American researchers have discovered evidence, long buried in British military archives, suggesting that famed U.S. aviator Amelia Earhart died on Nikumaroro Island in the Polynesian Republic of Kiribati.
British soldiers found bones on the island, then called Gardner Island, in 1940, and suspecting they might be those of Earhart, sent them to British headquarters in Tarawa.
A physician there concluded that they were the bones of a male. A report was forwarded to England, but Americans were never notified of the discovery.
A member of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a nonprofit group that has been searching for evidence of Earhart's demise for 10 years, stumbled across some of the records in Tarawa.
This prompted TIGHAR Director Richard Gillespie to locate the original archival material in England.
Precise dimensions of the bones taken from the paperwork, discovered two weeks ago, indicate that the skeleton represented the remains of a white female of northern European extraction, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, according to two forensic anthropologists.
The new results will be presented Friday at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia.
Although other Earhart experts are not familiar with the new evidence, they cautioned that Gillespie has brought forward several other discoveries from Nikumaroro, only to have their identities questioned.
Such discoveries included a piece of aluminum claimed to be from Earhart's plane and a rubber heel allegedly from her shoes. Experts have since concluded that these artifacts were not linked to Earhart, although Gillespie remains a believer.
"When people ask me what I am looking for, I say it is fair to look for a smoking gun, something that could only have come from them [Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan]," said Thomas Crouch of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Unless the bones can be found, the new data is not a smoking gun, he added. And no one seems to know where the bones are.
Earhart's fate has captivated the country since she and Noonan disappeared on July 2, 1937, while trying to fly around the world. The two were en route from Lae, New Guinea, to a fuel stop at tiny Howland Island. But they did not find the island and reported in their last radio messages that they were almost out of gas.
Most authorities believe Earhart's Lockheed A-10E Electra ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Gillespie, a former charter pilot and aircraft accident investigator, was drawn to the case when some associates noted that, based on her compass headings, Earhart could have been flying over Nikumaroro when she ran out of gas. Reports that she sent radio messages for three days after failing to reach Howland suggested she survived the crash.
U.S. planes flew over the island at the time but saw no trace of wreckage.
Gillespie and his colleagues have made five trips to Nikumaroro, about 1,700 miles southwest of Hawaii, but have not produced any definitive evidence that Earhart crashed there.
Pub Date: 12/02/98