Death on a desert island
Unravelling a riddle: Amelia Earhart during
her attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
Ric Gillespie believes he knows her tragic fate.
When Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan and their
Lockheed Electra disappeared in the Pacific
in July 1937, so a popular conspiracy theory
goes, they were either shot down or forced to
land by fighters of the Imperial Japanese Air
An Australian tabloid, Smith's Weekly, and
subsequent RKO feature film Flight For Freedom,
planted the idea that the aviators were on a
spying mission for the United States government,
which used their disappearance to send search
parties over areas where Japan was thought to
be building military installations before World
War II. Records though have shown searchers went
nowhere near Japanese outposts, which had no
fortifications at that time.
But by the time US forces invaded the Marshall
Islands and Saipan during hostilities in 1944,
the notion that Earhart might have been captured
by the Japanese was well established, and was
bolstered in 1949 by her mother's statement that
she felt Earhart had been involved with the
In the 1960s, the controversy was given new
impetus when witnesses - Air Force officers on
Guam - claimed to have seen Earhart taken prisoner
by the Japanese on Saipan. A US Naval Intelligence
investigation failed to uncover any proof, but the
Next, prompted by Josephine Blanco Akiyama's claim
that, as a girl on Saipan, she saw Earhart and
Noonan taken prisoner, American radio reporter Fred
Goerner wrote The Search For Amelia Earhart.
The book portrayed Earhart as a government agent
forced down in the Marshalls and imprisoned on Saipan,
eventually succumbing to malnutrition and disease.
Goerner's book unleashed a flood of conspiracy theory
books claiming countless variations on the theme
including the charge that Earhart was alive and well
and living in New Jersey under an assumed name.
While he does not subscribe to that suggestion,
Ron Bright, a retired special agent with US Naval
Intelligence, admitted: "I'm convinced that there was
more than just an around-the-world flight for Earhart.
She certainly presented the US with a chance to get
some intelligence in that area, but no one will ever
admit what really happened."
Ric Gillespie, on the other hand, says: "We have a
huge file on Saipan-related stories, it's just not as
huge as the Nikumaroro file.
"We haven't pursued the Saipan stories because there
doesn't appear to be anything to pursue. I have yet
to see a single piece of hard evidence that there is
anything there but conflicting rumours."
Ric Gillespie has been chasing the same lady for more
than 12 years. Now he reckons he knows where she is.
If he's right - and the evidence his foundation has
collected is pretty compelling - then one of the
longest-running mysteries in the history of aviation
has been solved.
Gillespie believes he knows what happened to Amelia
Earhart. And he's close to proving it.
Since July 2, 1937, when Earhart and Fred Noonan,
her navigator, disappeared over the Pacific on her
second attempt to circle the globe close to the equator,
there have been dozens of theories - some backed by
evidence, others wild speculation - as to precisely what
happened after they took off from Lae, in New Guinea.
For many years, the accepted wisdom was that their
Lockheed Model 10E Special "Electra" had simply run out
of fuel and crashed into the ocean as they searched for
Howland Island, their final refuelling stop before flying
on to Honolulu and completing the journey by touching down
in Oakland, California.
And that was what The International Group for Historic
Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) also believed. At first.
"I had, of course, always known about the mystery
surrounding Earhart's disappearance but was never
particularly interested in it," says Gillespie, executive
director of the foundation. "It seemed most likely that
she simply got lost, ran out of gas and crashed into the
ocean. It wasn't until I learned about the navigational
logic that suggested it should have been possible for her
to reach land that I became interested in seeing if that
could be investigated.
"I'm still not very interested in Amelia Earhart as a
person," he adds, "but it seems increasingly likely the
mystery of her disappearance can be solved." So, in 1988,
TIGHAR set out to find her.
Twenty hours and 13 minutes into the flight, and with
between three and four hours of fuel left, according to
the theory, Earhart and Noonan had been unable to make
visual or radio contact with Howland Island.
They implemented the only procedure open to them that
would minimise the chance of them having to ditch the
aircraft at sea, proceeding southeast on a heading of 157
degrees. This supposition is backed up by the last radio
message from the Electra, when Earhart said she was flying
on a 157/337 navigational line of position.
Shortly before noon, Earhart landed the plane on reef flats
of uninhabited Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, part
of the Republic of Kiribati, just north of the wreck of the
SS Norwich City, which ran aground on the reef in 1929.
Supporting evidence in TIGHAR's file includes interviews
with residents who colonised the islands in 1938 and
reported seeing a wrecked aircraft on the reef, long
before World War II, and photographic evidence that recently
confirmed the presence of anomalous material on the reef as
early as October 1937.
The same evening, the aircraft's radio was used to transmit
distress calls. The signals were heard by the searching US
Coast Guard vessel Itasca on 6210 kilocycles, the frequency
Earhart said she was switching to in an earlier transmission.
A radio station on Nauru also heard "fairly strong signals,
speech not intelligible, no hum of plane in background, but
voice similar to that emitted from plane in flight last night".
Experts agree that for the aircraft to be sending signals,
it must have been on land and able to operate the
generator-equipped engine to recharge its batteries. Over
the next few days, further transmissions were heard, leading
the Navy to concentrate its search on the islands of the
As the search continued, rougher seas and increased surf on
the reef forced Earhart and Noonan to abandon the aircraft,
which was obscured at high tide. They sheltered in the bush
and came across a cache of provisions left by the SS Norwich
City's survivors. When search planes from the USS Colorado
were heard overhead on July 9, Earhart and Noonan were unable
to reach the open beach in time to be seen. A photo taken by
the searching aircraft in 1937 shows a high tide, which would
have obscured the aircraft on the reef, but one of the pilots
reported "signs of recent habitation were clearly evident".
Marooned on a desert island, Earhart and Noonan would have
survived for a time, but eventually succumbed to any number
of possible causes, including injury or infection, food
poisoning, or simply thirst. Noonan died not far from the
site of their landing, Earhart died at a makeshift camp near
the shore of the lagoon on the southeast of the island.
These theories are supported by reports including one in
October 1937 of "signs of previous habitation" by a small
party that briefly came ashore from a British ship and
accounts by subsequent residents and an American serviceman
of the discovery of the remains of a man and woman.
More compelling are the extensive British government records
which only came to light in 1987 confirming the discovery in
1940 of the partial skeleton of a castaway who perished before
the island was settled in 1939. With the bones were found a
sextant box and the remains of a man's shoe and a woman's shoe.
The conclusion to TIGHAR's theory is that the aircraft was
destroyed by surf action and the debris was scattered across
the reef, along the shore and into the lagoon. During the
years the island was inhabited, between 1938 and 1963,
colonists recovered and used bits of wreckage; an aircraft
control cable was apparently used as a fishing line and a
large fishing hook was fashioned from aluminum in 1944. The
locals reported the material came from "an airplane that was
here when our people first came". Aerial photos taken in 1953
indicate light-coloured metal debris, possibly aluminum, on
TIGHAR had a theory, now it needed rock-solid proof. And the
only way to get that was to go to Nikumaroro. To date, there
have been five expeditions, and the results are persuasive.
The Niku I expedition, in October 1989, turned up a
navigator's bookcase and some strips of aluminum.
A number of the items could immediately be ruled out as being
incompatible with the Electra, but there was enough initial
evidence to plan more expeditions.
In October 1991, the foundation discovered a broken
thermometer and a threaded metal cap dating from 1930s. Then,
on October 16, a team member was changing his boots as a crab
scuttled by, knocking aside a leaf and revealing a shoe heel.
The area was cordoned off and examined meticulously: the
remnants of two shoe heels, a sole, leather fragments and a
brass eyelet were discovered.
One of the shoes has been identified, with the help of the
Cat's Paw shoe company, as a woman's blucher Oxford, size 8
or 9 narrow, that the firm manufactured in the United States
in the mid-1930s. Earhart was photographed wearing an identical
shoe 10 days before her final flight. She wore size 8 or 9
The discovery fits perfectly with the oft-repeated story of
how, in 1938, the first Gilbertese work party on Nikumaroro
came upon the skeleton of a white man and woman on the same
part of the atoll, where the shoe fragments were found 53
years later. According to the story, the woman's skeleton
was wearing American shoes, size 9 narrow.
The Niku II trip also discovered a 23-inch by 19-inch sheet
of aircraft skin which was believed to match exactly a patch
on the underside of the Electra. TIGHAR's conclusion: "Based
upon the evidence presently available, Artifact 2-2-V-1
appears to have once been part of the Earhart aircraft."
Further research shows the sheet did not come from the spot
on the aircraft that they had originally pinpointed, but
Gillespie remains convinced it is a piece of the Electra.
The subsequent Niku IIIP expedition, in 1996, discovered
some lengths of 1930s-era aircraft cable as well as shards
of Plexiglass, according to the Winterthur Museum Analytical
Laboratory, that exactly match the curvature, material and
thickness of the window in the Electra's fuselage.
The most recent visit to the island, Niku IIIIP, in July
1999, was a preliminary fact-finding trip ahead of the
expedition that Gillespie is optimistic will find conclusively
identifiable artifacts from the Earhart aircraft. Niku IIII is
scheduled for the summer of 2001.
Even though Niku IIIIP never turned up definitive proof it
added to the foundation's knowledge of the island, and Gillespie
believes the evidence is still there, be it bones, surviving
personal artifacts or, better still, a conclusively identifiable
component of Lockheed NR16020 waiting to be found.
"We were able to test and eliminate one hypothesis, that
there was significant aircraft debris hidden in the shoreline
vegetation at the island's western end, and our team in Fiji
uncovered anecdotal evidence which allowed us to formulate a
new hypothesis about where the aircraft landed," he said.
"Photographic forensic imaging of historical photos may prove
that hypothesis to be correct. In short, as a result of last
summer's field work we may be able to establish that the Earhart
aircraft landed at Nikumaroro and we may now be able to figure
out where to look for the pieces that will conclusively solve
Despite what some might see as an obsession with the most
famous woman aviator in history, Gillespie says the task at
hand is simply to find out what happened to her.
"It's not Earhart, it's the legend she has become," he says.
"Part of that was the result of careful promotion by herself
and her husband [George Putnam] during her career, the rest is
the lure of the mystery surrounding her disappearance.
Today she's a hero, but heroes are mythical creatures that
we create for our own use."
And if they do find the final, incontrovertible evidence,
Gillespie says, "then the real work begins. We will have
identified an archaeological site which could require years
of investigation to determine, to whatever degree possible,
what it was that actually happened".
Intelligence Analyst - NightFall Security Group
1 (877) 863-8300 ext.438 - voicemail/fax
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