The island of Hikueru, one of the atolls of the Tuamotu archipelago (the same island group that was home to Pahoa a Tahiaroa) is a rocky atoll in French Polynesia – it is a build-up of volcanic rock so shallow that its highest point is only 30 feet above sea level. Most of the island is so low that a deep lagoon fills the interior, leaving only a narrow rim of dry land above water.
In 1903, the island supported a small permanent village consisting of some native huts and frame buildings – including both LDS and RLDS chapels, as well as one Catholic and one Protestant church – and a solid stone government building built on a heavy concrete foundation. By contrast, the Mormon elders’ home was built on a foundation of four-foot-high coral pillars, allowing the occasional high sea to wash underneath the building. There was a thin layer of sandy soil on the island, which had been planted with coconut trees. The only fresh water was rainwater, which was caught in barrels and which seeped into shallow cisterns dug into the sand.
In January, 1903, the small local population had swelled to about 1300 people, with an influx of natives from other nearby (well, “nearby” was a relative term – some had come from hundreds of miles over open seas) islands, to harvest and dry coconuts and to engage in pearl diving. The interior lagoon of Hikueru was one of the few places in the world where valuable black pearls were frequently found.
Among the visiting pearl divers and their families were some 500 Latter-day Saints, working cooperatively for their joint financial benefit. The Tuamotus had been a fruitful source of converts, and local priesthood leaders had been generally successful in shepherding their flocks through a 40-year (1852-1892) absence of missionaries from Zion. The RLDS (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now known as Community of Christ, and in 1903 referred to, often pejoratively, by Mormons as “Josephites” because they followed the leadership of Joseph Smith III) missionaries had arrived in the Tuamotus in 1874 and had made inroads on the Mormon congregations by presenting themselves as the legal successors to Joseph Smith, Jr. The RLDS were represented on Hikueru by Joseph F. Burton and a Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert; the Latter-day Saint elders were Heber J. Sheffield of Kaysville, Utah, and Joseph E. Allen of Coveville, Utah.
An epidemic of black measles had struck the islands that season, and Elders Sheffield and Allen, and probably the RLDS missionaries, had been kept busy assisting Dr. Brunati (a European appointed not only as physician but also as island governor by the French government that administered the Tuamotus from their headquarters at Tahiti) with nursing some 200 of the sick. Most had recovered by Wednesday, January 14, but were still weak and regaining their strength.
At 10 o’clock that morning of January 14, the wind began to blow. By 1 p.m., the sea had risen to the point where low waves occasionally washed over the island. Wind and waves increased through the day, destroying some of the native huts and filling others with water. The weather seemed to moderate somewhat by evening, and Elders Sheffield and Allen cleared the brush and rubbish that had lodged in the space under their four-room house, to allow the waves to move more freely and not damage the building. They went to bed, falling asleep to the sound of rain and a constant wind.
At 1 o’clock, the elders woke to the sound of water lapping against their house. They rose and again cleared the space beneath the building. They saw some of the island storekeepers moving their goods into the sturdy stone government building, while another storekeeper paid islanders to carry his goods to the leeward side of the island – while lower and more in danger of water, that side of the island was somewhat sheltered from the winds by the higher, windward side.
None of those movements seemed to matter by daylight. As Elder Sheffield later recorded:
Distressing scenes commenced to present themselves. The storm increased in volume as the hours passed along, the sea growing rougher and the waves higher, carrying away building after building and bringing sorrow to the hearts of the people. They, with us could be seen shivering, wading along with small bundles of clothes under their arms; mothers with their infants trying to shelter them from the wind, rain and raging sea; fathers with their children tugging through the briny waves, as they rolled over the land …
At this time we tied our coats inside of our blankets and tied them to a large cocoanut tree. The wind being cyclonic was constantly on the change … It was this wind that increased the horrors of the people, as it caused the lagoon to become almost as angry and rough as the great sea, which was still increasing with rage and was now flooding over the land at the city five feet in depth.
At this juncture our house was struck by a mountainous wave, throwing it from its foundation and splitting it asunder. We could do no other than jump for our lives. The moment we struck water we were turned head over heels, being carried along in a roaring torrent at a very high rate of speed. I landed in a garden near a cocoanut tree to which I scrambled and climbed in a hurry. During the time of my being carried along Elder Allen had come in contact with a tree, which he climbed. You may imagine, if you can, our feelings when we looked about and could not see each other. We were each fearful of the other’s not being alive. When the waves had lowered I ran toward where I left Elder Allen and saw him up a tree. O what joy when our eyes met! No one but those present could realize how pleased we were to see each other again and alive. We both held to the same tree (but changed trees) from this time forth throughout the storm.
We then made our way to the lower part of the island, climbing a tree each time the sea surged over the land. We had swam and waded a distance of about 3 miles and after arriving were soon with the Saints who had gathered. At dark there was not a building left standing on the island, all had been swept into the lagoon. Water had washed the strong government building up by the foundation, which was 3 feet in thickness, and had carried the pieces into the lagoon. Pieces of foundation weighing 20 tons was rolled like a pebble by the waves, into the lagoon. One of the Saints brought us a piece of rope each, which we tied about our waists in a square knot, leaving each end from the knot about three feet long. This rope we used to throw around the tree to protect us from being washed into the boiling sea.
Jack London described the Tuamotu hurricane of 1903 in his Tales of the South Pacific. Although his tale concerns fictional characters, his powerful description fits the contemporary record:
Raoul passed his rope around the base of an adjacent tree and stood looking on. The wind was frightful. The sun had disappeared and a lead-colored twilight settled down. A few drops of rain, driving horizontally, struck him. The impact was like that of leaden bullets. A splash of salt spray struck his face. It was like the slap of a man’s hand. Several hundred natives had taken to the trees, and he could have laughed at the bunches of human fruit clustering the tops. Then, being Tahitian born, he doubled his body at the waist, pressed the soles of his feet against the trunk, and began to walk up the tree.
From his eyrie, he waved his hand to Captain Lynch, and that doughty patriarch waved back. Raoul was appalled at the sky. It had approached much nearer – in fact, it seemed just over his head, and it had turned from lead to black. Still the wind continued to blow harder. By no conscious process could he measure it, for it had long passed beyond all his experience of wind. Not far away a tree was uprooted, flinging its load of human beings to the ground. A sea washed across the strip of sand and they were gone. He saw a brown shoulder and a black head silhouetted against the churning white of the lagoon. In an instant that, too, had vanished. Other trees were going, falling and criss-crossing like matches. His own tree was swaying perilously. One woman was wailing and clutching the little girl, who in turn still hung on to the cat.
He looked and saw the Mormon church careering drunkenly a hundred feet away. A frightful wall of water caught it, tilted it, and flung it against half a dozen coconut trees. The bunches of human fruit fell like ripe coconuts. The subsiding wave showed them on the ground, some lying motionless, others squirming and writhing. They reminded him strangely of ants. He was not shocked. He had risen above horror. Quite as a matter of course he noted the succeeding wave sweep the sand clean of the human wreckage. A third wave, more colossal than any he had yet seen, hurled the church into the lagoon, where it floated off into the obscurity to leeward, half submerged.
He looked for Captain Lynch’s house, and was surprised to find it gone. The wind had yet again increased. His own tree showed that. It no longer swayed or bent over and back. Instead it remained practically stationary, curved in a right angle from the wind and merely vibrating. But the vibration was sickening. Even though its roots held it could not stand for long. Something would have to break.
One did not know what happened unless he saw it. The mere crashing of trees and wails of human despair occupied no place in that mighty volume of sound. He chanced to be looking in Captain Lynch’s direction when it happened. He saw the trunk of the tree, half way up, splinter and part without noise. The head of the tree with three sailors off the “Aorai” and the old captain, sailed over the lagoon. It did not fall to the ground but drove through the air like a piece of chaff. For a hundred yards he followed its flight, when it struck the water. He strained his eyes, and was sure that he saw Captain Lynch wave farewell.
Raoul did not wait for anything more. He touched the native and made signs to descend to the ground. The man was willing but his women were paralyzed from terror, and he elected to remain with them. Raoul passed his rope around the tree and slid down. A rush of salt water went over his head. The water subsided, and in the shelter of the trunk he breathed once more. He fastened the rope more securely and was put under by another sea. One of the women slid down and joined him. At last he emerged to find himself alone. He looked up; the top of the tree had gone as well. At half its original height a splintered end vibrated. He was save. The tree had been shorn of its windage. He began to climb up. Then he tied himself to the trunk and stiffened himself to pass the night.
Still the wind increased. It was a horrible, monstrous thing, a screaming fury, a wall that smote and passed on, but that continued to smite and pass on, a wall without end. The wind strangled him. He could not face it and breathe. Only by pressing his lips to the trunk of the tree could he breathe. Body and brain became wearied – one idea constituted his consciousness: so this was a hurricane. Then he would go off into another stupor.
The height of the hurricane persisted from eleven at night till three in the morning.
When at last the waves grew calmer and the winds became tolerable, Elders Sheffield and Allen went looking for survivors. They were by then clad only in the shreds of their pants and garments, their coats and shirts having been torn from their bodies. They were lucky, though – unlike many they found lying on the sands, they had not been battered by wreckage blowing in the winds. The elders helped to gather the survivors together, rendering first aid and taking stock:
Not a single shelter survived the storm. There was no fresh water at all – the cisterns had all been flooded with seawater. The only foodstuffs were whatever coconuts and canned goods they might find caught in the shallow piles of wreckage that had piled up against jagged volcanic outcroppings. They knew they did not dare eat fish from the lagoon – already, sharks and fish were feeding on scores of corpses. And something would have to be done about the corpses – horribly mangled and disfigured – that were beginning to wash up onto the higher ground.
The elders found Dr./Gov. Brunati among the survivors, and placed themselves under his direction. Brunati directed them, as well as the RLDS missionaries, to scour the island and bring back all the food they could find, while he tended to the injured islanders. While lifting wreckage and looking for food, Elder Sheffield was stung three times on his right hand by some creature he thought looked like a scorpion. Then Brunati directed the elders to count the survivors. They found that some 378, including some 100 Latter-day Saints, had perished on Hikueru (another 200 souls had died on other islands).
Water was the most critical problem, and the combined ingenuity of the LDS and RLDS missionaries, together with the resourcefulness of the natives, came into play. The Americans built a boiler and condenser from tubs salvaged by pearl divers from the depths of the lagoon, using the tubes from an old iron bedstead as piping. With this apparatus, they were able to produce about 200 gallons of fresh water a day, enough for each survivor to have one pint.
By the third day following the hurricane, it became imperative to do something about the bodies of the dead. Hikueru had never had much soil, and what little there was had been scoured off the island. But the survivors found pockets of sand that had caught in cavities in the rock. They laid the storm victims side by side in mass graves. This was a task they had to undertake repeatedly, as the sea continued to surrender the dead. During this grim duty, the stings on Elder Sheffield’s hand became infected, and his arm began to swell dangerously.
Finally, there was nothing more to do but sit on the ground beneath the few remaining trees, conserving their strength and praying for relief, and feeding the boiler fires with combustible wreckage. Of the more than 60 sailboats that had been tied in the lagoon before the storm, all but two had been utterly destroyed, while the remaining two were too badly damaged to attempt the 400-mile journey to Tahiti. The survivors would have to hope that rescue would come in time.
Help came surprisingly soon:
A sailing vessel by the name of “Teiti” came to land. My, what cheering went on. The vessel was laden with Tahitian food, viz: Taro, bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, melons etc. It was taken in charge by the gove[r]nor and rationed out to the people, to give all enough to sustain life and to make it last as long as possible. We were all hoping and praying for other relief to come. On the following Wednesday January 22nd the relief came. O, my, how we cheered and rejoiced. O, my how good the food from these vessels tasted. The Steamer “Excelsior” brot this second supply of provisions and spent two days conveying some of the people to their own lands and to other lands that escaped the storm. On Saturday January 24th, 1903, we steamed out for Tahiti, loaded with people, left 144 of them at Makemo, steamed onward and landed in Papeete, Tahiti, Tuesday January 27th. The sick and wounded were taken to the Hospital and treated at the expense of the French government, to whom the land belongs.
The doctor at Papeete found Elder Sheffield’s poisoned condition so grave that he recommended amputating his arm at the shoulder. The elder refused, and after a few days his condition began to improve (he eventually recovered fully). The two elders, though, had nothing but the ragged pants they were wearing. The other elders at Tahiti outfitted them as well as they could. Among the first actions of the elders was to write short notes to reassure their families of their safety, because their rescue ship, the Excelsior was departing from Tahiti to Hawaii within a few hours, carrying news of the hurricane to the United States. Joseph Burton, one of the RLDS missionaries, sent a far longer and newsier report to his mission leaders.
The island of Hikueru took years to recover from the hurricane of 1903, and another of 1906. The pearl diving industry there was destroyed, and it took a generation for enough soil to accumulate to support the replanting of coconuts. Today the island is a stop on vacation tours of the South Pacific. LDS records of that time and place are woefully incomplete, nor was there then any system, such as was developed for Europe in the next few years, to provide for temple ordinances for Saints who died without the opportunity of attending the temple in life. I suspect that most, if not all, of the Latter-day Saints who perished in that 1903 hurricane in the Tuamotus are waiting now, and will continue to wait, for the mercies of a heaven that keeps better records than we have on earth.
[Note: The photograph is not of Hikueru in 1903, but of the site of an obliterated town on the Tuamotu island of Faaite following the 1906 cyclone.]
[Update: I have changed the spelling of the island from "Hikuera" to "Hikueru," alerted by David Richey's comments and after checking more sources, and changed the first link to show the atoll corresponding to the corrected spelling -- it is a larger atoll of a different shape, but still basically a narrow ring of rock surrounding a large internal lagoon.]