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>> 1942, the bitter end

Sunday, Dec. 7, [1941] was just like any other day to us until 6 in the afternoon…In the morning we took the weather as usual but…were unable to get Canton and we didn't want to bother Honolulu. Meanwhile we had given the news of the war by radio to the four weather observers stationed at Baker Island only 35 miles away. Toward noon all four of us were down on the beach, cleaning fish and putting them out to dry. Suddenly Joe Keliihananui looked up and saw 14 twin-engined bombers flying in high from the north west. They didn't look like American planes and they came from the wrong direction. Acting on a hunch that something was wrong, we all ran to the high spot (about 20 ft. above sea level) in the center of the island. There was a low grove of dead and decaying kou trees which partially camouflaged us Joe and Dick Whaley went together, while Elvin Mattson and I stayed together.

Approaching Howland Island by sea.
Photo taken before December 7, 1941

From a height of about 10,000 ft. the bombers let us have it. They dropped about 20 bombs, then turned and came back over the islands, dropping some ten more. The explosions shook the ground under our feet and the smoke concealed almost everything from our view. Mattson thought he heard a scream, but we couldn't be sure…we didn't have as much as a single revolver. Mattson and I lay flat in a clump of bushes 100 ft. from where Joe and Dick were hiding. As we watched, three Jap planes came in lower than before, machine-gunning the Government buildings and the radio station.

When the planes finally left, Mattson and I walked over to where Dick and Joe were lying. They had been badly hit. They were both hurt in the legs and one had a chest wound and a hole in his back. We were going to fix up a place to put them, but by the time we got something arranged, they were dead.

That night Mattson and I were not going to take any chances of getting caught in the building if the Japs should come bombing again. We got our blankets and clothes and slept out in the open.

Two days later the Japs did come again. This time it was a submarine. We saw it at 2 in the morning. It was a dark night, with a light rain and no moon. We could see this dark gray shadow, looking big and sinister, just outside the reef. We knew.

that as soon as dawn came we were in for trouble. To make ourselves as safe as possible, we fled that night to the other side of the island, away from the buildings, and there dug a dirt trench two and one-half feet deep, camouflaged with grass. We hoped the submarine would not spot us. At 7 in the morning the sub started shelling. What looked like shells from 3- and 5-in. guns crashed into the sides of the buildings, knocking down all our radio apparatus and putting the weather station out of business for good. We expected sailors from the sub to land but they never did. By noon they had left and we were alone again.

Then we had the problem of getting enough food and water to live on. I guess we were pretty lucky. We caught enough rain water to prevent us from getting very thirsty and there was still canned corned beef, pork and a few canned vegetables left in the ruins of the Government buildings. To get some variety we continued to go fishing and we developed a special fondness for wild birds, especially young terns which could be caught by simply walking up to them and grabbing them. Our matches we protected by hiding them in several secret spots around the island. On Christmas and New Year's Day we had special treats. Originally there had been five chickens on the island but three of them had been killed by the bombing and shelling. We ate the other two on Christmas and New Year's to help celebrate the holidays and to remind us of what we were missing at home.

By Jan. 1, nearly a month after the first bombing attack, we were convinced that we were in the middle of this war's no man's land and that we would probably have to stay there for the duration. On Jan. 5, we have some more excitement. A big four-motored Jap bomber came in at about 12,000 ft. and dropped bombs near the buildings. At the time we happened to be nearby, looking for food. By the time the bomber had turned and was coming back to drop more bombs, however, we had quickly hurried to the other side of the island where our dugout was still located. Then what looked like the same bomber returned on Jan. 24 and dropped more sticks of bombs, we were safe in the dugout.

After Jan. 5, when we saw that bombers were likely to return at any minute, we stayed hidden all day long in our dugout. There we played checkers, read and slept. At night we would go back to camp for dinner by the stove, which was still intact, then lay our mattresses out in the open and sleep there. We never lit any lights of any kind at night.

Then came the morning of Jan. 31. Just after dawn on the west side of the island, we saw a dark gray destroyer…over the horizon. We couldn't be sure what nationality it was but we imagined it was Japanese…a landing party to seize the island formally. A half hour later we saw the landing party…We watched them for awhile and then knowing they would find us sooner or later, decided to give ourselves up to them. When we were within 100 feet my heart gave a terrific jump and I was happy for the first time in many weeks. They were…Americans. A few minutes later Mattson and I were taken aboard the American destroyer…

By noon that day the destroyer was off Baker Island, where in spite of a heavy pounding surf we rescued the four boys who had been marooned there since war started. All six of us were thirsty, hungry and almost naked. When we finally landed in Hawaii, our families thought we were risen from the dead.

"Howland Island Rescue: Destroyer saves two after 53-day marooning"
by Thomas Bederman, Life Magazine, March 9, 1942, pp. 55, 57, 58, 60.


CLOSURE: December 8, 2003


SUMMARY LETTER for RESEARCHERS

October 30, 2007


Aloha e [NOAA officer]:

Howland and Baker Islands are not currently occupied - they are United States territory under federal protection and no one is allowed on them without permission.

These two islands, plus Jarvis Island, became U.S. territory in 1936 following the occupation 24/7 for a whole year, 1935/36, as the request of President Roosevelt. The "colonizers" were primarily Kamehameha Schools students/alumni, four at a time for three-month intervals. When the year was up everyone was withdrawn but a couple of months later President Roosevelt requested that occupation resume so that other nations (namely Japan) would not move in and occupy them. So, until February 1942, these Islands were occupied by some 130 young Hawaiian men and several non-Hawaiians who ran radio equipment. At the end, only Howland and Baker were occupied, with four Hawaiians on each Island. Two of the young men on Howland were killed on December 8, 1941 when 14 Japanese bombers dropped 20 bombs on the Island.

There were never any "homes" on these tiny, guano-covered islands, very unpleasant and inhospitable places. The living quarters were tents or rudimentary wooden constructions. Ships could not get near these Islands because of the coral reefs around them. All life necessities were carried in on small boats or rolled in, in barrels (water, oil). The Hawaiians occupied these Islands with incredible ingenuity, skill, bravery, and poise. Their official duties as well as making a presence, were to make 24-hour-a-day weather reports and collect plant, shell, bird and sealife specimens and information. One of their main food supplies was fishing in the shark-infested reefs. In 1937, a primitive landing field and a beacon light were constructed on Howland Island in anticipation of Amelia's Earhart's around the world flight. Extra men and a small tractor were added to the Island's personnel and equipment to accomplish this task.

The Bishop Museum photo archives would be your best source for photographs. DeSoto Brown is the Archivist for the Museum and the person to contact (Bishop Museum Archives 848-4182). Most of the records of the 1935-1942 settlement of these Islands are housed in the Bishop Museum.

The one and only book recording this fascinating story is "Panala'au Memoirs" by E. H. Bryan, Jr., Bishop Museum 1974.

I hope this is helpful information.

Janet Zisk, Archivist
Kamehameha Schools
Tel: 842-8945


Where and why are you going? | Who went first? | What is Hui Panalā‘au? | "Pioneering on Jarvis" by George West KSB '35 | 1942, the bitter end

Hui Panalā‘au remembered, 2002 exhibit | 2002 reception


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