CANTON ISLAND MEMORIES 1964
I served four plus years in the US Navy from 1962 to 1966. After my preliminary training, I was assigned to a shore based patrol squadron, VP-28 in April 1963. I was a petty officer whose specialty was radar maintenance. Of course, this period was in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the Soviet submarine force was perceived as a major menace to US security. The primary mission of shore based patrol squadrons was anti-submarine warfare (ASW). However, the patrol squadrons were in some senses utility squadrons that were assigned a variety of missions as the need arose. It is one these “utility” missions that I wish to share.
In the fall of 1964, the squadron had just returned to its home port of NAS Barber’s Point, Hawaii after a six month deployment to Japan and the Philippines. In November, the squadron was ordered to provide a two plane detachment to Canton Island for the purpose of observing some Soviet missile tests. Consequently, several of the necessary ground support personnel were assigned to the detachment to perform the maintenance functions that would enable the aircrews to complete their mission. All of us were unfamiliar with Canton. We looked it up on the charts and discovered that it was a remote atoll in the Phoenix Island group, just south of the equator and virtually in the center of the Pacific. The location of the island and the nature of the mission boded well for a grand adventure from which many “sea stories” could be spun. No sailor can pass up the opportunity for gathering more personal sea stories with which to enthrall less “salty” sailors than himself or less traveled land lubbers, so all prepared for the trip with high anticipation.
George Ballard on Canton Island, 1964
The island was remote, and there were no military facilities at the location. Furthermore, the length of the mission was unspecified. Therefore, we “ground pounders” had to gather extensive supplies and maintenance equipment to insure our self-sufficiency while on the island. A substantial airlift was required to transport the seven or eight of us and our cargo. The plan called for the ground pounders to depart in advance of the squadron’s aircraft so that we would be prepared to receive them on Canton. With all of the hurried preparation completed, we departed, and thus began the best two weeks of my entire enlistment.
From a distance, Canton was a low white smear on the horizon whose highest point was barely twenty feet above sea level. As our plane prepared for our final approach, we were able to see that the atoll was brilliant white coral roughly in the shape of a donut or inner-tube that had been stretched by some gargantuan force into an oblong shape somewhat resembling a pork chop. The rim that outlined the pork chop was only a few hundred yards wide at its broadest point with a large lagoon in its center. We also observed a “cut” in the perimeter of the atoll that apparently provided access to the lagoon from the open ocean. Ominously, the rusting hulk of some hapless vessel that had run aground was visible adjacent to this cut. As will be detailed later, the cut figured prominently in our visit. Very little vegetation or trees were visible from the air, just shimmering white coral baking in the tropical sun. The reflections from the surface of the sea, the coral, and the clouds, coupled to make the scene blindingly brilliant. Consequently, we were never without our sunglasses, except at night, throughout our stay, and within hours of our arrival we were to receive a lasting object lesson from the torrid sun. The plane swept through the final arc of its approach, and we landed. Ours was the only aircraft on the island!
We were greeted by some of the contractor forces that maintained the flight facilities. They showed us to our quarters and left us to our own resources. We eagerly unpacked and unloaded, and our transport plane departed. We felt that it was immediately incumbent upon us to explore the “vast” expanse of the island. Included in our maintenance equipment was a small flat-bed industrial truck, that we called a “low-boy.” The vehicle was normally used to ferry tools, supplies, and personnel to and from our aircraft. However on that occasion, it appeared to be the naval aviator’s equivalent of a “Land Rover” perfectly suited for our exploratory purposes. We doffed uniforms, donned swimsuits or shorts and embarked.
It’s important to understand that there were no paved roads on the island, just a solitary track that traversed the center line of the coral rim that outlined the pork chop. There was no traffic on the island, everyone walked or rode bicycles to go about their business. There were a couple of pickup trucks and a few other miscellaneous vehicles. There were no intersections, no stop signs, and no traffic lights. There was no reason for anyone to rush from place to place. They were already there! Our journey started at waters edge on one side of the “the cut” and circumnavigated the lagoon to the other side of the cut. We then back tracked to our starting point. We quickly confirmed our aerial observations that there was only meager vegetation on the island, probably a half dozen coconut palms and some low growing shrubs. However, I still have a photo that I took of a poinsettia incongruously growing at the base of one the palms. That poinsettia struggling for survival in that coral detritus still burns brightly in my imagination. We also discovered that there was no swimming beach. The exposed coral dropped off precipitously into the deep. Nevertheless, we were soon to discover that swimming was not going to be a problem. Our exploratory trip required perhaps three hours to travel approximately twenty miles. Throughout the ride we had sat upon plank seats on the open bed of the low-boy. Thus, our faces, arms, and thighs were particularly exposed to the scorching sun. My thighs were well-done! I don’t think that I’ve fully recovered yet – such are the follies of sailors divorced from the sober counsel of their mothers!
We were the sole occupants of our quarters. They had formerly been used by Pan Am flight crews in transit to Fiji and Australia, but the jet age had obviated the need for the refueling stop. Although they were not in an immaculate state of repair, they were adequate. The best feature was an expansive lanai that afforded a cool place to relax and find respite from the sun. Did I mention that the sun figured heavily in one’s activities? I spent many a pleasant hour on the lanai reading books that I had obtained from the island’s self-service library.
Canton had originally been discovered by both British and American seamen. Consequently, by 1938, there was an amicable dispute as to the rightful claim to the island. The two governments subsequently signed a fifty year agreement to jointly administer the island. Hence, both the British and American government saw to it that they each occupied the island with its citizens. The British personnel occupied one side of the cut, the Americans the other. I may be oversimplifying this arrangement, but I believe it to be substantially correct. As a sidebar, Herbert Hoover, the former president of the United States, died October 20, 1964, and I recall that both the British and American flags flew at half-mast while we were there.
Among the American groups on the island were some employees of the Bendix Corporation that I believe were under contract with NASA to operate a communications station. Also, the weather bureau had a resident meteorologist, and I think the FAA had a representative. There were some tradesman from Hawaii that maintained the buildings and infrastructure. At least one school teacher was present. There were cooks that prepared meals for the men who lived there without their families. I suppose there may have been some sort of medical personnel, but I don’t recall encountering them. All in all, it was a highly condensed population that probably totaled no more than a hundred or so when we weren’t there.
The FAA flew in a plane from Hawaii every two weeks to deliver mail and small supplies. Twice a year a ship brought in major supplies and water. Hence, our presence was a burden on this isolated community, but we were always treated with civility and friendliness, and we did our best to respond in kind.
The day after we arrived, our first aircrew arrived with their aircraft. We greeted them with cold beer and handshakes and were eager to share our new found knowledge of our far flung outpost. Everyone was in high spirits and looked forward to our stay. However, on the morning of the third day, we received a message from Hawaii that startled all of us. The mission had been cancelled and our flight crew was to return to Hawaii that same day. This was when things became really interesting. You see, the Tonkin Gulf incident had occurred only three months prior and all of the military forces in the Pacific had been dramatically affected. Troops and material were being rushed to Vietnam as quickly as possible. Consequently, there was a dearth of suitable aircraft for us to use to evacuate our extensive ground support equipment and stores. This meant that we ground pounders whose sole function in life was to maintain airplanes were now stranded on one of the remotest places on earth with no airplanes to fly in, much less to work on. Hence, we were instructed to radio back to Hawaii each day to determine if transportation had been arranged. That radio call instantly became the most dreaded event of each day’s activities for the remainder of our time on the island.
What was it like? I’ve never had a better paid vacation in my life. Let me try to convey the perfection of our exile.
Each morning we would arise about 8 o’clock and casually stroll over to the chow hall. There we would give the cook our individual breakfast orders and enjoy a leisurely repast along with several cups of coffee and a recounting of the prior day’s activities. Conveniently suspended from a nail in the wall was a sheaf of wire service teletypes accumulated from the day before. (This was long before anyone had even thought of the internet, and there was no television on the island.) This was our newspaper. On our return walk, we would first detour by the tiny, low-power radio station and queue up the records that we wanted to hear. Then we would go by the Lilliputian self-serve library to select some reading matter. Retreating to our quarters, we would each stretch out for a good morning’s read on the lanai. Oh, occasionally some energetic pair might enter into a spirited game of chess or checkers. I can recall those scenes as vividly as if it were yesterday.
Around noon, after the strenuous morning’s activities, our appetites were renewed. So again we walked over to the chow hall for a well prepared lunch.
After lunch it was time for swimming. As I mentioned earlier, there was no beach, but the residents had provided a great substitute. They had excavated a swimming hole in the coral and provided screened intake and outlet channels to permit the water to be circulated by the tides. The screens were to keep out the sharks. The swims were always refreshing, but they left you sticky with salt, so we would return to our quarters for a daily shower. Now the order and timing of these events were critical. Remember, fresh water had to be shipped in. Therefore, to conserve fresh water, no hot water was provided for our showers. This was perfectly understandable and justifiable under the circumstances. However, all of the fresh water piping was laid on the surface of the coral, rather than buried. Thus, if one waited until mid-afternoon, he could enjoy a solar warmed shower. Nevertheless, we tried to be respectful of the need for water conservation and drank beer instead. After all of the exertion of the day, it would then be time for a nap on the lanai.
About 4 o’clock the little open air bar would begin sales. They had cold beer and a pool table that even though exposed to the salt air was miraculously still playable. A cold beer and a game of pool, and it was time for the evening meal. After dinner, came the fun part of the day. First, using fishing tackle generously loaned to us by the residents, we would stroll down to the cut for a little angling. I have never witnessed the equivalent of the scene at the cut before or since. Picture a river with a swift current that is three or four hundred yards long and perhaps thirty to fifty yards wide. Because this river was situated in mid ocean and because it provided a tidal exchange of the water in the lagoon with the ocean, it was a great source of food for fish large and small. Hence, it was the greatest fishing hole that I would ever hope to see. Schools of flying fish regularly broke the surface in an effort to escape the tuna and other predators. Indeed, one evening I observed a tuna that probably weighed three or four hundred pounds churn the water white pursuing a large school. That tuna frequently came completely out of the water in pursuit of its quarry. Perhaps the subject of the flying fish deserves a little expansion.
For those unfamiliar with them, mature flying fish are about twelve to fifteen inches long, silvery in color, and they have fins on either side that are perhaps six inches long. When frightened by predators they use their great swimming speed to jump clear of the water’s surface, and then they extend their “wings” and hopefully glide out of harms way. There’s good news and bad news in this behavior. They frequently eluded the pursuing predator. However, if there was an onshore wind, they were frequently blown up onto the shore. Here they either suffocated or they were picked up by appreciative sailors to be used as bait! Now, the fact that we were using bait fish that were 12 to 15 inches long should tell you something about the quality of the fishing. The two largest fish that I witnessed being caught during our stay were a nine foot nurse shark and a jewfish fish that literally filled a pick up bed. I’m not telling you that I caught these fish. Someone else did. So this is no fish story! A little before dark, we would take our catch, if any, along with our unused bait to the island reefer where the cook permitted us to store them. The next day the cook would prepare our catch to order. I’m telling you, “The stress was unbearable.”
Before I leave the subject of fishing, I must share a personal anecdote. My father, who died a number of years ago, was a good hearted and humorous man. He also loved to fish, but he was never particularly successful as a fisherman. He was fond of saying, “I want to go somewhere that the fish are so plentiful that you have to stand behind a tree to bait your hook.” Well on Canton there were no trees to stand behind, and if you weren’t careful the bait would fly ashore and smack you in the head. I’ve always wished that he could have been there with me.
As the equatorial skies darkened the evening movie would begin at the small outdoor theater that was conveniently located adjacent to the open air bar. After the movie, the evening was normally capped off with some beer and pool. Then to bed for some much needed rest before yet another taxing day. This was our daily routine for almost two more weeks. The only unpleasant punctuation to each day was the dreaded radio call to Hawaii to find out if they were ready to “rescue” us. We would all crowd around our radioman while he exchanged messages, and then we would all breathe a collective sigh of relief when he reported, “Not tomorrow.”
I know that I’ve mentioned beer and beer drinking several times in this narrative. Let me clarify something. I never once saw one of our guys get out of hand. I think we were all conscious of the fact that we were guests in this tiny community and that there were families present, and none of us wanted to appear ungrateful.
A recent photograph of George with his wife, 2002
Finally, let me mention the children. One afternoon, I walked past the one room school house just as the last bell of the day rang. A gaggle of sub-teen children flooded from the door and scattered all over the island. They were laughing and giggling in the manner common to their age group. They were truly without a care in the world. There was no traffic for them to look out for. There were no bad guys to be concerned about. There were no drugs. There was only fun and freedom to do as they chose. I really can’t imagine a more idyllic existence than those children seemed to have. Seeing those children personified the whole Canton experience for me, an experience that remains as bright in my memory today as the white coral of that remote place was then. I wish that I could see and hear those children again.
The fateful day came, and the magic ended. A huge C-124 was dispatched to retrieve us and our equipment, and we regretfully flew away with a detour to Johnson Island to offload our equipment for storage. Back in Hawaii a few weeks later, I was offered the opportunity to return to Canton on another mission. However, I was scheduled to go home for Christmas leave, and so I chose the path home. That was a difficult choice. Home and family beckoned and so did Canton. I really wanted to hear those children again. I will always wonder if I made the correct choice.