My numerous forebears, it seems, were predestined to roam far from their birthplace. Great Grandmother Geraldine I always thought was the most adventurous finding her way from Sussex to Fiji by the most indirect route. Her arrival in Levuka is still clouded in mystery.
But then I uncovered the life and times of her nephew, Frank Fleming, an unusual young lad of his time, who defied convention and chased his dream to the ends of the earth.
If Geraldine’s daughter Maggie knew anything at all about her mother’s 16 brothers and sisters, was aware for instance that the youngest, Constance Fleming had died in London leaving seven children, the youngest a babe in arms, to find shelter in orphanages, then she never passed any of that knowledge onto her own children or grandchildren . Namely to me.
Which makes what happened much, much later all the more curious.
In Suva the young Frank Fleming appears to have been taken under the wing of his elder cousins, they may even have ensured he received an adequate education. He has a natural bent for the newfangled radio communication, a new science that is taking the world by storm. By the time he is 27 years of age, World War 1 has erupted, Frank returns to England, enlists in the air force, crashes his aircraft in France, meets his brothers wife and without a great deal of fuss their fate is sealed.
The couple return to Suva where Frank takes up a position as an electrical engineer with the Fiji Postal and Communications Service. The next we hear he is in the Phoenix Islands where he holds the position of Deputy Commissioner.
By the mid to late 1930’s however Frank is working for the British Government establishing and manning a radio base and weather station on remote Canton Island, a tiny, desolate and uninhabited sand cay in the middle of the Pacific.
It is also the general area where it is suspected Amelia Earhart’s aircraft made its forced landing in 1937.
Prior to 1936 the island had been considered a British dominion but with no strategic value. By 1937 however world events had begun to show Canton in a new light. The tiny sand cay had morphed into a handy listening post and a useful midway point between Honolulu and New Zealand.
Britain quickly established residency with a modest base of shacks manned by a two man team of radio operators one of which was Frank Fleming.
Almost in a case of ‘tit for tat’ America then landed four Chamorro or Hawaiian natives onto the island supposedly as settlers.
FRANKS FIRST SIGHTING ON CANTON
In 1938, which coincidently is the year I was born, the Americans sought to establish a more permanent base on Canton Island. At that stage the island was still little more than a sandy cay though no doubt the English operatives were already well established in their radio shacks.
The Americans put their Chamorro boys to work building the Canton Island Light House, one of several that had already popped up on other islands in the Phoenix group. However a photograph is taken on July 27, 1938 by an unknown photographer recording the dedication of the Light on Canton.
The uniformed officials at the ceremony are naturally enough Americans, however Frank Fleming is seen at the centre of the group, he is the balding man standing immediately under the word Canton. To the far right of the photograph is a young Chamorro man wearing a cap. He will be identified later by the Flemings, and referred to by Noel Coward as one of the ‘Chamorro boys’.
It will also be claimed by some residents in Fiji at the time but not substantiated, that one of the young Chamorro men was considered by many Fijians of the day to be a spy working for the Japanese during World War 2.
There is one lady in the photo, she is unnamed, and I really wonder if she might be Lucy Fleming. Wearing not the simple cotton frocks we later see her favouring, but slacks more in tune with visiting the island on a naval ship.
Perhaps visiting with her husband in his official capacity... maybe as a ‘see if you like it and could live there a while’ exercise.
There is a great deal of discussion between the two Governments, Great Britain and the United States, regarding ownership. Finally a truce of sorts is called with the British maintaining their radio and weather base in crude jerry built housing, while the Americans establish beside them, a Pan Am flying base complete with a luxury hotel, and of course their own radio system.
On the island the two groups co-exist and are friendly, in the high echelons of politics however relations are guarded and frosty.
A house built of packing cases, as a NZ reporter describes the small dwelling, is eventually built beside the crude shacks and by 1940 Lucy joins Frank on the island where he has spent the past year alone with only a Gilbert Islander and his family as helpers.
Supplies and equipment are transported from Fiji by navy boats and passing ships. By this time there is a great deal of low key spying and counter spying going on with tabs being kept on Japanese movements in the Pacific.
EARHART & COWARD
In the years between 1937 and 1941 two people had a fleeting but unexpected influence on the Flemings lives. The first person they would never meet, but the second would become a life long friend. These two people were American aviatrix Amelia Earhart and actor playwright Noel Coward.
By coincidence Frank was earlier in the general vicinity where it was thought the American pilot disappeared though his name wouldn’t be associated with Earhart until 2003. Nevertheless, following her plane crash and disappearance, and influenced by Japan’s increased interest in the Pacific region the United States establishes a flying boat base on Canton Island.
Pan Am used the base as a half way point between New Zealand and Hawaii, building a luxury hotel for staff and passengers should aircraft need to make emergency landings. The dual use of the island continued until the start of the war, with the Americans ostensibly running a commercial venture on one part of the island, and the British maintaining their own radio communications system on another. It worked very well, even though the British sent much of their communiqués in code.
Noel Coward, the actor and playwright, was a man of many faces. An accomplished writer, actor, performer and unofficial British envoy, he was also a delightful house guest: On a trip from Australia to Hawaii just before war in the Pacific was declared, he stayed for a month between flights at the Pan Am hotel on Canton Island. During this visit Noel established a rapport with Lucy and Frank, beginning a friendship that would endure until Frank’s death in 1968.
Noel Coward later wrote in his book ‘Future Indefinite’...
The official British residents were a Mr and Mrs Fleming. Frank Fleming had built the house, aided by some Chamorro boys virtually with his own hands. He ran the radio office, raised the Union Jack solemnly every morning and lowered it every night. They were two very nice people. I called on them after dinner and had drinks with them. Typically English in the best possible sense, simple, unpretentious and getting on with the job.
They came here alone, before Pan American, from Fiji. He built the house they live in and she joined him later. They have relatives in London and Sussex and suffer occasionally from bad bouts of homesickness coupled with a certain irritation at the Americans who have so much luxury.’
Coward and Lucy may even have shared mutual friends. Bernard, her husband, Frank’s brother, had been a variety artist and stage manager for one of London’s major theatres at a time when Coward himself would have been an aspiring young actor.
Lucy and Frank continued with their life on Canton. From time to time journalists would stop off from their Pan Am flight to interview and report on the English couple, their rather bleak existence in comparison with the riches of the American resort.
During all that time Frank was maintaining radio contact with his superiors from the British radio shack, the Americans were doing the same on their equipment only a short distance away.
Events in the outside world were however quickly overtaking them. The Pacific would soon be turned into a major battle field. For the Fleming's the writing was on the wall and in 1942 Lucy returned to Suva.
Sick and exhausted the 55 year old Frank followed a few months later. But before he left he had one last run in with the Americans running their base at the opposite end of the island.
On 16 May 1942 Frank Fleming contacted Sir Harry Luke, High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, by way of the nearby US radio station to report that the US Army had taken possession of all transmitters on Canton Island, and that the Americans were willing to transmit messages from him, but subject to their censorship.
On 1 June the British Foreign Office sent a message to Washington complaining about the shutdown of their radios, and the next day Admiral Nimitz, who was the CinC of the US Pacific Fleet, but who had also just been appointed as the overall Allied CinC of the Pacific Area, wrote a long, polite but firm reply saying ‘all communications on outlying islands must be brought, as rapidly as possible, under strict military control’.
Britain could not argue against such common sense, although the government did ask its lawyers whether this could affect the wider argument about sovereignty.
Oddly enough Nimitz was forced to land on Canton in September due to engine problems, but by then Frank, the whistleblower of the whole incident, had left.
Frank would spend the remainder of the war as an official wartime Censor in Suva.
At the very same time, thousands of miles away in Australia, four year old me was experiencing Sydney at war, wide eyed to see the men in my life wearing army uniform.
How could I know then that events, started just a few years earlier in a little island in the middle of the Pacific called Canton, would sixty years later reduce a grown up me to tears.
Next – AN UNLIKELY TREASURE AT THE END OF A RAINBOW.
Robyn Mortimer ©2012