First Lady of Palmyra

The first woman to live and work on Palmyra, was a young Texan named Idelle Meng. She became one of Palmyra’s longest serving residents, spending nearly a year on the atoll with her husband.  This exhibit is dedicated to exploring her story, as documented in a number of newspaper and magazine articles, and sharing those materials that tell it best, often in her own words.

Idelle Portrait

Life Before Palmyra

William and Idelle Men, just married on June 21st, 1920

Idelle Pearl Singletary was born in Austin, Texas on March 9th, 1895. At the age of 25, she embarked on an extended journey with her aunt, Mrs. S.A. Dickson, spending several months in Honolulu.  While there, she met Colonel William Meng, a young British soldier, newly arrived from England and retired from Military service.  While not a wealthy man, Meng was a gentleman and a hard worker, described by one newspaper account as “a hero of the world war, with the Victoria Cross and other honors”.

Having recently leased development rights to Palmyra from its then owner Judge Henry Cooper, Meng planned to make his fortune in the Pacific farming copra and other resources on the remote Pacific atoll.  Idelle and her aunt enjoyed a privileged stay in Honolulu, lodging at the ʻĀinahau, the royal estate of Princess Victoria Kaʻiulani. William and Idelle soon developed a romance, and decided to marry soon after.  In what must have been a memorable ceremony, the two were married under Kaiulani’s Banyan tree, on the lawn of the Hawaiian Palace.

Four months after their marriage, William and Idelle finalized their plans for a new adventure.  Taking along a young friend named Edwin Benner, the trio left Honolulu harbor for Palmyra.  They planned to spend a year on Palmyra, exploring and developing various ways to profit from Palmyra’s many natural resources.

Sailing for Adventure

At first things went well, the trio enjoyed living and working on Palmyra, Idelle spending much of her time with their dog Friday, exploring the islets. After four months with no sign of a ship, they began to worry. While they were in no danger of dying from thirst or starvation, their only source of food, clothing, and anything else beyond bare necessities, was only what they could find on the atoll.

Fortunately, after 5 months with no contact, the USS Nero arrived in late March, sent by the Navy and the Mengs’ supporters back in Honolulu. It brought supplies, and most notably, letters and communications from their friends and families. Another five months passed before the next vessel arrived, this one flagged down by Idelle and Benner. Three weeks after that, the US Eagle 40 arrived on a mission to take the first aerial photographs of Palmyra, and brought along supplies for the trio. Idelle and William decided it would be best if she returned with the crew to Honolulu, to wait for William to finish his work on Palmyra.

Sketch of Benner and the Meng's, newly arrived and waving farewell to the ship

Life after Palmyra

Idelle between two unknown Navy sailors circa 1944

After her return to Hawaii (William and Edwin followed a few months later), newspapers printed embellished stories of Idelle’s harrowing story of survival and a narrow escape from starvation. By her own account, despite growing tired of fish and desperately in need of new shoes, she otherwise considered the experience a positive adventure (though she had no interest in living on Palmyra again).

Not much is known of Idelle’s life after Palmyra. She wrote a number of articles telling her story and clearing up some of the more exaggerated versions. In January of 1922, the Meng’s left Hawaii, moving to Los Angeles and later Santa Barbara, owning and running fruit farms. In 1944, Idelle joined the Women’s Air Corps at the age of 51. She had hoped to be stationed in the Pacific, but spent the bulk of her service at Pratt Army Air Field, in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, achieving the rank of Corporal, and serving as the Base Librarian.

Discharged from the WAC in 1945, she rejoined her husband in their home in Santa Barbara. Idelle spent the next 25 years as an active member of her community, passing away on August 13th, 1970, and being laid to rest in the Carpenteria Cemetary. Her husband William followed her 3 years later.

Idelle's Story in her Own Words

In 1923, Idelle wrote a detailed account of her adventure, which was published in two parts, in Wide World Magazine.  This represents the most detailed and accurate version of her story, and includes some wonderful photos and illustrations.  I highly recommend reading these works, which you’ll find in our archive, and linked below.

Other Works by Idelle

After the publication of her adventure accounts in the early 1920s, it seems Idelle continued to develop her writing. We know for certain, she wrote a regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press newspaper during the early 1940s, and wrote the “WAC of the Week” column in the WAC Newsletter, while stationed at Pratt Army Air Field.

She authored several short, unique works, as well.  My personal favorite is the letter she wrote in 1942, to the service members stationed on Palmyra. She briefly described her time on Palmyra, and the lasting impression it left on her.

Photo Gallery

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top