Saturday, September 3, 2011

Wisdom of the Solomons

Welcome home to TIGHAR's Solomon Islands team, back from archival and oral historical work in the Solomon Islands.  I understand that they've brought back a wealth of audio and video records as well as extensive notes on interviews with veterans of the Nikumaroro colony, including a good deal of information on how the colonists used the vicinity of the Seven Site.  Special thanks go to Gary Quigg for leading the group, and to Baoro Koraua, who made local arrangements, provided transport, and translated. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Solomons Sojourners Set to Sail

In less than a week – on August 17, TIGHAR’s Solomon Islands team will head for Honiara. The team is headed by Gary Quigg, and includes Nancy Farrell, John Clauss, and Karl Kern. In Honiara they’ll rendezvous with Baoro Koraua, who lives in that city (capital of the Solomon Islands) but was born on Nikumaroro in the early 1950s. With Baoro in his boat, the MV Temauri, they’ll motor up the New Georgia Sound (known in World War II as “The Slot” and “ironbottom Sound”) to the villages of Nikumaroro and Rawaki, where the Nikumaroro colonists were resettled when the colony was abandoned in 1963. That’s the plan, anyway.

The purpose of the trip is oral historical recording – talking with veterans of the Nikumaroro colony and recording their recollections of the place. It follows up on a very short visit made to Nikumaroro Village by Dr. Dirk Ballendorf of the University of Guam back in 1995 ( Dirk collected stories of human bones being found on the island, but these didn’t mean much to us until two years later when Peter MacQuarrie found the Western Pacific High Commission files on the 1940 bones discovery in the Tarawa archives, and Ric Gillespie and Kent Spading uncovered more in the WPHC archives in England (they’re now in Auckland, NZ).

It would be nice if the Solomons Sojourners could get more information on the bones discovery, but we’re not really expecting that. Anyone who was, say, ten years old at the time of that discovery would now be in his or her 80s. What we’re mostly hoping for is information about what the Seven Site was used for in the 1950s, and what (other than Earhart and Noonan) might be responsible for the strange assemblage of artifacts and building material (corrugated iron, etc.) we’ve found on the site. Recent research by Bill Carter and Ric Gillespie in the Tarawa archives has revealed that the site was known in the late 1940s as “Gallagher’s camp,” and that coconuts were being cultivated there without much success. Why the site was associated with Gallagher almost a decade after his death is another thing we’d like to find out. We feel pretty confident that some of what we’ve found was left by the castaway-who-was-probably-Earhart, but it’s essential that we find out what else went on at the site so we can sort out castaway-related evidence from the leavings of others. The interviews will also give us the opportunity to flesh out our general understanding of the Nikumaroro colony, which is fascinating in its own right.

The team is well equipped to do the work. Nancy has been collecting oral history for decades, and Gary has experience in the field as well. Baoro should be a knowledgeable colleague and translator, while John and Karl can do just about anything. They’re armed with audio and video recording devices and plenty of pens and paper for backup. If all goes well they’ll spend two or three days interviewing in each village (which lie on opposite sides of the sound, about 200 miles from Honiara), and a day or two checking archives in the capital before flying home on August 30.

Yes, I wish I were going too, but I’m not. However, Kris Tague is serving as the Sojourners’ Stateside point of contact, and she’ll be passing information to the rest of us.

Bon Voyage, Sojourners; here's hoping you make interesting and voluble new friends in the Solomons.


Spam:  See for Part One of my summary of the Niku Research

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bon Voyage (almost) to the TIGHAR Hospitalers!

Just a week now till the next TIGHAR "expedition" launches: this one to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva, Fiji.  This is where the human bones found on on Nikumaroro in 1940 were last reported, just before World War II broke into the Pacific.  The hospital is a great old colonial structure, renovated and added to many times, and there's a good possibility that stuff like old unidentified bones could be tucked away in crawlspaces or attics.  In our first Bones Search in 1999 we were denied permission to search it (and wouldn't have had time anyway); the 2003 Fiji Bones Search focused on records research and interviews.  This project will focus on physical inspection.

The team is headed by Dr. Jon Overholt of Sacramento, CA, a medical doctor with lots of hospital experience.  Team members include architect Lonnie Schorer of northern Virginia, archaeologist Gary Quigg of Indiana, and Arizona's Karl Kern, who has proved able to do virtually anything, including squirming into small spaces possibly infested with small cuddly animals.  The Hospital administration is cooperating, and Richard Pruett of the U.S. Embassy is coordinating things and smoothing the way.  The team is equipped to search, document, recover anything discovered, and do ancillary historical and oral-historical research.  D-Day is May 7, with a return to the U.S. on May 22. 

Best of luck to all, and enjoy Fiji while you're about it!


Colonial War Memorial Hospital, Suva, Fiji

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Solomon Islands Project Moves Ahead

The special website is now up and running to accept donations in support of the Solomon Islands Oral History Project.  To make a donation:

Go to
Click on "TIGHAR Store" in the menu on the right-hand side of the screen
Click on "Donate" in the menu on the left-hand side
Click on "Donate to the Solomon Islands Oral History Project"
And follow the prompts

The project is tentatively scheduled to begin about August 17, with the team returning home by August 31.  We're getting to work now on logistic arrangements and fieldwork strategy.  Stay tuned for updates, and thanks much to all who have contributed or will contribute to this project.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Opportunities to Support Specific Research Projects

There are now sites on the TIGHAR website where you can make tax-deductible contributions not only to TIGHAR generally but to specific projects and activities. These include:

• Ongoing DNA research;

• Research into Fred Noonan’s ancestry and search for his DNA;

• The oral history project with the Nikumaroro colonial veterans in the Solomon Islands (planned for this June or July);

• The search of the Fiji Colonial War Memorial Hospital for the bones found on Nikumaroro in 1940 (scheduled for this May);

• The unglamorous but absolutely necessary analysis of artifacts; and

• The even less glamorous but equally necessary analysis of faunal material from the Seven Site.

Here’s the link to the donations page:

Believe me, every little bit helps.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Strange Reports

For those who've been asking:

1. Yes, we're aware of the reports that AE's plane, with skeletons in it yet, has been found in New Guinea.  Since (a) there are lots of airplane wrecks in New Guinea; (b) there are lots of skeletons in New Guinea; (c) New Guinea is a couple thousand miles from Howland Island, from the vicinity of which her last generally accepted radio messages emanated; and (d) the alleged finders have been trying to get up-front payments for photographs of the wreck, we're not taking the reports very seriously.

2. Yes, we're aware that there's a project underway to recover Earhart DNA from envelopes she may have licked.  Since we already have a reference sample of Earhart DNA, we're not altogether sure why this project is being undertaken.  The researchers have not contacted TIGHAR to exchange notes.

For the latest on TIGHAR's own DNA research, see


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Upcoming Ameliashpiel

On April 2nd (no, not April 1st) at 4 PM I’ll be giving a talk about our Earhart research at the Petaluma Historical Museum in Petaluma, California. The talk is part of the Museum’s series of special events this spring commemorating the first airmail flight, which took place on February 17, 1911 between Petaluma and nearby Santa Rosa. See for details about the series.

The Museum building itself is an historic building, a handsome old Carnegie library, and has special significance to me, because I checked out my first books on archaeology there, over a half-century ago. The librarians fed my enthusiasm for the subject, and set me firmly on the path to perdition.

National Geographic Lost Over the Pacific

Before anyone bothers to send me a link to the piece of silliness that National Geographic has just put up on its website, please consider the following response that Ric Gillespie has posted on the same site.  I used to think that National Geo had some commitment to being factual and maybe even checking its sources, but no....


Correction: No one has claimed that Earhart's bones have been discovered and no one has made any wild claims. TIGHAR has said only that bone fragments have been recovered that, based on the archaeological context, may be human and, if they are, could conceivably be Earhart's. The bone fragments and other material that may contain human DNA are being examined at Oklahoma University's Molecular Anthropology Laboratories. If human mitochondrial DNA can recovered and sequenced it will be compared to a reference sample of mitochondrial DNA provided by an Earhart relative in the direct female line. The reference sample should be virtually identical to Amelia's.

We welcome Mr. Long's efforts to recover Earhart DNA but without a way to be sure whether AE licked a particular envelope it would seem that any result would be open to question unless it matched the reference sample we already have.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The OHNP -- Whether and Why

The possibility of funding the Oral History of Nikumaroro Project (OHNP) through pledges collected via Kickstarter is looking pretty faint.  We've only a week left before the deadline for pledges and we're only just over 10% of the way to our $35,000 goal.  We will, of course, seek other ways to fund the project, and we do have some prospects, but I hope readers of these posts will consider pledges, and encourage others to do so.  Following is something I just posted on the OHNP's Kickstarter web site.

Why This Project?

By Tom King

There would be excellent reasons for the Oral History of Nikumaroro Project (OHNP) even if it had nothing to do with the mystery of Amelia Earhart's disappearance. The Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, which brought I Kiribati and Tuvaluan colonists to Nikumaroro and other islands, was a brave, pioneering effort by its people and administrators alike, and it deserves to be documented as a part of humanity's consultable record.

But there is also that Earhart connection -- or non-connection, because the OHNP gives us what is perhaps our best chance to DISverify some important elements of the Nikumaroro Hypothesis for Earhart's disappearance, and trying to disverify one's hypothesis is the very heart and soul of scientific investigation.

We have a lot of stuff at the Seven Site that we just can't explain -- big chunks of sheet metal, for example, and we're hoping that the erstwhile colonists can tell us how they got there and what they were for. But we also have stuff that we tentatively associate with the castaway whose bones, we think, were found there in 1940, and it's just possible that someone in the Solomons can give us an alternative explanation for some of them. An example has come up this week.

Lithic specialist Geoff Cunnar has completed an analysis of glass shards from the Seven Site and found several that appear to have been used as impromptu cutting/scraping tools. There's much speculation in the Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC) about what the castaway might have done that would produce such tools. But what if they're not castaway productions? We know that the colonists made very fine feathered fans out of plant material, and traded them to the Coast Guardsmen at the loran station. This required stripping stems, splitting leaves, and the like. Other makers of basket-like containers and tools -- California Indian people, for example -- use small flakes of stone, like obsidian, to perform these tasks. Were the colonists doing the same thing at the Seven Site, with fragments left by the castaway or by the target-shooting Coast Guardsmen during World War II? Does fan-making also account for the scatters of bird wing bones at the site? One fan we've seen, definitively from Niku, has colors on it that are very similar to the color of the apparent rouge we've found on the Seven Site. Does that provide an alternative explanation for the rouge?

Based on current data, we can't say, but we owe it to the integrity of our research to try to find an answer, and the most obvious place to seek one -- albeit an anecdotal one -- is with the former colonists and their descendants now living in the Solomons.

Here's hoping we can get a team out there to ask people, and here's hoping it's not too late.

Tom King

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Perils of Reliance on Memory: A Personal Experience

In TIGHAR’s investigation of the Earhart mystery, we’re skeptical of anecdotal evidence – what people say they remember seeing or experiencing. Some others who have pursued answers to the mystery have based their conclusions almost solely on such evidence; the various permutations on the Japanese capture hypothesis are virtually entirely built on anecdote.
I’ve just had a personal experience that illustrates how unreliable memory can be, and I think it’s worth reporting.

On November 1, 1963, the government of South Viet Nam, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, was overthrown in a coup d’etat widely thought to have been backed by the CIA. The coup is regarded as a pivotal event in the early history of the Viet Nam War.
At the time, I was a 21-year-old Seaman aboard the USS Terrell County, LST 1157, based in Yokusuka, Japan and operating throughout east and southeast Asian waters. For years I have told the story of how my ship and others had been orbiting off Saigon on the day of the coup, loaded with U.S. Marines ready to go ashore if things didn’t go the way the U.S. intended. My vivid recollection of this deployment was associated with a particular event – the near-drowning of several dozen Marines allowed to go swimming in the South China Sea while we steamed around waiting to see how the coup came down. The association of swimming Marines with coup has been quite clear in my mind; I even have a visual recollection of the long black coast of Viet Nam on one of the rare occasions when, I thought, we had gotten close enough to sight it.

Recently, with other writing assignments under control, I’ve been spending a little time transcribing the rather detailed journal that I kept during much of my active-duty Naval career. And I’ve come upon the account of the swimming Marines. Here it is:

The day began like any other day, with a lousy breakfast, oppressive heat, and a lot of hot sweaty paperwork to do in Supply Office. But this was not any other day. This was the day the Captain went mad and we almost drowned 60 Marines.

It was early in the afternoon when they announced that swim call would be held, at 1430 for the troops and 1530 for the crew. So at 1430 the bow ramp was lowered, the ship stopped, and the Marines prepared to swim, while the crew, variously attired in swim suits, cut off dungarees, and skivvies, waited for our turn. Ollie (the Boatswain) on the ramp, noted a strong undertow and advised against swimming, but someone gave the Marines permission to go, and they swarmed into the water. And the ship, caught by the wind, promptly began to drift away. The Marines tried to swim to the ramp, but the undertow carried them away. Eventually 60-odd Marines were floating helplessly, separated irrevocably from the ship. Man Overboard! A V.P. (LCVP: Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel) went into the water, we clambered to our stations. The Marines kept excellent order, and a few got to the lee side and up the debark nets. The V.P. was soon loaded far beyond capacity and in danger of sinking. It moved back toward the ship, but at this point the old man, who was running around in frantic little circles and jumping up and down, ordered it to come to the ramp. Ollie wouldn’t allow it; the V.P. would have ripped her bottom out. The captain ranted and screamed, but allowed the boat to come to the debark net. Then he ordered it away. “Keep that boat away ‘till we get permission,” he screamed. From whom he expected to request permission remains a moot question. Poor Stew, running the boat, had the old man, the Exec, Moritz, McAdams, and half a dozen others screaming at him, Marines vomiting over the side, his boat sinking and the seas mounting. Finally he got alongside and the Marines struggled up the net. Fifteen minutes later a 12-foot hammerhead shark cruised down the port side. I think it will be a long time before today’s maneuver is tried again.

OK, so far so good; the incident seems to have occurred. But when did it happen, and where?

Both facts are easily ascertained, assuming one trusts my journal. The date of the Marine swim was May 21, 1963, and we were en route from Okinawa, where the Marines had embarked, to Yokusuka, where they were to disembark. In other words, we some five months ahead of the Saigon coup in time and about 1500 miles from it in space.

And on November 1? The Terrell County was in Subic Bay, in the Philippines, loading ammunition, and members of her crew were planning an R&R trip up the Pansanjan River. We learned about the coup the evening of November 2, via our fairly efficient grapevine, but we played no part in it.

So how did this work? How did my memory construct a completely erroneous historical event? I think it happened this way:
1. At various times we did carry a lot of Marines, in task forces of various kinds, and steamed around in circles on the high seas waiting to deploy them, or not.

2. At some point in my travels through the South China Sea, I probably did see the coast of Viet Nam in the distance.

3. The incident of the swimming marines did happen.

4. And we did at one point think we were on our way to Viet Nam. On August 30, the journal documents a sudden multi-ship, midnight emergency deployment out of Yokusuka, under orders not disclosed to the crew; an entry that evening says:

Though nothing definite has been said, the word is out. It’s Saigon all right. The US is in a touchy situation, with Diem on one side and the Viet Cong on the other and neither of them very happy with America. Anyway I’m happy; it’s new territory, and seeing a country in the throes of disintegration should be very educational.

  Right, very educational.  As it happened, we never got to Saigon; we sat around in Okinawa for some time and then went home to Yokosuka – probably because the planned coup didn’t quite come off, but then did occur two months later.

So I think what happened was that I put my journals away, and over the years my brain combined the events of late 1963 into a structure that made sense and related to the then-unfolding history of the Viet Nam conflict.

In just the same way, it’s easy to imagine someone on Saipan remembering seeing a woman of apparent European ethnicity in Japanese captivity – maybe a German or Spanish missionary, maybe a White Russian √©migr√© – and upon being questioned about a missing American flyer, putting the memories into an order that fits the subject of the questioning, and pleases the questioner.