Forum artHighlights From the Forum

January 23 through 29, 2000

Subject: Re: Gallagher
Date: 1/24/00
From: Ross Devitt

> Anyone who found the Norwich City survivors' camp would have had to have
> found the groves of cocos on Nutiran, but as you say, coconuts don't do you
> any good if you can't get them down. By 1937 the surviving trees from
> Arundel's planting were mature and very tall. Again, as you say, only green
> nuts have milk and green nuts are still in the tree.

Actually, it's not only "green" nuts that have milk. It's just that green nuts are generally referred to as "drinking" nuts because the milk is fresher and almost "effervescent" and they are a hell of a lot easier to open. It's a whole other taste. However, if I stroll along the beach in the morning and check the fallen nuts, it's not uncommon to find them opened and emptied (apparently by crabs.)

I wonder during your stays on Niku did fallen nuts suffer the same fate? Perhaps a European castaway would find them empty as often as not.

I'm finding the information you provided on the locations of the original trees interesting. If the original groves were all in Nutiran and Ritiati, then "less than 2 miles from there" is getting pretty specific. It would tend to suggest the TIGHAR campfire/shoe parts location, but if that was the spot, I wonder why Gallagher never mentioned the Bauareke Passage as well as the "impenetrable" scrub. The only obvious answer to that is the other side of the lagoon, but then how do you explain the shoes?

Anyway, the plot thickens. This is fascinating stuff.

For anyone who wonders what a "Ren" tree looks like, there's a nice shady one at: Ren Tree (Tournefortia). Looks like it would make a nice "home" for a castaway...


From Ric

That's a nice photo of a "Ren" tree. Thanks.

Bauareke Passage is not much of an obstacle to travel. You just walk around it on the reef at low tide.

If the shoes we found at the Aukeraime site were the real McCoy, but the bone site is over on the other side of the lagoon, then how did the shoes get there? Here's one possible explanation ---

It's late May/early June 1941 and clearing operations are well underway on Aukeraime (as verified in aerial photos taken in June). It's a big project and most of the available labor force is employed there and living in temporary accomodations. Gallagher is about to leave. He knows he'll be seeing the brass back in Fiji and he knows he'll be asked about this whole bone business. He hasn't yet carried out the "organized search" that Vaskess ordered and he doesn't want to say that he has done nothing, so he leaves instructions for the workers to build a base camp at the bone site (which is over on the other side of the lagoon). That's why the base camp across the lagoon is characterized as a "house built for Gallagher", not for his use, but at his instruction.

After he leaves, the workers who are building the base camp find shoe parts very much like the ones Gallagher found earlier. Instead of taking them back to the village, they take them to where their own base of operations is now --- on Aukeraime --- and that's where they stay until we find them many years later.


Subject: Coconut plants
Date: 1/24/00
From: Dennis McGee

Remarks by Tom King, Ross D. and Ric over the weekend regarding the location of coconut groves piqued my interest.

Like many Westerners, I incorrectly assumed coconut trees grew everywhere in the south Pacific. So, when I began to read that the coconut groves were planned only for specific areas on Niku I got curious.

What are the soil, weather, tidal, etc. requirements for a successful coconut grove? Would having that data help in locating the areas Gallagher et. al. was working? While we have identified (by name) the areas they planned to work, were there suitable locations they may have know of but not yet named?

LTM, who is ga-ga over African Violets
Dennis O. McGee #0149CE

From Ric

As Tom King has mentioned, there was considerable debate about whether soil that supported Buka (Pisonia grandis) would also support cocos. Theoretically, any area of Buka forest may have been the subject of such an experiment, and there is still lots of Buka forest on Niku that was never cleared. Our best evidence for what areas were actually cleared and planted is the aerial photography that was taken by various agencies for various purposes over the years.

Subject: Women's Size 10?
Date 1/24/00
From: Patrick Gaston

>All we can say is that the shoe Gallagher found was, in his opinion, a
>largish woman's shoe.

No, the shoe Gallagher found was, in his opinion, not merely "largish" but was "probably size 10". Not 9, not 11. If Gallagher was using British measurements -- and there's no reason to think he would be using anything else -- then this would translate into an (American) women's size 12. I'm willing to believe AE would purchase roomier shoes for use with heavy socks, but 4 to 5 sizes bigger?

Like many TIGHARites, I was initially excited when the existence of the Niku Bones was confirmed. As the months and years go by, however, I'm increasingly of the opinion that they're a red herring. Placing AE's remains at the "southeastern corner" of the island, however loosely that term is defined, simply requires her to do too many illogical things. Not the least of these are leaving the vicinity of the island's only recognizeable landmark and the cache of stores left there by the Norwich City survivors; carrying water in a Benedictine bottle (found in the cache) instead of a canteen or thermos from the Electra; swimming or wading across two inlet channels, knowing this would only hinder her return to the Norwich City and what was left of the Electra. If Gallagher's description of the campsite is credible, then AE also caught and ate several birds and turtles (which contain moisture) yet her condition deteriorated within a matter of days to the point where she was unable to respond to three airplanes swooping low over the island.

In order to reconcile the current Niku Hypothesis with the remains discovered by Gallagher, one also must believe that his quite specific estimate of the shoe's size was only a rough guess; that he didn't know where the southeast corner of the island was; and that Drs. Isaac and Hoodless couldn't tell recently-deposited remains from weathered old bones. Perhaps all of these things can be explained away in isolation but, taken together, it's just too much for me to believe.

Pat Gaston

From Ric

(deep breath) Let's look at this and see how many of these things you can't believe are of your own invention.

You can't believe that Gallagher's "probably a size 10" (equivalent to an American women's size 12) could be consistent with a shoe that was actually an American woman's size 8½ or 9. But it was the opinion of a doctor in Fiji that the shoe pieces Gallagher recovered were from a woman's shoe AND a man's shoe. Gallagher was clearly attributing all of the pieces to one shoe because he made no mention of a man's shoe. In other words, unless he found more shoe pieces later, Gallagher's size estimate was the result of trying to make one shoe out of the remains of two shoes. It's pretty hard to do that without coming with a size that's too big.

You can't believe that AE would leave the vicinity of the island's only recognizable landmark and the cache of stores left there by the Norwich City survivors. What possible significance could the shipwreck have to Earhart or anybody else as a "landmark"? Are you suggesting that someone searching the island would look only around the shipwreck? The cache of supplies was not unlimited and we don't know how long she and/or Noonan may have survived. Once those supplies were exhausted, or possibly even before, it is hard to believe that they didn't explore the island to assess what resources were available to them. You might want to re-read Robinson Crusoe. It's fiction, but it's based upon the real life stranding of Alexander Selkirk, and most of all, it's logical. Crusoe does not stay by his shipwreck (the only known landmark on his island) nor does he stay close by the cache of supplies rescued from the ship. He explores his island to assess his resources.

You can't believe that AE would be carrying water in a Benedictine bottle (found in the cache) instead of a canteen or thermos from the Electra. You are apparently privy to specific information which has escaped our notice concerning survival equipment aboard the aircraft and events surrounding the abandonment of the aircraft. I too, would use a canteen or thermos instead of a Benedictine bottle, if I had a canteen or an unbroken thermos bottle. But I don't know whether Earhart or Noonan had such a thing. Do you?

You can't believe that AE would swim or wade across two inlet channels, knowing this would only hinder her return to the Norwich City and what was left of the Electra. But there's no need for you to believe that. The only one of our three suspect bone discovery sites that would require wading a channel would be Kanawa Point.

You can't believe that AE could have caught and eaten several birds and turtles (which contain moisture) yet her condition deteriorated within a matter of days to the point where she was unable to respond to three airplanes swooping low over the island. But, again, there is no need to believe that. I don't recall suggesting that the failure of the search planes to see Earhart or Noonan was due to their condition having deteriorated to the point where they couldn't respond. I seem to recall several discussions on this forum about how hard it is to see or hear aircraft when you're back in the bush and how long it can take to fight your way out to the beach.

You can't believe that Gallagher didn't know where the southeast corner of the island was. But no one is asking you to believe that either.

And finally, you can't believe that that Drs. Isaac and Hoodless couldn't tell recently-deposited remains from weathered old bones. Well, you've got me on that one. That's just a case of how much faith you want to put in a couple of guys who seem to have gotten just about everything else wrong about the bones.


Subject: Re: Women's Size 10
Date: 1/25/00
From: Ross Devitt

Let's go into some more speculation. I know I'm going to get into hot water here, but I'm going to say it anyway. For a long time I've been of the opinion that perhaps the Electra didn't quite make it to Niku. I have mentioned before that I believe a pilot would try to land close to the shore, and I've also mentioned that at a little over 100kts you haven't got a hope of picking whether the reef surface is smooth enough to land on. The navy pilots almost said as much in their evaluation, suggesting the lagoon was suitable to "ditch".

Now, I'm probably wrong! But if I was landing somewhere like that I'd rather prang the aircraft close to shore and have survival gear and tools on hand than land on a reef and risk losing the plane to the tide.

That said, it's impossible to say what they did as in any emergency it is up to the pilot on the spot to decide the best course of action. Maybe they almost made it, perhaps trying to "go round" in an aborted landing and running out of fuel or something. Whatever happened it appears so far that nothing significant was salvaged from the plane. That suggests a hurried evacuation and perhaps a swim to shore.

What about the "airplane on the reef"? Well, an aircraft that far from the shore sounds to me more consistent with being washed up on the reef than landing on it. How about the radio signals? Well that sort of blows my theory apart doesn't it.

Of course there may be a "stash" of stuff dragged ashore from the Electra, but one would think that the settlers would have noticed it.

In the mean time:

>Placing AE's
> remains at the "southeastern corner" of the island, however loosely that
> term is defined, simply requires her to do too many illogical things. Not
> the least of these are leaving the vicinity of the island's only
> recognizeable landmark and the cache of stores left there by the Norwich
> City
survivors; carrying water in a Benedictine bottle (found in the cache)
> instead of a canteen or thermos from the Electra...

The whole island is only a three miles long. Between Amelia disappearing and the search of Niku a whole week had gone by. Are we to believe that any one of us would sit patiently on one spot on an island for 7 days and not try to find water at least? We also have no idea whether there was a benedictine bottle in the NC cache and certainly don't know if Earhart and Noonan would have found it. It is just as possible that someone gave them a bottle of benedictine as a gift somewhere along the way.

> swimming or wading across
> two inlet channels, knowing this would only hinder her return to the Norwich
> City
and what was left of the Electra.

Ric suggests (from experience) that the Bauareke passage is not a formidable obstacle, and most of the reef can be walked on at low tide on a calm day (in "stout walking shoes"??). A couple of miles in loose coral rubble is about a 3 hour walk, but considerably less on a nice morning on the edge of the reef.

> If Gallagher's description of the
> campsite is credible, then AE also caught and ate several birds and turtles
> (which contain moisture) yet her condition deteriorated within a matter of
> days to ....

This is a bit more sticky. Why was the campsite in that spot? Most of Niku appears to be covered in dense scrub. The fire suggests the means was available to start one! One usually out of habit (and respect for one's safety), starts a fire in a cleared area. Gallagher's description (after you read it a few times) suggests our castaway was in a fairly clear area, with damp ground, and a thick belt of scrub close by. No mention of why he/she couldn't stroll along the beach though!

The "remains of a turtle and dead birds" suggest the person was expecting to live for some time. The moisture in a turtle and some birds is not sufficient to prevent dehydration for any length of time, and the presence of coconuts on the island, but not at the camp site once again suggests a European castaway without the tools to husk a fallen coconut. (A "Polynesian native" would just break off a small tree and husk the nut on the sharp stump).

>the point where she was unable to respond to three airplanes
>swooping low over the island

I live one mile from the airport. There are aircraft taking off and landing all day. Unless they fly very close, even the jets and "Islanders" (which are very noisy) can't be heard from here. For that matter, I've just come from the airport and you can't even hear aircraft at the other end of the runway (this is NOT a big airport by the way). One usually doesn't hear much from a piston engined plane until it is past you and you cop the blast of sound from the exhausts. It is entirely feasible that search aircraft flew right over the top of someone on Niku without them hearing a thing until the aircraft was too close to signal. Especially if that someone had been there a week and was dozing (out of boredom) in the shade of a Ren tree.

Speculation, Conjecture - yes! But just as likely as any other scenario.

An elderly Polynesian native with "a few of his precious possessions he managed to save" including a Benedictine bottle, European shoe parts and a sextant box dying of thirst on an island with over a hundred coconuts? I Don't Think So!


From Ric

I agree that the available information argues against any significant amount of salvage from the Electra. The evidence we have which suggests that the castaway was Mrs. Putnam is that:

1. The castaway seems to have been female (Gallagher and Steenson agree that there was a woman's shoe and modern forensic analysis of the bone measurements suggests that the person was female).

2. The female castaway seems to have been accompanied by a man at some point (Steenson says there were parts of both a woman's and a man's shoe, and island folklore consistently tells of the bones of a man and a woman being found).

3. The castaway(s) seem to have been a European (the presence of shoes, the non-reliance upon coconuts, the opinion of Hoodless, and the modern forensic analysis of the bone measurements).

4. The castaway seems to have had access to the Norwich City cache (Benedictine bottle and corks with brass chains from a small cask) which places the person at some time near the spot where anecdote and possibly photographs place the airplane wreckage.

So we seem to have a European man and woman marooned on the island after November 1929 (when Norwich City ran aground) but before December 1938 (when the first settlers arrived). We have an anecdotal account, possibly verified by photographs, of the wreck of a vessel that may have brought them there -- an airplane. We have found no other evidence of any kind to suggest the presence of any other vessel of any kind wrecked at Gardner island.

After considerable research we know of only one instance of a European man and woman having gone missing in the region. That happened between November 1929 and December 1938, specifically, July 2, 1937. They disappeared in an airplane.

If this mystery was about anybody but Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan it wouldn't be considered a mystery at all, but myths and legends die hard and so the standard of proof we must meet is far beyond what would normally be required. But I digress...

The point is, the fact that no salvaged survival gear from the Electra was apparent at the castaway's campsite may be an indication of the circumstances surrounding the aircraft's arrival and abandonment.


Subject: The 1996 Site
Date: 1/25/00
From: Ric Gillespie

It has occurred to me that, in one possibly important respect, the site that we surveyed in 1996 is different from either of the other two sites we have considered as possible sites of Gallagher's bone discovery. It is located in the narrowest part of the island, that is, where the ribbon of land surrounding the lagoon is narrowest and, therefore, where someone would have easiest and quickest access to both the lagoon and the ocean.

Think about that for a second. You're marooned on a desert island. What you want most is to be rescued, but rescue will most likely come from the sea so you want to keep a vigil on the horizon for any sign of a ship. At the same time, the lagoon is an important resource for catching fish and is also a place to watch for visitors who may have landed on parts of the island that you can't see. You've already had the shattering experience of being caught too far back in the bush when help unexpectedly arrived overhead. You couldn't get out into the open in time to be seen before they left. You're never going to let that happen again. This location has the added benefit of being at the edge of the open, pleasant Buka forest where birds (stupid birds you can walk right up to) abound. The ocean beach on this part of the island is frequented by turtles who come ashore at night to lay their eggs. Another interesting and unique feature of this strip of land is that there is a low hill that runs lengthwise along it and provides shelter on the lagoon side from the punishing wind.

In short, the 1996 site would be a smart place for a castaway to hang out. We recognized that back when we decided to mount an expedition to check it out. Coast Guard stories of a "water collection device", confirmed by forensic imaging of old aerial photos, told us that there was something there and we hoped we would find a cistern fashioned from an Electra fuel tank. Instead we found a rusted steel tank and other artifacts that had obviously come from the village. We wrote it off as a bust, but now it looks like there is at least a reasonable possibility that the village-related stuff was brought there as part of preparations for the "organized search" of the bone discovery site ordered by Vaskess. Of course, in 1996 the whole bone story was still just rumor and anecdote and we knew nothing of Vaskess' order or of the depth of official concern about whose bones had been found.

The 1996 site is a puzzle piece that needs careful re-examination.


Subject: Re: 1996 Site
Date: 1/25/00
From: Tom King

Incidentally, are you sure the half-dug well you saw there in '96 was really a well, and not a hole dug for some other purpose? Like digging up a skull?


From Ric

Now that you mention it, if it was an attempt to dig a well (based on the wells we've seen in the village) is was a pretty half-fast (say that quick) effort. We got pictures. My, my, my ...... curiouser and curiouser .... but I've GOT to get this long-delayed issue of TIGHAR Tracks off my desk before I dive into a re-analysis of that site. A couple more days should do it.

Subject: Re: The 1996 site
Date: 1/25/00
From: Chris Kennedy

In reference to what Tom says, you may also want to consider the proximity of the "half dug well" to salt water sources. I know absolutely nothing about digging wells, but would surmise that if you dig close (however you define "close") to salt water bodies (lagoon/ocean) you are liable simply to get salt water leaching in from these bodies. If other known wells were drilled on the island, perhaps you can compare the distance these were drilled from the lagoon/ocean and compare it with the distance of the half-dug well from the lagoon/ocean. Just a thought, and forgive my ignorance if it makes absolutely no sense. Also, from the postings it appears that the water "collection" device was found at the '96 site----if so, why would you dig a well there, too? Couldn't you just bring up the water from the well when needed (unless you were concerned about the well running dry)?

--Chris Kennedy

From Ric

The wells in the village are much farther from any body of salt water than is the putative half-dug well at the 1996 site. Your point about digging a well when you have a cistern sitting right there is kind of a forehead slapper. Doesn't make much sense, does it?

Subject: Re: The 1996 Site
Date: 1/26/00
From: Tom King

Ric wrote:

>The wells in the village are much farther from any body of salt water than is
>the putative half-dug well at the 1996 site. Your point about digging a well
>when you have a cistern sitting right there is kind of a forehead slapper.
>Doesn't make much sense, does it?

Except a cistern's only good if it rains. If you're really concerned about water you're going to do both a cistern and a well, I should think. But the narrow limb of the atoll IS a kind of weird place for a well. In a coral island what you get is a freshwater "lens" that rides on top of the heavier salt water; there are a lot of factors involved in how fresh and deep that lens is going to be, but surely the width of the land mass above it has to be one of them, and all else being equal, I think Chris has to be right; the closer you are to the shore, the less likely you are to get good fresh water.

Another wholly speculative speculation -- Gallagher and colleagues do the first search of the campsite under the Ren tree, and it's kind of a mess, resulting in the loss of the inverting eyepiece (which it seems like Gallagher must have seen before it was lost; how else could he know that the missing sextant was painted with black enamel?). Upon being directed to make a more thorough search, Gallagher decides he's going to do it by himself. Take his time, avoid confusion and distraction and mixups. But the weather's making up; he may not be able to commute every day, so he has the guys build him a little house, with a cistern....

Of course, what we're doing is talking ourselves into believing that the '96 site is THE ONE, and we've been in this kind of situation before. I think Aukaraime and Kanawa Point (and perhaps other places) have to be kept as live possibilities.


From Ric

Yes. We always fall in love with our latest hypothesis. It's like Mama said --- "You gotta shop around."

Subject: The well
Date: 1/26/00
From: Troy Carmichael

Exactly how deep is the "well?" We have an old abandoned graveyard in the woods on a hill of our property and, either side of the skeletal burial ground, the ground has sunk in, due most likely to the change in density of the compacted earth and subsequent settling over the years (graveyard is unmarked and abandoned for over 50 years). It is interesting that the settling appears to occur either side of the burial, but what makes me curious is:

Could the "well" instead be a depression caused by digging/burial for some other purpose than a well? I would laugh at the possibility of skeletal remains being there, but maybe a search party started the dig site thinking something was there due to the presence of the bones/artifacts they had discovered????? Either way, I would be inclined to excavate the "well" and the ground 18 inches around it. Who knows?

And in regards to the satellite photo of Gardner island, it showed me an excellent view of a pair of shoes--no, wait, they were only mosquitos wearing boots.....

and, BTW, I get the emails for the forum, but where is the forum actually located? I can't find a URL for it anywhere.


From Ric

We know that the first bone found was a skull and that it was buried by the workers who found it. Months later, Gallagher heard about the incident and had the workers take him to the site where he found other bones and artifacts. Later, he dug up the skull. Our current speculation is that the feature we had assumed was a half-dug well is, in fact, where the skull was dug up.

BOING! Just had an idea. One good way to test that hypothesis would be to carefully search that hole for teeth. We know that many were missing from the skull when Gallagher got his hands on it. And a tooth can be an excellent source of mitochondrial DNA. Talk about a smoking gun....

Or maybe the well is where Gallagher found the shoe parts, hence "The Well of the Soles", or am I mixing up my mysteries?

The Forum is an email group, not a website. It has no URL. The TIGHAR website is at but the Earhart Forum It's sort of a Zen thing.


Subject: The Well of the Soles
Date: 1/27/00
From: William Webster-Garman, Tom King

Based on all I've read here, I do think there is a reasonable possibility that excavating that depression might yield teeth from the skull that Gallagher recovered (that is, dug up).

william 2243

From Tom King

Good idea about the teeth. But what other possibilities are there for the origin of the hole? Planting a coconut tree? Digging out a stump? I know, I can't think of many, either....

From Ric

Okay, what holes have we seen on Niku? There are huge pits on Nutiran and in the village used for growing food plants (babai), and there are not-so-huge but still-pretty-big holes that were probably wells. We've seen a series of regularly-spaced small depressions over in Tekibaia where old coco stumps were apparently removed, and we've seen a number of medium-sized unexplained pits near the shoe site in Aukeraime.

One thing seems apparent. If you dig a hole on Niku, it pretty much stays dug unless somebody intentionally fills it in (assuming, of course, that it's not out near the beach where it can be filled in by overwash). If we make the assumption that Gallagher did not fill in the hole made by the exhumation of the skull (why would he?), then that hole still exists somewhere on the island.

The hole at the 1996 site is anomalous --- that is, it's the only hole around there so it's not part of land clearing project where people are grubbing out old stumps or digging a series of test pits for some reason. When you think about it in the context of the rest of the island, as holes go, it's a rather interesting hole.


Subject: Noonan & PAA
Date: 1/28/00
From: Jerry Hamilton

One of the little Noonan mysteries is why he left Pan Am at the end of 1936. We know his last recorded flight with PAA was a Manila trip that arrived back in California on Dec. 7, 1936. At the end of February he was in El Paso establishing residence for his divorce and by mid-March he had joined Earhart. Some reports suggest he was fired, possibly due to his alleged alcohol problem. We now have an account of his departure which I think carries a lot of validity.

William Grooch was a PAA pilot during Noonan's years there and also a good friend of Edwin Musick, the head PAA pilot. Musick developed all the training and operational procedures for PAA and flew the early Manila survey flights. Obviously, he spent a lot of time with Noonan, his lead navigator. In 1939, a year after Musick was killed in the crash of the Samoan Clipper, Grooch wrote a book about him (From Crate To Clipper). He indicates he used information from Musick's personal files, provided by his widow, and talked with others at PAA. Unfortunately, he does not reference his sources specifically.

On pages 212 - 214 he recounts the situation leading to Noonan's departure. They were flying weekly schedules to Manila and Musick realized it was taking a toll on the crews. The book says Musick noted that, "On the outbound voyage the crew had reacted normally; then, as they wearied of the long grind, tempers became frayed, movements sluggish. It was an effort to remain awake while on duty." The Manila trip was 12 days of flying without proper rest intervals and the pilots were averaging many more hours per month than the limits established by Department of Commerce regulation. The book further describes the, "...growing unrest among the junior pilots. They contended that the work was far more difficult than that of other airlines; compensation was inadequate and the order of promotion vague. Ed felt that they had a just grievance...He championed their cause with company officials..." However, PAA did not respond to the problems and Grooch reports that Musick said, "We'll just have to be patient until they straighten out a few things in Alaska, China and South America." To which he says, "Fred Noonan said, 'We've lived on promises for a year. I'm through.' He resigned immediately." The book is unclear about the specific dates of Noonan's resignation.

Until we get something more definitive, I'm sticking with this story. As an aside, there is no mention of FN and alcohol in this book.

blue skies, -jerry

From Ric

This is by far the most contemporaneous (1939) account of Noonan's departure we've ever come across. Does a resignation letter still exist, buried somewhere in PAA's files? Most logically it would be in Noonan's personnel file but, as far as I know, there are no such files among the papers at the University of Miami.

This is excellent work Jerry. How did you come across Grooch's book?

Subject: 1996 Site Description
Date: 1/28/00
From: Ric Gillespie

As forum readers will recall, we are considering the possibility that a site surveyed and dismissed by TIGHAR in 1996 may, in fact, be the place where the bones of a castaway were found in 1940.

The site surveyed by TIGHAR in February 1996 is located on the northern coastline of the atoll about 1,000 meters from the extreme southeastern tip. In this area the ribbon of land surrounding the lagoon is at it's narrowest, spanning only a little over 100 meters from lagoon shore to ocean beach. Today the region is solid scaevola ("te Mao") with scattered tournefortia ("Ren") but aerial photos show that in June 1941 there was a band of Pisonia grandis ("Buka") behind the beachfront bulwark of scaevola. The presence of many old fallen Buka trunks today confirms that the area was once open forest such as still predominates just a few hundred meters further along the coastline to the northwest.

TIGHAR's attention was first drawn to this area in 1990 by anecdotal accounts from Coast Guard veterans who told of coming upon an abandoned "water collection device" while out exploring along the shore. The device was said to consist of a tank , possibly metal, with a covering of some kind rigged above it on poles so that rainwater would drain into it. There was said to be a pile of bird bones and feathers nearby and a place where there had been a small fire. We speculated that this could be a survival camp with a cistern fabricated from one of the aircraft's fuel tanks and, during our 1991 expedition (Niku II) we made a concerted but unsuccessful effort to find it.

Late in 1995, forensic imaging of aerial photographs of the area taken in 1941 indicated the presence of manmade objects in a particular spot within the suspect area. Guided by the enhanced photos, a short (4 days on the island) expedition to Nikumaroro in February 1996 succeeded in locating the site but we were disappointed to find that the tank and several other artifacts nearby were clearly associated with the British colonial settlement, not an aircraft. Detailed measurements were made and the objects and features found were photographed and videotaped. Five artifacts were collected (see below). It appeared that the expedition had disproven the hypothesis that the site had been an Earhart/Noonan survival camp.

This is what was present in 1996:

About 25 meters into the bush from the vegetation line along the lagoon shore was a steel tank measuring 3 feet square by 4 feet high. It was painted white with the words "Police" and "Tarawa" dimly legible in blue. The corners and bottom were very rusty and the tank had not been watertight for a long time. The top was open, apparently rusted away, and in the bottom lay a steel ring which had clearly once been the fitting for a heavy round steel hatch that lay on the ground nearby with the words "Baldwin Ltd. - Tank Makers - London" molded into it. In the bottom of the tank were six coconut shell halves which had apparently been used as drinking cups. There were no coconut trees in the area.

On the ground beside the tank were three wooden poles, each roughly two meters long, a few very rusted scraps of corrugated metal, and the base of an unusual -looking light bulb (which we collected and have as Artifact 2-3-W-3). About three meters from the tank was a small "Ren" tree at the base of which was a scattering of very dry bird bones. About seven meters from the tank, on the side away from the bird bones, was a depression in the ground roughly 3 meters across by less than a meter deep. The coral rubble in the bottom of the hole was quite loose, suggesting that the hole had once been deeper but the sides had slid down. At the time, we speculated that the hole represented an abortive attempt to dig a wel. Lying amid the loose coral rubble in the bottom of the hole was a spent .30 caliber rifle cartridge with the number "43" on its base (collected as Artifact 2-3-W-4). This is consistent with the M-1 carbines carried by the Coast Guard and reportedly used to shoot at birds.

Beginning about 15 meters from the tank, going toward the ocean beach, and scattered over the next 24 meters were:

  • three small pieces of very fine copper screening. ( Sample collected as 2-3-W-1)
  • a dark brown four-hole button 15 mm (a little over a half inch) in diameter. Material uncertain. (Collected as 2-3-W-5)
  • a broken finished wooden stake approximately 1 inch square in cross section and perhaps 18 inches long.
  • an empty, very rusted can about the size and shape of a can of car wax.
  • a flattened roll of tar paper with green roof shingle material on one side.
  • an irregularly shaped sheet of asbestos (?) roughly a 18 inches square by 1/4 inch thick. ((fragment collected as 2-3-W-2)
  • the rusted remains of a steel barrel or drum.
  • a broken shard from a white porcelain plate
Within a few days we'll put a Research Bulletin up on the TIGHAR website which will include photos of the features described above; later, another Bulletin will include a site map and photos of the artifacts.


Subject: Niku Landing Site: Beach or Coral Reef?
Date: 1/28/00
From: Ron Bright

Re: Devitt's theory of landing on the reef or beach

Let me get this straight.

I've flown some 22 non-stop hours, without sleep, I'm lost in the South Pacific, I've missed my destination by 400 miles, no one knows where I'm at or whether I'm flying north or south, I'm exhausted, I"m out of gas, my radio doesn't work, I can't receive anything, I'm yelling frantically almost incoherently into the mike my LOP, and then I see a small island ahead with a beach and an outer coral reef of unknown surface and unknown tidal action so I elect to land on the reef because I owe money on my visa (plane repairs) and my future career depended on me to continue around the world.

Amazing.(If you were serious) I'm not a pilot but I think human survival instinct may prevail in this case and I'd go for the safest landing spot and to hell with the Electa. George and Purdue will buy me another one. Why attribute such an altruistic motive to AE when Devitt's scenario works pretty well: she simply found the closest easiest spot to land in exigent circumstances ---the reef.

Ron Bright

From Ric

Well, first let's accept that anytime we try to put ourselves in someone else's shoes we're hangin' out a mile, but we can at least be careful about defining what those shoes were probably like.

Several aspects of your characterization of Earhart's circumstances are not accurate. If she is coming up on Gardner she has not "missed her destination by 400 miles", she is following a rational contingency plan. She is not out of gas if she is still in the air (unless you wat to play Elgen Long's game of specifying an exact moment for fuel exhaustion). And she is not yelling frantically and almost incoherently into the mic. (You've been reading those Earhart books again.) Even Warner Thompson in his demonstrably biased "Radio Transcripts Earhart Flight" characterizeds her last transmission as "hurried, frantic, and apparently not complete." and says that "toward the end Earhart talked so rapidly as to be almost incoherent." In Chief Radioman Leo Bellart's interview with Elgen Long in 1973 he mentioned nothing about the way Earhart's voice sounded.

The truth is that Earhart was maintaining her radio schedule. Thompson's behavior exhibits much more panic than does Amelia's. It is Itasca that transmits when it should be listening, perhaps blocking Amelia's signals, and it is Itasca that abandons its station at Howland to go searching to the northwest an hour and twenty minutes before the airplane is officially overdue.

As for whether a pilot's priority would be his or her own safety or the well-being of the airplane, I can only tell you what I've learned in 35 years as a pilot, but more importantly, in 12 years as an aviation accident investigator. As a rule, military pilots and pilots of fully insured aircraft will happily sacrifice the machine if they think it will increase their chances of survival. Pilot/owners who have a big emotional or financial investment in their aircraft will reliably take the most Godawful and almost suicidal chances in an emergency in the hope of not damaging their baby.


Subject: Re: Niku Landing Site: Beach or Coral Reef?
Date: 1/28/00
From: Alan Caldwell

Ric, during my flying career I've been in a couple of tense situations and I can tell you talking to someone outside of my plane was the last priority I had. First came flying the machine then navigation. After a whole lot of figuring and planning came telling someone what I was going to do. That priority was during modern times when radio communications were good. In AEs case I don't know if she ever had two way communications with anyone after leaving Lae. She may have exchanged chats with Lae but if so I missed the comments. In any case she did not have two way after that nor did she have DF at any time during the whole flight that I am aware of. Given that I think a radio transmission would have had near zero priority. She probably broadcast her intention to head for Gardner in the blind and MAY have similarly broadcast reaching the island. Clearly we have no evidence anyone heard such transmissions. Had she been desperately low on fuel she most certainly transmitted that info on every frequency she had. I would have. Nothing in the known transmissions indicate to me she was in really emergency conditions. And I agree her priority was to save their fannies at whatever cost to the plane.


From Ric

Ever had an inflight emergency in an airplane you owned and on which you had no hull insurance?

Subject: Re: Niku Landing Site: Beach or Coral Reef?
Date: 1/29/00
From: Alan Caldwell

> Ever had an inflight emergency in an airplane you owned and on which
>you had no hull insurance?

Nope. All my airplanes were bought and paid for by you and a few other lucky taxpayers. But I can assure you "your" plane would have had to be aflame and falling apart for me to step outside and depend on one parachute. Seriously most of the guys I knew would do their best to save the plane if possible. My C-130 caught fire (in the cockpit) on take off with 80 passengers on board at Pleiku, VN. I had it back on the ground in record time. My passengers were Army pilots and two chaplains. They were considerably unnerved to be in a 90 degree bank at T.O. airspeed about 100 feet off the ground. So was I. But your point is well taken. I suppose I would try to save my plane EVEN if it was insured if at all possible. Folks cash it in every so often trying unsuccessfully to do just that.


From Ric

Here's a classic example from a loss I handled back in --- oh, maybe 1978. Airline pilot is picking up some extra cash flying night cancelled-check runs in a Piper Navajo. The airline doesn't permit moonlighting so he has to keep this quiet.

One fine summer's night miscommunication with a line-boy and inattention to detail result in him running out of gas over southeastern Pennsylvania. What to do? What to do? There's no airport within gliding range but by the light of the silvery moon he can see a nice big open farm field aligned nicely into the wind. Now--- a night landing, off-airport, in a heavily loaded twin is a hairy prospect in anybody's book and most people would elect to go in wheels-up to minimize the length of time one is careening across the ground, but not our hero. He reasons that if he can get her down in one piece he can find some gas and take off again and maybe not lose his job airline job. So down go the wheels and he sets up his approach to what? (the envelope please....) Plowed Field International. As the mains settle into the soft dirt the nose gear comes slamming down, sticks into the ground, and the airplane does a perfect flip over its nose and onto its back. The fortunately uninjured pilot is thoroughly trapped with about a ton of cancelled checks between him and the cabin door and gets to spend the rest of the night in the upside down cockpit until Mr. Farmer shows up in the morning. An incident which could have ended in bent props and some buckled belly skins instead resulted in the total loss of the machine (not to mention the pilot's airline job).

Earhart's situation was not all that different. She was highly motivated to preserve the airworthiness of the machine so that she could continue her journey. It was certainly NOT the case that she could snap her fingers and Purdue would provide her with another airplane. Far otherwise. Losing the Electra would almost certainly end her flying career and flying was AE's life. Landing anywhere with those wheels retracted would be like death itself.


Subject: Amelia's Choice: Coral Reef or Beach
Date: 1/29/00
From: Ron Bright

Based on your expertise particularly as a pilot, I must defer to your explanation of Amelia's predicament during the last two or three hours of flight as she ran her LOP towards Niku. I may have described her situation too subjectively and in hyperbolic terms, i.e., talking incoherently, etc. (I promise not to read any other books).

But objectively she clearly missed her original destination as she radioed she was circling and must be on you messages, believing she was close to Howland and that she was running low on gas (or had 1/2 hour left according to some logs).

As you suggest, she headed southeast to Niku more than likely a planned contingency if she missed Howland.

The entire hypothesis of TIGHAR's theory must rest on Amelia's choice, perhaps one of exigent circumstances or plan, to land on the outer reef and remain for three days or so (to account for the radio signals); eventually Amelia and Noonan (if alive) made it to the mainland and died sometime later. If she had landed on the beach surely the aircraft search or the colonists some three years later would have found some evidence of the Electra.

Hopefully, if the recovered artifacts, the bones and catspaw heel, can be positively linked to Amelia we can throw out the other theories. (For awhile the theory that the Japanese shot her down and recovered her sounded pretty good !!!)

Ron Bright

From Ric

Let me put it this way:

We began this investigation 12 years ago based upon the navigational logic that showed Gardner Island to be the most likely place for Earhart and Noonan to have ended up and our belief, at that time, that no one had ever really looked in the most likely place. Now we know that not only did people look there but that they found things that seem very difficult to explain if it was NOT evidence of Earhart, Noonan and the Electra. We too have found things that fit that same description.

Along the way we have also discovered that many, if not most, of the accepted "facts" about the Earhart disappearance are wrong --- for example, she almost certainly did not say she was circling nor did she ever say she had only ½ hour of gas left.

Over the years other theories have gone in and out of fashion, but fashion has little to do with reason and much more to do with the cultural climate. The Japanese -capture nonsense never had any basis in fact but in the late '60s and early '70s it did tap into bitter feelings left over from World War Two and Cold War paranoia that nothing is as it seems. The re-emergent popularity of the crashed-and-sank theory began in the late '70s as a backlash against the ridiculous excesses of the conspiracy crowd. Most recently it has gotten something of a boost from the pseudo-scientific calculations published by Elgen and Marie Long, the endorsement of the National Air & Space Museum, and the credibility implied by Timmer And The Treasure Hunters' willingness to dump a million bucks or so into the Pacific.

What has always been lacking in these other investigations of the Earhart/Noonan disappearance is an academically sound, peer reviewed, publicly accessible approach to the problem. That's what makes the Earhart Project unique and that's what makes the Earhart Project successful in uncovering new information. It's not just that TIGHAR espouses a different theory than do other researchers. Our methodology is fundamentally different. We have said from the beginning that, historically, what happened to Earhart and Noonan is not particularly important. What IS important is the opportunity the popularity of this mystery presents for us to practice and demonstrate the scientific method of inquiry.


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