Howland Island

Howland Island

Howland Island, uninhabited island (.73 sq mi/1.89 sq km), central Pacific near the equator, c.1,620 mi (2610 km) SW of Honolulu. The island was discovered by American traders and was claimed by the United States in 1856, along with Jarvis Island and Baker Island. The three islands were worked for guano deposits by British and American companies during the 19th cent. The guano industry declined, and the islands were forgotten until they became a stop on the air route to Australia. American colonists were brought from Hawaii in 1935 in order to establish U.S. control against British claims, but the colony was disbanded at the outbreak of World War II. While en route to Howland Island in 1937 the aviator Amelia Earhart was lost in the Pacific. Howland Island is under the U.S. Dept. of the Interior.

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.

Flora and fauna

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.

The U.S. claims an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370 km) and a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles (22 km) around the island.

Since Howland island is uninhabited, no time zone is specified; but it lies within a nautical time zone which is 12 hours behind UTC.


Prehistoric Settlement

Evidence suggests that Howland Island was the site of prehistoric settlement, which may have extended down to Rawaki, Kanton, Manra and Orona of the Phoenix Islands 500 to 700 km southeast. This settlement might have taken the form of a single community utilising several adjacent islands, but the hard life on these isolated islands, together with the uncertainty of fresh water supplies, led to an extinction of or dereliction by the settled peoples, in much the way that other islands in the area (such as Kiritimati and Pitcairn) were abandoned.

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.

Sightings by whalers

Captain George B. Worth of the Nantucket whaler Oeno sighted Howland around 1822 and called it "Worth Island". Daniel MacKenzie of the American whaler Minerva Smith was unaware of Worth's sighting when he charted the island in 1828 and named it after his ship's owners on 1 December 1828. Howland Island was at last named after a lookout who sighted it from the whaleship Isabella of New Bedford on 9 September 1842.

U.S. Possession and Guano Mining

Howland Island was uninhabited when the United States took possession of it in 1857 through claims under the Guano Islands Act of 1856. The island was known as a navigation hazard for many decades and several ships were wrecked there. Its guano deposits were mined by American companies until October, 1878. John T. Arundel and company, with laborers from the Cook Islands and Niue, occupied the island from 1886 to 1891.

Itascatown (1935-1942)

In 1935 a brief attempt at colonization was made, part of a larger project administered by the Department of Commerce to establish a permanent U.S. presence on the equatorial Line Islands. It began with a rotating group of four alumni and students from the Kamehameha School for Boys, a private school in Honolulu, Hawaii. Although the recruits had signed on as part of a scientific expedition and expected to spend their three month assignment collecting botanical and biological samples, once out to sea they were told, "Your names will go down in history" and that the islands would become "famous air bases in a route that will connect Australia with California."

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.

Similar colonization projects were started on nearby Baker Island, Jarvis Island, and two other islands, though, like Howland, they were ultimately destined to fail.

Kamakaiwi Field

Ground for a rudimentary aircraft landing area was cleared during the mid-1930s, in anticipation that the island might eventually be used as a stop-over for a commercial trans-Pacific air route and also to further U.S. territorial claims in the region against rival claims from Great Britain. In keeping with its intended aviation role, Howland Island became a scheduled refueling stop for American pilot Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan on their round-the-world flight in 1937. WPA funds were used by the Bureau of Air Commerce to construct three graded, unpaved runways meant to accommodate Earhart's modern twin-engined Lockheed L-10E Electra.

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.

Japanese attacks during World War II

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.

Wildlife refuge

By the 1970s Howland Island was overrun by a population of feral cats, descendants of those brought by earlier colonists. The felines were gradually removed during the 1980s and the area was designated a bird and wildlife refuge. However, abandoned military debris continued to be a concern. Amateur radio enthusiasts made several authorized visits to the island during the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2006, trespassing by commercial fishing boats and their helicopters was cited as a serious problem.

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.

Earhart Light

Earhart Light is a day beacon or navigational landmark shaped somewhat like a short lighthouse (with no illumination), painted with wide stripes and meant to be seen from several miles out to sea during daylight hours. It is located near the boat landing at the middle of the west coast by the former site of Itascatown. It was partially destroyed during early World War II by the Japanese attacks, but was rebuilt in the early 1960s by the US Coast Guard. By 2000, the Earhart beacon was said to be crumbling and had not been painted in decades.

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.

See also




  • Bryan, Edwin H., Jr. American Polynesia and the Hawaiian Chain. Honolulu, Hawaii: Tongg Publishing Company, 1942.
  • Butler, Susan. East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart. Cambridge, MA: Da Capa Press, 1999. ISBN 0-306-80887-0.
  • Eyewitness account of the Japanese raids on Howland Island (includes a grainy photo of Itascatown)
  • Long, Elgen M. and Marie K. Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. ISBN 0-684-86005-8.
  • Maude, H.E..Of Islands and Men: Studies in Pacific History. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Safford, Laurance F. with Cameron A. Warren and Robert R. Payne. Earhart's Flight into Yesterday: The Facts Without the Fiction. McLean, Virginia: Paladwr Press, 2003. ISBN 1-888962-20-8.
  • Sharp, Andrew. The Discovery of the Pacific Islands. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.
  • Suárez, Thomas. Early Mapping of the Pacific. Singapore: Periplus Editions, 2004. ISBN 0-79460-092-1.

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