Flying Over South Sea Isles

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Flying Over South Sea Isles


This detailed article, writtent by Naval Lieutenant GA Ott, covers the operations of the US ship Eagle 40 as it traveled to and operated out of Palmyra in 1921. There mission was to take a small aircraft to the atoll, reassemble it in the lagoon, and take the first aerial photographs of the islands. They also brought along much needed supplies for the 3 inhabitants at the time, Colonel and Mrs. Meng, and a young man named Brenner, who were operating one of the many short lived copra plantations.

While much of the content here is also in a newspaper article written by Ott, there are a number of additional details and photographs included which add to the story and describe life on Palmyra at the time.


Lieutenant GA Ott, US Navy


Mid-Pacific Magazine




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By LIEUT. G. A. OTT, Intelligence Officer Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor

The trip from Honolulu down to Palmyra on Eagle 40 was filled with amusing incidents. At its very beginning the cruise gave promise of adventure, for within two hours of sailing Lieut. Glick, the Eagle's skipper, discovered two pseudo stowaways in the crews' quarters aft.

Newspaper men are usually credited with much cleverness. However, we are in a position to know, and it behooves us to undeceive a long suffering public. These two were undoubtedly built for comfort, for it was their diligent search for a bunk which led to their swift undoing.

By all rules of sea and fiction, stowaways are supposed to remain hidden until almost starved or eaten by rats. But, then, one could hardly expect a star reporter to remain in eclipse for any such length of time.

Commander Kirkpatrick, despite their pleadings, ordered the two returned to Honolulu.

The first day out was passed without incident and with little food being used, though much was misused. At noon of the second day some live member gathered together such of the crew as were able to maneuver and who had four bits, for the purpose of making a pool to enrich him who could give the most plausible answer to the question: Why did they name this ocean the Pacific?.

The ordinary seaman who walked off with the gravy claims that the middle class Spanish bird who discovered it was not familiar with the English tongue, and, therefore, chose a word from a Greek dictionary while blindfolded. We are inclined to look with favor upon this explanation. The ocean itself gives no good reason to raise a doubt. The third day was passed by the officers in the exciting business of increasing the wrinkles around Lieutenant Glick's eyes. And on the morning of the fourth day, thanks to the abilities of the navigating officer, Lieutenant Smith, Palmyra lay spread before us. Doc Steele claims Smithy takes his sextant to bed with him. We are not familiar with all his little idiosyncrasies, but no one seems to be able to locate the sextant during Smithy's watch below.

While getting the plane over, many large red snappers and ulua were caught by the crew. The writer claims the distinction of hooking the largest fish, but must share the honor of landing it with two others. After playing it for about 30 minutes or more, during which time no one could be certain as to whether I had the fish or the blasted thing had me, some one sent word to Commander Kirkpatrick that Lieutenant Ott was in difficulty. The boss hot-footed it to the scene of action and gave me much needed relief, and finally, with the assistance of Skipper Glick and a handy boathook, 133 pounds of silver ulua was gasping and flopping all over the deck. Of course the photographer was gotten on the job immediately. It is to be expected that Kirk’s son, Bobbie, may some day doubt the prowess of his dad.

Shortly after our arrival at the anchorage the quartermaster reported a sail making towards us from the island. This soon became visible to the naked eye, and, with the palm-fringed shore as background, we all slipped into the spell of romance. I felt we were living the pages of Morgan Robertson and Bob Stevenson.

Colonel Meng, Edward Benner and Mrs. Meng were soon scrambling up the sea ladder, sunburned and weather- beaten, to be sure, but far from starving, as had been reported. They had been out of fresh provisions for some time, but one could hardly starve on Palmyra with Mrs. Meng at the helm of the culinary department. They were overjoyed to see us and to get the large mail and new store of provisions we had brought.

On Our Isle, a sanded and coconut shaped wee bit of coral on the edge of Central lagoon, stood the mansion of the pioneers, and here Colonel and Mrs. Meng and Edward Benner, after a year of isolation, were at home that afternoon to visitors.

Their home consists of a long lean-to with the closed side in the direction of the prevailing winds. This is divided into three sections by partitions, the front being left entirely open except for curtains, which, in the raised position, make quite efficient awnings. All cooking is done in the open over a mud and tin fireplace. Our Isle is just large enough to contain the shelter and to provide, in addition, a front yard of about 40 square feet.

The decision by several of the officers to remain on the island during the stay of the expedition was heartily endorsed by our hosts, who indicated quite clearly that the watchword on Palmyra was "The more, the merrier.”

Colonel Meng and Lieutenant Mecklenburg, our noted caster of flies, went to spear mullet in the lagoon shallows. The rest of us lay in the sand and marveled as much at the beauty of the scene as we did at the ability displayed by Ed Benner in surreptitiously disappearing with a certain packet of letters while the sun, in the west, slowly dropped into Eagle 40's smokestack.

The plane lay at anchor off the edge of the shallows, a strange affair amid stranger surroundings. Eagle 40, like a painted ship on a silver ocean, swung to the tide off the outer reef, and between her and the beach came a string of boats towing carefully through the coral heads, with provisions and more visitors for the self-exiled trio.

For our benefit, dinner the first night was to be a typical Palmyra meal. None of the new provisions were used in its preparation. It was eminently successful. The fish were excellent, the coconut vegetable was delicious, and, if we are to take Kirkpatrick's word for it, the meat of the coconut crab was a knockout. After this, the first meal, we were willing to record the fact that our hostess was some cook. At the present writing we can all swear that she's a regular fellow and a good sailor, too. We are glad to bring her back to civilization with us.

It is needless to state that the moonlit evening passed quickly. The C. O. soon discovered that Mrs. Meng is also a Texan. One is led to wonder how so much of interest to talk about ever found Texas. However, the rest were soon engrossed in the tales of Colonel Meng, and the moon was well on its downward course before the beds were filled. It was noted that Ed Benner and the mysterious package were conspicuously absent most of the time. Some one reported him disappearing in the jungle of Cooper isle just after dinner with a lantern in his hand.

The second day on the islands was spent in a tour of the group, a proceeding which caused the lavish use of sunburn lotion that night.

Pictures were taken of everything that didn't move too fast. Lieutenant Kilmer, with our photographer, Poe, took to the air at noon and secured numerous pictures from which will be constructed a mosaic map of Palmyra. The C. O. and I decided it would be less strenuous to look 'em over from above than by tramping afoot, so when the plane returned we went up for a bit of sightseeing.

Palmyra consists of about 50 small islets, spread east and west in the shape of an elongated horseshoe and encircling three deep lagoons. Our Isle, the home of the Mengs, is the smallest of all, and from 2000 feet above looks like the rubber on a lead pencil. The picture from the air was beautiful, indeed, and well worth the trip down on the shimmying Eagle 40.

Each island is connected to the next by water shallow enough for wading. At the ebb tide one can walk from one to the other dry-footed. They are covered with the usual forms of tropical foliage, each island being a veritable jungle in itself. Coconut trees are so thickly packed that in many cases they lean far outward and form a canopy over the water. Where there are beaches the soil line is luxuriantly covered with wild heliotrope, and it is in this that the larger sea birds build their nests. Birds of all species remain unafraid at the approach of man or fly curiously in circles just above one's head. The almost unbelievable story of a bird that balances her eggs upon a tree limb is proven here to have foundation in fact. Pictures were obtained of the eggs of the lovebird so balanced without the aid of glue or nails.

The lagoons contained between the arms of the horseshoe are very deep and teeming with rainbow splashed fish. Specimens were observed which outstripped our wildest imagination, and one, which we named the American, carried on his flat back three superimposed shields, one red, one white and one blue.

My first hunt for the coconut crab was a period fraught with strange qualms and heart tugging terrors. The time of day chosen for my initiation was just right to bring into play all the fearful strangeness of the proceeding. Colonel Meng called to me just as the sun was slipping below the horizon and the shadows were getting deep in the bush. He was armed with a cane knife and lantern. I was to carry a bucket and follow him into the jungle. Everything went fine for about 50 yards, with me tagging along quite closely. Suddenly the colonel loosed a wild warwhoop and made a vicious lunge at something up forward with the machete. Now I had never seen a coconut crab, but I had gathered in several remarks relative to their size and fighting abilities. I'm sure my cap held my hair down, but my shoes just grunted a few times and the lantern flickered eerily. As I peered fearfully forward to get a glimpse of the battle a palm frond brushed my cheek, and right there I would have headed for the beach had not the colonel called duly for the bucket. Only the claws were taken, but as two claws make a meal we had the bucket full after just five intense actions. I didn't see any of the crabs whole, however, as it required all my time to keep the bucket from streaking for the open.

Dinner on the second day was a regular Thanksgiving affair, with turkey 'n everything. The size of the bird put to shame the open-air cooking facilities of Our Isle, so the meal was cooked aboard the Eagle and brought ashore in boats. Though this was the first fresh meat to reach their table in many months, the appetites of the marooned islanders seem to have suffered somewhat from the constant fish diet, for the most of the turkey found the paunches of the visitors. The Mengs' dog, "Friday," and the cat, "Jerry," in fact, became so sick after partaking of this strange food that neither would perform any more that evening. Friday had been brought to Palmyra when a very small puppy, so this first sight of another of his species came when "Forty," the Eagle's mascot, ventured ashore. The disgusting indifference of Forty almost broke the heart of "Friday." It seemed that no manner of coercion or footplay on his part could ruffle "Forty's" sophisticated calm. However, with Jerry it was different. "Forty" caught one glimpse of the cat out of the corner of his eye and then almost disrupted the camp in his efforts to get at her. "Friday" immediately lined up with the cat and "Forty's" retreat was rapid and complete, even if it did appear dignified on the surface. Thereafter "Forty" amused himself with the legs dangerous occupation of chasing curlew on the beach.

The evening was spent in much the same manner as the one before. No one got to bed until 2 a. m. At 3 a terrific rainstorm swept into the lean-to and brought us all up standing, that is, all but Lieutenant Kilmer, who remained in the land of shuteye even while his bed was moved. The storm didn't last long, but the precipitation made a record in the first five minutes. Conversations which started during the rain continued almost to dawn, which indicates to what extent these people were starved for company and news of the outside world.

As all good things must end, Thursday ushered in departure. The plane was taken for one last flip around the islands and then landed alongside Eagle 40, to be hoisted aboard and clipped of its wings.
The colonel, Mrs. Meng and Ed Benner, with "Friday" atop Mrs. Meng's trunks, accompanied the boats to the ship. Mrs. Meng, who for the past few weeks had been feeling ill, was to remain with us for passage to Honolulu.

Eagle 40's anchor came slowly up to the hawse. The engine telegraph jingled, and with many shouts of farewell, two men waving their hats and a dog wagging a tail from a skiff, were soon merged by distance into the background of their lonely isle.


Lieutenant GA Ott, US Navy, “Flying Over South Sea Isles,” Palmyra Archive, accessed September 25, 2020,


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