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1966 photo by Jim Haralson used on the FFS Christmas cards
(Mr Haralson was a friend and neighbor, here in White Oak, Texas, until his death in 2003.)

By LT Jerry M. Lentz, U S Coast Guard (Retired)

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Welcome. This web page is dedicated to the preservation of marine life, particularly the Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Green Sea Turtle. There is quite a bit of material on the internet about French Frigate Shoals and these particular sea creatures but there is little to actually show what this unusual and beautiful location is like. This page will take you on a tour of the main island, Tern Island, as it appeared in 1966/1967 while it was inhabited by 20 Coast Guardsmen. Within the Coast Guard, French Frigate Shoals was the ultimate isolated duty, often referred to when threats were made to ship someone to the middle of nowhere. Today, the island is inhabitated by a small research team of 2 biologists. You cannot visit the island on your own because all the islands from Nihoa to the Pearl & Hermes Reef are part of the Hawaiian National Wildlife Refuge and any intrusion is strictly forbidden.

Geological History. French Frigate Shoals are the remains of what was probably a rather large island a million or so years ago. As all the Hawaiian chain is doing, it is slowly drifting westnorthwestward away from the subterranean source which most recently created the Big Island of Hawaii and is currently pushing up a new island from beneath the sea eastsoutheast of Hawaii. As the original island drifted, it also slowly sank beneath the sea but as it sank, coral formed and grew at a rate fast enough to keep up with the sink rate. A crescent shaped barrier reef had formed and encircles the central lagoon on its northern and eastern sides. The shoal area itself is about 30 miles across and part of the original mass of the island, La Perouse Pinnacle, still protrudes above the sea. La Perouse rises vertically about 120 feet above sea level, 7 miles south of Tern Island.

Coast Guard lore on the island indicated that the area was discovered several hundred years ago by a French Naval Officer, Jean comte de la Perouse, who literally stumbled onto the area by accident and spent several months shipwrecked on the shoal until the crew could repair the ship. A more accurate history, based on archives of the Smithsonian can be found on Wake Forest University's Tern Island History site. Among the natural islands that I was aware of was a small uninhabited sand bar we called Shark Island about a mile or so W of Tern Island. It is about the same size that Tern Island was before World War II. Several miles to the east were two islands we called Whale and Trig, although material I've seen recently refers to them as Whale and Skate. Going towards La Perouse about 5 miles brought you to East Island, the original site of the Coast Guard station. During my stay I visited Shark, Whale and Trig by means of our 16 foot recreational boats.

Click on image for enlarged version
The Military and French Frigate Shoals. Prior to World War II, the area had no particular strategic value. During the early part of the war, the Japanese occasionally used it to refuel seaplanes from a submarine. In one instance a seaplane raid on Pearl Harbor was refueled from this location. When they tried to do this again, after the Battle of Midway, they found that a complete Naval Air Station had been constructed by the U.S. That attack plan was cancelled. The shoal was now an important emergency stopover and navigational point for aircraft flying between Hawaii and Midway. Tern Island had been enlarged from the size of a tennis court to an airfield bearing the resemblance of an aircraft carrier flight deck, 3300 feet long and 400 feet wide. Eventually, the Coast Guard would take over the site and operate a low frequency radiobeacon and a double-pulsed Loran A station until the phase-out of Loran A. The station also served as a monitor station for the Central Pacific Loran C chain which had transmitter sites at Kure, Johnston, and Hawaii Islands. When Loran A was shut down, LORMONSTA Honolulu assumed the Loran C monitoring functions and the Coast Guard left French Frigate.

The Role of French Frigate Shoals during the early days of Space Flight. During the period of 1961-1963 the Pacific Missile Range (PMR) had a portable tracking station located at one end of Tern Island. Mr. Bill Wood was with Bendix Radio and assisted in operation of the tracking equipment. The information in this segment comes from his e-mail.

PMR had between 6 and 10 people aboard Tern during that very busy time, including a including a Navy CPO who had managed the Pearl Harbor Officer's Mess prior to retirement. The Coast Guard wisely let him run the mess deck for a year or so. The coasties were very sad to see him leave in 1963.

PMR tracked not only the USAF Discoverer spacecraft but also the Soviet Union's space efforts, including their first manned mission. The PMR lived in the arctic quonset hut located about halfway down the runway on Tern Island then, later, during the Starfish atomic tests, two house trailers were manufactured and shipped to the island. After PMR left, the trailers were moved to a location between the barracks and the signal/power building and became housing for the E-6 and above and the Commanding Officer.

After PMR left Tern Island, tracking was conducted on specially outfitted ships such as the USNS Longview on which Mr. Wood was assigned from 1963-1966. USAF helicopters assigned to these ships would occasionally pay a visit to French Frigate Shoals if they were within easy range. (The photo above was taken on one such visit. J.Lentz)

On another occasion, a Navy pilot had to eject from his aircraft and one of the USAF helos picked him up and brought him to Tern Island. A Navy S-2 from Barbers Point flew out to pick him up. I (J. Lentz) was on duty at the time and although I had my camera loaded and handy, ffsxfer1.jpg was the best view I could get of the transfer from my workplace.

These next photos were provided by Mr. Wood who provides an interesting story behind the black marks at the end of the runway visible in several of them. tern1lr.jpg (170K) shows the entire length of Tern Island in vivid detail and was left as a large file to preserve the detail. The PMR site is at the bottom of the photo. terni2lr.jpg (97K) was also left large and uncropped in order to show the beauty of the shoal waters in the central lagoon. skidmark.jpg shows the PMR site. The story behind the skidmarks is now told on the French Frigate Shoals Aviation & Space History page.

The Military and the natural Marine Life. This paragraph represents my own personal views and does not reflect any official views of the U S Navy or U S Coast Guard. French Frigate Shoals is a natural marine environment for a number of species of birds and sea life. Many of the natural inhabitants of the shoal do not do well in the presence of man, particularly the Hawaiian Monk Seal. Seals covered the beaches on the uninhabited islands of the shoal but they were very rare on Tern Island. The presence of 20 humans and 3 seal-chasing German Shepherds took care of that. But were we really depriving the animals of their rightful home? To put things in a more realistic perspective, the Navy built that island out of bottom dredgings and they were the original inhabitants from the day of its creation. The Navy represented the "Indians" and the encroaching turtles, birds, and seals were the "settlers" coming into Indian territory in their covered wagons. So there were surely many casualties. But in the long run, the humans gave much more than they took. The military greatly enlarged the nesting areas available in the shoal and it is my opinion that this additional area far outweighed the number of wildlife casualties. Now that the military is off the island, seals have become abundant on Tern Island's man-made mile of beachfront. This is as it should be. They put up with us for years and in payment, they get to have the new island! It should be mentioned that while the Coast Guard was on the island, all of us who were stationed there were told repeatedly that we were on a Wildlife Refuge and that ALL species were protected.

The Sharks. While I was there, the local information was that the sharks that could occasionally be seen were Sand Sharks that fed off the bottom and were not a particular threat to humans. Information I have found on the internet does not mention Sand Sharks but does say that the area is the territory of the man-eating Tiger Shark. Wish we had known that! We went swimming just a couple of dozen yards from where another sailor would have a baited shark hook in the water. We caught a couple of sharks off the northwest corner of the island during the year but I don't recall ever actually seeing any swimming around Tern Island or seeing a fin break the surface. However, I saw a sight on one of our boat trips that I will never forget!

One day, a group of us got together in one of the 16-foot boats and headed over to Whale Island. It had been a couple of months since our last boat trip and we needed a change of scenery. As we approached Whale Island, we could see something in the water surrounding the island - in fact, a LOT of somethings. As we drew closer we could see that all these black specks were sharks, hundreds of them. At 100 yards off the beach, the water was about 8 feet deep and we were right on the edge of the school of sharks. One swam beneath our boat and it was easily more than half the length of our boat - over 8 feet. We retreated and began to circle around to the windward side of the island looking for a clear path to the beach. Every route in from where we were would have taken us directly over the top of about 20 sharks. As we began to get a view down the other side, we could see that the island was completely encircled. We could see hundreds of seals up on the beach but it appeared that for every seal on the beach, there was a shark in the water. We cancelled our plans to make a landing and returned to Tern Island. The Hawaiian Monk Seal population probably got hammered that day, perhaps losing a hundred or more to the sharks as hunger overcame the danger and they began to enter the water.

The Birds. The uninhabited islands were home to thousands of nesting sea birds, including the famous Frigate Bird. We didn't pay them much attention and couldn't tell one from another as they flew around the island except for the Frigate Bird with its pterodactyl-like wing shape. I got there in August and there was not a Gooney to be found. A couple of months later, they arrived in swarms. We were entertained for hours with their mating rituals and the associated dancing and unusual cooing sounds. We would watch them fly ever so gracefully with their wingtips sometimes just barely grazing the water and leaving a faint ripple. I watched one crash into the beach. He slid halfway up the beach on his belly, got his feet down and started running to maintain his momentum, and when he got to the crest of the beach, he was airborne again. Another one caught the tip of a 35-foot fiberglass antenna with his wing root. It spun him around and he found himself with his back to the antenna and his beak pointed at the ground. He slid down the entire length of the antenna, shook himself off, and decided to walk the rest of the way.

Fairy Terns photo by Billy Gardner, courtesy of Linda Campbell.

A bird that stayed on the island year round was the Fairy Tern. These were beautiful snow white birds and were about the size of a robin. Whenever a hiker would start around the island, several of these birds would tag along (as seen above) and hover downwind and just out of reach. Never could figure out the reason for this unusual behavior. During a walk around the island, one or two more may join the group and one or two may leave but they were always there. Occasionally, one of these docile birds would get trapped inside the barracks, usually in the mess hall and usually at night. They would stay out of reach until they realized they could not find their way out then it seemed that they "allowed" themselves to be captured. They would come down to within reach, allow one of us to approach and when we made contact with one hand underneath and one hand on top, they would immediately tuck in their wings and wait patiently until we carried them outdoors. No struggle, no panic!

The traditional Gooney Bird (Laysan Albatross) was the only one that nested in the scrub brush around Tern Island but with their arrival came another variety, the black-footed albatross. It was chocolate brown and except for color, seemed to behave just like the black and white albatross. Of all the albatross, about 1 in 30 was this black albatross. As summer approached, all the adults left and the babies rapidly became full grown and shed their baby down. A certain percentage were sickly or deformed and they expired over a period of time. Spring time was generally wet and windy and when the wind would pick up, you could see hundreds of sets of gooney bird wings flapping in the breeze as the chicks responded to their natural instincts to test their wings and the wind. One by one, they taught themselves how to fly and by the time July came around and I was preparing to leave, the island was again devoid of Gooneys. I only saw one bird struck by an aircraft. A gooney flew over a departing HU16E and caught the very edge of the propellor arc. The aircraft was undamaged and I doubt the pilot even knew it happened but the Gooney shot straight up in the air and fell limp to the runway behind the aircraft.

The Trees and Insects. The photographs show a clump of trees by the barracks. These were believed to be Ironwood trees, transplanted at the time the island was constructed.
Insects were scarce but what was there was distinctive. We had ants! Sometimes lots of them! ANYTHING left laying about, if it was edible, would soon be found by the ants. I never saw an anthill or knew where they came from but they were there. And we had occasional flies, not just regular house flies but what we called "rubber flies". In appearance, they looked like regular house flies. Their rubbery bodies were well suited to camping out in the feathers of Gooney birds. Ordinary fly swats were useless against them. If you didn't physically crush them, they would get up and fly away!

Cement Blocks and Shifting Sands. When I first arrived, it was summertime and there was a wide sandy beach by the boat house and recreation hall. One of the crew who was nearing the end of his year told me of giant cement blocks beneath the sandy beach. My reaction was something like, "Yeah, right." Then winter came and things changed. The beach by the boat house began to recede drastically and the blocks appeared. At the same time the water at the opposite end of the island, off the northeast end of the runway next to the seawall, became very shallow, shallow enough to wade around that end of the island. As summer returned, it became very deep next to the northeast seawall and the beach by the boat house (at the southwest corner of the island) filled in again, covering the cement blocks.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal. Monk seals were abundant on the other islands in the shoal area. They were scarce on Tern Island, mainly because of the three German Shepherds. I was unable to photograph a Monk seal at rest because usually when I walked the island the dogs would tag along and when they went after a seal, there was no stopping them. They were attacking seals long before I got there and they continued long after I left. The only photos I have are the dogs attacking a seal and one of a dead seal that washed up on the beach when I happened to be hiking alone (no dogs). The big male, Ferd, had a permanent limp in one back leg. The story was that he had followed a seal into deep water and the seal turned the tables on him. In the attacks I witnessed, the seal always managed to get back into the water and the dogs would not follow beyond water's edge.

The Green Sea Turtles. Turtles could occasionally be found on the beaches of Tern Island. The ones we found were apparently basking rather than laying eggs. Information I have found on the internet indicates that they only lay eggs at night. The nighttime eruption of turtles is something we witnessed from time to time. Since we were kind of dumb about turtles and lights, we never made any attempt to hide our lights. Consequently, we would occasionally find ourselves in the midst of a swarm of baby turtles. We would gather them up in boxes, buckets, or whatever we could find and carry them to the beach. In the one photo I have of a turtle, I am standing in front of the turtle to provide a size reference for the photographers in our crew. At no time was the turtle physically contacted.

Spotted Eagle Rays. We occasionally spotted one or more rays cruising slowly along the north shore of Tern Island. These creatures were huge, some appearing to have a wingspan approaching 10 feet. Follow the link below to Patrick Ching's beautiful representation of these rays. I could probably pick the exact spot from where he witnessed that scene. The largest group I saw at one time was three and they would frequently break the water with a wingtip as shown in Mr Ching's painting.

The Weather. You couldn't ask for better weather anywhere. My duties included keeping the weather records and we had a maximum/minimun thermometer, wet and dry bulb thermometers, a rain gauge, a barograph, a genuine mercury barometer and an anemometer. The coolest night in a year's time was a low of 53 degrees and the warmest day reached 88. The trade winds would sap the heat from your body. With the temperature in the mid 70s late in the afternoon and a steady 20 mph wind, you wore a heavy windbreaker when you walked the island or you suffered.

The clear air and lack of light pollution gave night skies like you would only see from a ship. I saw more meteors there than I have anywhere else.

Winter storms seemed to be more of a threat than hurricanes, the same as the main Hawaiian Islands. One night a strong storm passed north of us and heavy surf came over the barrier reef and swept our garbage dump across the runway. In several locations, a small amount of water was swept halfway across the runway. Two and a half years after I left, the island was swept by another similar but much stronger storm. A helicopter from a New Zealand frigate rescued the Coast Guardsmen from the roof of the transmitter building during the height of the storm. The island was awash and much equipment and crew's personal belongings were damaged or destroyed. The runway was rendered unusable with the debris.

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Here are some links I've found on the internet that give mention to French Frigate Shoals, either from WW2 history or environmental concerns.

Photo Gallery

    From the top of the 125' Loran A transmitting tower. (Some of these photos required leaning back on the safety belt and twisting my upper torso 180 degrees for the shot. Photos taken from this tower and the one below were taken during routine maintenance to replace burned out aircraft warning lights.)
  • Looking northeast.
  • Looking straight down.
  • Looking southwest. A sharp eye can just make out Shark Island just below the horizon, left of center.
  • Looking at the boat channel.
  • Looking at the roof of the transmitter building.

    From the top of the 65' Loran A receiving antenna. (This structure required both a short and a long safety strap to safely get past the crossarms, guy wire connections and braces. 8 hours from the nearest hospital, you take NO chances. This antenna pole is directly behind the USAF helo in photo above.)
  • Looking down.
  • Looking at the boat channel.
  • Looking west.
  • Looking northeast.
  • Looking northnortheast.
  • Looking east towards Whale and Trig islands.
  • Looking north and down at the barracks.
  • Looking westsouthwest over the diesel tanks.
    These photos taken in the morning following a late night winter storm that pushed sea water and our garbage dump halfway across the island. The seas have subsided somewhat inside the lagoon but heavy surf can still be seen breaking on the fringing reef. Mother Nature was merely marking her spot at this time. Three years after these photos were taken, a similar but much more powerful winter storm sent water nearly 3 feet deep across this same path, completely across the island, forcing the evacuation of the crew by helicopter.
  • Dump 1
  • Dump 2
  • Dump 3
  • Sea water near the transmitter building.

    This group of photos was sent in by Ken Rice. This is East Island in 1949-1950. He writes:
    In 1949 I was a Coast Guardsman stationed on a Loran station on a small island that was about the size of a football field There were twelve of us there at the time. There were 2 dogs there, Grumpy and Blackie. Later when I was a civilian again I heard the men had to evacuate the Island on account of a very bad storm and the dog's got swept overboard. Does anyone know anything about this? At the time I was Seaman first class Kenneth Rice and I was 20 or 21 years old. I think there were 4 Quonset huts, 2 for the crew and skipper, one was the mess hall and the other one was for generating electricity and making fresh water out of salt water. That took up about a third of the island. The rest was primitive, just gooney birds and tern birds etc.

    scan34.jpg The station's quonset huts.
    scan35.jpg Albatross chicks.
    scan36.jpg "Grumpy" - lounging
    scan37.jpg 2 crewmen with what appears to be a Frigate Bird
    scan39.jpg "Grumpy"
    scan40.jpg "Blacky"

    This group of flood photos was sent in by Jerry Morales. (added 01-09-2001) (links repaired 05-28-2002)
    flood4.jpg View from signal/power building.
    flood3.jpg The paint locker being swept over.
    flood2.jpg Looking for the next wave. The water rose to within a few feet of the roof at its highest point.
    flood1.jpg In the beginning - Joe Tirado and petty officer Marsh (the cook) with different reactions to the incoming sea.
    Jerry also included these FFS Christmas photos from 1969.
    ffsxmas.jpg ffsxmas2.jpg

    In this group of photos by Howard Schadt, many of them were taken during the tempest. You will see the rescue helicopter from a New Zealand destroyer, the crew on the rooftop, water surging across the island and one of the berthing trailers sitting cockeyed after part of its support was swept away. (added 07-28-2000)

    Post-storm photos taken by Matt Bezayiff as construction was being completed on the new buildings.

  • FFS1A.JPG - Front of the barracks.
  • FFS2A.JPG - New station sign. Looks like the barracks are elevated slightly to allow overwash to run underneath.
  • FFS3A.JPG - The appearance of this stretch of beach has changed dramatically since I was there - probably a result of the winter storm of 1969.
  • FFS30A.JPG - An FAA DC3 on deck at French Frigate Shoals.
  • FFS4A.JPG - This direction sign gives some idea of how isolated this place is.
  • FFS5A.JPG - Looking down the runway from the windward end.
  • FFS6A.JPG - Looking towards the new barracks from the North side of the island.
  • FFS7A.JPG - The signal/power building and the Loran A transmitting tower.

    more coming.

Home of the French Frigate Shoals web pages. Webmaster in proper uniform for warm computer room.
Tee-shirt courtesy of Ursula Keuper-Bennett of the Turtle Trax web site.

If you have not already done so, please take a moment to Sign the Guest Book on the French Frigate Shoals Today web page.

Sources. The information presented on this page comes from numerous internet sources, personal recollections and personal memories of the Coast Guard lore on the island.
Corrections and additional information are always welcome!
The French Frigate Shoals Today page contains September 1997 photos taken by Mr. Allen Tucholski during a 10-day stay on Tern Island.

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This page was created in 1995. Last update July 23, 2015

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