By Jonee Leināʻala Kaina Peters
The U.S. Military’s Interest in the Pacific Remote Islands
In the mid 1930s, the U.S. government coveted the area known as the Pacific Remote Islands as a stop-over location for military planes and for possible future commercial air travel between Hawaiʻi and Australia.
In order to lay claim to the islands, the U.S. had to prove they were resident-occupied by U.S. citizens so government officials collaborated with the Bishop Museum and Kamehameha Schools to recruit young Native Hawaiian men to “test” these isolated islands for habitation.
Eventually 130 young men, mostly Native Hawaiians, were recruited to “colonize” the islands of Ulukou (Howland), Puakaʻilima (Baker) and Paukeaho (Jarvis). They called themselves Hui Panalāʻau (Society of Colonists). At least 50 of them were students, or recent graduates, of Kamehameha Schools.
Dubbed the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project, the U.S. coordinated 26 expeditions to the islands between 1935 and 1942. With U.S. citizens living on the islands, the U.S. claimed jurisdiction of the area on May 13, 1936, via executive order 7368 by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Hui Panalāʻau “boys” worked seven days a week with just a few hours off on Sundays. For this, they were paid $3 a day. Their daily tasks included collecting specimens for research and keeping records of their activities and observations – from weather patterns to sightings of Japanese planes and war ships.
During their habitation of the islands, the young men “endured endless sun with no trees or fresh water, rats, millions of birds, shark infested seas, and ultimately, enemy fire. They did so in order that the United States could expand its holdings in the Pacific and maintain them as potential military outposts,” said Noelle Kahanu in a commentary shared on Hawaiʻi Public Radio in 2016. Kahanu’s grandfather, George Kahanu, was among the 130.
Three men died during the seven years that the islands were occupied. Carl Kahalewai developed appendicitis on Paukeaho and passed away on-route to Hawaiʻi for medical treatment.
In 1941, months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, officials considered abandoning the project but were overruled. The evacuation never happened and Richard “Dickie” Whaley and Joseph Keliʻihananui paid the ultimate price. Both young men were killed during a Japanese aerial attack on the islands on Dec. 8, 1941 – the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed.
The surviving colonists were eventually rescued, and the islands evacuated, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 8, 1942.
A Precious Marine Refuge that Must be Protected
Today, these islands and surrounding ocean are part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) established by the U.S. in 2009. Although the islands are not suitable for human settlement due to the lack of fresh water, the region includes one of the most widespread collections of coral reef, seabird and shorebird protected areas on the planet.
The equatorial islands of Ulukou, Puakaʻilima and Paukeaho support a dozen different colonies of seabird species. Coral cover and biodiversity in the area is higher than in Hawaiʻi and the nutrient-rich shallows near the islands support as many as 340 species of fish, as well as giant clams, sharks and sea turtles.
Palmyra Atoll and Nalukākala (Kingman Reef) are located north of Paukeaho (Jarvis) Island. Nearly pristine, Nalukākala has the greatest proportion of apex predators of any coral reef ecosystem in the world. Palmyra hosts more than 400 fish species and many threatened, endangered and depleted species thrive in the area, including rare melon-headed whales and a potentially new species of beaked whale.
The northernmost islands, Kalama (Johnston) and Wake, at a latitude similar to Hawaiʻi, are also critical marine environments. Kalama supports 45 coral species including a thriving table coral community and large populations of seabirds, turtles, whales and reef sharks. Wake, thought to be the oldest living atoll on the planet, was used by ancient Pacific navigators. It hosts more than 300 fish species, 100 coral species, seabirds, giant clams, turtles and spinner dolphins.
Wake, Kalama and Paukeaho are currently protected within 200 nautical miles. However, Palmyra, Nalukākala, Ulukou and Puakaʻilima are only protected within 50 nautical miles.
To address this, the Protect PRI Coalition, an entity comprised of kūpuna, fishers, educators, cultural practitioners, nonprofits, community groups, scientists, religious organizations, veterans, and many others across the Pacific and beyond, are working to extend the protection of Palmyra, Nalukākala, Ulukou and Puakaʻilima to the full 200 nautical miles, as well as to place a protection over PRIMNM against extractive practices.
Because the region is currently under U.S. control, the coalition is seeking sanctuary designation for the Pacific Remote Islands. It is also working with other Pacific nations to rename and co-manage the area.
As a result of their work, on March 21, at the White House Conservation in Action Summit, President Joe Biden directed U.S Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to protect all U.S. waters around the PRI by initiating a new National Marine Sanctuary designation for the region. Biden also directed Raimondo and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to work with Indigenous communities in the Pacific to appropriately rename the monument, as well as to provide posthumous recognition to the young men of Hui Panalāʻau for their bravery and sacrifices.
PRIMNM is home to countless species of coral, endemic seabirds, fish, ocean mammals, and other native species. And beyond the reef, the deep sea is teeming with many other species, sea mounts, and creatures yet to be discovered. The ecological, historical and cultural importance and contribution of these areas are vital to the people of Hawaiʻi, the Pacific, and the world.
A National Marine Sanctuary designation will offer greater protection than the current Marine National Monument status for this precious and irreplaceable marine refuge.
Coral, the foundation of our oceans, appears early (in the 15th line) of the 2,102-line creation chant, The Kumulipo: “Hānau ka ʻUku-koʻakoʻa, hānau kana, he ʻAkoʻakoʻa, puka. Born was the coral polyp, born was the coral, came forth.”
Go to www.protectpri.com for more information and to sign the petition in support of protecting the Pacific Remote Islands and surrounding waters.
Jonee Leināʻala Kaina Peters is the executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi. She is Kanaka Maoli, a cultural practitioner, and a conservationist from Kahaluʻu, Oʻahu. Her uncle, William Kaina, was a part of Hui Panalāʻau.