Forum artHighlights From the Forum

September 7 through 14, 1998

Subject: The Southeast Corner
Date: 9/6/98
From: Dick Evans

Ric and Tom:

Question? Where is "the end of the island?" I don't know where the native was when he spoke of the end. The only thing I can help you with is to say that Gardner had the shape of a tear drop. The Loran station was located on the extreme tip of the drop, which was the extreme southern end.

That was the only flat place with enough room for the 600 foot ground system. Can I give you anymore fascinating information - like how exciting it was.

Dick Evans

From Ric

(I started out to answer Dick's question and it sort of got away from me, but I think I ended up someplace interesting. Read on, MacDuff.)

Trying to figure out where the bones were found from the descriptions available is a real semantic carnival.

Kilts (San Diego Tribune, 21 July 1960) says, "..the native was walking along one end of the island..."

Gallagher (telegram of 17 October 1940) says, "Bones were found on South East corner of island about 100 feet above ordinary high water springs."

Bauro Tikana, Gallagher's clerk/interpreter (fax to TIGHAR dated 12 August 1991) says, "The laborers... (in 1940) ...told me they found bones at the other end of the atoll (see map)." On a map of Niku which I had provided, Bauro circled the area he meant. It encompasses the entire southeastern quarter of the atoll (draw a line across the lagoon from a point roughly a quarter mile below -east - of the shoe site).

Are all these guys talking about the southeastern tip where the Loran station was later built? Of these three descriptions, Gallagher's is clearly the most reliable. He was actually there. Let's see what other requirements the place has to fulfill to fit his description.

(telegram of 17 October 1940) "Body has obviously been lying under a 'ren' tree..."

So there must be a ren tree in that location. The 1939 New Zealand survey map says that the vegetation at the tip is "Puka" (Buka) and "low scrub" and "dense high scrub." No mention of ren, which is specifically mentioned in notoations about other parts of the island. An aerial photo of the Loran station taken upon its completion shows that no bulldozing was done along the lagoon shore and vegetation visible there looks much like it does today - mostly scrub. No significant trees of any description.

(telegram of 17 October 1940) "All small bones have been removed by giant coconut crabs which have also damaged larger ones." Unless the area has changed dramatically, which does not appear to be the case (see above), the southeast tip is not a place where coconut crabs hang out. They don't like scrub and open, hot coral rubble. They want trees to climb and dirt they can burrow into. Birgus latro, from what I have seen, is a forest dweller.

(telegram of 17 October 1940) "...this part of island is not yet cleared." Not much help. The only part that had been cleared by this time was where the village was.

(letter dated 27 December 1940) "..unidentified individual found on South Eastern shore of Gardner Island..." This at least tells us that the site is associated with the shoreline rather than the interior. This is consistent with "about 100 feet above ordinary high water springs." (telegram of 17 October 1940)

(letter dated 27 December 1940) "...skull has been buried in damp ground for nearly a year.." Again, this sounds like a forest area and not the like the southeast tip.

(letter dated 27 December 1940) " is possible that something may come to hand during the course of the next few months when the area in question will again be thoroughly examined during the course of planting operations, which will involve a certain amount of digging in the vicinity." I can find no indication that coconut planting was ever contemplated on the southeast tip. It's a worthless place. That's why they later let the Yanks have it.

(letter dated 27 December 1940) "...the (kanawa) tree was, until a year ago, growing on the edge of the lagoon, not very far from the spot where the deceased was found." I just can't imagine a kanawa tree growing down there.

Of further interest is the following from Gallagher's official Progress Report for the Third Quarter of 1940 (July-September). The report is dated 18 November 1940, so by the time he writes this he has already found the bones but has not yet shipped them to Suva.

"The labourers stationed on the island have worked well and planted a large number of coconut trees but the island has not been developed in any other way. ...(A) start was also made on the construction of the Rest House which, it is hoped, will be completed before the end of November. ... It is hoped to furnish the main living room of the Rest House with furniture constructed entirely from locally grown 'kanawa' - a beautifully marked wood which abounds on the island and is being cut to waste as planting proceeds."

This suggests to me that kanawa is sufficiently available as a byproduct of clearing operations that it would not be necessary to range far and wide in search of trees to cut for furniture or other uses. Wherever the kanawa tree was cut near where the bones were found is most likely to be a place where clearing operations were underway in late 1939. That is almost certainly not the southeastern tip.

Aerial photography taken in late April 1939 shows only the village area cleared and planted. Kanawa Point, Aukaraime (and of course the southeastern tip) are untouched. Gallagher's Progress report for the Fourth Quarter of 1940 (October-December) states that, "Due to the very heavy rain during this period, properly organized work at any distance from the village was impossible..."

Gallagher's Progress Report for the first quarter of 1941 (January - March) is the last one he filed. He reports that, "Work was also commenced on the demarcation and plotting of landholdings on the South-West side of the island..." This passage gives us a clue as to where the clearing work was being done. You can't do demarcation and plotting of landholdings until the land is cleared. Kanawa Point is within the area which could be described as the "South-West side."

The next photography we have is from June 1941. The village area doesn't look much expanded from the way it looked in April of '39. We can't see the South West area, but by this time Aukaraime (South East area?) has been largely cleared and apparently demarcated (we can see what appear to be straight survey lines) but apparently not planted.

So what are we to make of the apparently conflicting description Gallagher gives us:

  1. "South East corner"
  2. a ren tree
  3. giant coconut crabs
  4. "...this part of island is not yet cleared." in October 1940.
  5. "South Eastern shore of Gardner Island."
  6. "damp ground"
  7. planting operations scheduled "in the next few months" after December 1940.
  8. kanawa tree

Everything fits Kanawa Point except the bits about it being on the "South East corner" or "South Eastern shore." Something is wrong. Tom King originally wondered if perhaps Gallagher thought of Niku as two islands, but that does not seem to be the case. Well gang, I think I know what's going on ("Oh no!", you say. "Not another hypothesis!"). Here goes.

Remember that, in October 1940, Gallagher is very much the new boy on Gardner. By his own admission he has previously spent a total of 36 hours on the island (Progress Report, Third Quarter 1940). His trip to see where the skull was found is very possibly his first excursion any distance from the west end which was the focus of all the clearing, well-digging and construction. Whether he was taken to Kanawa Point by land or by canoe, I think he thought he was someplace he wasn't.

There is an illusion that happens on Niku which might sound odd if you've never been there. Because the lagoon takes a pronounced hook to the right once you pass Bauareke Passage, the whole southeastern half of the island is hidden from view to anyone on the lagoon or lagoon shore if they are anywhere in the whole southwestern part of the island (say, between Tatiman Passage and Bauareke Passage). If you've never rounded the point at Bauareke and seen the huge expanse of lagoon stretching away before you, it's easy to think that you're on the "South East corner" of the island. Lest you think that this is just Gillespie being creative, listen to what Eric Bevington says in his diary about his circumnavigation of the island in October 1937. He and his Gilbertese companions set out southward from what would later be the village area to walk around the island. From the inaccurate map they had and from what they could see from the lagoon shore they expected that it would only take a few hours.

"The G'ese were full of praise for the island; the soil is certainly much more fertile than their own. When at the end of the lagoon, so the natives thought, we rounded a bend to find we were only half way. By this time, we had been going one and a half hours, beating our way through virgin bush.. (T)he G'ese were very tired and wanted to swim across the lagoon to the other side and go back. On enquiry, however, they said the end looked poor so I insisted we go to the end and see it."

Ultimately they made it all the way around but it took them all day and was a very unpleasant experience. We have a copy of the 1879 map that was the only one available until about 1939 when the results of a 1935 survey were finally published. You'd never know the place was Niku and it's quite apparent that somebody looked in through the main lagoon passage and made the same mistake Bevington and, I suspect, Gallagher made. Certainly by the time Gallagher had been on the island for a while he must have realized his mistake. Maybe that's why he changed his description from "South East corner" in October to "South Eastern shore" in December.

Love to mother,

Subject: AE Survival? Not so Absurd
Date: 9/6/98
From: Vern Klein

>We've already established the fact that drinkable water was not and is not
>available on Niku and survival without water is impossible.
> How can anyone even consider that the 'poor little rich girl' AE would
>have enough survival skill knowledge to last 30 days, much less 2 years, on
>such an equatorial island?

And from Ric...

>I argued both sides of this one. The great, and still not late, Harry Maude
>finds the notion of AE's demise on Nikumaroro incredible specifically beacuse
>he can not imagine why anyone would have difficulty thriving on such a lovely

I do not, for a moment, believe that Mrs. Koata saw Amelia Earhart. I think that was simply the kind of "vision" that are not uncommon among certain groups of people. But I do believe it very possible that AE and/or Fred might have survived indefinitely on Nuku except for accidental injury. And that might already have happened in getting the plane down.

For me, there is no doubt that Harry Maud knew what he was talking about. There would certainly be no problem in obtaining drinking water on an island with that much vegetation on it, even if rainfall was infrequent.

The "poor little rich girl." Not so rich! Always scrambling to get enough money to be able to fly. And not so poor in capability as we often tend to speak of her. She appears not to have been up to snuff on the new fangled radio stuff, but she was not ignorant nor stupid.

I think the forum often has trouble with "time shifting" and perhaps some "place shifting" as well. It's only a few weeks since I visited Amelia's birthplace and the place where she grew up for the most part. But it had not really soaked in until just now that she and I really did grow up in very similar situations. There was not enough difference in time to matter. The big changes in the world came a bit later -- with WWII.

I suspect that many can not appreciate the significance of when and where Amelia grew up. She did not grow up in front of a TV set, and she attended school when the dumbing-down process had not yet set in. She was taught by teachers, not by "educators" who are quick to embrace any faddish idea that comes along so long as it does not relate to basic education.

Amelia was out in the world exploring the river banks, hanging around the steamboat landing, hanging around the railroad station (she probably listened to that clacking telegraph and decided that was not for her!), and she was learning about lots of things. She knew about the "river rats" (I'm descended from those!), and the railroad "bums", and how they all survived. And she knew about the "bootleggers" and their 'stills hidden away in the woods. (That's one way to get drinking water from various sources.) Kids in those times and places knew about lots of stuff. Kids who grew up in cities didn't know much about the world.

The Key to survival is often a knowledge of what is possible. Then one needs the imagination and ingenuity to do it with what is at hand. Amelia grew up in a time and place where this sort of thing was a way of life. I think she could have survived. Having an airplane to cannibalize would have made life a lot easier.

Of course there is also Fred Noonan. I suspect he had learned a lot of stuff along the way, even if he may have started out a city kid!

Subject: Canton Island
Date: 9/9/98
From: Harold Mendelson


I have two comments concerning recent postings involving Canton Island.

Regarding the comments you and Dick Evans made about the President Taylor going aground on Canton. I was aboard the Taylor when it arrived at Canton on 13 Feb 1942. There was no talk aboard the ship that we were being stalked by a Japanese sub, and at the time I'm sure there was no channel into the lagoon that would have accommodated a 20,000-ton ship. The captain of the ship did not screw up. What actually happened was that we anchored off shore and my outfit and some other units immediately went ashore in small boats to occupy and fortify the island. That night a typhoon struck and blew the Taylor onto the reefs. Those of us who were on shore were ordered to wade out into the surf to assist any personnel still aboard the ship should they abandon the ship and try to swim ashore. It was a prudent precaution, but turned out to be unnecessary. The ship's captain later commited suicide. Since the Pearl Harbor attack had happened only two months earlier and the US was in a hurry to occupy Canton before the Japanese did, it is highly unlikely that AE's engine was aboard the President Taylor.

Ric, you are so right in taking anecdotal comments with a grain of salt. In a recent posting, someone quoted one of the Rickenbacker survivors as saying that while they were trying to find Canton, they had asked Canton to fire their antiaircraft artillery into the air and that it had been done. I was a member of the Canton antiaircraft artillery battalion and also worked at Task Force HQ with part of my duties handling radio communications. Their request for the artillery fire may have been received without my seeing it, but I'm sure I would have remembered had we fired our guns. Obviously just another false rumor.

Harold Mendelson

Subject: What We Know, What We Suspect
Date: 9/10/98
From: Ric Gillespie

With a number of new forum subscribers and lots of recent research results, this might be a good time for me to rough out a quick review of what we know and what we suspect on several key issues which bear upon the Earhart disappearance.

1. Could the missing Earhart flight have reached Nikumaroro (Gardner Island)? What we know:

Based upon the best available information about the airplane's fuel load at takeoff, known performance capabilities, and the progress of the flight - yes it could have. In addition, the navigational logic which would lead the flight to the island was recognized by the searchers in 1937.

What we suspect:

We think that, upon failing to find Howland Island, the flight flew down the line of position until it sighted land - Gardner Island

2. Was Earhart's disappearance in any way attributable to her navigator, Fred Noonan, being an alcoholic? What we know:

We have, and are continuing to, track Fred Noonan's career through official documents. So far we have found no indication of a drinking problem. Quite the contrary. He enjoyed a long and successful nautical career with steady advancement in positions of respect and responsibility. We can find no anecdotal account alleging that he had a drinking problem which predates Fred Goerner's 1966 book "The Search for Amelia Earhart." Of the several living Noonan acquaintances we have interviewed, none knew him to have a drinking problem.

What we suspect:

It looks to us that the entire legend about Noonan's drinking is unfounded rumor which unfairly and tragically slanders the reputation of a true aviation pioneer.

3. Is the wreckage of Earhart's airplane on Nikumaroro (Gardner Island)? What we know:

We have a few pieces of airplane debris recovered from the abandoned village which seem to be consistent with Earhart's aircraft and do not seem to be from any World War II type. However, none of these artifacts is diagnostic (that is, conclusively identifiable as being from Earhart's airplane). Anecdotal accounts from former residents of the island describe the presence of aircraft wreckage on the reef and in the shoreline vegetation in specific locations where aerial photography seems to corroborate the presence of metal debris. Again, none of this constitutes proof that there was or is aircraft wreckage there. The indicated spot is not among the areas searched by previous TIGHAR expeditions to the island.

What we suspect:

Our working hypothesis is that the Earhart aircraft was landed relatively safely on the reef-flat at Nikumaroro on July 2, 1937 only to be destroyed a few days later by surf action. Some components and pieces of the aircraft were left on the reef and the remainder was washed into the thick beachfront vegetation where it was not detected by the Navy search planes which flew over the island one week after the disappearance. Earhart and Noonan were marooned on the island and, for any number of possible reasons, were unable to make their presence known to the search planes. We suspect that the apparent pieces of the Electra we have found in the abandoned village were salvaged from the wreckage.

4. Did Earhart and Noonan die marooned on Nikumaroro (Gardner Island)? What we know:

Well, somebody did. We have found contemporaneous British documents which state that sometime in late 1939 Gilbertese laborers found a skull (which they buried) and a Benedictine bottle at a specific location on the island. In October 1940 the newly arrived British Colonial Service officer learned of the discovery, had the skull exhumed, and conducted a search of the location which turned up a partial skeleton, part of the sole of a woman's "stoutish walking shoe or sandal", a box which had once contained a sextant, a part of the sexant (later lost), a campfire, and the remains of dead birds and a turtle. Suspecting that he had found Amelia Earhart, he reported all this to his superiors at the Westwern Pacific High Commission in Fiji. The matter was declared "strictly secret" and the bones and artifacts were ordered shipped to Fiji. In April 1941 the principal of the Central Medical School in Fiji examined the bones and reported that, in his opinion, they were those of a male of European or mixed European descent who was between 45 and 55 years of age, about 5 feet 5.5 inches in height, and of stocky, muscular build. He also said that the poor condition of the partial skeleton made his analysis difficult. As far as we know, the British were not able to explain the presence of this castaway on the island, nor why the bones were thought to be male but the shoe female.

What we suspect:

We suspect that the remains and artifacts found on the island were from the lost Earhart flight. Based upon various clues in the documents, we suspect that the location of the castaway's campsite was not (as we had previously thought) the same place where TIGHAR found similar artifacts in 1991 and 1997. We now suspect that the location was an, as yet, unsearched peninisula known as Kanawa Point. This same feature is associated with an old island legend about an encounter with a ghost which we think may also be tied in to the finding of bones there.

5. Is it possible that a photo exists of Earhart's wrecked Electra on Nikumaroro? What we know:

A photo of uncertain origin shows a wrecked aircraft in a tropical setting which could be Nikumaroro. The airplane's structure appears to exhibit several features unique to the Lockheed Model 10 and, as yet, no disqualifying features have been confirmed. The background in the photo appears to match specific features on Nikumaroro in the place where former residents say airplane wreckage was seen. It is said that on one occasion "some white people came in a government ship... and took pictures of the airplane parts."

What we suspect:

The Wreck Photo may be one of those pictures. We are currently investigating a logged, but unexplained, visit to Gardner Island by USS Swan in November of 1942 during the time when the B-17 carrying Eddie Rickenbacker was missing in the general area.

We have many other lines of investigation in progress which may turn up additional evidence, but this briefing should at least help new forum subscribers know what the heck we're talking about as these topics crop up.

Love to mother,

Subject: The Canton Engine
Date: 9/10/98
From: Forest Blair

To Ric,

Although it would be helpful to know if the Canton engine is Amelia's before Niku IIII, what about spending 4-5 days, maybe fewer, at Canton during the 40-day rental of the motor-sailer if funds do not permit a separate trip to Canton before then? Am assuming you need the boat for eating and sleeping while at Niku so the above idea would cut into your "dig" time. If you would be camping on Niku, however, the diggers wouldn't lose any time. The factor of having the boat not so handy would be very important, though, if it were making a side trip to Canton. What are the thoughts on this?

Is the boat large enough to get a "Bobcat" backhoe aboard? There used to be a dock available at Canton for loading purposes. Could the backhoe even be maneuvered off/on the boat without some lifting device? Does the boat have lifting capability? Would also need to get the engine aboard and stored for trip to port.

Know you need answers, not questions. Just trying to find some reasonable way to get that engine.

Forest #2149

From Ric

We're considering that possibility if nothing better comes up before Niku IIII.

Nai'a is not set up for heavy deck cargo and could not handle a Bobcat - so that's out. We'd be talking about a manual dig using local labor, which is not altogether a bad approach.

The main concern would be leaving a team on Niku while another team went off to Kanton for - what? - maybe a week? I see no reason that it couldn't be done provided we equipped the expedition with the assets to establish a camp on the island thast would be self-sufficient for that period of time. Logistically it would be a pain in the butt, but the benefit of digging the dump might be worth it. From a safety standpoint, we'd probably leave the doctor on Niku. Emergency medical help is a lot more available on Kanton where a Coast Guard C-130 from Hawaii can be there in about seven hours. If you get hurt really bad on Niku the difference in having the ship there or not is, frankly, just a matter of whether or not you die in air-conditioned surroundings.

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