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.
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.
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.
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.