A couple of years ago, Carol and I enjoyed a pleasant visit to the Hawaiian Islands, which form America’s 50th and most remote state about a third of the way across the immense Pacific Ocean. As we waited at the Honolulu airport prior to flying home, we got to talking with another outbound American.
She is a judge, and she, too, was heading home.
We would fly east. She, west. Yet we would both touch down in the United States.
Sounds like a geographic riddle — a near impossibility. Unless the judge was planning to soar across the rest of the Pacific, o’er all of Asia and Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to boot, how could she possibly fly westward from America’s westernmost state and land on U.S. soil?
What many people don’t know, and others forget, is that there’s a bit, or bits, of the United States west of Hawai’i, way out in the endless Pacific.
Specks, but American territory nonetheless.
The judge’s home is in Guam, a U.S. island territory that’s a whole lot closer to the Philippines and Japan than to California.
“Out there,” too, in the great expanse of ocean are other U.S. possessions such as American Samoa, a hop, skip, and a jump from Australia and New Zealand; and the Northern Mariana Islands, just above Guam.
When I say “out there,” I’m thinking especially of Howland Island, a U.S. “minor outlying island,” as it’s known. Howland, which is shaped like a kidney bean, lies 3,100 kilometers (1,700 nautical miles) southwest of Hawai’i. It is uninhabited, except by brown boobies and other sea birds that congregate in the wildlife refuge there. Once every couple of years, someone from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sails in to check on them.
But Howland is a famous place, specifically because it was once the needle in a Pacific Ocean haystack.
On June 1, 1937, daring aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Miami, Florida, in a specially-rebuilt Lockheed Model 10E Electra “Flying Laboratory,” heading eastward over the Caribbean Sea on what they hoped would be the longest, round-the-world flight on record.
By July 1, the plane, having already flown eastward over the Atlantic, Africa, and South Asia — and heavily loaded with fuel and instruments — reached Lae in Papua New Guinea. The next day, Earhart and Noonan set off on the most perilous part of the journey, eastward into the Pacific void. Destination: Howland, a pile of coral sand where the U.S. Coast Guard had built an airstrip and unlit “day beacon” and had stationed the cutter Itasca nearby to guide in Earhart for her refueling stopover.
There was also a tiny settlement called “Itascatown,” named for the ship, on the island. It was envisioned as the first of a “string of famous air bases” connecting Australia with California.
The sky was dotted with puffy clouds as the aviators approached. That spelled trouble, for the clouds cast thousands of dark, blob-like shadows on the water. Somewhere among them lay little, low, flat Howland Island.
The Itasca received a strong voice signal as the Electra approached, but Earhart and Noonan were apparently unable to hear and respond to the ship’s return calls. “We must be on you, but cannot see you — gas is running low,” the fliers said in the second-to-last transmission to be heard. The last gave the fliers’ position as they reckoned it — 8 kilometers off course for Howland.
Not another word or crackle of static was heard again, and the search for the plane and what would now be Earhart and Noonan’s remains continues to this day.
No “famous air base” was ever built on Howland Island, and Itascatown was abandoned to the boobies in 1942.
Howland Island had been claimed by the United States in 1857 under terms of what may be my favorite piece of congressional legislation. It was the “Guano Islands Act.” The measure — still in effect! — allows U.S. citizens to take possession of uninhabited, otherwise unclaimed islands that are covered with guano, or thick layers of bird droppings. In the mid-1800s, guano was highly prized as fertilizer and an ingredient in saltpeter, a chemical compound that serves as a propellant in gunpowder. Guano what? harvesters? — actually, I think they’re called “miners” — waded in with their shovels on least five islands that are still U.S. possessions. By 1880, they had scraped down to bedrock and were gone.
Some of the other U.S. Pacific “specks” are familiar for a different reason. Historic battles raged there, or nearby at sea.
Off Midway Atoll, north of Hawai’i, control of the Pacific turned in 1942, just six months after Japan’s devastating sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, with the overwhelming defeat of the Japanese Navy by American forces at the Battle of Midway. Rather than eliminating America’s remaining carrier forces and occupying Midway as he had planned, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto lost four of his six fleet carriers, hundreds of sailors and pilots, and Japan’s stranglehold on the sea and air. Thereafter, Japan could not stop American forces as they methodically bore down, island by island, on the Japanese mainland.
As the name suggests, Midway’s three volcanic islets lie halfway between North America and Asia. They also sit halfway around the world from Longitude 0° in Greenwich, England. Over the first half of the 20th Century, Midway Atoll was the base of significant operations by the Commercial Pacific Cable Company, which laid the long, long, long undersea telegraph cable between the United States and Asia. And Midway was one of the exotic stops on the Pan Am Clipper luxury “flying ship” seaplane route during aviation’s “golden age” in the 1930s.
Like Howland, Midway, is now a wildlife refuge — home, in its case, to thousands of albatrosses, known throughout the Pacific as “gooney birds.” The name is said to come from an early definition of “goon,” meaning one who is stupid. The big sea birds were disrespected because of their awkward, flopping, but ultimately successful attempts to take off and land. The birds have the atoll mostly to themselves, though the Fish and Wildlife Service coordinates human visits.
One other Midway tidbit: The atoll is awash with an inordinate amount of trash. That’s not because someone strews plastic bottles and tabs everywhere — there’s no “someone” to strew — but because the islets are smack in the middle of a huge circular current called the “North Pacific Gyre,” also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This vortex sucks in litter from Hawaiian Island waters and elsewhere and dumps it unceremoniously onto the beaches of Midway.
An epic World War II air and sea battle also raged at another current U.S. Pacific possession: Wake Island — actually another atoll of three low, barren islets about two-thirds of the way from Honolulu to Guam. Named for the captain of a British schooner that happened by in 1796, the atoll was annexed as “empty territory” by the United States three years later. The first human settlement was another Pan American World Airways village, established in 1935. It was called “PAA-ville,” to which every morsel of food and drop of potable water had to be flown in.
As distant war drums began to sound in Imperial Japan in 1941, the U.S. Navy hastily constructed a military base and runway on Wake Island. And at virtually the same moment on December 7th — technically the 8th since Wake is on the eastern side of the International Date Line — that Japanese planes were descending upon the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i, Japanese bombers were raining shells on Wake Island. Eventually the garrison was overrun and captured, then recaptured by the Americans in 1945 after two years of unrelenting attacks. During that virtual siege, starving Japanese soldiers caught and devoured the last of the island’s native, flightless sea birds called “rail birds.”
It was to Wake Island in 1950 that President Harry Truman flew to meet with General Douglas MacArthur, commander of United Nations forces in the Korean War. The meeting, but ultimately not the relationship, went well. When “Red” China entered the conflict, MacArthur would loudly recommend carrying the war across the Chinese border, for which Truman fired him.
Remnants of Wake Island’s airstrip remain, but only sea birds land there.
There are other minor, uninhabited U.S. Pacific islands as well, with names such as Baker, Jarvis, Johnston, and Palmyra. Most are treeless, bereft of fresh water, and, to my reading, unremarkable save for their colorful guano-gathering legacy.
I want to “visit” Guam, the land of our airport acquaintance, the judge. But first a look at the two other U.S. Pacific possessions where more than gooney birds live.
The first is American Samoa, the southernmost place where one can step on U.S. soil. It’s the only piece of the United States of America south of the equator.
American Samoa’s six small islands lie 5,600 km (about 3,500 miles) east of northern Australia. They are among the 1,000 or so islands — including those that form the independent nation of Samoa next door — that are loosely referred to as “Polynesia,” and whose people share a language, culture, and many religious beliefs. About 500 A.D., amazing (and fit) Polynesian navigators in outrigger canoes paddled from these islands to places as far away as Hawai’i, 3,700 km (2,300 miles) across the open ocean.
Why did they leave their gorgeous homelands? How did they survive the incredible voyages? What did they think they would find? The smaller Atlantic must also have seemed a daunting abyss to Christopher Columbus 2,000 years later, but at least he had a compass, and his ships had sails. But I digress.
Typhoon-prone American Samoa has a beautiful capital city, Pago Pago, which Samoan speakers pronounce “Pango Pango,” surrounded by stunning, sheer cliffs. It’s a city of tuna canneries, tourist hotels, active volcanoes, and about 12,000 people. More than 90 per cent of the 65,000 American Samoans are ethnic Pacific Islanders; just 1 percent are white.
This remote island territory where cricket and rugby are the dominant sports has somehow managed to become “the Dominican Republic of the National Football League.” Just as “the Dominican” has produced many future Major League baseball stars, American Samoa has sent a surprising a number of football players to the professional NFL. They include superstar defensive player Junior Seau and 27 other current players. One of them, quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, is following his father, uncle, and several cousins into the NFL.
The Northern Marianas and Guam — part of one archipelago in the North Pacific — are the other populated U.S. Pacific territories. Like American Samoa, they have a single representative in Washington — a nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The indigenous people of the Marianas, including Guam, are Chamorros, a people thought to have reached the islands from present-day Malaysia about 2000 B.C. Chamorro society had three distinct classes, including the coastal-dwelling matua upper class that controlled the best fishing grounds. Because the archipelago was colonized by Spain for more than 300 years beginning in the late 1500s, many current Chamorro words derive from Spanish. But modern Mariana culture is an assimilation of Chamorro, Spanish, American, Filipino, and Pacific Islanders.
Guam and the smaller Marianas were stopping places for Spanish galleons connecting Mexico and the Philippines. But diseases, more than conquests, nearly wiped out the Chamorro population.
The United States acquired Guam by just showing up during the Spanish-American War in 1898. A U.S. Fleet entered Apra harbor and set off a hail of cannonballs. Having no idea there was a war on, the Spanish garrison took it as a courtesy salute and sent out emissaries to welcome their guests. Told the hard truth, the governor and 54 Spanish infantrymen meekly surrendered and were hustled off to the Philippines as prisoners of war. A lone, Spanish-born merchant was left in charge because he had somehow acquired American citizenship during a stay in Chicago.
Today Guam functions much like a state, with a governor, legislature, and local judiciary, including the acquaintance we met in Hawai’i.
She is white, raised in Boston, half a world away. But almost half of the island is ethnic Chamorro, a fourth Filipino, a tenth Polynesian and other Pacific Islanders, and only 7 per cent white. Whatever percentage remains is a colorful melánge of ethnicities.
A lot of Guamanians have relatives spread across at least half of the world, from Southeast Asia to South Carolina. The island itself is, as the Tribune newspaper in Salt Lake City, Utah, put it, a “[military] recruiter’s paradise,” where the enlistment rate is higher than anywhere else in America. The military and many Guamanians attribute this to extreme patriotism. Others also cite the high levels of poverty in the island’s packed towns and back country.
According to longtime Guam resident Leo Babauta, who blogs as “Zen Habits,” “We are very family oriented, but . . . in a very extended family way [including] a very extensive system of godparents and godbrothers and sisters.
“More than just being Spanish, though, we are native islanders. We have a long tradition of being connected to the sea, of being connected to the land, of being very tribal in many ways.
“And so we are none of these things completely — American, Spanish, islander — but all of them at once. We are a changing community, from the more traditional elders to the more modern youngsters, with their Nintendo DS and MySpace and texting cell phones and Wiis and XBoxes.”
While the 15 islands of the Northern Marianas share the Chamorro heritage, their history diverges at the point at which the United States acquired Guam with the collapse of the Spanish empire. Spain then sold the northern islands of the archipelago to Germany, which lost them to the Japanese, their enemy in World War I. To work the sugar cane fields, Japan flooded the Marianas with immigrants from throughout its empire.
Within hours of the Japanese attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor far to the east in 1941, Japanese forces from the Northern Marianas attacked and seized Guam. Some of their administrators who would cruelly deal with Guamanians were fellow Chamorros from the north. The bitter feelings that resulted help explain Guam’s refusal to consider reunification with the rest of the Marianas when the idea was proposed.
The Northern Marianas were wrenched from Japanese control following prolonged and bloody fighting on the island of Saipan in 1944. Thereafter, forgoing full independence, the Northern Marianas agreed to a commonwealth status in union with the United States.
Here’s a final Northern Marianas oddity: The ratio of women to men there — 1.3 to 1 — is the highest in the world. It’s not because the islanders are producing an abundance of girl babies. It’s the result of the influx of 15,000 or so Chinese migrant workers who, each year, flooded the country to work in garment factories during the 1990s.
I don’t quite know how to neatly wrap up a tale as sweeping as the Pacific Islands. So I’m guano just stop.
Gyre. A spiral or circular shape formed by concentric circles. It especially refers to a circular ocean current.
Outrigger. A beam or spar extending out from a hull to help stabilize a boat or canoe.