Highlights From the Forum
October 1 through 10, 1998
I’ve been doing some thinking (always dangerous). The following treatise will only make sense if you’re up to speed on the bones that were found on Nikumaroro in 1940. If you’re not (and if you’d like to be) I’d recommend that you read “The Tarawa File.” You might also read “Paradise Lost – A Brief History of Nikumaroro” which can be found in the same place.
Our first indication that bones had once been found on Niku came back in 1989 when we became aware of a 1960 newspaper article which related a tale told by a Coast Guard veteran by the name of Floyd Kilts. It was pure anecdote, describing alleged events from 1938, related to Kilts in 1946 when he participated in the dismantling of the Loran station on Gardner, and told to a San Diego newspaper reporter in 1960. Pretty shaky. Parts of Kilts’ story seemed to track well with the island’s known history. Other parts were clearly not true, and much of it just seemed fantastical.
Ten years of research have produced far more documented information than we ever would have dreamed possible and we can now look at the Kilts Story and make a reasonable attempt to understand how it relates to actual events.
Also, for some time I’ve had a suspicion that a careful reconstruction of known events on Niku during the time period when the skull could have first been found might yield some clues about when it actually WAS found.
Gallagher doesn’t seem quite sure when it was found. In his September 23rd telegram he says the skull was found “some months ago” but it is still buried at that time. In his December 27th letter he says that the skull “has been buried in damp ground for nearly a year.” But it’s not at all clear when the skull was dug up.
I now suspect that the skull was found much earlier – in January of 1939.
I’ve assembled a detailed timeline of the events we know about from the arrival of the NZ survey party on November 30, 1938 until Gallagher’s first telegram referencing the bottle and skull on September 23, 1940.
A few of things really strike me.
It’s also interesting to note that for one week in early 1939 there are 23 people on Niku – the number which Kilts says are on the island at the time the bones are found. Other key elements of the Kilts story are satisfied during this brief period: “latter part of 1938” (well, Jan. of 1939)
These elements of the Kilts story come together only during this time known in the island’s folklore as The Great Search For Water – the first time when there is a real exploration of the island by the Gilbertese.
Here is the Floyd Kilts story as it appeared in the San Diego Tribune on July 21, 1960:
Here is the Floyd Kilts story broken down phrase by phrase.
A better possibility (I think) is that it happened exactly as Kilts says. The skull is found in January 1939 and is reported by Tutu (naturally) to the New Zealand officials who are on the island at the time.
... Searching for ideas
Aside from the Canton Engine and the airplane itself, the sextant box found by Gallagher with that tantalizing number stencilled on it could establish an awfully solid tie between Fred Noonan and Gardner Island. I think it will be difficult to make as solid a tie to Amelia Earhart on the basis of the shoe parts, either those found by Gallagher or by TIGHAR.
Assuming the sextant box was Noonan’s, it may be that the numbers on it (3500 and 1542) are a connection to some ship, but I believe it more likely that they are a connection to Pan American Airlines. Are there any more avenues to explore in an attempt to discover whether Pam Am marked equipment with such numbers?
TIGHAR has searched for sextants and boxes bearing numbers and found only one. That one does have a similar kind of number (3547), hand written – and once belonged to Fred Noonan. I presume that search would have taken note of any bubble sextants that may have turned up as well as marine type sextants.
There may be other things that would have been marked with numbers related to some kind of inventory system. Some such things may still exist somewhere, perhaps in some kind of collections.
Maybe some people who were associated with Pan Am during the late 30s and early 40s are still around and might remember stuff being identified by such numbers.
Does anyone have any thought about what to look for, or where to look, or who might be around who might remember something???
When I first saw a picture of the Pensacola Sextant Box, I did a double back flip! It was spooky! The box was identical to the standard instrument box that Pan Am made, and used until the day they went out of business, for keeping all delicate instruments. On the older boxes, this included the same type of hardware on the box and the dove tail corners. The serial number of the instrument inside was also either written on the top of the box in black ink?, or stenciled on with black paint. It confirmed, in my mind, that the Pan Am pilot who had donated the sextant and box to the museum was telling the truth when he said that he got it on loan from Noonan when he took a navigation course from him. I don't think it was Noonan's personal property but was owned by Pan Am. I doubt that Noonan would have loaned anyone his personal sextant. Especially a pilot! Could it be the sextant and box found on Nikumaroro had been loaned to Noonan by Pan Am for his trip with Earhart, or could it be Noonan had “borrowed” it from Pan Am when he had been instructing navigation?
>We know that island folklore consistently holds that two sets of bones – one male, one female – were found on the island.
It’s pure speculation, but I wonder if the “male and female skeletons” story arises from the attribution of two different sexes to the same set of bones at two different times. The bones are thought by Gallagher to be maybe female, then Isaac and Hoodless decide they’re male, and the way the word of this gets garbled in transmission to the colonists is that there are two bodies, one male, one female. Again, pure speculation, but I don’t think we need to assume the discovery of two skeletons based on the two-body stories.
Love to Mother
But then there’s Bauro Tikana, who says that he was Gallagher’s clerk and interpreter in 1940.
Bauro says (in a fax to me dated August 12, 1991):
Okay, so Bauro’s info is a bit shaky. But if bones were found near the shipwreck, the question is whose bones were they? And how near is near? The Norwich City survivors buried the three bodies that washed up while they were there. It’s possible that later storms uncovered one of those graves or that one of the other eight men lost in the disaster washed up unnoticed.
However, especially because the reports of airplane wreckage seen on the reef and shoreline describe the same general part of the island as the shipwreck, the possibility remains that the “other” set of bones was the other crew member of the Electra.
It’s worth noting that the New Zealand survey party did not report finding any bones in that area (or anywhere else) in late ’38/early ’39. Bauro says that the bones on Nutiran (near the shipwreck) were found “later” (after his arrival with Gallagher in 1940).
I’d like to explain just how we're going about this bone measurement business because it’s pretty interesting.
As everyone knows by now, a partial skeleton found on Gardner Island in 1940 was suspected at the time as being Amelia Earhart. British authorities held the matter “strictly secret” pending further investigation. A British doctor in Tarawa looked at the bones and declared them to be those of an elderly Polynesian male. A few months later, in April 1941, the principal of the medical school in Suva, Fiji recorded the measurements of several of the bones and wrote a report which expressed the opinion that the individual was a middle-aged, stocky, muscular male about 5 ft 5 inches in height. We don’t know what then became of the bones.
However, we do have the measurements taken by the doctor in Fiji. By evaluating those measurements with present-day forensic anthropological information and technology we should be able to assess the probable validity of the opinions expressed in 1941. Leading this investigation is Karin R. Burns, Ph.D.,(TIGHAR #2071) a noted forensic anthropologist now teaching at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Dr. Burns is much in demand by forensic anthropological projects worldwide. (Last month she was in Poland verifying the remains of a relative of American Revolutionary War hero Kazimir Pulaski.)
Independently evaluating the bone measurements taken in 1941 is Richard L. Jantz, Ph.D., of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Dr. Jantz is the co-author of FORDISC, the first interactive computer program for the classification of unknown adult crania according to race and sex using any combination of standard cranial measurements. He is not a TIGHAR member (yet).
As explained by Dr. Jantz:
In addition, the forensics/anthropology/osteology department at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN has agreed to look at the Hoodless data.
We should have the results of these analyses for posting to the forum very soon.
If I remember correctly, you said 11 men died in the Norwich City wreck and that the 24 survivors buried three (?) bodies that later washed ashore. Is there any indication where those three bodies washed up? Long theory, short: If the ship is on the NW side of the reef and IF the 3 (?) bodies washed up on the NW side of the reef, then the remaining bodies – if they ever were washed ashore – would most likely have also arrived on the NW side of the reef. Therefore “dem bones” – which I think you said were found on the eastern side of the reef – were in all likelihood NOT any of the NC crew. So that fact would at least rule out dem bones being the surviving parts of the dearly departed. Is this correct?
Like a lot of forum subscribers, I’m confused about exactly where all of the bones were found. I know you promised a clarification in a later TIGHAR Tracks, but dad-gummit, I can’t wait. Can you give us a sneak preview of a map and some “X’s” created from that decrepit boat anchor of a PC system you refuse to part with?
LTM Dennis McGee 0149
There’s no way to put up a map on the forum and, to tell you the truth, I’m a little hesitant to slap up a map on the internet showing the whole world exactly where we think things are on the island. (TIGHAR members are entitled to a few privileges and you never know when Ed Dames is going to have another vision.)
But let me see if I can clear up the confusion.
As for how and where things would wash ashore, that’s very hard to say with any degree of certainty. The currents around an atoll like Niku are very complex and change with the tides and the weather.
In the past 30-40 years there have been many adventurers and fishermen sailing the South Pacific. During just my year-plus at Canton in 1970-71, we ran across at least three such encounters: 1) an oriental ( Japanese I think) fishing boat needing supplies; 2) a father and son in a trimaran returning from Samoa to Honolulu needing a rest stop and some terra firma; 3) a Russian “research” – make that spy – ship ( the size of a modern passenger liner) that one morning appeared close off our westerly shore.
A chap named Jimmy Cornell in his book Ocean Cruising Survey published by Sheridan House in 1986, moreover, lists over 150 seagoing sail boats that have prowled the South Pacific in our time. Cornell, in fact, interviewed their owners for the writing of his book.
Bottom line: Perhaps Gardner (Niku) was not so untouched by outsiders as we like to think. With its lagoon, it’s easy to think that some of these adventurers and fisherman may have anchored over night just to stretch their legs. The Russians may even have sipped some vodka around a campfire. The Russian ship and more than half of the sailboats had women on board. Who knows how old a pair of shoes might have been that a lady would take on an extended cruise to walk around on boat landings and coral rubble? I have a pair of dress shoes, 19 years old, that I still wear. Please, no comments about style or frugality!
Don’t wish to sound negative on present thinking any more than not being convinced the Canton engine was found on Niku, but believe we must review all possibilities on sources of our artifacts.
No argument there. In the absence of surveillance cameras, we really can’t say with certainty who may have visited the island.
We can, however, put some requirements on the person whose bones were found by Gallagher.
Of course, you can also be put ashore like Ben Gunn and left to survive with nothing but your sextant box and your Benedictine bottle. The few yachties I’ve known have not been people I’d want to spend a lot time with, but I’m not sure they’re THAT bad.
Thanks for the input on Pan Am instrument boxes! It sure makes the box Gallagher found seem like it came from Pan Am... and was probably in the possession of Fred Noonan on the Earhart flight.
Re: The Pensacola Sextant... I think you’re right. Fred would not have loaned his own sextant! It was a very good sextant but it belonged to Pan Am. It was all sort of an “in house” thing.
Since it appears there are no existing records that might definitely connect the Niku sextant box to Fred, I’m inclined to try anything I can to possibly stir a memory of anything at all that might help in that direction. And something that I’m just plain curious about.
It’s my understanding that sextants typically come with boxes. These boxes are often made of mahogany and I’m sure there would be some internal structures to hold the particular sextant in place. I would expect some facilities to hold any accessories... such as inverting eyepieces?
I would expect that Pan Am would have retained the box the sextant came in. They would not have made their own box in this case, would they? If so, I guess they would have put in supporting structures to hold whatever instrument the box was built for.
Gallagher immediately recognized the box found on Niku to be a sextant box, not a general purpose instrument box of some kind. My guess is that it had internal fittings obviously designed to hold a sextant... and that “piece of an inverting eyepiece” that the finder threw away.
I don’t know what I’m hoping for, just sort of rambling on about sextant boxes. Are you by any chance aware of any kind of gatherings of Old Pan Am people? The kind of thing that would provide opportunity to pick a few brains? Maybe someone knows another place to look for old Pan Am records. Maybe someone would remember seeing a memo about Fred Noonan losing still another sextant!
All the best,
While we’re rambling – Your comments got me thinking about the Pensacola sextant and I went back and reviewed the paperwork that came with it. I think I may have come upon a clue to Noonan’s occupational status at the time of his disappearance.
W. A. Cluthe, the former Pan Am pilot who gave the sextant to the museum, states specifically in the affidavit which accompanies the artifact:
“This instrument was borrowed by the undersigned who at the time was studying navigation under Mr. Noonan in preparing for service in the Pacific Division of Pan American Airways, for use in practical navigation.”
Clearly, Cluthe had the sextant in his possession when Noonan disappeared. If the sextant was actually Pan Am property, why didn’t Cluthe return it when the instructor left the company sometime after his last clipper flight (Dec. 7, 1936) and his signing on with the Earhart World Flight (first announced on March 13, 1937)? The conclusion seems inescapable that the sextant did not belong to Pan American but to Noonan personally (just as Cluthe says) and that Cluthe was still “studying navigation under Mr. Noonan IN PREPARING for service in the Pacific Division of Pan American Airways” at a time when we know that Noonan was no longer with the company.
It looks to me like Noonan was teaching navigation to Pan Am employees, or maybe even prospective Pan am employees and supplying his own training aids. There have been allegations that Noonan intended to open a navigation school after the Earhart flight. Was he, perhaps, already teaching navigation under contract to Pan Am?
Mrs. Lillian Crosson recently told me of her impression that Fred Noonan, a friend of her husband (Joe Crosson, chief of PAA’s Alaska Division), was merely on a leave of absence from Pan Am at the time of his disappearance. Whether or not that was the case, it is certainly true that the wife of a senior Pan Am excecutive was not aware of any acrimony between Noonan and the company.
Launching a navigation school with a nice little contract from his former employer seems like a very logical thing for newly divorced and re-married Fred to be doing in the early months of 1937. A chance to hit the headlines again by flying with Amelia Earhart would be just the ticket.
Having his own stock of sextants to loan out to students wouldn’t explain why the Pensacola sextant box looks like a Pan Am box, but it might account for the similarity in the numbers written on the outside of the Pensacola sextant box and the Gardner Island sextant box.
It strikes me that we may be able to test this hypothesis. If Fred opened a new business in California (he and Marie Bea were supposedly going to settle in the Burbank/Hollywood area) he may have needed to get a business license. A record of such a license may still exist. What do you think Noonan Project researchers?
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