In the final installment of Fred Goerner’s 1984 retrospective, “In Search of Amelia Earhart,” the former San Francisco radio newsman presents an excellent summary of the status of the Earhart investigation at that point in time, tracing the important discoveries since his Saipan investigations began in 1960.
In his essay, ostensibly written for Orbis Publishing Ltd., a British company, but never published in the United States, among the many compelling evidential threads Goerner explores are the roots of the Marshall Islands landing scenario; the origins of the theories that proliferated in the days following Amelia’s loss; his original interviews with the native witnesses in the Marshall Islands and Saipan; and for the first time, the stunning revelations by Marine Generals Alexander A. Vandegrift and Graves Erskine that placed Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan in the days following their tragic disappearance.
Conclusion of Fred Goerner’s “In Search of Amelia Earhart”
There were rumors in 1937 that Earhart had somehow been working for the U.S. government at the time of her disappearance. There were rumors, too, that she had purposefully lost herself so the U.S. Navy could search the Japanese controlled islands, or that she and Fred Noonan had been forced to land on or near one of those Japanese islands and they were being held prisoner. The speculation was not taken seriously by the American public.
The Oakland Tribune newspaper in May 1938 began a series of articles about the Earhart disappearance by reporter Alfred Reck. Somehow Reck had managed access to the then highly classified Coast Guard files. In the first article, Reck alleged that Earhart and Noonan had been lost because of the failure of the U.S. Navy high-frequency direction finder on Howland Island, and that Richard B. Black, the U.S. Department of Interior representative who had brought the Navy HF/DF aboard Itasca, had supplied the wrong kind of batteries causing the equipment to fail at the moment it was needed the most.
The U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Richard Black jumped all over the Oakland Tribune and reporter Reck, and the rest of the articles in the series were carefully censored.
Again in 1938, popular Smith’s Weekly newspaper, published in Sydney, Australia, printed a lengthy article alleging that the U.S. had used the Earhart disappearance as a pretext to overfly Japanese held islands and that Australia’s defense establishment had been made aware of the plan and its results. “So when Amelia Earhart went down and her faint distress signals located her plane around the Phoenix Islands, the search gave the needed excuse. Sentiment comes second to secret service.”
Isolationist Republican U.S. Senator from North Dakota Gerald P. Nye was incensed by the report. He had long suspected that President Roosevelt was trying to get the U.S. involved in a war with Japan, and he announced his intention of bringing the whole Earhart matter before the U.S. Senate.
Adm. William D. Leahy, chief of U.S. naval operations, and Cordell Hull, U.S. secretary of state both wrote to Senator Nye denying the charges. Nye accepted the denials but pledged to make every effort to determine the source of the article because “the primary motive may have been to stimulate ill feeling between Japan and the United States.”
The Japanese sinking of the American Navy gunboat USS Panay in the Yangtze River two months later effectively buried Nye’s concern. Ill feeling had become outright hostility.
U.S. Congressman William I. Sirovich one day dropped by to see his friend Claude A. Swanson, who was secretary of the U.S. Navy. Sirovich, curious about the seeming mystery surrounding the Earhart disappearance, asked Swanson for his feelings about the matter.
“This is a powder keg,” replied Swanson. “Any public discussion of it will cause an explosion. I’m not the only one in this department who feels that she saw activities which she could not have described later and remained alive. To speculate about this publicly probably would sever our diplomatic relations with Japan and lead to something worse.”
The “something worse” came on the wings of Japanese carrier aircraft the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and Amelia Earhart was virtually forgotten.
In April of 1943, however, RKO Motion Pictures released a film titled Flight For Freedom (starring Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray) which followed the events of Amelia’s last flight almost perfectly to the point of the Lae, New Guinea takeoff. According to the script, the aviatrix, on a mission for the U.S. government, was to fly to a “Gull” Island in the Pacific and pretend to be lost while U.S. Navy planes, ostensibly searching for her, photographed the Japanese Mandates. At Lae, New Guinea, however, the script writer had the heroine learn the Japanese were aware of the ruse and would immediately pick her up at “Gull” Island. Thereupon Rosalind Russell courageously crashed her plane at sea so the U.S. Navy could conduct its intelligence operation anyway. Amelia Earhart’s name was never used in the film, but the plot left no doubt that she was intended as the central character.
This film undoubtedly had an impact on many American servicemen who were preparing for or already participating in combat in the Pacific theater. It might explain many strange — often bizarre — rumors during the island invasions. At one point a rumor that Amelia Earhart might actually be the infamous “Tokyo Rose” broadcasting from Japan caused U.S. Army Intelligence to send George Palmer Putnam, Amelia’s now remarried husband, to a radio station in China where he could clearly hear the broadcaster’s voice. He vowed it was not Amelia. Post-war investigation proved him right.
There were other happenings that could not be explained as easily. In 1944 on Majuro Atoll during the invasion of the Marshall Islands, Vice Adm. Edgar A. Cruise learned from a native interpreter named Michael Madison that an American man and woman flyers had been picked up and brought into the Marshalls in 1937.
At almost the same time, Eugene F. Bogan, serving as a senior military government officer at Majuro (Bogan is now one of America’s leading tax attorneys in Washington, D.C.) interviewed a Marshallese native named Elieu Jibambam, who told the same story.
Four other U.S. Marine corps and U.S. Navy Officers turned up similar information: An American man and woman, flyers according to the Japanese, had been brought into Jaluit in the Marshalls, then transported to Majuro and Kwajalein, also in the Marshalls, and finally, taken to Saipan in the Marianas Islands which was Japan’s military headquarters for the Pacific islands before and during World War II. They all filed reports which still remain classified somewhere in military archives.
During the invasion of Saipan in June 1944, the possibility of Japanese capture of Earhart broadened with testimony of Saipanese natives that two Americans, a man and woman, identified by the Japanese as fliers had been brought to the island in 1937 and detained. The woman had died of dysentery and the man reportedly had been executed sometime after her death. They had, according to the testimony, been buried in unmarked graves outside the perimeter of a native cemetery.
(Editor’s comment: Note that in 1984, the 26 former American GIs who contacted Thomas E. Devine after publication of his book, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, in 1987, and whose accounts were presented in our 2002 book, With Our Own Eyes, were completely unknown to Goerner. These former Marines included Robert E. Wallack and Earskin J. Nabers, two of the most important eyewitnesses in the Earhart saga.)
It would be 1964 before two former U.S. Marines, Everett Henson, Jr. of Sacramento, California, and Bill G. Burks of Dallas, would come forward to say they were part of a group of Marines who recovered the remains of Amelia Earhart and Frederick Noonan on Saipan in July of 1944. The remains had been found in an unmarked grave outside a small graveyard and placed in metal canisters for transport to the United States. To this writing, the U.S. Marine Corps will neither confirm or deny that such an event occurred.
Just after the end of World War II, early in 1946, the U.S. Navy reiterated that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were considered and had always been considered merely civilians on a pioneering flight. They were still to be considered “lost at sea.”
It would not be until 1960 that a real investigation began, and that investigation would be civilian. The Columbia Broadcasting System sponsored four expeditions to Saipan Island and two to Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands to try to find answers to the Earhart mystery.
The effort spanned the years 1960 to 1964, and your author was selected by CBS to conduct the inquiry. I was working as a correspondent-broadcaster at that time for KCBS in San Francisco. Several hundred natives were questioned on Saipan with the help of the Monsignor and Fathers of the Catholic Church Mission. More than 30 individuals told stories that supported the theory that two American fliers, a man and woman, had lived and died on Saipan before the war.
At Majuro, we found the persons who had given information during World War II, and we found others as well. Dr. John Iman, Biliman Amran [sic, more commonly Bilimon Amaron], Tomaki Mayazo, all would tell stories of the man and woman American fliers. Amran had worked at the Japanese hospital, and he had been called to tend the Americans who had been brought in aboard a Japanese ship. It was the man who needed treatment. He had been cut on the head and on the knee. “He spoke something in English to me,” Amran says, “but at that time I only spoke Japanese.”
In 1962, the Earhart investigation brought me into contact with Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz who had commanded American naval forces in the Pacific during WWII. Nimitz recalled that “someone” had told him that “something” in connection with Earhart had been found on one of the islands during World War II, but he had not been greatly impressed because of the pressures of ongoing battle.
(Editor’s note: Unaccountably, here Goerner failed to mention the statement he claimed Nimitz made to him on the phone in late March 1965: “Now that you’re going to Washington, Fred, I want to tell you that Earhart and her navigator did go down in the Marshalls and were picked up by the Japanese.”)
Later Admiral Nimitz became vitally interested in the Earhart questions, providing suggestions for further research and attempting to help with access to classified information. Before his death in 1966, Nimitz advised, “Never give up. You are on to something that will stagger your imagination.”
The same year, 1966, I wrote The Search for Amelia Earhart, which was published by Doubleday in the U.S. and Bodley Head Press, Ltd. in England. It detailed the six years of CBS research and basically asked why the U.S. government still, nearly thirty years after the event, had not released the classified files in the case.
By good fortune the tome remained on the best sellers’ lists for many weeks, and a gratifying number of readers were motivated to write to their U.S. senators or congressmen, asking that truth for Earhart and Noonan finally be established. At the time, there was little response. It was not until the Freedom Of Information Act became law in 1968 that quite a number of files began to appear, and each year since more pertinent material has been found and declassified.
This would seem to be the right time to say that this author is a standard patriot. I am grateful for the freedoms I enjoy in America. I would not willingly choose to live anywhere else, and I far more often compliment my country than criticize it. Perhaps I may then be forgiven if I say that responsible search for truth could sometimes be eased by those charged with keeping secrets.
From 1968 to present day, well over 20,000 pages of records concerning the Earhart flight from seven different departments of the U.S. government and military have been released, and we are convinced there is a great deal more still to be revealed.
The idea for Earhart’s around-the-world flight had begun with an entity known as the Purdue Research Foundation at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. She had served the University for brief periods as a lecturer and counselor to women students.
The Foundation had been formed by David E. Ross of Lafayette, Ind., and J.K. Lilly of Indianapolis for the purpose of seeking “new knowledge in the field of aviation, with particular reference to National Defense”, and it (the Foundation) maintained close communication with the then U.S. War Department and U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. naval aviation.
Ross, an enormously wealthy engineer and inventor, and Lilly, one of the founders and directors of Eli Lilly Company, provided the funds for the purchase of Amelia’s Lockheed Electra with the understanding that the plane would be used “for the purpose of improving radio direction finding equipment.”
In 1937, America was still deeply in the grip of the great depression, and details of the transaction that involved what was then a considerable sum of money were not disclosed to anyone save the principals.
Amelia flew the plane to Wright Field in Ohio to have the latest 500 kilocycles low-frequency direction finder, invented by Frederick Hooven for the Army Air Corps, installed in the Electra. Later, the U.S. Navy and representatives of the Bendix Company would ask Amelia to jettison Hooven’s creation and use the Navy high-frequency DF.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally interested himself in the flight, directing the War, Navy, Army and State Departments to cooperate. Enthusiasm was not unanimous. One high-ranking Navy officer wrote in longhand on the margin of the directive, “Why are we doing this? There isn’t that much to gain, and it’ll excite the Japs.”
What did excite the Japanese was construction of the airfield on Howland Island. Earhart first planned to fly the Pacific from east to west, being refueled in flight over Midway Island by a specially equipped U.S. Navy plane. Such techniques were in their infancy; therefore, the risk factor was very high.
Then Earhart and U.S. military needs coincided. Amelia needed a safer method for crossing the Pacific and the US Navy and US Army Air Corps needed a civilian reason to build an airfield on an island near the equator. America had agreed with Japan at the Washington Naval Treaty conference in 1923 that military construction on most Pacific islands controlled by each nation would be prohibited. The U.S. had long believed that Japan was violating that treaty in the Mandated Islands, but could not prove it. The U.S. had countered on Midway and Wake Islands through cooperation with Pan American airways, and now Earhart would become the civilian reason or cover for Howland. To further disguise the Howland venture, President Roosevelt diverted funds from the civilian Works Progress Administration, an obfuscation tactic he had used several times before.
From the records released to this writing, Earhart does not seem to have been conducting an overt spy mission during the world flight. At one time we had thought that possible. There is evidence and testimony that Earhart and Noonan were gathering “white intelligence.” As civilians they were going to be visiting and flying in and out of places seldom if ever visited by the U.S. military, and observations of these areas could be valuable. Of particular interest would be weather and radio conditions, length of runways, fuel supplies and repair facilities. All valuable information in the event of conflict. After the end of World War I, the records indicate that many American civilians performed like services in many parts of the world. Not clandestine and not at all unusual.
There is nothing in released records to date that would document Japanese capture of Earhart and Noonan, other than gathered testimony of Marshallese and Saipanese native witnesses. Nor is there anything which would substantiate the recovery of the human remains of Earhart and Noonan on Saipan in 1944 by the US Marines.
There is evidence that President Roosevelt and U.S. Naval Intelligence suspected that Amelia and Fred might have fallen into the hands of the Japanese. The ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) arranged with one Kilsoo Haan (an American working with the Korean Underground against the Japanese) in December of 1937 to sneak several of his agents into the Japanese mandated islands “to determine whether Miss Earhart and Captain Noonan are alive or dead.” The results of that intelligence mission still have not been found.
(Editor’s note: In a 1993 letter to J. Gordon Vaeth, Goerner wrote that the Kilsoo Haan mission “fell through because the ONI did not have sufficient funds available for the operation.” See p. 178 of Truth at Last for more.)
(Editor’s note: Here Goerner, who continued to reject Thomas E. Devine’s contributions to the Earhart saga, failed to mention the 1960 Office of Naval Intelligence Report of its investigation of Devine’s claim that he was shown the gravesite of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan by an unidentified Okinawan woman in August 1945. This report was declassified in 1967, has never been mentioned by any known media organizations, and is the closest thing we have to a smoking-gun document in the Earhart search. For more on the ONI Report, see pages 95-100 in Truth at Last.)
Early in 1938, President Roosevelt arranged with his close friend and trusted intelligence agent William Vincent Astor to penetrate Japan’s Marshall Islands aboard Astor’s huge personal yacht Nourmahal. Accompanied by FDR’s cousin Kermit Roosevelt, Astor took his ship into the Marshalls in April, 1938, a daring and highly dangerous exploit that infuriated the Japanese. Astor and Kermit Roosevelt were not able to land on any of the islands, but they got close enough to find fuel supplies and air strips on Eniwetok and Wotje Islands and to predict to President Roosevelt that Japan was in the process of developing military bases and facilities in the Mandates. From what has been released to date, they did not find out anything about Earhart and Noonan.
The Japanese protested vehemently to the U.S. State Department, and one Japanese press report indicated that the U.S. Navy had sent “warships” into the Marshalls and was forming a task force for an attack. Astor had caused a storm with Japan, but his mission was unknown in America. He was but one of dozens of civilians that Roosevelt had used and would use as personal secret agents.
In the last several years, two Americans have come forward with information that indicates the Earhart saga is far from ended. Thomas McKeon, vice president of Intertel, based in Washington, D.C., one of the world’s largest private intelligence networks, staffed by former ONI, FBI and CIA agents, has testified that the 441st U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps Unit discovered the complete truth regarding Japanese capture of Earhart of Noonan when it occupied the Japanese Kempeitai (Military Secret Police) headquarters in September of 1945. McKeon says he read the files when he served as an officer with the 441st in Tokyo, and that at one point he talked with a former Japanese officer who had served as an interpreter when Earhart and Noonan had been questioned.
Carroll Harris of Sacramento, California, recently retired from his post as dispatcher for the California State Highway Patrol, a top law enforcement agency in California. From 1942 to 1945, he was one of the U.S. Navy personnel responsible for the Security Room in Washington, D.C., of the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Ernest King. In the top-secret vault was an extensive file on Amelia Earhart dealing with pre-WW II U.S. Navy involvement and information picked up during the invasion of various Japanese held islands during World War II.
Harris recalls that the records were carefully boxed and sent to the U.S. Naval Supply Depot at Crane, Ind., toward the end of the war in 1945. Crane was and apparently still is the repository of top-secret material, including records of U.S. Naval code-breaking operations before and during the war.
To this writing, the records referred to by McKeon and Harris have not been found, but an effort to locate them continues. A search for truth is underway in Japan today as well. Fukiko Aoki, one of the brightest young writers and investigative journalists in Japan, has for more than a year been seeking answers in Japanese archives and from former Imperial Japanese Naval Officers.
What do I believe now after 23 years of research, including 12 trips to Saipan and four to Majuro Atoll in the Marshalls? Earhart and Noonan were cooperating with their government at the time of their disappearance, and there is strong testimony that an American man and woman, identified as fliers, were picked by Japanese military units somewhere and taken first to the Marshalls and then to Saipan. Just where the Electra landed is very much a matter of conjecture. If the Japanese know, they have said nothing.
(Editor’s note: Once again Goerner, by neglecting to reference Thomas E. Devine’s account to him in 1963 during their Saipan visit, which he included in Search, revealed his contempt for Devine and his claim that he saw the Electra on Saipan on three occasions in July 1944, the final time in flames. Devine said that before he left Saipan in August 1945, the remains of Amelia’s plane had been bulldozed into a huge hole underneath Aslito Airport, which is now Saipan International Airport, and there it remains to this day, along with untold tons of other war refuse, including Japanese planes destroyed during the Saipan invasion.)
If Earhart and Noonan were off course considerably to the north of Howland Island, they may have landed at Mili or one of the other islands in the southern Marshalls. Many believe that theory. If Amelia and Fred were blown south of their course because they did not receive the weather forecast predicting significant winds from the northeast, the Phoenix Islands surely would have been their alternate choice. Until the mystery reefs that lie between Howland and the Phoenix Islands are thoroughly searched and the lagoons of several of the islands are plumbed, the possibility the aircraft can be found remains.
Gen. Graves B. Erskine, USMC (Ret.) one of the U.S. Marine Corps’ most distinguished officers told CBS in a 1966 private interview, “We did learn that Earhart was on Saipan and that she died there.”
Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC (Ret.), who commanded the US Marine Corps during the later stages of WW II the Pacific wrote to me on August 10, 1971, “It was substantiated that Miss Earhart met her death on Saipan. The information was given to me directly by General Thomas Watson, who commanded the 2nd U.S. Marine Corps Division during the assault on Saipan in 1944.”
Saipan has many mysteries. Much more questioning of the Saipanese people has produced stories of an American woman spy from “Los Angeles” who was executed in 1937. Was that woman Amelia Earhart? Or was it another woman sent by American intelligence to ascertain Japanese activities in the mandated islands — a woman whose mission and fate have never been revealed by anyone?
I believe the full truth will be made public in the not distant future. (End of “In Search of Amelia Earhart.”)
After writing “In Search of Amelia Earhart,” Goerner lived 10 more years before losing his battle to cancer in September 1994, dying at 69, but he would never again write so lucidly and boldly about the Earhart disappearance. In June 1977, Goerner appeared briefly in a muddled episode of the TV series In Search of . . . , narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and his final small screen appearance came in the popular Unsolved Mysteries program, with Robert Stack, where he shared time with Thomas E. Devine, T.C. “Buddy” Brennan and Robert E. Wallack in a 1990 presentation. It would also be the last time Devine would have a national platform to share his Saipan experiences, though the Saipan veteran lived until 2003.
Fred Goerner remains the greatest of all Earhart researchers, despite his failings, which I’ve not been remiss in chronicling on this blog and in Truth at Last. The Search for Amelia Earhart was, by far, the most important Earhart disappearance book, but the fame and acclaim his 1966 bestseller brought was fleeting. Goerner and his message became anathema soon after Time magazine’s damning review of Search; henceforth, the mere mention of Amelia Earhart and Saipan in the same sentence was seldom heard in American media. To this day, anyone who dares say those words is, with few exceptions, banished to the land of fringe conspiracy theorists, where the truth, no matter how compelling, is deemed worthy only of ridicule and rejection. In fact, it’s worse now than ever.
Someday the Earhart truth will be universally recognized and acknowledged, but nothing in our current or past government’s actions should lead anyone to believe that disclosure is likely to occur in our lifetimes. The few who still care continue to work toward that eventuality, whenever it might come, and we never forget Fred Goerner and the other intrepid souls who blazed this lonely trail, lighting the way and making it just a little easier to tread.
At the conclusion of the opening segment of Fred Goerner’s 1984 retrospective essay “In Search of Amelia Earhart,” Amelia, Fred Noonan and their Lockheed Electra 10E had vanished after presumably crossing the International Date Line, “flying into yesterday,” in this case, July 2, 1937. Their last radio message, sent at 8:43 a.m. Howland Island time, was received at signal strength 5 of 5, and was so loud that Itasca‘s Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts told Elgen Long in 1973, “She was so loud that I ran up to the bridge expecting to see her coming in for a landing.”
Soon the aircraft carrier USS Lexington and three Navy Mahan-class destroyers, Lamson, Cushing and Drayton, were steaming from the west coast of the United States to the vicinity of Howland Island to join the battleship USS Colorado, the seaplane tender USS Swan and Coast Guard Cutter Itasca in the search for the missing fliers. Without further explanation, here is:
Fred Goerner’s “In Search of Amelia Earhart” Part II
It was clear it would take at least 10 days for Lexington and accompanying destroyers to reach the scene, and there was considerable grumbling in Navy circles and in the U.S. Congress about “spending millions of dollars and disrupting Navy training schedules to search for a couple of stunt fliers.”
Rear Adm. William Sinon, USN, (Ret.) recalls, “The Lexington squadrons were not all fully qualified, and squadrons from the carriers Saratoga and Ranger were directed to supply detachments.” As a result Lexington went to sea with planes of four varieties from three different carriers.
In the first days following the disappearance, many sources reported radio distress signals received from what was believed to be the downed Earhart plane. Two Los Angeles amateur radio operators, Carl Pierson and Walter McMenamy, who had aided Amelia on other pioneering flights, claimed to have heard two SOS calls followed by Earhart’s KHAQQ call letters.
At about the same time, HMS Achilles of the New Zealand Division, the flagship cruiser of Rear Adm. E.R. Drummond, O.B., M.V.O., R.N., reported hearing broken signals from KHAQQ. Achilles was then southeast of Howland Island proceeding from Tutuila, American Samoa to Pearl Harbor on a goodwill visit to American ports.
The following night, July 4, several amateur (ham) operators in the San Francisco area reported hearing broken Earhart signals on 3105 kilocycles. It was, they said, a rippling carrier wave that faded in and out.
By the evening of July 5, Carl Pierson and Walter McMenamy, the Los Angeles amateurs, had moved to a sensitive receiver in Santa Paula, California, where there was less interference, and they reported hearing “bit and pieces from Earhart and Noonan at 5:40 and 5:44 a.m., but nothing distinct.”
On July 6 in Los Angeles, Paul Mantz, who had been a technical advisor for Earhart’s first attempt at the around-the-world flight, dropped a small bombshell among the press. He said he had learned from Lockheed aircraft sources that Amelia’s Electra was incapable of broadcast from the surface of the water. Mantz went on to assure the reporters, though, that he was sure the plane could float indefinitely because of the huge — now empty — gasoline tanks for which he had installed emergency cut-off valves to keep them watertight.
The statement was a disaster. Immediately the messages so far received were totally discounted, labeled the work of hoaxers, charlatans, damnable lying publicity seekers. The truth was that Mantz did not know the state of Earhart’s radio equipment, nor did most of the people at Lockheed Aircraft. Mantz had been dropped from the flight team after the Honolulu crackup. He was not even in California when the second attempt at the world flight began. In later years he would complain that he had been so isolated from Amelia that the only conversation he had been able to have with her was through a fence at Lockheed.
The only man who knew for sure about the Electra’s radio gear did not come forward in 1937, and no one in the press was enterprising enough to find him. His name is Joseph Gurr, and he lives today  in Los Altos, Calif., retired after a long career as chief flight dispatcher for United Airlines.
Gurr, a former U.S. Navy radio operator, had been assigned the sole task of adapting a Bendix-built U.S. Navy high-frequency direction finder for the world flight and making sure the rest of the equipment would function properly. He had built a new V-type antenna into the belly of the aircraft, discarding the old reel-type trailing antenna, and he had constructed a new top-side antenna that could be used in a forced landing as long as the storage batteries and transmitter remained above water.
For 45 years there have been rumors that Amelia Earhart foolishly left her morse code key behind at various stops on the world flight simply because she hated to use it. Again, no truth. Joseph Gurr has the key in his California home. He had rigged the system so she and Noonan would not need a key.
Could signals from the downed Electra in the vicinity of Howland Island be heard in the United States? Gurr believed it possible in 1937, and still feels the same way today. “Signals can skip great distances and play some crazy tricks,” he says. “Sometimes a signal can’t be heard a block away but will be received clearly a thousand miles distant.”
[Editor’s note: Some experts, most notably Paul Rafford, a former Pan American flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, have strongly disagreed with Gurr’s estimate of the ability of the downed Electra to transmit such distances. See Experts weigh in on Earhart’s “post-loss” messages for more.]
Gurr did call Amelia’s husband, George Palmer Putnam, and told him the messages could be bona fide. Putnam was spending every moment at the San Francisco Coast Guard radio station trying to follow the search.
On July 5, 1937, most newspapers carried a brief story alluding to possible signals from the Earhart plane being received by high-frequency direction finders belonging to Pan American Airways at Honolulu and on Midway and Wake Islands. The bearings from those signals indicated the plane might be down in an area several hundred miles southeast of Howland in the vicinity of the Phoenix Islands.
The story was quickly discounted by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard for security reasons. One of the most important aspects of military intelligence communications was strategic direction finding, particularly in the high-frequency range. Since the early 1930’s, the American Navy had been working toward development of a reasonably portable yet accurate HF/DF. The complete failure of the DF at Howland clearly indicated they had not yet succeeded.
America did not want the rest of the world, particularly Japan, knowing U.S. capabilities in that arena. The disguise covered weakness. The U.S. Navy would later learn as World War II approached that England, Germany and even Japan were more advanced in direction finding development; indeed, it would be discovered that Japan had a string of DF stations in the Marshall Islands to the north of Earhart’s flight path in 1937. The Japanese could track her plane better than the Americans.
Pan American Airways and U.S. Navy Communications were still relying on the two-ton Adcock DF, which was of British origin. The Navy and Pan Am had become partners in the Pacific. Pan Am was a civilian reason for developments on Pacific islands that could and did have military application.
So the Navy quashed the story of Pan Am’s DF bearings on possible Earhart signals, and later Navy intelligence officers picked up the records of those bearings at Pan Am communications headquarters in Alameda, California. They would remain sequestered until the early 1970’s.
George Palmer Putnam, however, had seen the reports, and when the Navy DF on Howland Island reported on July 6 that it had gotten a bearing on KHAQQ which could either be southeast or northwest, he begged the Navy to instruct USS Colorado to begin its search to the southeast of Howland extending to a group of eight small coral atolls known as the Phoenix Islands. He urged that a particular effort be made to locate several small coral reefs plotted on the hydrographic charts as being approximately 165 miles southeast of Howland.
The 14th Naval District at Honolulu agreed, as did Capt. Wilhelm Friedell, Commanding Officer of Colorado. He rendezvoused with Warner Thompson and Itasca at 0600 the morning of July 7, and the Navy took charge of the search.
By mid-morning Colorado steered a course for the general area of the reefs. At 2:30 p.m., Friedell turned the catapults into the wind and three young pilots, Lieutenants John Lambrecht, William Short and Leonard Fox were launched in their three 03U-3 observation, open-cockpit biplanes.
At 500 feet they swept an area 10 miles square around the charted positions of the reefs, and when nothing was found they flew west-southwest a dozen miles into an area covered by a large rain squall. Still nothing but open ocean. They returned to the ship just after 5 .p.m., landing alongside in the water to be winched aboard.
After debriefing his fliers, Capt. Friedell came to the conclusion that the charted reefs didn’t exist after all, and a decision was made to begin the search of the Phoenix Islands themselves the following day. Friedell made a note for his report that it was not the most comfortable thing in the world to be prowling about in waters where reefs might be in uncertain locations. He decided also to post extra lookouts that night and to use the ship’s searchlight in case they might be passing Earhart and Noonan in the dark.
In the following days, Colorado aviators averaged four flights of three planes each day. They searched Enderbury, Phoenix, Birnie, Sydney, McKean, Gardner and Hull Islands, and then finally Canton, the northernmost island in the Phoenix Group. All were uninhabited save Hull, where Lambrecht landed in the lagoon and was greeted by a British Resident Commissioner and a boatload of natives who had paddled out to get a close view of this wonder. No one had seen or heard of Amelia Earhart; in fact, no one even knew who she was.
Friedell and his crew left the Phoenix Islands with a sense of relief. It is evident from their reports that they hadn’t expected to find the Electra anyway, and it would be good to be out in open, reasonably charted waters again.
Perhaps they would not have felt as comfortable had they known the missing reefs would be charted again in the years to come. In 1943: 1 degree 51 minutes south, 174 degrees 30 minutes west; 1944: 1 degree 36 minutes 30 seconds south, 174 degrees 57 minutes west; 1945: Zero degrees 46 minutes south, 174 degrees 43 minutes west — a sandbar reported; 1954: Zero degrees 56 minutes 18 seconds south, 174 degrees 51 minutes west.
To this writing, none of the reefs or the sandbar have been investigated at close range. Could the Electra still be wedged on one of the reefs or buried in the sandbar? There are those who believe it, and I think it may be possible.
Friedell and his men might have contemplated another search of the area had they known that amateur radio operators in Northern California had picked up two more messages the night of July 7.
Frank Freitas of Yreka received “plane on reef . . . 200 miles south . . . Howland . . . both OK.”
Arthur Monsees of San Francisco heard “SOS. . . KHAQQ . . . east . . . Howland . . . lights tonight . . . can’t hold.”
When Lambrecht and Short, two of Colorado‘s pilots, were several years ago shown the new hydrographic chartings for the area between Howland Island and the Phoenix Islands, they both agreed the rain squalls the afternoon of July 7, 1937, may have been a nasty trick of fate.
An item which recently surfaced in long-classified U.S. Navy files gives further support to the reefs theory. Earhart and Noonan had not planned to arrive over Howland Island just at the time their fuel would be exhausted. The plan called for a minimum four-hour reserve. Amelia had been given a copy of a highly classified, registered document titled “U.S. Naval Pacific Air Pilot.” It was provided by Capt. William Satterlee Pye, USN, who later became a vice admiral and a prominent figure in the Pearl Harbor controversy.
“Pacific Air Pilot” was the result of years of survey by the U.S. Navy. It contained climate conditions and prevailing winds for most of the Pacific Ocean areas, along with descriptions of all islands that possibly could be used for emergency landings. There were four such islands in the Phoenix Group: Canton, Gardner, McKean and Enderbury. None was inhabited and none had man-made landing fields, but each had sufficient clear and level area for a safe landing by the Electra.
If Amelia and Fred could not find Howland, one of the Phoenix Islands would provide the closest alternate. Canton Island, 20 times the size of Howland, would be their best bet.
At 7 a.m. July 12, 1937, Colorado, met and refueled the destroyers leading the aircraft carrier USS Lexington to the search scene. Fueling completed, Colorado was detached from the search and ordered to return to the west coast of America.
During the search, Colorado‘s planes had flown more than 21 hours each and covered within radius of visibility an area of more than 25,000 square miles. Capt. Wilhelm Friedell wrote in the last paragraph of his final report: “The Colorado has covered the known land area within 450 miles of Howland Island, and definitely ascertained that the Earhart plane is not on land within the region unless on an unknown, uncharted and unsighted reef.”
[Editors’ note: To my knowledge, no Earhart researchers have ever supported Goerner’s reef/sandbar theory. This is clearly an area where Goerner flew solo, with scant evidence to support his speculations. Goerner knew about Thomas E. Devine’s eyewitness claim that he observed the Electra three times on Saipan during the 1944 invasion, but his well-known contempt for Devine clearly prevented him from accepting even the possibility that Devine’s account might have been accurate.]
USS Lexington with 60 aircraft began its search to the north and northwest of Howland Island on July 13. Ocean currents in the area were generally to the northwest and the reasoning was that a drifting plane could now be as much as four to 500 miles from the place of emergency landing.
On the same date, July 13, 1937, a brief item in a leading Japanese newspaper indicated that Earhart and Noonan had been picked up by a Japanese “fishing boat.” There was never a follow-up to the article.
Japan was seriously concerned regarding U.S. intentions where the Earhart search was concerned. Japan had occupied the Marshall, Caroline and Mariana Islands during World War I, and had maintained control of the area under a League of Nations mandate after the war.
Beginning in 1934, Japan had virtually sealed off the islands to the rest of the world. Speculation had it that Japan was building airfields, fuel depots and expanded harbor and communications facilities in preparation for a Pacific war.
The Marshall Islands lie only 550 miles north and west of Howland Island, and the construction of an American airfield on Howland was most disconcerting to the Japanese. They had repeatedly sent surveillance vessels to the island to determine from offshore the extent and progress of the construction.
[Editor’s note: The distance from Mili Atoll in the Marshalls to Howland Island is 871 statute miles.]
On July 5, 1937, Tsuneo Hayama, second secretary of the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., visited the Division of Far Eastern Affairs of the U.S. Department of State and informed Joseph W. Ballentine that Japan would conduct its own search for Amelia Earhart around and south of the Marshall Islands. He added that Japan had warships and radio stations in the Marshalls and a considerable number of fishing boats that could range to the east and west of Howland Island.
Ballentine replied that the U.S. Navy had a message believed to have come from Earhart that placed the drifting plane 200 or more miles north of Howland Island.
Hayama telephoned Ballantine the following day, July 6, to say that the Japanese Naval Attaché of the Japanese Embassy had been informed that the Japanese Naval Department had instructed the survey ship Koshu to participate in the search for Earhart and that Japanese radio stations in the Marshalls had been given orders to be on continuous watch for Earhart signals.
On the following day, July 7, 1937, Japan began its full-scale invasion of the China mainland. Major units of the Imperial Japanese Navy were committed to that invasion, and the prospect of planes of the American carrier Lexington flying over the Marshalls in search of Earhart was frightening. The League of Nations mandate Japan held over the Marshalls stipulated that there were to be no military facilities or fortification of any kind.
On July 11, Hayama was back at the U.S. State Department again. This time he retracted his statement of July 5 about “warships” being in the Marshalls, but reiterated that the Japanese had been and were continuing to conduct their own search in the vicinity of the Marshalls.
By July 18, 1937, the Lexington planes were searching areas almost touching the Marshalls, and over the years there have been allegations that some of Lexington’s pilots made detours for photographic runs over selected Japanese held islands. Lexington‘s official log and search report do not support such contentions, nor do the recollections of officers who participated in the search.
Adm. Felix B. Stump, USN, (Ret.), who was navigator for Lexington in 1937 and who later became head of Air America (the CIA’s airline), told me in a personal conversation, “We did not violate Japanese air space over the Marshalls. Although, now, I wish we had.”
After July 18’s air search, Lexington set a course for San Diego, Calif., and destroyers Drayton, Lamson and Cushing headed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The largest air-sea rescue operation in history was over. Lexington‘s planes had covered 151,556 square miles of ocean without any trace of Earhart or Noonan or wreckage from their plane.
The radio messages believed to be coming from Earhart had ended with those of the night of July 7. It was all over. “Two civilian fliers lost at sea.” That was to be the epitaph. (End of Part II)
Fred Goerner’s “In Search of Amelia Earhart” Part I: Was 1984 Orbis retrospective published anywhere?
Nobody realized it then, but from the moment Time magazine ripped Fred Goerner’s bestseller The Search for Amelia Earhart in 1966 as a book that “barely hangs together,” the sad truth about Amelia and Fred Noonan’s miserable deaths on Saipan in Japanese captivity was thenceforth treated as a forbidden subject by the U.S. corporate media.
By 1984 things were even worse, and speaking of Amelia Earhart and Saipan in the same sentence was reserved for paranoid conspiracy theorists, fringe nuts, like this writer, who were shunned by polite society. The establishment had long circled its wagons around this sacred cow, and still has no intention of admitting a truth that would destroy the grand, well-crafted legacy of Democrat icon Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Until recently I believed that Fred Goerner’s fine 1984 retrospective, “In Search of Amelia Earhart,” had appeared in a British publication called Orbis magazine, and stated so in Truth at Last. But now I find there was no Orbis magazine in 1984. Orbis Publishing Ltd. was a United Kingdom-based publisher of books and partworks (a new term for me). The company was founded in 1970 and changed its name to De Agostini UK Ltd. in 1999.
It was apparently for Orbis that Goerner penned this piece, but I can’t determine where it actually appeared in Britain — or if it appeared at all. I’ve searched online in vain for any British or American magazine, newspaper or periodical and found nothing that remotely resembles this relatively unknown 9,300-word summary of the most important evidence supporting the Marshalls-Saipan truth at the time. I found it in the Goerner Collection files at the Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas, several years ago, and for true Fred Goerner fans and Earhart aficionados, this is a special treat, unavailable to the public anywhere until now.
Following is the first of three parts, virtually unedited from the original, of “In Search of Amelia Earhart,” by Fred Goerner for ORBIS Publishing, England.
“IN SEARCH OF AMELIA EARHART”
by Fred Goerner
Amelia Earhart carefully taxied her Lockheed Electra 10-E twin-engine airliner to the takeoff stand at the Lae, New Guinea 3,000 feet runway. Behind the cockpit in the main cabin was Captain Frederick Noonan. He had secured all loose items and cinched tight the safety belts attached to his navigator’s chair.
It was July 2, 1937. Amelia and Fred had often acknowledged that this would be the most difficult and dangerous part of their well-publicized around-the-world flight.
Their course would take them over an expanse of Pacific Ocean never flown before: 2,556 miles, mostly over open water, bound for tiny Howland Island, a three-quarter by one-half-mile fleck of land just north of the equator where the U.S. Navy, Army Air Corps and Interior Departments had recently scratched out a rudimentary airfield.
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard had each provided a plane guard vessel. The Navy’s USS Ontario (AT-13) would be stationed in the open sea at the flight’s midpoint and the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca would anchor near Howland Island. Each would try to assist with communications and both could serve as rescue ships should Earhart and Noonan have to attempt an emergency landing on the ocean.
Perhaps the most dangerous and difficult aspect of the endeavor would be the takeoff. the plane was grossly overloaded with 1050 gallons of 86 octane fuel together with 50 gallons of 100 octane gas to provide extra power to the twin 550 horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines for initial lift.
Amelia had practiced such takeoffs at the Lockheed field in Burbank, California, but this was the first time during the world flight she would have to test what she had learned. She remembered all too clearly the nearly disastrous crash they had experienced on the attempted takeoff from Honolulu three months earlier. Carrying only 900 gallons of fuel, the Electra had begun to swerve on the takeoff run. The plane lurched to the left, then the nose began to come right. Amelia had overcorrected by pulling back on the left engine throttle, and “The Flying Laboratory” as she called her plane, careened into a vicious ground-loop, collapsing the landing gear. The Electra had come to a stop in a shower of sparks. Good fortune still followed her and those who flew with her.
Despite the gasoline sprayed along the runway, there was no fire and no one had been injured; however, Captain Harry Manning, one of the two navigators, decided he had risked his life enough in the interests of Amelia Earhart and returned to his sea command, leaving only Fred Noonan to help Amelia find her way around the world.
It was exactly 10 a.m. New Guinea time as the Electra spun into takeoff position. The bright controllable-pitch Hamilton Standard props whirled by the powerful Wasp engines chewed great holes in the air as Amelia checked the rpm’s and magnetos, sending a hurricane blasting back against the vibrating 55-foot wingspan. Satisfied with the performance of both engines, Amelia throttled back. The Guinea Airways mechanics had done a thorough job in making “The Flying Laboratory” as airworthy as possible. A brief test flight with light fuel load the day before had established the quality of their work.
Amelia stared down the runway for a moment. Had they figured everything? She thought so. The air temperature and humidity matched the wind direction and velocity to provide the necessary lift given the weight of the aircraft and the length of runway. She and Fred had unloaded every ounce of personal baggage that could be spared. Even a few pounds could be crucial.
She once again checked the power and fuel mixture settings that had been given her by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson of Lockheed Aircraft. “You must use every foot of the runway you can,” he had said. “Hold it down to the last second. With that load, you must have the airspeed or its all over!”
After the Honolulu crackup, Johnson had repeatedly tutored Amelia in heavy-load takeoffs at the Burbank field, using an Electra similar to hers. At one point the look-alike Electra had wandered off the runway and into a ditch. The weight in that aircraft, however, had been iron bars, not gasoline.
With a smooth, positive motion, Amelia pushed both throttles forward to full open, slipped the brakes, and the Electra began to lumber forward. The roar of the engines claimed the attention of a small band of spectators at the Guinea Airways’ hangars. The group included J.A. Collopy, District Superintendent of Civil Aviation for the Territory Of New Guinea; Harry Balfour, senior radio operator at the Lae Aerodrome; and technicians and pilots of Guinea Airways.
Collopy would later write in his official report to the Civil aviation Board:
“The takeoff was hair-raising as after taking every yard of the 1,000 yard runway from the northwest end of the aerodrome towards the sea, the aircraft had not left the ground 50 yards from the end of the runway. When it did leave it sank away but was by this time over the sea. It continued to sink to about five or six feet above the water and had not climbed to more than 100 feet before it disappeared from sight. It was obvious the aircraft was well handled and pilots of Guinea airways were loud in their praise of the takeoff with such an overload.”
Collopy detailed the amount of gas aboard the Electra, the repairs accomplished at Lae and concluded the report with his own feeling that the weak link in the flight was the lack of expert knowledge of radio on the part of Earhart and Noonan. He deplored the fact that their Morse code sending was very slow and that they both preferred to use voice telephone. “Mr. Noonan told me that he was not a bit anxious about the flight to Howland Island and was quite confident that he would have little difficulty in locating it. I do think that had an expert radio operator been included in the crew the conclusion might have been different.”
A few minutes after the Electra disappeared from the sight of Lae, radio operator Harry Balfour received a long awaited weather forecast for the Earhart flight from the U.S. Navy Fleet Air Base at Pearl Harbor. The message had been routed through American Samoa and Suva, Fiji. As Amelia and Fred would be flying dead reckoning most of the day and night, it was vitally important that they know the wind directions so navigational corrections could be made for drift.
At 10:22 a.m., 11:22 a.m. and 12:22 p.m., Balfour transmitted the information by radiophone on Earhart’s daytime frequency, 6210 kilocycles:
“PARTLY CLOUDY SKIES WITH DANGEROUS RAIN SQUALLS ABOUT 300 MILES EAST OF LAE. SCATTERED HEAVY SHOWERS REST OF ROUTE. WINDS EAST SOUTHEAST ABOUT 25 KNOTS TO ONTARIO. THEN EAST TO NORTHEAST ABOUT 20 KNOTS TO HOWLAND.”
Balfour heard no acknowledgment from Earhart, but assumed she had gotten the message and had simply been too busy to reply. At approximately 3 p.m. Lae time, Amelia’s voice came through Balfour’s receiver, clear and unhurried. The plane was flying at 10,000 feet, but she was going to reduce altitude because of thick banks of cumulus clouds ahead.
Then at 5:20 p.m., she broke through again on 6210 kilocycles to announce they were currently at 7,000 feet and making 150 knots speed. The position reported was latitude 4 degrees 33 minutes South, longitude 159 degrees 06 minutes East, a point about 785 miles out from Lae and almost directly on course. The true ground speed was only about 111 knots, indicating the Electra was indeed bucking the headwinds mentioned in the U.S. Navy weather forecast. Earhart closed the broadcast by stating her next report would be on 3105 kilocycles, her nighttime frequency.
Balfour radioed back that her signal was coming through strong and she should continue to use 6210. Amelia again did not acknowledge, and Balfour heard nothing more.
To 34-year-old U.S. Navy Lt. Horace Blakeslee, the assignment as commanding officer and navigator of USS Ontario (AT-13) was both fascination and frustration. Ontario, a single screw seagoing tug launched in 1912, was the U.S. Navy’s only remaining coal-burning vessel, and serving as a plane guard ship for the Earhart flight stretched her capabilities to the maximum, In fact, Ontario was no longer considered fit for patrol duty and had been delegated the official yacht of the U.S. Navy Governor of American Samoa.
To make the more than 1,200-mile voyage to the mid-point of the projected Earhart flight, remain on plane guard station for as much as two weeks and then return to the U.S. Navy Station at Tutuila, Samoa, Blakeslee fully loaded Ontario’s coal bunkers and piled a reserve supply on her decks.
By the time Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea, Blakeslee and his crew had already been steaming up and down a small portion of Earhart’s announced flight path for 10 days. Consumption of coal and water was reaching a critical point.
Blakeslee had no illusions that two-way communication between Earhart and Ontario could be established. The Electra had no low-frequency broadcast capability and the Ontario no high-frequency equipment. The Ontario was to broadcast the letter ‘N’ on 400 kilocycles with the ship’s call letters repeated at the end of each minute. With a low-frequency receiver, Earhart presumably could estimate her distance from Ontario by strength of signal. Her direction finder, restricted to high frequency signals, would be of no use to home on Ontario.
With Earhart’s 5:20 p.m. reported position, the Electra was due over Ontario at approximately 10 p.m. Ontario time. Blakeslee recalls (and is substantiated by Ontario‘s official log) that at 10 p.m. the weather consisted of scattered cumulus clouds moving from the east-northeast and occasional showers. One of the watch officers believed he heard the sound of an approaching aircraft a few minutes after 10 p.m. and the Ontario searchlight swept the sky.
By 1 a.m. the overcast had become complete and heavy rain squalls were buffeting Ontario. Blakeslee radioed for and received permission to return to base. The old ship barely made it, “scraping the bottoms of the coal bunkers.”
At the same time as the men of Ontario believed the Earhart plane to be passing overhead, the radio operator of the Nauru Island station to the north copied Amelia saying, “A ship in sight ahead.”
The 250-foot Coast Guard Cutter USS Itasca steamed slowly by Howland Island, barely keeping way. The radio room was fully manned, and a satellite station ashore on Howland housing a new and highly secret high-frequency radio direction finder was ready for action as well.
The Itasca ‘s Captain, [Cmdr.] Warner Thompson, was not a happy man, however. He and the Coast Guard had the responsibility for assisting the Earhart plane to a safe landing at Howland, but he was now convinced that Itasca was being denied important information where the night was concerned. Try as he would Thompson could not find out exactly what frequencies Earhart was going to use or even the range of her direction finding equipment.
Thompson was also not pleased with a number of persons he felt were looking over his shoulder aboard ship. There was Richard Blackburn Black, the Department of Interior representative who had arranged with the Navy and Army for construction of the Howland airfield and who was billed as Earhart’s personal representative. It was Black who had brought the hush-hush high-frequency direction finder aboard Itasca, and who had wanted to bring along a U.S. Navy radio expert to operate the apparatus. Thompson had flatly refused to use a Navy man on a Coast Guard ship, but under pressure had finally permitted a Navy radioman second class named Frank Cipriani to be trained in Hawaii in the use of the equipment.
Also aboard were several U.S. army and U.S. Army Air Corps representatives along with the reporters from Associated Press and United Press. They all had their own interests and needs, none of which, Thompson felt, aided in the task of guiding the Earhart plane to a safe landfall.
The Itasca radio room was crowded by midnight. The wire service correspondents jockeyed for position with the Army men. Coast Guard radiomen William Galten and Thomas O’Hare along with Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts hovered over the transmitters and receivers.
It was a long wait. Earhart’s voice did not break through the static on 3105 kilocycles until 0245, and then all that could be clearly understood was “CLOUDY WEATHER . . . CLOUDY” an hour later at 0345, her voice was heard again saying “ITASCA FROM EARHART. ITASCA BROADCAST ON 3105 KILOCYCLES ON HOUR AND HALF-HOUR — REPEAT-BROADCAST ON 3105 KILOCYCLES ON HOUR AND HALF-HOUR. . . . OVERCAST”.
The Itasca operators transmitted on 3105 asking Earhart to send on 500 kilocycles so the ship’s low frequency direction finder could get a fix on her. Obviously no one on Itasca knew that Earhart did not have the equipment to broadcast on 500 kilocycles.
Another long wait, and then at 0453 Amelia’s voice was recognized again but the signals were unreadable. The first real sense of worry began to permeate the radio room. At 0512, Earhart’s voice again. This time much clearer: “WANT BEARINGS ON 3105 KILOCYCLES ON HOUR. WILL WHISTLE IN MICROPHONE.”
The only high-frequency direction finder available that could take a bearing on 3105 kilocycles was the Navy set ashore on Howland, and there the Coast Guard operator Cipriani was in a sweat. Earhart wasn’t staying on the air long enough for him to get a fix. The whistling into the mike helped, but it was too short as well. Another important factor was also disturbing Cipriani. The wet-cell batteries that powered the direction finder were beginning to run down. He could only pray that they would last long enough to give Earhart a proper heading.
Amelia broke in again three minutes later at 0515, this time only saying “ABOUT 200 MILES OUT.” Again she whistled briefly into her microphone. Another half-hour dragged by, and then again Earhart’s voice, this time with a note of pleading. “PLEASE TAKE A BEARING ON US AND REPORT IN HALF-HOUR. I WILL MAKE NOISE IN MICROPHONE. ABOUT 100 MILES OUT.” Still more whistling. On Howland, Cipriani made a note on his log: “Her carrier is completely modulated. I cannot get a bearing.”
Nothing further from Earhart until 0730. Her voice was becoming heavy with concern. “WE MUST BE ON YOU BUT CANNOT SEE YOU BUT GAS IS RUNNING LOW. HAVE BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO. WE ARE FLYING AT 1,000 FEET.”
The atmosphere in the Itasca radio room was heavy with alarm. The operators redoubled their efforts, still pleading with Amelia to transmit on 500 kilocycles.
At 0757, still on 3105 kilocycles, Amelia’s voice filled the radio room at the clearest level yet. “WE ARE CIRCLING BUT CANNOT SEE ISLAND. CANNOT HEAR YOU. GO AHEAD ON 7500 KILOCYCLES ON LONG COUNT EITHER NOW OR ON SCHEDULE TIME OF HALF-HOUR”
The Itasca operators looked at each other in amazement. Now Earhart was trying to use her own direction finder, but none of them had any idea it ranged to 7500 kilocycles. Quickly the Itasca transmitter began to pour forth a stream of letter “A’s” on the suggested frequency.
Almost immediately, at 0803, Amelia replied, “WE RECEIVED YOUR SIGNALS BUT UNABLE TO GET MINIMUM. PLEASE TAKE BEARING ON US AND ANSWER ON 3105 KILOCYCLES.” This time she made long dashes by depressing the microphone button, but still the Howland direction finder could not get a bearing. Cipriani shook his head in desperation. The batteries were almost completely discharged.
Forty miserable minutes dragged by in the Itasca radio room. Frustration etched every face. as one of the operators would later say, “It was like not being able to reach a friend who was falling over a cliff.”
At 0843, an Earhart voice that some would later call frantic blurted, “WE ARE ON THE LINE OF POSITION 157 DASH 337. WILL REPEAT THIS MESSAGE ON 6210 KILOCYCLES. WE ARE NOW RUNNING NORTH AND SOUTH.”
Amelia was switching to her daytime frequency. Itasca‘s operators immediately monitored 6210 kilocycles but were greeted with nothing but static. An hour wore by. Still nothing. Some of the men went on deck and gazed up at the morning sky, hoping a miracle would bring Earhart and Noonan into sight. The horizon was empty save a weather front of cumulus clouds many miles to the northwest.
Warner Thompson, Itasca‘s captain, waited until 10:30 a.m., then radioed Honolulu that the Earhart plane was probably down at sea and he was going to begin a search operation.
Search, indeed. But where? What did “157-337” mean? It probably was a sun line that Noonan had been able to shoot just before Earhart’s last radio transmission. But a sun line was no good without a reference point. The plane could be anywhere along 2,000 miles of that sun line. On a compass reciprocal “157-337” could represent a southeast to northwest line through
Howland Island itself. Thompson reasoned that the weather front to the northwest might have prevented Earhart and Noonan from seeing Howland, so he would search that area first.
The disappearance took every headline in America along with most of the rest of the world. George Palmer Putnam, Amelia’s husband who was waiting in Oakland, Calif., was stunned, but he believed in his wife’s resourcefulness and he believed in her luck.
Noonan’s wife, Mary Bea (Martinelli), told the press she was confident her Fred and Amelia would be rescued. She had married Fred Noonan just three weeks before the around-the-world flight began.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had made the arrangements for U.S. Government cooperation with the flight, immediately ordered the American battleship USS Colorado which was on a summer reserve training cruise near the Hawaiian Islands to proceed at top speed to the Howland Island area to assist with the search. Colorado carried three catapult observation planes that could cover wide areas of ocean.
Amelia’s had been literally a flight into yesterday. Because of the International Date Line, she and Fred Noonan had taken off from Lae, New Guinea, at 10 a.m. July 2, and the had vanished sometime after 8:43 a.m., July 2, Howland Island time.
On the evening of July 3, 1937, President Roosevelt, after consultation with the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Adm. William D. Leahy, ordered the Navy aircraft carrier USS Lexington and three U.S. Navy destroyers to proceed from the west coast of the United States to the vicinity of Howland Island to augment the search. (End of Part I of Fred Goerner’s “In Search of Amelia Earhart.”)
Even casual observers of the Earhart saga are familiar with the statement allegedly made by Navy Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, then retired but still bound by classified information laws, to Fred Goerner in late March 1965, just before the radio newsman left San Francisco to interview Marine Commandant Gen. Wallace M. Greene at his Pentagon headquarters in Arlington, Va. “Now that you’re going to Washington, Fred, I want to tell you Earhart and her navigator did go down in the Marshalls and were picked up by the Japanese,” Goerner claimed Nimitz told him.
Only the most cynical accused Goerner of fabricating Nimitz’s statement, while some ignored it completely, but we’ve had only Goerner’s word that Nimitz shared this blockbuster secret with him. However, another iconic World War II hero, Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps from 1944 to 1947, actually put a similar statement in writing — not once, but in two letters he wrote in response to the indefatigable Goerner, still hot on the Earhart case.
These letters, first reported in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, are reproduced here for the first time. Vandegrift’s first letter, of May 10, 1971, was typed in all upper case, while his second, of Aug. 10 1971, was handwritten, but otherwise they are unedited. I do not have Goerner’s initial letter to Vandegrift, which prompted his response.
10 May 1971
Frederick Allan Goerner
Twenty-Four Presidio Terrace
San Francisco, California 94118
My Dear Mr. Goerner,
In reply to your letter of 6 April, relative to the rumors in reference to the way Miss Earhart met her death, I’m sorry I can’t help you in any way.
I heard the rumor during the South Pacific campaign, particularly the one in Saipan, but when I tried to investigate I found nothing to substantiate the charges made. I have no doubt that Miss Earhart met her death in that area because that has been substantiated. But how and why I have no information. I’m sorry that I can’t be of more help.
General USMC (Ret.)
9 June 1971
General, USMC (Ret.)
720 ELDORADO Lane
DELRAY BEACH, Florida 33444
Dear General Vandegrift
I was most grateful to receive your recent communication containing response to my questions concerning the fate of Miss Amelia Earhart.
As I wish to quote from your comments, I want to make absolutely sure that the implications of those comments is clearly defined and no false conclusions are reached.
You mentioned that you had received information which alleged that Miss Earhart had been on Saipan, and you added, “I have no doubt Miss Earhart met her death in that area because that has been substantiated. But how and why I have no information.”
Did you mean that it had been substantiated that Miss Earhart had been on Saipan and had died on Saipan, but it was not determined how and why she died?
If that is the correct interpretation, it would be most helpful to know how it was substantiated that Miss Earhart had been on Saipan and had met her death there. Were her remains recovered or was documentation to that fact uncovered?
I thank you very much for your gracious attention to this letter. I shall look forward to your comments with tremendous interest.
With respect and admiration, I am,
Frederick Allan Goerner
24 Presidio Terrace
San Francisco, California
P.S. For your convenience, I am enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
720 Eldorado Lane
Delray Beach, Florida
10 August 1971
24 Presidio Terrace
San Francisco, Calif.
Dear Mr. Goerner:
Please pardon my delay in answering your letter of June. In the meantime, I have been in the hospital and have not felt too well since my return.
In writing to you, I did not realize that you wanted to quote my remarks about Miss Earhart and I would rather that you would not.
General Tommy Watson, who commanded the 2nd Marine Division during the assault on Saipan and stayed on that island after the fall of Okinawa, on one of my seven visits of inspection of his division told me that it had been substantiated that Miss Earhart met her death on Saipan. That is the total knowledge that I have of this incident.
Having known General Watson many years, I naturally accept this information as being correct. General Watson I’m sorry to say, died some years ago and therefore cannot be contacted.
I am sorry if my remarks misled you but I cannot add anything more to this report.
General, USMC (Ret.)
Vandegrift’s Aug. 10, 1971 letter was written in longhand by an unknown party, possibly his second wife, Kathryn Henson Vandegrift, who was still alive at the time. The general must have been ill at the time, as his signature was shaky and bore no resemblance to the rest of the document; he died two years later. Like Nimitz and Gen. Graves Erskine, two other major flag officers who revealed the truth to Goerner in clandestine ways, the general must have wanted to encourage Goerner, though he was still sworn to silence in the top-secret case.
Vandegrift’s claimed source for his information, former Lt. Gen. Thomas E. “Terrible Tommy” Watson, died in 1966, and this could be why Vandegrift shared the truth with Goerner as he did. The letter could be technically considered hearsay, and he probably assumed it would afford him a level of protection against any ramifications if his disclosure became known.
With a distinguished career that culminated in his selection as the Marine Corps’ first four-star general, who could possibly question Vandegrift’s credibility? He was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross for his actions at Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Gavutu in the Solomon Islands in 1942, honors that conferred upon its bearer the gravest moral responsibilities. Undeniably, in that bygone era, long before the modern-day corruption that has stained even our esteemed Marine Corps, the word of a Medal of Honor recipient who also led the world’s greatest fighting force was as good as gold. Moreover, Vandegrift had nothing tangible to gain from telling Goerner the truth, and he had no self-interested reason to do so.
Vandegrift’s claim that his “total knowledge” about Earhart’s death on Saipan was limited to the brief statement he attributed to Watson could not have been true. A three-star general in July 1944, Vandegrift had been commandant of the Marine Corps since Jan. 1 of that year. Watson, as commander of the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan—wherein Lt. Col. Wallace E. Greene performed as operations officer—was at the tip of the spear in the top-secret operation to destroy the Electra, charged with its successful execution by a chain of command that included Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal and beyond to the commander-in-chief.
In the highly unlikely event that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s orders to destroy the Electra had not passed through Vandegrift, he would have been fully briefed by Watson about the operation immediately upon their next meeting, if not sooner. Goerner’s reply to Vandegrift’s August 1971 contained two pointed questions:
●Did General Watson communicate to you HOW it had been substantiated that Miss Earhart had met her death on Saipan?
●Did General Watson indicate whether or not the human remains of Miss Earhart or her navigator had been recovered?7
Goerner’s query was returned undated, with “No” handwritten after each question, signed again by Vandegrift in a trembling hand. Goerner’s file on Vandegrift ends with a brief November 1971 note to Goerner, thanking him for sending a copy of The Search for Amelia Earhart, wishing him “every success in the publication and sale of this book,” and promising to have it read to him as soon as he returned from the hospital. Vandegrift died on May 8, 1973.