Niku II (1991)

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"The Return to Nikumaroro"

Although the 1989 expedition had not provided definitive evidence supporting TIGHAR's hypothesis, it produced enough suggestive data to justify another season of fieldwork. The several aircraft parts found in the Ritiati Village that were consistent with a Lockheed Electra, when combined with a growing corpus of anecdotal accounts provided some support for the hypothesis. The difficulties we encountered in 1989 also made us realize that we had been terribly naïve in thinking that the hypothesis could be tested in a single season of fieldwork. So on October 1, 1991, another TIGHAR expedition departed for Nikumaroro, this one aboard RV Acania, sailing out of Honolulu. This expedition comprised a land team of ten and an underwater exploration contractor, plus a reporter and photographer from Life Magazine.

Underwater Survey

One major focus of the 1991 fieldwork was to inspect the reef face in more detail, to a depth greater than that the divers had been able to attain. This work was carried out by Oceaneering International,and entailed use of a towed-array Side-Scan Sonar to search the reef face to a depth of approximately 650 meters (2,000 feet). A Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) was on hand to photograph objects found by the sonar scan. Oceaneering explored the perimeter of the island in this manner from the northwest cape clockwise around to the mouth of Tatiman Passage, where the sonar sensor struck the reef and was damaged. At this point the search was terminated, without inspecting the area from Tatiman Passage on up the west face of Nutiran to the northwest cape.

Aukaraime South

On the island itself, one major focus of attention was the small grave at Aukaraime South. The oddity of a grave so far from the village, and a small one at that, suggested the possibility that bones had been interred there that (a) could be buried in a small bundle, and that (b) were for some reason not wanted in close proximity to the colonists' living quarters. In 1990, TIGHAR was contacted by Virgil Stennett, a shipping agent on Tarawa, whose father-in-lawBauro Tikana had been Gallagher's clerk on Nikumaroro. In response to questions faxed to him, Mr. Tikana reported that he was told by island residents about bones being found both on Nutiran and at the southeast end of the island during the early days of the colony. Recalling Kilts' story of bones being discarded (albeit into the sea) upon Gallagher's death, and knowing the power ascribed to anti in I Kiribati tradition, the small, isolated grave appeared worth detailed investigation. With the permission of the Kiribati government and under the supervision of Customs Inspector Manikaa Teuatabo, the grave was excavated.

A two by three meter square was plotted centered on the grave (Fig. N-27), and excavated in ten cm. levels to a depth of 53 cm, passing all matrix through 1/8" screen. Surface and subsurface grave furniture (head and footstones, surrounding stones, capstone) were set aside for reassembly.

Windward Shore

In August 1990, TIGHAR was contacted by Dr. Richard K. Evans, who had been a Coast Guardsman based at the Nikumaroro Loran Station during World War II. Dr. Evans reported that he and his associates had discovered "a small structure … designed to collect rain water" on the windward side of the island not far from the Station. "We assumed the natives had built it," he reported, "(b)ut when we mentioned it to them a few months later they didn't know anything about it." Dr. Evans described the structure as consisting of a water-collecting cloth rigged on poles, hung above a tank whose dimensions closely approximated those of a fuel tank from Earhart's Electra. One of Dr. Evans' associates, Herb Moffitt, corroborated the story and elaborated on it, saying that there was a very old campfire site nearby, together with a rusty five gallon can and a pile of bird bones. The two were able to narrow the location of the structure down to a fairly definite stretch of the windward shore. This area, which appeared on airphotos from 1938, 1939, and 1940 to have been partially cleared of vegetation, could not be securely located on the ground, but the beachfront in the approximate vicinity was divided into grids, inspected visually, and swept with metal detectors.

The Village

As in 1989, the village was not subjected to controlled inspection in 1991. However, this time we knew that there were airplane parts in the village, so a cursory effort was made to see if any could be found.

From Fieldwork at Ritiati/Noriti (Village) 1991
2-2-V-1 Aluminum sheet with rivet holes
2-2-V-2 Piece of cut out material with metal mount
2-2-V-3 Bent metal cylinder
2-2-V-4 Metal ring
2-2-V-5 Metal comb
2-2-V-6 Misc. unidentified metal objects (5)
2-2-V-7 Remnant of rubber hose
2-2-V-8 Torn aluminum structure, apparent # 32B 10
2-2-V-9 Aluminum channel section
2-2-V-10 Aluminum strips /1 and /2
2-2-V-11 Shoe top
2-2-V-12 Boot sole
2-2-V-13 Section of aluminum pipe


The side-scan sonar revealed nothing on the reef face except along the southeast side of the island, where several anomalies were recorded. These were all too small to represent an intact airplane; they could represent fragments, but they could also represent unusual coral outcrops. All were too deep to be inspected by divers, and too close to the reef edge to permit inspection by ROV.

In the grave at Aukaraime South, at 53 cm, a roughly rectangular root mass was encountered, with decayed planks on the bottom indicating a box about 1 meter long and 50 cm wide. In the root mass were the bones of an infant, doubtless a colonist. We speculate that the child may have died while staying at one of the "weekend houses" that Laxton says stood on Aukaraime in 1949. An alternative is that s/he was the child of a family to whom land on Aukaraime was allotted, and was buried there in the expectation that the land would become the family's permanent place of residence. After examination, the bones were replaced in approximately their original location, and the grave was refilled. The grave markers were put back in place, and a layer of small lagoon shells that had been found just under the surface of the ground was refreshed with shells from the lagoon shore.

Near the end of this project, Expedition Doctor and excavator Tommy Love was seated on the ground about 20 meters from the grave, changing his wet boots, when one of Aukaraime's ubiquitous hermit crabs (a juvenile Birgus latro) scuttled past his feet and turned over a leaf. Under the leaf was the heel of a shoe. The vicinity was immediately cleared of surface vegetal matter and intensively searched. This search yielded a number of small fragments of wood charcoal and parts of two shoes, described in Chapter ___. Less intensive search of the general area yielded a broken psychrometer and the top of a medicine jar, also described in Chapter ___. The only other evidence of human activity noted in the area, other than the grave, comprised the regularly spaced rotted stumps of mature coconut trees and the heavily rusted away remnants of several ferrous drums or barrels (Sample collected as Artifact 2-2-G-4), one in the immediate vicinity of the psychrometer and jar top.

The visual and metal detector search of the windward shore proved completely fruitless, leading us to conclude that whatever the Coast Guardsmen had seen, it had either been washed away or lay deep within the dense mao that covers this part of the island.

In the village, the shoreline had suffered considerably from at least one major westerly storm during the two years since we had last seen it. Astonishingly, the huge, solid coral and concrete landing monument had completely disappeared, but for its stone base, largely covered by sand. The Cooperative Store had experienced serious wave and wind damage, largely collapsing in on itself as its seaward side was pushed in. Much of the vegetation between the Store and the shoreline had been ripped away. Noonan's Tavern could not be re-located, and had presumably been lost to shoreline erosion.

Amid the debris of torn-up vegetation just to seaward of the Store, we were startled to find a large sheet of aircraft aluminum. Collected as Artifact 2-2-V-1, it has been subjected to extensive analysis and is described in detail in the NTSB Report.

Team Members

Incomplete list.