Forum artHighlights From the Forum

November 18 through 25, 1998

Subject: Niku Wreck
Date: 11.22.98
From: Dick Evans

People keep asking why the Coast Guardsmen on Gardner didn’t find something. I keep saying, “Because we didn’t look.” Pat’s comment suggested that we may not have had much freedom to roam around. We had plenty of time and freedom to do anything we felt like doing but we did nothing.

Perhaps you would enjoy a description of a typical day on Unit 92. I was a Loran operator. From the time we went on the air, I never went longer than 12 hours that I was not on the scope. For several months I stood the 4-to-8 watch. My day started at 3:45 AM when the radioman woke me up. I would go to the galley and drink a cup of coffee. Coffee that had been brewing since the previous morning at 6 AM. Needless to say it was delicious. Then it was down to the Loran Shack and onto the scope. This consisted of four hours of watching a green line. As long as it didn’t move, you did nothing. I would move maybe three times in four hours. The rest of the time you sat there.

At 8 AM relief came. I would go up to the galley and eat breakfast. Scrambled powdered eggs one day; oatmeal the next. Then I would hit the sack until around 11 AM. At that time I would walk around a bit, maybe go to the galley for a fresh cup of coffee, usually sat down and read a magazine.

At 12 Noon we had lunch. Canned meat and vegetable hash every day of the week. From noon until 4 PM I would resume the reading, or sitting around. Once or twice a week I would go swimming. Usually took a shower.

At 4 PM it was back on the scope watching the green line. On this shift we got a big break that would make the watch much more exciting. At somewhere around 5:30 our scheduled relief would relieve us temporarily while we went for supper. Usually some form of Spam where the cooks knocked themselves out to give us something different. After a year, there wasn’t much of anything different.

At 8 PM we were relieved. At this point it was back to the galley and write letters – 10 or 20 a week. We got mail once a month and usually received 50 or 60 letters so we answered them. There was absolutely nothing to write about since nothing ever happened. I once wrote 7 pages describing eating an apple. Read some more of the 50 magazines we were supplied and around 10 PM went back to bed. At 3:45 start over.

The area where natives have reported seeing plane wreckage was at the other end of the island, about two miles away, and we never went there. The only time we went close was one time when we had an undentified sub and two of the seamen were sent about half-way down the beach with flare guns to watch for a vicious attack by Japanese submariners. None came. That moring when Ted Hiatt and I came off watch, we were sent down to relieve the seaman. But we stayed on the ocean side of the atoll and never went into the the lagoon side where the plane is supposed to be. The really fascinating part was that we found two sea turtles up on land for mating. We turned them on their backs on the way down and rolled them back on their feet on the way back. This was undoubtedly the most exciting thing that happened during the entire stay on our South Pacific paradise. After 50 years, it is still a joke.

The really stupid part of this entire business of searching the island is that if someone had told us there was anything to be found, we would have had been happy to search that entire rock with a rake – just for something to do.

Love to father
Dick Evans

Subject: England Preliminary Report
Date: 11/23/98
From: Ric Gillespie

For decades, many have speculated and some have alleged that there are secret U.S. government files which tell the true story of what happened to Amelia Earhart. Those allegations may, in fact, be true – but the government is British, not American and the files, although once secret, are now merely secreted away. Kenton Spading TIGHAR #1382CE and I have just spent a week reviewing those files, and the story they tell is both fascinating and tragic.

The files are in the archives of His Majesty’s Western Pacific High Commission which are now held by the Archive and Library Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office facility in Hanslope Park, England. Situated in a story-book English village about 60 miles northwest of London, the compound stands in stark contrast to the stone cottages and hedge-lined farms which surround it. Security at “the Park” is not tight. It is obsessive. Tall steel fences topped with razor-wire ring the area and not just the buildings, but nearly every door inside every building, requires a swipe-card for admittance. Access to any section is on a strictly need-to-know basis and Kenton and I had to be escorted everywhere we went (which was limited to: to and from the office where we worked, the cafeteria, and the bathroom – thank you very much).

Within the Library and Archive Section, however, we had the complete and eager cooperation of the staff who never hesitated to drop their official work to answer questions, make inquiries (sorry – enquiries) of other departments on our behalf, or help us order up documents from the storage facility. Eventually we ended up with – oh, I would guess – probably two hundred pounds of bound indexes, correspondence registers, and battered folders brimming with yellowed paper. Thanks to Kenton’s careful preparatory work, many files were already pulled and waiting for us when we arrived, as were our security clearances.

We really had no idea how many more documents of interest remained to be seen at Hanslope Park (they had copied and sent the Hoodless report earlier this year) and we were prepared to move on to other possible sources of information elsewhere in England the very next day. As it turned out, we spent the entire week at the Park, buried in paper from about 8:30 to 6:00 every day and discussing our discoveries over a pint in a pub far into the night. The facility is closed on Saturday so we spent our last day at the Public Record Center in Kew, just outside of London. By the time we boarded our respective flights to head back across the Atlantic on Sunday we were both in an advanced state of information overload. It will take months to fully digest the pages and pages of notes, and the roughly 600 pages of documents we photocopied, but here are a few of the more significant facts which have emerged.

  1. The discovery of the bones and artifacts on Gardner Island was not a minor administrative curiosity. It was an event which captured the attention and included the personal involvement of the highest ranking British authorities in the Pacific for nearly a full year. The matter was not delegated to junior officers but was handled directly and almost exclusively by: The High Commissioner of the Western Pacific (His Excellency, Sir Harry Luke) The Secretary of the Western Pacific High Commission (Henry Harrison Vaskess) The Assistant Secretary (Patrick Donald “Paddy” MacDonald) The Central Medical Authority, W.P.H.C. (Dr. Duncan Campbell McEwan MacPherson) The Acting Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony (Francis George Leopold Holland) Dr. Kingsley Rupert Steenson, Senior Medical Officer, Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony.
  2. The primary reason that the bones were of interest was the possibility that this was Amelia Earhart. Contacting the American Consul in Sydney, Australia was considered and discussed on at least two occasions but was put off each time for fear of embarrassment. As Sir Harry put it on October 26, 1940; “Thinnest rumours which may in the end prove unfounded are liable to be spread.”
  3. We have important new information about the shoe parts found with the bones and there were two artifacts we’ve never heard about. On July 1, 1941, Dr. Steenson was in Suva and was asked to look at the contents of the sextant box. He said; “I have examined the contents of the parcel mentioned. Apart from stating that they appear to be parts of shoes worn by a male person and a female person, I have nothing further to say. Those corks on brass chains would appear to have belonged to a small cask.”
  4. The sextant box had dovetailed corners, as does the box in Pensacola known to have belonged to Noonan. In August of 1941, the sextant box was shown to a Commander Nasmyth who was head of the Fijian Service Meteorological Society. He had this to say; “As the sextant box has no distinguishing marks, & since it was discovered that no sextant had been found, all I have been able to find out is that the make of the box – that is – the dovetailing of the corners – makes it appear to be of French origin.”
  5. The box was also shown personally by Sir Harry Luke to a Mr. Gatty “who has expert knowledge of such matters” (and whom I strongly suspect is the famous aerial navigator Harold Gatty). “Mr. Gatty thinks that the box is an English one of some age and judges that it was used latterly merely as a receptacle. He does not consider that it could in any circumstance have been a sextant box used in modern trans-Pacific aviation.”
  6. We have a little more information about the location where the bones were found. When Gallagher was in Suva in July 1941 he made the following entry in the official file:
    “I have read the contents of this file with great interest. It does look as if the skeleton was that of some unfortunate native castaway and the sextant box and other curious articles found nearby the remains are quite possibly a few of his precious possessions which he managed to save.
    2. There was no evidence of any attempt to dig a well and the wretched man presumably died of thirst. Less than two miles away there is a small grove of coconut trees which would have been sufficient to keep him alive if he had only found it. He was separated from those trees, however, by an inpenetrable [sic] belt of bush. GBG”
  7. Incidentally, Gallagher was a licensed airplane pilot. Among his person effects on Gardner were a pilot’s license, a pilot’s log book, a flying helmet, and goggles. He also had his own sextant and navigation tables. His father was a doctor in the West African Medical Service and Gerald had attended a semester at St. Bartholomew’s Medical School in London after completing an M.A. at Cambridge. An educated lad was our Gerald.
  8. Ultimately, the decision that the bones could not be Earhart’s (and that the Americans should not be told) was apparently based upon the evaluation of the skeleton as male and the judgment that the sextant was not of the type used in “modern trans-Pacific navigation.” Significantly, the Earhart file attached to the bones file includes correspondence and clippings about Earhart’s flight and disappearance, none of which mention Noonan. At no time in the investigation does anyone seem to know that there was a man and a woman on the airplane, much less any awareness that Noonan usually carried an old-fashioned marine sextant in addition to a modern instrument.
  9. The bottle found with the skull was not mentioned in any of the correspondence to Suva and is not discussed in any of the file notations or telegrams originating in Suva. It seems quite possible that it never went to Suva with the other artifacts. Its last known location is in the hands of the Acting Administrative Officer on Tarawa on September 30, 1940.
  10. The last official word on the bones themselves is on April 17, 1941 when Dr. Hoodless acknowledges the direct request of the High Commissioner to “retain the remains until further notice.” The bones, at that time, were in their kanawa wood coffin. The possibility would seem to exist that they are still in that coffin and are still in storage.

There is much more to tell but those are the high points.

Love to mother,

Subject: Little Boxes
Date: 11.24.98
From: Tom King

I don’t want to pick semantic nits, but I think we might tend to mislead ourselves if we started referring to the bone-box as a “coffin” (though admittedly, Gallagher does). While a box could certainly be pretty small, a coffin is generally pretty big, and of a pretty definitive shape. There’s no reason I can think of to assume that the Kanawa wood box was any bigger than it needed to be to hold the few bones they’d found, wrapped up in something for protection (cloth, I’d guess, in the absence of newspaper or styrofoam peanuts [or ping pong balls]), and no particular reason to think it’d be coffin-shaped. You’d need a box maybe 18 inches long to accommodate the long bones, maybe about the same width or a little narrower to handle them plus the cranium, and maybe a foot high to accommodate the latter. Maybe bigger if you were really packing them well.

Apparently the shoe parts and the corks-on-chains travelled with the bones, but we don’t know (unless the England Expeditionaries have found out) whether they, the bones, and the sextant box all travelled in the same container or in separate boxes. If everything went in one box, then we probably are talking about something approaching standard coffin size, but I still think we need to keep our minds, and eyes, open.

Tom King

From Ric

It’s quite clear from the files that the shipment from Gardner was comprised of two separate containers:

  • the “coffin” which held the bones (there is no mention of packing material but there is no mention of an absence of packing material either).
  • the sextant box, which held all of the artifacts (the shoe parts and the corks with brass chains).

I don’t think that the bottle ever made it to Suva.

Subject: England Preliminary Report
Date: 11.24.98
From: Vern Klein

I see nothing in Ric’s Preliminary Report to rule out the possibility that the sextant box is Fred Noonan’s sextant box. I believe any “respectable” box of this sort would have dovetailed corners, regardless of its country of origin. In any case, Noonan might have had an old marine sextant from anywhere. And I persist in the belief that those numbers are PAA numbers. I’ll have more to say on that later.

If the castaway was, in fact, a Polynesian, then the question simply becomes: Where did he pick up Fred Noonan’s sextant box? In that case, the Gallagher’s bone site is of only secondary interest. It’s not necessarily the place to look for other Earhart/Noonan artifacts. It had been about three years since Amelia and Fred came up missing. How long may the castaway have been carrying Fred’s sextant box around with him before he perished there on Niku? May he have even brought it with him when he arrived on Niku? And there are the shoe parts... Male and female! Very interesting indeed! Gallagher also found both male and female shoe parts, as did TIGHAR, in 1991! These items seem to further support the idea that Niku is, indeed, the place where it all happened.

From Ric

Polynesian? Nobody said the bones were Polynesian except that screwball Isaac. Hoodless says they’re European or possibly mixed-race. Macpherson agrees. Our eminent modern forensic anthropologists say they’re most likely female, white and of Nordic extraction. A woman’s shoe and man’s shoe at the site rather strongly suggests that a man and a woman were there. If the sextant was indeed Fred Noonan’s I think that it is most likely that the guy who had it was Fred Noonan.

Subject: England Trip
Date: 11.24.98
From: Dennis McGee

Congratulations on your successful dig at Hanslope Park. Archeologists just want to have fun, eh? In true TIGHAR fashion you have served up some tasty nuggets that are very promising, I just hope you’re prepared to field all of the questions we TIGHAR fans have.

Just a couple of observations that lend evidence to your theory that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, . . etc. Gallagher, on the other hand, came to a different conclusion. In paragraph #6 of your report, Gallagher surmised that the skeleton “was that of some unfortunate native castaway” who had managed to save “the sextant box and other curious articles found nearby.&Rdquo; If in fact this was a “unfortunate native castaway” didn’t it seem strange to Gallagher that this native would have a sextant box? How many islanders had sextant boxes in the 1930s? I would be hard pressed to believe this item was a normal accoutrement on the South Pacific islands in 1937.

Gallagher continues, speculating that the “native” died of thirst even though there was a coconut grove less then 2 miles away, albeit just beyond an impenetrable belt of bushes. Would not a native immediately set out for the coconut grove had he been stranded on an island? My suspicions are that a native’s chance of survival would be fairly high on Niku, especially since it is his home turf!

All of this raises a couple of points. What does Gallagher means by “native”? Is it a local islander – not necessarily from Niku – or just a colonial that’s been around too long? I take native to mean a local islander. If that is also Gallagher’s definition, then he sure dropped the ball by not questioning a native having a sextant box and dying of thirst in his own back yard. Native, indeed!

I guess this one incident goes to show how firmly denial can mislead us. Wittingly or not, Gallagher apparently played right into the hands of the – oh-oh, here’s that word – conspirators who wanted to keep this stuff under wraps for whatever reason. I know it is unfair to second-guess Gallagher, et. al. 60-plus years later, but, oh boy! it is such great fun!

Mom always did love you best. Good job!!

Dennis McGee #0149

From Ric

You’re right Dennis. Gallagher’s comments don’t make a lot of sense until you understand the political situation he found himself in when he wrote them down. He is the one who got everyone all excited about Amelia Earhart, and now here he is at headquarters back in Suva and the bones have turned out to be those of a man and all of his superiors seem to agree that whoever this is, it is not Amelia Earhart. Gallagher is, by far, the junior man in this whole affair. He is like a lieutenant in a room full of colonels and the general. He is a bit embarrassed about the whole affair and eager to go on record as agreeing with the party line.

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