Earhart Project Bulletin #1

The Castaway of Gardner Island

TIGHAR members will recall that we have long known of a strange legend which told of human remains and a woman’s shoe found by the island's first Gilbertese settlers. Our 1991 discovery of a shoe matching the style and size Earhart was wearing led us to suspect that at least part of the legend might be true and that we had identified the spot where the bones had been found. This past March, a meticulous archaeological examination of the site produced a few more artifacts and the remains of a very old campfire. Was the legend true? Was this where something tragic happened? Or were we constructing a fantasy around unremarkable objects?

Then in June, World War II historian and author Peter McQuarrie (TIGHAR #1987) was doing research in the national archives of Kiribati in Tarawa when he stumbled upon a file labeled “Discovery of Human Remains on Gardner Island.” The file contained a series of 16 official communications between Gerald B. Gallagher, the resident British administrator on Nikumaroro in 1940 and ’41, and various senior British officials. These previously undiscovered documents confirm that a partial human skeleton, badly damaged by coconut crabs, was found on the island in 1940 lying under a tree, with the remains of dead birds, a turtle and a campfire nearby. With the bones were part of the sole of a woman’s shoe, a Benedictine liqueur bottle, a box with numbers on it which had once contained a sextant, and a sextant component thought to be an “inverting eyepiece.”

Gallagher suspected the remains of being those of Amelia Earhart and reported the discovery by radio to his superiors at the British Western Pacific High Commission in Fiji. He was ordered to ship the remains and artifacts to Fiji for analysis and to keep the entire matter “strictly secret.” However, on the way to Fiji, the ship carrying the bones stopped at the colonial headquarters in Tarawa where the senior medical officer, with no information about their possible significance and feeling slighted that he had not been asked to evaluate what he described as “wretched relics,” confiscated the bones and pronounced them to be those of an elderly Polynesian male who had been dead at least 20 years.

Present-day forensic anthropologists have expressed the opinion that the accuracy of such an identification by a colonial doctor in the early 1940s with access to only a partial and badly damaged skeleton is highly suspect. Nonetheless, based upon this casual dismissal, British officials dropped the matter and the Americans authorities were apparently never notified. The file contains no attempt to explain away the woman’s shoe, the Benedictine bottle, or the sextant box. Gallagher died a few months later and the mystery of the castaway of Gardner Island died with him, living on only as a murky island legend.

From the documents in the file, which will be published in their entirety in the new TIGHAR Tracks, it is apparent that the place where the castaway was found is, indeed, the very place identified by TIGHAR. The shoe we found in 1991 is almost certainly the mate to the one found by Gallagher and we know that shoe to be American in origin, dating from the mid-1930s and identical in style and size to Earhart’s. Our campfire is, likewise, the one he noted at the site. We know that the remains and the artifacts he found were eventually shipped to Fiji and we are now trying to determine if they may still survive in some official repository there. Meanwhile, we're doing our best to track down the numbers reported as being on the sextant box. We already know that the presence of an “inverting eyepiece” suggests that the instrument was for aeronautical use. We’re also trying to push forward with the identification of the two additional artifacts we found at the site this year – a small washer-like object and a partially-burned fragment of what appears to have been a can label.

Many, many questions remain. Why only one skeleton? In 1991 we found two very different shoe heels, indicating the presence of two pair of shoes and, possibly, two people. Did one survive long enough to bury the other? Whose remains were found? Who may still be buried nearby?

Whatever the questions and whatever the answers, the discovery of Kiribati National Archives File No. F13/9/1 represents the most dramatic archival find in the sixty year history of the search for Amelia Earhart.

As For The Airplane...

State-of-the-art forensic imaging of aerial photography has uncovered what may be the wreckage of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra on Nikumaroro.

The photographs were examined by Jeff Glickman, founder of Photek, Inc. of Hood River, Oregon. This year’s expedition was plagued by severe weather which forced the expedition ship, on its return voyage, to seek the sheltered waters of Funafuti, an atoll in the nation of Tuvalu. While there, we happened upon islanders who told of seeing aircraft wreckage along a specific part of Nikumaroro’s shoreline in the late 1950s. The area described was one which we had never suspected and never searched, but we did have high quality aerial photography collected from various archival sources. We reasoned that it might be possible to ascertain the credibility of the anecdotal accounts by seeing if there was material present at that location in the old aerial photos which looked and acted like aluminum debris. Such confirmation would be significant because no aircraft is known to have crashed at the island during or since World War Two.

By digitizing and enhancing the aerial photographs using a variety of both standard and proprietary techniques, Glickman was able to image five objects which meet the criteria for aluminum debris in precisely the area where wreckage was reported seen. Four of the objects appear in aerial mapping photos taken in 1953 and appear to represent a debris field on the island’s reef-flat. The fifth object appears in a 1988 photo of the beachfront taken by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. It is, of course, impossible to say that the objects are definitely aluminum, much less that they are airplane debris.

What the photographic enhancements do show is that there is material present on the island which exhibits the characteristics of aluminum airplane debris in just the place where people say they saw airplane debris. Most importantly, the photos provide a specific area in which to make an intensive search for wreckage. The apparent Electra parts found on the island to date have all been recovered from the atoll’s abandoned village and clearly were brought there from somewhere else. This agrees with the former residents’ claim that children playing on the wreckage sometimes brought pieces home to the village.

A Photo Of The Wreck?

The possibility that the wreckage of the Earhart aircraft may have washed ashore on this particular section of beach has prompted the re-examination of a previously discounted piece of photographic evidence. About ten years ago a snapshot of what appears to be a wrecked Lockheed Electra in a tropical setting was circulated among aviation historical authorities as a possible photo of the Earhart aircraft. It was ultimately dismissed as being impossible to validate. The picture was allegedly taken shortly after World War Two by a British seaman serving aboard the submarine tender HMS Adamant, but the story doesn’t check out. Royal Navy records do not show the individual as being among the ship’s company and Adamant’s logs do not show it being in any region where Earhart could have conceivably gone down. On the other hand, relatively few Lockheed Electras served in the tropical Pacific and none is known to have been lost under circumstances which might result in such a photo. Smithsonian botanists examined the foliage visible in the picture and determined that the wreckage in the photo is probably within a few meters of an ocean beach on a South Pacific island. The type and condition of the vegetation visible in the photo is consistent with the beachfront on Nikumaroro. With both anecdotal and aerial photographic evidence independently suggesting that the wreckage of Earhart’s plane may rest on Nikumaroro, the wreck photo is being subjected to new scrutiny. Of particular interest is the recollection of one of the Funafuti witnesses that, “Some white people came once in a government boat … to take pictures of the airplane parts.”

How About An Engine With A Serial Number?

Shortly after our return from the Pacific in March we were contacted by an individual who told of recovering a very old, beat up, radial engine which he took to be a Pratt & Whitney R1340 from the reef-flat on the western end of one of the atolls of the Phoenix Group, possibly Gardner Island. This occurred in 1971 when he was working for the USAF as part of a missile test program which used the islands as a target area. The recovery was done purely out of idle curiosity using one of three large Air Force helicopters based at Canton Island. The engine was slung back to Canton and eventually discarded in a specific location there. TIGHAR researchers have thoroughly investigated this story through USAF records and everything checks out.

Incredible as it may seem, there is every reason to believe that one of the engines from NR16020 rests at this moment on Canton (now Kanton) Island. The island has an excellent 6,000 ft runway and jet fuel is available. We’ve been trying ever since April to find somebody willing to donate the use of a long range business jet (it’s 2,000 miles from Hawaii to Kanton) so that we can go get that engine. We haven’t talked about this publicly before for obvious security reasons, but now it’s time to cast the net wider in the hope that somebody out there can help. And besides, if you don’t know just where on the island to look, you ain’t gonna find it. Kanton is huge.

NIKU IIII Expedition Dates Set

With all of this great new information, we obviously need to get back out to Nikumaroro as soon as we can put together another expedition. We’ve set those dates for August 24 to September 29, 1998 and we have reserved the same ship we used in March, the 110 ft motor-sailer Nai’a out of Fiji, to take us back.

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