Issue 13.5: October/November 2010

The Forgotten Colonists

Story by Lynn Cook

Photo courtesy George Kanahu, Sr.


Kamehameha Schools students and alumni head for the Line Islands aboard the USCG cutter Itasca in January 1936. Filmmaker Noelle Kahanu's grandfather George Kahanu is in the front row, second from right.

By day the blazing glare of the equatorial sun baked the treeless island. By night beetles and Polynesian rats crawled over everything, including the newest island inhabitants: young Hawaiian men. The year was 1935. The island, one hundred miles south of the equator, was named Jarvis. It sat only twenty feet above sea level—hardly visible over the surf—and had no water and no shelter. Its only food source was the ocean that surrounded it.


How and why were the Hawaiian men there? That story lived only in their memories and logbooks for nearly seventy years … until one day in 2002 a Bishop Museum archivist asked the museum’s project manager, Noelle Kahanu, whether she were related to a George Kahanu. “Yes,” Noelle replied, “he’s my grandfather.” The archivist handed her a faded green logbook dated 1936. “There was my grandfather’s handwriting,” remembers Noelle. “He was 17 and giving a report on wind and clouds and cooking and fishing on an island far, far away, across the equator. I just never knew!”


The moment was an epiphany for Kahanu. “Growing up, my grandpa was simply my grandpa,” she recalls. “He never talked about the days of his youth.” In her initial research, she found that her grandfather was among the first of 130 young Hawaiian men, most Kamehameha Schools students, who were recruited to occupy a trio of deserted islands called the Line Islands: Jarvis, Baker and Howland. The young men were called panala‘au, colonists.


Here, Kahanu began to realize, was an epic story nearly lost to time. She would wake up in the middle of the night, wondering where the real story was hidden and how it could be saved. She began combing Hawai‘i for all of the surviving panala‘au she could find and collected oral histories from each. She pored over documents. Her research became a passion that became a Bishop Museum exhibit called “Hui Panala‘au” and a documentary film, Under a Jarvis Moon, which will premiere at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival this October. Almost all of the colonists she interviewed have now passed on, but her grandfather George, 92, is still here and so too is Paul Phillips, who today is 88.


“Some projects take on a life of their own, unfolding of their own accord,” Kahanu says. “Sometimes we just bear witness.”




The United States mined Jarvis Island for guano in the mid-1800s using the Guano Act passed by Congress in 1856. But when the mines ran dry, the United States abandoned the island. Britain then claimed it, along with Baker and Howland—but unable to occupy the islands or find a use for them, the British soon left, too.


In 1935 the US Department of Air Commerce announced the need to reclaim the strategically located Line Islands, ostensibly to protect federal interests in commercial aviation routes between California and Australia. The only real way the government could claim the islands was to populate them full time with colonists who were citizens of the United States. So over the next seven years, groups of four young men were sent to each of the islands. They rotated through every few months, from 1935 until 1942, when the last colonists were rescued from what had become a war-torn Pacific.


After Noelle Kahanu received the logbook from the archivist, she remembers, “I went to see my grandfather on Maui to ask why we never knew about his island adventure.” When she mentioned the name Jarvis, her grandpa left the room and came back with an aged manila envelope filled with photos and letters from his adventures half a century earlier. He talked of being a junior at Kamehameha High School when he was recruited. He was, he told his granddaughter, proud to be selected. He said the Hawaiian boys were chosen because they could swim, fish and handle a boat. “The government figured us Hawaiians were the only ones who could survive and do the task. We were paid $3 a day, good wages in 1935,” George Kahanu said. All of the young men chosen were bright students who could easily learn to gather scientific information. Eventually they gave hourly radio reports that included aircraft and ship sightings.


The first recruits were told nothing of what they would be doing until their ship was well into its five-day voyage to the islands. Once the boys got over the shock of seeing a home with no resources, they went to work. Poi, canned food, radio equipment and barrels of water were unloaded from their ship before it sailed away with a promise to return every three or four months.


Some of the young men stayed only that long, only for one tour. Others stayed on or returned, loving the challenge of life on the tiny islands. The “fishing was almost too easy,” George Kahanu recalled. “When you let go a spear, you would get two or three fish at one time.” They dried their catch in the relentless sun. They tried farming but it didn’t work: The rats ate everything, including the sprouting coconuts. As part of their job they collected specimens of lizards, rats, mice, crabs, fish, birds, ducks, shells and plants.


They worked all day, every day: Job assignments included radio operator, cook and fisherman. They didn’t bring much when they left Honolulu, just a pair of sneakers and a pair of shorts. Most of the time they saved their clothes and spent their time as a self-described “bunch of nudists.” All the young men stayed in good physical shape, playing four-man football. They got along.


Off Jarvis there was a sunken ship, the Amaranth, close to the reef. The colonists harvested a multitude of treasures from the wreck, including boards that they began shaping into surfboards. But surfing was a dream never realized. When the supply ship returned, it also brought a reality check from the crew: The hundreds of sharks just beyond the reef breaks could turn a surf session into disaster. Sharks were not the only danger—the isolation could be perilous, too. One colonist was lost to appendicitis; the supply ship, the Roger B. Taney, traveled 1,310 miles at full speed to reach him but was unable to get him to a doctor in time to save him.


Sundays were celebrated with song. Neither church nor Bible was available, so prayers and psalms came from memory. The record player had to be spun with the fingers. Still, the jerky sound of pop music could soothe the soul. And using Jarvis’ lone guitar, Kahanu composed the song “Under a Jarvis Moon,” which went like so: “The moon on Jarvis Island/just makes me long for you./Each lonely night, as I sit in my shack,/it brings memories of you.”


Night was the time for stories about ‘aumakua, spirit guides. Those stories, Kahanu recalls, made everybody look over their shoulders as they were walking back to their bunks. Magazines and books arrived when the supply ship came in. Contact with family was allowed on the ham radio—though these calls were not logged on official transmission reports.


The most precious commodity of all was the fresh water that filled the fifty-gallon drums. The water was used only for drinking—especially since the supply ships didn’t always arrive on time. Once, water became so scarce on Howland Island that dehydration became severe. The situation was so dire that the young men dug shallow depressions in the sand and lay down beside them. The intent? If one of them died, the others would have enough energy to roll the body into the shallow grave and cover it with sand. 


When a rain started, the colonists would get all soaped up, ready for a freshwater shower. If the rain stopped too soon, there they were on the beach, still sticky with soap. What little clothing they wore was washed in ocean water, as were dishes.


Island birds and fish augmented the canned food rations. Recipes for “booby bird” passed from one cook to another. The recipe card read: “Seabird Hekka: 2 fresh booby birds, skinned, marinate breasts in shoyu and sugar, cook on medium heat, add onions if available.”


In 1937 Howland witnessed much excitement and then deep disappointment. The colonists had worked day and night to clear a runway with dynamite and scare off thousands of birds with a shotgun, all to ready a landing spot for Amelia Earhart. They had even created a “house” of curtains and built a shower for her using an elevated fifty-gallon drum and a tomato can punched with holes. The landing on Howland was to be one of her last stops on her round-the-world-flight, but she never made it. The colonists waited for weeks as ships searched the ocean, and in the end they built a sandstone monument to the missing aviatrix.




Noelle Kahanu’s tireless research brought more facts to light, including the fact that the Navy very specifically didn’t want to put its people on the islands. A 1935 memorandum from Rex Martin, acting director of US Air Commerce, reads, “The Navy Department advises that Navy personnel cannot be used to inhabit Baker, Holland [sic] and Jarvis Islands. It is, therefore, suggested that native Hawaiians be used for this purpose.” The document does not specify the length of time of the colonists would need to stay, but does say “the Navy Department will furnish necessary gear—and transportation.” The directive notes that the inhabitants would need to gather weather data for possible air navigation purposes. Were they also sent there to keep an eye out for Japanese ships in the region, a potentially far more dangerous mission? Kahanu has found no direct evidence of this, but from 1935 on, the Pacific was an increasingly tense place as the Japanese moved east and south across the ocean.


An official memorandum dated July 17, 1941, just months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, notes that the Commandant of Pearl Harbor suggested that the Line Islands should be abandoned, “to avoid the Coast Guard providing transportation to personnel stationed thereon.” A July 21 memo details the difficulty of providing supplies to the Line Islands and further comments that the Commandant had not given up the idea of evacuation.


In the end, the evacuation came too late to save Richard Whaley and Joseph Keli‘ihananui. They were killed when the Japanese attacked Howland and Baker islands on Dec. 8, 1941. Jarvis Island was shelled in the following days. The last of the panala‘au were not evacuated until February 1942.


All of the colonists were single when they were recruited—thus leaving the government with no responsibility to wives or children. The two men lost in the 1941 bombing were unceremoniously buried, with no honors and no recognition paid to their siblings, nieces or nephews. Kahanu says that one great blessing of her project is that the remains of the two “island warriors” have been reinterred, with honor and distinction, at the State Veterans Cemetery in Kane‘ohe, O‘ahu.