On the trail of what are now said to be Amelia Earhart's bones

  1. Bones now lost in Fiji suggest Earhart died on deserted island
  2. A second story of coast watchers left to face Japanese
  3. New look at bone measurements suggests bones were Earhart's

Eighty years after American aviator Amelia Earhart vanished trying to cross the South Pacific, forensic science is now convinced her remains ended up in Fiji long after she and her navigator died on a deserted island. The latest evidence on Earhart meant quite a lot to me since I had speculated 20 years ago that her bones had indeed found their way to Fiji.

I had been researching a poignant story of New Zealand civilian radio operators and unarmed soldiers abandoned to their fate in the face of advancing Japanese forces in World War Two.  I may have been in close proximity to some of Earhart’s bones and could have even handled her remains, if not reverentially, then respectfully and in the interests of journalism. In 1999 I reported that her remains were in the spacious ceiling of Government House, Suva, Fiji.

In 1937 Earhart, 39, and her navigator Fred Noonan, took off from Lae in New Guinea bound 4,122 kilometres (2,500-odd miles) to Howland Atoll, a U.S. territory. Instead she ended up 625 kilometres to the south, at Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro), then part of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now Kiribati). As it was unoccupied and barren, she and Noonan eventually perished.

Renowned U.S. pilot Amelia Earhart is pictured in this 1928 photograph released on March 20, 2012. Scientists on March 20, 2012 announced a new search to resolve the disappearance of Earhart, saying fresh evidence from a remote Pacific island may reveal the fate of Earhart, who vanished in 1937 while attempting to circle the globe. Library of Congress/via REUTERS
Renowned U.S. pilot Amelia Earhart is pictured in this 1928 photograph. Library of Congress/via REUTERS

There have been many conspiracy theories around Earhart. As a veteran traveller on and across the Pacific, I’ve always dismissed them. The Pacific is a place of shifting lights, subtle colours and ultimate confusion.  Getting lost in the Pacific has been a regular feature for many travellers over the years. For me, it has always underscored the magnificence of Micronesian and Polynesian voyagers who turned the shape and feel of waves to direction posts which helped them survive epic journeys. Mostly.

Bones said to be Earhart’s

A lot of money has been spent looking for Earhart (less for Fred), mainly by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). A new study published in the journal Forensic Anthropology and supported by TIGHAR has determined that bones found on an island in what is now Kiribati were more than likely those of Earhart – potentially answering one of the great mysteries of the 20th century.

Richard Jantz, professor emeritus of anthropology and director emeritus of University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center, re-examined the measurements taken of bones conducted in 1940 by Fiji physician D. W. Hoodless who concluded they belonged to a man. Jantz says he believes it was a woman, and given where the bones had been first discovered, it was probably Earhart.

And that is pretty much what I said in my 2010 book, Swimming With Sharks (Penguin).

I had not been looking for her however, it was a sad incidental find.

In the late 1990s I had been trying to work out how it was that 17 New Zealand Post Office radio operators and unarmed soldiers sent to the Gilbert Islands as coast watchers, had been beheaded by Japanese soldiers on Tarawa on October 15, 1942 (along with five other white men). Their bodies have never been found and it was only relatively recently that their fate was even acknowledged in New Zealand.

The men had been posted in World War Two to the Gilberts to keep a look out for German maritime raiders in the Pacific. After Pearl Harbour, they were left their to their fate.

Before going to Tarawa I had met Yorkshire-born Stan Brown, who much later founded the Fiji Navy. He had been third engineer on the colonial ship Viti which had taken the coast watchers from Suva to their postings scattered through the Gilberts. He cried, bitterly, over the fact that they had left the coast watchers to die. He had reason to feel bitter about the colonial masters: Brown and many Fijians were later used in British nuclear tests in the open atmosphere.

After dropping the men off, they went on to the awesomely lonely Phoenix Islands and there, he recalled, they found human bones on what was then Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro.

Americans still finding WW2 dead

After visiting Brown at his Suva home, I left Fiji for Tarawa to carry out my search for the remains of my countrymen. One day I went to the launching of a canoe where an old man told me he had a boot that was once owned by Amelia Earhart. I concluded he was drunk.

When on Tarawa, I found representatives of the U.S. Defense Department agency committed to bringing all war dead home were there as they often still are. They continue to find and identify their own from the November 1943 Battle of Tarawa in which 6,400 Japanese, Koreans and Americans died on the islet Betio, which is about half the size of a major city park. No one from New Zealand is looking for their own.

After Viti dropped off the coast watchers up the western islands of the Gilberts, it went to the Phoenix Islands. Even in those days population pressures on Tarawa were growing and the British government was planning to resettle people on more distant atolls.

The civilian leader of the expedition was Gerard Gallagher, an assistant secretary at the colonial era Western Pacific High Commission. Stan Brown remembered him as a “Rupert Brooke-like Irishman”.

During the trip Gallagher came down with severe abdominal pains and on Nikumaroro his pain worsened, leading to collapse.

“By the time an area was cleared and made as sterile as was possible under the circumstances, darkness had fallen and the only light available was an electric torch held by Lieutenant Laurie Whysall,” Brown said. “Once the abdomen was opened up even by the inadequate light available, the doctor was able to diagnose a severe bowel blockage and complications.”

He died later that night and was buried next to the flagstaff under the words “another Son of Empire far from home”.

While ashore, Brown found two sets of human bones and packed them up in a wooden sexton box.

Later in Suva, Hoodless examined the bones and concluded one set belonged to a white man. He made no conclusions about the other.

I was back in Suva in 2000, covering what proved to be the preliminaries to Fiji’s third military coup. Among those predicting a disaster at the time was veteran journalist Robert Keith Reid. Malta-born, he had spent all his adult life in Fiji. He went to high school with prime ministers and coup plotters. He knew, in the most literal sense, where the bodies were buried.

He took on a knowledgeable look when I mention Jones and the bones, suggesting they might belong to Earhart.

“They are in the ceiling of Government House,” he said.

It wasn’t just gossip. His mother, still alive at the time, had been the private secretary to assorted governors, governor generals and presidents and she knew what was in the ceiling. In fact, she probably put them there.

Boxes of bones

I wrote a feature for Agence France-Presse on the box of bones and suggested that instead of looking at Japanese prisoner of war camps, Suva might offer some hope for those still trying to find Amelia Earhart. Soon after that a couple of American researchers from TIGHAR arrived in Suva. They went to the venerable and respected Fiji Medical School, following a lead that the Earhart bones had ended up as teaching aides.

Local reporter Asha Lakhan and I accompanied them, going into a store room. Piled high in New Zealand Apple cardboard boxes were bones, lots of them. Some were painted as a kind of colour coding. Given the ornateness of Pacific Island funerals and rites, the informality of all the bones jumbled together came as something of a surprise.

For the Americans it seemed bewildering. We all picked up one or two, an arm here, a leg bone there. I certainly wondered at the fate of their owners; none of them were tagged and many of them looked like they had been around for a while. Whatever the Americans believed, they kept to themselves. Then President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara would not allow a ceiling search which, in retrospect, was not surprising; plotting was already afoot to successfully overthrow him. And for those of us who covered the region, life was about to take a rapid and sudden charge that offered little opportunity to fill gaps in American aviation history.

Nothing conclusive was decided and the Earhart theory continued for another couple of decades, including a recently popular one developed by the History Channel that she survived but was eventually taken into Japanese captivity. There was even a photo “discovered” which some believed purported to show her on a dock at Jaluit in the Japanese Marshall Islands.

A woman who, according to a new History Channel documentary, is said to resemble pilot Amelia Earhart is seen in this undated photo taken in the Marshall Islands. Courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Records of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Record Group 38, Monograph Files Relating to the Pacific Ocean Area, NAID 68141661/Handout via REUTERS
A woman who, according to a new History Channel documentary, is said to resemble pilot Amelia Earhart is seen sitting on the wharf in this undated photo taken in the Marshall Islands. Courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Records of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Record Group 38, Monograph Files Relating to the Pacific Ocean Area, NAID 68141661/Handout via REUTERS

For entirely romantic reasons, I’ve always believed that I came close to Earhart in Suva.

There was a sad side to Stan Brown who had tipped me off to Earhart’s fate. He was not only bitter about the way they had abandoned the coast watchers, he was appalled at the way his birth country, Britain, had used him and his Fijians as guinea pigs in Operation Grapple, when they tested nuclear bombs in 1957 over Christmas Island, now the divinely lovely Kiritimati, just a mere 2,000 kilometres from where Earhart and Noonan met their ends.

My mission had always been to find the remains of the coast watchers. No one is spending hundreds of thousands looking for them. No one is even looking for them.

One of the radio operators was John Jones who had been placed on the northern most atoll of Butaritari. He was the first New Zealander taken prisoner by Japanese forces in World War Two and spent the entire war as a prisoner in Japan. There he learned that his best friends and colleagues had been executed on Tarawa.

He spent his decades deeply upset not only at their murders, but at the fact that New Zealand had completely forgotten them. Only in 2012, when some recognition was won for them, did he attend a New Zealand Anzac Day or remembrance day, and lay a wreath for his friends. Two years later his old employers unveiled a monument in Wellington to remember them.

He died in 2017, still troubled that he had lived while his friends had died. I went to his funeral with a Kiribati journalist and friend, Barbara Dreaver. And I remembered that while Earhart had died on an adventure, others had died serving their country.

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