Research Document #12
The Bones Chronology
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“Thinnest rumours which may in the end prove unfounded
are liable to be spread.”

The following is a chronology of known events and correspondence from April 1940 to October 1941 based upon documents of the Western Pacific High Commission (W.P.H.C.), the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony (G. & E. I. C.) and Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme (P.I.S.S.). Included are:

  • all of the correspondence found in KNI 11/I, File 13/9/1 “Discovery of Human Remains on Gardner Island” at the Kiribati National Archives in Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati.
  • all entries from W.P.H.C. File No. M.P. 4439 – 1940 “Skeleton Human — finding of on Gardner Island” at the Library and Archives Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at Hanslope Park, England.
  • selected entries from other W.P.H.C. files at Hanslope Park.

Each date when something happened is underlined and numbered.

All direct transcription of text is boxed and backed with pale yellow.

A brief description of the British administrative organization in the region will make the correspondence more clear. The central governing authority for all islands of the western Pacific, with the exception of those territories governed by Australia, New Zealand and the Colony of Fiji “and not being within the jurisdiction of any other civilized power” was the Western Pacific High Commission headquartered in Suva, Fiji. The principal administrative units overseen by the W.P.H.C. were:

  • The Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony (of which the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme was a part)
  • The British Solomon Islands Protectorate
  • Tonga
  • The New Hebrides
  • Pitcairn Island

The senior official in the W.P.H.C. was the High Commissioner who answered directly to the Secretary of State in London and exercised sweeping powers within his jurisdiction. His immediate lieutenant was the Secretary, and each colony had its own Resident Commissioner. The Resident Commissioner for the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony was headquartered on Ocean Island. The colony was subdivided into several districts, each administered by an Administrative Officer, also known as a District Officer.

Transportation between Suva and the colonies, and within the colonies, was sporadic at best. During the time in question, most of the travel needs of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony were met by a refurbished, motorized sailing vessel known as the Royal Colony Ship (RCS) Nimanoa.

Inter-island communication was generally carried out by radio in Morse code and delivered in the form of telegrams. There was no voice radio. It is important to remember that not all parties were privy to all of the correspondence. Authorities in Suva did not see intra-colony communications that passed between Ocean Island and Tarawa or the Phoenix Islands. Similarly, the Resident Commissioner did not see correspondence which passed directly between the Phoenix Islands and Suva. We do not, at this point, have the messages that passed between Ocean Island and district headquarters within the colony (such as Tarawa and Beru). These may be in the archives in Tarawa.

The physical files in Suva, and presumably elsewhere, were comprised of a heavy paper folder containing copies of all pertinent correspondence along with chronologically entered “minutes” typed or handwritten on sheets of paper at the front of the file. Much of the most useful information in the W.P.H.C. files is contained in these minutes; however, we do not have the minutes from the file found in Tarawa. Each piece of correspondence is assigned a number (written with a circle around it) chronologically as it comes in and is thus referred to in the minutes. Each entry in the minutes is assigned a number chronologically (written in parenthesis) and is thus referred to in subsequent minutes.

The Players

Barley, Jack Charles — Resident Commissioner of G.& E.I.C. from Oct. 18, 1933 through his retirement on Dec. 19, 1941. Born 1887. 54 in 1941.

Gallagher, Gerald Bernard “Irish” — Officer-in-Charge, P.I.S.S., Gardner Island Born 1912. 29 in 1941.

Holland, Francis George Leopold — Acting Resident Commissioner, Ocean Island from Sept. 24, 1940 to January 4, 1941. Born 1884. 57 in 1941.

Hoodless, Dr. D. W. — Principal of the Central Medical School, Suva, Fiji.

Isaac, Dr. Lindsay — Acting Senior Medical Officer, Central Hospital, Tarawa Born 1907. 34 in 1941. 91 if still alive.

Koata— Native Magistrate, Gardner Island.

Luke, Sir Harry Charles — High Commissioner of the Western Pacific, Suva, Fiji Born 1884. 57 in 1941.

Macdonald, Patrick Donald “Paddy” — Assistant Secretary, W.P.H.C. Born 1909. 32 in 1941. 89 if still alive.

Macpherson, Dr. Duncan Campbell McEwan “Jock” — Central Medical Authority, W.P.H.C. Born in 1900. 41 in 1941. Died in 1943.

Nasmyth, Commander G. B. — F. R. Met. Soc. (Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society).

Steenson, Dr. Kingsley Rupert— Senior Medical Officer, Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony, July ’41. Born 1895. 46 in 1941. 103 if still alive.

Vaskess, Henry Harrison — Secretary of Western Pacific High Commission, Suva, Fiji Born 1891. 49 in 1941. 108 if still alive.

Wernham, David — Acting Administrative Officer, Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, Tarawa, September 1940. Same generation as Gallagher; now deceased.

The Chronology

(entries 1 through 10)

1. ca. April 1940
Skull and bottle are found on Gardner Island by unknown Gilbertese colonist.


2. August 4, 1940
Gallagher arrives back in the Phoenix Islands after having been on Beru in the Gilberts since June. (Telegram No. 264 dated 7th August 1940 in Gallagher Personal File Vol. I.)


3. “Early” September, 1940
Gallagher arrives at Gardner Island to take up residence. (Telegram No.1 from Gallagher to Vaskess dated 17th October 1940, “Skull discovered by working party six months ago – report reached me early September.”


4. September 23, 1940
Telegram from Gallagher to the Acting Administrative Officer, Central Gilbert Islands District, Tarawa. Transcript:

Please obtain from Koata (Native Magistrate Gardner on way to Central Hospital) a certain bottle alleged to have been found near skull discovered on Gardner Island. Grateful you retain bottle in safe place for present and ask Koata not to talk about skull which is just possibly that of Amelia Earhardt. [sic]

Gallagher.

Comment:

The Acting Administrative Officer in Tarawa at this time is Wernham.

Questions:

  • Why is Koata going to the hospital?
  • Did Gallagher ever actually see the bottle? The ship that brought Irish to Gardner in early September is almost certainly the same ship that took Koata to Tarawa. It seems unlikely that Gallagher would have let the bottle go if he had known about it before Koata left with it.

4a. Sept. 23, 1940
Telegram No. 71 from Gallagher to Jack Barley, Resident Commissioner, Ocean Island Transcript:

Some months ago working party on Gardner discovered human skull - this was buried and I only recently heard about it. Thorough search has now produced more bones (including lower jaw) part of a shoe a bottle and a sextant box. It would appear that (a) Skeleton is possibly that of a woman,
(b) Shoe was a womans and probably size 10,
(c) Sextant box has two numbers on it 3500 ( stencilled ) and 1542– sextant being old fashioned and probably painted over with black enamel. Bones look more than four years old to me but there seems to be very slight chance that this may be remains of Amelia Earhardt. If United States authorities find that above evidence fits into general description, perhaps they could supply some dental information as many teeth are intact. Am holding latest finds for present but have not exhumed skull. There is no local indication that this discovery is related to wreck of the "Norwich City".  Gallagher.

Comment:

The timing of this telegram is interesting. Barley, the R.C., goes on leave the very next day (24th Sept.) and the colony’s Director of Education, Francis Holland, takes over as Acting Resident Commissioner and remains in that post until 4th January 1941 when Barley returns. It is Holland who later notifies Suva of Gallagher’s discovery.


5. September 30, 1940
Telegram from the Administrative Officer, Central Gilbert Islands District, Tarawa to Gallagher.
Transcript:

Your telegram 23rd September. Koata has handed to me one benedictine bottle. A.O.C.G.I.D.

6. October 1, 1940
Telegram No. 348 — circled 1 in File 4439-40
Transcript:

Gallagher reports from Gardner Island the finding of a skeleton believed to be that of a woman. Near the skeleton was a box containing an old fashioned sextant. Box had number 3,500 stencilled on it and also bore the number 1,542. A woman's shoe was also found. Possibility of this being Mrs. Putnam is naturally remote but Your Excellency will probably wish to make enquiries concerning numbering of sextant box.
Comments:
  • This is the telegram that opens WPHC file M.P. No. 4439 – 1940 labeled “Skeleton Human – finding of on Gardner Island.”
  • It erroneously reports that a sextant was found.
  • The bottle is not mentioned. No one in Suva sees Gallagher’s original report.

Note:

This telegram is logged in WPHC 4/II/33, WPHC, correspondence register 1940, under the G&E I C tab, number 4439. Received October 2, 1940.


6a. October 1, 1940
Telegram No. 66
From Holland (the RC) to Gallagher
Transcript:

Your telegram No. 71. Information has been passed on to the High Commissioner particularly with a view to identifying number of sextant box. Information on following points, where possible, would be of interest: (a) How deep was skeleton buried when found,
(b) How far from shore,
(c) In your opinion does burial appear deliberate or could it be accounted for by encroachments of sand, etc.,
(d) Is site of an exposed one (i.e. if the body of Mrs. Putnam had lain there is it likely that it would have been spotted by aerial searchers)?
(e) In what state of preservation is shoe,
(f) If well preserved does it appears to be of modern style or old fashioned,
(g) Is there any indication as to contents of bottle. Do you know anything of wreck of "Norwich City" — e.g. when did it takes place, were any lives lost and how long were survivors marooned at Gardner Island? Resident.

7. October 2, 1940
Note to file 4439-40 (1)
Somebody whose last initial is P begins the file.
Transcript:

Telegram from R. Cr., No. 348 of 1.10.40

8. October 3, 1940
Note to file 4439-40 (2)
Vaskess to Office
Transcript:

Please attach file re search for Mrs Putnam.

8a. October 6, 1940
Telegram No. 72
From Gallagher to RC at Ocean Island
Transcript:

Your telegram No. 66.
(a) Skeleton was not buried – skull was buried after discovery by natives (coconut crabs had scattered many bones),
(b) l00 feet from high water ordinary springs,
(c) Improbable,
(d) Only part of sole remains,
(f) Appears to have been stoutish walking shoe or heavy sandal,
(g) "Benedictine" bottle but no indication of contents, There are indications that person was alive when cast ashore – fire, birds killed, etc., "Norwich City" wrecked and caught fire 1930 or 1932. Number of crew sailed to Fiji in lifeboat, remainder picked up later at Gardner by "Ralum". Think Board of Enquiry held Suva - loss of life not known. This information derived from gossip only.
Gallagher.

Comment:
This is the last time the bottle is mentioned. Suva never hears about the bottle unless Gallagher talks about it when he comes to Suva the following June.


9. October 9, 1940
Typed note in file 4439-40 (3)
from Vaskess to Sir Harry
Transcript:

His Excellency

Submitted. A communication might be addressed to the U.S. Consul in Sydney, but, before doing so, I suggest that Mr. Gallagher should be asked by telegraph for full details including, e.g., any indications of age of skeleton, approximate height of woman, and anything that might be useful for identification, such as condition of teeth, etc. If Your Excellency concurs, Dr. Macpherson would no doubt advise as to points that might be put to Mr. Gallagher. It would perhaps be useful to know where the skeleton was found, e.g. if on the beach if might be an indication of whether the body was washed ashore. Mr. Gallagher should also be asked to state what has been done with the skeleton, as it may be desired to forward it for identification purposes?


10. October 10, 1940
Handwritten note to file 4439-40 (4) in red (reserved for highest authority)
from Sir Harry to Vaskess
Transcript:

Sec

Pl make these enquiries telegraphically, in the meanwhile instructing the RC and Gallagher to keep the matter secret.


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