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Kingman Reef

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KINGMAN REEF

Kingman Reef lies 382 nautical miles north of the equator. It is about 33 miles northwestward of Palmyra Island and 925 miles south by west of Honolulu.

It is a triangular, atoll-like reef and shoal about 9.1/2 miles east and west by 5 miles north and south, of which all but the eastern end is now submerged. This leaves exposed a V-shaped bit of reef, with shoals to the westward. Within the line of reef and shoals is a triangular lagoon, about 7 by 4 miles, with depths up to 270 feet.

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Much of the reef is awash at low tide, and there are places, especially toward the eastern end, where it dries. The highest elevation is a low pile of bare brown coral, northwest of the eastern point, which varies in size and height, as storms pile up or wash away material. At the western end of the shoal is a patch with less than 25 feet of water over it, on which waves break occasionally. Outside this submerged atoll the slopes drop steeply to 2,000 feet or more.

The area supports a rich marine fauna, including large numbers of fish. There is no land flora. Some coconut palms, planted in 1924, were still alive in 1926, but it is not known if they have survived.

As described under Palmyra, the first recorded discovery of Kingman Reef was made by Captain Edmund Fanning, in the American ship Betsy, June 14, 1798. In his entertaining "Voyages and Travels," Fanning relates how, after his discoveries of Fanning and Washington Islands, during the night of June 13-14, he had a premonition of danger, and going on deck, he had the ship heaveto. Daylight showed them close to a reef, upon which undoubtedly they would have struck had he not stopped the ship. 

He described it as a "coral reef or shoal, in the form of a crescent, about six leagues in extent from north to south; under its lee, and within the compass of the crescent, there appeared to be white and shoal water. We did not discover a foot of ground, rock, or sand, above water, where a boat might have been hauled up ..."

Kingman Reef was named for Captain W. E. Kingman, who discovered it in the American ship Shooting Star, of Boston, on November 29, 1853. He reported this discovery in The Friend (Honolulu) for September, 1855, page 69. He said that it was near the spot assigned to "Danger rock" on some charts, and added that it would be "very dangerous to approach in the night, particularly with a light wind and smooth sea, as such there would be no breakers visible until a ship was so near as to be in considerable danger."

Under the name of "Danger" it was among the islands listed as claimed by Americans under the Guano Act of 1856.

It was visited in 1859 by the ship Alice Thorndike, and in some accounts is called by that name.

A report regarding the reef is given in The Friend for October 1872, by Commander Nathaniel Green of the U.S.S. Resaca, which visited it August 31, 1872. He says, "It is certainly a dangerous reef, the discoloured water being observed to extend eight or nine miles, the sea combing over the ridge of the reef for a space of about three miles in an E.N.E., and W.S.W. direction. Several patches of white sand and coral were observed from the top, even with the water's edge."

June 22, 1874, the British steamship Tarta, Captain J. S. Ferries, on the Australian-Americana run, struck the reef. After two days she got off, and arrived at Honolulu June 28, 1874.

On April 16, 1888, the British iron barque Henry James, Captain Ralph Lattimore, was wrecked on this reef. The eleven passengers and crew, thirty in all, were safely transported in small boats to Palmyra Island. From here the first mate, Donald McDonald, the boatswain, and three seamen made their way to Apia, Samoa, 1300 miles in 19 days, arriving in an exhausted condition. Here they chartered the schooner Vindex to make the rescue. Learning of the wreck, Captain H.M. Hayward took the S.S. Mariposa out of her course and rescued passengers and crew on May 29. The Vindex arrived thirteen days later. Despite their experiences, all enjoyed good health. Full accounts of wreck and rescue are given in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser for June 2, and the Gazette for June 5, 1888.

January 16, 1893, the Hawaiian barque Lady Lampson struck the reef. A careful survey of this region in 1897 by the British naval vessel Penguin showed that it must be the same as Caldew Reef, and Maria or Crane Shoal, reported in 1863 by Captain Crane of the schooner Maria. These names appeared on charts of this region, but have been removed.

The American flag was hoisted over Kingman Reef, May 10, 1922, by the late Lorrin A. Thurston, at the request of Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo. He took formal possession by reading a proclamation of annexation, and leaving a record of the proceedings, a certificate of possession the flag, and copies of the Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin of May 3, 1922, in a glass jar, deposited at the base of a cairn of coral slabs about four feet high. The party consisted of Captain Herman Charles Lemmel, John L. Padgett, L.A. Thurston, D. D. Thaanum, Ted Dranga, Manuel Vasconcellos, and a crew of six. At the time of annexation, the land was described as "a pancake of dead coral" about 90 feet wide, 120 feet long, and 5 or 6 feet high at low water.

The proclamation, which now is preserved in he Archives of Hawaii reads: "Be it known to all people: That on the tenth of May, A.D. 1922, the undersigned agent of the Island of Palmyra Copra Co., Ltd., landed from the motorship Palmyra doth, on this tenth day of May, A.D. 1922, take formal possession of this island, called Kingman Reef, situated in longitude 162 degrees 18' west and 6 degrees 23' north, on behalf of the United States of America and claim the same for said company."

In June, 1926, the U.S. Navy sent the U.S.S. Whippoorwill to visit Kingman Reef, with L.A. Thurston, and W. G. Anderson, who visited the reef in 1924. They arrived June 25, and spent ten days in making surveys.

December 29, 1934, Executive Order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed Kingman Reef under the control and jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy, in immediate charge of the 14th Naval District.

In September, 1935, William T. Miller, representing the U.S. Bureau of Air Commodore, visited the reef on the U.S.C.G. cutter Itasca. He is reported as saying that Kingman Reef had an important place on the Pacific aviation picture.

Early in 1937, the schooner Trade Wind, chartered by Pan-American Airways, took up a position at Kingman Reef. During March and April it served as a base for the trial flight of the Sikorsky Clipper, piloted by Captain Edwin C. Musick, between Honolulu and Pago Pago. The clipper touched on the way south, March 24, and on the return, April 8, 11 hours 46 minutes from Pago Pago.

The Trade Wind also was stationed at Kingman Reef for the trial flights of the ill-fated Samoan Clipper, also under command of Captain Musick. It reached the reef December 23, 1937, on the way south, and January 3, 1938, on the return. On its next flight, the clipper reached Kingman Reef on January 9. It was lost near Tutuila when it took off for Auckland from Pago Pango on the 11th.

Naval vessels occasionally pass the reef. The writer saw it, August 13, 1938, en route from Palmyra to Honolulu, on the U.S.C.G. cutter Taney.

Kingman Reef has been made a U.S. national defense area by Executive Order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dated February 14, 1941, and foreign planes and surface craft are prohibited.

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CONTEMPORARY IMAGES OF KINGMAN REEF
TAKEN FROM A HELICOPTER, MAY 12, 2001

The following photographs are extremely rare and are possibly the only low altitude aerial photographs available of Kingman Reef. At the time the photographs were taken, the reef was entirely under water with the exception of two sandbars.  

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Breakers on Kingman Reef can be seen from a distance but
at night  were a considerable hazard particularly to the old ships.

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A distant aerial view of Kingman Reef.

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The breakers and the sandbars.

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The above two images show the rare
beauty of the underwater coral at Kingman Reef.

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Different aerial views showing the breakers at Kingman Reef.

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