The more obscure (un)States of our Union: [ref.]
- Navassa Island – Captured using the little-known Guano Act, a sadly neglected statute given its immense comic possibility.
- Baker Island – Another Guano Act island, this one had a colony of four from 1935-42 until WWII came and the government took it away. Also a cemetary where the seamen of various Pacific whalers were buried.
- Howland Island – A tiny, sun-drenched pacific island famous for its gorgeous boobies. Also the unreached terminus in what turned out to be the final leg of Amelia Earhart’s attempt to circumnavigate.
- Jarvis Island – More guano, more tiny squads of settlers, more attacks from Japanese submarines. It’s all starting to get a bit repetitive no?
- Johnston Atoll – Surprise, surprise, another speck acquired in the name of Guano. To all of you who were already well aware of the central role bird sh*t played in establishing our 19th-century maritime empire of tiny islands, you are more attentive students of American history than I. This one was inhabited for real until 2004. Back in the Dr. Strangelove days we were launching intermediate range ballistic missiles from the island and detonating the nuclear warheads they carried in the atmosphere…yuck. On July 9th, 1962 we made an oopsie and exploded one of our missiles a bit early, while it was still on its launch pad, leaving the immediate area heavily contaminated with plutonium. This fissile material, popular in apocalyptic rockets of death the world over, has a half-life of 24,000 years and can be fatal to hominids in amounts as low as 0.29Âµg. After three months, or 0.25 years the area was deemed safe for human use. Later on we started de-commissioning chemical weapons there, more fun stuff. We tore down the chemical-weapons-burning factory, the golf course and the outdoor theatre before we left, and put the whole thing up for auction in 2005…any takers?
- Kingman Reef – Called ‘Danger Island‘ when it was first listed as an American possession under, wait for it, the Guano Act of 1856, although as a roughly boomerang-shaped crescent of coral it’s doubtful there was much of the stuff to be had. The coral reef was a refueling spot for Pan Am flights from Hawaii to American Samoa in the 1930s, until Pan Am realized staffing a boat in the middle of the pacific 24/7 for a once-a-week flight in the midst of the Great Depression just wasn’t going to work out.
- Palmyra Atoll – The 2nd largest atoll under our benevolent eye. In 1974 an adventuresome couple, “Mac” and “Muff” Graham, looking for a yearlong tropical holiday landed on the island, only to find another couple had arrived before them “Buck” Walter and Stephanie Stearns. Apparently tensions rose and at some point between August 28 and 30, the Grahams, “disappeared” according to Stearns. Eventually Buck and Stephanie set sail for Hawaii in the Grahams’ boat where, despite a new paint job and new name, it was soon recognized by acquaintances of the Grahams, leading to an arrest, conviction and time served for the pair. In a twist that would please fans of Patricia Highsmith and /or The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least the 1960 film version Purple Noon), a visitor to the island discovered what turned out to be Muff’s burnt and dismembered remains near a metal container, which is thought to have been meant to hide the remains at sea but was brought to shore by the surf. Stearns was acquitted but Buck was not and his first parole hearing is this year. Mac’s body has not been found. The atoll now hosts a handful of scientists sponsored by the Nature Conservancy.
- Wake Island – The prettiest of the islands, at least from space. And the site of a minor WWII battle which marked the only occasion during the Great War where an amphibious assault was defeated by shore-based guns. Civilian army contractors made up the majority of the U.S. defense force repulsing the assault.
- The remaining unincorps are American Samoa (American Samoans are 40 times more likely to be employed as athletes in the National Football League than non-Samoan Americans), Guam (snake-free until the Americans arrived, the island now enjoys one of the highest snake densities in the world at over 2000/km^2 and a virtually extinct native bird population), Puerto Rico (for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, islanders enjoy turkey stuffed with a ground beef and/or pork mixture containing such varied ingredients as almonds, raisins, olives, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes and garlic) and the Virgin Islands (the only U.S. territory that drives on the left), but they all rank a bit higher on the familiarity index. ps – we also have “compacts of free association” with the Republic of the Marshall Islands (includes the Bikini Atoll, home to over 20 above-ground hydrogen bomb detonations), the Federated States of Micronesia (includes the island of Yap which uses stone disks 4m in diameter as currency) and Palau (there are no intellectual property restrictions on the island, so I wouldn’t hold your breath for “iTunes Palau”) as well as a political union with the Northern Mariana Islands (where island textile concerns retained Jack Abramoff to scuttle congressional plans to bring labor conditions in their factories up to par with the mainland – the Marianas can use “Made in U.S.A.” tags but their labor costs are much lower and many regard the factories as sweatshops – and Jack succeeded admirably, however his recent wire fraud conviction in connection with improper gifts and bribes to U.S. legislators tarnishes that win somewhat), just for completeness’ sake.
And this concludes today’s whirlwind tour of Wikipedia, except to note that today is Mozart’s birthday in case you missed Google.