TIGHAR’s fifth expedition to Nikumaroro, known as “Niku IIIIP,” was
conducted July 1–27, 1999 and ran concurrently with an on-site investigation
in Fiji, known as the “Fiji Bone Search,” which attempted to locate
the bones and artifacts known to have been sent there from Nikumaroro in 1941.
This is Part Two of a four part report on what we've accomplished with
this summer’s field work.
- Part One describes the Niku IIIIP expedition, its objectives, costs,
team, and offer a day by day summary of operations.
- Part Two (this
Bulletin) describes the Fiji Bone Search and reports on the findings
of that team.
Three, to be put up on September 6, will describe the interviews
conducted in Fiji after the expedition”s return from Nikumaroro and
discuss the significance of the new information obtained.
Four will present a revised hypothesis and suggest avenues of investigation
which may move the project closer to establishing conclusive proof of
what happened to the Earhart/Noonan flight.
The Tarawa File (TIGHAR
Tracks 13:1) and the files of the Western Pacific High Commission
(WPHC) (TIGHAR Tracks 14:2) document that the human bones found
on Nikumaroro in 1940 were sent to Fiji for analysis, in a box built on
Nikumaroro of kanawa wood (Cordia subcordata). The WPHC files
contain the report of Dr. D.W. Hoodless of the Central Medical School
(CMS) on his inspection of the bones, including his measurements. Though
Dr. Hoodless concluded that the bones were most likely those of a European
male, re-analysis of the measurements using modern anthropological procedures
suggests that they may represent a European female of about Earhart’s
height (TIGHAR Tracks
The last document
we have about the bones is an exchange of notes among Dr. Hoodless, WPHC
Secretary Henry Vaskess, and Sir Harry Luke, the High Commissioner of the
WPHC and Governor of Fiji. On April 5, 1941, Dr. Hoodless says: “I
will take charge of these bones until it is decided what to do with them.”
On April 11 Mr. Vaskess passed Dr. Hoodless’ offer to Sir Harry, whose
responding note directed him to “request him (Hoodless) to retain the
remains until further (notice? [obscured]).” On April 12 Mr. Vaskess asked
the Central Medical Authority to “take action accordingly.” After this,
the WPHC papers (at least, those we’ve found so far) have nothing
to say about the bones.
Needless to say,
it would be useful to find those bones. We could then (it is to be hoped)
extract DNA that could be compared with that of living Earhart relatives.
So on June 26 the Fiji Bones Search got underway.
The 1999 Bones Search
Actually, the search had been underway for several months, thanks to the
enthusiastic cooperation of the Fiji Museum. The Museum is very much
partner in this project. Without the support of its Director, Kate Vusoniwailala,
the Director of its Archaeology Department, Tarisi Vundadilo, and the
whole staff, we would have made little progress in the search at all.
By the time we arrived in Fiji, the Museum had already contacted all
the appropriate government ministries to make arrangements, held press
briefings, and located and interviewed a number of retired physicians
and others associated with the CMS and its successor, the Fiji School
of Medicine (FSM). The Museum made its offices available to us, and took
care of all ongoing contacts with the various elements of government
with which we worked and will continue to work, for the Bones Search
will go on.
Our search focussed
on Suva, the capital of Fiji, on the eastern end of the island of Viti
Levu. Suva is a city of about 90,000 (400,000 in the metropolitan area),
with a rich colonial architectural tradition – in other words, a
LOT of old buildings dating from the time of the WPHC and CMS. Reasoning
that the box of bones might have been tucked away in an attic or basement
or closet in one of these buildings and forgotten, one of our first orders
of business was to find and search the buildings most closely associated
with the Commission and the Medical School. Another high priority was to
examine the collections of human bones kept by the FSM Anatomy Department
and by the Fiji Museum itself, since it was possible that the Nikumaroro
bones might have been absorbed into one of these collections.
| Week One: Bones, Bones, and More Bones
In the first week, the Search team was made up of forensic osteologist
Dr. Karen Burns and me, so much of our work – besides initial meetings
with ministries, press conferences, and the like – was focussed on finding
and examining known collections of bones. Armed with Dr. Hoodless’ measurements,
her calipers, and her laptop loaded with the FORDISC classification program,
Kar first went through all the unprovenienced (i.e.: unknown origin) bones
in the collections of the Museum’s Archaeology Department. No matches.
Next she examined the collection of the FSM Anatomy Department (we’d been
told that this collection had been “disposed of” when teaching methods
changed at the School, but it turned out that a dedicated Lab Manager,
Satya Deo, had saved it). Unfortunately, no matches there either. Incidentally,
the Anatomy Department is housed in a modern building that comprises the
“nerve center” of the FSM and that is named “Hoodless House” in
honor of the doctor himself, renowned as one of the founders of western
Pacific medical practice.
Early on, three
young men generously volunteered their time to assist us. Faiz Ali and
Elaitia Vakarau are students at the Fiji Institute of Technology, while
Steven Brown is a martial arts instructor (all are now TIGHAR members).
While Kar measured bones, “the guys” and I searched old buildings. The
old CMS building is now the Dental Clinic at the Fiji Colonial War Memorial
Hospital. Completely renovated several times over since Hoodless’ time,
it still has an attic that hadn’t been looked at in years. It turned out
to be full of stuff – some of it apparently dating back to World War
II (old field medicine cases and such) – but alas, no kanawa wood box,
no bones. Dr. Hoodless’ residence still stands, too; it’s now
the office of the Student Housing housekeeper. It has an attic, too, but
it turned out to be empty.
About the time we
arrived in Fiji, a skeleton was found in the rainforest near Navua, west
of Suva. As (probably) the most experienced forensic osteologist in several
hundred if not thousand miles, Kar felt obligated to offer assistance to
the police in their investigation of the discovery. Besides, it gave us
a good opportunity to see how bodies decay in an environment not unlike
Nikumaroro’s. She examined the bones at the Hospital, and then we
treked out to the discovery site and recovered more bones. The skeleton
turned out to most likely be that of a tourist who had gone missing back
in April, leaving a suicide note. The interesting thing from our point
of view was that the body had become completely skeletonized, the bones
more or less scattered, some of them chewed by animals, and a number of
them missing, in a mere three months.
| Weeks Two and Three: Searches and Interviews
On July 5, Kar departed for Nikumaroro aboard Nai’a, and
Education Director Barbara Norris arrived. About this time we had a bit
of a flap over the fact that the government had declined to allow us
to search the President’s mansion, where Sir Harry had had his
offices and residence. This not altogether surprising decision (what
would the U.S. do with a Fijian request to search the White House?) was
picked up by the media, which caused some disquiet in the government.
Eventually this got smoothed over, and the work continued. We had run
out of known bone collections, but had plenty of buildings to search,
plenty of archives to inspect, and plenty of people to talk with.
A search of the
Fiji Intelligence Service building (formerly WPHC Bachelor Officer Housing)
yielded no bones. An interview with the head of maintenance for the Public
Works Department resulted in his agreement to get all government maintenance
workers to keep eyes open for the box. We ran down a rumor of “bones in
a box” in the local Masonic Lodge – they were bones used in Masonic ritual,
and didn't match the Hoodless description. In the Museum library we reacquainted
ourselves with Margaret Guthrie’s biography of her father, Dr.
Hoodless, which sent Barb and the guys off to search the old garage that
the Hoodlesses had used for storage. Nothing there but collapsed cardboard
boxes and old tires.
An interview with
Sir Leonard Usher, who had been with the government since 1930, gave
us valuable information about Fiji during World War II, and especially
about Vaskess. Examining the WPHC file, Sir Leonard said that its organization
– elaborately annotated and cross-referenced – was “pure Vaskess.” He
described Vaskess as a “prince of bureaucrats,” who made sure that records
were kept in good order – suggesting that if government had done anything
with the bones on Vaskess’ watch (which ran until after World War
II), it would have been entered in the file.
to Peter MacQuarrie (TIGHAR #1987), Kent Spading (TIGHAR #1382EC), and
Mr. Metuisela Moa, the generous head of the Fiji Intelligence Service,
we had met Mr. Foua Tofiga, who became perhaps our most valuable contact
and, I hope, a good friend. Mr. Tofiga is from Tuvalu, educated in Tarawa,
and he came to Fiji in 1940 to work for the WPHC. He was literally in
Sir Harry’s office when the bones were sent in; he was a bit sorry that
“the English” hadn’t shared the matter with him, the “only brown face”
in the office, but he understood their perceived need for secrecy.
Tofiga. TIGHAR photo by R. Gillespie.
Tofiga described Gerald Gallagher as his great friend; he had assisted
Gallagher in loading the colonial ship Viti for the voyage that
was to take Gallagher to his death on Nikumaroro. He had worked closely
with Vaskess, and said he had seen the sextant box from Nikumaroro, which
Vaskess kept in his office. He travelled to Nikumaroro with Sir Harry in
December of 1941, where he visited Gallagher’s grave; Viti was
on the high seas leaving Nikumaroro when word came of the attack on Pearl
Harbor. Almost in passing, he mentioned that on this trip they had brought
Emily Sikuli away to work in medicine for the WPHC. Emily, he said, was
the daughter of Nikumaroro’s carpenter, who doubtless had built the
kanawa wood box. Needless to say, we were very interested in interviewing
On July 12, Kris
Tague arrived. Since Kris’ speciality is archival work, we’d reserved
most of this kind of work for her. First, however, we went after the old
U.S. military base at Tamavua, where the CMS had moved in 1953; a number
of people had suggested this as a likely place, and Steven Brown knew
of tunnels under the facility, that he’d played in as a kid. Kris, Barb,
and the guys slipped and slid through the tunnels – to no avail – while
I negotiated for, but failed to get, permission to search the War Memorial
Hospital itself. About this time, permission did come through to search
the cellar and bomb shelter at Government House– the President’s
mansion. This search, too, produced no bones, no box.
Mr. Tofiga had arranged a meeting with Emily Sikuli. We met over tea at
the home of Mr. Tofiga and his wife, and began by asking Mrs. Sikuli about
her father. She promptly produced pictures of her parents, said she well
remembered her father’s construction of the box, described it, and then
mentioned, sort of in passing, that the bones that were put in it had been
found “near that airplane wreck on the reef.”
Emily Sikuli. TIGHAR photo by R. Gillespie.
When we picked ourselves
up off the floor, we asked her to continue and she gave us a great deal
of useful information. Since much of this was subsequently duplicated in
a long videotaped interview with Ric, Kris, and Russ, I won’t get
into it here. Suffice to say that the first thing we did upon getting back
to the TIGHAR apartment was to get a radio message off to Nai’a
about looking for wreckage on the reef north of Norwich City.
| Weeks Four and Five: Interviews and Archives
The day of our interview with Mrs. Sikuli was also the day of my departure,
but Barb and Kris carried on. Mr. Tofiga suggested another look at the
Museum’s collection, and it turned out that there were more unprovenienced
bones there, in a collection not maintained by the Archaeology Department.
Some of these looked promising, but when Kar examined them on her return
from Nikumaroro, they turned out not to be those we’re looking for. Barb
returned to the U.S. a few days after I did, and Kris continued, shifting
focus substantially to archival studies whose results she is digesting
as this is written. She also arranged, with Mr. Tofiga, for videotaped
interviews both with Mrs. Sikuli and with Mrs. Otiria O’Brian, widow
of the wireless operator on Nikumaroro.
Obviously, we did not return from Fiji with a box of bones. We did, however,
get a good deal of information about the circumstances surrounding their
sojourn in Suva, and about the individuals involved in whatever it is
that happened to them. We searched a lot of the most obvious places to
look for the bones, and we left with the offer of a reward for information
leading to their recovery. This coupled with the extensive media coverage
we received and the knowledge that’s been spread among government and
Medical School employees should guarantee that people will keep a lookout
for them. And of course, we met Foua Tofiga and Emily Sikuli, who provided
information that we’d never expected to get.
So, where are the
bones? We don't know, of course, but I came away finding it hard to imagine
that they were just thrown away – though of course, in the early days
of the War, almost anything could have happened. One possibility is that
they were stored in caves during the War, and never came out. Lots of
things were thus put away for safekeeping – the Museum’s collections,
for example – and most of the World War II era caves have been sealed
up. The tunnel complexes under both Government House and Tamavua are reputed
to be much larger than those we inspected, but their entrances may have
been blocked and forgotten.
is that they were buried. The Medical School has a pretty organized system
for the burial of the cremated remains of cadavers no longer needed for
teaching; apparently this system has been in place for a long time. Would
unneeded bones have been burned? Maybe. Buried? Maybe. It’s something
They may have gotten
sent on with the WPHC files to Honiara in the Solomon Islands when the
Commission’s offices moved there, or to Tarawa when Kiribati achieved
independence. They may have been sent to London. Or they may still be
languishing somewhere in Suva. There are lots of possibilities to check.
What we need to do now is more archival and interview work to narrow the
range of likely possibilities, and to continue the search.
by Thomas F. King, Ph.D.
For more on this topic: The
Gallagher's Clues; The
Fiji Bone Search