Colonel Meng’s Palmyra Copra Enterprise

In 1920, Kauai resident and retired British Army Colonel William Meng secured a five-year lease from Palmyra Atoll owner Henry Cooper of Honolulu to produce copra from the approximately 20,000 coconut trees then growing on the uninhabited atoll.

The Palmyra Copra Company was organized, and on Oct. 21 of that year, Colonel Meng, his wife, Mrs. Idelle Meng, and Edwin Benner of Honolulu sailed from Honolulu aboard the power sampan Sanyo Maru for Palmyra.

Their intention was to stay on Palmyra only for two or three months to investigate the possibilities of commercializing copra, after which the Fanning Island schooner would return them to Hawaii.

However, the schooner did not visit Palmyra as scheduled, having been sent on other courses, and when their limited supplies ran out, they were compelled to eke out an existence by subsisting on crabs, fish and coconuts.

Fortunately, friends in Honolulu, aware that they were cut off, arranged with the U. S. Navy to send the steam collier USS Nero to Palmyra with supplies that were delivered in March 1921.

When USS Nero departed, the trio stayed on to make copra, hopeful that construction of a sampan being built in Honolulu by the Palmyra Copra Company to supply them and ship their copra would soon be completed.

Yet, delays in the sampan’s construction meant that it would not be until early September 1921 that they would once again be supplied — this time from a passing steamship they’d signaled with a thick column of smoke.

A wireless sent by the steamship’s captain resulted in the USS Eagle 40 being dispatched from Honolulu with orders to stop first at Palmyra while on its mapping mission, and when Eagle 40 arrived on Oct. 4, 1921, its officers found the Mengs and Benner attired in rags and garments made of grass and palm leaves.

Mrs. Meng returned to Honolulu aboard Eagle 40, while Colonel Meng and Benner were picked up later in December 1921 by the long-awaited Palmyra Copra Company sampan, which was prevented from loading their copra due to rough seas.


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