French Frigate Shoals

The French Frigate Shoals consists of a crescent-shaped atoll of small islands, 18 miles in diameter.  They are located 550 miles northwest of Honolulu.  The islands first played a part in World War II when they were included in Japanese plans to be used to refuel seaplanes from submarines in the sheltered waters of the atoll, as part of their campaign to conquer Midway Island.

Such a refueling was successfully carried out in 1942 by two H8K Emily flying boats that were refueled by a submarine within the French Frigate Shoals atoll. The seaplanes then mounted a bombing raid on Pearl Harbor, although they were thwarted from hitting their targets by inclement weather.

Later in 1942, elements of the 5th Seabee Battalion arrived on Tern Island to begin construction of an airfield. The island was only a few hundred feet long, yet was expanded by dredged coral to create a 3,100-foot x 275-foot runway and a ramp area sufficient for 24 single engine aircraft.

The expanded island’s area encompassed 27 acres, of which 20 were taken up by the airfield. On the meager remaining land, partially buried Quonset Huts were erected to serve as housing, painted white to blend in with the surrounding coral. The typical complement was 118 men, who rotated from Pearl Harbor on a three month tour.

The station was commissioned in 1943 as an auxiliary of NAS Pearl Harbor.  It served as an emergency landing strip and refueling stop for fighter squadrons transiting between Hawaii and Midway, and provided surveillance of the surrounding area. It was protected by a variety of anti-aircraft artillery.

After the end of World War II, the island was swept clean by a tidal wave in 1946, after which point the base was closed by the Navy.

On July 28, 1947 the Hawaii Aeronautics Commission sent a letter to the Navy declining acceptance of French Frigate Shoals on a revocable permit basis, withdrawing the request that the airfield be turned over to the Territory of Hawaii.

The HAC made an inspection trip to French Frigate Shoals on August 2, 1948 as guests of the Coast Guard to ascertain the value of Navy improvements there. The airport was of crushed coral and about 3,000 feet in length; buildings were mostly Quonset huts.  The HAC said that if there was an organization in Honolulu willing to lease buildings there for some length of time and show a return on the investment, the Lease Committee would recommend entering into negotiations. An inquiry had already been received from Hawaiian Tuna Packers inquiring into the possibility of leasing space there. A request was also received from the Coast Guard to occupy Tern Island.

In February 1949, the Navy abandoned the airstrip and facilities to the Territory of Hawaii in return for a release of all obligations on the part of the government by reason of its occupancy. This action automatically placed the facility under the jurisdiction of the Hawaii Aeronautics Commission.

The HAC decided that the field would not be maintained as an operating strip because of the small demand for its use.  Certain fishermen operated in the area during the fishing season, and it was their practice to clear the field periodically of pieces of coral rock which washed up during heavy weather. They periodically used the field to fly their catch to Honolulu.

In January 1952, the HAC approved the request by the Coast Guard to build a LORAN navigation beacon tower on Tern Island, along with a 20 man supporting facility. Military planes made occasional landings to pick up men of the Coast Guard LORAN station for hospitalization in Honolulu. The runway was used for a weekly mail and supply flight. The Coast Guard installation continued in operation until 1979. Fisherman and commercial planes were permitted to land on Tern Island with the approval of the Coast Guard.

Tern Island also played an interesting role during the early days of space flight. During 1961-63, the Pacific Missile Range had a portable tracking station located at one end of the island, operated by the Bendix Radio Company, and staffed with 6-10 people. PMR tracked not only the USAF Discoverer spacecraft but also the Soviet Union’s space efforts, including their first manned mission. The PMR personnel lived in the Quonset hut located about halfway down the runway, and later, during the Starfish atomic tests, two house trailers were shipped to the island.

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French Frigate Shoals Air Traffic Statistics French Frigate Shoals was under the control of the Hawaii Aeronautics Commission from 1946-1949.