Petaluma-raised archaeologist writes about Amelia Earhart’s final days on deserted island

She was the most famous female pilot and arguably the best-known woman in the world when she disappeared more than 80 years ago.

What happened to Amelia Earhart has been the topic of investigation, speculation and conspiracy theories ever since she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 as they attempted to become the first to fly around the world at the equator.

Tom King, a Petaluma-bred archaeologist and author who has been involved in the search for Earhart for close to 30 years, says “I think we are very close to having solved the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.”

There are three leading theories: 1: Earhart and Noonan crashed at sea; 2: they were captured by the Japanese military and died; and 3: they landed on an uninhabited coral atoll, survived for awhile, but finally perished.

King’s new book “Amelia Earhart Unrescued,” his second novel to delve into the fate of the missing aviatrix, conforms to the crash-landed-on-an-atoll school of thought - that Earhart was running out of fuel and landed on a reef at low tide, specifically on Nikumaroro, an unpopulated island now in the Republic of Kiribati.

The book published by Flat Hammock Press is a speculative account of a hopeful Earhart and her injured navigator struggling to survive, awaiting a rescue that never comes.

Although fictional, it is grounded in scientific and archaeological data compiled by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), the volunteer organization King has worked with for three decades.

The book is based on seven research trips King made to the atoll, along with the work of other scientists, and some tantalizing clues that include last radio transmissions from Earhart, and the discovery of bones on the island in 1940 that initially were thought to be a man’s, but more recent forensic analysis showed probably to be a woman of European descent and Earhart’s height.

“I think we have a preponderance of evidence now pointing to Earhart and Noonan winding up on Nikumaroro. It’s not a slam dunk, but I think we are very close,” King said in a recent coffee house interview.

Became legend

Earhart was a household name, but she became legendary for her disappearance as much as her aviation achievements.

She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, giving her the nickname “Lady Lindy” in the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s historic Atlantic crossing. She set distance, altitude and speed records.

She was not only a pioneer in aviation, but in promoting the equality of women.

Earhart wrote books, lectured widely and benefited from the promotion efforts of her writer/publicist husband.

She had good looks, a ready smile and quick wit, and was big supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt, as well as friends with his wife, Eleanor.

When she and Noonan vanished in their all-aluminum, two-engine Lockheed Electra, they were on the third-to-last leg of circumnavigating the earth. She was not quite 40. Noonan was 44.

It was on the 2,550-mile stretch from Lea, New Guinea, to tiny Howland Island in the South Pacific that they were lost.

Nikumaroro Island

Judging from the navigational line they were following after failing to find Howland Island, TIGHAR believes Earhart was led to uninhabited Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, where she landed on the island’s fringing reef at low tide.

A pattern of radio messages over several days indicated they were emanating from the atoll, and some listeners thought they heard her voice, broken up and static-like, according to King.

Despite a massive U.S. Navy search, Earhart and her navigator were never found.

King and his group postulate that rising tides swept the Electra over the reef edge, into very deep waters, and that Earhart and Noonan lived for a time as castaways, relying mainly on rain squalls for drinking water, catching and cooking small fish, seabirds, turtles and clams.

King’s book portrays Earhart as initially optimistic that they will be rescued, but increasingly dejected after a group of Navy planes flies over, but fails to spot her.

He incorporates some of the evidence that has been found indicating someone camped there in the late 1930s leaving artifacts that included parts of a woman’s shoe, a man’s shoe, a sextant, a woman’s compact makeup case and a jar of freckle cream, possibly Earhart’s.

Cutting-edge efforts

The human bones that were discovered on the island in 1940 were lost after they were studied by a doctor, but his notes were preserved. Experts, with the help of cadaver dogs, believe they located the spot in 2017 where the bones were first discovered. There are cutting-edge efforts underway to try to extract DNA from the soil with the hope of identifying it as Earhart’s.

Despite Earhart’s dire circumstances, King’s book underscores the stark beauty of the island - the bright blue sky, puffy white clouds tinged with the pink sunrise - as well as the blazing, starry night sky. But as Earhart’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, she loses touch with reality.

In King’s fictional accounting, a talking crab shows up to taunt Earhart, and she meets a psychotherapist booby and a comforting island spirit being.

The book bogs down at times with mundane details of Earhart’s moves from one part of the island to the other, and repetitive inventories of her camp items.

But the insight into Earhart’s state-of-mind is intriguing as she gradually becomes resigned to her fate:

The island ancestress spirit, the same who taught her people the ways of navigation, “invites me to die here, to join her, become part of her by becoming part of the island - the trees, the birds, and yes, the crabs. To sink down and be part of the coral gravel and rise up through the sap and leaves of the trees and - somehow - to go beyond, up and up among the stars, into the Milky Way and beyond.”

Accepted risks

Earhart was something of a fatalist who anticipated the likelihood of dying in a small plane crash or explosion. “She was perfectly willing to take those risks,”’ King said. “I don’t think she anticipated dying slowly on a tropical island while being eaten by crabs.”

King said there are those who think it is wrong to conjecture about Earhart’s final moments, but “I think you’ve got to, in order to make the data make sense, not to mention writing a good story.”

“The Earhart game is an intensely competitive one, in which everybody wants to be the person who solves the Amelia mystery,” he said. “Those who don’t like the particular direction that the group I work with has taken are highly critical of everything.”

Among King’s critics are advocates of the theory that Earhart and Noonan were captured by Japanese military and treated as U.S. spies.

A somewhat blurry photograph that emerged last year seemed to bolster the theory Earhart was captured by the Japanese. It showed two people resembling her and her navigator on a dock in a harbor of the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands.

But a Japanese military history blogger matched the photo to one first published in a 1935 Japanese travelogue, two years before the pilot and co-pilot disappeared.

Preserve historical sites

King has long been motivated by a desire to preserve historical sites - especially indigenous and Native American - and his background led him to become senior archaeologist with TIGHAR. He holds a Ph.D in anthropology, and is author of numerous books on cultural resource management.

His interest in excavating old sites started at an early age while growing up on a chicken ranch in Petaluma, where he graduated from high school in 1961.

As a kid he checked out books on archaeology from the old Carnegie Library in Petaluma and by the time he was 14, he and his friends were excavating a former Indian village site on San Antonio Creek, near the Marin-Sonoma county line.

“Skeletons were washing out into the creek. It seemed like a good idea,” he said, acknowledging that was a different era and such amateur collecting of human remains would not be tolerated today.

When King was a teen, he was interviewed by the Petaluma Argus-Courier and asked why he was so fascinated by archaeology.

“I said something about ‘science,’” King recalls. “But the bottom line is it’s really romantic to think of oneself hacking though the jungle and finding lost cities, finding wonderful things.”

Nikumaroro’s dense underbrush and surrounding waters have yet to reveal the definitive artifact, the conclusive answer to the Amelia Earhart riddle.

But with improved scientific methods and King’s imagination, it could be that much closer.

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