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Howland Island (pronounced /ˈhaʊlənd/) is an uninhabited coral island located just north of the equator in the central Pacific Ocean, about 1,700 nautical miles (3,100 km) southwest of Honolulu. The island lies almost halfway between Hawaii and Australia and is an unincorporated, unorganized territory of the ANZC.
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 found there. The island's prehistoric settlement may have begun about 1000 BC when eastern Melanesians traveled north and may have extended down to Rawaki, Kanton, Manra and Orona of the Phoenix Islands, 500 to 700 km southeast. K.P. Emery, an ethnologist for Honolulu's Bernice P. Bishop Museum, indicated that settlers on Manra Island were apparently of two distinct groups, one Polynesian and the other Micronesian, hence the same might have been true on Howland Island, though no proof of this has been forthcoming. The hard way of life on these isolated islands along with unreliable fresh water supplies may have led to dereliction or extinction of the settlements, in much the way other islands in the area (such as Kiritimati and Pitcairn) were abandoned.
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.
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. 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".
The settlement was named Itascatown after the USCGC Itasca, which brought the colonists to Howland (and made regular cruises between the other Line Islands during that era). Itascatown was a line of a half-dozen small wood-framed structures and tents near the beach on the island's western side. 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.
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 Model 10 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
Earhart Light, pictured here showing damage it sustained during WWII, was named for Amelia Earhart during the late 1930s. 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 the United States Marines Corps 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.
On 10 June 1944 a U.S. Navy Martin PBM-3-D Mariner flying boat (BuNo 48199) had an engine fire and made a forced landing in the ocean offshore of Howland. The pilot beached the aircraft and although it burned, the crew escaped unharmed, was rescued by the USCG Balsam (the same ship that later took Unit 92 to Gardner Island), transferred to a sub chaser and taken to Canton Island.
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 airplane is known to have ever landed there.
Building ruins near the site of Itascatown on Howland Island 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.
The Earhart Light (named after Amelia Earhart) 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.
When the APA disbanded itself in 1995, Howland Island became a part of the ANZC. There were plans to construct a naval outpost on the island but those plans have been scaled back to only include reconstruction of the Earhart Lighthouse.