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OPINION: ‘Earhart bones’ just another of TIGHAR’s many false claims

“BONES Found in South Pacific Likely Amelia Earhart! This analysis reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample.” — Richard L. Jantz, Ph.  D. 

Hold on a minute!

TIGHAR or the International Group for Historical Aircraft Recovery founded by Ric Gillespie in 1985 is a “non-profit organization,” although Gillespie takes a salary to support TIGHAR’s “ideals,” which he claims are “the promotion of responsible aviation archaeology and historic preservation.” Don’t let that fool you. TIGHAR devotes 99 percent of its substantial resources to hoodwinking the public into believing Amelia Earhart landed at Nikumaroro, a three-mile sliver of land in the Phoenix Island(s) Group.  

On March 8, Fox News and a fair amount of other media outlets including USA Today splashed a tale taken from a TIGHAR press release. “It is with 99 percent certainty, bones found in 1940 on Nikumaroro are that of the famous missing aviator.”

Hogwash!

It started in April 1940 when bones, a skull, and bottle were found on Gardner Island (Nikumaroro) by some unknown native colonist.   Near the spot of this find was evidence of a camp site, where an old sextant box and a sole of a shoe — about an English size 10 — were also found. The sextant box was described by experts as likely originating from the 1800’s, and not appearing “under any circumstances have been for a sextant used in modern trans-Pacific aviation.”

A brief history of Gardner/Nikumaroro

• In November 1929, the British freighter HMS Norwich City departed Melbourne Australia bound for Vancouver, B. C. The 397-foot freighter ran aground on the reef at Gardner Island. Eleven men were killed. Four bodies were buried by survivors after washing ashore. Seven other men were missing and never found. The rusted hulk of the Norwich City still rests on Nikumaroro’s beach.

• In October 1937, a British survey team headed by Harry Maude and Eric Bevington, along with 18 Gilbertese men “thoroughly explored” Gardner Island for several days.  

• From Nov. 30, 1938, and for the next several weeks, a 16-man New Zealand Survey team explored Gardner Island from an aviation viewpoint.

• In December 1938, at least 80 colonists from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands under British sponsorship settled on the island.  

• On Nov. 5, 1939, crew members from the USS Bushnell, a Navy survey ship landed at Gardner Island. The ship discharged 25 sailors and technicians and stayed for two days.

• In June 1944, the U. S. Coast Guard arrived on Gardner and began construction of a Loran Station. The station was up and running on Dec. 16, 1944 and manned by 25 Coast Guard personnel, and was deactivated on May 15, 1946. The “Coasties” co-existed with the Gilbertese settlers who finally gave up on the island in 1963.

Can you imagine the amount of trash that was left on that island?

How the Nikumaroro ‘bones’ got TIGHAR’s attention

During Gillespie’s second or third mission to Gardner in the late 1980s, early ‘90s, having heard a tale from a Coast Guardsman who served on the island in the 1940s, that early colonists buried Earhart’s bones, Gillespie’s crew, digging around an area TIGHAR coined the “Seven Site,” found human remains — those of an infant.  

A few years later, a Kiwi member of TIGHAR noticed a file in the Kiribati National Archives in Tarawa referencing a skeleton and human remains discovered on Gardner Island in 1940.  

Gerald Gallagher, Gardner Island’s colonial administrator, arrived on Gardner in 1940, and was told by natives that human bones had been found on the southeastern part of the island. The natives also reported that they had found a human skull, but it was reburied. Writing back to Fiji headquarters in Suva, Gallagher said there was a “very slight chance” the bones might be of Amelia Earhart, although to his untrained eye, the bones appeared to be “older than four years.”

The bones were later shipped to the High Commissioner’s Office in Suva. An initial report was completed by the acting senior medical officer, who concluded “they are part of a skeleton of elderly male of Polynesian race, bones having been probably in sheltered position for upwards of 20 years possibly much longer.”

The bones were then brought to the Central Medical School and examined by Dr. D.   W. Hoodless. Hoodless took careful measurements of the bones and skull, and wrote that noted in his professional opinion, the bones were that of a skeleton of “total height of 5 feet 5 and ½ inches approximately,” and that “it may be definitely stated that the skeleton is that of a [MALE.] (Hoodless emphasis).   Hoodless added that “he was not less than 45 and more probably older.” Hoodless emphasized the bones were male and probably a male of undetermined cultural origins, possibly of mixed descent. The skull had five teeth and Dr. Hoodless noted the right zygoma and malar bones broken off.

Where are the bones?

TIGHAR has tried hard to find the bones but they haven’t been seen since 1941. The late Dr. Karen Burns, an anthropologist, reviewed the Hoodless findings and declared the Nikumaroro bones could have indeed Earhart. But as member of TIGHAR’s board of directors, Burns was quite biased.  

Soon after Burns issued her findings, an independent study of the Nikumaroro bones was completed by Cross and Wright (2015). “The “Nikumaroro Bones’ are not those of lost aviatrix Amelia Earhart,” stated Pamela J. Cross and Richard Wright in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

It is difficult to explain how Dr. Jantz’s computer model concluded “with 99 percent certainty” that the bones found on Nikumaroro are Amelia’s based upon measurements taken by Dr. Hoodless.  

Can Dr. Jantz’s Nikumaroro bones analysis be considered plausible? Highly unlikely.

Dr. Jantz didn’t know all the facts. He had no bones and his analysis makes no mention of the skull. Did he know that in June 1935 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, Amelia had an operation called a Caldwell-Luc procedure done for her chronic sinus problem, an operation that required drilling a hole in the cavity of her mouth, going through the bone above the second molar?

According to Muriel Morrissey, Amelia’s sister, she had this procedure done previously on the opposite side — so Amelia had a “bi-lateral Caldwell-Luc.” A forensic examination of a skull having a Caldwell-Luc procedure within the previous five to 10 years would have been observed by a 5-year-old, yet neither Gallagher, Hoodless, nor anyone else ever reported seeing a dime-size hole extending from the jaw through the bone into the cranium in their examinations.

Nikumaroro facts

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan failed to arrive at Howland Island on their flight from Lae New Guinea on July 2, 1937. TIGHAR believes post loss radio messages from the pair skipped off the ionosphere and originated from Nikumaroro. TIGHAR has tramped to Nikumaroro at least 12 times over the years, scouring the island for the missing aviators.

Some of TIGHAR’s Nikumaroro “discoveries” include:

• a “bone” from Earhart’s fingers (actually from a turtle) ;

• a small glass jar that TIGHAR says could have contained Earhart’s freckle cream;

• the sole of a size 9 shoe (Amelia wore a 6 and a half);

• a piece of aluminum shelving;

• a piece of aluminum sheathing found;

• a jackknife.

Not a single item of this junk has ever forensically connected to Earhart or Noonan, despite mega-media hype in each case that soon faded into smoke.

Why did they die?

TIGHAR theorizes Earhart and Noonan died very early during their stay on Nikumaroro, long before October 1937, when the first group of explorers arrived. Could this have happened? Quite unlikely.

The island was teeming with food sources, including coconut water, fish, turtles and coconut crabs. The fliers could have survived on Gardner Island indefinitely.

TIGHAR claims the fliers might not have had the knowledge or stamina to survive as castaways.   That argument seems impossible when you consider that Amelia and Fred both were strong, athletic individuals known for their hardy independence.

The Navy search

A week after Earhart disappeared, three Vought O3U-3 Corsair float planes from the Battleship USS Colorado flew over Gardner Island for 30 minutes, roaring back and forth at a leisurely 80 mph. Lt. John Lambrecht, the team leader, said they flew at an altitude of 50 to 500 feet and saw no trace of the fliers or Electra.

TIGHAR says the “glare” probably prevented the crew from seeing the lost fliers, or maybe they were deep in the jungle. Nowhere on the island is the center of the jungle more than 200 yards from the beach — plenty of time for the castaways to break out into the open.  

Why would they be deep in the jungle anyway?

The writer is a retired U.S. Treasury agent in Washington state.