Niku IIIIP (1999)

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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.

Fieldwork 1999

Fieldwork in 1999 had two objectives, and took place in two locations: Nikumaroro and Fiji.

Based on the Tarawa bones file and the extensive documentation examined in the archives of the Western Pacific High Commission (See Chapter ___), together with the Burns/Jantz analysis of the Hoodless measurements (See Chapter ___), we now knew that a skeleton that could have been Earhart's had been found on the island in 1940, but we did not know where it had been found other than that it was on the "southeast end." What Gallagher may have meant by the "southeast end" was not as clear as the simple words might suggest. A review of the literature shows that other Nikumaroro administrators have used this and similar terms to mean several different, sometimes contradictory, parts of the island. Based on a number of clues contained in Gallagher's site descriptions, three sites appeared to be reasonable candidates:

  • Aukaraime South, where the shoe parts were found in 1991 (Aukaraime South was referred to by Laxton as the "southeast" part of the island, and could seem to be so to someone without a modern map, viewing the island from the lagoon);
  • Kanawa Point, site of the "ghost maneaba," a site where kanawa trees were known to have grown, lying on the southeast corner of the "island" represented by the land between Tatiman and Baureke Passages; and
  • The actual southeast end -- Ameriki and adjacent areas.

Any effort to find more bones, or other artifacts or features, at any of these three sites would present daunting problems -- even assuming we could determine which of the three was the most likely and direct all efforts to its examination. Almost sixty years has passed since Gallagher and his colleagues had made their "thorough search" of the site, during which the various candidate sites had been subjected to varying degrees and kinds of clearing, planting, construction, and weather impacts. Most of the objects we would be seeking would be small, more or less fragile bones and bone fragments. If any of these had survived the rigors of Nikumaroro's environment, they would be scattered over an area of unknown size, on and in soils made up largely of coral fragments that themselves look very much like bone. Before investing much time in even considering an intensive study of any of the candidate "bones sites," a thoughtful, careful reconnaissance was in order.

At the same time, the testimony of Tapania Taiki and Pulekai Songivalu on Funafuti suggested the presence of aircraft wreckage on the reef at two locations -- western Nutiran and Taraia. Airphotos from the 1950s showed objects with the spectral signature of aluminum on the Nutiran reef south of the Norwich City, and something resembling aircraft wreckage on shore not far from a large structure. Ms. Taiki had said that a "European style house" had stood not far from where she observed wreckate. Airphotos from the 1980s showed no sign of material on the reef flat, but did suggest that the "thing" in the bush might still be there. Here again a reconnaissance was appropriate before serious planning and fundraising began for a major search.

So a reconnaissance was planned on Nikumaroro, with two objectives:

  • Inspect the reef areas at Nutiran and Taraea where aircraft wreckage had been reported, and the adjacent shore on Nutiran; and
  • Inspect the three candidate bones sites, employing a high level of forensic expertise.

The WPHC documents had also raised hopes that the bones found in 1940 could be relocated. The latest of the documents indicated that as of April of 1941 they were being held by Dr. Hoodless of the Central Medical School, on behalf of the Commission. What had happened to them thereafter, in the confusion of World War II? It was at least possible that they were still in Fiji, tucked away in the attic or basement of some government or medical school building, or consigned to the medical school's teaching collection. Even if they could not be found, it was possible that a search in Fiji would uncover further useful documents, and/or individuals with useful recollections of the bones or the island.

In late 1998, we contacted the Archaeology Department of the Fiji Museum, whose Director, Ms. Taresi Vundadilo, enthusiastically championed Museum cooperation with TIGHAR in a search for "the bones in the kanawa wood box." Museum Director Kate Vusoniwailala supported the project, and the Museum began contacting government agencies and individuals who might be of assistance. On June 26, 2001, the first two members of the Fiji search party -- Drs. Karen Burns and Thomas King, arrived in Fiji to work with the Museum. Dr. Burns subsequently traveled on to Nikumaroro to employ her forensic expertise in examination of the candidate bones sites, while Education Director Barbara Norris and researcher Kristin Tague continued the work.

Meanwhile on July 1 an eleven-member team under Gillespie's direction left the U.S. to carry out the Nikumaroro reconnaissance. Joined by Dr. Burns, they departed Fiji on July 5 aboard Nai'a, and arrived at Nikumaroro on the evening of July 10.

The Fiji Bones Search

The Fiji Museum kindly provided us with office space, telephones, and computers, as well as access to its extensive collections and research library. The Museum also handled coordination with government offices, and three Museum volunteers -- Faiz Ali, Elaitia Vakarau, and Steven Brown assisted in the work. By the time the last member of the team -- Kristin Tague -- returned to the U.S. on July 26th, we had accomplished the following work :

  • Inspected the Fiji Museum's skeletal collections;
  • Inspected the osteological collections of the Anatomy Department at the Fiji School of Medicine, the successor to the Central Medical School;
  • Inspected a cranium and two femora in a box held by the Suva Masonic Lodge;
  • Searched the attic of the old Central Medical School building, now the Dental Clinic at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital;
  • Searched the attic, underfloor, and garage of Dr. Hoodless' former residence, now a student housing office;
  • Searched tunnels under the hospital complex at Tamavua, to which the Medical School relocated in the 1950s;
  • Searched the offices of the Fiji Intelligence Service, formerly used by visiting WPHC officers;
  • With the kind permission of His Excellency President Ratu Mara, searched the basement of Government House and the nearby bomb shelter tunnels;
  • Consulted with government, Hospital, and Medical School officials and building maintenance personnel both about knowledge of the bones and to encourage them to be alert to the possibility of their turning up in the future;
  • Conducted archival research at the Fiji Museum and the National Archives of Fiji;
  • Consulted with Sir Leonard Usher about Fiji during World War II and the operations of the WPHC;
  • Consulted with Mr. Foua Tofiga, who had been employed in Sir Harry Luke's office in 1940, about the WPHC, bones, sextant box, Gallagher, Vaskess, and other areas of interest (Mr. Tofinga was of particular assistance, and continues to work with us);
  • Through the good offices of Mr. Tofiga, interviewed Mrs. Emily Sikuli, daughter of the Nikumaroro village carpenter in 1940, who reported that she had observed aircraft wreckage on the Nutiran reef north of the Norwich City; and.
  • Through Mrs. Sikuli, interviewed Mrs. Otira O'Brian, another former resident, who had recollections pertaining to bones and aircraft wreckage.

Nikumaroro Reconnaissance

On Nikumaroro, work was hampered by heavy rain, but the following work was accomplished (See Fig. N-41):

  • Intensive search of ___(RIC, HOW MANY?) twenty-meter squares plotted over the area identified by airphotos as including the site of the large structure and the possible wreckage;
  • Search of the dense mao along the shore north of the Norwich City, employing thrity- to forty-meter long transects cut at twenty-five meter intervals;
  • Excavation of a grave found on the Nutiran shore near the Norwich City;
  • Visual inspection of the Taraia shoreline;
  • Visual inspection of the Nutiran reef flat in and well beyond the area identified by Emily Sikuli as the site where she had been shown wreckage;
  • Visual inspection of Kanawa Point, including evaluation by Dr. Burns; and
  • Similar inspection of Aukaraime South.

Unfortunately, time did not allow a visit to the third candidate "bones site" on the southeast windward shore.


The search in Fiji did not produce the bones, but it provided us with a much clearer understanding of what may have happened to them. They were not to be found in any of the "obvious" locations (Fig. N-42) -- the attic of the old Central Medical School, Dr. Hoodless' residence, the Anatomy Department's collections, the Museum's collections. There are many other old government buildings in Suva, but without any idea which of them might be more likely to contain the bones than any other, it was not practical to continue searching. Instead, a reward was posted for information leading to the bones' recovery, and a special request was made to Government maintenance personnel to be on the lookout for them. One of the most likely-seeming possibilities is that the bones went into one of Suva's many bomb-shelter tunnels during World War II and never came out. Most of these tunnels have been sealed in recent years for safety reasons, and many have doubtless collapsed. It remains possible, however, that the bones are recoverable somewhere in Fiji, or that they were sent to Tarawa, Funafuti, Honiara in the Solomon Islands, or England when the WPHC closed its doors. These and other possibilities are being investigated.

The Fiji search also put us in touch with a number of people whose information may be invaluable to the project, notably Foua Tofinga, who has first-hand knowledge of the operations of Sir Harry Luke's office during the time the bones were sent in, and who visited Nikumaroro shortly after Gallagher's death. It also introduced us to Emily Sikuli and Otira O'Brian, whose stories have added to our corpus of anecdotal accounts pertinent to the study. Mrs. Sikuli's information, especially, adds to the evidence that the wreck of the Electra may have once been on the Nutiran reef.

Finally, the Fiji search gave us an opportunity to inspect a number of archival sources, which led to additional sources of data elsewhere, including contacts with Sir Ian Thomson, Sir Harry Luke's Aide-de-Camp, and Sir Harry's own family.

The Nikumaroro reconnaissance was also superficially disappointing. At the site where something that might have been aircraft wreckage appeared on the 1980s air photos, nothing was found but an oarlock, suggesting that the "thing" imaged in the photos may have been a Norwich City lifeboat. Only one small piece of aircraft aluminum was found, and it was painted with zinc chromate, indicating military origin. Nothing was found on the reef at the point identified by Emily Sikuli. The grave excavated, like the one at Aukaraime, turned out to be that of an infant, and was carefully refilled.

The reconnaissance achieved its objectives, however, by clarifying the situation both on western Nutiran and at two of the three candidate bones sites. It appears that there is no obvious airplane wreckage either on shore or on the reef flat at Nutiran, but the hydrodynamics of the area are such that any wreckage there would most likely have been swept over the reef edge long ago. The same physical factors would very likely have caused wreckage to move along a ledge that runs about twelve meters below the water surface down toward the mouth of Tatiman Passage, where storm events would sweep it into the lagoon to be deposited on the Taraia shore or in the sandbar that runs across the passage's inner mouth.

At the two candidate bones sites, Dr. Burns was able to get a first-hand idea of the challenges to be encountered in physically searching for residual bones and artifacts. This information will be factored into planning for future work, hopefully after further research has narrowed the choice of possible sites somewhat.

It is also notable that the reconnaissance of the Nutiran reef flat revealed that there is a long, wide, smooth area immediately north of the Norwich City, which at low tide would have made an attractive and usable landing place for an aircraft.

Team Members

  • Richard Gillespie – Executive Director of TIGHAR and leader of the expedition
  • Karen R. Burns, Ph.D. - TIGHAR #2071E
  • John Clauss – TIGHAR # 0142CE
  • Veryl Fenlason – TIGHAR #0053CE
  • Richard "Skeet" Gifford - TIGHAR #0001CEB
  • Van Hunn - TIGHAR #1459CE
  • Jerry Ann Jurenka - TIGHAR #0772E
  • Chris Kennedy - TIGHAR #2068E
  • Russell Matthews – TIGHAR #0509CE
  • Gary Quigg - TIGHAR #1025CE
  • Richard Reynolds - TIGHAR #0981CEB
  • Ronald Rich - TIGHAR #2267E