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.”)