Amelia, Roger, and Me
Amelia on her plane

Amelia Earhart planned to be the first woman to fly around the world. She and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Oakland, California, in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra on May 20, 1937. Their route took them to Florida, South America, Africa, India, Australia, and New Guinea. A Coast Guard cutter was waiting with fuel at Howland Island, a speck in the vast Pacific 2,500 miles beyond their New Guinea stop, but the rendezvous, planned for July 2, never occurred.

Leila, please show these men Dr. Murphy's wooden box," said Fr. Michael Bransfield.

Our hearts pounded as the housekeeper left the room. Roger Kelley, who had been a sergeant in the Marines and with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and I, a Jesuit from Buffalo, were at Dr. Gerald Denis Murphy's house, a half-hour west of Suva, the capital of Fiji, in the South Pacific. We thought we were on the verge of solving the mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, who disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, during their attempt at an around-the-world flight. We had learned that Murphy might have Noonan's sextant box, given to him by a patient in the tuberculosis sanitorium near Suva.

If we had come to Fiji in 2002 rather than 2003, we could have spoken with Dr. Murphy personally. His mind failed just a few months before The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) sent us on our quest. Now he lay on his deathbed.

Bransfield, a Marist and Murphy's friend for over 50 years, had been visiting him almost daily and was happy to do what he could to help us learn what we could by searching Murphy's house. The sextant box we sought had been found on Gardner (now Nikumaroro) Island in 1940 by colonists who came to settle the island, uninhabited at the time of Earhart's flight.

Rumors of evidence—a skeleton, parts of different shoes, corks, and a sextant box, among other items—found on Gardner (now Nikumaroro) Island in the Pacific gave rise to a theory that Earhart and Noonan may have managed to land here.

Possible site of the landing

When they were clearing land to plant coconut trees, they stumbled across a human skeleton. Nearby was a Benedictine bottle half full of water, parts of a man's shoe and of a woman's shoe, an empty sextant box, corks on brass chains, and a piece of brass that might have come from the sextant. The colonists also found bird and fish bones, clam shells, and a turtle shell among the ashes of old campfires. Someone evidently had lived for a time on the island, then died, alone and unburied.

When Gerald Gallagher, the British magistrate at the time, heard about the bones and the sextant box, he immediately suspected that the colonists might have found Earhart's remains. His superiors ordered him to ship everything to the British High Commission in Suva for examination and to keep the matter "strictly secret" for fear of starting rumors about Earhart.

Dr. David Winn Hoodless, founder of the Fiji School of Medicine, a man still revered for his dedication to the health care of the Pacific islanders, measured the thirteen bones, consulted textbooks, and concluded that they came from a "European or part-European male." The high com-missioner determined that the castaway of Gardner Is-land wasn't the lost pilot. The water in the bottle showed that the castaway had found a way to collect rainwater on an island where no salt-free wells could be dug.

The corks on brass chains probably came from canvas water bags or wooden casks that had rotted away. The shoe parts were too badly decayed to reveal anything, except that one was larger and heavier than the other. Apart from some numbers on the sextant box, nothing could help identify the skeleton.

In August 1940, the high commissioner ordered the file put away, the case closed. With the approach of war in the Pacific, the colonial government had more-serious things to think about. Gallagher, replaced by a British general who announced, "I came out here not to govern but to wage war," died in 1941. Foua Tofiga, who had served in the high commissioner's office when the box of bones and the sextant box were delivered, still mourns his death: "Didn't his death shock all of us! It was the first big funeral in Suva. Military, too. No dry eyes that day."

Noonan and Earhart

Fred Noonan, Earhart's top-notch navigator, had helped Pan Am develop its South American and trans-Pacific "China Clipper" service before signing on for her around-the-world attempt.

Besides feeling sorrow for a good man dying young, TIGHAR regrets that Gallagher was unable to continue his investigation of the unknown soul who had died in the forest. His successor, who lived on another island, probably never even heard of the mystery.

Renewed interest

The British file remained unknown until a World War II researcher stumbled across it in Tarawa in 1997. When he saw the subject—"Skeleton, human, remains of, found on Gardner Island, 1940"—he knew it would interest TIGHAR, which had been searching for traces of Earhart and Noonan.

The last recorded message from Earhart, twenty hours and thirteen minutes into the final flight, said, "We are on the line 157/337 . . . We are running north and south on line." These compass headings were probably derived from Noonan sighting the sun that July morning. The shadow drawn on the face of the earth by the sun at dawn slanted from 337 degrees (north-northwest) to 157 degrees (south-southeast). Noonan had apparently used that information to draw a line of position on his charts.

When a slanting line on that heading is drawn through Howland Island, the small speck of land they wanted to reach, it points to Gardner Island. TIGHAR reasoned that Earhart and Noonan may have followed that to Gardner, four times the size of Howland with a beautiful blue lagoon in the center (page 8). The tides would have been low enough to make landing on the reef quite feasible.

Box found during the investigations

This box, inlaid with aircraft-grade aluminum, was among a number of such craft items given to a Coast Guard PBY-5 "Catalina" copilot by Gardner Island villagers in late '44. They told him that the metal had come from a crashed plane that was on the island when they arrived in 1940.

After learning about the skeleton, TIGHAR asked forensic anthropologist Dr. Karen Burns to compare Hoodless's measurements made in 1940 to a modern database. The report came back: in all probability the bones were from a European woman. If we could find the bones, DNA could tell to a high degree of certainty whether they were Earhart's. That's where Roger and I come in, interested in this unsolved mystery because of our mutual love of aviation. We both grew up with a fascination with airplanes. My father was a pilot in the navy, and I'd built many models. Although our careers are ground-bound, we both fly radio-controlled airplanes as a hobby. Roger's eyes glowed as he told me about the days he spent with his own son out at the flying field.

Roger's police work had trained him to be observant, to take excellent notes, and to follow leads as far as he could. My doctoral work in theological epistemology, how we know what we know about God, was not as useful as Roger's police skills, but my interest in the historical roots of Christianity does dovetail in a sense with TIGHAR's work. Revelation and salvation take place through historical events, so in making the claim that we know how much God has loved us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are claiming certainty about some historical truths. This interest in historical truth and my love of aviation had combined and led me to Fiji on this "mission."

A crazy quest

"You guys are nutty," Ron Gatty told us. "It's pretty useless to try to figure out what happened. But whenever I call someone eccentric, my friends say 'Look who's talking!' " Gatty is the son of Harold Gatty, "The Prince of Navigators," an Australian who taught celestial navigation to Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle and did the navigation for Wiley Post on their eight-day flight around the world.

"My father wasn't surprised that they got lost. Finding such a small island was horrendously difficult," Ron told us. He had met Earhart and Noonan when he was a boy. "She was thoroughly feminine—she had a sweet smile—charming and open. Noonan was warm and funny. Some people have said he was a drunk, but he didn't drink more than anyone else in those days. I'm sure he did the best he could with the instruments he had available."

Many people agreed with Gatty's assessment that our quest was nutty. As we investigated the Fiji School of Medicine, the University of the South Pacific, and the burial and cremation records for all of the local cemeteries and interrogated the few survivors from the colonial period, we found that being eccentric was part of the culture. An ex-cop and a Jesuit added two new threads to the rich tapestry woven by the multitudes of oddballs who had sojourned in the South Pacific.

Sometimes I tried to give a rational explanation, telling people about my boyhood fascination with airplanes and my father's career as a flight surgeon, but Roger took a more straightforward approach: "Yes, we're crazy. But we'd still like to know what you know about the bones and the sextant box."

Kelley and Gatty

Former L.A. County sheriff Roger Kelley (left) and author Moleski met up with Ron Gatty (right), son of a famous Australian navigator, Harold Gatty, in Fiji and toured a Japanese navy ship docked there. "My father wasn't surprised [Earhart and Noonan] got lost," said the younger Gatty. "Finding such a small island was horrendously difficult."

Mystery unsolved

Leila returned to the kitchen with a battered wooden box and set it on the table. Roger photographed it, then began to sort through the contents, even though he saw at once that it had no numbers. It was Mrs. Murphy's childhood writing desk. "Are there no other boxes in the house?" asked Bransfield. "Wasn't there a box that Dr. Murphy used to show us at parties?"

Leila brought a small copper container that had gone green with age. It was a treasure chest, just not the one we sought. It held the mementoes of Francis Ivor Fleming, a British seaman, who, as he lay dying in the sanitorium, had given the box to Dr. Murphy. The box held Fleming's birth certificate, his appointment as a World War I lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, first-day issue stamps, signatures from early Pacific aviators, photographs and film from the 1930s, letters from his sister, flags he had flown over Canton Island during his tenure as a commissioner, newspaper clippings, and five handwritten poems composed by Noel Coward when he was stuck for a month on Canton. Fleming's deathbed diary was there, too, mentioning that Coward visited him in his last days.

Martin Moleski, SJ

Fr. Martin Moleski, SJ, a native of upstate New York, teaches religious studies and theology at Canisius College when he's not out flying model airplanes.

For me, finding these poems made the whole trip worthwhile. A former English major, I was thrilled to read Coward's compositions in his own hand. The manuscripts were from the right era—1941. ""Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun." You may add Roger and me to the list. We're ready to resume the search for Amelia's bones. Have time—Will travel.   *

Page maintained by Company Magazine, [email protected] Copyright(c) 2002-2005. Created: 5/16/2005 Updated: 5/16/2005