By Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu
From 1935 to 1942, a little-known effort by the United States resulted in over 130 mostly Native Hawaiian “colonists” living on the Pacific equatorial islands of Howland, Baker, Jarvis, Enderbury and Canton for months at a time.
During those seven years, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed the islands for the United States, Amelia Earhart disappeared trying to find Howland Island, World War II arrived on the shores of these islands, and three young Hawaiians lost their lives.
Known collectively as Hui Panalāʻau (literally meaning “group of colonists”), the contributions and sacrifices of these young men lay quietly in the archives and repositories of several local and national institutions.
Among the millions of textual records housed within the National Archives in College Park, Md., are 15 boxes that reveal the once top-secret project. These documents tell the story of the young men, mostly Native Hawaiians, who were recruited by the federal government to occupy several remote, inhospitable islands in the Equatorial Pacific before the start of the second world war.
In a confidential 1935 memorandum, the U.S. director of Air Commerce wrote to the U.S. secretary of Commerce saying: “The Navy Department advises that Navy personnel cannot be used to inhabit Baker, [Howland], and Jarvis Islands. It is, therefore, suggested that Native Hawaiians be used for this purpose.”
A little over a month later, in a confidential letter, Coast Guard Commandant and Rear Admiral H. G. Hamlet noted that “a mission, to convey certain people and material to [the islands] has been authorized by the President of the United States.”
Nearly 5,000 miles away, in the archives of Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, sits more than 2 linear feet of correspondence, school newspapers, student diaries, and other documents that reveal how a private school for Hawaiian children was drawn into this colonization project.
A letter to Kamehameha Schools Trustee Albert F. Judd from H.A. Meyer, an Army infantry captain, reads: “Through your co-operation, we were able to secure the Hawaiian personnel of the expedition from the Kamehameha School for Boys. Six graduates were taken on the first expedition. In company with selected military personnel, they were left in groups on each of the three islands…The duties performed by these men are severe. Neither I, nor any of the people associated with me, have any criticism of the performance of their duty. For their loyalty, I commend them most highly.”
Over the course of seven years, more than 50 of the colonists sent to the Equatorial Islands were alumni or students of Kamehameha Schools.
Just below Kamehameha Schools Kapālama’s hillside campus is the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. Its extensive related holdings include photo albums, over 100 photographs, moving images, documents, and, most significantly, logbooks within which the colonists detailed their observations and experiences.
One of the first Hawaiian colonists, Kamehameha Schools alumni Abraham Piʻianaiʻa, wrote: “All we could do was watch with longing eyes, paying tribute to the ship that had been our home for the past five days. We watched in silence for several moments, then we all looked at each other with a mixture of sadness and happiness in our eyes. Sad to see our only contact with the world, our homes and friends, getting father away, yet happy to be left by ourselves on this little atoll that we hope will be of great importance someday.” (Baker Island Logbook, June 18, 1936.)
Within the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) system are three repositories housing resources related to the Equatorial Islands Colonization project: UH library’s collection which contains maps, manuscripts and published articles in local newspapers and magazines that track the seven-year history of the project, including President Roosevelt’s claiming of the islands for the United States; the ʻUluʻulu Moving Images Archive, which has rare 16 millimeter film footage of the colonists on the islands in 1935; and the Center for Oral History, which has a nearly 300-page transcription of interviews of eight of the colonists recorded in 2006, including two of the last men who were rescued from the islands in 1942.
Both these men bore witness to the tragic end of the project – two young Hawaiians, Joseph Keliʻihananui and Richard Whaley, were killed on Howland Island in a Japanese air raid the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. For their sacrifices, Secretary of the Department of Interior Harold L. Ickes sent letters of condolences to each family, writing that, “in your bereavement it must be considerable satisfaction to know your brother died in the service of his country.”
And finally, within the State of Hawaiʻi’s archives are nearly 70 photographs and other documents that detail the project assistance provided by the Territory of Hawaiʻi.
Photographs show that in 1937, territorial architect Harry Kaʻonohi Stewart (my great-grandfather) was sent to the islands to help build new living quarters for the colonists. Nearly 20 years later, incorporation documents noted that a group called “Hui Panalaau” was formed whose purpose was “to preserve and perpetuate the association of those persons who took part in and contributed to the colonization of the Equatorial Islands…and to honor those who died while in the service of the United States of America as colonists of the Equatorial Islands of the Pacific.”
This is not just a story steeped in the past and trapped within archival memory. It was revitalized through a 2002 Bishop Museum exhibition, “Hui Panalāʻau: Hawaiian Colonists, American Citizens” and a 2010 documentary, Under a Jarvis Moon.
This led to efforts to seek Congressional recognition and, in 2015, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed S.Res.109: “a resolution acknowledging and honoring brave young men from Hawaii who enabled the United States to establish and maintain jurisdiction in remote equatorial islands.”
At the time, Dr. Kauanoe Kamana, director of Ke Kula ʻo Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Iki, remarked, “Students are inspired by the role played by individuals their own age in history. Passage of this resolution to honor the young Native Hawaiian colonists of remote Pacific Islands during World War II is an especially meaningful and proud moment for our students.”
But the resolution’s passage was bittersweet because only a handful of the men of Hui Panalāʻau were still alive at the time. Two years later, in 2017, my grandfather, George Kahanu, Sr., passed away and thus, the last of these brave young men who once colonized the Equatorial Pacific was gone.
A current effort is underway to link these historical records through the creation of an open access web-based digital collection with a comprehensive searchable database. Called “The Hui Panalāʻau Digital Collection” the work is being led by the Pacific American Foundation and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
“The Hui Panalāʻau project is an important aspect of our local and national narrative and is crucial to understanding the complexities of Hawaiian identity politics and agency, especially during Hawaiʻi’s territorial period [1900-1959],” said noted historian Dr. Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor.
As part of The Hui Panalāʻau Digital Collection project team, I look forward to the unveiling of this community resource, which should happen later this year. By remembering not to forget, we keep their memories and legacies alive for generations to come.
Both the Obama and Biden administrations have also sought to honor the Hui Panalāʻau in their respective efforts to establish the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (2014) and its expansion into a National Marine Sanctuary (2023). Among the implications is the renaming of the islands to Paukeaho (Jarvis), Ulukou (Howland), and Puakaʻilima (Baker).
Many look at the Pacific Remote Islands and see a pristine natural environment in need of further protection.
I see the region as a place where Hawaiians were continuously exploited, first as contract laborers for American guano companies in the late 1880s, then to help secure U.S. commercial aviation interests and political conquest in the 1930s, and then for military protection of the continental United States and expansionism in the early 1940s.
Paul Philipps, the last of the colonists to leave the islands in 1942, once said, “I hope I live to see the day the Hui Panalāʻau receive the recognition they so honorably deserve.” For Paul and my grandfather and all the men of Hui Panalāʻau, justice and recognition was elusive, but for we who remain, it need not be.
Both of these efforts, the digital collection and PRI protections, nearly 90 years after the start of the secret colonization project, help us remember them, their achievements and sacrifices, and inspire us to continue to seek what is pono – healing and reconciliation for our Hui Panalāʻau community.
America’s Interest in the Pacific equatorial Islands
The Pacific Equatorial Islands colonized by Hui Panalā‘au from 1935 to 1942 are inhospitable to human habitation as none have natural sources of freshwater (i.e., there are no aquifers).
These small, uninhabited islands were initially of interest to colonial powers in the Pacific after guano was discovered. Guano is the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats. It was used primarily for fertilizer due to its high content of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. In the 1840s, guano was prized as a source of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) used for gunpowder.
The U.S. took possession of Baker, Howland, and Jarvis islands in the 1850s under the Guano Islands Act of 1856 for guano mining. When guano stocks were depleted, the British took control of the islands from 1886 to 1934 making them a British Overseas Territory.
U.S. interest in the islands was rekindled in the 1930s as a stop-over for military planes and possible future commercial air travel – but in order for America to claim the islands from the British, they needed to be inhabited by U.S. citizens. This was the purpose of the colonization project.
Today, the region is known as the “Pacific Remote Islands” and sanctuary designation by the U.S. is currently being pursued by Indigenous leaders and environmentalists from across the Pacific. It is an area of tremendous and invaluable biodiversity that includes countless varieties of coral, endemic seabirds, fish, ocean mammals and other species – some of whom are found nowhere else in the world.