Friday, December 20, 2013

I’m Ric Gillespie’s Bile-Spewing Junk Scientist Phony Academic Publicity Man! A Conversation With Some Japanese Capture Enthusiasts.

I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

Joe Cerniglia recently advised me that Mike Campbell, an “Earhart researcher” who believes that AE and Noonan wound up on Saipan, had posted an anti-TIGHAR piece on the web, and I was silly enough to take a look at it; it’s at

Here’s what Mike had to say:

Oct. 24: Rossella Lorenzi, TIGHAR’s best friend

The establishment’s latest fusillade against the truth in the Earhart disappearance appeared in the Discovery News online news site on Oct. 11, and was soon picked up by other outlets including FOX News.  Ironically filed under the heading “U.S. History,” the story, headlined “Amelia Earhart Plane Search to Resume Next Year,” was an update to the May 29 story, “Amelia Earhart’s Plane Revealed in Sonar,” by Discovery News senior correspondent Rossella Lorenzi, which I discussed in my June 2 post. Lorenzi, whose enthusiastic shilling for Ric Gillespie and TIGHAR dates back to at least 2009, has penned a wide assortment of propaganda pieces for TIGHAR and become perhaps its leading apologist.  Among her recent stories in support of this farcical Earhart search are such gems as “Earhart’s Final Resting Place Believed Found,” “Amelia Earhart’s Plane? New Sonar Imagery Raises Hopes,” and “Pieces of Amelia Earhart’s plane located?”

In her Oct. 11 story, the TIGHAR mouthpiece breathlessly announces, “The search for Amelia Earhart’s long-lost aircraft will resume next year in the waters off Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati where the legendary pilot may have died as a castaway. …  Called Niku VIII, the new expedition is expected to cost as much as $3 million. It will rely on two Hawaiian Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) manned submersibles, Pisces IV and Pisces V, each carrying a pilot and two TIGHAR observers.” The effort is planned to span 30 days, beginning in mid-August 2014, Lorenzi added.

Will someone please tell me, after 10 fruitless trips to Nikumaroro and millions of wasted dollars, just precisely WHO in their ever-loving right minds is going to fork over $3 million so that Gillespie can return to Nikumaroro for yet another monumental waste of time and treasure? Is anyone out there really stupid and well heeled enough to invest in this ridiculous project? Did I hear someone whisper, “U.S. government”?

Is Rossella Lorenzi really unaware of the massive and overwhelming evidence that’s been collected since Fred Goerner’s first trip to Saipan in June 1960, and presented in such books as Goerner’s The Search for Amelia Earhart; Vincent V. Loomis’ Amelia Earhart: The Final Story;  Thomas E. Devine’s Eyewitness: The Ameliia Earhart Incident; and others including Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last?  We can’t really know, since she never mentions Saipan as even a remotely possible solution to the apparently irresolvable Earhart conundrum.

I couldn’t take it anymore, and decided to write to this woman, whose name is becoming a familiar piece of TIGHAR’s ongoing Earhart charade, to see if she might respond to a small dose of common sense. Here is my email missive of Oct. 14:

Dear Rossella,

I just saw your Oct. 14 Discovery News piece promoting TIGHAR’s next installment in their longstanding disinformation campaign in the Amelia Earhart matter. How many times does Gillespie have to return to Nikumororo and find nothing before you will decide to stop writing about this ridiculous charade, or is there no limit to your propaganda efforts? Your constant advocacy of TIGHAR either betrays your total lack of knowledge or your utter dishonesty, in either event the result is the same — your readers are badly misinformed and misled

If you are truly interested in the truth about the Earhart case, I encourage you to go to my website below and begin your real education, but first read this piece, which continues its run on Veterans News Now as one of its most popular stories ever:

         “The truth in the Earhart ‘mystery’ is a sacred cow”

Rossella, there is no excuse for such mendacity in our media, and someday all of us will answer for every false utterance of our lives. The truth about what happened to Amelia on Saipan is obvious to all but the agenda driven and the ignorant, which unfortunately outnumber those of us who can actually read. You have made yourself part of what appears to be a permanent problem in the Earhart search, and I hope you’re satisfied that thanks to you and others of your ilk, the truth about Amelia’s fate is now considered to be an irresolvable historical puzzle. That way people like Gillespie can continue their phony searches and make a nice living along the way. Truth be damned.

Predictably, Lorenzi didn’t reply.  A few days later, after a friend and Earhart enthusiast in Pennsylvania also wrote to her to take a small shot, and incorrectly stated that she worked for FOX News, Lorenzi corrected him and told him she didn’t take his or my attacks personally, copying me on her reply. Of course I couldn’t miss this opportunity to add another log to the fire, which I did Oct. 18:

Dear Rosella,

I never thought you worked for FOX, and my email to you was not meant as a personal attack, but to inform you about the truth in the Earhart case. This truth, easily found and discerned in many books including Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, isn’t a matter of opinion, but has been the subject of a massive government disinformation effort practically since the day she was lost. Ric Gillespie and TIGHAR, whether or not they actually believe the thirdhand, long-debunked ideas they propagate with the help of a compliant media, have been the government-media establishment’s selected agents of disinformation since 1989, when they first began to make their false claims, claims that were accepted as “reasonable” by the majority of a gullible, uninformed American public. You must know this, but if you don’t, I ask that you do some homework and READ the information provided to you in the link I sent, and by reading my book as well, which is attached gratis in PDF format that can be easily downloaded into a kindle. The overwhelming evidence that places Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan in the Marshalls and Saipan cannot simply be rejected out of hand as simple “folklore” as Gillespie has so nonchalantly suggested.  For all reasonable people I’ve met, the big picture truth in the Earhart disappearance isn’t even debatable.

Now that she has a PDF copy of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, Rossella has no more excuses, and cannot say she didn’t know any better in her reportage of the Earhart case. The use of lawyerly wriggle words designed to impart an image of objectivity in news stories doesn’t excuse the blatant, incredibly slanted approach to TIGHAR’s 25-year Earhart fundraising campaign taken by Lorenzi and many other so-called journalists in the establishment media. I await Rossella’s response, but not with bated breath.

Well, I kind of like Mike in a quirky sort of way, and appreciate the fact that despite all his vituperation he occasionally gives evidence of having some critical faculties, so I foolishly thought to give him some advice:

Tom King says:

You know, you just MIGHT get a bit more attention to your opinions if you’d acknowledge them as such, rather than presenting them as unquestionable “truth.” Whatever you believe, they’re not “truth;” they’re more or less substantiated hypotheses. The same, of course, is true of TIGHAR’s hypothesis — which we continue to try to test, rather than trying to bludgeon the world into acceptance. Some people — even, perhaps, people with three million bucks — find our approach preferable and worthy of support.

Now, I expect that if you respond to this, you’ll just point out that I’m a member of TIGHAR and work on the Earhart project, and therefore, you’re convinced, have been drinking Gillespie’s Cool-Aid. Go to it.

One of Mike’s correspondents, Douglas Mills, began the response:

Tom -

Please SPARE US all of your Nikumaroro (HOAX) hypotheses. It’s really getting old and so many of us are TRUELY ILL from it!

You, Ric Gillespie and THE GOVERNMENT cannot face the TRUTH – SHAME on YOU’S!

I thought maybe that would be the end of it, but couldn’t resist saying….

Ah, THERE’s a mature, fact-based response.

It wasn’t the only one.  Billxam2013 added:

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Testing and documentation are two very different things.

I thought that was fairly sensible, so I replied:

Well, believable testing requires documentation, but sadly I have to agree with you about why people listen, or don’t.

Meanwhile, Frank Benjamin weighed in:

It is difficult for me to understand how Dr. King can confuse honorable eye-witness reports such as Admiral Chester Nimitz and the three USMC generals with what he and Mr. Gillespie are doing out on Gardiner Island. Ms Earhart came down in the Marshalls and died on Saipan. That’s the end of the story, and it is not a matter of opinion.

That struck me as so wonderfully stupid that I couldn’t resist being drawn back in, saying: 

Frank — You might try reading the paper that some of us wrote, posted on, about the Saipan hypothesis. What I found most interesting in writing it was the extensive psychological literature on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony — NOT because those testifying are dishonorable, and quite unconnected from their military rank, but simply because the brain works in strange ways to fill in gaps in our knowledge, account for things we don’t understand, and respond to questions. But since you’re convinced that your opinion is the end of the story, I don’t suppose there’s any point.

Meanwhile Les Kinney piled on:

Dr. King, I have been investigating the Earhart mystery for over thirty years. I am a retired federal agent and have amassed a sizeable amount of data and circumstantial evidence that leads me to believe Earhart met her demise on Saipan. I have recently found one piece of documentary evidence that strongly suggests that Earhart, during her capture stage, was held by the Japanese in the Marshall Islands.

Mike Campbell, in The Truth At Last, presents an overwhelming amount of material that would lead most critical readers to believe Earhart was captured by the Japanese. If I recall, you critiqued “The Truth At Last,” on Amazon and blithely penned a jocular review that in reality attempted to discredit Campbell’s Saipan thesis.

Now, the reason so few professional researchers haven’t embraced the Nikumaroro theory revolves around the following: The overwhelming number of witnesses to the Saipan theory and the complete lack of credible evidence unearthed on Nikumaroro; the fact that 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. The only possible explanation why Earhart didn’t come out and wave to the pilots was: 1) she was looking for her shoes; 2) she was applying freckle cream to look nice for the pilots.

TIGHAR has apparently decided the archeological approach is the only method of solving the Earhart mystery. Yet, in your academic thesis of the Saipan hypothesis, which you have cited in this blog, you chose to ignore the one piece of credible archeological information at Saipan – the gravesite unearthed on orders of Captain Tracy Griswold, USMC, by Private’s Henson and Burks. These two Marines positively identified Griswold from a photo lineup that would have been admissible in court. Henson and Burks further corroborated Griswold’s identify from comments made at the gravesite.

In other words, Dr. King, you have “cherry picked” the worst and least meaningful of “Saipan evidence and then distorted the plausibility of this evidence. In your critique of hard evidence, you mention the grave site dug up by Don Kothera of the Cleveland Group in 1968, and the bone fragments they collected. You go on to state, “Considering the disturbance of such sites during the Japanese development of the island and the presences of 20th century cemeteries that then had experienced considerable bombardment and other disturbances during the 1944 invasion, the presence of human bones almost anywhere is no surprise.”

That’s true, Dr. King, but you knew from the Kothera and Goerner’s books, the gravesite unearthed by Kothera’s Cleveland Group was not residual ground material but a grave dug to waist level or deeper. If you would have conducted proper research on this grave site, you would have determined, the residual evidence found at this location was topical, i.e. shell casings, eyeglasses – bones fragments were found much deeper. You also would have known Kothera collected only bone fragments and that the larger skeletal remains were missing. You also knew this was the same gravesite discussed by the two Marines Burks and Henson, who in fact had unearthed the major skeletal remains from this grave in July 1944. You also knew the Griswold grave digging episode was the central theme of both the Goerner and Kothera books.

For an essay that was supposed to represent a scholarly unbiased report on the Saipan theory, you mention none of this. Yet, you expended considerable effort explaining how unreliable human memory can be, citing ad infinitum numerous examples in several hundred words to make your argument. Boy, it’s a shame all those hundreds of witnesses cited in Mike Campbell’s book really didn’t see what they thought they saw.

I replied:

OK, I should have known better than to get started down this road, but — one more time:

1.  I am not trying to discredit your efforts or Mike Campbell’s — the point of my original post was to suggest that Mike does himself a disservice by presenting his/your hypothesis as “truth,” which automatically turns off people like Rossella, who are exposed to nutty portrayals of “truth” all the time about everything from Bosnian pyramids to alien abductions.

2.  But since you’ve brought these things up….

a.  “The reason so few professional researchers haven’t embraced the Nikumaroro theory…”

“Professional” researchers meaning those who make a profession of searching for Earhart, I take it? I.e. you, Mike, and your colleagues?

b.  “The overwhelming number of witnesses to the Saipan theory…”

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.

c.  “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.”

d.  “… 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.”

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.

e.  “The only possible explanation why Earhart didn’t come out and wave to the pilots was: 1) she was looking for her shoes; 2) she was applying freckle cream to look nice for the pilots.”

I’m glad you know what “the only possible explanation” is. I can think of several other possibilities, but never mind; it’s all speculation.

f.  “…you chose to ignore the one piece of credible archeological information at Saipan – the gravesite unearthed on orders of Captain Tracy Griswold, USMC, by Private’s Henson and Burks. These two Marines positively identified Griswold from a photo lineup that would have been admissible in court. Henson and Burks further corroborated Griswold’s identify from comments made at the gravesite.”

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.

g.  “… you knew from the Kothera and Goerner’s books, the gravesite unearthed by Kothera’s Cleveland Group was not residual ground material but a grave dug to waist level or deeper. If you would have conducted proper research on this grave site, you would have determined, the residual evidence found at this location was topical, i.e. shell casings, eyeglasses – bones fragments were found much deeper.”

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.

h.  “You also would have known Kothera collected only bone fragments and that the larger skeletal remains were missing.”

I’ve excavated maybe a thousand graves in my career, in Micronesia and on the U.S. mainland, and read hundreds of archaeological site reports. 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.

i.  “You also knew this was the same gravesite discussed by the two Marines Burks and Henson, who in fact had unearthed the major skeletal remains from this grave in July 1944.”

Maybe. See above.

   j. “You also knew the Griswold grave digging episode was the    central theme of both the Goerner and Kothera books.”

Well, I don’t know about it being THE central theme, particularly of Goerner’s book, but it was certainly A major theme. So does that make it Earhart’s grave? I’m missing your connection.

Which brought out sonnyauld, who said:

Mr. King,

As Ric Gillespie’s publicity man, I would expect nothing less than the bile you spewed above. Those of you there at TIGHAR must be feeling the heat from the Truth, if you are over here attacking it. You continue to perpetrate your opinions on Amelia’s disappearance on the public, raising obscene amounts of money for yet another trek. And yes, these ARE your opinions, since you have not uncovered one single shred of actual proof of Amelia’s crashing on Gardner Island in all of the many, many trips you have made to the island. All you have “uncovered” are “…this MIGHT be Amelia’s shoe; this MIGHT be a bookcase from Amelia’s plane; this MIGHT be Amelia’s cosmetic jar because she had freckles….” Give me a break! I understand your need to attack Mike and the Truth, but until you can unequivocally come up with undisputed evidence of her crashing on Gardner, please refrain from attacking other more likely alternate scenarios of the real Truth: Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan died on Saipan at the hands of the enemy.

And billxam2013 added:

I have to agree with sonnyauld.  I’ve re-listened to my interview with Mike and gone back over the book and what is being called “so called evidence” by some horribly misguided people which takes a far more physical form than any other small bits of rubbish found on a beach somewhere.

In the end, no matter how hard I try to take a pragmatic view of each point of view I keep coming back to the exact same conclusion. Amelia Earhart died on Saipan by the hands of the Japanese. Apparently Mr. King wants us to assume that every single eyewitness from the natives on several different islands to our military personnel all have flawed memories which I find more than absurd.

What this is all about is perception. A bit of rubbish on a beach or several hundred witnesses. I will put my faith in the witnesses.

Sorry, Mr. King all you are doing is digging yourself a hole that someone is going to push you into when it’s deep enough. Use the same critical eye as a jurist does. I did.

I tried again:

Like I said — you have it all figured out, and we’re all just shills for Gillespie. But the accumulation and analysis of “might be’s” is how science works. Hurricane Sandy might have been evidence of global climate change, so might the content of Greenland ice cores, and so on. It’s very rare for a single piece of evidence to be slam-bang definitive, but if that’s the only thing you can accept as evidence, so be it. I don’t “need” to “attack” anyone, and don’t think I did; my suggestion to Mike was that he have a better chance of being attended to by people like Rosella if he’d recognize that he, and you, ARE propounding opinions, not certain, verified “truth.” If that to you is an “attack,” it seems to me you have a mighty big chip on your shoulder. But that’s your problem, not mine, so I’ll happily refrain from bothering you further.

This brought a response from “earharttruth,” who I think is Mike Campbell:

Junk science, phony academia, smoke and mirrors, a compliant and corrupt media, and an ignorant, apathetic and uninformed public have combined to create one of the most universally accepted false narratives in American culture, rivaled only by the continuing promotion of the absurd Warren Report lies in the JFK hit. No one should have to state that the truth is not a matter of opinion. Conspicuous in her silence is the subject of this discussion, Rossella Lorenzi. Has she stooped to read even a chapter of Truth at Last?

I couldn’t quite let that pass: 

Well, I wasn’t going to add anything more to this thread, but that’s just too good a set-up. To begin with, “truth is not a matter of opinion?” Supposing that there is an absolute truth, as arguably there is with regard to Earhart’s fate, how can it NOT be a matter of opinion? People obviously have opinions about it; someone is presumably right (or no one is), but until there’s unequivocal proof, it’s a matter of opinion. And though I share some of your skepticism about the Warren report, just calling it “absurd” doesn’t make it so. Nor does calling what I do “junk science” make it so. As for phony academia — well, hell, you’ve caught me; I didn’t really go to college all those years and get those degrees and publish all that stuff; I’ve just made it all up and conned everyone but you; damn, you’re GOOD!

Point is, when to make your hypothesis believable you have to posit that those otherwise inclined are engaging in junk science, trading in phony academia, puffing smoke and waving mirrors with the complicity of a corrupted media — well, that simply puts several points against you in the credibility department.

As for Rossella — this was my original point: for someone like Rossella, who deals day in and day out with crazy stories about stuff from the past and must sort wheat from chaff based, often, on little but gut instinct, I can guarantee that a title like “The Truth” is something she’ll shy away from, because she knows all too well how slippery “truth” is.

Look, I think that some of you guys have done some good research, and I think it deserves attention. My initial post was about how you might increase the likelihood that those not already of your persuasion would pay such attention, and your reaction, expectably I suppose, has been to kill the messenger. OK, I’m dead; enjoy yourselves.

And I suppose they are.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Analysis Published of Jar from Seven Site

Joe Cerniglia, in league with chemist Greg George and archaeological bottle expert Bill Lockhart, and with me as a kibitzer and editorial critic, has produced what I think is an admirable paper on the notorious “freckle cream jar” from the Seven Site.  It’s now posted on the TIGHAR website at

Critics will sniff that the jar is not a smoking gun; it does not prove that Earhart lived or died at the Seven Site.  That’s true, but the paper rather definitively allows us to assign the jar to the growing list of painstakingly analyzed evidence that something odd happened at the Seven Site.  Something, that is, involving medicinal and cosmetic products from the United States, some of which (e.g., the apparent compact with its mirror and rouge) was most used by women.
The paper shows that the jar almost certainly contained a mercury compound, and that Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment, alone among substances currently known to have been sold in such jars, contained mercury.  It also shows that the jar was most likely manufactured in the United States in the 1930s, and it puts forth a plausible rationale for the fact that it is translucent rather than opaque – as contrasted with all the Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment jars we’ve been able to find in collections and on Ebay.  Finally, it summarizes the evidence suggesting that Earhart wanted to diminish her freckles. 
What I like best about the paper is that it leaves few stones unturned.  The conclusion that the jar contained a mercury compound is based on multiple laboratory tests on the jar and on several controls.  The conclusion that it was made in the 1930s draws on detailed research into its embossed manufacturer’s logo and the history of the firm itself.  The paper exhaustively compares the artifact with a number of “siblings” that contained non-Berry’s products or whose original contents are unknown.  It does not jump to conclusions, and it does not claim more than it can justify.  It does, however, make a strong case for the notion that the jar contained a cosmetic/medicinal substance used in the 1930s by freckle-faced women seeking smoother complexions.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

TIGHAR Field School is Underway

TIGHAR's Aviation Archaeology Field School begins today, at the site of a fatal 1936 Lockheed Electra crash on what is now part of the Panhandle National Forests in Idaho.  For those unable to take part, here are a few images from our 2004 site survey, the report on which can be accessed on TIGHAR's web site at

Gary Quigg overlooking the site

The site

Mapping the site

Nessie's aunt?  Landing gear


Saturday, July 13, 2013

So You Want To Go To Nikumaroro?

With all the recent publicity about sonar images on the Nikumaroro reef ( and the discovery of 1939 aerial photos ( , there’s been an uptick of interest in visiting Nikumaroro by other groups and individuals.  For example, the Tri-County Amateur Radio Club of North Texas, WC5C, is raising money for a trip to the island to develop baseline radio transmission data (See, and historical filmmaker Matthew Arnold has a kickstarter campaign to fund a study of the island’s “historical and mythological landscape” (See
Such interest is very welcome, but if you’re thinking about a visit, bear in mind that it’s a long way from the closest commercial airports and seaports (in the Samoas and Fiji, 600-900 nautical miles) and you have to carry all your own gear and supplies -- no human beings live on the island or in its near vicinity.  In practical terms this means having your own ship.  Moreover:

1.     Nikumaroro is part of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), with a fragile environment that's protected under international law and the laws of the Republic of Kiribati.  Kiribati and PIPA's administrators must give permission to access the island, and they impose various (not very onerous but nevertheless real) protective conditions. Information and contact points for PIPA can be found at 

2.     To ensure that its rules are followed, Kiribati requires that a government representative accompany expeditions, at the expedition’s expense.

3.     The island's archaeology is also very fragile and subject to easy and unwitting disturbance. This includes not only whatever archaeological remains there may be of Earhart's and Noonan's time there, but the remains of the colonial village that existed on the island from 1939 to 1963, those of the US Coast Guard station that operated there from 1944 to 1946, the wrecked steamship Norwich City, and scattered prehistoric sites. Under an agreement with the government of Kiribati, TIGHAR has an exclusive license to conduct archaeological research on the island in connection with the Earhart mystery; Kiribati refers all applications for similar licenses to TIGHAR for review and recommendations.

4.     Don’t neglect to take a doctor or emergency medical technician. Although the island is generally a pretty benign place, it's easy to get coral cuts, slip on the reef, get jabbed by the vegetation, and so on. Diving on the reef or in the lagoon creates additional risks.

5.     You’ll want to avoid the tropical cyclone season (roughly November 1-April 30).  Rough weather can make the island inaccessible, and of course can also sink your ship and kill you.

6.     There’s only one generally usable access point to the island, via a channel blasted through the reef flat during the island's evacuation in the 1960s. Depending on tide and weather conditions, it can be pretty tricky to load and offload personnel and equipment there; this is one of the major danger points in any visit to the island, at least when seas are rough.
I outline these considerations not to discourage interest in visiting Nikumaroro or other islands of the PIPA (e.g. Manra, Orona, Kanton, Enderbury, McKean) – all beautiful places (well, maybe not McKean) with their own fascinating histories and environments, but just to emphasize that visiting is not a lark to be undertaken lightly; it requires some planning and costs money.  AND most importantly, I want to emphasize that the island is a sensitive place, that must be approached with care and consideration.

TIGHAR’s spent more time on and around Nikumaroro than just about any group of people alive today, and we’re happy to discuss possibilities with anyone who wants to consider a visit.  Check for information and points of contact, or drop me a note at

The landing channel: image by Graham Berwind, 2010

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What if It's an Airplane?

So what if we're able to get a camera-equipped remotely operated vehicle (ROV) down on the anomaly imaged in side-scan sonar on the Nikumaroro reef (See and find that it does indeed look like the remains of an airplane? What then?

Well, we definitely do not go grapple it up to the surface, for at least three reasons:

1. The reef is a fragile environment, protected under the laws of Kiribati and international law, so any recovery will have to be done in accordance with a carefully thought out and vetted plan, with full environmental controls.

2. An airplane is a complex, multi-metal artifact, whose chemistry is strongly affected by long immersion in sea water. Bringing it up into an oxygen-rich environment may cause it virtually to explode, and will at the very least cause its rapid (probably very rapid) deterioration. Whatever is brought up will have to go instantly into a laboratory setting for detailed, planned, conservation treatment.

3. We want to understand how the plane (sic) got where it is; what's its story? To gain that understanding -- as in any archaeological study or crime scene investigation -- we need to understand the thing's physical context.

So we'll want to take a good hard look at the thing and its surroundings -- image it in all kinds of ways, from all kinds of angles, and prepare a map. We'll want to look at how it's interacting with the reef: is it partly buried? Grown over in coral? Home to a colony of fish? What kinds of fish? How firmly attached is it to the reef? What kind of shape is it in? (Probably not good)

Once we've done this, we can, if it makes sense, develop a recovery plan for all or part of the wreckage. This will need to be done in consultation with a variety of specialists and with the administration of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) and other Kiribati government offices. Once that plan has been developed and approved, then and only then can we send down an ROV to very carefully try to pick up the pieces.

There are only two exceptions I can think of to the above sequence. One would be if the initial inspection reveals a piece or two of easily recoverable wreckage -- just lying there, relatively unencumbered by coral -- and the inspection ship is equipped with a conservation lab that's able to take care of it. In such a case it might be justifiable to plot the exact location of the wreckage and then bring it up. Another exception might be if the wreckage were in some kind of imminent danger -- about to fall off a ledge or be crushed by a falling slab of coral. Then some kind of rescue operation might be in order, but even that would take a good deal of planning.

As TIGHAR's senior archaeologist, my greatest fear is that some dufus with more money than brains will get excited by the current media frenzy and go try to snag the thing (whatever it is) with a net or trawl or something. That could be a disaster both environmentally and archaeologically. It would also be illegal, but the Pacific is too much like the wild west for that to be much of an impediment.  I only hope that everyone will be responsible and cool their jets while we figure out how to handle the thing (if it's really a thing) with the care and respect it -- and the environment -- deserve.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Belief, Reality, and Marks on the Reef

It’s being widely reported in the media, and it’s accurately discussed at  In a nutshell, the Earhart Forum’s Richard Conroy has detected an interesting anomaly in the 2012 side-scan sonar imagery of the Nutiran reef at Nikumaroro.  Detailed analysis has led to the suspicion that it may represent the fuselage of Earhart’s Electra, leaving a debris trail as it slid down the reef face and was simultaneously displaced by the south-flowing current.

I see that at least one television news channel (admittedly, the foxy faux one) has been saying that we “believe” the thing to be the Electra.  This strikes me as typical of the tabloid media; reality is all about what we “believe” to be true.  Which may be what reality is, but we science-types like to think (believe?) that we’re trying to discern reality, not make it up.

And what we discern is what seems to be a sort of diagonal mark on the reef face, which might be some kind of natural formation – but if it is, it’s the only one like it we can see – and which looks a lot like the signature of something about the size of the Electra’s fuselage, working its way down and along the reef face under the combined influences of gravity and the N-S current.  And its location is sensible vis-à-vis where we hypothesize that Earhart landed, and where Eric Bevington photographed the “Nessie” object in 1937. 

Until we can get an ROV down on the site, we won’t know whether it’s the Electra or not, and what any of us “believe” is irrelevant.  Gerald the Skeleton may know, but he’s not talking.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Gerald's Adventure, Part Nine (The End)

The Continuing (but here concluded) Adventure of Gerald the Skeleton on Nikumaroro, 2010.

The expedition was almost over.  The two TIGHAR ships – Nai’a and VVs1 – hovered off the northwest reef while Jesse, John and Walt sent ROV down on his last dives; AUV was already tucked away in the forward deckhouse, relaxing.  At the Seven Site they were drilling cores out of trees, flying kites with cameras on them, scanning with ground-penetrating radar, and continuing to scratch along in their excavation lanes, but nobody was really expecting now to turn up a smoking gun, not this year.  Grandpa Tom was pleased with the information they’d collected, but frustrated because they hadn’t finished all the lanes.  Ric was just frustrated.
Last Days at the Seven Site
Karl bores a ren tree
Radar probes the depths
The Site from a Kite
One night I went to the forward deck house to talk with AUV and ROV.  Maybe they could help me figure out what to do about the airplane, and the Sheel family.

“You have come to the right place,” ROV buzzed when I’d explained the situation.  “Machine intelligence is 725% faster and 362 % more reliable than meat-based intelligence.”

“Those percentages have been disputed,” AUV grumbled, “but in general terms….”

“Yes,” I said quickly; “that’s why I’ve come to you – besides the fact that I can’t talk to the humans.  So what do you think I should do?”

Both machines were silent for a time.  Finally AUV spoke.

“It is not our normal function to exercise judgment.”

ROV flashed several LEDs on his display -- red, yellow and green.  “But we understand how it is done.  Let us weigh the facts.  You are certain, Gerald, that what you saw is Amelia Earhart’s airplane, correct?”

“Yes, it looked like it, it’s in the right place, and no other airplane….”

“…is recorded to have crashed here; correct with at least 92% confidence.  So it is almost certainly what the TIGHARs are looking for.”

“Well, they're also looking for evidence of what happened to Ms. Earhart and Captain Noonan after they got here, particularly at the Seven Site.”

“Not relevant for current purposes.  The airplane is the so-called smoking gun.”

“Yes, it would prove their hypothesis.”



“So, the answer is simple.  If your highest priority is helping the TIGHARs do their research, you must find a way to tell them.  You could perhaps access someone's computer....”

Somehow this answer didn’t satisfy.  I couldn't think of anything to say, and found myself just looking out over the dark sea. The sky was full of stars.  A passing pod of dolphins cast sparks of phosphorescence. 

“Perhaps,” AUV buzzed, “that is not Gerald’s highest priority.”

“I’m just thinking of Sheel, and all his chum,” I said softly.

“Living creatures,” AUV said, and if a machine voice can be sympathetic, his was. 

“Meat,” ROV interpreted, but from him it didn’t sound insulting or dismissive.

“Yes, living…..”

ROV's LEDs blazed red.  “They will find it anyway,” he said firmly.

“…creatures… uh, why?  Why will they – who, the TIGHARs? – why will they find it anyway?”

ROV hesitated for a moment, LEDs flashing different colors.  Then they all glowed steady yellow.

“I have imaged pieces of it – probably pieces of it.  73.8% probability.”

“What?  Where?”

“Up the reef slope from the location you give for Sheel’s house, and below the feature photographed in 1937, that the TIGHARs call Nessie.  Linear and curved objects, not consistent with natural formations.”

The 1937 Nessie Photo
Nessie enlarged
“Pieces of the airplane, then, scattered down the reef face!”

“83.976 probability, assuming Sheel’s house is the airplane and Nessie is a piece of landing gear.”

“So Jesse already knows.”

“Jesse does not know.  Jesse has not yet analyzed the imagery.  But when he does, he will know.”

“Oh dear.”

Multi-colored LEDs flashed on both robots.

"Oh dear?" AUV inquired.

"Well, I.... er...."  I lapsed into embarassed silence.  So did they, but their LEDs flashed.  Finally ROV spoke.

“I tentatively, conditionally conclude from your words, Gerald, that when confronted with the reality of the aircraft’s recovery and the loss of Sheel’s residence, your preference is to leave it where it is.  Am I correct?”

My empty head ached, but I had to acknowledge that he was right.  I nodded.

“I interpret that as an affirmative, correct?”

“Yes.  Correct.  Affirmative.”

“Well then….”  Lights flashed all over the display panels on both robots; for the first time I realized that they communicated with each other via by a wireless network.  The LEDs settled down to a steady green glow.

“We have decided,” ROV said, “that we will not let them find it.”

“What?  How.”

“ROV will cook the data,” AUV buzzed, and I swear there was glee in his voice.

I looked from one robot to the other, confused.

“Cook the data?”

“I will adjust the resolution on the imagery so as to make certain images very hard for a meathead to interpret, and I will muddle the navigational data….”

“So,” AUV put in, “even if they do see something, they won’t know where it was.”

“This will not save Sheel’s home forever,” ROV cautioned, “but I calculate between a 77.2 and 99.8% probability that it will delay its discovery at least two years, considering the typical frequency of TIGHAR expeditions and the challenges inherent in fundraising….”

"And the lifespan of a sheel," AUV added, "is only two years."

“Oh.  But….”

“But calculating the probability of human actions is not an exact science.”

"And there is a 99.714% probability of new generations of sheels."

"However, they will not be our sheels."
My tibiae and fibulae felt weak; I leaned heavily against the bulkhead.  “But – your job is finding the airplane!  How can you just decide not to?”

“It has been said,” AUV buzzed after a moment, “that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  There are how many TIGHARs?”


“Eight hundred seventy seven world wide at last count.  And how many sheels?”

“Uh…. Four thousand eight hundred and – uh – forty six.”


“One can also consider qualitative factors,” ROV hummed, somehow sounding self-satisfied.  “Is having a secure and happy home not more important to meat creatures than solving some historical mystery?”

“Whose solution,” AUV put in, “has less than 0.2% probability of making the world a better place for man or machine?”

I sat slowly down on the deck.  “You guys are making value judgments?”

“Many capacities of the machine mind,” said ROV – a bit pompously, I thought – are not yet understood by meatheads.”

"And plastic is derived from organic molecules," AUV added.

So that’s how it happened.  Something Jesse couldn’t explain scrambled ROV’s data, greatly compromising the maps he tried to make, and obscuring the suspicious things that ROV actually imaged, while leaving enough innocent things to be seen – the rope, some steel bars that were probably lost fishing spears; things like that – that the TIGHARs thought they were getting a more or less accurate picture even if they couldn’t tell just where anything was.  Ric blamed Jesse, Jesse blamed machine errors, and nobody ever guessed that the machines did it deliberately.

Departure Day: the Boats Come Aboard
And then the day of departure came.  SSv1 left first, for a cruise around the island before heading back to Samoa.  Awhile later Nai’a winched in her boats and turned her prow south.  The TIGHARs lined the rail and watched as the island’s shores slid past; I watched out the salon window.  I could make out filmy shapes hovering over the remains of the Norwich City, and knew that Ismael and his brethren were wishing me a safe journey, insh’allah.  Honk and Honkette flew over and dipped their wings before flying back to little (well, not so little) Honkito.  I couldn’t see Polly, of course, and who knows where Clavicle was.  A whale spouted in the distance, and I fancied it was Ginger.  Dolphins played in our bow wave; red-tailed tropicbirds hovered over our wake.
Niku falls astern

And as we slid past the southeast end and began to take the long rolls of the unimpeded Pacific, I thought I saw a couple more ghosts watching us from the shore.  One of them had curly hair and a checked shirt.

SSv1 overhauled us not long after Nikumaroro had dropped over the horizon astern, and quickly left us behind, but we all made it safely to Apia in Samoa after three days at sea.  There Grandpa Tom took off my legs again and with Tom Roberts’ help packed me back in my box.  I rode a truck to the shipping company’s warehouse, and it was there that I was able to get out, work my way across to the office in the dark of night, and start composing these letters to you, Noah and Jake.

Samoa in sight

With love, your peripatetic (Polly said that means wandering) skeleton,

Noah, Jake, and their mom anxiously await Gerald's homecoming

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Gerald's Adventure, Part Eight

The Continuing Adventure of Gerald the Skeleton on Nikumaroro, 2010

The Excavations Continue

There were just a few days left in the expedition, and some of the TIGHARs were getting pretty worried.  AUV hadn’t found any airplane parts in the lagoon.  ROV had found some metal and rope on the reef (far above Sheel’s home), but it didn’t look like anything from an airplane.  Down at the Seven Site they were finding things – metal and bottles and animal bones, buttons and even pencil lead.  Grandpa Tom reported every evening on what they’d found, and everybody talked about them.  Grandpa Tom and Ric often argued about how to interpret what they found, and Karl kept shouting “I disagree!” just for the fun of it.  Sometimes Gary, Ric, Grandpa Tom or others composed silly songs that they’d sing to keep everybody’s spirits up.  But they weren’t finding what they kept referring to as “the smoking gun” that would prove that Amelia Earhart had been at the Seven Site, or anywhere on Nikumaroro.  It made me feel very conflicted; should I tell them what I knew?  If so, how?  And if I did, what would happen to Sheel and his chum?

One night I crept out of the salon while everybody was on deck playing guitars, singing songs, and watching the star theater.  Down by the stern platform Frederick was waiting; he never told me how he knew I’d be coming.  I slipped over the side, grabbed the edges of his shell, and away we went. 

As we closed in on the Club Fred beach, I could see something going on there.  Two somethings, actually.  AUV was back on the ship, but Honk and Honkette were both there, jumping up and down and flapping their wings.  Their egg had hatched!  Their baby – a pretty big baby bird, all covered with fluffy grayish feathers, was reeling around on unsteady feet, and his parents had their wings full keeping him from running into trees or stumbling and falling on his face. 
Honk and Honkito
But the big excitement was among the ghosts.  They were everywhere!  I’d seldom seen so many ghosts, even on Halloween back in Cutler Ridge.  Adult ghosts and baby ghosts, woman ghosts and man ghosts, all drifting ghostily around among the trees, mostly in groups of three or four.

“Wow!” I burbled, getting water in my mouth and spitting out a small fish.  “What’s going on?”

“Their egg hatched,” Frederick grunted.  “Pretty exciting, in the life of a bird.  Now, when we lay our eggs…..”

“No, I mean the ghosts!”  Then I remembered that he couldn’t see them.  “Oh, never mind – yes, you guys are much calmer about your eggs.”

“Yup, bury ‘em in the sand and hope for the best.  No muss, no fuss.  What ghosts?”

“Oh – uh – I was just thinking about something else.”  I’d seen Ismael and the other Norwich City ghosts sitting under a palm tree talking.  “If you’ll just let me off here at the beach, I think I’ll visit the village again tonight.”

“Suit yourself; I’m going to drift out here in the cove and get some sleep.  Rattle some bones when you’re ready to go back to the ship.”

“Thanks, Frederick; you’re a real friend.”

“Hey, it’s not every day I get to hang out with a skeleton.  Enjoy the village; I hear it’s pretty spooky.”

That was putting it mildly.  Ghosts everywhere, drifting up and down the overgrown streets, sitting around in the ruined house sites, strolling – well, ghosts don’t exactly stroll, but they put on a pretty good imitation – up and down the beach.  I found Ismael and his friends under their tree.

“Salaam aleikum, Ismael effendi,” I said politely, as he’d taught me.

“Gerald effendi; waleikum a salaam.  Praise be to Allah, the merciful and compassionate, who has brought you back to us.”

I bowed to him.  “It is kind of you to speak so, Ismael.  But what is going on?  Why are there so many ghosts?”

“So many?  Oh, Gerald effendi, a thousand pardons; we have not explained.”

“Explained what?”

“We are – uh – always here – all of us.”

“But,” Usama said, raising a filmy finger, “’always’ implies the existence of 'time,' and as we all know…..

“True, true, brother,” and they all began to explain things to me, or to each other; I wasn’t sure which.  I couldn’t really get it all – it was about time and space and what exists and what doesn’t, but I guess the main message was that the ghosts were there on the island all the time, and at the same time in other places, and at the same place in other times, but there were only certain conditions that allowed the reality we experience to connect up with theirs, and tonight those conditions – whatever they were – were right.

“So all these people died here?” I asked, watching what seemed to be a family of ghosts drift by – a lady ghost, a man ghost, a little kid ghost.  The man was telling a story, and his family were laughing.

“It is true,” Ismael nodded, “as did all the crabs, birds, fish….”  I hadn’t noticed it before, but there were ghostly crabs and other animals scurrying around.  I looked for Polly, but all I could see were ghosts.

The village in 1942.  Lots of brave people died here, so there are lots of ghosts
“Most of the people ghosts were colonists from other islands, may peace be upon them.  And then there are a few – there, for example – “  He pointed a misty finger at the beach, where two male ghosts were drifting along, deep in conversation.  Both were tall and thin; one wore khaki shorts and a starched white shirt, and the other was in dark shirt and pants.

“There, for example, are Gallagher effendi and Captain Noonan.  Salaam aleikum, my friends.”

Gerald Gallagher himself?  And Captain Noonan!  Could that be Fred Noonan?  Amelia Earhart’s navigator?  The two ghosts came drifting over, smiling.

“Waleikum asalaam,” they both said politely, with little bows. 

“Welcome to Nikumaroro, Mister Skeleton,” Mister Gallagher added.  “I’ve not seen you here before.”

“Thank you, Mister Administrator, and greetings.  Yes, I’ve been here only a few weeks, with the TIGHAR group out there on the ship….”

Captain Noonan slapped his forehead and shook so hard his ectoplasm almost dissolved.  He was laughing.

“Those poor numbskulls,” he chortled, “looking for Amelia and me, and that bloody Electra.”

“Well,” I said, somewhat offended for my friends, “what’s wrong with that?  You’re obviously here.”

“Oh indeed we are.  But frankly, Mister Bones, who gives a….”

“Now, now, Fred,” Mister Gallagher put his spectral hand on Captain Noonan’s filmy shoulder.  “What Captain Noonan means, Mister – er….”

“My name’s Gerald, sir; actually Grandpa Tom named me after you.”

“Well, I’m – er – honored, I’m sure.  Anyway, Gerald, what Captain Noonan meant was…”

“Really Gerald,” Noonan interrupted, talking to Mister Gallagher, “I’m capable of explaining it myself.  Look, Gerald, we’re dead, aren’t we?  Myself and Amelia?”

“Of course, sir,” I said quickly, “there’s no denying that.”

“So they’re not going to find us alive, are they?  Rescue us or something?”

“No, but they’re looking for evidence…..”

“Ah, and that’s what’s so endlessly amusing.  Watching them find something we left – like pieces of Amelia’s compact, or that pot she kept her freckle cream in, and puzzle and puzzle about what they are, so earnest and taking it all so seriously….”

“And of course what’s even funnier,” Mister Gallagher put in, “is watching them puzzle over things you DIDN’T leave, but WE did, or the Coast Guardsmen did, all with the same sort of earnestness, wondering if it could be yours….”

“And you know, Gerald effendi,” Ismael added, “it is really something of an insult to Gallagher effendi, and to us from the Norwich City, and to all the brave colonists who died here, for your friends to be so…so...”

“Fixated,” Mister Gallagher offered.

“Fixated.  Thank you.  Fixated on Amelia hanum and Fred effendi.  Are we all not equal in the sight of Allah?”

“Indeed we are, Ismael effendi “ – the voice came from behind my shoulder, and made me jump.  “But not in the sight of American public opinion.”

“Salaam aleikum, Amelia hanum,” all the Arab ghosts said in unison, while Mister Gallagher made a slight bow and Captain Noonan raised a hand to his brow.

She came into the loose circle of ghosts and looked at me.  A slender ghost with short curly hair and a checked shirt.  Just like her pictures in the books the TIGHARs kept consulting.

“So,” she said, “you’re with those TIGHAR types, are you….”


“Named after our Gerald?  That shows a little class, but you've a lot to live up to."  Mr. Gallagher made a dismissive hand wave, as Ms. Earhart went on.

"So tell me, Gerald, why do they want to find us?  They know we’re dead, yes?”

“Oh yes, but what happened to you is a great mystery.  People wonder about it, argue about it ….”

“Yes, I’ve heard about it from my mother and sister since they came over – all the wild stories about being captured by the Japanese, or being so incompetent that I – we, sorry Fred – ran out of gas and went into the drink.”

“Well, so the TIGHARs want to solve the mystery.  And they think you landed and died here.”

“So, you can tell them they’re right, and they can stop wasting money coming here and disturbing the birds and crabs.”

“Oh, Amelia,” Captain Noonan objected.  “It gives us something to make jokes about.”

“And,” Mister Gallagher smiled, “it’s rather fun to throw false clues in their paths.”

Captain Noonan chuckled:  “Or clues that aren’t quite false, like that shoe.”

“The shoe they found in 1991,” I asked, “that looked like Miss -- er, Mrs. Putnam’s but was too big?”

“Right,” Ms Earhart giggled.  “My shoe all right, but part of the pair I wore with thick socks when it was cold in the plane, so bigger than the ones they had pictures of.  Has that confused them as much as we planned?”

“Oh yes, it was very embarrassing when one of the people who thinks you crashed in the sea pointed out how the size was wrong.  They still argue about that.

“Good, good.  Argument keeps their brains alive.  But I’m really of two minds, Gerald, about whether to let them find us – or find the plane.  Find definitive proof.  What do you think?”

“Why not?”

“Well, it would bring the mystery to an end, wouldn’t it?  And don’t you think people need mysteries?”

“I don’t know.  I’m a plastic lab skeleton.”

"But a very well made one, I must say."  I would have blushed if plastic could blush.

"And a modest, brave and wise one, Gerald effendi," Ismael said with a bow.  But Amelia hanum, surely it is not for us to decite whether the TIGHARs will learn the truth.  Such decisions surely lie only with Allah, the all-knowing."

"Well, to avoid another interminable theological debate, Ismael -- granting that we have ample 'time' for such things -- let me just take the matter under advisement.  Perhaps I'm being selfish...."

"It would be a shame if the TIGHARs stopped coming," Mr. Gallagher mused.  "They're endlessly amusing."

There was a bit of a silence, as though everyone were recalling a favorite TIGHAR episode.  Then Mr. Gallagher shook himself.

"In any event, Gerald, I'm delighted to be your namesake, and very pleased that you've come to talk with us.  Very glad to have met you.”

“Goes for me too,” Captain Noonan reached out to shake my hand.  “But I’m afraid the sun’s coming up, and they’re likely to miss you if you don’t get back to the ship.”  He stepped over to the beach and let out a shrill whistle.  In just a couple of minutes Frederick came swimming up, looking confused.
TIGHARs head for the beach in the morning; I had
to be back aboard before they got up.