Fred Goerner-Leo Bellarts early 1960s letters: Revisiting roots of the real search for Amelia

During the course of his early Earhart investigations, Fred Goerner, author of the classic 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart, wrote several letters to Leo Bellarts, the chief radioman aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca on July 2, 1937, who retired from the Coast Guard as a lieutenant in 1946. Most of Goerner’s letter of Nov. 30,  1961, below, was initially published in the July 1996 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, as was Bellarts’ reply of Dec. 15, 1961.

Many of the Goerner’s questions are still relevant today, especially since the American public has been fed a steady diet of disinformation for many decades by a U.S. media that hasn’t shown the slightest interest in learning the facts since Time magazine panned Search as a book that “barely hangs together” in its 1966 review that signaled the establishment’s aversion to the truth the KCBS newsman found on Saipan. Goerner died in 1994 at age 69, Bellarts in May 1974 at 66. 

28 November 1961
1920 State St.
Everett, Washington

Mr. Fred Goerner,
% KCBS
San Francisco, Calif.

Dear Mr. Goerner,

I have just received a letter and an article from a San Diego paper relative to your attempt to establish identity of some bones and teeth you found on Saipan. Having a long time interest in the Earhart story I am curious just to know why you believe Earhart wound up on Saipan.

Last year I believe that you attempted to identify an airplane generator as belonging to the Earhart plane. I’m sure that if a search was made around Saipan that many planes could be found and parts by the thousands cold be located, but none from the Earhart plane.

Coast Guard Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the radio teal aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca Itasca during the final flight of Amelia Earhart.

Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the radio team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca during the final flight of Amelia Earhart. (Photo courtesy Dave Bellarts.)

My curiosity stems from the fact that I believe I was one of the very few people that heard the last message from the Earhart plane. I was the Chief Radioman on the USCG Itasca at Howland Island during her ill-fated trip. Having heard practically every transmission she made from about 0200 till her crash when she was very loud and clear, I can assure you that she crashed very near Howland Island. The only island near Howland that it would have been possible for her to land would have been Baker Island and she didn’t land there.

Considering the increase in her signal strength from her first to her last transmission there leaves no doubt in my mind that she now rests peacefully on the bottom of the sea, no farther than 100 miles from Howland. If you could have heard the last transmission, the frantic note and near hysteria in her voice you also would be convinced of her fate but not on Saipan.

I firmly believe that she died a hero in the public eye and that is the way I believe that she would like it to be.

Sincerely yours,

Leo G. Bellarts
Lieut. USCG (Ret)

November 30, 1961

Leo G. Bellarts
Lieut. USCG (Ret)
1920 State Street
Everett, Washington

Dear Mr. Bellarts:

Your letter of the 28th just arrived, and I was delighted to receive it. I believe you may be able to answer a number of questions that have arisen from a thorough scrutiny of the official logs of the ITASCA and the Navy carrier, LEXINGTON. (Caps Goerner’s throughout.)

But, first, to answer your question: Why does CBS believe Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan?

Two expeditions to Saipan and three file cabinets filled with the most painstaking research concerning every aspect of the disappearance has given us very strong reasons to believe Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan for an indefinite period prior to the war. I might add that the Catholic Church authorities on Saipan and many of the Naval Officers at the Saipan facilities are also completely convinced. The Office of Naval Intelligence has admitted that their investigation of the testimony gathered from native Saipanese indicates that it cannot be discounted. Every attempt was made to puncture that testimony this last year, and in several cases it was impossible.

The main matter for conjecture is: How did Earhart and Noonan reach Saipan? Did they fly there in their Lockheed Electra, or were they taken to the Island by the Japanese after a landing in another area? 

Fred Goerner, circa mid-1960s, behind the microphone at KCBS in San Francisco.

Fred Goerner, circa mid-1960s, behind the microphone at KCBS in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy Merla Zellerbach.)

We have submitted the available information concerning the flight to a number of aviation experts familiar with that area of the Pacific, and all have said that it was physically possible for the plane to have flown to Saipan, but it certainly is not probable. The chances have been rated at one in a thousand to one in one hundred thousand.

The aircraft wreckage brought up from Tanapag Harbor during the expedition of June 1960 was almost an afterthought. Two native divers believed they knew where the wreckage of a twin-engine plane was in the harbor. We brought some of it to the surface with little hope it represented the Electra. The fact that a generator was a Japanese copy of the Bendix 50 amp which was carried on the Earhart craft gave hope for a brief time that it might be the proper one.

You are quite right in your assumption that the ocean floor surrounding Saipan is littered with wreckage, wreckage of every conceivable size and shape.

During my most recent trip to Saipan in September of this year, we further investigated the wreckage the generator was taken from, and definitely proved that the plane was Japanese and not Earhart’s Lockheed 10-E. A partially disintegrated name-plate on a direction finder had still legible Japanese markings.

The testimony about Earhart and Noonan being on the island, however, stood firm. The Navy had put two ONI men on the case, and their estimation was that the testimony from several reputable Saipanese in particular was irrefutable.

How then did Earhart and Noonan get to Saipan if they did not fly the Lockheed there. Commander Paul Bridwell,  Commandant NavAd Saipan, came up with the answer. The pair had gone down in or near the Marshalls and had been brought to Saipan, then the military headquarters for the Mandates, by Japanese ship to Yap, and then a flight by Japanese Naval Seaplane. Bridwell said there was proof to this theory contained in the logs of four United States Logistic Vessels, THE GOLD STAR, THE BLACKHAWK, THE HENDERSON, and THE CHAUMOUNT, which had been plying the Pacific in 1938 and ’39 supplying the Far East Fleet. “Certain coded messages sent from Japanese vessels and shore installations,” said Bridwell, “were intercepted by these ships.”

The Japanese code was not broken until just before the war, so I gather these messages may not have been decoded until just recently. That’s the only reason I can imagine why these messages have not been brought to light before. (Editor’s note: At the time of this letter, Goerner lacked important information about U.S. code-breaking abilities in 1937.  See pages 263-264 of Truth at Last, Second Edition, for more on this complex issue.)

Cmdr. Paul W. Bridwell, chief of the U.S. Naval Administration Unit on Saipan, and Jose Pangelinan, who told Fred Goerner he saw the fliers but not together, that the man had been held at the military police stockade and the woman kept at the hotel in Garapan. Pangelinan said the pair had been buried together in an unmarked grave outside the cemetery south of Garapan. The Japanese had said the two were fliers and spies. (Photo by Fred Goerner, courtesy Lance Goerner.)

Cmdr. Paul W. Bridwell, chief of the U.S. Naval Administration Unit on Saipan, and Jose Pangelinan, who told Fred Goerner he saw the fliers but not together, that the man had been held at the military police stockade and the woman kept at the hotel in Garapan. Pangelinan said the pair had been buried together in an unmarked grave outside the cemetery south of Garapan. The Japanese had said the two were fliers and spies. (Photo by Fred Goerner, courtesy Lance Goerner.)

______________________________________________________________________________________

                                                                                               December 10, 1961

As you can see, there has been considerable delay in the completion of this letter. Dr. [Theodore] McCown’s findings regarding the remains has touched off a chain reaction that has kept me away from my office until today.

To say that McCown’s findings were a disappointment is an understatement; however, it in no way changes our basic hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan. As Dr. McCown put it,”It doesn’t mean you weren’t on the right track. You may have missed the actual grave site by six inches. That’s the way it is with archeology.”

(Editor’s note: Dr. Theodore McCown was the University of California anthropologist who examined bones excavated by Goerner from a Saipan gravesite in 1961. See pages 224-225 of Truth at Last for more.)

Along with this letter, I am sending you our most recent press release which details many of the things I have already discussed.

Now, if I may, I would like to ask you several questions. As you were present on the ITASCA the morning of July 2, 1937, perhaps you can clarify some points that seem most enigmatic to us.

Why do many people cling to the theory that the Earhart radio was incapable of transmitting more than 50 to 100 miles when the last check-in with Lae, New Guinea was 785 miles out at 5:20 in the afternoon?

Why was “30 minutes of gas remaining” changed to read “but are running low on gas”?

Why do many people say the Earhart radio receiver was not functioning when one of the messages received by the ITASCA states, “We are receiving your signals, but they are too weak for a minimum”?

Why wasn’t Earhart alerted to the fact that a special direction finder had been set up aboard the ITASCA?

Why was a Lt. [Daniel A.] Cooper of the U.S. Army Air Forces aboard the ITASCA the morning of the disappearance?

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, anchored off Howland Island on July2, 1937, for the explicit purpose of helping Amelia Earhart find Howland and land safely at the airstrip that had been constructed there.

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was stationed next to Howland Island on July 2, 1937, for the explicit purpose of helping Amelia Earhart find Howland and land safely at the airstrip that had been constructed there.

Why is there a complete absence of any mention of the Coast Guard Vessel ONTARIO in the log of the ITASCA? The ONTARIO was a weather ship stationed at the half-way point of the flight. Didn’t the ONTARIO ever read the Earhart plane during the flight? If the ONTARIO didn’t read Earhart, why not? The flight plan would have taken the Electra fight over the ONTARIO.

Why wasn’t the emergency 3105 direction finder set up on Howland Island able to cut in the Earhart plane if the plane was as close to the island as everyone supposed?

Was there anything else beside “strength of signal” that lead those aboard the ITASCA to believe Earhart was within 50 to 100 miles of the vessel?

What was the first reaction of those aboard the ITASCA to “We are 157-337, running north and south”? Did they think it a radio bearing or a sun line? Certainly no one could have believed it a position that an experienced navigator such as Noonan would send if he knew where he was.

Why did the LEXINGTON base its search on the July 2 group of messages rather than the July 5 group? The July 5 group paint an entirely different picture, especially 0515: “200 miles” and 0545: “100 miles.” If the plane made 100 miles in 30 minutes, it’s quite obvious Earhart and Noonan figured their air speed at 200 miles per hour, which is far different than the 111 miles per hour the LEXINGTON assumed. The Electra was capable of 200 miles an hour top speed, but Earhart, conserving gas, would have been at cruise speed of 155. They must have picked up a tail wind, and the ITASCA log indicated the wind had shifted from the southeast.

I know these are a lot of questions, but there is so much that is inexplicable. Would you be so kind as to clarify some of these points for us? We will be most grateful.

Thank you so much for your time and interest.

Sincerely,

Frederick A. Goerner
News Dept., KCBS Radio
San Francisco, California

In future posts, thanks to the generous contributions of Dave Bellarts, of Lakewood, Wash., son of Leo, we’ll continue this fascinating correspondence between history’s foremost Earhart investigator and arguably the most reliable eyewitness aboard Itasca when Amelia sent her final “official” message that fateful July morning.

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8 responses

  1. Fascinating details, Mike – thanks so much for sharing these tidbits with those of us who would have no other way of ever knowing about them!

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  2. Here I go again. I don’t believe Amelia got anywhere near Howland I. I think her signals that the Itasca picked up were transmitted by a submarine in the vicinity or came from Howland I. itself where wasn’t it Black was stationed? Why couldn’t a radio be used that simply by turning down its power be made to sound weak and far off? And then when the message came in that was so loud it made them jump, could it have been that Black accidentally turned on full power when he didn’t mean to? What the point of these messages purportedly from Howland vicinity were escapes me unless it was for the benefit of the Japs who may have been well aware of Amelia’s flight and could have had a vessel nearby. There certainly weren’t, to my knowledge, any U S Navy patrols that would have noticed one or more Jap ships hanging around. Maybe the Jap Direction Finders were able to get a fix on those signals and they knew that wherever they were coming from, the transmission point wasn’t moving. Very suspicious to the Japs, I would think. I could go on and on, but too many “would haves, could haves” are creeping into my comment.

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  3. Leo Bellarts was apart of the COVER -UP! He needed to keep his job, position and of course, his comfortable paychecks………………………
    *Notice how he QUESTIONS Fred, in the very beginning of this letter. Instead of saying, WOW Fred you are on to something, and have FOUND AMELIA!
    Leo wants to take Fred, on a long walk off a short pier………………………………….
    Fred is getting BAPTIZED in propaganda and is about to be submerged in ALOT MORE of IT………………………………..

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  4. Is this blog open to posting lengthy new research? If so, what are the rules for posting? Word count, format?

    According to Lockheed mfg. records they constructed three identical 10 E aircraft. Two in 1936 and another in April 1937. Two were “delivered” to Purdue Aeronautics. The AE archives at Purdue have no records for the last two. Only the first one number 1055 which was the only one assigned a construction number. .

    If the New Britain / Australian wreckage is the 1055 Lockheed, then it is possible that the US Navy used the other two as covert areal spying. with the Miami AE’s “World Fight” 10E as cover for Marshall Is. project.

    The differences in the March / Burbank 1055 and the Miami AE plane prove that it was not the same March Lockheed. IE: rear lavatory window, wing tip Nav. lights, different belly radio ant. etc. One of the other Lockheed “‘sister” planes. AE’s diary entry at Lae,that “her “sister” pane was in the hanger”. The 8mm film at Lae shows a wooden wall dividing the 80 X 80 foot hamger,while the AE plane was parked halfway outside. Was there another 10E inside with the same “N” regst number?

    One of the other Lockheed 10Es ended up in Saipan when it was forced down in Mrch near *Worte Atoll *and captured and later flown there by Jap. military. It was flown by US Navy crew who were taken to Saipan and exceuted. The possibility is high they had aircraft fighters based on new airstrips in the Marshall Is. The Jap. Hawaiian Intel. was great and and they knew of the US Navy covert plan as early as the fall of 1936. .

    The AE 10E dry tanked on its way to the US Navy station at *Tuluila* in American Samoa. It had less fuel capacity with only four usable refueling ports.(about 1000 gals) However, it did not land on Gardner Is. It belly landed with wheels up on the reef at *Atafu Atoll.* Local fishermen reported the downed plane to a passing Jap patrol boat and they were rescued and taken back to *Jaluit Atoll*. Later both were charged with spying and taken to Saipan where they died early 1938. The Japs cemented the bones in 1944 when Saipan was invaded. The downed AE plane was transported back in July 1937 to Jaluit by a converted Jap. sea-plane tender that hoisted it up on its fantail. It ended up at the large Jap Naval repair station on* Taroa* in the NE sector of the Marshall Is.

    Keep up the good work

    Bob Doran bobdoran704@gmail.com

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    1. Bob,

      Don’t worry about length or format when you want to submit. As long as your submission makes sense to some extent, I’ll post it here.

      You make many remarkable claims in your post, but you offer no evidence for any of them. It’s all way too much to swallow for one post. If even half your claims were true, you should have published a book long ago. No one has yet proven that the plane that landed and took off from Miami was a different Electra that the one that emerged from the Burbank repair in late May 1937. If it were that easy, we all would have known about it, or am I all wet? Paul Rafford wrote about a DF loop being installed on the alleged Earhart plane in Miami by technician Bob Thibert.

      “He claimed that the morning before Earhart’s departure, Len Michaelfelder, his boss, handed him a new radio loop and told him to install and calibrate it on the Electra, post-haste,” Rafford wrote. “However, newsreels of the Electra taken just after it arrived in Miami from Burbank show a loop already mounted on it.” For Rafford’s full article, see https://earharttruth.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/the-case-for-the-earhart-miami-plane-change-another-unique-rafford-gift-to-earhart-saga.

      But if David Billings’ theory is correct and CN/1055 is in the New Guinea jungle, then something very strange was certainly going on before, during and after Amelia’s last flight. If you really have the answer, I urge you to write it up in way that cites sources and stands up to true scrutiny. As far as I’m concerned Truth at Last presents the most logical and best documented answers to the big questions. Many smaller mysteries continue to nag us, of course, the most prominent, in my view, is just how and why did the Earhart Electra — with the fliers aboard — wind up crash-landing in the lagoon off Barre Island?

      I doubt many, if any, of our readers have heard about “Atafu Atoll,” though I’ve heard the Taroa idea many times, mainly from Woody Peard of the AES. Nothing of substance has ever been produced to support the idea.

      We look forward to more from you, Bob.
      Thanks,
      Mike

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    2. Wasn’t the “Daily Express” plane C/N 1079 I think, identical to Amelia’s plane? Is that one of the 3 you are referring to? Although apparently that plane ended up in Russia. I have always thought that Lockheed may well have supplied Amelia with a much improved 10E with higher altitude capability, perhaps to evade Japanese pursuit. It would be excellent if you could supply pictures showing the differences in the almost identical planes. From my amateur examinations of old photo archives, I never saw any glaring differences in different photos of her plane from Hawaii to the final flight. Even the differences in the shading of the aluminum on the tail assembly seems to lead nowhere.

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  5. I also questioned the events at Lae, I think even with David Billings. Lae was a busy place in those days and for there to have been a second identical 10E there, well Billings shot that idea down. He claims somebody would sure have noticed. So would everybody who noticed kept quiet? I don’t know.

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  6. Bob,

    You forget the testimonies of so many islanders who watched the saga unfold with their own eyes & ears. These other islands you speak of – Atafu & Worte Atolls & Tuluila — what significance, if any, would draw Amelia to those? None that I can see.
    The Japanese cemented Amelia & Fred’s bones? That’s a NEW one! I’ve never heard these WILD theories before!

    Bob, the only sense I’ve read from your post are the three identical 10E aircraft. This New Britain wreckage? Until it’s been rediscovered, only then, can it be identified as genuine.

    The *TRUTH at LAST speaks volumes for itself…

    All the BEST,
    Doug

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