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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 24, 2010

Desert-island adventure

BY Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jarvis colonists in 1937: Sol Kalama, Charles Ahia, Jacob Haili and Harold Chin Lum.

Photo courtesy of Bishop Museum

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Preview screening of the documentary, which is still being edited by filmmakers

6:30 p.m. Friday

Atherton Halau, Bishop Museum


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To learn more about the colonists of Jarvis, Howland and Baker islands, you can read the interviews published by the University of Hawai'i Center for Oral History. Call the center at 956-6260 or read excerpts online at www.oralhistory.hawaii.edu/pages/historical/panalaau.html.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bishop Museum project manager Noelle Kahanu, center, looks at her grandfather, George Kahanu Sr., as Paul Phillips, right, looks on. Both men were colonists on Jarvis Island, although at different times. They were part of a group of young men who were sent to Jarvis, Baker, and Howland islands as colonists from 1935 to 1942.

NORMAN SHAPIRO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Elvin Mattson, Richard Whaley and Joseph Keliihananui on Howland Island in 1941, just months before Whaley and Keliihananui were killed in a Japanese attack.

Bishop Museum

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Life as a colonist on a remote desert isle wasn’t all work, as these young men proved by riding a homemade boat.

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Just south of the equator, Jarvis Island lies on the vast Pacific like an afterthought — a saucer- shaped sandbar without trees, fresh water or shade.

It's so bleak that the sight of it can crush the human spirit. Nature never intended Jarvis to be home to anything except millions of seabirds.

But for a brief period starting in 1935, it was part of a secret government plan that used young Hawaiian men to colonize the tiny island — along with nearby Howland and Baker islands — so the United States could establish aviation routes and military outposts.

Their time as colonists spanned seven years, then faded into memory after the men came home. For most of their lives, it was an adventure that only they recalled.

Now it's the focus of a film being made by Noelle Kahanu, a Bishop Museum project manager who knew almost nothing about the government plan until she discovered in 2002 that her grandfather was an early colonist. Ever since, she has been obsessed with this forgotten chapter of Hawai'i history.

Her documentary, "Under a Jarvis Moon," is almost finished and completes a years-long effort that also includes a traveling exhibit for the Bishop Museum and interviews with eight surviving colonists, recorded by the University of Hawai'i Center for Oral History in 2006.

"It's one of those things where you lie awake at night and fret about things that are undone," Kahanu said. "The story was put in motion, and it has its own way of unfolding. In a way, we just bear witness to that."

Her quest, and many of those sleepless nights, were fueled by a burning reality: Many of the survivors had died since she first recorded their stories, and now some of their children were passing, too.

"That's where I thought, 'My God, if we don't do this now, everyone who had lived with some memory of this will be gone,' " she said. "It became kind of this obsession to see it through to its end."


The islands of Jarvis, Howland and Baker were claimed by the United States and mined in the mid-1800s for their rich guano deposits, but then abandoned after two decades. Britain then claimed the islands, but also abandoned them to the birds.

The developing potential for aviation routes between California and Australia made the islands attractive, however, prompting the United States to develop a plan to secretly colonize the islands.

The idea was to continually occupy them with small groups that would be replaced every three or four months.

By the end of the program, 130 men had spent time living and working as colonists.

The task seemed so daunting to government planners that they figured only young Hawaiians would be able to survive. They initially turned to Kamehameha Schools — other schools were included later on — to recruit recent male graduates who could swim, fish and handle a boat.

On March 20, 1935, the first group sailed out of Honolulu Harbor. They were not told the full extent of their mission until they were at sea. Their parents didn't even know where they were going, only that their sons would be earning $3 a day, which was good money during the Great Depression.

It typically took five days to reach Jarvis, which is about 1,300 miles south of Honolulu, then another three to reach Howland and Baker.

In Kahanu's documentary, one of the former colonists said there were so many birds on the islands that he could smell them before he could see them.

Another called it "nature in the raw."

On Jarvis, beetles crawled over colonists as they slept; Polynesian rats, too.

The young men were sent with provisions, especially water; but on Baker, the colonists sometimes ate roasted Norway rats. They caught lobster and fish and sampled seabirds.

Boobies, birds which tasted like chicken, were best with shoyu.


The outposts were nature in miniature, said Janet Zisk, archivist for Kamehameha Schools and a resource for the documentary: Baker was only 410 acres, Howland 450 acres and Jarvis about 1,100 acres.

"One island was so small that one of the settlers said that if you waved at someone on the other side of the island, they waved back," Zisk said. "But they were asked if they wanted to go on an adventure, and it certainly was. They survived in great style, and most of them wanted to stay as often as they could."

The colonists were busy every day.

They recorded weather information, collected specimens for the Bishop Museum, mapped their new homes, tried to grow plants — a lot of which died — and worked on building and maintaining airfields.

The men also kept journals, which wound up at the Bishop Museum along with nearly 100 photographs from the colonization.

They made wooden surfboards, too, by recycling planks from the wreck of the coal ship Amaranth, which had run aground in 1913. The colonists surfed regularly, until the crew of a U.S. supply ship chastised them for surfing too close to sharks.

But there were serious dangers. Sometimes provisions ran low and supply ships, with much-needed fresh water, were not on time. On Howland, severely dehydrated colonists once dug their own shallow graves. In 1938, colonist Carl Kahalewai became the project's first fatality after his appendix burst. He died at sea while being evacuated from Jarvis.

The project's secrecy would last just more than a year, until President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed the islands in May 1936. By this point, the young colonists had cemented friendships that would last the rest of their lives.


World War II brought an end to the colonization project. Japanese planes attacked Howland and Baker on Dec. 8, 1941, killing Joseph Keliihananui, 26, and Richard Whaley, 19.

In later weeks, Japanese submarines also shelled Jarvis.

The last of the colonists was evacuated in February 1942.

Paul Phillips, now 87, was the last man off Jarvis. He went on to serve in the Army in the Pacific and after the war, got married and raised four children while working as an aviation mechanic and a Hawai'i Army National Guard helicopter pilot.

He never talked about this time on Jarvis.

"Oddly enough, there was very little said by any of the families about the colonization," Phillips said.

"My own family knew very little about the colonization. It was many, many years before they knew I had been down there. For some reason, it was never discussed."

Boxes of research material collected on the islands, including the log books, diaries and photographs of the colonists, were stored at the Bishop Museum — but they were never examined in detail before Kahanu dug into them.

"It was never heard from again, until Noelle revived it," Phillips said. "I am so grateful that she has.

"All of us have at some time or another wanted some recognition for our contributions and our ultimate sacrifices. We got nothing, not even a thank you."


Kahanu had read a short magazine story about the colonists in the 1980s, so she was startled when a Bishop Museum archivist asked her in 2002 if she was related to a former Jarvis colonist named George Kahanu Sr.

It was her grandfather. No one in her family, not even her father, had heard the story.

"We have one of his log books from when he was a colonist," she said. "To recognize the handwriting and meet this person not as my stately grandfather but as this young man, 17 and 18 years old, and to see pictures of him, is astounding."

Kahanu flew to her grandfather's Maui home to ask the retired shipfitter about his youth.

At his dining room table, he opened a manila envelope and out poured a collection of yellowed photographs of Jarvis.

"I became convinced it was this huge story we could do," she said. "That it was a wonderful, compelling story."

The museum exhibit was first shown in the summer of 2002.

That year, Kahanu also began videotaping interviews with former colonists as part of the oral history project, and the videos helped inspire the film, which she started in 2007.

She hopes to finish it this spring.

Being able to tell the story is an amazing opportunity, she said.

"There are moments in one's life where the personal and the professional converge," she said. "For me, this project has been that moment."