Canton Island - From WXLF to the Hermit Crab Network
By David Ricquish
The Phoenix Group of Islands
'The eight islands of the Phoenix Group, like most of the Line
Islands, were uninhabited and regarded as of little commercial value
until about 1930.
International signpost, Canton Island. 1954. Photo Howell Walker
© National Geographic Society.
(Radio Heritage Foundation Collection)
Then the development of trans-Pacific aviation made them suddenly
desirable in the eyes of the nations and both Britain and the United
States advanced strong claims to them.
Canton and Enderbury Islands, considered valuable as aviation
stations, eventually became an Anglo-American condominium, and three
of the other six Phoenix Islands were colonised by Britain with
surplus population from the Gilbert Islands.
Canton Island, being at a point almost halfway between Honolulu and
Noumea (3350 miles) was selected by Pan American Airways for their
great flying boats soon after they decided to establish their
Their regular service, Honolulu-Canton Island-Fiji-Auckland or
Sydney was re-established after World War II with landplanes.'
An introductory description from the Pacific Islands
Year Book 1956, Seventh Edition. From the Radio Heritage Foundation
Shortwave Broadcasts of 1937
According to 'The National Geographic Magazine' of January 1955, in
June 1937, a combined National Geographic Society and US Navy Eclipse
Expedition visited the island.
William J Evans, Mrs Evans (L) and Mrs James E Brundell (wife of
British Resident Administrator) at marker erected by 1937 solar
eclipse expedition. 1954. Photo Howell Walker © National Geographic
(Radio Heritage Foundation Collection)
The magazine continues 'A radio network's transmitter beamed an
on-the-spot description of the solar show to the United States'.
The Pacific Islands Year Book 1956 notes that both 'American and
British (New Zealand) scientific parties landed on Canton Island in June
1937 to observe a solar eclipse' and were accompanied by HMS
These appear to be the first entertainment broadcasts from Canton Island,
which was originally annexed in 1889 when the British were seeking
sites for suitable cable telegraph stations.
WXLF Pacific Ocean Network
The Pan American Airways terminal and facilities on Canton Island
passed into US Navy control in December 1941.
In November 1944, a low power outlet of the US Navy managed Pacific
Ocean Network was established as part of the global AFRS system. WXLF broadcast on a frequency of 950kc in the medium wave band. Edwin E Calhoun takes up the story.
WXLF studios, part of CG Unit 94, Canton Island. 1945
'I was a USCG (United States Coastguard) radio operator at a LORAN
station on Canton Island from December 3 1945 to June 1946. Our
official naval callsign was NSN.
I operated a 5 watt radio station with the callsign of WXLF, and
played music and news at night while on duty.
I would copy the CW news from world news stations, post it on a
bulletin board mornings, and use it for news to broadcast.
You could hear the station thru out the small compound of six
Quonset huts in about a 1000 square feet area.
If my memory is correct, the transmitter was a frequency calibrator
connected to a record player, and produced an estmiated five watts.
We received, with every mail delivery, large transcription vinyl
records of the Lucky Strike Hit Parade and 30 minute comedies. I
played these on the station.
The USCG radio transmitter was 250 watts, but only CW ability.
I was an active radio DXer, and was able to listen to radio
stations like WBAP/WFAA Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.
My home town was Corsicana, Texas, 50 miles south of Dallas.
I was also able to hear some amateur radio stations during this
time, and obtained amateur radio licence W5QEB in 1947 and still hold
Edwin Calhoun lives in Arlington, TX.
Correspondence with the author in August 2002
KIBE serves Pan American Airways
After WWII, and the eventual closedown of WXLF Canton, the island returned to its pre-war position as a key refueling station for the Pan American Clipper service from San Francisco to Auckland.
Pan American Airways Clipper advert including Canton Island from
(David Ricquish Collection)
In the early 1950's, the United States Civil Aeronautics Administration and Pan American Airways staff on the island got local entertainment from KIBE, which operated on the off-channel frequency of 1248 kHz with a power of 50 watts according to the 1954 World Radio TV Handbook.
According to the article in 'The National Geographic Magazine' in
January 1955, 'with signs that warn '15 Miles Per Hour', and 'Slow
School Zone' and a local radio station of 'The Hermit Crab Network',
Northside tries earnestly to be a small town.'
This American managed settlement was site of the main runway and
FAA administration HQ.
Says Scott Evans: 'My grandfather, William T. Evans, was the
island administrator for the US side on Canton Island, I believe from
He was a career radioman with the FAA, though I don't know what his
involvement may have been with the radio station.
My father and his brothers relate many wonderful memories of the
place. My aunt was the first caucasian baby born on the island. My
grandfather passed away this year.
Scott Evans, USA.
Correspondence with the author in October 2001.
The Hermit Crab Network
By the early 1960's, the station had changed its callsign to KIBS. It operated as a non-profit, volunteer run station, using equipment supplied by the US Government.
At this time, it served the FAA personnel on the island, which had one of the longest runways in the Pacific. Soon after, the US Mercury Space Program was inaugurated by President Kennedy, and Canton would become a key site for monitoring astronauts and capsules from the American Space missions.
In 1960, KIBS was managed by J V Cox, and technical operations by C J Miesel for the FAA contractors. The station used a 25 watt transmitter on 1510 kHz, with a schedule of 0000-1000 Tue-Sun, and 1900-2400 on Mondays. All programmes were pre-recorded or taped.
ID was given as 'Radio Station KIBS, The Hermit Crab Network, 1510 on your dial, Canton Island.'
The station apparently closed down in early 1961.
KB6CA amateur radio signs on
Jeff Burris tells us 'I was on Canton from 1961 through July 1963, and worked for Bendix Radio. We operated the Pacific Missile Range site for tracking astronauts and capsules of the Mercury Program.
As far as I know, I was the first US ham operator on Canton, callsign KB6CA. I was a communications operator on the site, and one of the technicians, a radio ham, got us a Collins transceiver to run phone patches between the guys on the site and their families.
I got my licence, and whenever I got on air, I'd be bombarded with hams trying to make contact. Our primary purpose was to run phone patches, but I had contact with some of the hams not involved in the patches. It was a lot of fun, but when I left Canton, I never continued with ham radio.
Another ham, KB6CB operated much later'
Kanton in more recent times
Canton Island has since had its spelling changed to Kanton, and in Kiribati, it's also known as Abariringa. The Phoenix Islands have since been renamed Rawaki. There's a local ham radio operator on the island, which has also been the scene of several ham radio DXpeditions.
Swedish 'ham' operator Erik A Sjolund visited Canton in
1982, and again in 1999. He reports that, in 1982, there were a lot
of installations left: aircraft hangers, buildings and high antenna
The 184 ft WXLE AM tower wasn't listed amongst the relics.
Peter McQuarrie now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and accompanied the 1999 Ham DXpedition from Fakaofo, Tokelau where he'd been working as a NZ Telecom technician. In the early 1970's whilst living on Tarawa in what is now Kiribati, he remembers listening to WXLE, which also called itself 'Radio Nowhere'.
The remains of the very large antenna systems that I saw on Kanton (and which had still been standing in 1982 on an earlier DXpedition) were not MF, but two huge rotating log-periodic antennas which had operated in the HF bands. There were a few other antenna systems and parts of systems still standing, but nothing that looked like a tall MF tower, so I guess it has fallen down or been dismantled. I also looked for the remains of the LORAN station, but there was nothing to be seen.
Phoenix Islands Protected Area
The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Kiribati, just five degrees
south of the equator. PIPA is the world’s first large, truly deep water MPA. As a vast expanse of largely
pristine mid-ocean environments, PIPA is truly an oceanic wilderness. Encompassing 408,250 square kilometers
(157,626 square miles) and 11% of Kiribati’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), PIPA represents one of Earth’s
last intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems. The remoteness of the area and the absence of permanent
human settlement provide a unique opportunity for a high standard of habitat protection for species and
ecosystems of global importance to science and conservation, from islands to deep ocean.
Within its boundaries, it includes all eight atoll and low reef islands of the Kiribati section of the
Phoenix Island group: Rawaki, Enderbury, Nikumaroro, McKean, Manra, Birnie, Kanton and Orona. It also includes
two submerged reefs, Carondelet Reef and Winslow Reef, with Carondelet Reef being as little as 3 to 4 meters
underwater at low tide. The coral reefs of the Phoenix Islands are what a reef might have looked like a thousand
years ago before the presence of humankind’s impacts, such as coastal development, pollution, and over fishing.
The Radio Heritage Foundation supports the Phoenix Islands Protected Area and the initiatives of organizations
such as the New England Aquarium to improve our understanding of the area and its importance.
We have been able to contribute in a very small way by licensing material from our collections to help illustrate
their fund raising book ‘Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth’ published in 2013.
By buying this book, you’re contributing to both the Phoenix Islands Protected Area project, an initiative of the
Government of the Republic of Kiribati, and the Radio Heritage Foundation.