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)