Lost and Forgotten United States Navy Heroes

About sixteen miles to the east, Wilkes had seen a beautiful islet that he judged to be far enough from Malolo that they might bury (Lieutenant) Underwood and (Midshipman) Henry “… with out exhumation …it was a lovely spot”. Wilkes wrote “In a shade so dense that scarce a ray of sun could penetrate it”. The grave had been dug deep into the white sand which was soon stained red with blood. (Prilbrick,N. 2003)

“War was now declared against the Island (Emmons, G. Lt. USN. 25th July, 1840)

Wars can be peculiar; some are famous but many remain insignificant, forgotten or unknown. The Oxford Dictionary defines wars as hostility between nations and between “persons”, formally declared or otherwise and regardless of dimension. Americans know of the battles of Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge and foreign encounters such as Trafalgar, Waterloo, and Stalingrad. One confrontation virtually of which all Americans know nothing of is a four-day war on the South Pacific island of Malolo in the Fiji Islands, 24th – 27th July 1840. This skirmish represents the first conflict of any United States service in the South Pacific resulting in the deaths of Lieutenant Joseph Underwood USN and Midshipman Wilkes Henry USN.

During that period, “The Feejees” or “Cannibal Islands” as they were then termed were well known for dangerous reefs and aggressive inhabitants. It was a precarious place for foreign visitors and had only recently had contact with Europeans in the form of missionaries, sandalwood and beche dê mer traders and passing whalers. In 1789 Lt. William Bligh of the Royal Navy with his loyal crew, who had been set adrift in a small cutter following the mutiny on HMS Bounty, elected not land in the Fiji’s despite badly needing water and food. Their over-crowded boat had been attacked by a number of bola, or war canoes, just a few score miles north of Malolo Island. By brilliant tacking against the wind through straits now known as “Bligh Water”, the launch managed to out-manoeuvre the canoes and sailed on to Timor. The passage of the Bounty’s launch, depth sounding as it sailed, represented the first significant European navigation of this major South Pacific island group.

The 1840 incident on Malolo Island occurred when the United States Navy Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), under the command of Commodore Charles Wilkes, was surveying the western islands of Fiji. On the morning of the 24th July, Underwood and a sailor named Clark landed on Malolo scouting for fresh water and food. They soon meet a group of islanders and, with the help of a New Zealand interpreter, learned that four hogs were available on the southern side of the island. The leader Underwood took a chief’s son as hostage and sailed off in a cutter to collect the pigs. He was joined by a young midshipman Wilkes Henry, the elder son of Wilkes’s windowed sister, and seven sailors. Although warned to take muskets, Underwood was of the opinion the threat from the Fijians was overstated and said “… the best way to gain their confidence was to trust and show that you did not fear them”. He took only three muskets instead of the ten issued.

On the cutter’s arrival at the village there was disagreement over the value of the pigs, their size and a delay by the chief to conclude the transaction. The Fijian hostage escaped which resulted in a warning bullet being fired over his head. Thinking that his son was being killed the chief ordered his warriors, armed with war clubs, to attack the foreign sailors. Lt. George Emmons, writing in his log, was of the opinion the escape of the hostage was the signal for over a 100 warriors to ambush Underwood’s party as they were heavily armed and waiting hidden in the mangroves. In the subsequent mêlée, Underwood and Wilkes were both killed heroically covering the retreat of the sailors to the cutter. Only one unnamed sailor and Clark stood by their officers. Single-handed Clark charged the warriors, and after killing at least one, he was clubbed to the ground. Clarke rose, badly wounded, to his feet “… finding reserves of energy he didn’t know he possessed” and stumbled to the dying Underwood. He was again attacked and suffered serious wounds to his face and fell unconscious in the sand. .

Emmons on the USS Fying Fish, observing what was happening headed for the beach with another officer, Lt. Alden. They found the beach now abandoned excepted for the two near-naked bodies of the American officers; both had been stripped. They were shocked to find a white man staggering out of the scrub with “… his face a horrible mess of mangled flesh”; it was Clark. Having no recollection of his actions after been clubbed, Clark had eventually recovered, got up and wandered through the warriors laughing and singing. The Fijians made no further attempt to harm this “… gruesome apparition”.

After recovering the two bodies, the American ships sailed to a small uninhabited island named Kadavulailai about 16 miles from Malolo. It was there on the next day, 25th July, 20 sailors of the USN carried the two young men wrapped in the American flag to a secluded part of the islet. In a grove of banyan trees the expedition’s artist, Alfred Agate, read the funeral service. After the sailors fired three volleys of musket shot over the grave as a final salute to the two deceased “… a flock of birds took wing overhead”.

The journal of Emmons recorded “War was now declared against the Island”. On the 26th, Wilkes ordered a reprisal attack on the island. Over 100 sailors landed on Malolo and attacked two villages. After killing about 80 Fijian men and at least one female they then torched the villages. Although Wilkes ordered that women and children be spared, women were seen firing “arrows” at the sailors. The only USN casualty was a sailor wounded in the leg by one of the missiles. On the following day, 27th July, the Fijians offered their regrets to Wilkes for the misunderstanding and offered two girls, food and water as retribution.

After the “Malolo War” the expedition continued surveying the Fiji islands for another three weeks then sailed for Manua Loa in the Hawaiian Islands. Charts made by the Wilkes Expedition were still in use during the Second World War, 102 years later. Following four years mapping the Pacific Ocean and naming the Antarctica, the Expedition returned home to a frosty reception and the court martial of Commodore Wilkes. There had been discontent within the Expedition and Wilkes’s character was summed up as “lubberly obstinacy”.

A decade latter Charles Wilkes became a national hero of the American Civil War when he extradited two Confederate agents from the British vessel Trent. Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Sea of Glory and In the Heart of the Sea, wrote that the United States Navy Exploring Expedition was a voyage of discovery that “… dwarfed the journey of Lewis and Clark”. Furthermore, the Expedition conducted ground breaking scientific research and accumulated scientific and ethnological specimens that would become the foundation of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.


Clark, George W. Journal. Unpublished records relating to The U.S. Exploring Expedition (Mircocopy 75) Roll 25 National Archives, Washington.

Emmons, G. F. Journal. Unpublished records 3 vols. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare and Manuscript Library.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discover: The U.S. Exploring Expedition. Penguin Books, New York. 2003.



a) To identify and rehabilitate the two USN graves on Kadavulailai. These two officers have been bye-past by history. They should be recognized to the same public awareness as those interred at Normandy, Saipan or Okinawa. Furthermore they should be remembered as the first US military servicemen to die for their country in the South Pacific pre-dating Guadalcanal by hundred and two years.

b) Subject to consultation with the people of Malolo, erect a memorial obelisk to all those that died in 1840 four-day war.