Palmyra holds its secrets hidden in the jungle lushness

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Palmyra holds its secrets hidden in the jungle lushness


Last of a four part series on the state of Palmyra in 1979, when attention was drawn to it as a potential storage site for nuclear waste. Part four discusses various mysteries surrounding the island, including the (at the time) recent murder case documented in the book and television mini series "And the Sea Will Tell".


Bob Krauss


Hawaii State Library


The Honolulu Advertiser




© The Honolulu Advertiser, used here by permission



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Palmyra holds its secrets hidden in the jungle lushness (Part 4 of 4)

Photo Caption 1: Some of the islets of the atoll are silhouetted at sunset.
Photo Caption 2: Lush vegetation of Palmyra overgrows old military equipment from World War II.

Palmyra Atoll has been in the news since being named as a possible site for storage of nuclear wastes. So little is known about the remote island that The Advertiser sent columnist Bob Krauss on a chartered flight to Palmyra. Here is his report.

PALMYRA ATOLL — Many mysteries cling to this remote Pacific island. To begin with: Why, on an island so abundantly supplied with water, are there no traces of Polynesian occupation? Was there a reason to avoid this atoll? "Nothing has been reported (on Palmyra) except that there were (Polynesian) rats which would indicate Polynesians were there," said Dr. Kenneth Emory, senior anthropologist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

He said the neighboring atolls of Washington, Fanning and Christmas, larger than Palmyra, all show evidence of habitation by prehistoric Polynesians who may have stopped there on voyages to Hawaii from the south. But there is no literature to indicate that European visitors to Palmyra found temples or Polynesian house sites. "This does not mean the structures were not there," said Emory. "It wasn't until 15 or 20 years ago that a marai (temple) was reported on Washington." It may be that the lushness of Palmyra hid its old secrets amid fern and fallen palm fronds, making artifacts more difficult to find here than on drier atolls. But Ainsley Fullard-Leo, part owner of Palmyra, said that World War II dredging by the U.S. Navy so completely altered the face of the atoll that all traces of previous habitation were obliterated. This was confirmed by the Christmas Island copra plantation workers now on Palmyra. They said they have found no native-style artifacts.

Another mystery that has attached itself to this tiny atoll is that of buried treasure. "My family was told that a Spanish galleon loaded with gold wrecked on Palmyra," said Fullard-Leo. "Some of the crew survived by building a small ship and sailing it to Mexico. The gold is still supposed to be here." The island found its way into the history books in June 1798 when it was sighted by Capt. Edmond Fanning. It was named for the ship Palmyra, which sought shelter here in 1802.

In 1862, King Kamehameha IV sent a commission to take possession of Palmyra under the Hawaiian flag. The island was annexed to the United States as part of Hawaii in 1898. It was purchased in 1911 by the late Judge Henry E. Cooper. Then an Australian adventurer, a former diamond miner turned building contractor, came to Honolulu and invested in a copra plantation operating at Palmyra. The plantation went bankrupt but the Australian liked Palmyra so much that he bought it for $15,000 from Cooper. That was in 1922. The Australian was Leslie Fullard-Leo. He and his wife wanted Palmyra as their own private paradise.

Their plan was to sell the tiny islets of the atoll to other people who wanted to escape the violence of civilization. Yet that violence keeps seeking out Palmyra. It was in the fall of 1974 that a Honolulu friend of yachtsman Malcom Graham and his wife became concerned on losing radio contact with their 38-foot ketch, Sea Wind, anchored in the remote Palmyra lagoon. The friend, a radio ham, said the Grahams described, with dislike, a hippie-type couple on a leaky sloop named Lola, also anchored in the lagoon.

September passed and there was no further word from the Grahams. But on Oct. 28, a yachtsman at the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor in Honolulu recognized the Sea Wind. She had been repainted and another name was substituted. Next day, the Coast Guard boarded the boat. A slender, muscular man dived overboard and escaped. His female companion was arrested hiding behind a concrete pillar under the Ilikai Hotel. She was Stephanie Stearns, 28, who said she and her companion had been given the boat by the Grahams at Palmyra. Stearns said that she and Buck Duane Walker, 36, had been asked to dinner by the Grahams on the Sea Wind with the invitation: "Make yourselves at home." When Stearns and Walker came aboard for dinner, they found that the Grahams had gone fishing in their dingy, Stearns said.

The Grahams did not return that night, according to the story, so their visitors went looking for them. Stearns said she and Walker looked for three days but found only the overturned dingy. So they took possession of the Sea Wind, after their sloop wrecked on the reef, and sailed for Honolulu. Walker was captured by the FBI on Hawaii. Both he and Stearns went on trial for theft of the Sea Wind. The prosecution contended that they stole the yacht because their own boat was unseaworthy and because the Sea Wind was well stocked with food. Stearns and Walker were both convicted.

But what happened to the Grahams? A search party of 10, including two FBI agents and four members of the Coast Guard, departed for Palmyra on Nov 4. They spent only 36 hours on the island. They found no bodies, no trace of the Grahams. So, once more, the lush jungle foliage that makes this a fantasy island refused to reveal its secrets and added another mystery to the legend of Palmyra.

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Bob Krauss, “Palmyra holds its secrets hidden in the jungle lushness,” Palmyra Archive, accessed July 14, 2020,