Who Is Nei Manganibuka?

When misfortune strikes a TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro we often jokingly lay the blame on Nei Manganibuka, “the island goddess.” That’s not quite right. “Island goddess” is a Western construct for what, in the traditional culture of Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands), might be more accurately described as a “spirit ancestor.” Spirit ancestors are often female and have great wisdom and power. In Tungaru, the language of Kiribati, “Nei” is roughly the equivalent of “Ms.” “Manganibuka” means “old woman of the Buka trees.” In Gilbertese mythology, Nei Manganibuka taught the people of the Gilbert Islands the art of long-distance canoe navigation. According to some, her home was “Nikumaroro,” a beautiful island far to the southeast that was covered in Buka trees (Pisonia grandis, massive softwood trees that can grow to a hundred feet tall).

Buka forest on Nikumaroro.

In October, 1937, British Lands Commissioner Harry Maude and Cadet Officer Eric Bevington led an expedition from the over-populated Gilbert islands to the uninhabited islands of the Phoenix Group to assess their suitability for future settlement. Sailing far to the southeast, the first atoll they visited was Gardner Island. When the expedition’s delegation of Gilbertese elders beheld a beautiful atoll covered in Buka trees they immediately concluded that they had discovered Nikumaroro.

When going ashore at Nikumaroro we follow Kiribati tradition and dab some beach sand on our faces. That breeze we feel on our cheeks is Nei Manganibuka sniffing us. We want her to say, “Ahh, these are people of the island. I will not molest them.” (It doesn’t always work.)

Kiribati, by the way, is pronounced “Kiribas.” It’s the local pronunciation of “Gilberts.” The strange spelling has an interesting history. Tungaru, the Gilbertese language, was first transliterated by the American linguist Hiram Bingham II in the late 19th century. Bingham’s typewriter had a broken “s” key so he used “ti” (as in nation) instead. As a consequence, there are no “s”s in the written language. Christmas Island is Kiritimati (Kirismas).

When the first settlers arrived at Nikumaroro in late December 1938 the New Zealand Pacific Islands Survey Expedition was camped on the island’s northwest end. The settlers named that part of the atoll Nutiran (newseeran – New Zealand). The main lagoon inlet is Tatiman (tasman) Passage. The village area was named Ritiati (reesas, after British High Commissioner Richards). Another district was called Noriti (noris, after the Norwich City shipwreck). So it’s all really not as mysterious as it looks.

Ric Gilletipie

Click HERE for a detailed ethnohistory of Nikumaroro in the TIGHAR Ameliapedia.

I Hope You Find Something

It has happened a hundred times. I’ll be signing a book after a speaking presentation in which I’ve spent an hour, and often two, going through the many discoveries TIGHAR has made in our Earhart investigation, and the new book owner will say, “That was SO interesting! I sure hope you find something.” At which point I smile, turn, and start banging my head against the wall.

But seriously, I do understand why people say that. Preponderance of evidence is great. Most historical questions are answered by a broad array of mutually supportive data rather than by the discovery of a single “smoking gun,” but in the case of a mystery as iconic and contentious as the Earhart disappearance it is going to take more than a mile-high pile of circumstantial evidence to finally solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s fate.

What do we mean when we say “finally solve the mystery?” I would suggest it means acceptance by the general public that a particular explanation of what happened to Earhart is supported by incontrovertible evidence. It means people saying, “It’s good to know what really happened.”

After twenty-eight years of research we have uncovered evidence from multiple avenues of investigation suggesting that Earhart and Noonan made a relatively safe landing on the reef at Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro), and sent radio distress calls for several nights before the aircraft was washed into the ocean by rising tides and surf. Earhart survived as a castaway for weeks and perhaps months before dying at a makeshift campsite at the island’s southeast end. Noonan’s fate is less clear.

What is needed to close the case is either a DNA match to human remains or a conclusively identifiable artifact that can be linked uniquely to Earhart. Let’s consider those possibilities.

DNA

A DNA match is possible, but unlikely. The castaway bones found in 1940 were sent to Fiji but the bones disappeared and the chain of evidence is long since broken. Were bones to be found in Fiji that match Earhart’s DNA, it would prove that the bones were Earhart’s but it would not prove where the bones came from. To prove that Earhart died on Nikumaroro, the DNA match would have to be to a bone archaeologically recovered on Nikumaroro. Only thirteen bones were found in 1940. The rest were presumed to have been carried off by crabs.

The survival of a bone in that environment after so many years is possible. We found a fragment of a human finger bone there in 2010 but there was insufficient surviving mitochondrial DNA to get a sequence for matching. DNA survives best in cold, dark conditions, and there is just not a lot of cold and dark on Nikumaroro. What the island does have is a large population of rats. Rats chew up bones for the calcium. Still, more bones or bone fragments may survive, but finding them is a daunting task and the chance that they would yield usable DNA seems remote.

Artifacts

Finding an artifact linked directly to Earhart or Noonan would do the trick but, again, the object must be found “in situ,” undisturbed by humans from the time of Earhart’s presence on the island.  We’ve found a number of artifacts at the castaway site that could be Earhart-related but none of them meet the requirement of being uniquely linked to her or Noonan.  That’s not surprising.  After weeks or months surviving in a harsh environment, what would a castaway have?  The numbers on the sextant box found in 1940 establish that it was for the same kind of sextant Noonan used as a back-up, but that’s not good enough.  If we could find records that prove that Noonan owned that particular sextant, that would be great but we still wouldn’t have the object in hand.

Airplane parts found in the abandoned village, no matter how convincing, were brought there from somewhere else – but from where? Island folklore says that the early settlers salvaged parts from a “downed plane” and former residents have described seeing airplane wreckage on the reef – but those are stories, and stories that may or may not be true. We’ve found airplane parts in the abandoned village. Some are WWII debris that was imported from elsewhere. Other pieces are more likely from the Electra, but “more likely” doesn’t cut it, and there’s no way to be sure how they got there.

So What Do We Need?

A smoking gun airplane part would have to be found wherever it was deposited by natural forces, not human intervention. Any component of a Lockheed Model 10 would qualify,
because NR16020 was the only Electra that was ever within thousands of miles of Nikumaroro, but a part that was unique to Earhart’s airplane would obviously be icing on that cake. Finally, the nature of the discovery must be such that there can be no accusation that someone planted it there.

So, to summarize, we need a clearly authentic, in situ, conclusively identifiable part of a Lockheed Electra. Whether something like that still exists and, more to the point, can be found, has been the focus of TIGHAR’s work at Nikumaroro.  It’s an extraordinarily high bar but as Carl Sagan famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  TIGHAR aspires to the extraordinary.

How The World Flight Began

One of the most fascinating aspects of researching and writing Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra is how Amelia’s world flight evolved from the way it was first envisioned. As described by George Putnam in a letter to Purdue University President Edward Elliott in March 1936, Amelia’s plan was for “another world flight.”

In 1936, circumnavigation of the globe by air was nothing new. The U.S. Army had been the first in 1924. The Graf Zeppelin was next in 1929. Wiley Post had done it twice, with Harold Gatty in 1930 and again solo in 1933. By September 1936 it would be possible for anyone to make the entire journey around the world as a commercial airline passenger. Nonetheless, Putnam wrote that a world flight by Amelia would be of great value. “Those concerned with the development of aviation are convinced that such a world flight is of prime importance in stimulating greater interest in pure and applied research in aeronautics.” Who those people were was not mentioned.

Amelia’s world flight was to take place in late 1936 or early in 1937. She would begin with a send-off in Washington, DC after which she would fly to Purdue for the official beginning to the world flight. Her route would be from Lafayette, Indiana to San Francisco; to Honolulu; to Tokyo, Japan; to Hong Kong, China; to Rangoon, Burma; to Karachi, India; to Cairo, Egypt; to Dakar, French West Africa; to Natal, Brazil; to Havana, Cuba; to New York; and back to Purdue.

(Click on the map to open a larger version in a new page.)

The proposed route was, to say the least, ambitious. Envisioned as a solo flight like her other long-distance records, three of the legs, if flown nonstop, would involve flights of about thirty hours duration. Putnam wrote that Amelia would accomplish the circumnavigation as quickly as possible but “the emphasis will be on conservatism. Comparative safety and the acquisition of important data will not be sacrificed for speed.” There would be no records to be “held up in comparison” because no east to west flight or similar route had ever been attempted.

The trip would include “the unprecedented exploit of bridging the 3,900 miles of Pacific between Honolulu and Japan.” Putnam saw the flight’s importance to aviation “in its utilization of a twin-engine plane and the latest in all branches of scientific aeronautical equipment.” All previous circumnavigations had been in single-engine aircraft but the advantages of multi-engine, all-metal aircraft in long-distance flying was not in question. Two of the top three finishers in the 1934 MacRobertson Trophy Air Race from England to Australia, had been twin-engined American airliners, a Douglas DC-2 and a Boeing 247. In 1935 Pan American Airways had begun scheduled passenger service across the Pacific in four-engined Sikorsky S-42B flying boats.

Putnam was correct, however, that the most important aspect of the world flight would be Amelia’s star-power. “Above all, its public interest lies in the record and personality of its pilot.”

Join the Literary Guild

The research and writing of Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra are made possible by special contributions from members of the TIGHAR Literary Guild.  If you’re not already a member of the Guild please click HERE to join today.  If you’re a member of the Guild please continue your support.  All members of the Guild will receive a signed copy of Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra upon publication.  If we can keep the donations coming we should be able to get the book completed this year.

How To Write A History Book

How do you write a history book? Well, you seek out the source material, figure out what happened, and tell the story – right? Right, but to make the book as truthful and accurate as possible, each of those steps requires a great deal of diligence.

Right now I’m working on the third chapter of Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra. The title of the chapter is “The Realization of a Dream” and it covers March through July 1936. This was the period during which the deal with Purdue University was finalized including initial plans for the world flight; the order for the Electra was placed with Lockheed; and the airplane was constructed and delivered to Earhart.

The first step is to make sure you have the best primary source material available. Books don’t count. Books are secondary sources. The information they provide is useful only to the extent that they cite primary sources, and then you have to go and check the primary source to make sure the author got it right. Sometimes, the source cited is “interview by author” which is a euphemism for “anecdotal recollection.” Human memory is notoriously unreliable. Oral history is history the way somebody remembers it. There is no way to know its accuracy without corroboration by contemporaneous written or photographic documentation.

Fortunately, for this subject, there are some excellent primary source materials available.

  • Earhart’s own writings and newspaper stories about her and the Electra are readily available, but they’re a record of what was said publicly, and private sources often tell a different story.
  • Purdue University Special Collections has extensive correspondence between Earhart, Putnam, and various Purdue University officials, and also internal Purdue correspondence, much of it available on-line via the excellent Purdue e-Archives. There are some drawbacks. The correspondence is not reliably chronological and the images are often scans of carbon copies, fuzzy and hard to read.
  • The FAA has a fairly extensive file of official correspondence and inspection reports relating to the Earhart Electra, but it’s far from complete.
  • The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum archive has the research papers of Doris L. Rich, author of Amelia Earhart – A Biography (1989, Smithsonian Press). The file includes copies of extensive correspondence between Putnam, Paul Mantz and Lockheed relating to the selection and construction of the Earhart Electra.
  • Photographs can be important primary sources of information if they can be reliably dated. The best way to do that is to find original copies with the dated news service captions and credits glued to the reverse side. TIGHAR member Larry C. Inman has assembled the finest collection of original Earhart-related press photos for his Remember Amelia exhibit and has graciously given TIGHAR full access to his collection.

Once you have identified the available primary source materials the next step is to integrate them into an accurate comprehensive chronology. This is especially important in this case because it has never been done before. Doris Rich did not reference the Purdue material. Susan Butler (East to the Dawn [1997, Addison Wesley]) covered the Purdue connection but didn’t have the Putnam–Mantz correspondence. None of the Earhart authors has had the full story.

Once you have the chronology you then have to carefully wade through the material to get an understanding of the sequence of events and what was going on. This is the most interesting part because it’s where you often discover that the true story is quite different from the traditional story.

Finally, you start writing. This is the hardest part because now you have to interpret the raw data. You have to look at the whole picture and present the trajectory of events in such a way as to allow the reader to draw insights into why things happened the way they did. You can’t dumb it down or over-simplify, but it has to be fun to read or no one will read it. Good history might be the toughest writing there is, but it may also be the most important.

The Most Important Failed Flight

Charles Nungesser
François Coli

May 9, 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the most important failed flight in history. On that day in 1927, the world waited breathlessly for word of the first nonstop crossing of the Atlantic between New York and Paris. On the morning of May 8th French aces Charles Nungesser and François Coli had taken off from le Bourget Field in the giant Levasseur PL-8 biplane L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird), and headed westward in an attempt to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first flight between Paris and New York. It was the first time an airplane loaded with enough fuel for a nonstop crossing had gotten airborne. Two rival aircraft had crashed on takeoff at the cost of four lives. Another competitor, a modified Ryan design, was in California being flight tested by a little-known airmail pilot. He cancelled his plans to try for the prize when he learned that the famous Frenchmen were on their way to New York.

But the crowds and official welcoming committee in New York waited in vain. An impatient French journalist wired home a complete account of The White Bird’s triumphal arrival. Paris went wild until it became apparent that the news was tragically premature. Nungesser and Coli were down – somewhere. A massive search by the navies of four nations (larger than the search for Amelia Earhart ten years later) was launched, and the airmail pilot in California set out for New York and immortality.

For the next eleven days, headlines covered the fruitless search and marveled at the audacity of “the Flying Fool” who was determined to try for the prize solo. When Charles Lindbergh left Roosevelt Field on May 20, few among the 500 people who saw him off expected that he would ever be seen again. The next night, when he landed The Spirit of St. Louis on the same runway where Nungesser and Coli had departed just days before, a screaming crowd of 100,000 was there to greet him.

Although little remembered in the U.S., the failed flight of L’Oiseau Blanc was a hinge-pin in history. Had Nungesser and Coli arrived in New York, Lindbergh would not have flown the Atlantic and the tremendous boost to American aviation development and innovation inspired by his accomplishment would not have happened. What might have been the consequences a few years later when the fate of the world rode on American wings.

Personal observations by TIGHAR’s Executive Director, Ric Gillespie