Wednesday, March 16, 2011



Synopsis:  In Ancestors 17 you met Frank Fleming, an orphan from London who went on to fly planes in World War 1, and then eventually made his way to relations living in Fiji.  This story continues his life in the years leading up to WW2.

In 1937 the American aviatrix Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared on the third leg of a round the world flight.

Last radio messages were received off the Gilbert Islands where her aircraft was scheduled to make a refuelling stop some hours after taking off from Lae, New Guinea.   No trace has ever been found of her plane nor of Earhart herself or her navigator,  though to this day the search for their remains still continues.


My American Grandfather has died in Sydney just two years before the end of WW2.  His wife Maggie, my grandmother makes her first trip home to Fiji in over forty years spending quality time with her brothers and their families before returning to her family in Australia.

In the years following her death, I give little thought to Maggie’s past until a cousin finds a number of old newspaper clippings and letters that clearly show our American Grandfather has been living a lie.

In starting the search for his real identity I uncover startling facts about Grandmother’s English forebears.  This leads me back to Fiji, to that last visit Maggie made in 1946 and to a cousin she met for the very first time...



Canton Island is just one of numerous small atolls in the Gilbert Ellice Islands region of the Pacific now known as Kiribati.  Part of the Phoenix group close to the equator, the islands low rainfall had always prevented colonisation. 

For a time the only visitors to the small sand cay were whaling  and guano ships. In the 1850’s Britain made an initial claim to the island group, reasserting sovereignty in 1936 when the islands came under the jurisdiction of His Excellency the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific at Suva, Fiji.

 Then in 1937 the island was visited  briefly by New Zealand and American scientists witnessing a total solar eclipse under the auspices of the National Geographic Society.

At this time the American party claimed the island for the United States erecting a small monument with two American flags.

Frank Fleming, man in white immediately below the word ‘Canton’.  Woman to the left of photo wearing a hat could well be Lucy Fleming.

For a while relations between the USA and Britain were a bit strained and there is a popular story that the British warship HMS Wellington fired a shot across the bow of the USS Avocet when the Americans refused to cede anchorage to the British vessel. 

The Island became a bone of contention with both countries operating manned bases on the tiny sand cay almost side by side: The British with their three radio men each day raising and lowering the Union Jack  and the seven man American group doing the same with their Star Spangled Banner. 

The stand off wasn’t resolved until 1939 when London and Washington signed a joint administration agreement to control the Canton and Enderbury Islands condominium for the next forty years.

America however, recognizing the strategic value of Canton Island’s sheltered lagoon quickly established a Pan Am Airlines base for their flying boat Honolulu to Auckland clipper service. This included luxury hotel accommodation for passengers should an aircraft be forced to stay overnight.

While all this was going on Grandmother’s cousin Frank Fleming manned the British radio communication shack virtually next door to the Americans.  As Noel Coward so aptly put it, the Flemings  in their ‘packing case’ home were entitled to display ‘a certain irritation at the Americans who have so much luxury.’

Lucy lived with Frank on the island for some time until war news from Europe indicated the conflict might reach to the Pacific.  She returned to Fiji. 

Frank remained until 1942 when sick and exhausted he was evacuated to Suva where he finished the war as an official wartime censor.  Noel Coward kept in touch, arranging, as he had promised, a Royal photograph to be forwarded from the Queen.  Coward even wrote a story loosely based on the Flemings that he called Mr and Mrs Edgehill, later made into a film starring the British actress Judy Dench.



Frank would have been aware at the time, of the mystery surrounding Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s disappearance. He had not only been involved with initial planning of the Canton Island base, he had also spent some time in an official capacity as assistant Commissioner on other islands in the Gilbert group. 

Following the bombing of American bases in Hawaii, the American High Command took over Canton Island,  Pan Am services ceased and the Pacific very quickly became a major theatre of war.

But while WW2 overshadowed the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft, the circumstances surrounding the crash never disappeared from public view. Countless sightings of either the aircraft or pieces of wreckage have been reported, and discounted. As recently even as March 2011 newspapers carried reports of the sighting of a submerged aircraft suspected to be Earhart’s Lockheed in waters off New Guinea. 

In 2003 however the report of a sextant box in Fiji set in motion yet another far as this story is concerned a very important investigation.


FIJI - 2003

The box in Dr Murphy’s kitchen

The search for Earhart’s plane and the controversy over her death continued for many years until 2003 when the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, TIGHAR sent two men to Fiji. 

They were on a quest to investigate the recent finding of a sextant box thought to belong to Amelia Earhart and her co-pilot, Fred Noonan. 

Martin Molenski, a Jesuit priest from Buffalo and Roger Kelley ex Marine sergeant formerly with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office located the box in question in the home of Dr. Gerald Dennis Murphy. The box had come into the doctor’s possession when a patient and friend, Frank Fleming, lay dying in a Suva hospital. Doctor Murphy himself was now ill, his mind was failing and he was virtually on his deathbed.  

A Catholic priest and close friend, Father Michael Bransfield arranged for the TIGHAR team to search personal effects in the doctor’s home.

They found the reported box but it was obviously not the box they were searching for.  Then Father Bransfield reminded the housekeeper about another box that the doctor and his wife would often bring out at dinner parties to show their guests. 

 The housekeeper fetched a small copper container, green with age.  As Martin Molenski said, it was a treasure chest, just not the one they had travelled half way round the world to find.

And yet its contents were so intriguing, instead of walking away the two men from TIGHAR delved further.



As Molenski and Kelly soon discovered the box held the mementoes of Francis Ivor Fleming, a friend and patient of Dr. Murphy who had given the box to him in 1968 just before he died of tuberculosis in a Suva sanatorium. 

 Inside the box was Frank’s birth certificate, his appointment as a World War 1 Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, first day issue stamps, signatures from early aviators, letters from his sister in England, flags he had flown over Canton Island, newspaper clippings, five handwritten poems by Noel Coward, Frank’s deathbed diary and five rolls of damaged photographs and film.

Dr. Murphy died not long after the TIGHAR visit and the box and its contents passed into the care of his daughter Denise Murphy.  The spools of film, by now sixty or more years old, were in a sad condition. Roger Kelley hoped they could be salvaged and restored by the American College of Forensic Examiners. 

Denise relinquished any hold on the sixty nine year old spools of  film to the Americans and thus began the long and arduous process of converting approximately 200 negatives to digital format.  The task was completed in 2007, and the negatives were promptly placed on Photek’s website for viewing and discussion.



In the meantime while the lengthy TIGHAR and Photek investigation was being completed, I was coming to grips with all the new Sweeny history the two Fleming cousins were supplying me with.

It took a while for Frank Fleming’s incredible story to surface.

Even though there were letters from Frank’s sister in England among the contents of the box these were not part of the American search.  Nor for that matter had they been closely perused by Dr Murphy and his daughter in the 35 years following Frank’s death.

It really took a magazine story written by Father Martin Molenski, entitled  ‘Amelia Roger and Me’ to alert the Flemings and me to this latest development in the life of Frank Fleming.

For my new Fleming cousins the emergence of Frank’s life story was incredibly precious, but at this stage I was still unaware of the impact it would have on me.

The Americans had taken possession of the five rolls of film from Frank’s box, after all they were in a bad condition and in dire need of expert assessment, but the rest of the boxes content remained with Dr Murphy’s daughter Denise, who by then was living and working in Hong Kong.  Mention had been made of a death bed diary among the boxes contents and naturally the Fleming ‘cousins’ were keen to read it. 

I forged a link between the two, the Flemings in England and Denise Murphy in Hong Kong and the diary was then express mailed to them.  In the diary Frank reveals his last days, the slow realisation he won’t be returning to England as he had planned, the fact that he had burned all his previous diaries, and the visit to him on his deathbed by Noel Coward.

I’m sure Frank himself would have been moved by this end result, it had taken a long, long time but at last he was home with family.

But the story doesn’t end here.



The American College of Forensic Examiners had their work cut out attempting to restore and convert to digital image some 200 negatives from Frank’s rolls of film; some were colour 35mm, some half frame, some from a Leica camera.  All were affected by age and tropical heat.

The end result was scanned by Jeff Glickman and Photek with the images generously  made available for public viewing on Photek’s secondary website.

It was mid 2007 by the time I came across this website collection of photos after being alerted by the Flemings in England.  They had looked through the footage but apart from what were obviously shots taken of Canton Island, without at that stage the diary they were really none the wiser.

I’m a night owl, happiest researching and typing in the early hours before dawn. I was curious to see photographs taken all those years ago by Geraldine’s nephew.  I imagined they would be photos of he and Lucy, and probably of their years on Canton Island.

So I approached the five film sets with nothing more than curiosity.  Roll A was, as I thought, still camera shots of everyday life on Canton Island circa 1940, fascinating nevertheless. 


The next spool showed what was obviously a victory march through Suva that could be dated to 1945.  Then an extremely damaged shot of Lucy shown strolling with friends on an island.  This would have predated the 1945 film and could have been taken as early as 1937.

The last spool, a more recent one probably taken just before Lucy’s death about 1967 shows Lucy strolling on the beach of Nukulau and in the garden of their home.

We are granted a reluctant shot of Frank.  Has Lucy taken the snap, has she teased and begged him to look up at the camera.

The next and last photo of Lucy is taken on a launch taking her the fifteen kilometres from Nukulau to Suva, or perhaps making the reverse trip home.
Lucy has aged, no longer the eager young woman revelling in her first taste of the islands;  but we must remember by now she would be in her late seventies.

She has potted some of her precious plants, a gift for a friend,  for Lorna McGowan perhaps, Andrew McGowan’s daughter, or maybe even Frank’s cousin Lulu Marlow, Geraldine’s Foreman daughter.

Her dress is the same simple style that suits her so well,  her face is framed by a shady hat, she wears small stud earrings and just a faint dash of lipstick, a pale pink.

There is a great sadness in Lucy's eyes.  Does she already know she is ill, that her time with Frank is drawing to a close; is the weight of that knowledge almost too hard to bear?

Is Frank trying to capture on film every last moment they’re together?



By some strange quirk I had chosen to view the second roll last.

Nothing could have prepared me for the images I was about to see. 

The movie film was described as extremely brittle, with 50% of the negatives fused and impossible to separate.  The quality of the salvaged stills was bad, the subject matter in most cases faded and indistinct.  But there was enough detail and clarity for me to recognize two of the three women pictured greeting each other, laughing and smiling as they strolled through a tropical garden.

For an astonishing moment time stood still: I didn’t dare believe the images on the screen.

I sat there, alone at my computer, bringing up each sequence.  It was the fourth image that set me tingling, brought a quick rush of tears.  I was immediately carried back more than sixty years to my childhood.  

The woman I was looking at on that resurrected film clip was the other half of my very being; exactly as I remembered her, my much loved grandmother Madge Maud Brown Parker.

Maggie, small and elegant in her best town suit, plump in a cuddly way;  I smiled, suddenly recalling the old style corsets she wore to discipline the added pounds.  The stylish shoes, handbag to match:  Her hair so like mine, fine and wispy, neatly piled to frame her face.  The laughing eyes, the gentle smile.  I felt tears begin to well.

I don’t know how long I sat there at the computer, quietly revelling in this amazing find. I found it unbelievable.  Here I was sitting at a computer, sixty-five years later and many, many miles distant, watching Maggie, in Fiji, strolling through a garden with her brother Gordon McGowan’s wife, Minnie Rosa. The slim younger woman with them had to be the photographer’s wife, Lucy.

I sat alone in the quiet darkness, the computer screen glowing bright and stark.  I had no one already awake to share the moment with.  It was then the tears began to fall.  I felt my darling Grandmother was there with me as she had been all those years before, so close I could almost reach out and touch her. 

Of course deep inside I always felt Maggie was there, she had never really left me, but now with this superb gift we could visit whenever we liked.   I had only to click onto a web site.


I’ve given a lot of thought to this journey through time, and the totally unexpected point I have reached.  All these new found families, relations, their secrets, the very human nature of the mistakes some of them made.

And I thought of Frank Fleming, the orphan, and his life’s journey; from the slums of London’s dockside to a Pacific paradise on the other side of the world.  His loyalty to King and country.  But mostly my thoughts kept returning to the woman he loved, Lucy Penfold.

There have been times I’ve wondered if this long, long journey into the past had been pre-planned by some divine or unknown controlling force; a very involved plan with the express purpose of uncovering this unexpected legacy.

Perhaps, perhaps not: but for me it has certainly placed some truth in the saying that ‘if there is a God he certainly moves in mysterious ways...’

I owe Frank Fleming my heartfelt thanks.  In filming Lucy and his cousins, Minnie McGowan and Maggie, he was creating an incredible gift, one that wouldn’t reach its unsuspecting recipient for sixty odd years; the gift of course was Maggie’s smile.

Maggie and me

And not least I must sincerely thank and acknowledge the work and care taken by  the American College of Forensic Examiners, Jeff Glickman and Photek,  Father Martin Molenski and Roger Kelly from TIGHAR, Dr Murphy and Denise Murphy, and the generosity of the modern day Flemings father and son, who each in their individual way maintained a vigil over Frank Flemings life and times.  Without them I would never have enjoyed this last glimpse of my Grandmother.


 Robyn Mortimer ©2011

1945 Peace and a return to Fiji
*  Fiji – From Orphan to WW1 Pilot

Next – Cloudland..a curious Chain of Coincidence.