Canton Island

Relief map of Canton Island

Canton Island (171.689W 2.782S) is a small atoll located near the equator 1600 miles (2570 km) southwest of Pearl Harbor, 800 miles (1300 km) south of Palmyra, and 960 miles (1540 km) from Makin. It is triangular in shape, about 11 miles (18 km) from northwest to southeast and 5 miles (8 km) across its west coast. It surrounds a lagoon with just two narrow entrances on the west side. Most of the lagoon is shallow and foul, but the southeast portion is deep enough for seaplanes to operate.  The island is flat and covered with grass and scrub with few trees and no fresh water supply. The reef is located just off the coast, except for a shelf providing a decent anchorage for deepwater vessels off the southwest entrance to the lagoon. However, this had no breakwater. The islands have few resources other than small phosphate deposits and a few coconut palms.

Canton was under joint British and American administration in 1941 under a condominium negotiated in April 1939.  A seaplane base was built by Pan Am well before war broke out, and the lagoon was dredged for seaplanes.  U.S. Army engineers were close to completing a 5000 foot (1520 meter) runway when war broke out, and the 78 engineers and a handful of Navy PBY Catalinas were the only garrison until 10 February 1942. On that date an 1100-man defense force was landed with some coastal artillery and antiaircraft guns, and a fighter and a light bomber squadron soon followed. Eventually the airfield was expanded to three runways.

The war largely passed it by, although the island was shelled by cruiser Tone in early 1943 as a diversion from the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal.


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