Volume 15, 1999
pp. 25 – 37

The Carpenter’s Daughter

Section 2

Fortunately we have a number of photographs taken between the date of the Earhart/Noonan disappearance and Emily’s departure from Nikumaroro which include the specific location she describes. If Emily could see the wreckage, we should be able to see it too. And we can, or at least we can see something that fits her general description of what she saw in the place where she says she saw it.

Photo courtesy E. Bevington. Photo courtesy Wigram AFB Museum, New Zealand.

Note: to view larger versions of these photos click on the photos.

Photo #1 (left) is a copy-photo of a photograph taken by Eric Bevington in October 1937 during the first British evaluation of the island for future settlement. It shows the western shoreline of Nikumaroro and the northern side of the wreck of SS Norwich City which is, at that time, largely intact. The sea is quite calm and a line of low breakers delineates the outer edge of the reef. Just north of the shipwreck and just behind the line of breakers two objects, resembling a “dash” and a “dot,” are clearly visible.

Photo #2 (right)is a photograph taken in December 1938 by the New Zealand survey party which was on the island at that time. The camera is looking out through a hole in the north side of the SS Norwich City and shows the reef edge looking northward from the wreck. The photo is one of several dozen in a scrapbook of the expedition. The caption reads “Undertow through gap in side of Wreck.” Even though all we have is a photocopy of this snapshot it is still possible to make out what appear to be the same “dash” and “dot” objects on the reef which appear in the 1937 photo.

Neither of these photos have been altered or enhanced in any way, but even from these “raw” images it is apparent that there was something where Emily says there was airplane wreckage.

The objects in the photos are not there now but forensic examination of better copies of these and other photos might provide more information about what they were and where they went. Of course, we can’t tell from the black and white photos what color the objects were, but we should be able to get some idea of how big they were by scaling them to Norwich City whose dimensions we have. Could the airplane pieces have been, in fact, merely debris from the shipwreck? That doesn’t seem very likely. At the time the photos were taken the ship had not yet started to break up and when it did, the debris field scattered predominantly southeastward toward the shore and the main lagoon passage. Gales and high seas hit Nikumaroro almost exclusively from the northwest.

With photographic confirmation that there was something there, and in the absence of a good alternative explanation for what it might be, it makes sense to accept Emily’s second-hand identification of it as a working hypothesis. If further photographic research can establish that the material which is present in Bevington’s October 1937 photo (a contemporaneous, primary source document) is from an aircraft, the implications are obvious. Air traffic over the remote reaches of the Central Pacific prior to October 1937 was extremely rare and is very easy to catalog. Only one airplane from this period is missing.

The Bones from the Plane

But what about the bones? Emily quite clearly talks about two different groups of bones - one set which she associates with the airplane wreckage and other bones which she associates with the shipwreck. Of the former she said in the first interview with Tom King:


Did you see the plane fall?


No, it was already there when I came. ...The steel of the plane was there sometime before we got there. [asked specifically about aluminium, she says no] Fishermen found the bones. They were frightened and they brought the story of them to the Onotoa man.
TK: What did Koata do?
ES: He sent people to bring the bones. People were frightened. Only people working for the government received the bones. My father had to look at the bones. Mr. Gallagher asked my father to make the box.

And in the second interview:


What can you tell us about the bones that were found?


Some Gilbertese went to fish, they saw in the shallows some pools, at the place where the plane crashed, some bones, and they knew these were human bones because of the skull bone. They went and reported to Teng Koata, there were bones. So from that they assumed that these must have been the bones of those who were in the plane when it crashed. These were under the plane, near the plane. This was near the top end of the steel.
RG: Did you see the bones?


I didn’t see them. We were forbidden, but my father told us.


Were the bones found while you were on the island or did this happen before?


These bones were found when we had already arrived on the island. These Gilbertese came and found bones and reported to Teng Koata. Then Teng Koata took them to the European. So it was arranged for a box to be made for the bones and the bones were brought. There were not many bones.


Were any other bones ever found on Niku?


Only these few bones they found. They do a search around that area but they found no other bones. Only these big bones that they found. I do not know how many. My father knew.

Aside from where she says the bones were found, her account actually tracks fairly well with the known facts. A Gilbertese work party found a skull which Koata knew about. The European (Gallagher) did find out about the skull (although apparently not from Koata) and conducted a search. Not many bones were found (a total of 13) and most of these were relatively large. Gallagher had a box made for the bones. In short, it does seem that the bones Emily associates with the airplane wreck are the bones that were actually found elsewhere on the island.

For another opinion see “Where Were The Bones” by Dr. Tom King.

Too Many Bones

Sorting out the bones associated with the shipwreck is more difficult. Emily told Tom King of “Maybe 10 different people whose bones were found along that area” (near the shipwreck). She is quite clear that these bones were found on land:

You would come up on the reef, then the beach comes up where the island shrubs start to grow. That is where the bones were found.

Emily’s account is consistent with the recollections of Gallagher’s clerk, Bauro Tikana, who wrote in 1991, “When we first arrived I saw the ship wreck and asked Mr. Gallagher about it. He told me that it was Norwich City. Later when the laborers were cleaning (clearing) the land they told me that they found bones near the ship. I do not know if Mr. Gallagher knew about the bones as I did not tell him about it. The laborers also told me they found bones at the other end of the atoll.”

Mr. Tikana marked a map showing that bones were found on shore near the shipwreck, but to show where the “other bones” were found he could only circle the entire southeast portion of the island. We know that there were eleven men lost in Norwich City wreck in 1929 and that three bodies washed up and were buried by the survivors. If the burials were not very deep and were on or close to the beach, it seems possible that they may have been uncovered by storms in the ensuing ten years or so. It’s also possible that other bodies from the wreck washed up after the survivors were rescued. However, if a body from the airplane wreck (Noonan?) also washed up or was buried on that same beach it could be indistinguishable from the shipwreck bones.

Answers and Questions

Emily Sikuli’s story, supported by historical documents and photographs, offers some long-sought answers to the riddle of the Earhart/Noonan disappearance. Whether or not they are the correct answers remains to be seen. They do, however permit us to adjust and refine the hypothesis we are attempting to test.

But as answers to old questions are offered, new questions arise. Why does Emily associate the bones so strongly with the airplane wreck? And why did Koata put the area off limits? It is apparent that this was done before Gallagher arrived and found the other bones and the artifacts. Why did the finding of just a skull on a different part of the island cause Koata to put the airplane wreck off limits? And why didn’t Koata, or anybody else, tell Gallagher about the plane?

The association of the bones with taboo airplane wreckage is something that we’ve heard before. Tapania Taiki, in 1997, told us of seeing pieces of an airplane on the reef and in the shoreline vegetation when she was a child on Nikumaroro in the late 1950s:

“The older people said they saw the skeletons of a man and woman, one each. The elders said, ‘Do not go where the plane is. There are ghosts there.’ They were trying to scare us to keep us away from there.”

Tapania Taiki.
Photo courtesy K. Spading.

Debris Field
  But Tapania’s plane parts were not seen in the same place Emily describes. Over the years we have come across a number of anecdotal accounts of aircraft wreckage seen at Nikumaroro and we have ourselves, found a few pieces of aircraft debris which we suspect might be from the Electra. Are these real and rumored airplane parts random and contradictory? Or do they all fit together to form a logical sequence of events?
  On two occasions between January 1940 and November 1941 Emily Sikuli sees rusted structures, said to be the wreckage of an airplane, on the reef near the ocean just north of the shipwreck (map reference 1). Emily does not see the wreck up close and no aluminum is visible from shore, but fisherman have been to the plane.
  Sometime in late 1944 or early 1945, U.S. Navy PBY pilot John Mims is shown an aircraft control cable being used as a heavy-duty fishing line leader by Gilbertese fishermen on Nikumaroro. When asked where it came from one of the islanders replies that when the Gilbertese people first came to the island there was an airplane here. When asked where the plane is now, he just shrugs.
  Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the schoolmaster on Nikumaroro, Pulekai Songivalu, sees aircraft wreckage along the lagoon shore just opposite the main passage (map reference 2).
  During roughly the same time period, his daughter Tapania sees a “piece of a wing” in the water on the reef off the shore of Nutiran not far from the main passage. Aerial photographs taken in 1953 indicate the presence of anomalous light-colored, reflective material on the reef in this same area. (map reference 3) Tapania also sees “airplane parts” in the shoreline vegetation (map reference 4) not far from a “European house” made of lumber rather than native materials.
  In 1989 TIGHAR finds an aluminum aircraft component near the shore of the main passage in the abandoned village (map reference 5). The “dado”, an interior feature usually found in the cabins of small civilian aircraft including the Lockheed Model 10, is a complete assembly still bearing a fragment of the quarter-inch kapok insulation which once covered one side. Quarter-inch kapok insulation was standard on the Lockheed 10. Unlike military parts, the dado is stamped with no part number.
  In 1991 TIGHAR finds a section of aluminum aircraft skin on the island’s southwestern shore in the wash-up from a recent severe storm (map reference 6). Although exhaustive research has not yet been able to match the rivet pattern to any aircraft, the general features of the skin (type of aluminum, thickness, rivet type, size and spacing) are typical of the Lockheed 10. The damage to the skin indicates that it was blown outward by a tremendous fluid force, such as wave action.
  In 1996 TIGHAR finds a fragment of Plexiglas in the abandoned village which matches in material, thickness, color and curvature the specification for Lockheed Part Number 40552, the cabin windows of the Lockheed 10 (map reference 7). Also found are two lengths of what appears to be pre-war American radio cable with connectors of a type used in aviation applications. These were found near the shore of the main passage in the remains of what was once the shop of the island carpenter, Temou Samuela (map reference 8).

These seem to suggest that the aircraft arrived at or near the place where Emily saw wreckage (map reference 1) and was quickly, perhaps within days, destroyed by the violent surf. In the ensuing years, storms further scattered the wreckage along the natural lines of force. Buoyant material would travel farthest and may account for Pulekai’s sighting of wreckage on the lagoon shore (map reference 2). Some non-buoyant wreckage might eventually be pulled back out over the reef edge but most of the aluminum should be scattered southeastward along the flat, as is indicated by Tapania’s piece of a wing and the 1953 photos (map reference 3). Storms could drive pieces of the wreck ashore anywhere to the leeward of its starting place where they might be found and used by the locals.

It is important to remember that, by itself, Emily’s anecdotal recollections do not prove anything, but just as garbled anecdotal accounts of bones being found on Nikumaroro eventually led us to archival sources which documented a fascinating but forgotten chapter in the Earhart puzzle, so Emily’s tale has set us on a trail that may lead us to whatever is left of NR16020.

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