This story is an expanded version of a page that appears in the August 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
“The weather is absolutely perfect,” an NBC broadcaster announced from an otherwise uninhabited Pacific atoll on June 8, 1937. Minutes later, the moon blocked out the afternoon sun and began what reports called the longest total solar eclipse in 1,238 years.
Isolated Canton Island was the best place to observe the eclipse’s seven-minute span of total darkness—and that unique vantage point changed the course of the island’s history. The tiny, pork-chop-shaped atoll almost created a diplomatic crisis during World War II, served in the space program, and played a role in the hunt for missing aviator Amelia Earhart.
In 1937, a National Geographic–U.S. Navy expedition hauled 22,000 pounds of equipment from Washington, D.C., to Honolulu and then 1,900 miles farther into the Pacific Ocean to be there for the eclipse. The 13-person team of scientists and photographers included the NBC announcer and an artist, who painted the sky in real time.
“Like a hungry small boy sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, an astronomer at a total eclipse of the sun is there to get all he can while he has the chance,” Samuel Mitchell, the lead U.S. scientist, later wrote in National Geographic.
The Americans didn’t witness the event alone; a scientific expedition sponsored by Britain was also on the island, and the two groups got off to a shaky start when the British fired a shot across the bow of the American ship over a dispute about the most convenient anchoring spot.
A later report by the National Academy of Sciences described the scene: “Both captains, realizing that their behavior in this affair smacked of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, then wired their respective governments in London and Washington what to do next. Both received quite similar instructions to do nothing rash.”
Tensions soon turned into friendly rivalry as the two teams prepared to measure the brightness of the corona—the part of the sun’s upper atmosphere that is shrouded by glare except during an eclipse.
The expedition was a “most brilliant success,” Mitchell told reporters shortly after returning to Honolulu. The spectacular event put Canton Island on the map—but its spotlight didn’t fade after the teams’ departure.
Before leaving the island, the U.S. team had marked their mission’s success with a large concrete monument embedded with two American flags. After the eclipse, this marker stirred political ire.
With no shade, food, or permanent drinking water, Canton was barely habitable. But it was perfectly situated for refueling planes between Hawaii and Australia. And as hostilities in the Pacific increased, it offered proximity to Japan.
In August, Britain sent two officials to set up a base and asked the United States to remove its marker. Instead, President Franklin Roosevelt claimed the island, citing its past use by American whaling ships. Within days, he’d dispatched drums of water, 400 cans of poi, and three Hawaiian “colonists” to live there.
“It has nothing to do with war or war plans,” White House Press Secretary Stephen Early told reporters. But World War II loomed, and news reports from Tokyo warned that the Japanese viewed Britain’s tolerance of the U.S. encroachment “as evidence of Anglo-American cooperation.”
Sure enough, the U.S. and U.K. agreed to share control of the island to prevent the Japanese from using it. The U.S. military built an airstrip and installed more than a thousand men. Though the Japanese occasionally staged submarine and bomber attacks, Canton survived the war largely unscathed.
Afterward, the island bloomed into a popular stopover, where Pan Am refueled its commercial flights en route to Australia and New Zealand.
By 1955, the ground where expedition astronomers had slept in tents was covered with a Pan Am hotel, a National Geographic writer found during a visit. The U.S. and Britain had opened post offices. Children went to school in a former Army mess hall, and a wrecked military battleship served as a clubhouse for fish fries.
In 1960, NASA built a monitoring station on the island for Project Mercury, which launched the first Americans into space. In the ’70s, the U.S. Air Force tracked missiles from a base there.
In 1976, the U.S. shut down its operations and pulled all American personnel from the island. Britain followed suit, leaving only a few settlers. Three years later, Canton joined the Republic of Kiribati and was renamed Kanton. Today Kanton is the only island with a permanent population in the Phoenix Islands, which have been designated a protected marine area.
Occasionally, the island resurfaces in the news. In 1998, a team of investigators flew to Kanton with a tip that Amelia Earhart’s plane had accidentally been brought there and then discarded in a junkyard. They didn’t find it. In 2010, a sailor stopped on the island and found the last two dozen islanders on the verge of starvation because their food drop hadn’t been delivered for months.
Now, 60 years after the far-flung expedition, people across America are gearing up to watch a solar eclipse from a much more accessible locale: The path of total darkness will cross North America from coast to coast, offering viewing opportunities to millions of sky-watchers.