Volume 12 Number 1
March 31, 1996
Project Report:
The Niku III Preliminary Expedition
Project Report
The Expedition
Preliminary Findings

During the closing months of 1995, in the process of preparing for TIGHAR’s third major research trip to Nikumaroro in September of 1996, new information came to light which made apparent the need for a short preliminary expedition to the island.

Summary of Results

Metallic Objects

Shortly after the 1991 trip (Niku II) we became interested in an anomalous vegetation-free area which appeared along the atoll’s remote northeastern beachfront in early aerial photography of the island. In December 1995, digital analysis of copy negatives obtained from archives in New Zealand was carried out by Jeff Glickman at Photek in Champaign, Illinois. Glickman’s application of state-of-the-art forensic imaging techniques disclosed the presence of one or more large metallic objects in a photo of the cleared area taken by the U.S. Navy on June 20, 1941. Possible corroboration in an overhead mapping photo taken by the USN on April 30, 1939 led to the identification of two specific features-designated “Candidate #1” and “Candidate #2” – which might be aircraft or aircraft debris. Far from the known inhabited sections of the atoll, the area matched the general location where former U.S. Coastguardsmen reported seeing a “water collection device” and other objects in 1944.

Signs Of Recent Habitation

Enhancement of an aerial view taken in December 1938 (at a time of severe drought and prior to the arrival of the first official inhabitants) disclosed the presence of what appear to be trails criss-crossing the area. The features appear very much like footpaths visible in later aerial photography of the village and suggest purposeful routes which have been used over a period of weeks, if not months. With no wildlife on the atoll large enough to create trails, the paths are difficult to explain. A visit by turtle or bird hunters from another island group is a possibility, but in 1938 inter-island canoe travel by indigenous peoples had been vigorously discouraged by the British Colonial Service for many years. The location of the area on the atoll’s dangerous windward shore also argues against a landing there by anyone arriving by sea. In an aerial photo taken six months later, after normal rainfall had returned to the island, the trails are no longer apparent. Because the site is discernible in a July 9, 1937 aerial photo of the island taken during the U.S. Navy’s search for Earhart, the possibility had to be considered that the “...signs of recent habitation” which were “clearly visible” to flight leader Lt. John Lambrecht were seen in this location. Also, the only credible post- disappearance radio message from the lost aircraft which includes position information (received by the USN radio station at Wailupe, Hawaii on July 4, 1937) contains the cryptic phrase “...281 north.” From this site on Nikumaroro the equator is exactly 281 nautical miles north.

The Responsible Course Of Action

The possibility that this was the place where Earhart’s aircraft had landed, and where its crew had made an unsuccessful bid for survival, presented a quandary. If the aircraft was really there---and more or less intact---it would be imperative that the September expedition go equipped with both the clearances and the assets required to effect a recovery. The only way to know for sure was to go and look. However, public disclosure of the aircraft’s existence and location would present an unacceptable security risk. The responsible course of action was clearly to restrict advance knowledge of the evaluative expedition to individuals who had a need to know. Sponsorship was solicited and obtained for the trip and a seven-person team was assembled from qualified TIGHAR members. These were:
Richard Gillespie – Executive Director of TIGHAR and leader of the expedition
Patricia Thrasher – President of TIGHAR and expedition photographer
H. Donald Widdoes – TIGHAR #1033CBE
Joseph Hudson – TIGHAR #1689CE
John Clauss – TIGHAR # 0142CE
Veryl Fenlason – TIGHAR #0053CE
Russell Matthews – TIGHAR #0509CE
Diplomatic clearance was granted by the Republic of Kiribati and customs official Manikaa Teuatabo (the same representative who accompanied the 1991 expedition) became the eighth member of the team.

Summary Of Results

The expedition succeeded in locating and identifying the features seen in the enhanced aerial photographs. It was found that the objects in this particular location are not associated with the Earhart disappearance. Some searching also was done in the remains of the abandoned settlement at the atoll’s west end. As on the two preceding expeditions, a number of interesting artifacts were found in this area and, with the permission of the Kiribati government representative, several objects were recovered for analysis. The expedition also gathered important logistical information about changes in the island environment since our last visit five years ago. Of particular note was the impact of storms on surviving cultural features in the village. Because the expedition did not make discoveries so dramatic as to present a security risk if their location is disclosed, the confidentiality which preceded the trip is no longer necessary.

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