Forum logo What did the Navy searchers see when they flew over Nikumaroro in 1937?


To begin understanding what they did, and did not, see, you should first read the report by Lt. John O. Lambrecht, USN, who is a primary resource. The report can be found at Lambrecht Report.

Whatever Lambrecht meant by “signs of recent habitation” he didn’t mean huts, shacks, or buildings. When he sees those things on islands he specifically mentions them.

At Sydney Island, for example, he says,

There were signs of recent habitation and small shacks could be seen among the groves of coconut palms, but repeated zooms failed to arouse any answering wave...

This is almost identical to the language he uses to describe what he saw and did at Gardner, except there is no mention of shacks on Gardner. So what does Lambrecht mean by “signs of recent habitation”?

Author Fred Goerner was quite sure that it had nothing to do with Amelia. In an October 1991 letter to Tom King he wrote:

There is no mystery about [what Lambrecht saw on Gardner]. I knew Captain Lambrecht quite well, and we corresponded at length and spoke many times via telephone. Lambrecht told me there were what appeared to be stone walls on a part of Gardner that appeared to have been part of what were once houses. Gardner had been inhabited in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Tom gently pointed out to him that there were no stone walls on Gardner and that the place had been “inhabited” only briefly by some laborers in the late 19th century. In a February 1992 letter Goerner corrected his recollection:

...I gave you a bad read in my first letter. John said he saw what appeared to be stone walls or some kind of old construction on McKean Island. On Gardner, he saw what appeared to be markers of some kind.

But in a March 1990 letter to TIGHAR, Goerner had said of this same issue:

John Lambrecht assured me that they were totally convinced that Gardner and the other Phoenix Islands with the exception of Hull were uninhabited. His "signs of recent habitiation" on Gardner were undoubtedly the markers left by HMS Leith in March, 1937.

In our opinion, John Lambrecht never told Fred Goerner anything about what he saw on Gardner. We suspect that the whole “markers” thing is Fred’s own 1990 supposition coming back in 1992 as attributed to Lambrecht. HMS Leith left no markers on Gardner in March of 1937. On February 15, 1937 a shore party from Leith erected one flagpole onthe beach with a placard attached to it proclaiming the island as His Majesty’s property. The log shows that the party was gone from the ship all of 20 minutes.

So if Lambrecht didn’t see structures or markers, what did he see? There may be a further clue in something that was allegedly seen on Sydney. Although mentioned in neither Lambrecht’s report or Bill Short’s letter to his father, an Associated Press report from the correspondent aboard USS Colorado dated July 10 reads as follows:

FLIERS CONFESS HOPE LOST EARHART AS FRIEDELL [Captain of the Colorado] ENDED COLORADO PLANE SEARCH EVENING UNLESS POSSIBLE FINAL FLIGHT MONDAY STOP
PHOENIX ASTERN STEAMING HOWLAND AND WHERE REFUEL DESTROYERS MONDAY STOP
LETTERS SCOOPED IN SIDNEY BEACH SPELLING DOZENS POLYNESIAN WORDS INCLUDING KELE FASSAU MOLEI SEEN FROM AIR BUT PILOTS SAID LIFE UNSIGHTED DISCOUNTING POSSIBILITY WERE MESSAGES RELATING LOST PLANE

After considerable consultations with language scholars, the reported words KELE FASSAU MOLEI really don’t make any sense, unless they are personal names left as a sort of “Kilroy was here.” Lambrecht saw shacks, etc. on Sydney but saw no people because Jones on Hull had recently pulled off the Tokelau laborers who had been planting coconuts there. But questions abound.

  • Did the pilots really see dozens of words written in the sand on Sydney? Letters in the sand are certainly temporary enough to qualify as signs of RECENT habitation.
  • Or was this story just a gag the pilots were playing on the journalist?
  • And if not, why would laborers write words in the sand?
  • Most importantly, were there marks in the sand on the ground at Gardner?
For additional information read the Report written by Captain Friedell of the U.S.S. Colorado.

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