Shelling of Johnston and Palmyra

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Shelling of Johnston and Palmyra Atoll
Part of the Pacific Theater of World War II
Date December 12 to 24, 1941
Location Johnston and Palmyra Atoll, Pacific Ocean


  • Minor damage to U.S. installations, both islands heavily strengthened
 United States Empire of Japan Empire of Japan
Commanders and leaders
United States Francis Loomis Unknown
Units involved
1st Marine Defense Battalion
Various U.S. Navy forces
Civilian contractors
Marine 5-inch coastal guns Multiple submarines
Possible surface vessels
Casualties and losses
1 Marine wounded
Damaged military installations
Possible damage to Japanese ships

Johnston and Palmyra are two American controlled atolls located in the Pacific Ocean. Johnston had been claimed for the US in 1858, Palmyra in 1859; both under the Guano Islands act. Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese navy forces attacked Allied possessions across the Pacific, including Johnston and Palmyra.


Both islands had been obtained through the Guano Islands Act of 1856, although Palmyra was void of Guano. The lack of guano caused Palmyra to pass through the ownership of many different groups throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Johnston and Palmyra were placed under US Navy control in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt. Both islands were garrisoned and Johnston served as a refueling station for passing US Navy ships. Although an airfield was under construction on Johnston, the only aircraft present on the island were Navy PBY patrol planes, usually anchored offshore.

Johnston became noticeable to the Japanese command because of its location. Although it was too close to Hawaii to be amphibiously assaulted, it was near the major Japanese air base in the Marshall Islands. The executive officer of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, Major Francis B. Loomis, had arrived on Johnston on December 7, 1941. He had been returning by air from an inspection of the American outposts in the Pacific when Pearl Harbor had been attacked. He then took control of the island's garrison.

Following news of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the civilian contractors already present on Johnston began to building more emplacements for the Marines' guns and positions. Six US Navy ships were also on Johnston, practicing their use of the Higgins Boat on Johnston's shore. For the next few days, there was very little activity around both islands.

The attacks

The first attack on the islands came on December 12, 1941. A Japanese submarine, 8,000 yards offshore, broke the surface and fired star shells clusters over Johnston. The Marine 5-inch guns tried to find the enemy submarine with its own star shell clusters, scaring the submarine off.

Another attack came on the night of 15th. The US Navy supply ship, Burrows, had arrived at dusk to drop off supplies meant for the Marines stranded on Wake, and to retrieve some civilian contractors to return to Pearl Harbor. The Navy ship and the Marines on Johnston spotted a flash at sea. The first enemy shells hit Johnston and its powerhouse, setting off a large fire that engulfed the building. The Marines and Japanese returned fire for ten minutes before the Japanese ceased fire.

The final attacks came on the nights of December 21 and 22. The December 21 shelling was almost a repeat of the attack on December 12. The final attack came on the 22nd. A Japanese submarine fired a star shell cluster and six shells at Johnston, knocking down a homing tower, and wounding a Marine. The Marines dueled with the Japanese submarine, and forced it to submerge.

The sole attack on Palmyra (located 900 miles southeast of Johnston) came near dawn on December 24, 1941. A Japanese submarine fired on Palmyra and the US Navy dredge, Sacramento, which sat in the atoll's lagoon. The Japanese shells did minor damage to the ship before it was driven back under by Marine 5-inch coastal guns.


File:James M Masters Sr - a Major on Johnston Island 1942.jpg
Maj. James Masters, USMC on Johnston, 1942

Following the Japanese naval attacks on Johnston and Palmyra, both were heavily reinforced. Johnston was given more heavy guns, machine guns, and an infantry company. Similar precautions were taken with Palmyra. Although they were isolated, the Marine, Navy, and civilian garrisons became the front line of Pearl Harbor's defense while it recuperated. Both islands continued to be garrisoned by Marines throughout the war.



  • Hammel, Eric (2005). Pacific Warriors: The US Marines in World War II: A Pictorial Tribute. 400 First Avenue North, Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press. ISBN 978-0-7603-2097-6.CS1 maint: location (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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