In my last post, several of Amelia Earhart’s best-known “post-loss messages” were discussed briefly; the information was taken from a chapter in the original manuscript of Truth at Last that had to be deleted during the publication process. The receptions included the report from a Nauru radio operator, who claimed to have heard a “voice similar to that emitted from [Earhart] plane” 12-and-a-half hours after Earhart’s last message to Itasca.
Walter McMenamy and Karl Pierson, Los Angeles amateur shortwave operators, both claimed to have heard SOS signals and other messages on frequencies 6210 and 3105, the two main wavelengths used by Earhart. From Rock Springs, Wyoming, came the report of Dana Randolph, the 16-year-old operator who claimed to have heard, on the morning of July 4, “This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on reef south of the equator. Station KH9QQ” [sic] on 16,000 kc, a harmonic of 3105.
Various signals including long dashes were heard in response to requests sent by Pan American Airways radio stations on Midway Island, Mokapu (Honolulu, KGMB) and Wake Island on 3105 kc and 6210 kc. Also noted was the controversial “281 message,” heard by operators at the Navy’s HF/DF station at Wailupe and the British steamer SS Moorby, 370 miles north of Howland island, and in California by Charles Miguel of Oakland, and reported by the Coast Guard’s Hawaiian Section to the cutter Itasca early July 5. Miguel reported hearing “281 … north … Howland … Can’t hold out much longer … drifting … above water … motor sinking … on sand bank 225 miles from Howland.”
Several other alleged messages were also reported by various parties, and some were outrageous or bizarre enough as to be easily classified as hoaxes. The reports presented here, in this writer’s opinion, are representative of the most credible of the alleged post-loss messages.
Commander Warner K. Thompson, Itasca skipper, included the Nauru message in his report without comment, but Almon Gray, a former Navy reserve captain and Pan Am Airways China Clipper flight officer, believed the signals, sent on 6210 kc and received at Nauru at 9:31, 9:43 and 9:54 p.m. July 2 (Howland time), merited “serious consideration. . . . The Nauru operator reported good signal strength and was able to judge the tone or timbre of the speaker’s voice yet was unable to understand what the speaker was saying,” Gray wrote. “He suggested the possibility of modulation problems.”
Gray noted that Harry Balfour, the Lae radio operator, as well as the “DF operator on Howland who was trying to take a radio bearing on the plane” had both reported similar symptoms and suggested possible modulation problems. According to Gray, the probability that “more than one transmitter in the area would exhibit the same symptoms of over-modulation on the same frequency at essentially the same time is very small. It is the writer’s opinion that the signals intercepted by Nauru were in fact from the Earhart plane no longer in flight.”
Paul Rafford, Jr., author of Amelia Earhart’s Radio (Paragon Agency, 2006), flew with PAA as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, and worked in the Manned Spaceflight Program from 1963 until his retirement in 1988 disagrees the messages could have been sent by Amelia. “Reference the very unsteady voice modulated carrier described by Hansen,” Rafford said in a January 2006 e-mail. “This immediately tells me that the signals could not have come from Earhart’s plane. Her transmitter was crystal controlled whereas ‘unsteady carrier’ indicates that the ‘voice modulated’ (radiotelephone) signal was not crystal controlled. Prior to crystal control, when voice was applied to a radio transmitter it could result in an unsteady carrier. However, this also suggests that the signal came from a naval or military transmitter. These services were slower to adopt crystal control than the civilian services. It was a matter of Depression era funding for new equipment.”
In his little-known book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, Rafford was less technical when assessing the reliability of the signals that followed the KGMB announcement, depicting the receptions as an “outright hoax,” and insisting the claims didn’t pass the common sense test. “Would anyone believe that Earhart was running down her batteries by listening to music and news from KGMB instead of calling for help?” Rafford wrote.
U.S. Government confiscates PAA intercepts
Mrs. Ellen Belotti, George Angus’ secretary in 1937, contacted Fred Goerner in 1971 about the reports from the three PAA HF/DF stations she had retained under somewhat unusual and suspicious circumstances. “One day several U.S. Navy officers who identified themselves as from the Office of U.S. Naval Intelligence appeared at the office (PAN AM) and confiscated all of the reports dealing with Earhart,” Goerner wrote in a 1971 letter to Fred Hooven. “She says the Pan Am people were warned at the time not to discuss the matter with anyone, and that the reports were to be considered secret and any copies of the reports were to be destroyed. Mrs. Belotti says she decided not to destroy her copies of the reports because she believed the Navy did not have the right to require that of Pan Am. She also felt a fair shake was not being given to her idol, Amelia.”
In 1979, Goerner told radio technician Joe Gurr, hired by Lockheed to work on the Electra’s radio at Oakland prior to the first world flight attempt, that he traced the PAA intercepts seized by the Navy in July 1937 to the Navy Security Group in Washington, D.C. The records are “in effect part of NSA [National Security Agency] and the records of radio intelligence are beyond the purview of the Freedom of Information Law [sic],” Goerner wrote. “I have also learned that the FCC conducted a full investigation into the radio receptions believed received from AE by amateur radio operators. The records of this investigation were also turned over to U.S. Naval Intelligence Communications and are considered also to be beyond the Freedom of Information Law. There’s something wrong there, isn’t there, Joe? What in God’s name is worth classifying after 42 years?” To this researcher’s knowledge, the PAA intercepts remain classified.
Navy, Coast Guard skippers unanimous in rejecting messages
Capt. J.S. Dowell’s “Report of Earhart Search,” of July 20, 1937, is a sometimes confusing summary of the Lexington Group’s two-week involvement in the mission. Dowell’s report begins with a 10-page segment labeled “Estimates and Decision,” replete with several subsections. Nowhere in Dowell’s report can a heading labeled “Conclusions” be found, and the statement commonly accepted as such — “That at about 2030 [GMT, 9 a.m. Howland time] the plane landed on the sea to the northwest of Howland Island, within 120 miles of the island” – is presented in this opening section under seven other “Probable Actions of Plane,” before any narrative or summary of the search itself.
More germane to this discussion was the DESRON2 commander’s apparent willingness to consider the legitimacy of several of the “post loss” radio receptions. Under “Possibilities Arising from Rumour and Reports,” Dowell listed 10 reported messages, including Walter McNemay’s July 3 reception, which he noted was given credibility by the Coast Guard; the “281 message”; Dana Randolph’s Rock Springs, Wyoming reception; and KGMB Hawaii’s test announcement that received dashes in response to its request.
Captain Leigh Noyes, Lexington’s commander, had no such inclinations, and in his nine-page summary of the carrier’s actions, “Report of Earhart Search Operations 3-18 July 1937,” Noyes’ comments, later echoed by other official sources, left no doubt where he stood on the idea that any of the transmissions could have originated from NR 16020.
“Numerous radio messages were reported to have been received by various agencies, particularly amateur radio operators, which purported to give information received directly from the plane after it landed,” Noyes wrote. “Many of these messages were in conflict and many of them were unquestionably false. None could be positively verified. These messages were a serious handicap to the progress of the search, especially before the arrival of the Lexington Group.”
Commander Thompson was equally convinced that none of the broadcasts received after Amelia’s “line of position” message at 8:43 a.m., July 3, came from the Electra. The Itasca commander’s 106-page report, “Radio Transcripts – Earhart Flight,” of July 19, 1937, is the chronological record of more than 500 official messages received and sent by Itasca from June 9, when it received orders to assist in the flight, to July 16, when the cutter was released from the search by the Navy. The report contains far more than official communications, however. Thompson freely inserted his comments and complaints wherever he felt appropriate throughout the document, and in his zeal to represent Itasca as blameless for the Earhart loss, some of his statements have been shown to be inaccurate and possibly dishonest.
For example, Thompson claimed that Itasca had been repeatedly attempting to contact Amelia since 10 a.m., July 3, and that the signals sent by Itasca “as picked up by other units are steadily reported as possible signals from other sources. A careful check of the ITASCA radio logs shows that in most cases the signals were originated by ITASCA.”
As Ric Gillespie points out in Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, this statement is “patently untrue. A careful check of Itasca’s radio logs shows that not one of the purported receptions from the plane corresponds with a transmission by the cutter. In fact, Itasca’s own radio operators logged more unexplained signals on Earhart’s frequency – forty-four in all – than any other station.” Gillespie notes that as reports of distress calls came in to the cutter from various outside sources in the first several days of the search, Itasca “shared virtually no information about what its own radio operators were hearing.”
Thompson also declined to report that on the night of July 4, the Howland Island operator said that he “heard Earhart call Itasca” and that “Baker heard Earhart QSA 4 [strength 4 of 5] R7 [readability 7 of 9] last night at 8:20 p.m.” Nothing is noted in the Howland log for July 4, however, except the notation “charging batteries all day.” Thompson did not include the Itasca or Howland Island radio logs in his report, but Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts and Radioman 3rd Class Thomas O’Hare kept their original logs and donated them to the National Archives in the early 1970s. Bellarts’ son, Dave, has also provided copies to many researchers, including this one.
Thompson denied that any possible transmissions from the Electra had been received by Itasca, Swan, Howland or Baker Island, basing this claim on speculation that these units “were closest to the signals,” as if he knew where the broadcasts were originating. “None of these units heard the apparently faked messages,” Thompson wrote. … “Throughout, ITASCA opinion was that if the plane was down some of these units would get the traffic.” He then questioned the content of messages that were reported, without naming the sources, because “ITASCA was of the opinion that the traffic would consist of some useful information and not just call signs and dashes. Both Earhart and Noonan could use code. Why should a plane in distress waste time on repeated calls or on making special signals. If the plane was using battery the carrier signals were out of all proportion to the length of time the battery could stand up.”
In his 16-point summary, Thompson continued to dismiss the idea that messages could have been sent by the Electra, depicting the stateside amateur reports as “all probably criminally false.” Moreover, he incorrectly stated that “the only interceptions were by amateurs, with the exception of one Wailupe interception” and concluded it it was “extremely doubtful that Earhart ever sent signals after 0846, 2 July.” As for the Electra, “ITASCA’s original estimate after three (3) weeks of search problem still appears correct, that the plane went down to the northwest of Howland,” Thompson wrote.
The commanding officer of USS Colorado, Capt. Wilhelm L. Friedell, essentially agreed with Thompson. “The broadcasting stations and the ITASCA continued to send messages to the [Earhart] plane,” Friedell wrote in his July 13, 1937 search report to the Fourteenth Naval District. “On the night of 3 And 4 July no signals were heard on the plane frequency by the ITASCA or COLORADO, but reports were received from Wyoming, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Australia and other points that signals, and in some cases voice reports, had been received from the plane. … There was no doubt that many stations were calling the Earhart plane on the plane’s frequency, some by voice and others by signals. All of these added to the confusion and doubtfulness of the authenticity of the reports.”
Other expert opinions vary
Were any of the intercepted messages sent by the lost fliers? It’s impossible to be sure, but any fair and objective consideration certainly must include more than the flatly dismissive verdicts of the Navy and Coast Guard. Although George Angus, the Pan Am official who directed the Earhart watch in the Pacific area, didn’t share the enthusiasm expressed by R.M. Hansen, the operator in charge at Wake Island, who said he was “positive” that a bearing of 215 he took on a “very unsteady voice-modulated carrier . . . was KHAQQ [Earhart],” Angus didn’t rule out the possibility that one or more transmissions had come from the Electra.
“All of the above information was turned over to the Coast Guard officials at Honolulu with emphasis being made at the time that there was nothing definite in what we had heard because of no identifying signals of any nature being received,” Angus wrote in his July 10, 1937 report, later seized by U.S. Navy Intelligence agents after it was sent to the Pan Am communications center in Alemeda, California. “While it would appear there may have been some connection between the dashes and the KGMB broadcast, we could not state definitely that the signals were from the Earhart plane.”
Almon Gray wrote at length about the Nauru receptions reported 12-and-a-half hours after Amelia’s last message, concluding that “the signals intercepted by Nauru were in fact from the Earhart plane no longer in flight.” Moroever, Gray believed that the “peculiar signals” intercepted by the PAA stations at Wake, Midway, and Honolulu “may very well have come from the Earhart plane.”
Fred Goerner based his opinion on years of experience gathering news and dealing with people rather than technical expertise, and was convinced of the validity of some of the receptions. Writing to Fred Hooven in 1970, Goerner addressed the various amateur operator claims of receptions from the Electra. “The messages were publicly discredited by the Navy and the amateur operators were branded as cranks,” Goerner wrote. “I have contacted a number of those operators within the last couple of years, and I believe the messages they received were bona fide. The men I have talked to are all dedicated and responsible amateurs who were very upset at the official attitudes in 1937. Several of them have accused the Navy of having asked the editors of QST and other radio magazines not to print the letters of protest they wrote.”
Paul Rafford Jr., who recently celebrated his 95th birthday, says he “never saw eye to eye” with Gray, and puts little stock in the post-loss receptions. In 1981, Rafford built a nine-to-one scale model of the Electra, and ran tests to determine the difference in transmitting efficiency between a trailing antenna and the Electra’s fixed “V” antenna, based on his knowledge of its parameters and characteristics. “Measurements with the model, confirmed by mathematical formulas, show that the trailing antenna would have radiated almost all of the 50 watts supplied to it by the transmitter,” Rafford writes. “By contrast, her fixed antenna transmitted only ½ watt on 3105 kHz.” In April 2009, I asked Rafford if he thought any of the messages could have come from the Electra.
“Personally, I don’t go along with any so called post loss messages,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Some of them are outright bogus and none of them provide any useful information as to her whereabouts. In any case she would have to be down on land, undamaged, in order to put out a useful signal. It would be virtually impossible for her to be heard on 3105 for more than 200 miles by day and 100 by night. On 6210 she might be able to be heard out to 500 miles by day and 1000 by night, but most of the intercepts were on 3105.”
After more than 15 years of studying data from the Pan Am intercepts and other alleged radio receptions, Fred Hooven, the noted engineer and inventor who spent his last years as a Dartmouth University professor, besides working with Fred Goerner on the Earhart case, presented his paper, “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” at the Amelia Earhart Symposium at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., in June 1982.
Citing the bearings on the signals reported by the three Pan Am radio stations and the Howland Island high-frequency direction finder supplied by the Navy, Hooven announced it was “undeniable” that the transmissions had originated from the downed fliers. “Five bearings were taken on the weak, wavering signal reported on the frequency used by the Earhart plane,” Hooven wrote, “and four of them, plus the 157-337 position line of the last message all intersected in the general area of the Phoenix Group. This constitutes positive evidence of the presence of a transmitter in that area which could only have been that of the downed plane. No hypothesis purporting to explain the events of the last flight can be credited that does not offer a plausible explanation of these signals, and why they originated along the plane’s announced position line at the only location, except for Baker and Howland, where there was land.”
“Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight”: Birth of the Nikumaroro theory
“Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” is more than an erudite analysis of the alleged post-loss radio intercepts. Hooven studied everything available about the ill-fated flight, and saved his most damning criticism for George Palmer Putnam, “who promoted the flight in the first place,” and characterized Putnam’s role as its “most tragic aspect. It was his responsibility to see that the flight was properly administered,” Hooven wrote that “Miss Earhart had the best equipment and the proper instruction in its use, that the best possible logistic arrangements had been made, and above all that the most complete provisions possible had been made for the safety of the flight, and for the organizations of rescue operations, especially for the hazardous over-water flights.”
Hooven was convinced that “Putnam failed completely” to fulfill his responsibilities to Amelia, leaving “important management details to her,” and failing to sufficiently fund the required support operations. “He consistently showed interest only in the promotional aspects of the flight,” Hooven continued, noting that Putnam’s last messages to his wife “were exhortations to her to reach the United States by July Fourth in order to meet appearance commitments he had made for her.”
Hooven’s paper was a milestone in Earhart research, possibly the first academic, objective analysis of the post-flight intercepts, and firmly established him as the progenitor of the McKean-Gardner Island landing theory – which became popularized by Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR and the mainstream media as the “Nikumaroro hypothesis” during the past 25 years. In his conclusion, Hooven not only emphasized his conviction that Almon Gray’s “peculiar signals” were sent by the Electra, but he embraced Fred Goerner’s belief that Amelia and Noonan met their ends on Saipan, in Japanese custody.
“The evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that has been presented here,” Hooven wrote, “that the flyers landed in the Phoenix area, probably on McKean or Gardner, that they transmitted signals from there during the next three days, that they were removed by the Japanese, who either removed or destroyed their plane, that they were taken to Saipan, where they died sometime before the end of 1937, and that the U.S. Government knew about their fate, but for reasons of foreign relations and military secrecy were not able to make that knowledge public. We hope that one day records will be found or released that will reveal the truth about the fate of the flyers. Meanwhile the memory of a brave and gracious lady remains bright after forty five years.”
Hooven reportedly changed his theory that the Electra landed in the Phoenix Islands area – from which has sprung so much confusion and misinformation through the TIGHAR-Nikumaroro hypothesis that so dominates media coverage – and returned to Fred Goerner’s original Mili Atoll-landing scenario. Several researchers, including the late Ron Reuther and Rollin Reineck, and the still-living Bill Prymak and Ron Bright, agree that Hooven indeed changed his mind.
“I should have also mentioned that Fred Hooven, after making original conclusions that Earhart came down SE of Howland, thus influencing Goerner to concur, later recalculated and changed his conclusions and determined that AE/FN came down close to Mili,” Reuther wrote in an email to me shortly before his death in 2007. “I strongly believe Goerner would have reassessed his position and very likely would have agreed with Hooven’s final conclusion – near Mili,” if Hooven hadn’t passed away in 1985.
One possible post-loss message remains to be considered, perhaps the most controversial of all. We’ll take a look at it in the next post.