The War Years

"World War II forever changed Palmyra. For the first and only time in its history, the atoll sustained a significant human population."

On December 23, 1941, a little more than two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine surfaced offshore at Palmyra Island, 1,000 miles south of Hawai‘i, and opened fire.

The enemy’s target that day: a new U.S. Naval Air Station that was still under construction. Specifically, enemy guns focused on the “Sacramento,” a U.S. Corps of Engineers dredge anchored in the atoll’s central lagoon.

The Sacramento was hit, but only lightly, and when U.S. forces promptly returned fire, the Japanese vessel submerged, never to be seen again.

That incident marked the only war-time attack on Palmyra. From then on, until the fighting ended in 1945, the atoll served as a strategic Pacific outpost for the U.S. military. At the height of its importance, in 1943, the Palmyra Naval Air Station housed more than 2,400 soldiers—the only time in its history that the atoll has sustained a significant human population. 

The Second World War changed the Pacific, and it changed Palmyra, transforming a remote, uninhabited atoll into a bustling military installation. The Sacramento was brought in to dredge out a natural causeway between the atoll’s west and central lagoons, creating a 10,000-foot landing area for seaplanes. It was also used to dredge out a shipping channel 20 feet deep and 200 feet wide connecting the west lagoon to the sea. Spoils from these operations were then used to build a 6,000-foot runway on Cooper Island.

Around the atoll’s periphery, pill boxes were built for defense while further inland a line of small coastal gun emplacements and command posts were installed. Roads, waterlines, warehouses, barracks, a mess hall, radio station, cold storage plant, ammunitions depot, hospital and other elements of a modern infrastructure were also constructed.

A Bygone Era

The primary mission of the Palmyra Naval Air Station was to serve as a troop transport and re-servicing and staging point for U.S. aircraft and small ships en-route to the south and southwest Pacific. During the first year and a half of the Pacific War, Palmyra’s strategic position was vitally important. But as the strength of the Navy was built up elsewhere, and as the war moved west, its importance decreased.

Palmyra’s growth in personnel, from 112 men on December 7, 1941, to the maximum of 2,410 men in August of 1943, and its subsequent reduction to 428 men in July of 1945, traces its importance in the early years of the war and its later decline.

Today, reminders of Palmyra’s World War II history can still be found on the atoll. More revealing, however, are the old photographs taken by the men who served there. First Marine Lieutenant John W. Bustard was one of those men. A graduate of Honolulu’s Punahou School, Stanford University and the Marine officers’ training academy in Quantico, Virginia, Bustard led a platoon of Marines stationed at Palmyra for 10 months between 1942 and 1943.

His photographs, preserved in a scrapbook and loaned to the Conservancy by his son, John N. Bustard, show U.S. soldiers at work and at play on Palmyra, enjoying the island’s wildlife and each other’s company. Together with aerial images from the national archives, these photos provide a rare window into a bygone era in Palmyra’s history.