Amateur 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 1940, and since then its been visited by over 30 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.

Radio operators setting up their broadcast equipment in 1982

Life Saving Radio Transmission

In July of 1947, not long before Palmyra passed from Naval management back to its private owners, a C46 cargo plane crashed on the reefs around the island.  Miraculously, only one crew member was injured, though his injuries were severe.  Quoting from an article describing the incident, the radioman said,

“I don’t have any hand.” Crawling from the shattered, burning plane into knee deep water, he stumbled twice and  thought he was stepping into a hole; “then I found my leg was gone.”

Had Palmyra been uninhabitated, or the weather been bad, this would have surely been a death sentence.  Thankfully, his fellow crew members carreid him nearly 100 yards to shore through the surf, and the staff stationed on the island (as part of a radio monitoring crew) got to work patching him up.  One of them, a registered nurse, sent out a call over the radio asking for help.  A rescue plane was quickly dispatched from Honolulu but it would be hours before they could reach the isolated atoll.

Lucky for the injured airman, an amateur operator in New Jersey, 6,000 miles away, heard the call and got a local doctor on the line to assist the nurse in bandaging and treating his wounds.  When the recuse plane arrived, they found the man still alive and ready for transport.  He survived the hours long flight back to Hawaii, where he was given several blood transfusions, along with treatment for his other injuries.

With all the things that could have gone wrong, from his being carried 100 yards through shark infested waters, to landing in such an isolated place, to the long flight back to get proper care, it’s a wonder he survived.  What’s certain is, had the ham operator not been listening, the nurse on Palmyra would not have know the triage steps to take to keep him breathing until more help arrived.  Thanks to the power of radio, even over 6,000 miles, the man lived to tell his harrowing tale.

Operators Unknowingly Aid Killers

Unfortunately for Palmyra, it is perhaps best known for the murder of a sailing couple in 1974, which made headlines nationwide, and remains partly unsolved even to this day.  The details of this event, and the following arrests and trials, are well documented in several places, but most notably in the book, “And the Sea Will Tell,” by Legosi, the prosecuting attorney for the case.  
To understand how the HAM’s fit into the story, one only needs to know the convicted killers sailed from Honolulu to Palmyra in June of 1974.  This trip should take no more than 9 or 10 days, even in less than ideal weather.  It took these two nearly a month, and once there, they had no way of moving through the channel that connected the outer lagoon, to the inner lagoon, so remained stuck, with little to no food or water, unable to reach the shore.  Rusty Epps, a member of the 1974 DXpedition to Palmyra, picks up the story from there:
“It was a six day sail for us, from Hawaii to Palmyra and when we got there, Jack (Wheeler, head of the DXpedition) and his family were already inside the lagoon, yet there was another boat (that) had not been able to get through the cut (the opening from the ocean to Palmyra’s inner lagoons) , and it was just kind of anchored on the reef out there.  We had no idea who these people were or why they were there but it was pretty obvious that they hadn’t figured out how to get in through that cut or exactly where it was.  
“On the 3rd day that we were there, the day before we were to leave for Kingman Reef, the other boat-we saw it try to sail through the cut and didn’t make it.  They ran aground on the reef…We went out and took the dingys from our boat and Jack’s (Jack Wheeler, fellow amateur operator) boat and were able to pull them off and finally tow them in and tie them up at…a pier.  So they got in safely…our plan was to leave the next day to go on to Kingman Reef, which we did.  Jack was going to stay there, all the time that we were at Kingman reef, as the backup.  But a day out from when we left Palmyra we got a call from Jack on the radio saying, “Guys, I’m sorry to change plans on you, but my family and I have already departed Palmyra and we’re on the way back to Honolulu.  Frankly I am worried about being on Palmyra with those people that we pulled in.”  And…that was it, we did our thing at Kingman Reef and…went on and ultimately back to Hawaii.  Now what went on at Palmyra was a bit different.”
What went on was a double homicide, the vandalism and theft of a very expensive yacht, and finally the capture of two people, one of whom would be convicted of murder and spend most of their life in prison.  Rusty and his team did the right thing saving those folks, who might otherwise have starved, too proud or scared to ask for help.  Unfortunately for the victims, that generosity of spirit and valuing of life wasn’t paid forward.
Amateur Radio operator Rusty Epps, broadcasting from Palmyra in June of 1974

Listen to an excerpt from our interview with Rusty, where he describes his experience helping Buck Walker and Stephanie Stearns get free of Palmyra’s reefs, and make it to shore, for their infamous stay on the atoll.

Expedition Plagued with Injuries Leaves Palmyra Closed to Visitors

QSL card from the January 1980 DxPedition, showing the Lockheed Lodestar 18 after crashing
French pleasure sailor standing beside the wrecked Lodestar, 4 years after the crash, where it still sits today

By 1980, Palmyra was in desperate need of an cleanup.  Much of the debirs and building materials left from the activities of the Navy during World War 2 were scattered across the islands and little more than rubble.  It had housed no long time residents or scientific expeditions since the 60’s, and the owners did little more with it than occasionally enterain an offer to sell off the property.  The once accessible runways were overrun with plants, rubish,and the over a million birds who regularly nested on the atoll.

None of that disuaded the regular DXpeditions of amateur radio operators, who continued to visit the island, and the occasional yachtie.  So in 1980, a group arrived from Hawaii via chartered plane, with plans to travel on to nearby Kingman afterwards.  Unfortunately, they didn’t anticipate the difficulty in landing the plane.  A combination of inadequate landing space and dangerous crosswinds resulted in the aircraft crashing and being too damaged to ever fly again.

While only one member of the team was hurt in the crash, her injuries were severe enough that she was airlifted back to Hawaii for treatment.  Things seemed to go smoothly from there, with broadcasting a success over the next few days, and the trip over to Kingman uneventful, until the team returned to Palmyra.  Another team member, a neurosurgeon, fell while hiking around the island and inured his hand.  He was airlifted back as well, with the other team members traveling with him.

By all accounts, he lost his ability to operate, suing the islands owners for negligence and settling out of court.  After this series of accidents, the Fullard-Leo’s were understandably reluctant to let anyone visit the island, and there would be no further DXpeditions until 1988, by which time some cleanup had been done on the islands making it easier to navigate.

QSL Card Gallery

Below are some of my favorite QSL’s.  Click here to visit our complete gallery of over 30 cards spanning 80 years.

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