Palmyra from the Air

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Palmyra from the Air


This interesting and extensive article describes the voyage and work of the cargo ship US Eagle 40's crew while on an aerial photography mission to Palmyra. Included is a spread of photographs from the trip, showing the wildlife, scenery, crew, and even the 3 inhabitants from the time.

The details here are rare and hugely insightful, offering an intimate look at what it was like to live and work on Palmyra at this time, and at the new and important work being done by the Army Air Force (prior to its splitting off into a separate military branch) with aerial photography. We learn of the living quarters, the daily life of the residents and their visiting sailors, as well as how the work of photographing Palmyra's many islets was done.

This also marks the first time an aircraft visited and landed in Palmyra's lagoon, which would become one of its primary functions during World War 2 for seaplanes.


Lieutenant G.A. Ott



Honolulu Star Bulletin




Public Domain



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By Lieut G.A. Ott
Intelligence Officer Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor

There came a tenseness, an air of expectancy, over the islets fringing the western lagoon. A low moan drifted down the wind, increasing rapidly to a staccato roar.

The myriad seabird life of the island group rose nervous and screeching into the air. In the bush little lovebirds crept closer to their mates, while even the giant coconut crab hunted the darker recesses of the jungle.

Suddenly came quiet, followed immediately by the whine of flying wires.

High over Cooper island a seaplane dipped into the glide and with graceful spirals settled gently to the surface of Central lagoon.

Mother Boobies ceased their defiant challenge from nests among the heliotrope; tern and snipe settled down on the beaches and the curlew again took up the plaintive intermittent whistle which named him.

The navy’s air force, or part of it at least, had come to Palmyra.

The trip down on Eagle 40 was filled with amusing incidents. At its very beginning the cruise gave promise of adventure, for within two hours of sailing Lieut. Glick, the Eagle’s skipper, discovered two pseudo stowaways in the crews’ quarters aft.

Newspaper men are usually credited with much cleverness. However, we are in a position to know, and it behooves us to undeceive a long suffering public. These two were undoubtedly built for comfort, for it was their diligent search for a bunk which led to their swift undoing.

By all rules of sea and fiction, stowaways are supposed to remain hidden until almost starved or eaten by rats. But, then, one could hardly expect a star reporter to remain in eclipse for any such length of time.

Commander Kirkpatrick, despite their pleadings, ordered the two returned to Honolulu.

Skipper Joe Glick took this setback in surprisingly good spirit. Our skipper is a good humored gentleman anyhow-a typical traveler of the deep, with twinkling gray eyes, embellished by the characteristic countless wrinkles one acquires from long peering at certain fan-shaped arrangements one holds in the left hand while the right enriches the center of the table.

The big kick emanated from the stateroom of Lieutenant Mecklendburg, our chief engineer. Through the Alice blue vapor which surrounded his domain came many phrases usually printed in stars and exclamation points. It required but five seconds of our time to reach the conclusion that the chief was not in favor of burning up part of his precious fuel supply in returning to port. IN fact, it could be gathered from his bloodthirsty conversation that he strongly advocated drowning the pests at the hundred fathom curve. Meanwhile the pests shivered in their boots. We think the chief is somewhat prejudiced by the roasting he received on his fishing abilities from our correspondent during the seaplane circuit of the Hawaiian Group last February.

The first day out was passed without incident and with little food being used, though much was misused. At noon of the second day some live member gathered together such of the crew as were able to maneuver and who had four bits, for the purpose of making a pool to enrich him who could give the most plausible answer to the question: Why did they name this ocean the Pacific?

The ordinary seaman who walked off with the gravy claims that the middle class Spanish bird who discovered it was not familiar with the English tongue, and, therefore, chose a word from a Greek dictionary while blindfolded. We are inclined to look with favor upon this explanation. The ocean itself gives no good reason to raise a doubt. The third day was passed by the officers in the exciting business of increasing the wrinkles around Lieutenant Glick’s eyes. And on the morning of the fourth day, thanks to the abilities of the navigating officer, Lieutenant Smith, Palmyra lay spread before us. Doc Steele claims Smithy takes his sextant to bed with him. We are not familiar with all his little idiosyncrasies, but no one seems to be able to located the sextant during Smithy’s watch below.

While getting the plane over many large red snapper and ulua were caught by the crew. The writer claims the distinction of hooking the largest fish, but must share the honor of landing it with two others. After playing it for about 30 minutes or more, during which time no one could be certain as to whether I had the fish of the blasted thing had me, someone sent word to Commander Kirkpatrick that Lieutenant Ott was in difficulty. The boss hot-footed it to the scene of action and gave me much needed relief, and finally, with the assistance of Skipper Glick, and a handy boathook, 133 pounds of silver ulua was gasping and flopping all over the deck. Of course the photographer was gotten on the job immediately. It is to be expected that Kirk’s son, Bobbie, may some day doubt the prowess of his dad.

Shortly after our arrival at the anchorage the quartermaster reported a sail making towards us from the island. This soon became visible to the naked eye, and, with the palm-fringed shore as a background, we all slipped into the spell of romance. I felt we were living the pages of Morgan Robertson and Bob Stevenson.

Colonel Meng, Edward Benner and Mrs. Meng were soon scrambling up the sea ladder, sunburned and weatherbeaten, to be sure, but far from starving as had been reported. They had been out of fresh provisions for some time, but one could hardly starve on Palmyra with Mrs. Meng at the helm of the culinary department. They were overjoyed to see us and to get the large mail and new store of provisions we had brought.

On our isle, a sanded and coconut shaded wee bit of coral on the edge of Central Lagoon, stood the mansion of the pioneers, and here Colonel and Mrs. Meng and Edward Benner, after a year of isolation, were at home that afternoon to visitors.

Their home consists of a long lean-to with the closed side in the direction of the prevailing winds. This is divided into three sections by partitions, the front being left entirely open except for curtains, which, in the raised position, make quite efficient awnings. All cooking is done in the open over a mud and tin fireplace. Our isle is just large enough to contain shelter and to provide, in addition, a front yard of about 40 square feet.

The decision by several of the officers to remain on the island during the stay of the expeditions was heartily endorsed by our hosts, who indicated quite clearly that they watchword on Palmyra as “The more, the merrier.”

Colonel Meng and Lieutenant Mecklenburg, our noted caster of flies, went to spear mullet in the lagoon shallows. The rest of us lay in the sand and marveled as much at the beauty of the scene as we did at the ability displayed by Ed Benner in surreptitiously disappearing with a certain packet of letters, while the sun, in the west, slowly dropped into Eagle 40’s smokestack.

The plane lay at anchor off the edge of the shallows, a strange affair amid stranger surroundings. Eagle 40, like a painted ship on a silver ocean, swung to the tide off the outer reef, and between her and the beach came a string of boats, towing carefully through the coral heads, with provisions and more visitors for the self-exiled trio.


Lieutenant G.A. Ott, “Palmyra from the Air,” Palmyra Archive, accessed August 8, 2020,