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 island’s northern
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 Niku II in 1991 we made a concerted
but unsuccessful effort to find it.
in 1995, at TIGHAR’s request, Photek Inc. of Hood River, Oregon performed
a forensic imaging analysis of aerial photographs of the area taken in
1941. The process revealed the presence of man-made 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 disproved
the hypothesis that the site had been an Earhart/Noonan survival camp. (See TIGHAR
Tracks Vol. 12, No. 1 “The Niku III Preliminary Expedition.”)
however, TIGHAR Senior Archaeologist Dr. Tom King suggested another possible
explanation for the material found at the 1996 Site. We had noted that
by the time the bones and artifacts reached Fiji in the spring of 1941,
a few items were present which had not been mentioned by Gallagher in
his original notification in September of 1940 (namely, parts of a man’s
shoe, “corks with brass chains” thought to have come from a
“small cask,” and an “inverting eyepiece” for a sextant
that was subsequently “thrown away by the finder”). It is, of
course, possible that Gallagher merely neglected to mention these items
in his original report but that seems rather unlikely given his apparent
thoroughness. The other possibility is that the additional items were
found later during further search operations. In a posting to TIGHAR’s
Earhart Forum email research group,
Tom King put it this way:
newly arrived on Niku, first reports the bones discovery on 23rd September
1940. He reports the skull, other bones, the shoe, and the sextant
box, but not the inverting eyepiece or the corks on chains.
- On 6th October,
when he provides amplified details, he still doesn’t mention them
(but he’s responding to specific questions).
- On 17th
October he still doesn’t mention them, though by now he says “we”
have “searched carefully.” He opines that an “organized
search” would take several weeks.
- On 26th
October Vaskess (Secretary of the High Commission) directs him to
make an “organized search.”
to Gallagher’s quarterly progress report for this period, “[t]he
second half of the quarter was marked by severe and almost continuous
North-Westerly gales, which did considerable damage to houses, coconut
trees, and newly planted lands.” The second half of this quarter would
have been November-December. Hard to make an organized search.
- On 27th
December, however, he acknowledges the 26th October telegram and says
that the bones and sextant box have been packaged for shipment to
Fiji. The latter, he says, also “contains all the other pieces of
evidence which were found in the proximity of the body.”
So one wonders,
was there a further, organized search during the second half of the
last quarter of 1940, during breaks in the storms, which produced (perhaps
among other things) the corks on chains? And if so, who did the searching?
All the colonists? Some smaller group? Gallagher by himself? And does
this suggest anything to us about where the search might have taken
place? It would seem to argue against anyplace very far from the village–hard
to travel very far in the heavy weather – unless one equipped oneself
to go and stay for awhile. Which makes one wonder about the “house built
for Gallagher” that Laxton (an administrator who visited the island
in 1949) places on the southeast end of the island, and that is apparently
represented by the water catcher seen by the Coast Guard and re-located
by TIGHAR in 1996. – Tom King.
hypothesis has prompted a re-examination of the data collected in February
1996. The site 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 its 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 argentia
(“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.
This is what we
found 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 “Baldwins 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.
water tank; note pole beside tank. TIGHAR photo by P. Thrasher.
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 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.
bird bones with six inch scale in foreground. TIGHAR photo by P.
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 well. 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
half-dug well? Or the place where the skull was dug up? TIGHAR
photo by P. Thrasher.
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 18 inches square by ¼ 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.
- near the
plate shard were two holes in the ground about two meters apart
which gave the impression of having once held poles upright, although
no poles were in evidence.
of Aukeraime Site (click on the map to open a full-sized version)
the hypothesis that the site, as surveyed in 1996, represents the original
1940 bone discovery site with an overlay of later material brought there
to support the “organized search” ordered by the Western Pacific High
Commission, we can subject the site to the same evaluation process we’ve
used on the other two candidate sites.
1996 Site is within a kilometer of the southeastern tip of the
island and so would seem to match Gallagher’s description of being
at the south east corner (Point 2) and on the south east shore
(Point 6) of the island. An examination and comparison of aerial
photos taken in 1937, 1938, 1939, and 1941 shows that the site
remained uncleared (Point 5) until 1941 when clearing operations
became evident on the ocean side but, curiously, not on the lagoon
side. It appears that planting was contemplated (Point 8) but
was never carried out, possibly as a consequence of Gallagher’s
death in September 1941.
narrowness of the land mass at this point means that the site
is both close to the lagoon shore (Point 9) and close to the ocean
beach where turtles come ashore to lay their eggs (Point 3). The
presence of bird bones at the site also fits Gallagher’s description
but there is no way, at present, to determine whether the bird
bones are the same ones seen by Gallagher and later the Coast
Guardsmen, or may even be the bones of a bird shot with the bullet
from the carbine shell casing found nearby. However, the presence
of a Ren tree and the fact that the site is roughly 100 feet above
the lagoon high tide line (Point 1) are interesting.
particular note is the excavation which we originally dismissed
as someone’s abortive attempt to dig a well. Upon reflection,
it bears little resemblance to known wells on the island and could,
in fact, be where the skull which was buried by the work party
that first found it, was later dug up at Gallagher’s direction
only aspect of Gallagher’s description of the bone discovery site
that does not fit the 1996 Site is that the nearest stand of cocos
in 1941 is more than two miles away (Point 10).
the 1996 Site: Points 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.
Against the 1996 site: Point 10.
a straight quantification of the attributes described by Gallagher,
the 1996 site would seem to be the most promising of the three candidate
sites. But if the bones were originally found there, how did the
shoes end up at the Aukeraime Site? Of course, any answer is purely
speculative, but because we know that both sites were actively being
worked in 1941 it seems possible that material found after Gallagher’s
departure in early June may have been brought across the lagoon
to Aukeraime. When Gallagher returned in late September he was gravely
ill and died within three days.
operations at the 1996 Site will be difficult due to the remoteness
of the area and the heavy scaevola growth, but we’re accustomed
to dealing with those problems. One particularly attractive aspect
of this site is that, unlike the other two candidate sites, it is
remote from the settled part of the island and appears to be relatively
undisturbed since Gallagher’s time. If the excavation we found there
is, in fact, where the skull was exhumed, the possibility exists
that one or more teeth may still be in the hole. Teeth can be an
excellent source of mitochondrial DNA. If DNA from a tooth found
in that hole were matched to that of Earhart’s living relatives
we would have the conclusive proof we’ve been looking for, but for
now it’s all just another hypothesis to be tested when we return