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.
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 Honolulu-Auckland service.
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 Collection
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.
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 Wellington.
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.
‘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 that callsign.’
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.
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 1952-1956.
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 towers.
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.