around and headed below to ask Brad what was wrong. George was coming up the companion way.

“You’d better stay topside, Marge.”

“What’s wrong?”

“One of the seismometers in the three component instrument is misbehaving. In fact, it gave no record at all in the lagoon drop this afternoon.”

And from John “Brad and Forrest and Bob are below and they have everything taken apart. It’s terrible.”
The lagoon drop during the afternoon had been one of the most successful ones of the expedition as far as the drop, release and recovery were concerned. The first two seismometers had given excellent records, the tape from the third showed no activity, at all. What was not functioning? The tension now was much higher than the tension during a drop. The salon was converted into a laboratory. Elaborate electronic diagrams and circuits were spread out on the benches. Each wire, each transistor, each connection had to be examined and checked and tested. Was there one faulty connection or was the seismometer motor contact corroded from repeated use?’ I crept through the salon to take some things to my cabin. The scientists didn’t even notice my passing. Wires, diagrams and tools were scattered all about. I silently returned to the deck to eat. Brad grabbed a quick bite, grunted, looked worried, said it didn’t look good, and disappeared below again.

Departure from Palmyra was obviously going to be delayed. The future of the expedition was laid out on the gimbaled table in the salon. It is difficult enough to rework equipment on shipboard anchored in a calm lagoon. It would be impossible to do it at sea even under gentle swells and doldrums condition. The night vigil continued. In the early morning hours the faulty connection was discovered in the least likely place. A tight sleeve around a pin contact had slipped a hundredth of an inch due to the constant seismometer motion as the ship heaved up and down. Once the difficulty was located, the correction could be made in a few minutes, but the intricate task of reassembly would take most of the morning.
There was time for one more exploring expedition. Those of us who could not be useful on board left to search for the elusive night prowling coconut crab. These crabs and the rats are the only creatures on the atoll who are not hungry. The crabs are able to break open a coconut with their pincers and eat the meat. The rats grow fat on the leftovers. The crabs grow to enormous size as do the rats. Our supplies for this expedition were our trusty machete and a couple of gunny sacks liberated from one of the supply depots. I went along as cameraman.

We suspected that the crabs spent the daylight hours in dark regions under the decaying floor boards of old buildings. After climbing over a twisted gun emplacement and the remains of a concrete bunker, we found just such a building.We stationed one man inside and one outside. We pried up a floor board....nothing. Another and another.....our batting average was not good. The final board uncovered our prey. He was huge and very fast. Before we could use the machete to toss him out in the open he had scurried under a sagging wall and out the other side. The outside man was on him, but the crab ducked back under the wall immediately. The machete, flat side against the crab, was used as a lever to pry him out in the open.We guided him toward the sandy edge of the lagoon. His body was eight to ten inches in diameter and his claw spread was more than double that. His front pincers actively broke everything they contacted, even rather large dense pieces of tree trunks. Royd was most anxious to get the creature back on the ship for some South Sea crab bisque. With difficulty we got him into the gunny sack and carried him back toward the village. How could we keep him on board? We located a strong steel wire basket at one of the supply depots. It looked like a safe cage for our newfound pet. Caged crab and crew returned to the ship.

The seismometer was repaired. We could take off in a couple of hours when the tide was high and the channel could be navigated safely. Meanwhile, there was time for some diving. The sharks had deterred us from diving in the lagoon. The clear open water of the outer reef seemed safer and more interesting. Stan, Brad and Jack were the eager divers, and of course I hated to be left behind when an interesting safari was in the offing. We took the shore boat and followed the channel to the outer reef. The tops of the coral heads were visible only a few feet below the surface. My excuse for going along was to man the boat and keep in constant contact with the divers. They came back periodically with glowing reports of the beauty, the abundant sea life and no sharks. After about fifteen minutes, I couldn’t stand it any longer. On went my face plate, snorkel and fins, and I followed the anchor chain down into the silent world.

We were anchored in about twenty feet of water. I went to the bottom and swam toward a coral head. I had no more than gotten oriented when I ran out of breath and had to return to the surface. After a few quick breaths I was down again and this time I knew where I wanted to go.....back to the large coral head off the stern of the boat. It was surrounded by hundreds of brightly colored tropical fish traveling in orderly schools. A large lazy fish seemed to be the choreographer, directing the various troupes in graceful floating patterns. The first group glided into a crevasse between two different types of colored coral; and out from another opening came an iridescent blue group, taking a bow in front of my face plate before turning the stage over to another team. I surfaced and descended repeatedly. It was hard to tear myself away, but soon the skipper said the tide was near flood and we must go back. We had seen hundreds of fish but not one shark! Diving outside the lagoon seemed to be a reasonably safe occupation.

The trip back to the ship was a wet one. It was raining again and the wind blew. The shore boat traveled at full speed. I redonned my face plate and snorkel and found visibility and breathing much easier.
What does the future hold for Palmyra? Will she always be a rarely visited, scientifically interesting, romantically beautiful, deserted Ghost Island? Commercial copra production has been tried without success. Several developments have been proposed by lessees in the past: the ROYAL POLYNESIAN CLUB planned to develop the entire island as a private prestige resort; POLYNESIAN PARADISE promised a combination of talent, intimately acquainted with the environment of the Pacific Island living, culture, business, tourism and construction, teamed together to plan and program a new resort development on Palmyra; the COCONUT PROCESSING COMPANY attempted to build Palmyra into a big laboratory for marine biology, oceanography and any other sciences that needed a hot outpost close to the Equator. So far, none of the great plans for Palmyra have come to fruition. It is unlikely that the atoll can be developed into a profitable resort retreat. It would take five hundred men at least six months to clear the jungle of derelict buildings and installations. The cost of labor, materials and construction would be prohibitive. But Palmyra will always be scientifically interesting and beautiful to all people who stop at this tiny dot of land in the middle of the Pacific.

We had found Palmyra an exciting and memorable experience. We had enjoyed our days and nights, but the time had come to leave. Interludes are pleasant, but I suddenly realized that the ship had become more than just a platform for scientific measurements. It was our universe, our security, our home.
I took a good look at the DWYN WEN. She had been at sea for seven weeks.There was never enough time to keep up with the sanding, painting and varnishing that any ship needs to keep in top condition. The paint was a bit weather worn and dirty. The rust lines had formed uneven streaks on her white hull. She was a well-traveled, well-used, tired old ship. The skipper commented “At least we have a right smart looking crew, gives you a feeling of confidence.” The three stooges were on deck.....two months without a haircut or shave, white rags tied around their heads to keep the hair out of their eyes, dirty ragged Bermudas. John and George were exchanging rough jokes near the mainmast. Big Jim sat a few feet away. He looked almost menacing until I realized that he was scowling in concentration over a book by Leon Uris.

A final check was made to see that everything was ship shape. The crab cage was well secured. The spheres and anchor plates were doubly lashed. Seismometers and electronic gear were wedged together in their foam rubber padding. Water barrels were full. Dinner was in the oven.
“Hoist anchor!”

We were off. The trip out the channel was easy. We had had the experience of coming in and also had covered the channel on our diving expedition. Half way out we tested some “May Day” flares that had been given to me just before leaving La Jolla. It was late afternoon. We knew that there were no ships or planes within more than a hundred miles. These flares were only visible about four miles in daylight, so we decided that it would be safe to test them. The first was a dud; the second went off after the third try; the next went off immediately and behaved as the brochure said it would. I am glad that we didn’t ever need to rely on them!

We were out of the lagoon, through the channel, past the outer islets and into the open sea. We looked back at an isolated Pacific atoll as it disappeared on the horizon and we sailed south of the setting sun.

Original Format



Marge Bradner, “Excerpt from Seismic Summer,” Palmyra Archive, accessed October 1, 2020, http://palmyraarchive.org/items/show/148.


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