The search for Amelia Earhart turns to Fiji

By Graham Davis (Fiji Sun columnist Graham Davis is an independent Fijian journalist and consultant for Qorvis Communications. He blogs for Grubsheet Feejee) In the latest chapter of the seven-decade-long
01 Sep 2013 10:40
Amelia Earhart, who served as a consultant in the Department of the Study of Careers for Women at Purdue from 1935 to 1937, strides past her Lockheed Electra. Sally Putnam Chapman has donated 492 Earhart items Ñ including rarely seen personal and private papers such as poems, a flight log and a prenuptial agreement Ñ to Purdue Libraries' Earhart collection. Image: Smithsonian Archive

Amelia Earhart, who served as a consultant in the Department of the Study of Careers for Women at Purdue from 1935 to 1937, strides past her Lockheed Electra. Sally Putnam Chapman has donated 492 Earhart items Ñ including rarely seen personal and private papers such as poems, a flight log and a prenuptial agreement Ñ to Purdue Libraries' Earhart collection. Image: Smithsonian Archive

By Graham Davis
(Fiji Sun columnist Graham Davis is an
independent Fijian journalist and consultant for Qorvis Communications. He blogs
for Grubsheet Feejee)

In the latest chapter of the seven-decade-long search for the legendary missing American aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, investigators in the United States want to locate the descendants of three Fijians who were close associates of a distinguished former head of the Fiji Medical School in Suva. They believe a box may have been left to one of the iTaukei in the will of the former principal, Dr Kenneth Gilchrist,containing the remains of Amelia Earhart, who vanished over the mid Pacific during her attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world in 1937.
The three Fijians -LavetaInise Waqanivere, Kalaviti Tukutukunabuka and Unaisi Tianai Reave– worked for Dr Gilchrist, a British surgeon who came to Fiji in the 1940s and headed the Fiji School of Medicine from 1965 to 1970. Dr Gilchrist stayed on in Fiji after Independence and retired to Lami, where he was known locally as “The Professor”. When he eventually died in Suva in 1992, Waqanivere, Tukutukunabuka and Reave were the beneficiaries of his will and evidently received his personal effects. The American investigators believe those effects may have included a box –either the original Gilbertese box made of Kanawa wood or some other container – holding human bones that they want to test with the latest DNA technology to establish definitively whether they are those of Amelia Earhart.

Kanawa box
None of the three Fijians are now believed by the American investigators to be still alive. But they hope their families and friends may know what happened to the bones. Were they removed from the original Kanawa box? Were they buried or placed in another container? If they were buried, does anyone know where the burial place is? Is someone still using the box for another purpose? The investigators are appealing to anyone in Fiji with any knowledge whatsoever to come forward and help solve aviation’s greatest mystery.
The bones come from a partial skeleton recovered in 1940 from uninhabited Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, in the Phoenix Group of what is now Kiribati. Mounting evidence suggests that Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, may have carried out a controlled landing on the reef at Nikumaroro when they disappeared during the Trans Pacific crossing of their epic round-the-world journey. The dominant theory has it that they subsequently died of thirst on the barren atoll and their remains were devoured by the giant coconut crabs that roam the island.
The partial skeleton was packed into a Kanawa Box by a British colonial servant, Gerald Gallagher, and taken to Suva. On the instructions of the then Governor and High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, Sir Harry Luke, the bones were examined at the Central Medical School in Tamavua, which later became the Fiji Medical School.
At first, they were thought to be those of a man but subsequent tests revealed them to be those of a middle-aged woman. Amelia Earhart was 41 at the time she disappeared.

Two crucial pieces of evidence have since led the American investigators to suspect that the remains brought to Suva may be those of Earhart. During a search of the island, they found an American woman’s shoe of a type popular in the 1930s and that Earhart had been photographed wearing.
Just as intriguing, they’ve discovered a photograph taken on Nikumaroro Reef in 1939 of what appears to be a metal part from a Lockheed Electra aircraft of the type that Earhart and Noonan were using to make the trans Pacific crossing.
The missing bones -somewhere in Fiji-are now the key to solving the mystery. When they were brought to Suva – then the centre of the British colonial presence in the Pacific –the technology didn’t exist to make a positive identification. They were evidently passed around the medical establishment, first toDr Gilchrist’s predecessor at the FMS, Dr David Hoodless. His examination notes throw up another startling piece of information. Because according to one informant who’s seen them, he makes reference to a hole in the skull beneath one of the eye sockets. It evidently matches a hole drilled into Amelia Earhart’s skull when she was alive to try to relieve the pain she suffered from recurring sinusitis.

When Dr Gilchrist took over the School, he inherited the box of bones. Recollections exist of them “sitting in the corner and gathering dust”. But somewhere along the line, they disappeared. Stories continue to circulate locally about what might have happened. Were the bones mislaid or did someone covet the Kanawa box they were in and dump them? Some of these stories implicate Suva personalities who are still alive and who because of the defamation laws, can’t be identified. Yet it’s not the box that’s at issue but what was in it. And the investigators hope that any cone of silence can now be lifted.

One account has it that the celebrated Dr Lindsay Verrier, the late medical practitioner, former politician and well known Suva eccentric added the box to his collection after presumably dispensing with the bones. Did DrVerrier take it but then leave it to someone else when he died in 1981? Has some other person got the box and any clue to where the bones might be? They too are being asked to come forward.

Because seven decades on, the technology now exists – through DNA matching with the Earhart family– to solve the mystery once and for all. Dr Hoodless and Dr Gilchrist could never have imagined during their working lives that such a thing might one day be possible. So it’s not difficult to imagine the box of bones being cast aside and forgotten. No accusation is made of negligence or neglect. The American investigators from TIGHAR – the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery – are just hoping that someone, somewhere, knows what happened.

For nearly eight decades, the whole world has wondered what happened to Earhart and Noonan after they set out on July 2nd1937 from Lae, in northern New Guinea, for Howland Island, a small dot in the mid Pacific. Noonan was one of the greatest navigators of his time, a man who had helped Pan American pioneer their famed Clipper flying boat services to the Far East. Half a century before the development of GPS – the Global Positioning System that uses satellites to establish even a smart phone user’s position anywhere on earth – Noonan navigated by the stars at night and the sun by day. So when he and Earhart rumbled into the air from Lae, their Lockheed bursting with 1600 gallons of fuel, he had to chart a course across more than four thousand kilometres of ocean to a sliver of land. If he missed, catastrophe awaited.

To assist the effort, a US coastguard vessel, Itasca, was anchored off Howland, the only island in the Phoenix Group with a landing strip. It provided a vital radio link with Earhart and Noonan to help them find their “needle in a haystack”. We know from those transmissions that the Lockheed made it into the general area. But it was a day in which scattered clouds were casting dark shadows on the water which, from the air, would have resembled low-lying islands. Running low on fuel, Earhart and Noonan grew increasingly desperate, unable to hear the coastguard vessel, though audible themselves. In one of their last radio transmissions, Earhart told the coast guard radio operator – “We must be on you, but cannot see you—but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” From the sea, the plane was never sighted. The two aviation pioneers simply vanished. And 76 years later, no-one knows what really happened.

Amelia Earhart was already a legend when she disappeared – a tall, attractive blonde who captured the world’s attention with her daring feats and has held it ever since. The actress Hilary Swank perpetuated the fascination when she played her in the movie Amelia in 2009.

Born in 1897, she’d become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in 1928, earning herself a tickertape parade in New York City and the Distinguished Flying Cross. The prize of becoming the first woman to fly around the world awaited and the whole world watched as she and Noonan set out from Oakland, California and set a course east around the globe, across America, the Atlantic, Africa, the Middle and Far East, down to New Guinea. The final leg across the Pacific was the most challenging and a hurdle they failed to meet. The search for them – at $4,000,000 – was the most expensive in history to that time, vessels crisscrossing huge distances of ocean in the area where they were thought to have come down.

But where were they? Did they eventually run out of fuel and crash into the ocean? Could they have found an alternative island and tried to land? Could they have survived such a landing?  Were they captured by the Japanese, as some speculation had it, in the febrile atmosphere leading up to World War Two? Did they survive and vanish, publicity shy, into Middle America, as another preposterous theory has it? The speculation persists to this day. So no surprise that it’s Earhart’s fellow American aviators who are still doggedly pursing the search for answers.

Increasingly, the investigators at TIGHAR have honed in on Nikumaroro, mounting expensive expeditions to comb the island for evidence that Earhart and Noonan were there. The belief is mounting that having been unable to locate Howland because of a navigation error on Noonan’s part, the pair headed off in another direction and stumbled on Nikumaroro. It’s a low flat atoll nestled around a lagoon but covered with thick underbrush and substantial trees that would have made a landing impossible. Yet, intriguingly, the TIGHAR investigators found that the reef around the island is flat enough in parts to cope with a controlled landing at low tide. While the Lockheed’s tires may have burst, the undercarriage may well have remained intact.

If this happened, the Lockheed would have eventually broken up over time as it was pounded by the waves but not immediately. Did Earhart and Noonan survive such a controlled landing on the reef? Was the aircraft in good enough shape to keep at least one engine recharging the batteries of their radio? There’s some evidence that this may well have been the case.TIGHAR has established that for six days after their disappearance on July 2nd 1937, radio signals were recorded by several monitors coming from bearings that were later found to be in the vicinity ofNikumaroro. It’s led the investigators to suspect that for the first few days of their ordeal, at least, Earhart and Noonan appear to have been able to use their radio aboard the plane at periods of low tide.

Then last year, the investigators discovered a photograph taken in 1939 on the reef on Nikumaroro that appears to show a part from the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra. Only 56 Electras were ever made with this part, including Earhart’s plane. The design was changed for the subsequent 93. TIGHAR has also investigated whether other Electras may have been in the vicinity at any time. Yet neither before nor since 1937 does any record exist of an Electra coming within 1000 miles of this remote part of the Pacific. The aircraft type was common at the time in Australia and New Zealand but none were flown across the Pacific. They were all transported by ship. How else did a part from a 1930s Lockheed Electra get onto the reef at Nikumororo if it didn’t come from Earhart’s plane?

And how plausible is the theory of a controlled reef landing? Well, remarkably, it had happened before. And there’s also ample evidence that Amelia Earhart knew about it. Just a year earlier, in 1936, a twin-engine Monospar Croydon aircraft, which was much the same size as Earhart’s Electra, strayed off course on a flight from Darwin, Australia to Kupang in Indonesia. It landed safely on a reef at low tide and was barely damaged. To compound the good fortune, there was a fishing boat nearby and all the passengers were rescued. How do we know that Earhart is likely to have been aware of this incident?  Because the story was published in the December, 1936 issue of Flight magazine, the bible of aviation at the time.

So the theory goes that for six days, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noon were able to reach their Electra on the reef at low tide and make some crude radio transmissions that the ship’s searching for them didn’t or couldn’t pick up but were recorded elsewhere and later found to have come from Nikumororo. Then as their aircraft gradually succumbed to the seas, they retreated to the island in the hope that their searchers would eventually find them.

There was a shipwreck on the reef, the SS Norwich City, a British freighter that ran aground in 1929, and they would have also found evidence of previous human habitation. Presuming that neither had been badly hurt in the landing, they might have been able to survive indefinitely had they been able to find adequate food and water to sustain them after their supplies ran out. But as fate would have it, Nikumaroro was afflicted by the same curse that afflicts so many Pacific atolls – a total absence of fresh water. It brought an end to the only prolonged attempt at settlement that began two years later in 1939 and wound up in desperation in 1963.

If no rain fell in the first few days of July 1937 or there was no way to effectively capture it, Earhart and Noon would have realised with mounting horror that they were doomed. They were going to die of thirst. It would have also dawned on them that their bodies would be consumed by the giant and voracious crabs that are also a curse of Nikumaroro. And that’s precisely what appears to have happened, assuming the TIGHAR theory is correct. We’ll only know for certain when and if the bones in Fiji can be found and examined, which is what makes the current search so important.

As things stand, the mystery of what happened to the box of bones brought to Suva in 1940 is eclipsed only by the mystery of Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance itself. The British medicos and colonial officers in Fiji who might have been able to shed more light have all died. A thorough search of the School of Medicine conducted at TIGHAR’s request has produced nothing. So the American investigators have cast their net wider, appealing to anyone in Fiji who has any information that might uncover the bones to come forward.

From what can be established, they were last seen in about 1969, when a TIGHAR informant says he was shown them byDr Guy Hawley, another Fiji School of Medicine luminary. By then, according to this account, the bones were in a beer carton, having been parted from their coveted Kanawa box.  Someone else now clearly has the box but who has the bones? Dr Gilchrist was an avid collector of fossil shells and donated collections of these to the Fiji Museum and institutions overseas. Did he keep the Nikumororo bones at his home in Lami until his death in 1992? No-one seems to know the answer. He had no family so his estate passed to his employees. The administrators of the estate have no recollection of the bones being part of it. So even if they were in Lami, they appear to have vanished. They’re certainly not in the estate of Guy Hawley. So the TIGHAR investigators really have only one remaining hope – that someone who knew the beneficiaries of Dr Gilchrist’s will come forward, the friends and families ofLavetaIniseWaqanivere, KalavitiTukutukunabuka and UniasiTianai Reave.Because only when the bones are located can the mystery be finally solved.


By Michael Elliot-Jones.
TIGHAR researcher

From what we can ascertain, all three of Dr Gilchrist’s workers have been deceased for some years. As a result, to find the bones and the box, we need to find their families and friends.
We have three basic questions:
(I)    Do you know where the bones are? If so, please contact us via the addresses listed below.

(II)    If not, did you ever hear what happened to the bones? If they were simply buried somewhere, we’d like to know where. We can dig them up. Because our purpose is to obtain a DNA sample. As long as at least one of the teeth is still intact, we can probably get a useable DNA sample.  But the searchers need all of the bones to establish that they have the correct skeleton. Having all the bones, and having them fit the detailed description reported by Dr. Hoodless is as close to a real provenance as we are likely to get because the bones apparently were removed from the Fiji School of Medicine by someone unknown. The file on the bones in the FSM should have been updated when the bones were taken out of the FSM, but that file does not contain any record of the removal of the bones.
Here is the list of bones that was compiled by Dr. Hoodless:
(1)a skull with the right zygoma and malar bones broken off; (2) mandible with only four teeth in position; (3) part of the right scapula; (4) the first thoracic vertebra; 5) portion of a rib (? 2nd right rib); (6) left humerus; 7) right radius; (8) right innominate bone; (9) right femur; (10) left femur; (11) right tibia; (12) right fibula; and (13) the right scaphoid bone of the foot.
It is still possible that the bones were not removed by some unknown person, and that they are still hidden in some obscure corner in the FSM.

(III)    Who has the box? We think it was about 30x30x80cm or a little larger with handles at both ends. It was hand-made by a Gilbert Islander who was among those who colonised Nikumororo after 1939, of a tropical wood, Cordiasubcordataoften known as kanawa, from a tree which was felled on Nikumororo while clearing for coconut palms. Locating that box may create leads.

Finally, why are we searching for the bones? Because there are only two possible pieces of evidence that will decisively confirm that Amelia Earhart landed, and eventually died on Nikumororo.
First, if DNA from the bones matches DNA from Earhart family descendants, that essentially proves the point. And, that’s what this story is about.
Second, if searchers on Nikumororo find Lockheed Electra parts showing serial numbers known to have been installed in Amelia Earhart’s’s plane – serial numbers for engines, propellers, and the Lockheed builder’s plate – that also proves the point. But that’s another story.

Any clues, hints, suggestions etc. on how to find the bones will help the searchers. You can email us at:
Or send letters in hard copy to the Fiji Sun marked: “The search for Amelia Earhart”

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