Sunday, October 12, 2014


This little (very little – the scale is in millimeters) red bead was found in 2010 at the Seven Site, a bit upslope from the SL- fire feature.  We’re in the process of determining what it’s made of (I think glass; others thing maybe other things), and are consulting with bead experts about where it might have come from, but I thought I’d put it up here so readers can speculate on it. 

It’s the only such item of ornamentation to be found at the site, but there very likely were more.  It’s much smaller than the size of the coral rubble that makes up the site, so items like it may well have filtered down through the rubble to much greater depths than we’ve probed.  It’s also smaller than the gauge of our screens; as Ric says, it’s remarkable our team even found it.  The penny was not found at the Seven Site, but reminds us that we're deep into fundraising for the 2015 Niku VIII expedition -- hint, hint....

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Nikumaroro is Washing Away

I’m grateful to Ric Gillespie for sending me the image shown above.  He prepared it in 2006 by overlaying historical airphotos on satellite imagery of Nikumaroro, where we hypothesize that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan landed and died.

The portion of Niku that’s shown is the land unit called Ritiati and the adjacent Tatiman Passage.  Ritiati is the site of the colonial (1939-63) government station and village.  The areas marked in red represent land eroded away since the earliest good aerial imagery in the late 1930s.  The yellow areas are those that as of 2006 had experienced substantial overwash by storm surges. 

The succession of aerial images actually shows that the shoreline was relatively stable until the late 1980s, at which point overwash and resultant land loss seems to have taken off.  In the years since Ric prepared the image shown here, it’s continued.

The bottom line is that Niku is washing away.  This is what sea level rise looks like – not a gradual rise in water level as in a bathtub, but the removal of land in a series of minor catastrophic events.  The rising sea levels send salt water into the porous coral island; it displaces the freshwater lens that makes plant life possible.  The plants die and their roots stop holding the coral soil together.  Storms send waves farther and farther inland, eroding the land and further destroying the freshwater lens. The cycle continues and is amplified through time.

Soon or late – probably rather soon – we’ll lose Niku.  That will be tragic, at least for those of us who love the place and are fascinated with its history, archaeology, and ecology, and for its resident crabs, rats, and birds -- and corals and fish.  But what’s far more immediately tragic in human terms is the loss of similar atolls on which people live, and have lived for thousands of years – Tarawa, Majuro, and the rest.  Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner said it best, in her speech to the UN Climate Change summit in New York --

I only wish I could share her fierce optimism.

I've had arguments with my fellow TIGHAR Board member Skeet Gifford about the extent to which climate change is the result of human activity; I'll confess to being unsure, as I am about most things.  But whether we're much to blame for it or not, it's happening, and driving sea level higher.  We are going to have to do something about it -- at least to adapt to it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Some Other Seven Site Bones -- by Joe Cerniglia

Preface:  I'm honored that Joe Cerniglia has asked to post the following research paper on my AEArchaeology blog.  TFK

Assemblage of turtle bones on Tom Kings lab bench.

When TIGHAR researchers talk about Nikumaroro Island, eventually the discussion will turn to the discovery of bones.

Usually the bones discussed will be of the human variety, but not always.  The turtle bones found at the Seven Site at first do not seem nearly as fascinating as the official correspondence detailing the discovery of human bones of a castaway on Nikumaroro in late 1940 and 1941.  But they are worth a closer look for what they can tell us, both about turtles, and about the person or persons who used turtles at the Seven Site.

One reason they are worth a closer look is that we have them to study.  The human bones, by comparison, have been lost in the years since their analysis in Suva, Fiji but we continue to search for them. 

Another reason is that they provide a possible clue about the location on the island where human bones were found.  In an October 17, 1940 telegram to the Secretary of the Western Pacific High Commission, Gerald Gallagher reported that "remains of fire, turtle and dead birds" at the human bones discovery site "appear to indicate life."   The fact that Gallagher found turtle bones, as did TIGHAR in several excavations on the Seven Site, is, in Tom King's opinion, "one of the better reasons for equating the Seven Site with the human bones discovery site."

But Dr. King doesn't base this opinion simply on the fact that the turtle bones were there.  Pacific Islanders do, after all, hunt turtles, as do people all over the world.  He bases it on an inventory of what kinds of turtle bones were there, and how that inventory relates to what is known about hunting and food preparation practices of islanders known to have lived on Nikumaroro.  

The turtle bones found at the Seven Site appear to have all been associated with the carapace and plastron (the upper and lower shell) of one or perhaps more turtles.  No limb bones were found. 

The absence of other bones is at odds with the ways in which Nikumaroro islanders report hunting turtles:

During a 2011 interview with surviving residents of Nikumaroro now living in Rawaki Village in the Solomon Islands, Taniana Bourika, then aged 74, explained that "he and his comrades would hunt turtles on the far side of the island" (a fair enough description for the Seven Site) "butcher them there, using everything from the carcass except the bones and shell[1].  But if the turtle bones represent a casual use of turtles as a food source by islanders who prepared them as soon as they finished hunting them and indiscriminately discarded all the remains there, where are the limb bones? 

The Coast Guardsmen from the LORAN station, active from 1944-1946, could have decided one day to go turtle hunting (although surviving members interviewed by TIGHAR do not recall doing anything like this), but if they hunted turtles at the Seven Site, why would they not take the entire turtle back to their Quonset huts on the southern tip of the island?  If they staged a cookout on the Seven Site, why would there be left only carapace bones and plastron?

It has been speculated the turtle bones may in fact not be the remains of a meal at all; rather, they could represent the castaway's attempt to use the concave parts of a turtle to collect rainwater.  That is a possibility, but it may not tell the whole story.  Some of the turtle bones show signs of having been chopped apart with a tool such as an ax or machete.  Colonists and Coast Guardsmen most likely had easy access to such tools, but so might have the castaway.  Some of the glass at the site, notably that of the base of the ointment pot, which has been interpreted as a freckle cream jar, shows what use wear specialist Geoffrey Cunnar observed as signs of having been used as a cutting tool.

Then we come, in this leisurely paced tour of turtles, to what must needs be one of the stranger aspects of turtle remains found at the Seven Site.  A piece of plastron exhibits a round hole in it.

Ric Gillespie measured the hole and observed that its dimensions matched nearly exactly to a casing from a .22 caliber pistol.  Ric and some others of us opined, perhaps too conveniently, that the turtle from which the plastron came was shot by a hungry but tender-hearted castaway aiming for what was perceived to be a vital organ.

Guns can be carried by anyone, however.  A Coast Guardsmen could also have dispatched the turtle with a gun, and there are signs that Coast Guardsmen did shoot for recreation at the site, bringing dishes or radio tubes or anything handy, perhaps even shooting up artifact bottles. A .22 caliber civilian firearm, however, does not seem to have been the type of weapon they used for shooting practice. Rather, a .45 caliber seems to have been the Coast Guard's standard sidearm[2].
TIGHAR, of course, is testing whether the identity of the castaway who died on Nikumaroro was Amelia Earhart.  If we assume for the sake of our discussion that the identity of the castaway was Amelia Earhart, then we must eventually ask whether or not there exists any evidence that the Electra carried firearms.

The evidence is sketchy, anecdotal and even contradictory at best, but a member of the family of Fred Noonan's second wife, Mary Bea Martinelli, recalled in an email that Mary's brother-in-law, Tex Jordan, an actor and friend of Fred Noonan, used to recount in the 1970s how "he claimed to have taken his Colt 45 out of his pocket and handed it to Fred just as he was getting on the plane" at the Oakland Municipal Airport.  Whether the alleged handover of the gun occurred before the first world flight attempt or before the second is not stated[3].

There is another anecdote, also many years after the fact, from Harry Balfour, radio operator at Lae, to Leo Bellarts, who was stationed on the Itasca the morning of Earhart's last flight, regarding Earhart's surrender of a "pistol and ammunition" at Lae prior to the takeoff for Howland[4].

There is also a photograph indicating Earhart may have had some experience with using a handgun[5].

Of course, none of this anecdotal and photographic evidence can override the fact that any individuals who were on Nikumaroro could have shot a turtle at the Seven Site.  Dr. Dan Brown, a member of the group researching the holed plastron, was also correct to point out that bullets are not the only sources of holes in turtle plastrons.  Barnacles are often known to attach to turtles and over time can sometimes burrow through their shells.

A study into the details of barnacle behavior as it relates to turtles, however, shows that while the barnacle hypothesis may be the simplest, it may not be as pat a rebuttal to the bullet hole hypothesis as it initially seems.

 The plastron is the leathery underbelly of a turtle.

The hole was located on the plastron of a turtle.  A check of the relevant literature on barnacle behavior with regard to turtles, however, shows that settlement of barnacles on turtle plastrons is comparatively uncommon.  A 2012 study found that 74% (n=125) of the barnacles settled on the carapace of the turtles studied, whereas only 18.3% (n=31) settled on the plastron[6].  An earlier study from 1982 arrived at a similar finding for the most common areas where barnacles settle on turtles[7].  The reason for barnacles' apparent favoring of the carapace region over the plastron region was found to be an optimal flow of food and water over these regions.  The 1982 study concluded that the number of available sites where a turtle can bask in the sun and scrape its undersides has an effect on the number of barnacles that can settle on its body.  Sunny areas tend to dry out the carapace.  When a turtle is able to scrape its undersides frequently, it can more easily rid itself of its plastron-settling barnacles[8]. Nikumaroro is abundant in sites where turtles can both bask in the sun and scrape their undersides.  Heavily industrialized locations tend to present fewer options for turtles to clean themselves.  Nikumaroro is not one of these industrialized areas and thus seems an unlikely location for a turtle to experience invasive damage from barnacles.

The black arrow on the right shows an example of scar tissue from a burrowing barnacle.

The holed plastron, further, lacks a telltale sign that is present in the turtles whose shells are breached by barnacles.  Since barnacles burrow very slowly over time, the boring action produces noticeable scar tissue on the interior of the wounds they create[9].  The holed plastron exhibits none of the scarring on its interior that would be expected if caused by a barnacle.

Barnacles leave clues when they burrow, but so do bullets.  One of the first questions the late anthropologist Dr. Karen Burns asked when presented with the plastron and its associated hypotheses was whether it showed signs of surface beveling or whether the hole was "straight through like a core sample."  Bullet wounds typically cause inward beveling at the entry site and outward beveling at the exit site.  The holed plastron seems to show (in this layman's opinion) a slight inward beveling on the exterior of the plastron. Analysis by a ballistics expert would be needed, however, to answer definitively the question of whether the plastron is indeed beveled, or not.

Exterior view of plastron with circular inward beveling radiating from hole.

Interior view of holed plastron.

Presuming that the turtle was shot in its underside by a bullet or, less likely, pierced by a spear, Ric Gillespie has posited three main possibilities for the holed plastron:

1) Somebody shot a live turtle with a .22.

2) Somebody poked a live turtle with a smooth-pointed (no head) spear having about the same gauge as a .22.

3) Somebody used a dead turtle, or a piece thereof, as a target for a .22 or spear.

It is worth noting that the idea of spearing or shooting a turtle for any reason would seem unwarranted to a Pacific Islander, since their method of preparing turtles in the early to mid-20th century seems to have consisted of turning them over on their backs prior to butchering[10].

We have few firm conclusions we can draw from the turtle bones found, holed or otherwise, at the Seven Site, but we can say that these bones indicate activity that is atypical of a Pacific Islander or member of the Coast Guard.  Gallagher and the British colonist overseers of the island remain open candidates for the disposition of these bones, but they do not appear to be probable ones. 

Atypical is not the same as impossible, however.  Groups and individuals have been known to behave atypically.  The turtle bones could represent atypical behavior of one or more of the groups known to visit the site.

Ascribing these bones to the activity of the castaway or castaways, whose bones and other personal effects appear to have been deposited at the Seven Site, seems a simpler proposition.  Overall, we think there is much information these bones may potentially tell us about how the castaway of the Seven Site lived and, perhaps, died there.


[1] Interview in 2011 at the Solomon Islands by Gary Quigg, Nancy Farrell, Karl Kern and John Clauss.

[2] Information on Coast Guard weaponry was provided by TIGHAR member Karen Hoy in consultation with Scott T. Price, historian at U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C.  The subject of bullets and shell casings recovered at the Seven Site is very complex and requires a dedicated paper beyond the scope of this article.

[3] This anecdote was obtained from research by Gary LaPook.  These and other anecdotes are worthy of mention but need to be assessed in light of the fact that one is secondhand and both occurred many years after the fact.  Ric Gillespie, in weighing the value of these kinds of stories, has appropriately cautioned about their value as historical proof:  "There is no way to tell unless we can find a written source that is contemporary with the event who had access to the information."

[4] This anecdote was obtained from an interview by Earhart Project Advisory Council member William Webster-Garman.

[6] Eduardo Nájera-Hillman, Julie B. Bass, and Shannon Buckham. (2012). Distribution patterns of the barnacle, Chelonibia testudinaria, on juvenile green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in Bahia Magdalena, Mexico, p. 11741176.

[7] Richard A. Siegel, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Central Florida. (1982).
Occurrence and Effects of Barnacle Infestations on Diamondback Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) pp. 35-36.

[8] Siegel, pp. 35-36.

[9] Siegel, pp. 37-38.
The photograph of scar tissue is from Mark Flint, Janet C. Patterson-Kane, Colin J. Limpus, Thierry M. Work, David Blair, Paul C. Mills. (2009). Postmortem diagnostic investigation of disease in free-ranging marine turtle populations: a review of common pathologic findings and protocols.

[10] The practice of hunting turtles in this way is now illegal in many areas.  New York State law, for example, prohibits hunting snapping turtles with anything but firearm or bow, and diamondback terrapins must be captured alive.  A valid hunting license issued by the state is also required.

Nikumaroro, under the authority of PIPA (Phoenix Islands Protected Area), now forbids all harvesting of green turtles with the exception of subsistence use on Canton Atoll.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Plan for Our 2015 Visit to Nikumaroro

The June-July trip to Nikumaroro with Betchart Expeditions aboard Fiji Princess is now fully booked up with a waiting list, so if you’ve been waiting to sign up, I’m afraid you’ve missed the boat, as it were.  You can join the waiting list, however, and there’s talk of another trip in 2016. 

What we plan to do:  We’ll have only four days on the island, and some of that time will be given over simply to visiting the key sites: the Nutiran reef where we think Earhart landed her Electra, the Seven Site where she may have died, the colonial village, and the Bivouac Site where a woman’s shoe was found in 1991.  But we also hope to get some original research done.  At present, the plan looks like this:

1.    TIGHAR Board member Art Carty has made a special study of what we call “Camp Zero” – the place where Earhart and Noonan may have made their first camp if they landed where we think they did – but the site has never been studied.  Art, his wife Janis, and their niece Elizabeth will be on the trip, and the plan is for them, archaeologist Dawn Johnson, and a small team of volunteers to travel up to the site and give it as systematic an inspection and metal-detector sweep as possible without serious brush clearing.

2.    Meanwhile, Niku veterans John Clauss, Tom Roberts and I plan to work with those interested to do a systematic survey of the lee (west) shore of the colonial village at Ritiati, which is eroding as sea level rises.  We know there are airplane parts in the village; they have eroded out along this shore in the past and just might be doing so now.  The well-known artifact 2-2-V-1 – a big piece of aluminum that may well have been the patch applied to the Electra’s aft starboard window opening before departure from Miami – came from this area.  Our plan is to cover a segment of the shoreline each day, sweeping it with metal detectors and exposing and recording hits.
2-2-V-1 as found, 1991
The patched Electra, 1937

3.    If there’s time, we’d also like to search for the elusive “wheel of fortune” reported by a New England Aquarium expedition in Tatiman Passage, and for a possible airplane door reported by colonial veterans down near the Bivouac Site. 

4.    Finally, we plan for snorklers, glass-bottomed boat passengers, and divers to take a good look at the upper Nutiran reef slope.  We’ve done it before, but things come and go on a coral reef, and possible aircraft parts have been reported there.

What we won’t do.  Niku is part of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).  Its environment is fragile and must not be disturbed.  We won’t be collecting plants, animals, corals, or any other living thing, and we’ll try very hard not to disturb them.  We won’t be collecting any artifacts from underwater; if we see anything on the reef we’ll mark it discreetly, locate it with GPS, and come back for it when we’re equipped to do so.  On land, any artifacts we find and decide to take back will be managed in accordance with TIGHAR’s antiquities management agreement with the government of Kiribati, whose representative will be aboard Fiji Princess. Any artifact removed will be fully recorded as to its location and surroundings. 

In addition….  We’ll also be visiting Rotuma, Funafuti, Wallis, and Futuna Islands, and of course Fiji, our point of departure and return.  Some of us hope to do a little archival research on Funafuti – which has important Niku connections – and we’ll be coordinating with colleagues in Fiji about ongoing research there.  A cooperating research group has been set up at the Fiji National University by faculty member Gary Kieffner, and some intriguing leads have come up recently regarding the bones sent to Fiji from Niku in 1941.

For more information on this and other Betchart Expeditions trips, visit .  And of course, for up-to-date information on the Earhart search, visit .

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Only Six Cabins Left!

If you've been thinking about joining the 2015 TIGHAR-Betchart Expeditions trip to Nikumaroro (also sponsored by AAAS Travels, Sigma Xi Expeditions, and the Planetary Society), now is about your last chance; there are only six cabins left to charter.

The trip will stage out of Fiji and feature stops at several islands besides Niku, with about four days at our favorite atoll itself.  We plan to spend some time in the remains of the colonial village and at the Seven Site, as well as the site where shoe parts were found in 1991.  The activity I'm most looking forward to is an archaeologically controlled search of the village site's eroding shoreline, where airplane parts have been found in the past -- washing out of the village, washing up from the reef, or both; we just might find some more.  We'll also have exciting(?) lectures at sea by Ric Gillespie, other TIGHAR experts, and me.

Hope you can join us, but if you want to you'd best act fast.  Go to for more information and to reserve a cabin.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pacific Gyre Meets Nikumaroro

We've all heard about, seen images of, the Pacific Gyres -- the great patches of noxious, toxic trash circulating in the northern Pacific, choking seabirds and turtles, poisoning fish (c.f.  Those of us who've been to Nikumaroro know that even that very remote, uninhabited atoll has not been spared the Gyres' attention -- or that of some great floating patch of human-produced toxic waste.

Thanks to my colleague Art Carty, here's an image of what's happening to Niku -- at least the superficial expression of what's happening.  This is just one random shot from 2010, taken from the location we call "Camp Zero" -- the likely location of Earhart's and Noonan's first camp if indeed they landed where we think they did.  Camp Zero is scheduled for a close inspection as part of the planned 2014 Nikumaroro expedition (whose main focus will be on searching the deep reef face for the Electra -- see for details).  Maybe those who inspect it will at least be able to relieve it of some trash.  For awhile.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Vanished: A Book Worth Discovering

I ordered Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II without expecting to read it myself.  I mostly got it for my wife -- her father, Howard Sires, like some of the book’s subjects, vanished piloting a Liberator bomber over the Pacific near the end of World War II.  I figured I really knew everything I needed to know about missing pilots and planes in the Pacific – with the obvious exception of the elusive Earhart – and my experiences with people who seek lost war planes didn’t lead me to expect Vanished to be either good history or good literature.

Then I pulled it up on my Kindle on a long plane trip, and boy, was I surprised!

The author of Vanished, Wil Hylton (, is an honest-to-god writer, who works for the New York Times Magazine and contributes to rags like Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Harper’s.  He knows how to tell a story, and in Vanished he tells several, all neatly interwoven:

·         The story of the aircrews who piloted B-24 Liberators into action over Yap and Palau in 1944, and in many cases went down with them;

·         The story of their families, and the multi-generational anguish they’ve suffered by their men being missing in action, unaccounted for;

·         The stories of some of the Palauans who lived through the war (and some who didn’t), who witnessed some of what happened to the Liberators and their crews, and who have helped solve the mysteries surrounding them (giving, I should note, quite appropriate credit to the Palau Historic Preservation Office);

·         The story of the dedicated volunteers who’ve come to comprise the BentProp organization (, a somewhat TIGHAR-like group that’s devoted to finding those MIA flyers and their aircraft, and bringing closure to their families;

·         The story of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint MIA-POW Accounting Command (, whose military and civilian (archaeologists, physical anthropologists) pursue a similar mission of broader scope with a lot more professional and bureaucratic constraints;

·         The story of Japanese and Allied strategies in the Pacific war, and how they led to the events that befell those Liberator aircrews;

·         And lots more, all skillfully recounted and interrelated, and grounded in excellent, well-referenced historical research.  I learned a lot from Vanished, and was both entertained and inspired.  It’s hard to ask for more. 

And yes, Earhart puts in a cameo appearance, but Hylton, thank goodness, doesn’t pursue what happened to her.    

Vanished:  The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II.  By Wil S. Hylton.  Riverhead, 2013 (  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book While You Can

About half the available cabins have been reserved for the June 17-July 3 2015 trip to Nikumaroro, sponsored by Betchart Expeditions and co-sponsored by TIGHAR, AAAS Travels, Sigma Xi Expeditions, and the Planetary Society.  So if you’re thinking of joining us, as the old saying goes, it’s about time to fish or cut bait.  For full information and to reserve, visit

What can you expect if you come along?  Well, with any luck a comfortable voyage from Viti Levu in Fiji via Tivua, Rotuma, and Funafuti to Nikumaroro, and back to Viti Levu via Wallis Island and Futuna, with about five days at Niku itself.  On Niku we plan to acquaint everyone with the archaeological remains of the colonial village whose residents very likely found Amelia Earhart’s earthly remains and salvaged parts from her Lockheed Electra.  We also plan to visit the Seven Site, where we think Earhart’s remains were actually found, and the Bivouac Site where a woman’s and man’s shoes turned up in 1991.  We’ll cruise the lagoon and view the Nutiran reef flat where we think the Electra landed.  Most importantly, we’ll do some systematic survey and artifact recording/recovery along the eroding shoreline of the colonial village – in my judgment the most likely place to find remnants of the Electra.  If you want “smoking gun” proof of Earhart’s landing on Nikumaroro, the eroding village shoreline is the most efficient place to look for it – if you can’t afford a systematic search of the Nutiran reef slope or the unexcavated parts of the Seven Site.  If you just want to contribute to the ongoing research, it’s a great place for that, too.

Meanwhile, plans are proceeding for a late 2014 deep-water search of the Nutiran reef slope using manned submersibles; obviously the results of this work may influence our plans for 2015.  And new data have emerged in Fiji that may throw light on the fate of the bones sent there from Nikumaroro in 1940 – the bones that may well have been Earhart’s.  We’re pursuing leads based on these new data, and there may be work to do in Fiji before or after we travel to Niku.

All this and exciting, engaging discussions with Ric Gillespie, other TIGHAR experts, and for what it’s worth yours truly, as well as non-TIGHAR authorities on the area’s history, culture, and environment.  Plus enjoying opportunities to snorkle some spectacular reefs, sun on pristine beaches, and wander the rainforest.    And (my personal fave) to enjoy a whole lot of beautiful blue Pacific.  Check out while there’s still time.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thoughts on MH370

Since the disappearance of Air Malaysia Flight MH370 and its 329 passengers and crew I’ve been asked repeatedly about whether the 1937 Earhart/Noonan disappearance provides any insights into what may have happened.  I’m not the best person to ask, of course, and I’m relieved to pass the baton to Ric Gillespie to provide authoritative opinions.

One thing I will say, though, is that the MH370 disappearance has given me some insights into the Earhart/Noonan mystery – or rather, into how people have reacted to that mystery over the decades.  These insights fall into four categories.

1.      Regarding authoritative conclusions.  As of a couple of days ago, the Malaysian authorities decided that MH370 “ended” in the southern Indian Ocean, and it was remarkable – to me at least – how quickly the mainstream media accepted this conclusion.  I got the feeling that the media just felt like the story had run its course and it was time to go on to other news (of which, of course, there is plenty).  But the U.S. Navy was pretty definitive back in 1937, too, when it decided that Earhart and Noonan had gone into the drink.  Seventy-seven years on, it looks a lot like this decision was ill-informed.  I wonder whether back then, as (seemingly) now, it just seemed to the authorities and the media like there was nothing more to say and it was time to move on.

2.      Developing conspiracy theories.  Acceptance of the “official explanation” for the MH370 disappearance, such as it is, seemed to happen so precipitously, based on so little evidence, that even I – and I’m pretty gullible – began suspecting things.  Is the official story really the most likely one, or is it … well, covering something up?  I have no dog in the fight; I knew no one on MH370, have no personal or professional or political reason to be concerned, and yet I found myself raising an eyebrow, thinking “hmmm……”  So I find myself with new sympathy for the Earhart/Noonan conspiracy theorists like Mike Campbell of “The Truth At Last” (  Not that I think they’re right, but that I can better understand the skepticism that motivates them.

3.      Blaming the victim.  If the rush to accept the official MH370 explanation seems a bit premature, the rush to ascribe the plane’s loss to pilot suicide seems downright unseemly.  Maybe it’s true, but I haven’t seen a shred of relevant evidence.  This too reminds me of some official (and other) reactions to the Earhart/Noonan disappearance, that blamed Earhart for her own (and Noonan’s) demise.  She was said to just not have been a very good pilot, not to have thought things through, not to have prepared well enough, to have been more or less incompetent.  To judge from TIGHAR’s research, Earhart did make some serious, maybe fatal mistakes, but she was by no means incompetent; she seems to have done a solid, professional job of finding a place to land and putting her plane down in one piece.  But blaming her, I suppose, was part of making the whole disappearance understandable, and so it may be with the ostensibly suicidal crew of MH370.

4.       Insensitivity to the families.  I can only shudder at some of the news accounts quoting searchers as expressing “hope” that the satellite images from the southern Indian Ocean represent parts of the Boeing 777.  Have these people, I thought, no concern at all for how that plays with the families of those lost?  We HOPE for evidence that your loved ones have gone to the fishes?  Wouldn’t there be some more discrete, more sensitive way to say it?  I have new appreciation for the anguish that Earhart’s family, and Noonan’s, must have gone through in the weeks, months, years after the ’37 disappearance, and for how even now the enthusiasms of Earhart researchers, including TIGHAR, may seem pretty crude and unfeeling to family members. 

So, no, the Earhart/Noonan disappearance doesn’t give me any insights into what happened to MH370, but the MH370 disappearance informs me, sadly, about the events of July 1937.

Friday, March 7, 2014

This Year’s Expedition, Next Year’s Visit

Next Wednesday, March 12th, at noon, there’ll be a TIGHAR press conference at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, in Washington DC, announcing plans for the late 2014 search of Nikumaroro’s NW (Nutiran) reef using manned submersibles.  More info is on TIGHAR’s website,

And plans are progressing nicely for June of 2015, when Ric and I look forward to guiding about 120 of our closest friends on a visit to Nikumaroro, with the opportunity to do a little focused on-land research.  Betchart Expeditions has just published and is now distributing a detailed trip brochure; you can get one from their website,

The Betchart trip will run from June 17 to July 3.  We’ll start and return to Fiji, aboard MV Reef Endeavor, and make a couple of stops en route to Niku.  On Niku, besides giving people the chance to see the sites (Seven Site, Shoe Site, likely landing site on the reef) and sights (Coconut crabs, boobies, spectacular lagoon, lovely sunrises and sunsets,scaevola), we want to try to do a small survey project or two that have a chance of turning up a piece of the Electra.  We’re kicking around three ideas:

1. Systematic intensive survey of the eroding shoreline of Ritiati, the land unit containing the colonial village and government station.  The reef flat here is one of the places where plane parts would most likely wash up if the plane wound up where we think it did, AND it’s where plane parts would likely wash out if they’d been picked up and used in the village.  We know, of course, that plane parts WERE used in the village; we’ve found them – we just haven’t found any that are absolutely positively without question from a Lockheed Electra.  So, an intensive survey of the Ritiati shoreline – which is constantly eroding due to rising sea levels, so what wasn’t visible last year may be lying right there in plain sight this year – may be productive.

2. Search for the “Wheel of Fortune.”  The WOF was noted in 2002 by a biological survey party from the New England Aquarium, in Tatiman Passage, but neither recorded in detail nor collected.  TIGHAR made a vigorous effort to find it in 2003, to no avail.  It may have been blown away in a storm, but then again, maybe somehow we missed it.  It was apparently about the right size to be an Electra wheel.  We could do a systematic wading survey to take another crack at it.

3. Show ourselves the door.  During the 2011 interviews with Niku veterans now living in the Solomon Islands, our team was told about what people thought might have been an airplane’s door, found and played with by kids on Aukaraime South SE of Baureke Passage – that is, in the neighborhood of the 1991 Shoe Site.  It’s a long shot – looking for something that elderly people today recall playing with as kids – but maybe worth a close look.

Those are the major candidates for survey projects, but I’d be very interested in getting additional suggestions.  Any ideas?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

2015 Betchart Trip to Nikumaroro is ON

Plans are coming together for a visit to Nikumaroro in 2015 sponsored by Betchart Expeditions -- see  The ship will accommodate about 130 passengers; this is an unusual (at best) opportunity to visit the island and take part in TIGHAR's research at a fairly affordable price.  Ric Gillespie and I are scheduled to be among the TIGHAR leaders, and we're busily planning the visit.

This trip is not to be confused with the deep-water search of the Nutirain reef slope with manned submersables, being planned for later this year.  TIGHAR will be releasing information on that expedition in the near future.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hypotheses vs. The Truth

My recent exchange with proponents of the “Japanese Capture” school of Amelia Earhart Disappearance studies has given me a good deal of food for thought. 

Why, I wondered, did they react so vehemently to my suggestion that they recognize their hypothesis AS an hypothesis, rather than as THE TRUTH?

Some of my Facebook friends and internet interlocutors said “they’re stupid; ignore them.”  But I don’t think they’re stupid, and it seems irresponsible to ignore them.

Some said “they’re defensive,” and I reckon that’s so, but it’s an answer that doesn’t answer anything.  Sure they’re defensive, but why?

I really don’t have an answer, but it struck me after awhile that my reaction to them was much like my reaction to religious fundamentalists.  I simply don’t understand how anyone can believe with utter unshakable certainty that they know THE TRUTH.  About anything.

I have relatives who are fundamentalist Christians.  They say, and I have no cause to disbelieve them, that they know of a certainty that there’s a God in Heaven who sent his son to earth to save us all.  I guess that might be true, or at least partly true, or metaphorically true, but I just don’t see any basis for concluding that it absolutely certainly IS true.  And I look at the history of, say, relations between the White Christian American mainstream and Indian tribes, in which Christianity was deployed as a “civilizing” strategy that just happened to deprive tribes of their lands and water and give them to – hmm, White Christian Americans, and I wonder whether those who thus deployed their faith knew what they were doing, or truly thought they were carrying out God’s Will.  And if they did think they were carrying out God’s will, why?  Similarly, of course, every evening on the news we see the fruits of another suicide bombing or two, each involving at least one guy who, to judge from what we’re told, is dead (sic) certain that blowing himself and a bunch of other people up will land him in heaven with seventy-five virgins.  I always wonder what happens when he works his way through them; is the supply replenished, or what?  The sheer logistics of the business would give me pause to reconsider; how can anybody be sure enough to push the button?

Obviously I am befuddled by religious fundamentalism.  I’m equally befuddled by atheist fundamentalism; how can anybody be so sure that there’s NOT a god of some sort in some kind of heaven – or in everything, as my animist friends posit?  How does one KNOW?

It's the same with true believers in Earhart-on-Saipan.  To me, Earhart-on-Saipan is valid as an hypothesis to be tested – I’m happy to accept it as that, and encourage people to test it if they can find data with which to do so.  Crashed-and-Sank is a valid hypothesis to be tested; it just costs a lot to do it. Earhart-on-Nikumaroro is valid as an hypothesis to be tested, and testing it is what TIGHAR’s Earhart project is about.  But for an Earhart-on-Saipan fundamentalist, it seems, things just don’t work that way: Earhart getting offed by the Japanese on Saipan is THE TRUTH, and if you don’t believe it, you’re part of a vast conspiracy designed to keep the American people and everyone else in the dark, because if they ever found out, well…….  And you're disrespecting all the people who say they saw her, or saw her grave, or saw her briefcase, or were told by their uncle that they saw her airplane.  And those people -- some of them distinguished military leaders -- cannot be wrong, because, well, they're distinguished.  

Hell, I don't even believe in papal infallibility.  

I’ve finally concluded, and I’d love to see some neuroscientist test THIS hypothesis, that our brains are simply organized differently.  Some people’s brains can handle uncertainty and multiple possible realities; other people’s brains are tuned in to The Truth – whatever that means to them.  One kind of brain isn’t necessarily better than the other, but I’m really coming to believe (My god, is this the TRUTH?) that the meat in my skull is just differently constructed than that in, say, Mike Campbell’s skull.  If that’s the case, then maybe it’s fruitless to argue; we can’t possibly reach a meeting of minds that understand the world so differently.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

2015 Nikumaroro Visit?

We're working with Betchart Expeditions to put together a visit to Nikumaroro in mid-2015; see the announcement on their website at, and if you're interested in coming along, let them know.  It's early days in planning the trip, but what we're hoping for is a cruise of a few weeks' duration with on-board lectures and discussions, a tour of the island, and a few small-scale search and study activities.  Not an intensive expedition, but an opportunity for a good number of people to see the island, learn about what we're doing, and share ideas.  Ric and I are both planning to be aboard.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

More About AE on Saipan

Les Kinney, a proponent of the "Japanese Capture" hypothesis, has posted a long discussion on the blog to which he contributes, responding to my recent posting here ("I'm Ric Gillespie's.....", December 22).  He invited me to post it here so I will, below.  I may respond to elements of it when I have time, but mostly don't plan to.  Mr. Kinney's post reminds me of the wisdom of Ric Gillespie's position on this kind of exchange -- don't get into them because there's simply no point.

Les Kinney says:
Dr. King, I noticed you a posted a rebuttal to my post on Mike Campbell’s blog in the everlasting debate on the Earhart mystery. I also have noted you posted a link to this discussion on the TIGHAR web site.
I believe it is necessary to respond to your comments, for no other reason than to set the record straight concerning my research into the disappearance of Earhart. There is much more to understanding the Earhart mystery than relying on TIGHAR information or simply skim reading a few poorly written books on the Earhart mystery. I think what gets Mike Campbell so incensed is the failure of critics not to include the preponderance of evidence pointing to Earhart’s capture by the Japanese.
Instead of acknowledging and accepting the statements made by veterans, citizens of Saipan, and the Marshall Islands, you have chosen to discredit their testimony. Coming up with the claim these witnesses were inflicted with a strange bout of memory creation is quite creative.
With that brief introduction, let me respond to your previous posted comments.
Dr. King says: ” Professional” researchers meaning those who make a profession of searching for Earhart, I take it? I.e. you, Mike, and your colleagues?
Response: Dr. King, you might have well have placed a (lol) phrase next to those remarks. In other words, how could I claim to be a professional researcher? The definition of a researcher according to Webster: Studious inquiry or examination; especially: investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts.
For your information, my three decade plus federal law enforcement career speaks for itself. I was a senior manager for a federal law enforcement agency. I consider myself a professional researcher. I have investigated, (researched,) and reported on various international “issues” analogous to the Earhart matter hundreds of times over. I have spent months on single investigations where research was paramount in seeking a satisfactory conclusion. Discounting publicity, most issues were far more important than finding the answer to the Earhart mystery. I have testified in various courts dozens of times, whereby the title “expert witness” was accepted by the court. I have partaken in many crime scene searches not to dissimilar from archeological digs. I believe I am entitled to the term “professional researcher.”
Dr. King says: “If one takes all the witnesses (first, second, and third-hand) at face value, and pays no attention to the factors (discussed in our Saipan paper) that may have influenced them, then yes, they’re pretty overwhelming. But I don’t see any reason to be so uncritical.”
Response: Dr. King, if I understand your “false memory creation” argument, I believe there would be no convictions in any court of law which relied on eye witness, direct testimony, or secondary evidence, based on witness’s recollection of events. By your standards, all of these witnesses would be impeached. Using your logic, I would guess there are several million wrongful judicial decisions around the country needing immediate appeal. Those tainted witnesses must be suffering from “false memory creation.”
Let’s take your argument a step further. From Mike Campbell’s book, you chose to chastise Duda’s appeal to Marines for his November 1993 posting in Leatherneck Magazine and say: “We mean no criticism of Mr. Duda for publishing this notice, but was it not a leading question? It amounts to: “Did you experience anything during the invasion of Saipan that you would connect with Earhart, Noonan, and/or their airplane – which was found in a Japanese hangar at Aslito Field?” This sort of questioning pervades the record of eyewitness testimony elicitation on which the Earhart-in-the-Marianas stories are largely based. To judge from the psychological literature, it would seem almost made to order for the inadvertent creation of false memories.”
Response: Dr. King, do you believe that logic? Let’s take a look at the typical law enforcement bulletin posted at post offices, various public buildings, along highway billboards, and for that matter on the six o’clock local news. This one is quite mild:
“On June 18th, at approximately 9 pm., the Sumner City High School was extensively vandalized. Any citizens who may have seen the perpetrators, witnessed the vandalism, or have information, especially all those who might have been in the vicinity of the school that evening, please contact police.”
Dr. King, according to your argument, no witnesses that come forward as a result of such publicity should be trusted or used in a court of law. Here is how you regaled the Duda appeal: “This sort of questioning pervades the record of eyewitness testimony elicitation on which these stories are largely based. To judge from the psychological literature, it would seem almost made to order for the inadvertent creation of false memories.”
Using your argument, we should never solicit the truth from witnesses in a court of law since they are suffering from false memories – or is it only those witnesses associated with the Earhart mystery inflicted with “false memory syndrome?
Dr. King, you state: “If one takes all the witnesses (first, second, and third-hand) at face value, and pays no attention to the factors (discussed in our Saipan paper) that may have influenced them, then yes, they’re pretty overwhelming. But I don’t see any reason to be so uncritical.”
Response: Dr. King, the “factors,” you have described in your paper ‘cherry pick’ conflicting accounts of witnesses. No doubt parts of their stories were based on hearsay accounts. But remember, whether the getaway car was red or yellow, or whether one of the bandits pointed a gun or a knife, does not discredit the fact a robbery of the bank occurred.
By focusing on a minor remark of a witness made in good faith and based upon hearsay, you have decided the witness’s entire statement must be impeached. When an Earhart witness said they heard a white woman was beheaded, and a another said she heard the white woman was shot, or that a third said the white woman died of disease, those collective statements still don’t dispute the fact they all saw a white man and woman on Saipan fitting Earhart and Noonan’s description prior to the war. Several of these witnesses said the white woman had a burn on her face. Except for one witness, Anna Magofna, none witnessed an execution, except for Mrs. Nieves Blas, who I don’t believe was a credible witness.
In further corroboration of the Saipan theory, educated Catholic missionary priests from the United States who witnessed the native testimony all said the same thing: Saipan natives would not lie in front of a priest.
A point needs to be said about the Marine witnesses on Saipan. Many did tell their loved ones and family members of their Earhart involvement long ago – they just didn’t tell the press.
As you are aware, Fred Goerner documented statements from three high ranking officers who were on Saipan and the Marshall Islands: Marine Generals Graves B. Erskine, General Alexander Vandergrift (who won the Congressional Medal of Honor) and of course Admiral Chester Nimitz, who led the war in the Pacific.
All three of these distinguished men, told Goerner that Earhart was on Saipan. Vandergrift and Erskine wrote books about their time in the war. There have been several accounts and biographies written of Nimitz’s life.
According to your logic, Generals’ Erskine, Vandergrift, and Admiral Nimitz must have suffered from false memory creation. Since you state, “It would seem almost made to order for the inadvertent creation of false memories.” Don’t you think you should pen a review of their books on Amazon and make the public aware of that possibility? Or, do you believe these honorable men lied to Goerner?
Dr. King says: “the complete lack of credible evidence unearthed on Nikumaroro…” ..”Well, since you state that “lack” as a fact, I guess it must be true. Funny, we who’ve been digging up and studying the evidence find it at last mildly “credible.”
Response: Dr. King, please tell me the credible evidence unearthed on Nikumaroro. I am sincerely interested.
Dr. King quotes me: “… three open cockpit US aircraft flew at 50 to 500 feet over this sliver on an island for 30 minutes within ten days of Earhart’s disappearance and saw no evidence of castaways.” Dr. King says, “Have you looked at the “aerial tour of Nikumaroro” on the TIGHAR website? Where the helicopter flies at the same altitude as the search planes and you have to look real closely to see a large man in a white tee shirt on the beach? The same chopper flew over me, jumping up and down and waving my hat, near the Seven Site, and nobody saw me. It’s a hard environment in which to see things on the ground.
Response: Dr. King, for some time, I was Special Agent in Charge of a large federal law enforcement field office in Honolulu. Our area of jurisdiction covered all of the South Pacific. During my tenure in Hawaii, we initiated a program what I would describe as a “Coastal Watch.” We called it the “Cook Project.” In conjunction with the Coast Guard, we supplied South and Central Pacific island governments with radios and if available, early satellite telephones. This equipment was used to track and identify marine motherships which were so common at that time. Many of these smuggling ships would anchor at these small islands to replenish, refuel, or just plain hide out.
With that said, I have been on most all of the islands that were part of the Japanese Mandated Islands. I have spent time in American Samoa, Western Samoa. I opened a Resident Agent (RA) office on Guam and have been on Saipan maybe a dozen times conducting various investigations. I knew all of the law enforcement officials and several of the leaders of the Government of the Northern Marianas. I island hopped on small planes to many an atoll in the South Pacific including the Marshall Islands.
I disagree with your comment that you could not see a large man hopping around on the beach. In fact, on some of these atolls, flying at 500 hundred feet, depending on the sun, you easily could pick out a fisherman 500 yards away throwing nets into the surf. I can only presume if you were jumping and waving at the crew in a helicopter they weren’t actively looking for you.
A pilot and crew chief searching for Earhart in the summer of 1937 said this to Fred Goerner in the 1980′s. (I paraphrase) “We flew at 500 hundred feet. We were alert and could have seen a handkerchief or a piece of paper floating in the water.”
Dr. King says: “I can think of several other possibilities, but never mind; it’s all speculation.”
Dr. King, even TIGHAR agrees Earhart transmitted post loss radio transmissions for up to three days following her disappearance. (I do too) You said there were several possibilities why Earhart might not have come out and waved to the three pilots of the Colorado, who flew numerous passes over Gardner Island for a half hour at 500 feet and even lower. Could you speculate why she decided not to make herself known to the pilots?
I have conducted several amateur audio tests and have concluded you can begin hearing a single engine aircraft in that environment under normal conditions from four miles away. I can only assume the sound of three aircraft would be much louder. Given that three planes cruised that four mile long thread of an island, for a half hour, specifically looking for Earhart and Noonan, I find it inconceivable they would not have been seen on Gardner Island.
Dr. King says regarding Griswold, Burks and Henson: “Well, I didn’t exactly ignore it; I just couldn’t figure out what to do with it. If I’m recalling the story correctly, Henson and Burks were ordered by Griswold to dig up a grave; and Griswold allegedly spoke the words “Amelia Earhart” to them, but years later Griswold denied it. Does that mean that they were digging up Amelia, or does it mean they were digging up somebody else and Griswold was playing with their heads? Or does it mean something else? I don’t know.”
Response: Dr. King, you need to do some serious research on this topic – it’s that important! Griswold ordered the two Marines to dig up a grave. When asked who are we digging up? Griswold responded, “Have you ever heard of Amelia Earhart. Griswold said after that they answered in the affirmative, “Enough said.”
Looking for Earhart was not a whimsical statement made in jest by command officers in the Pacific. ( I am not referring to Griswold) I have testimony from four veterans who stated prior to their landing on various atolls in the Pacific; they were briefed by command officers to be alert for evidence of Amelia Earhart. I doubt command officers made those statements in the field based upon seeing the movie, “Flight for Freedom.”
According to Henson and Burks testimony to Fred Goerner, Griswold wasn’t joking. If you listen to the original 1968 audio tapes of Henson and Burks recorded by the Kothera group, which I have done, you will quickly determine the two Marines did not believe Griswold was joking.
I am not positive the grave dug up by Burks and Henson in 1944 and later the Kothera group in 1968 is that of Earhart and or Noonan, but the evidence strongly suggests that to be the case.
According to government records, which I possess, there were three graves dug up by the Army and Marines authorities in the summer of 1944 on Saipan. Those graves were dug up as a result of interviews with natives. The native information was accurate and the remains of three aviators lost over Saipan prior to the invasion were found. (no false memory creation noted)
I have found no records of the grave digging mission under the direction of Marine Captain Tracy Griswold. In fact, the Marines have officially denied Griswold dug up a grave in the summer of 1944.
In 1968, Griswold met with the Kothera group twice. During these two meetings Griswold denied being part of this grave digging episode, yet his language clearly suggests otherwise. He kept repeating, “I’m not denying what you are saying but I have to go on record that I can’t recall.”
Griswold was identified from a legitimate photo spread viewed independently by Burks and Henson. These two Marine veterans gave witness statements to what they saw and heard. Their conversation was recorded. Burks and Henson recollection of events were near identical, although they were interviewed at different times, and neither had seen the other since 1945. They recalled Griswold was associated with the Griswold manufacturing family, (Griswold’s grandfather started the company) Burks and Henson’s story, identification of the cemetery, and location of the grave site were essentially the same.
If you read the intimidating and leading letter sent to Griswold from the U.S. Marine Corps in the mid-1960′s regarding this grave digging episode, you would think the letter might have been written by a mafia boss.
Dr. King said: “First, I appreciate the fact that you’ve actually read our paper. Thanks for that. Now, I don’t know very much about the stratigraphic relationships among things in Kothera’s excavations because the data aren’t presented in the kind of detail that one usually finds in reports of archaeological excavations, but supposing you’re correct that the bones were found in a grave that was deeper than the stratum of disturbed stuff resulting from the bombardment and leveling of Garapan — OK, so they came from a grave. Does that make it Earhart’s grave? I don’t see why, though maybe it was. Again, what you have is an hypothesis, not “truth.” Having lived on Saipan (where I found human bones in my flower beds) and excavated archaeological sites there, I know that there are lots and lots and lots of graves, marked and unmarked, resulting from thousands of years of human history, all over the island but especially on the leeward side in and around places like Garapan. … I can assure you that finding only fragmentary remains in a grave is not uncommon, on Saipan or pretty much anyplace else. A lot of things can chew up a grave.”
Response: Dr. King, I would describe your answer as inadequate and flippant. Burks/Henson and later the Kothera group didn’t randomly dig up a piece of earth on Saipan. The grave location was known to be a few feet outside a known cemetery complete with fence and headstones. The site had been mapped and identified. Neither of these two grave digging episodes was conducted in a random haphazard manner. Neither digs were initiated by wandering around Saipan looking for a likely place to dig as you have suggested.
In both digs, maps were used to identify the location. The nearby markers used for reference by the Kothera group were supplemented by Anna Magofna’s knowledge of the execution site. A location she walked by daily on her way to school before the war.
According to the later interviews of Burks and Henson, by the Kothera group, Anna Magofna led the Kothera group to the same spot they dug up in 1944. The location was a few feet outside the cemetery and near the markers previously described by Burks and Henson. I have the original film, picture shoots, and audio tapes of the Kothera dig.
The Kothera group included an amateur archeologist who had been involved in professional digs in the past. It also included a seasoned police lieutenant who was completely familiar with crime scene sites. The film shot at this dig would convince you the dig was professional.
Dr. King you mentioned a lot of things could have “chewed up” this particular grave to cause the larger skeletal remains to become missing. Could you explain what they might be?
The Kothera group found a few dozen pieces of small bones and a gold dental bridge in the 1968 dig but no skeletal remains. Could it be the skeletal remains unearthed by Burks and Henson in their rudimentary dig of 1944 was the reason only bone fragments were left at this grave site in 1968?
I don’t mind you posting this response on your web blog or linking it to the TIGHAR web page as you did with my previous response.