Earhart lore is replete with strange stories that have never been factually confirmed and presented as legitimate evidence, yet remain believable and even compelling, because the scenarios they describe fit so well with what we know happened, based on the mountains of legitimate eyewitness accounts and other evidence that reveals the truth about Amelia and Fred Noonan’s sad ends on Saipan.
Today we reach into the “back of the rack,” as disk jockeys used to say when they played real music on radio, and dust off an obscure piece of Earhart arcana for your information and edification. Bill Prymak either liked this story so much that he presented it in two separate issues of his Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, July 1996 and June 1999, something he’d never done with any other stories, to my knowledge, or as he was preparing his June ’99 newsletter, he simply forgot that he’d run it three years earlier.
Please forgive the sometimes intrusive editor’s notes, but I feel it’s important that readers understand this story as well as possible, and because it’s being presented in its original form, some of the details and terminology need further explanation. Nothing more is known of this story’s author, Jack Ralph.
Bill Prymak’s note: “Somebody very high in U.S. government went to a lot of trouble, via London, to have this leak squashed.”
“AMELIA EARHART’S LAST FLIGHT, A TRUE STORY”
by Jack Ralph
In August 1942, I received my Air Force wings and was assigned to a Consolidated B-24 Heavy Bombardment Air Group being assembled in preparation for overseas duty. In January of 1943 we were in place on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and began operations against Japanese ground, air, and sea targets throughout the South Pacific.
A U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 Liberator bomber, flying over explosions on the Salamaua Peninsula, where the port is located. The campaign to take the Salamaua and Lae, New Guinea area, across the Solomon Sea in the general area of the Solomon Islands, began with the Australian attack on Japanese positions near Mubo, on April 22, 1943. The campaign ended with the fall of Lae on Sept. 16, 1943.
After several months of combat flying individual crews were allowed a rest leave in Auckland, New Zealand. These rests lasted about two weeks during which we enjoyed a return to the luxury of real civilization, along with good food, and recreational activities arranged by the city of Auckland and our own Red Cross. At a social center maintained by these two organizations for service personnel, my navigator, Lt. “Steve” Stevens met a lovely young lady and they dated a number of times before we had to return to duty in the Solomons, which then seemed like a different planet. This was about July of 1943.
Steve was a quiet, smart, completely honest, exemplary individual. He was acknowledged to be one of the best navigators in our unit. The art of navigation was critical to our survival. There were wartime blackouts on all radio navigation aids, and many hours aloft with no landmarks for checkpoints. We routinely had critical fuel problems with flights stretching our range to the maximum. At the time the B-24 was the only bomber in the world that could handle those missions. I mention this only to provide insight on Steve’s credibility and reputation.
On our way back to Guadalcanal, Steve told me about his date with the young lady the night before. He had spent the evening with her and her Mother [sic]. They told him about living on Nauru, a British protectorate island about 1,000 miles northeast of the Solomons. The girl’s father had been a high-ranking British official in charge of numerous British islands throughout the south Pacific. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the mother and daughter were evacuated to the safety of New Zealand. Nauru was soon taken by the Japanese and the father’s fate was unknown.
(Editor’s note: Nauru, officially the Republic of Nauru and formerly known as Pleasant Island, is an island country in Micronesia in the Central Pacific. Its nearest neighbor is Banaba Island in Kiribati, 186 miles to the east. With over 10,000 residents in an 8.1 square mile area, Nauru is the smallest state in the South Pacific and third smallest state by population in the world, ahead of only the Vatican City and Monaco.
Settled by the Micronesians and Polynesians, Nauru was claimed as a colony by the German Empire in the late 19th century. After World War I, Nauru became a League of Nations Mandate administered by Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. During World War II, Nauru was occupied by Japanese troops, who were bypassed by the Allied advance across the Pacific. After the war ended, the country entered into trusteeship again. Nauru gained its independence in 1968. End of editor’s note.)
The two told Steve that the communications radios on Nauru were used by Amelia Earhart on her last flight as her path was quite near the island. The operators, along with all the others involved that night, could never figure out what went wrong.
(Editor’s note: When Steve’s two female hosts told him that radios on Nauru were “used by Amelia Earhart on her last flight,” they didn’t mean this literally, and could have been a bit more precise. At about 8:30 p.m. Lae time, the radio station at Nauru, which had been hearing her broadcasts for several hours, heard Earhart say on 3105, “A ship in sight ahead.” The ship was Ontario, lying just a few miles north of the direct circle track to Howland. Ontario had been sending Morse code Ns on the hour as requested in a July 1 update to Earhart’s June 27 message. The ship’s log contained no mention of seeing or hearing the Electra, and it was impossible for Earhart to communicate directly with Ontario and vice-versa.
These are not nurses, but uniformed female employees from the Westfield freezing works in Auckland, New Zealand, grouped outside the factory buildings during Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt’s tour. Could the “lovely young lady” that Lt. Steve Stevens met in Auckland have been among these women? This photo was taken on Sept. 2, 1943, about the same time Stevens and Jack Ralph, this story’s author, were visiting Auckland on leave from their Army Air Corps Bombardment Group.
About an hour after the “ship in sight” message, T.H. Cude, the Nauru director of police, claimed he heard Earhart’s signals on his new 12-tube radio receiver. “Between 10 and 11 p.m.,” Cude wrote in a 1969 letter, “I heard her calling Harold Barnes. She called several times and said she could see the lights of Nauru.”
The time corresponds to the last, unintelligible signal reported by Radio Nauru on 3105, but Cude’s receiver was much better for receiving voice, according to Capt. Laurance Safford, author of Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday: The Facts Without the Fiction, who said Earhart would have passed Nauru at a distance of 125 nautical miles.
The lights Earhart saw were floodlights strung out along the two 1,000-foot cableways on top of the island that allowed mining operations at night, and “the 5,000 candle-power fixed light should have been visible from an altitude of 10,000 feet, or at least the bloom of the light on the clouds overhead,” Safford wrote. “Once again half-way to Howland, Noonan was dead on course.” End of Editor’s note.)
Quite some time later (I recall that Steve mentioned a matter of months) some south sea island natives arrived at Nauru in an outrigger canoe. They were from the Marshall and Gilbert Islands and they had a handwritten scribbled note signed by Amelia Earhart. (Bear in mind that the natives cover vast distances in their canoes. On some of our B-24 sea search patrols we would encounter them hundreds of miles from any land. That ancient art of open ocean navigation passed on from father to son is now, according to the National Geographic, almost forgotten, and certainly not as skilled as in the past. Remember, we are going back almost 52 years with this story.)
(Editor’s note: The distance from Mili Atoll to Nauru is about 573 miles, and 498 miles from the Gilberts to Nauru.)
The note stated that she had gone down and been captured by the Japanese in the Marshall and Gilberts and she was hoping her note could be smuggled out by friendly natives. She and her navigator, “Newman” were held prisoners. Mother and daughter told Steve that the news was immediately reported to London.
But meanwhile, the local newspaper picked up the story and immediately went to press. As I recall Steve said the name of the paper was “The Pacific Inter-Island Express” or very near that. The paper was distributed throughout the protectorate islands. The two women had saved some of those papers and Steve personally read the account from one of the copies. (Editor’s note: Online searches found no trace of The Pacific Inter-Island Express or any publication remotely similar, but this doesn’t mean the newspaper didn’t exist.)
Within just a few days a message arrived from London classifying the story TOP SECRET. That set off a frantic search for all the papers that had been printed and sent to all the islands. It was done, since communications were slow and cumbersome then, and though the distances were great, the actual number of copies and readers was comparatively small. The security clamp was never rescinded and no further information on the subject ever reached Nauru despite requests for information.
A recent photo of Nauru. Note the landing strip at far right. Nauru International Airport serves as the main hub of the national carrier, Nauru Airlines, formerly known as Air Nauru. Flights originate in Brisbane, Australia, and are available from Nauru to Majuro, Nadi and Tarawa. As of January 2015, the population of Nauru was estimated at 10,436.
We decided that Steve should tell the story to our Bomb Group Intelligence Officer immediately upon our return to Guadalcanal and I’m sure Steve did so although I didn’t go with him. Nothing more was heard of it and we really didn’t expect that after the war the story would break. I did write the Pentagon after a few months of peace, and the reply tersely only said there was no record of such an incident.
Steve and I kept in touch. As time passed we concluded that the Allies were intent on making good and dependable friends of the Japanese and didn’t want to open old wounds with bad publicity. We wrote the whole thing off as diplomatic expediency and figured the story would forever be suppressed.
Picking up this cold trail now would involve tremendous research effort. The Freedom of Information Act would not be useful since the story would be in British archives. There may be no references to it in U.S. records. There is a fair chance the daughter is still alive and still under orders to suppress. As I write this, in 1994, I would presume she would be around 70-73 years old. Steve died some 10 years ago.
Considering the relationship now existing between Britain, the U.S. and Japan, I would bet there is no way the information will ever be divulged. There have been many stories and theories expounded over the years concerning Amelia’s disappearance. Many of them contain deductions that mesh very well with this story. I firmly believe this is what really happened.