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>> Pioneering on Jarvis Island

Pioneering on Jarvis
by George N. West, Kamehameha School for Boys, Class of 1935

...My high school days were drawing to a close. What an uneventful four years I thought, no athletic honors, no glories, no hope of ever going to college--just memories. Suddenly, I was called into the principal's office...I was given was a description of what I thought a purely scientific expedition. I was asked if I cared to live for six months on an equatorial island on which the sun struck unmercifully. It was uninhabited, scarcely above the ocean, flat as a pancake, a pin point on the map, and miles away from civilization. I was to receive pay and my duties were to assist the mature men of the expedition.

The description of the island I must admit scared me a little. But upon being told that the project was being sponsored by the United States Government, I became less afraid. Naturally, I agreed to go. We were to leave on a government ship and it was scheduled to leave in six days. In the meanwhile, the principal had asked five other boys if they cared to go. They were all recent graduates of the same school I was attending. The other mature men I later found out were to be noncommissioned officers of the United States Army. The expedition concerned three islands and the party was to be made up of fifteen men. Three soldiers for each island and two of us young fellows for each group. Before departure a physical examination and an interview with the assistant-in -charge was required. I had no fear of passing the physical examination but I was afraid of my size. Being only slightly more than five feet in height and small in stature I was quite a contrast with the other members of the party.

The day of the interview came. I remember it vividly. I was never so greatly disappointed...With these opening words of his, "size is the controlling factor..." I knew my hunch was true. I was to be eliminated. With moisten eyes and a broken spirit I left the room...

Naturally, I found it difficult trying to forget, but believe-it-or-not, opportunity knocked twice. Just three days after graduation, I was again asked to join the expedition. And this time I was told that there would be no question about my eligibility....

A discussion with the Bishop Museum authorities followed. We were given a further description of the three islands and supplied with a scientific outfit for each island. We were asked to skin birds, to collect insects, plants, shells, and marine life. Then came the physical examinations. Everybody passed with exception that one boy had to have a tooth pulled. We spent two days loading provisions on the United States Coast Guard Cutter, Itasca. Loading such perishables as apples, oranges, eggs, potatoes, onions, and cookies. And such canned foods as , corn-beef, hard tack, chicken, bacon, ham, spinach, corn, beets, and other vegetables. We had everything in the way of clothing, fishing equipment, camping equipment, first aid, amusement facilities, tobacco and cigarettes of every brand--in boxes containing fifty cartons. We didn't miss a thing. Our water supply was brought in sterilized oil drums. Each drum held 55 gallons and each island received fifteen drums. return to the top

The cruise
On June 9, 1935 at eight o'clock the Itasca sailed out of Honolulu harbor. No publicity was given to our expedition. Only close friends were there to bid farewell. There seemed to be a sort of secrecy attached to our departure. To us, there was nothing mysterious about collecting natural specimens and yet we could not understand what the ultimate purpose of the trip was. Two days out at sea and everything was finally made clear. Captain Meyer assembled us together. Staring at us for about five minutes he finally said, "Boys, someday you're gong to be might proud that you made this trip. Your name will go down in history. You're going to colonize and help establish claim of three islands for the United States government. These islands are going to be famous air bases in a route that will connect Australia with California."

Of course, this was unexpected but at the same time pleasing. Before we could say anything Capt. Meyer went on to say, " Your first purpose is simply to live on these islands and to keep a log of the daily occurrences faithfully. Then we are requiring you to keep a daily weather report. You are to describe the cloud conditions, to read the barometer, the thermometer, and to record the wind velocity. These duties are to be done every hour during the day and every three hours during the night. You are also to find a suitable spot for a landing field, to mark the area, and to improve the field day by day. You have already received instructions for your scientific work. That you may pursue at your own leisure."

Two more days of smooth sailing and then came our first stop...Palmyra is an atoll of 52 islets...We departed...that evening...and had for supper seven different kinds of real good eating fish...It is an old sea custom for every ship crossing the equator to have a King Neptune party...On the night before actual crossing, Davy Jones comes aboard by the bow of the ship and issues subpoenas to all polliwogs (those crossing the equator for the first time) ordering them to appear before the high tribunal of King Neptune. The next day...his royal escort comes aboard...dressed in costumes depicting their professions consisting of policemen, a lawyer...with paddle sticks. Each polliwog is charged with some offense...such as getting seasick too often...Then the victim gets a dose of soap and water, his head is shaved, he is ducked under water, and finally sent to the long line of waiting persecutors. At the end of the ceremony the victim receives a document signed by the commander of the ship certifying that he has been initiated into the mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep and is now a trusty shellback.

No sooner was this party over when a cry swept the ship that Jarvis island had been sighted...I must say that the first sight of it was sickening. All I could see was a bumpy piece of white sand, glaring in the sun, and scarcely above the ocean. I could even see the ocean on the other side of the island for miles beyond...."My home for three months, " I said to myself, "maybe six, who knows?"

Landing and a change of plans
By reason of being one of the future inhabitants of Jarvis Island, we were accorded the privilege of going ashore with the official landing party. We were greeted by five men beaming with enthusiasm. They were Austin Collins, leader of the group, Wieman Graf, Edward Aune, and the two Hawaiian boys, Henry Ahia and Daniel Toomey. These men...were among the fifteen who secretly left Honolulu on March 19 and had been living on Jarvis since the 26th. They were all looking happy and healthy. During a following conference it was learned that the soldiers were to be taken off and that the two Hawaiian boys had decided to remain. The new colony was now to consist of Daniel Toomey, Frank Cockett, and myself, with Henry Ahia as leader. The rest of the day was spent in unloading the supplies and provisions. About three o'clock in the afternoon, the crew and passengers of the Itasca could be seen walking all sections of the island, making Jarvis look like a real city. At four o'clock the Itasca departed...Dinner time found the four of us around a table--hundreds of mice running around in all directions...

Adjusting to island life
It took Frank Cockett and myself two weeks to get adjusted to the climate. The glare of the sun on the white sand is blinding, we had to wear goggles everyday, and the heat is terrific. It seems to take the sap out of you and gives you a tired and worn feeling. We did not do much work at this time except to log the weather and to study our physical environment.

History, natural history, geography, flora and fauna
Jarvis Island is supposed to have been discovered by Capt. Brown of the English Ship "Elisa Francis" in 1821. It is 1600 miles southwest of Honolulu and a 1000 miles east of Baker and Howland Islands. Baker and Howland are only 37 miles apart and the equator separates them. Jarvis is saucer-shaped with a beach rim enclosing a basin. It is a couple of miles long and mile wide having a total area of 1.66 square miles. It takes 20 minutes to walk across Jarvis and two and a half hours around it. Its highest elevation is 20 feet and its lowest is five. There is very little rainfall on Jarvis and vegetation is sparse, reading a height of eight inches at the most. There are mostly pigweed, and puncture vine, with wiry bunch grass most abundant on the beach rims. There is only one tree...a stunted coconut palm obviously planted...Birds are numerous..four distinct types, the Booby or Gannet, the Boatswain Marlin, the Frigate or Man O' War Hawk, and the Love or Tern birds. Together they number about six-hundred thousand...All of these birds subsist on fish...In the 1870s and 1880s, people used to live on Jarvis...engaged in removing guano. So much of the best ...was removed that in 1889 when Great Britain took over the island it found the industry no longer profitable. Since then no one has lived on Jarvis up until March 1935...All over...are evidences of former occupation. On the northwest landing is a four-sided beacon 85 feet high. Near here are foundations of three or four houses, a brick-lined cistern, a large tank, a rusty windlass, an old furnace made of bricks, the wheels of an old tramcar, and a tram line leading to the guano diggings in the center of the island...

Also on Jarvis on the southwest end is the wreck of the barkentine Amaranth of San Francisco which went aground in the year 1913 with all hands lost..The waves have washed away the bottom but the hull is deeply embedded in the sand...Near this scene can been seen the fading mounds of six graves and towards the guano diggings are more graves...

Island life begins
After two weeks of studying and visiting on Jarvis, life actually began. We approached matters in a more serious vain and did some construction work. The duty of keeping the daily log was assigned to me. Besides the duties of weather reporting, we spent the following months collecting insects, shells, marine line, and plants. Incidentally, Wieman Graf, of the other group discovered a plant heretofore unknown to the botanical world. We also worked on the landing field, improving it at odd times. We made maps of Jarvis Island, skinned birds, and made a written study of bird life. In the way of pastime, we made a raft out of the wreckage of the Amaranth for deep sea fishing and enlarged a cottage which had been built entirely by Austin Collins. The roof of the cottage was our most constant problem. No matter how little it rained, the roof leaked so terribly that we had to set up in the middle of the night and move back into the tents. We finally used wax paper and made the roof almost 90% rainproof, but the wind often tore the paper to shreds. Around the cottage we built brick-lined roadways and made gardens. Gardens which never bore fruit except a bunch of hollow radish giving food for one meal. An out door gym consisted of a chinning bar, dumbbells, and a boxing arena were also constructed. We took exercises every afternoon at five. return to the top

Fishing and other marine adventures
Our most popular diversion was fishing. Jarvis ...is a fisherman's paradise...We went fishing whenever the impulse took us, sometimes four or five times a day. To catch fish we either used nets, hook and line, or dived under water to shoot fish with iron spears. The latter was the...[best]...method because it take skill and it was a kind of untiring fun. The reef is "lousy" with lobsters. One night we caught nearly a sackfull. For meat we relied on turtles. Turtle meat is, to me, almost the same as cattle meat. One day, we caught a five-hundred pound turtle. The day before, we discovered turtle tracks on the beach. Coming back that very night we found a turtle crawling on land. Turtles come to land to lay their eggs. They lay hundreds of them at a time--that look like golf balls. We turned this turtle on its back...and came back the next morning for the rewards of our labor. That day we had delicious turtle soup, turtle steak, and plenty of lobsters. I don't think I ever enjoyed a meal so much as that one. We dried the remaining turtle meat in the sun and had enough dried meat until the next turtle came along.

Sometimes we would spend the whole day hooking sharks just for the fun of it. We'd either stun them and throw them back or extract their jaws for ornamental purposes. On the door of our cottage we hung a shark jaw and every time a larger shark jaw was found the old one would be discarded. It was a sort of game that we kept up.

A strange thing we discovered about the shark is that they have skins that are so tough that it is practically impossible to pierce them. About the only place that can be pierced is the throat. The ocean...the South Seas for that matter is literally infested with sharks. They love warm water. Sharks have a very keen sense of smell, so much so that a piece of fish bait will attract a school of them in five minutes. They grow to be as much as 14 feet long. These several-finned man eating creatures are treacherous when in deepwater, vicious when hungry, and furious when blood-teased But strange as it may seem, they are just as much afraid of humans as humans are of them. There are two or three ways of frightening them away. One is to splash the water vigorously. Another is to throw stones or coral at them. However, none are effective in deep water. We have gone swimming with sharks only 50 yards from us and have thought nothing of it. We learned that in shallow water (we swam only around the reef) sharks will seldom every try to attack. Besides we always had the advantage. We can tell the approach of a shark by its funs and can usually get out of the water before it can reach us. But strange again, no matter where the place a shark will almost always attack a lone swimmer.

The sharks gave us plenty to worry about. One morning I was wading through the reef holding a bleeding fish which I had just speared by the tail. Suddenly I felt a heavy jerk. Turning around I saw a good size shark splashing away. I soon discovered that in my hand was only the tail of what had been fish. It had bit the fish right clean up to my fist. I was brushing my teeth one evening just at the fall of night when, like the explosion of a firecracker, I heard two voices shout at me. I understood what the voices said and jumped out of the water just in time to see a shark close its jaws. Whew! Escapes from sharks were many. I must tell you about one of the noblest acts of bravery I've every seen. On September 1st we had a visiting ship--an auxiliary schooner. All of the crew was ashore and only the engineer was on board. Ships coming to Jarvis cannot anchor. This one was drifting. Late that afternoon, a rowboat, the only means of conveyance, was drifting out to sea with the current, leaving the captain and crew terrified. In that very area of the drifting boat were sharks. Without one though of self-preservation, Daniel Toomey swam out and rescued the boat while the rest of us looked on helplessly. Another act of bravery was shown by Henry Ahia. The physician of the Itasca had become so engrossed in his fishing that he forgot about the dangers of the reef until he was sucked off the reef by an outgoing wave. His cries were weak but fortunately they were heard. Ahia swam out and rescued him. In a very short time that very scene became a mecca of sharks. The doctor, pale and frigid, lay unconscious for several minutes.

Night life
We of Jarvis have had our tense moments--but life was not always so. We have been happy as well as troubled. The nights on Jarvis are beautiful and cool. We used to sit out in the moonlight and sing until late. Most of the time we sat up and played cards until midnight. Then we'd go torching, returning at three o'clock we would have roasted lobsters and fish before finally going to bed at five a.m. That was our night life. We also spent the nights reading. In two months we read everything on the island except a medical book. For a lighting system we had dry cells. return to the top

Ahia...his temperature went up as high as 105 degrees. There is a complete medical kit on the island, but in this incident knowledge of the thing to do was lacking...luckily he recovered. Our only immediate fear was sharks. If anyone was unfortunate enough to be bitten it meant a great loss of blood and probable death.

...our first sight of Stingrays, sometimes called Stingarees, or Sea Bats. At the head of the landing channel every afternoon at four, we used to see sparkling fins swaying above the surface. One day we became especially curious. Drifting out on our raft we soon got in the thick of it. What I saw there and the kind of fear that gripped me I'll remember as long as memory serves. I had never seen a stingaree but had always know that they were dangerous. Black as ever on the surface and white under the body, they were shaped like bats with their wings outstretched. From tip to tip the wing-like fins measured about eight feet. They posses a whip-like tail with sharply barbed spines that are capable of inflicting severe wounds. Swimming around us they created whirlpools, rocked the raft, and splashed water all over. Cockett and I didn't have to think, instinctively we got down on our hands and knees and clutched the raft for dear life. Fortunately, the raft was fastened to a long rope and we were soon pulled in.

August 6...On this very afternoon while working, we were stopped by the sight of the ocean covered with leaping porpoises. From one corner of the eye to the other and as far out towards the horizon all we could see were scattered porpoises moving rhythmically in the same direction...reminding one of a grand military review. They were probably migrating. ...off hand I would say there were about five-hundred thousand...

Visitors and a radio and transmitter
August 14...a steamer...turned around and slowly drifted away...That was the first sign of civilization we have had since June 15 Had this ship arrived a day later it would have seen the American flag over our camp...September 1...I was sitting on a rock facing the sea--lord of all I surveyed. IN the distant horizon I saw a tiny white object...a sailing ship...We knew no one that came ashore in the first boat, but we greeted them just like old friends would. Once on board the ship we went directly to the mail bag, eagerly read our letters and finally tried again the taste of gum, candies, and other sweets. In the following moments, we learned that we were on board the auxiliary yacht Kinkajou. It had just come from Howland and...had taken 23 days to get to Jarvis...it was leaving a party of two men assigned to make a guano survey. It had also left men on Baker and Howland... headed by Dr. Dana Coman of Johns Hopkins University...one of the members of Admiral Byrd's Antarctic Expedition...Before her departure the Kinkajou left a complete radio outfit, receiver and transmitter...it was a real thrill to hear modern music and the current news of the world.. We kept a regular schedule with Honolulu and thereby managed to hear from close friends and relative in actual voice. .

Those long weeks of solitude and seeming exile were gone. At the turn of the switch we found the world at our feet...We called San Francisco for the correct time and at eight thirty Howland Island would come chirping in faithfully. Howland once reported a funny incident. The boys had been spending about two weeks making a football field. They had to carry bags and bags of sand inland and it was hard work. When the four well-deserving boys went to inflate the football...the bladder blew up.

On September 15, the Itasca finally returned...Taking time only to unload supplies and provisions, the Itasca departed that same afternoon. Desiring to continue our education, Cockett and I were relieved, but Ahia and Toomey remained for another three months. Leaving with the Itasca on the 15th, we arrived at Baker three days later...We left Baker that evening and arrived at Howland the next morning. ON these two island, we relieved more boys and left more provisions. The camps on Baker and Howland were in a much improved condition...On baker they had an attractive terrace leading up to a beautiful lawn. On the lawn stood an old cannon and behind it the lofty flagpole. On Howland, there was a long stone wall in the center of which was a wide entrance flanked by two four-sided columns standing about six feet in height. On one of the columns hung a sign which read, "Kuu Home." In Hawaiian, it means, Home Sweet Home. The roadway leads directly to the camp center and within the same stood the football field and an outdoor gym.

The Itasca finally reached Honolulu on September 25. After a month I was fortunate to make a trip again with the Itasca to San Francisco. During maneuvers off the coast of California, we received special orders to go back half way to Honolulu and standby for emergency. At...[this]...point, we witnessed the first flight of the China Clipper to Hawaii. This also inaugurated the first Trans-Pacific Air Mail Flight. This experience marked the culmination of all associations I have had with the Itasca and the colonization project of Jarvis, Baker and Howland Islands...

[No one tells a better story than from personal experience. Excerpts are taken from a copy of a manuscript given to the University of Hawai'i Library in 1977 by his widow upon the death of George Nuuanu West, a writer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Headings are added for reading ease. Photo credit: The Literary Digest, January 23, 1937, p. 7.]


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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