The Palmyra Islands

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The Palmyra Islands


This brief write up of a naval pharmacy mate's experiences while serving with a small dispatch to Palmyra from Honolulu, contains a series of extremely rare photographs from that trip, including the first documented aerial photograph of the atoll and its islands. Also describes the seaman, ship, and aircraft used for the survey.


M.L. Steele, Chief Pharmacist's Mate


Google Books


Hospital Corps Quarterly, United States Navy




Public Domain





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In September, 1921, I was fortunate enough to be assigned as act-ing medical officer with a detachment from the naval air station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which was to make an aerial survey of the Palmyra Islands. These islands enjoy the unique distinction of being a part of the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii, although located 960 miles south of Honolulu. The detachment was composed of Lieutenant Commander Kirkpatrick, United States Navy, commanding officer of the air station, two naval aviators, and the writer.

A seaplane, known as the N-9 type, was stripped of its outer wings and secured on the deck of the U. S. S. Eagle 40, which vessel is acting as tender for the naval air station, and we departed from Honolulu at midnight on September 15, 1921. After a rather rough passage the islands were sighted at daylight of the fourth day out, and at 9 a. m. we were anchored off the western reef in 10 fathoms of water, so clear that the coral bottom, which could be clearly seen, resembled a many-colored tile floor.

While the plane was being assembled and put over the side the officers and crew tried their hand at fishing, and within an hour and a half a ton of red snapper and uulua was on deck. The red snappers weighed from 10 to 25 pounds and the uulua from 70 to 130 pounds. These fish are the finest of food fish, and all hands enjoyed this addition to the regular diet. All of these fish were caught with hook and line, and many instances occurred when it was hard to state - whether the fisherman had the fish or the fish the fisherman 1 A hundred pounds of live game fish in the water is about equal to 160 pounds of man on a deck at the other end of a line.

The Palmyra Islands were discovered in 1802 by the American ship Palmyra, hence their name. The group is shaped like a horseshoe and comprises 53 islands, covering in all about 500 acres. They are coral islands of the atoll type and completely surrounded by a barrier reef, inside of which are large, deep lagoons. Their highest elevation above sea level is about 7 feet, and they are densely cov- ered with a growth of wild heliotrope bushes and coconut palms which grow to a height of 90 feet or more. Millions of birds, such as tern, curlew, love birds, boobys, and frigate birds nest here, and, having had no enemies, are exceedingly tame. The lagoons contain many varieties of fish of all shapes and all colors of the rainbow and are a source of interest and delight to a naturalist. There are no animals or snakes on these islands and they are free from mosquitoes and other poisonous insects. A great number of shellfish are found about the reef, and here the coconut crab grows to an enormous size, and is highly prized as an article of food. In taste it resembles the New England lobster but the flesh is much more tender. These islands have never been inhabited, except by the sporadic excursions of Japanese bird poachers, until recently, when a company was formed to exploit their fishing and copra resources. A year ago three persons, a former colonel of the Canadian Army, his wife, and a young man from Honolulu, took up their residence on the islands and have devoted their time to making preliminary surveys of the coconut groves and planning the active work of the copra company.

The climate is fine and, while typically tropical, the heat is tem- pered by the never-failing trade winds. During our visit the weather was delightful. The detachment remained at these islands two days and they were perfect for flying, affording an opportunity to take wonderful aerial pictures. The commanding officer and the aviators made a number of flights and the official photographer was in his element. The photographs illustrating this article will be of interest to all- and were taken by Chief Photographer J. W. Poe, United States Navy, formerly a member of the Hospital Corps, United States Navy. All hands were granted liberty and they thoroughly explored the islands, enjoying themselves hugely. It was with many a sigh of regret that, on the morning of the third day, we hoisted the seaplane aboard and left the little colony (diminished by one) to their voluntary isolation until maybe months later some other vessel chances to be near and pays their island home a visit. On the trip back to Honolulu we had as a guest Mrs. William Meng (the wife of ex-Col. Meng), whom it was deemed advisable to bring to Honolulu for medical advice and attention, her long stay on the islands having brought on a nervous complaint.

Original Format



M.L. Steele, Chief Pharmacist's Mate, “The Palmyra Islands,” Palmyra Archive, accessed October 31, 2020,


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