Howland Island is an uninhabited coral island located just north of the equator in the central Pacific Ocean, about 3,100 km (1,670 nm) southwest of Honolulu. The island lies almost halfway between Hawaii and Australia and is an unincorporated, unorganized territory of the United States. Though sometimes included as one of the Phoenix Islands, for statistical purposes, Howland is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands.
Howland is located at . It covers a mere 1.84 km² (455 acres), with 6.4 km of coastline. The island has an elongated shape on a north-south axis, and is devoid of any lagoon.
Howland Island National Wildlife Refuge consists of the 455 acre (1.84 km²) island and the surrounding 32,074 acres (130 km²) of submerged land. The island is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an insular area under the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The atoll has no economic activity, and is perhaps best known as the island Amelia Earhart never reached. Airstrips built in the late 1930s to accommodate her planned stopover were never used, subsequently damaged, not maintained and gradually disappeared. There are no harbors or docks. The reefs may pose a hazard. There is one boat landing area along the middle of the sandy beach on the west coast together with a crumbling day beacon. Defense is the responsibility of the United States and the island is visited every two years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The climate is equatorial, with little rainfall and a burning sun. Temperatures are moderated somewhat by a constant wind from the east. The terrain is low-lying and sandy: a coral island surrounded by a narrow fringing reef with a slightly raised central area. The highest point is about six meters above sea level.
There are no natural fresh water resources. The landscape features scattered grasses along with prostrate vines and low-growing shrubs. A 1942 eyewitness description spoke of "a low grove of dead and decaying kou trees" on a very shallow hill at the island's center, but 58 years later (2000) a visitor accompanying a scientific expedition reported seeing "a flat bulldozed plain of coral sand, without a single tree" and some traces of building ruins. Howland is primarily a nesting, roosting and foraging habitat for seabirds, shorebirds and marine wildlife.
Since Howland island is uninhabited, no time zone is specified; but it lies within a nautical time zone which is 12 hours behind UTC.
Such settlements probably began around 1000 BC, when eastern Melanesians travelled north.
Sparse remnants of trails and other artifacts indicate a sporadic early Polynesian presence. A canoe, a blue head, pieces of bamboo, and other relics of early settlers have been discovered. K.P. Emery, ethnologist for Honolulu's Bishop Museum, indicated that the settlers on Manra Island were apparently of two distinct groups, one Polynesian and the other Micronesian. If Howland and Manra formed a contiguous community, the same might have proven true on Howland Island, though no conclusive proof of this has yet been forthcoming.
Their settlement, named Itascatown, was located near the beach on the island's western side. It was named after the USCGC Itasca, which brought the colonists to Howland (and made regular cruises between the other Line Islands during that era), and consisted of a line a half-dozen small wood-framed structures and tents. The fledgling colonists were given large stocks of canned food, water, and other supplies including a gasoline powered refrigerator, radio equipment, complete medical kits and (characteristic for that era) vast quantities of cigarettes. Fishing provided much-needed variety for their diet. Most of the colonists' endeavors involved making hourly weather observations and gradually developing a rudimentary infrastructure on the island, including the clearing of a landing strip for airplanes. During this period the island was on Hawaii time, which was then 10.5 hours behind UTC.
The facility was named Kamakaiwi Field after James Kamakaiwi, a young Hawaiian who had arrived with the first group of four colonists, was subsequently picked as leader and spent a total of over three years on Howland, far longer than the average recruit. It has also been referred to as WPA Howland Airport (the WPA contributed about 20% of the $12,000 cost). Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea and their radio transmissions were picked up on the island when their aircraft reached its vicinity but they were never seen again.
A Japanese air attack on 8 December 1941 by 14 twin-engined bombers killed two of the Kamehameha School colonists: Richard "Dicky" Kanani Whaley, and Joseph Kealoha Keliʻhananui. The raid came one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and damaged the three airstrips of Kamakaiwi Field. Two days later a Japanese submarine shelled what was left of the colony's few buildings into ruins. A single bomber returned twice during the following weeks and dropped more bombs on the rubble of tiny Itascatown. The two survivors were finally evacuated by a U.S. Navy destroyer on 31 January 1942. Howland was occupied by a battalion of United States Marines in September 1943 and known as Howland Naval Air Station until May 1944.
All attempts at habitation were abandoned after 1944. Colonization projects on the other four islands were also disrupted by the war and ended at this time.
Kamakaiwi Field suffered additional damage during World War II and all but disappeared. Ironically, while Howland Island was colonized in 1935 as a future aviation facility and is known in popular culture mostly because of its association with the last flight of Earhart and Noonan, no aircraft is known to have ever landed there.
Public entry to the island is by special-use permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only and is generally restricted to scientists and educators. Representatives from the agency visit the island on average once every two years, often coordinating transportation with amateur radio operators or the U.S. Coast Guard to defray the high expense of logistical support required to visit this remote atoll.
Howland Island was overflown in 1967 by Ann Pellegreno and in 1997 by Linda Finch during memorial circumnavigation flights to commemorate Earhart's 1937 world flight. No landings were attempted but both Pellegreno and Finch flew low enough to drop a wreath on the island.