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)