Things were not going well for Amelia Earhart on the morning of 2 July 1937. Around 19 hours earlier, she’d taken off from New Guinea bound for Howland Island, a minuscule, 0.7-square mile (1.8-square kilometre) speck of land situated between Hawaii and Australia. She had already travelled 22,000 miles (35,400 km) around the equator, and just 7,000 miles (11,300 km) of Pacific Ocean stood between her and the record for world’s longest round-the-world flight. But one by one, problems had been accumulating on that fateful flight. Now, it was becoming apparent that not just her goal, but also her life was at stake.
“We must be on you, but cannot see you – but gas is running low,” she radioed to the United States Coast Guard ship assigned to help guide Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, to Howland Island. Due to a series of still-debated misunderstandings and errors, the pair could not hear any of the voice transmissions from the ship, and their attempts to use radio navigation to locate the island failed.
At 8:43 am, reportedly sounding close to tears, Earhart broadcast her last known transmission – “We are on the line 157 337... We are running on line north and south” – indicating that she was following a particular bearing in the hope of stumbling across her destination. As history shows, she never made it.
Few missing persons have inspired such enduring intrigue as Earhart. After her disappearance, the US government offered $4 million – the most ever spent on search and rescue until that time – on a 17-day air and sea mission to find her. Rumours and outlandish theories of what became of Earhart – that she was captured and executed by the Japanese; that her disappearance was a hoax so she could assume an alternate identity as a New Jersey housewife – made their way into popular culture. Most assumed Earhart simply crashed into the ocean and died.
There is another possibility, however.
Some evidence indicates that Earhart may have become a castaway on Nikumaroro Island (formerly known as Gardner Island), an uninhabited atoll about 350 miles south of her intended destination. For five nights after Earhart disappeared, the Navy picked up distress signals originating from bearings crossing Nikumaroro. It took them a week to get a battleship carrying airplanes out to the remote island, and by that time the signals had stopped. When the planes flew over Nikumaroro, the pilots saw no sign of Earhart or of recent habitation. The Navy wrote the signals off as bogus.
Three years later, a British coconut harvesting expedition to the island found a partial skeleton of what appeared to be a castaway. Giant coconut crabs, apparently, had dismembered and carried off many of the bones, but the crew collected those that remained. They gathered up a few other items found at the scene, including pieces of a woman’s and a man’s shoe and a box that once contained a navigational device. In the spring of 1941, the bones arrived in Fiji, where a local doctor examined them and concluded they came from a short, stocky man. The bones and objects subsequently disappeared, and only a few dozen members of the British colonial administration ever heard about the findings.
Few people believed the whispered, lingering rumours about the mysterious skeleton until, in 1997, the original paperwork turned up. Peter McQuarrie, a member of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, stumbled across a file labeled “Skeleton, Human, finding of, Gardner Island” while conducting research at the National Archive of Kiribati, in Tarawa. Those documents led TIGHAR to the archive of the British Western Pacific High Commission, located at the time in the basement of a secure government communications facility in Hanslope Park, around 60 miles north-west of London. In 1998, TIGHAR secured clearance to enter the Hanslope facility and discovered the remainder of the paperwork related to the bones.