Volume 15, 1999
pp. 25 – 37
In TIGHAR’s efforts to find a conclusively identifiable piece of the Earhart aircraft, it would be difficult to overstate the potential importance of Emily Sikuli’s recollections. If credible, her testimony confirms the general scenario that TIGHAR had already deduced from other sources. She provides specifics that not only fill in the picture of what really happened, but may enable us to determine where we should look to find what we’re looking for.
But Emily’s information is anecdotal. It is a reminiscence of events that occurred over half a century ago and, in principle, is no more credible than the memories of those who claim to have seen Earhart imprisoned on Saipan. How do we assess the accuracy of her recollections?
The first step is to pay close attention to what she said. Mrs. Sikuli was interviewed twice, once on July 15, 1999 by Project Archaeologist Tom King and again twelve days later on July 27th by Ric Gillespie. The records of the two interviews, separated by more than a week, and conducted by different researchers, provide a good check on how consistent Emily was in her story.
Transcripts of both interviews are presented as appendices at the back of this issue of TIGHAR Tracks.
Emily’s startling description of airplane wreckage on the reef at Nikumaroro merits close examination. Although she had apparently never heard of Amelia Earhart and had little or no information about TIGHAR’s investigations, she nonetheless described a situation which not only fit our hypothesis (that the aircraft was landed on the reef flat off the western end of the island), but also provided details (a specific location and appearance) which seem to explain what has always been the most disturbing aspect of the puzzlehow could the airplane have escaped the notice of the various Westerners who later visited the island?
If Emily’s recollection is accurate, it seems that the landing was made on the outer portion of the reef-flat just north of the shipwreck. Although this is one of the few areas where the reef is smooth enough to permit a safe landing, it is also perilously close to the breakers along the reef edge. Calm conditions could have permitted the sending of radio transmissions for as much as a few days, but the building of any significant swell on the ocean could have resulted in surf that quickly reduced the Electra to the sort of nondescript debris Emily describes. Visible only at low tide, rusty rather than silver-colored, not far from the shipwreck, and masked to view from the populated part of the island by the shipwreck itself, what little remained of the airplane might have been easily missed, or if seen, dismissed by anyone who did not have occasion to view it up close. The reef edge is a dangerous place and the only people with a reason to go there were the Gilbertese fishermen – so they were the only ones who knew. Later accounts of bits and pieces found along the shoreline, including some of TIGHAR’s own discoveries, could be chance encounters with a widely scattered debris field. It may be that Emily has given us the missing piece of the puzzle and our best clue yet as to where we should look for that elusive “smoking gun” artifact that will prove the case. It’s a tantalizingly tidy explanation, but it’s just a good story unless verified from sources that are not reliant upon the ever-fallible human memory.
|The Carpenter’s Daughter?|
In evaluating any anecdotal account it is essential to verify as many details of the testimony as possible through contemporary written records. This process is not intended to disparage the sincerity of the witness but rather to get a general impression of the reliability of his or her memory of the events in question. If our interrogation of Emily’s credibility seems rigorous it is only because her testimony is potentially so important.
To begin, we must ask the most basic question and establish that Emily is who she says she is. Emily says that her father Temou Samuela was the island carpenter on Nikumaroro. Photographs she showed us leave no doubt that Temou was her father, but was he the island carpenter? Dr. Duncan Macpherson’s first hand account of the death of Gerald Gallagher, dated November 9, 1941, specifically mentions that “...Temou (native carpenter at Gardner island) proceeded to prepare a casket for the remains.” It would seem that Emily is, indeed, the carpenter’s daughter.
The next task is to determine whether Emily herself was on Nikumaroro and, if so, just when she was there. This allows us to put her alleged experiences in a specific historical context and check them against known events.
|Date of Departure|
|We are able to confirm Emily’s presence on the island and establish the date of her departure by means of a rather obscure document which we examined in November 1998 at the archives of the Western Pacific High Commission in England. The provisioning records of His Majesty’s Fijian Ship (HMFS) Viti show a charge of two shillings per diem for the transport of a “nurse” by the name of “Sengalo” from Gardner Island on November 30, 1941 to Suva, Fiji (11 days). Emily’s first name in Tuvaluan is “Segalo,” pronounced (and often spelled) “Sengalo.” Is this Emily?|
|RG:||Tell me about when you left Nikumaroro, when you went away. How did that happen?|
|ES:||That was the year we came away. It was the government that made that decision. Because we sat a test and it was decided that it was not practical to send us to Tarawa but to bring us to Suva. [In an earlier conversation she had said that, as a teenaged girl, she assisted as midwife at several births on Nikumaroro and had later attended nursing school in Suva.]|
|RG:||Was it your whole family or just you?|
|ES:||It was I only.|
|RG:||So there was a test and you were selected because of this test?|
|ES:||Yes. That is why I came.|
|RG:||Mr. Tofiga, I understand that you remember this. You were there at that time. Is that right?|
|FT:||I was aboard the Viti. We traveled from here [Suva] in the late November or early December of 1941. I never forget the date because we were at Nikumaroro when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.|
|In the earlier interview Tom King had asked:|
|TK:||Where you there when Mr. Gallagher died?|
|ES:||No, I wasn’t. [she has a brief conversation with Mr. Tofiga] NO! I WAS there. When I was picked up [to go to Suva to attend nursing school] he had already died. It was Sunday morning, we were getting ready for church, December 7th, when I left. [Emily traveled to Suva with Tofiga who remembers that she cried all night long and he felt helpless to comfort her.]|
That Mr. Tofiga was aboard Viti on that voyage is confirmed by the published diary of High Commissioner Sir Harry Luke who, in November/December 1941, made a tour of the Phoenix settlements in the wake of the death of Officer in Charge Gerald Gallagher the preceding September. “I managed to get on board the Viti by midnight of the 19th [November] and sailed at once. The party consisted of Dr. MacPherson, ’Mungo’ Thomson ..., with Tofinga, the Ellice Islander clerk from the High Commission, as interpreter.”
The ship’s records show that Viti was at Nikumaroro on Sunday, November 30, 1941, not Sunday, December 7th, so Tofiga’s memory of hearing about the Pearl Harbor attack while at Nikumaroro is apparently not accurate. However, Emily’s recollection that she left on a Sunday is correct. Clearly the nurse “Sengalo” is Segalo Samuela, now Emily Sikuli, and she left Nikumaroro on November 30, 1941.
|Date of Arrival|
|Pinning down just when the Samuela family arrived on Nikumaroro is a bit more difficult. Unfortunately, we don’t have passenger manifests for all of the ships that transported settlers and skilled artisans for the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, but transportation of personnel and supplies was enough of a problem for the struggling colony that the comings and goings of ships are fairly well documented. Emily was unable to give us a firm date for her arrival at Nikumaroro, but there are clues in what she remembers, and does not remember, which make it possible to constrain the date of her arrival.|
|TK:||When did you get to Nikumaroro?|
|ES:||We had not been on Beru Island a year when we were sent to Nikumaroro. Perhaps 1938-39. In less than 3 years, I left Nikumaroro.|
|Beru, in the southern Gilberts, served as a staging area for the settlement of the Phoenix Group. We don’t know when Temou and his family came to Beru but we do know that Emily left Nikumaroro in late 1941. Her “less than 3 years” on the island puts her arrival not earlier than late 1938 but, in fact, there were no women at all on Nikumaroro until April 1939.|
|TK:||What caused your family to move to Nikumaroro?|
|ES:||Instructions from the government to build houses and plant coconuts. Uncle Kemo went to Manra to build the hospital building and water tank.|
There are a couple of good clues here. The big push to build houses and plant coconuts on Nikumaroro was in the early days of the settlement – from the arrival of the first women and children in April 1939 through Gallagher’s death in September, 1941. “Uncle Kemo” is Jack Kima Petro (sometimes spelled Kemo Pedro). He was a half-Portugese construction specialist who acted as foreman for many of the building projects in the G&EIC and PISS. He was on Gardner in early 1939 building the 10,000 gallon water collection cistern which still stands today, and Emily seems to imply that he was on Beru when she left for Nikumaroro. Gallagher’s proposal for the hospital to be built on Sydney Island (Manra) is dated July 4th, 1939 and was drawn up on Beru. He left Beru on July 11th and went to Fiji for medical treatment and administrative duty, returning on November 7th. Gallagher left Beru to go back to the Phoenix Group on January 7,1940 and his “Progress Report, First Quarter 1940” states that the building of the hospital on Sydney was underway between January and March. Emily’s correlation of her arrival on Nikumaroro with the departure of “Uncle Kemo” to build the hospital on Manra seems to place the event in January 1940.
Further support for this hypothesis is found in another passage from Gallagher’s “Progress Report First Quarter 1940.” In describing the settlement on Gardner he says: “Apart from an expert canoe builder and his family of four, there have been no additions to the population of Gardner since the last report was written.” (This would have been Lands Commissioner Harry Maude’s Second Progress Report dated November 29, 1939.) Curiosity about this statement is what prompted me to ask Emily the following series of questions:
|RG:||Any brothers or sisters?|
|ES:||Three brothers, I was the only girl.|
|RG:||Did the whole family come to Nikumaroro?|
|ES:||Only three of us. Our eldest brother was at Tarawa.|
|RG:||Did your father ever work at building canoes?|
|ES:||Yes, he used to build canoes.|
|RG:||Was that part of his job on Nikumaroro?|
|ES:||Not while I was there. He did build small model canoes as presents.|
|RG:||Do you remember what ship brought the family to Nikumaroro?|
|ES:||It was the government ship, Kiakia. Not a big boat.|
There was, indeed, a small government ship named Kiakia which was used for administrative work.
Royal Colony Ship Kiakia. Photo courtesy E. Bevington.
|RG:||Were there many people who came with you?|
|ES:||A policeman and his family came also.|
|Gallagher doesn’t mention a policeman and family but they could have been destined for one of the other islands.|
|RG:||Was there ever a time when there were Europeans who came to the island to do things?|
This would seem to confirm that she arrived after the USS Bushnell’s survey of Gardner Island which was conducted from November 28 to December 5, 1939.
Gallagher’s return to the Phoenix Group from Beru in January 1940 is the only known voyage which fits all of the conditions of Emily’s description. It is not clear from the record what ship was used, but it could well have been the Kiakia. In his “Progress Report, First Quarter 1940” Gallagher mentions that he stopped briefly at Gardner in January but doesn’t give the exact date. Other correspondence mentions that he arrived at Hull on January 14th and at Sydney, his final destination, on the 18th. Logically, that puts him at Gardner on or about the 12th. Unless better documentation turns up to the contrary, we will use mid-January 1940 for the supposed date of Emily’s arrival at Nikumaroro.
It is not uncommon for older people in Oceania to have difficulty placing their year of birth because they tend to have fewer points of reference, or connections to recorded dates, than is common in Europe and America. Emily’s statements about her age while she was on the island are not consistent. At one point she said, “I came in 1938-1939, when I was 11 years old” which would make her year of birth 1927 or 1928. When Tom King asked, “How old were you when your father built the box?” she said, “14 years old, not yet 15.” The box was built in the fall of 1940, so that would mean that she was born in 1926, but in response to my specific question: “What year were you born?” she replied, “1923” which would make her 16 or 17 at the time of her arrival and 17 or 18 when she left to attend nursing school. Because most people can more reliably relate the year of their birth than how old they were at the time of a particular event in the past, and because the older age is perhaps more credible for a young woman to go away to school, it seems most likely that Emily was a youth of about 17 during the period in question. In either event, she was a youth or young adult, not a child.
Having established fairly reliably that Emily lived, as a youth, on Nikumaroro from mid-January 1940 to November 30, 1941 with her father Temou, the island carpenter, and her mother and two of her three brothers, we can now review the context in which her experiences took place.
When Emily and her family arrived on Nikumaroro in January 1940, the island’s population was made up of 16 men, 16 women, 11 boys and 15 girls, for a total of 58 individuals. Of the 16 men, one was the Native Magistrate, and one was a medic, known as a Native Dresser. The remaining fourteen were Gilbertese laborers who, with their wives and children, hoped to eventually become landowners in the new colony. Like pioneers everywhere, they were poor people who had come to the wilderness to find opportunity and a better life. They were Protestant Christians, as were Emily and her family, for the London Missionary Society had established a firm hold in both the Ellice Islands and the southern Gilberts. The laborers spoke the Gilbertese language and had little or no English. We didn’t ask but we must presume that Emily’s father, an Ellice Islander sent by the government to help people to whom he was a foreigner, spoke at least some Gilbertese.
We don’t have the name of the Native Dresser. In the British colonial system there were two categories of medical certification for indigenous people. “Native Dressers” received training in basic health, hygiene, and first aid. “Native Medical Practitioners” received more extensive instruction and served virtually as physicians for island communities between rare visits by the colony’s Medical Officer who was a British doctor.
|The Onotoa Man|
The leader on Nikumaroro, whom Emily calls “the Onotoa man,” was the Native Magistrate and overseer Teng (Mr.) Koata. Formerly Native Magistrate on the island of Onotoa in the southern Gilberts, Koata had been recruited by Lands Commissioner Harry Maude to help establish the settlement on Nikumaroro with the understanding that it would be a temporary assignment. Koata, whose “exceptional qualities of loyalty and leadership had been proved in the Onotoa religious troubles of 1931” (Maude, Of Islands And Men) had been one of the senior Gilbertese delegates on the original voyage in October 1937 when Maude, assisted by Cadet Officer Eric Bevington, evaluated Gardner, Hull, and Sydney Islands for future settlement. Koata also helped Maude and Gallagher install the first ten-man work party on the island in late December 1938 and returned to take up residence on the island with his family in June 1939. He left Nikumaroro in 1940 on the RCS Nimanoa and traveled to the Central Hospital in Tarawa in the Gilberts where he arrived on or about September 30th. Whether he ever returned to the Phoenix Group is not known but a memorandum by Lands Commissioner Paul B. Laxton circa 1950 lists him as retiring and being replaced by “Teng Iokina” in 1941.
Native Magistrate Teng Koata on Nikumaroro in December 1938. Photo courtesy Wigram AF Museum, New Zealand.
The other player in the drama is Gerald B. Gallagher, Officer-in-Charge of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, whom Emily calls “Kela.” When the scheme was launched in early 1939, Gallagher, then 27 years old, made his headquarters on Sydney Island (Manra). He was able to keep track of events on Hull (Orona) and communicate with his superiors in the Gilberts and in Fiji by radio, but he was totally dependent upon rare visits by government ships for any inter-island travel. Because there was no radio on Nikumaroro until Gallagher moved his headquarters there in September 1940, his contact with the island prior to that time was sporadic at best.
Emily’s two years on Nikumaroro, 1940 and 1941, span a crucial period in TIGHAR’s investigation. She is there in the spring of 1940 when the skull is found. She is there in September when Gallagher arrives, learns of the discovery, and searches out the partial skeleton and artifacts. She is there when the bones are shipped off to Fiji in a box built by her own father. She is there the following September when Gallagher dies. And she leaves the island a week before the outbreak of the war in the Pacific.
Gerald B. Gallagher, ca. 1937. Photo courtesy D. Clancy.
|The Plane on the Reef|
In Emily’s mind, the bones for which her father built the box are inextricably linked to the airplane wreckage she says she saw on the northwestern reef, and yet we know from Gallagher’s telegrams that the bones he found were near the lagoon shore on a completely different part of the island (which he describes variously as “the South East corner” and “on the South Eastern shore). The correspondence also gives no indication whatever that Gallagher was aware of an airplane wreck on Nikumaroro. Clearly there is a conflict between Gallagher’s and Emily’s respective descriptions of the discovery.
Emily does not claim to be a witness to the finding of the bones and, in fact, says that she never saw them herself. Nevertheless, the documentary record leaves little doubt that bones were found. But what about the wreckage on the reef, which she says she saw on at least two occasions? Emily’s description of what she saw from the beach, which is roughly 600 feet from the edge of the reef, was consistent in both interviews.
On July 15th Tom King asked:
|TK:||Where were the parts of the airplane?|
|ES:||Not far from where the ship was. Not toward the village but away from it. The struts were there. [holds up hands in circle, apparently indicating that the struts were round in cross-section, about 20 cm. in diameter.]|
|TK:||Did people use parts of the airplane?|
|ES:||I don’t know for sure. When we got there only the steel frames were left, only the long pieces were there. We were frightened to go close to the plane. Where the shipwreck was – the remainder of the plane was not very far from there. The waves were washing it in low tide.|
|And on July 27th I asked:|
|RG:||And on the back of the map could you draw a picture of what you saw?|
|ES:||It was a long steel. [draws a line] There was a round part of it. [adds a small solid circle at the end of the line] I do not know what part of the plane it was. We were forbidden to go there. I was following my father. When I went there my father stopped me.|
|RG:||How big was this piece?|
|ES:||About four arm spans. [holds her arms out]|
|RG:||So it might fit in this room?|
|ES:||Yes, barely. It was a big plane. [the room was perhaps twelve feet long]|
|RG:||How did you know that this was part of an airplane?|
|ES:||I heard it from those who were there before us that it was part of an airplane.|
|RG:||So the people on the island said that this was part of an airplane.|
|RM:||What color was the wreckage that you drew on the map?|
|ES:||It was very rusty.|
|RG:||What color rust?|
|ES:||Very red. When it is seen at low tide. Not observable at high tide. At low tide it could be seen. Very rusty, bad, useless.|
|RG:||Was there other wreckage or debris around it or all by itself?|
|RG:||Did the people in the village have any pieces?|
|RG:||You saw none of the other parts of the plane. The aluminum, the shiny parts?|
|ES:||No, all gone. Nothing.|
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