Paul Rafford’s “Howland Island Fly-By”: Phase II
We continue with Phase II, the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s response to questions about his unique theory, in this case a true “conspiracy theory” in the Earhart disappearance, the “Howland Island Fly-By.” Rafford’s thesis appeared in the March 1992 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Bill Prymak, AES founder and president is designated as “AES” throughout; Rafford’s answers are seen simply as “A.” (Boldface emphasis is mine throughout.)
PHASE II – THE MYSTERIOUS RADIO CALLS
AES – You believe that the mysterious voice transmissions heard for three days after Earhart’s disappearance were also pre-recorded?
A – Yes. These were interspersed with some very poorly transmitted radio code to simulate what listeners might expect Earhart’s sending to sound like.
AES – But, today we know that she had left her radio key back in Miami, right?
A – Yes. It was located in a locker at Pan Am weeks later.
AES – What would have been the purpose of these radio calls?
A – They would have lent credence to the theory that Earhart had survived and was calling for help. This in turn would justify the Navy’s vast search. I remember the public clamor to find her.
AES – Where was the transmitter that sent out the calls?
A – Our best evidence indicates that it was on Gardner Island in the Phoenix group. It is now called Nikumaroro. When plotted, bearings taken on the station by the Pan Am direction finding stations bracket the island. I illustrate the details on my chart, THE MYSTERIOUS RADIO CALLS. A search plane sent to investigate reported signs of recent habitation but saw no one on the island. However, this information was not released to the public at the time.
AES – Do you believe the same type transmitter was used for both the PBY and Gardner transmissions?
A – No. Radioman [2nd Class Frank] Cipriani, who handled the direction finder on Howland, reported the plane’s transmissions to be stable and on frequency. In contrast, the Gardner transmitter was slightly off frequency and very unstable. Also, to cover the Pacific as it did, higher power was required. My computer analysis puts the power at 100 watts or more.
AES – What sort of transmitter do you believe was set up on Gardner?
A – When Karl Pierson recently described what the signal sounded like, I was immediately reminded of the transmitter we flew to Liberia right after Pearl Harbor to support South Atlantic aeronautical communication. It was a 100 watt model that Pan Am used at outlying stations in the 1930s. We powered it with a one-cylinder gasoline generator that the operator had to kick start before going on the air.
Its stability was on a par with what Karl describes but it did not operate on radiotelephone. However, a simple modification could have been made that would allow it to be modulated enough to produce the speech quality reported by the various listeners, that is, “highly distorted.”
Karl also reported that when the transmitter was sending voice he could hear what appeared to be a gasoline engine running in the background, “ — but not an airplane engine.”
AES – Why do you believe that recordings of Earhart’s voice were used instead of announcements by another woman, either live or recorded?
A – Because three different individuals who knew Earhart’s voice identified it when they heard the transmissions. Two were reported aboard the Itasca when she supposedly flew by Howland. The third was radio engineer Karl Pierson in Los Angeles who listened to the voice during the nights following her disappearance. He and his colleagues had monitored her transmissions during her flight from Hawaii to San Francisco in 1935.
Of course, the Navy could have substituted a “sound alike” woman and trained her to simulate Earhart’s manner of speaking. But, the fewer people involved in a top-secret venture, the better. Having Earhart do the recordings herself before the flight would have been the best way to ensure secrecy.
AES – You say Earhart’s last two-way conversation was when she signed off with Harry Balfour seven hours into the flight. How can we be sure that all subsequent transmissions were not recordings?
A – We can’t be sure. Every one of her transmissions from that time on is suspect. Her contact with Balfour on 6210 khz advising that she was signing off with him and switching to 3105 may have been the last time Earhart was ever heard on a “live” radio.
AES – Why were certain transmissions clear while others were highly distorted?
A – It depended upon what the mission script called for at that particular time. In those cases where the plane passed specific information to Lae, Nauru and Howland, they were clear. Otherwise, they were weak or distorted. I believe this was deliberately intended to confuse the listeners.
AES – You say information was passed to Nauru?
A – Yes. T.H. Cude, Director of Police on Nauru, claimed that he heard Earhart say on 3105 that she had the lights of the island in sight. However, in the search report this is recorded as “lights in sight ahead.” Later, various investigators read the report and then made their own interpretations. Some concluded that the lights were those of the USS Ontario, on station midway between Lae and Howland waiting for her to over-fly. Others concluded they were the SS Myrtlebank, southwest of Nauru and due to arrive the following morning.
AES – Do you believe Earhart sent her Nauru sighting messages “live” or were they recordings transmitted by Naval Intelligence?
A – From the evidence we have I would hesitate to support either theory.
AES – But, you are suggesting that Earhart may never have come near Nauru?
A – Yes. She may well have been following another route to an unknown destination after she signed off with Harry Balfour at Lae.
AES – Then what would have been the purpose of these messages?
A – They would establish for the record that Earhart was apparently passing Nauru on schedule even though she may not have been anywhere in the area.
AES – You mean that if the Japanese were intercepting her radio transmissions this bit of disinformation — if it was disinformation — would lead them to believe that Earhart was actually following the flight plan that she had announced to the news media?
A – That’s as good a way of putting it as any. Incidentally, with the exception of Cude’s intercept, listeners on Nauru reported that even though the plane’s signals became increasingly strong as it apparently approached the island, they were never able to understand the words.
AES – On your chart, THE MYSTERIOUS RADIO CALLS, you show that twelve hours after the Itasca last heard the plane, listeners on Nauru heard a woman’s voice on 6210. But, again they could not understand what she said. What is your comment about this?
A – They also reported that although the voice sounded the same as the night before, this time they could hear “no hum of engines in the background.” I believe this transmission was the first in a series of covert signals that lasted three nights. However, Nauru was the only station to hear this transmission. This leads me to believe that other covert transmitters besides Gardner were involved in the operation after Earhart disappeared. They may have been located on planes, submarines or even uninhabited islands like Gardner.
AES – What was the purpose of these calls?
A – They were designed to convince listeners that Earhart was safely down somewhere. But, because they could not understand her words, the search team would not know where to look. As a result, they had no choice but to search the whole Central Pacific — exactly what the mission planners had intended to happen.
AES – Who in government do you believe knew about the secret nature of Earhart’s flight?
A – No doubt the President knew the details because she was a frequent guest at the White House. I suspect the plan originated with him.
Others who knew would be the Naval Intelligence team assigned to carry out the mission plans plus top people in the Department of the Interior that administered our Pacific Islands. I doubt that anyone in the Coast Guard knew.
AES – Why do you believe that the President had anything to do with the Earhart mission?
A – Because of her remark to Mark Walker, Pan Am pilot and Naval Reserve officer. Mark had been assigned to work with Earhart and Noonan on the Pacific phase of their flight. When he warned her of the dangers she replied that she had not proposed it. Someone high in government had personally asked her to undertake the mission.
AES – You mention that [Itasca Radioman 3rd Class] Bill Galten had his doubts about what was going on after his many calls to the plane were ignored. Why were he and others involved in the search not more outspoken about their doubts?
A – Because the Navy classified the logs and records.
AES – Why were they classified?
A – There were several reasons. Classifying them would not only keep the public from reviewing them and asking sensitive questions, but it would prevent those in the services who might have answers from revealing what they knew. World War II was imminent and we needed all the information about the Pacific islands that we could gather. But, of course, we could not reveal our information gathering activities to a potential enemy.
Next, where Earhart was concerned it was imperative for political reasons not to allow the public to suspect that their heroine might have lost her life while serving on a top secret government mission. Not only might this have cost Roosevelt the next election but it could have provided powerful anti-war factions in the United States with enough ammunition to seriously delay our preparations for the world wide conflict that was about to break out.
As incredible as it now seems in the light of history, over 50 percent of those polled in a national survey just before Pearl Harbor refused to believe America was in any danger of an attack from Japan!
AES – The Itasca’s logs and the Navy’s records were not declassified until twenty-five years later, right?
A – Yes, but the classification was only at the CONFIDENTIAL level. We have never been able to determine if there were any with a higher classification. But if there were I doubt that they exist today.
AES – Why do you say this?
A – Because, as a friend of mine with former Naval Intelligence connections puts it, “Poor Ollie North, his downfall came about because he had to keep records!”
AES – So, where do you believe Earhart finally landed?
A – I can only refer you to the host of theories that have been advanced through the years. They vary all the way from Earhart and Noonan simply getting lost and running out of gas near Howland to landing on a Japanese held island where they were taken prisoner.
But, one thing seems certain. Wherever they finally ended up it was not where the mission planners intended.
I doubt we will ever know for sure! (End of Rafford interview.)
Rafford’s comparison of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North’s ill-advised record-keeping during the Iran–Contra affair, a political scandal of the late 1980s, to the Earhart case is pure speculation and not a reliable assessment about the existence or non-existence of top-secret files on the Earhart disappearance.
We have strong evidence that suggests top-secret Earhart files still existed in the early 1960s, when the Kennedy administration actually allowed Fred Goerner and Ross Game to view them clandestinely. See my Dec. 20, 2019 post, “Game letter suggests possible Earhart burial site” for a discussion, or Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last (2nd Edition), pages 271, 272.
Paul Rafford’s “Howland Island Fly-By”: Phase I
We return to the work of the late Paul Rafford Jr., the last survivor of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, who passed away on Dec. 10, 2016 at 97. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
Readers of this blog are familiar with Rafford’s fascinating work. His public introduction came in Vincent V. Loomis’ 1985 book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story, in which he discussed his current ideas about the Electra’s radio capabilities and Amelia’s bizarre actions during the final flight. Rafford’s 2006 book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, wasn’t a commercial success, but presents invaluable information unavailable anywhere else.
I’ve written three lengthy pieces that brought new focus on his important contributions to the modern search for Amelia Earhart: “The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change : Another unique Rafford gift to Earhart saga”; “Rafford’s ‘Earhart Deception’ presents intriguing possibilities”; and “Rafford’s ‘Enigma’ brings true mystery into focus: What was Earhart really doing in final hours?”
Prymak’s interview of Rafford about his “Howland Island Fly-By” theory appeared in the March 1992 issue of the AES Newsletters, and was presented in two parts, Phase I and Phase II. Following is Phase I, presented nearly exactly as it appeared in the original, with photos added by this editor. Prymak is designated as “AES” throughout, Rafford’s answers are designated simply as “A.”
Phase I of the question-and-answer interview was preceded by the following biographical information.
Paul Rafford Jr.: THE MAN
In 1940, Paul Rafford Jr. joined Pan Am as a Flight Radio Officer on the flying boat Clippers. As a result, he is well acquainted with the radio equipment and operating procedures of the Earhart era. After joining the company he met Pan Am people and others who either knew Earhart and Noonan or had a part in their flight preparations.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, under Pan Am’s contract with the Air Force, he worked as a Communications Manager on the Astronaut Recovery Team. His specialty was the analysis and forecasting of radio communication with the ships and planes supporting the astronaut landings.
It was while at his console in Mission Control that he became impressed with the parallels between the Navy’s astronaut search and recovery operations in the mid-Pacific and its vast search for Amelia Earhart in the same area thirty years before. As a result, he decided to apply space-age, computer aided investigative techniques to the problem of tracking down Earhart’s whereabouts when last heard from.
In the following question and answer session he presents his theory that Earhart may never have come anywhere near Howland Island. Instead, what the Itasca’s crew really heard were recordings of her voice made weeks beforehand, transmitted by a Navy plane to simulate her supposed efforts to find it.
“THE AMELIA EARHART
The theory presented herein represents
a major digression from the commonly
held belief that Earhart was in the vicinity
of Howland Island when her voice
was last heard on the air.
It proposes that the radio calls intercepted
by the Itasca were actually recorded
by Earhart before she left the
United States, to be played back at the
appropriate time later on by another
Paul Rafford Jr.
December 7, 1991
“PHASE I — THE HOWLAND ISLAND FLY-BY”
AES – So, you now suggest that Earhart never flew anywhere near Howland Island and you doubt that she ever intended to land there?
A – Yes, and I quote my friend Bill Galten, radio operator aboard the Itasca standing off shore, “That woman never intended to land on Howland.”
AES – But, don’t the Itasca’s logs contradict this?
A – No. If you study the logs carefully you will note that Earhart never called the Itasca directly or replied to any of its many calls. Her method of operating as observed by the ship was to suddenly come on the air for seven or eight seconds with a brief message. Then, she would be silent for anywhere up to a half hour or more before breaking in with another message.
The Itasca’s report states that two-way contact was never established. All of the transmissions received by the ship could have been recorded weeks beforehand for playback by another plane. It could just as well have been a PBY flying out of Canton Island.
AES – How were the recordings played back to make them sound authentic?
A – By following a carefully planned script. On my chart, THE SIMULATED HOWLAND ISLAND FLY-BY, I show the flight track I propose the PBY would have followed. At 1415, 1515 and 1623 GMT, the plane could have transmitted the first three recordings while sitting on the lagoon at Canton. They would simulate Earhart approaching Howland before sunrise. Then, at dawn the PBY could have taken off and headed toward Howland, transmitting the remainder of the recordings as directed by the script.
AES – But, the year was 1937 and PBYs didn’t carry radiotelephone?
A – True, but small, low power radio telephone transmitters for short distance communication by aircraft were available. I particularly remember the ten watt model we carried on the Pan Am flying boat Clippers. It would have been ideal for the Earhart fly-by simulation. The operator would simply start the playback machine and hold the radio mike up to the earphone to transmit the recordings.
AES – But, weren’t recording and playback equipment very primitive and bulky back then?
A – By modern standards yes, but not too bulky or primitive to be operated aboard a PBY.
AES – What evidence do you have that Canton Island might have been used as the base for the PBY that transmitted the Howland Island fly-by messages?
A – We know that the Navy had hosted a scientific party to observe a solar eclipse on Canton a month before Earhart’s flight. Aviation fuel, a radio station and supplies could have been left behind for the PBY operation.
AES – Isn’t there an exception to your claim that Earhart never replied to any of the Itasca’s calls? What about her request for the ship to transmit on 7500 kilocycles followed five minutes later by her statement that she had received the signal but was unable to get a bearing?
A – This apparent exchange of communication between the plane and ship could have been planned well in advance by the mission script writers. Earhart would request 7500 khz from the Itasca. Then, five minutes later she would announce that she had tuned it in but was unable to get a bearing. This would later explain to investigators why she could not find Howland.
AES – But, suppose the Itasca had not been able to come up on 7500, what would the PBY crew have done then?
A – They could have substituted another recording in which Earhart would be heard saying that she was unable to pick up the ship. However, it didn’t matter either way because the end result would be the same. Earhart’s failure to find Howland would be blamed on radio navigation.
Incidentally, no aircraft direction finder can take a bearing on 7500 khz. The Itasca’s crew knew this but without two-way communication with Earhart could not point out her supposed mistake and suggest a frequency where she could get bearings.
Today, we have every reason to believe that Earhart must have known that she couldn’t get a bearing on 7500 khz. Previously, she had been an adviser to the government on aircraft direction finders. Then, just prior to her departure from Lae, Harry Balfour, the local radio operator, had reviewed the operation of her d/f with her, particularly with reference to taking bearings on ships.
AES – Wouldn’t Noonan have known that she couldn’t take bearings on 7500?
A – Definitely! We radio operators worked very closely with our navigators back then and they knew what could or could not be done using radio direction finders.
Playing a recording of Earhart asking for that frequency was just a ploy to make it appear to the Coast Guard that she was ignorant about the basics of radio navigation. What better way to explain why she got lost?
AES – But later, wouldn’t some of Earhart’s aviator friends have pointed out that she very well knew she couldn’t get bearings on 7500 khz?
A – Yes. And I believe that this is one of the reasons why the logs and search report had to be classified for 25 years.
AES – What about the Howland Island direction finder, it never got a bearing either. What went wrong there?
A – The Howland direction finder was still another ploy to make it appear that Earhart’s failure to find Howland was due to radio navigation. The unit was an aircraft model, specially modified to take bearings on 3105 khz while Earhart was supposedly approaching the island. Its range was very limited, particularly when taking bearings on airplanes using fixed antennas. However, to further ensure that Howland couldn’t get a bearing, transmission from the plane never lasted more than seven or eight seconds, far too short for an operator to get a bearing.
AES – Why was it important for Howland not to get bearings on the plane?
A – Because they would have shown it to be approaching from the southeast and not from the west. This would have been a dead giveaway that the plane was not Earhart’s.
AES – Why was it necessary for Earhart to appear to get lost?
A – To touch off one of the world’s greatest air/sea searches. It would give the Navy an opportunity to make a vast survey of the Central Pacific, an area where the latitudes and longitudes of some of the islands had not been corrected on its charts since the early explorers first stumbled across them.
The storm clouds of World War II were fast gathering and our government needed all the intelligence information it could get. The searches would also give the Navy an opportunity to exercise its forces in an urgent, war-like situation without upsetting powerful pacifist groups in the U.S.
AES – Where would she finally be found?
A – Probably on some secluded island but not before the Navy had completed its survey. (End of Phase I.)
As is evident in the foregoing, Paul Rafford developed a unique, full-blown “Earhart Deception” theory, that’s compelling in its concept, execution and audacity. In our next post, Bill Prymak’s interview with Rafford will continue with Phase II of the “Howland Island Fly-By.”
McLean recalls 2014 search for Walker on Dublon
In closing my Aug. 1 post, “Did Earhart tell Walker about her ‘real mission’?” I wrote that, “We won’t get any further involved in the Hawaii Clipper disappearance now, but I thought some of Hill’s speculations might be interesting to many readers of this blog . . . ”
That was the plan, anyway, until longtime Truth at Last reader and professional scuba diver Larry McLean, of Seattle, Wash., sent me a fascinating email with entirely new information about a story I think readers will also find interesting.
McLean, 57, who’s been “all over the world,” says his favorite place is Truk Lagoon, where he lived and worked from 1993 through 1995, sparking a passion for researching and documenting shipwrecks. “I love shipwrecks,” he wrote in an Aug. 5 email. “And Truk has the best collection of accessible genuine World War II shipwrecks on the planet.”McLean didn’t know about the Hawaii Clipper mystery until he returned to the states in early 2000. “When I discovered Charles Hill’s book and the mystery of the Hawaii Clipper it made a lot of sense to me,” he recalled. “The witness names also jumped out at me because while I lived in Truk (Chuuk) I’ve gotten to know several members of the Mori family and new several Chuukese whose home island was Dublon (AKA Tonoas). I was gripped by Fix on the Rising Sun. I got hooked on the mystery, and it also rekindled my interest in Amelia Earhart and the possibility that she had overflown Truk in 1937.”
Since receiving McLean’s emails, I’ve been re-reading Charles N. Hill’s Fix on the Rising Sun (2000), to get more familiar with the Hawaii Clipper case, at least as Hill viewed it. To recap briefly, Hill is best known for his conviction that the “Hawaii Clipper did not simply ‘disappear’ ” as he writes in his book’s opening pages, “she was hi-jacked [sic] to Truk Atoll by radical officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Her fifteen crew and passengers were murdered and entombed within a slab of wet concrete on Dublon Island, at Truk Atoll, and quite inexplicably, the United States Government continues to keep this secret for the Japanese government — and from the American People [sic] — as it has, since 1938.” (Italics in original, boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
Hill’s contention that the Hawaii Clipper’s crew and passengers “were murdered and entombed within a slab of wet concrete on Dublon Island, at Truk Atoll” is serious indeed, and we’re certainly entitled to know where Hill got this blockbuster piece of intel.
Hill’s source was none other than Joe Gervais, whose main claim to fame will forever be the vile Irene Bolam-as-Amelia Earhart “theory,” introduced to a stunned America by Gervais’ Air Force crony Joe Klaas in his 1970 book, Amelia Earhart Lives. AE Lives was taken off the shelves by publisher McGraw-Hill just weeks after publication when Mrs. Bolam filed a lawsuit for defamation. If you’re new to that story or want to catch up on the Bolamite travesty, here’s the first of my four-part series, “Irene Bolam and the Decline of the Amelia Earhart Society.”
Gervais was on Truk in November 1964, searching down a lead on a wreck that he hoped would be Earhart’s Electra, but turned out to be a Japanese “Betty” bomber. Gervais’ guide on Truk Atoll’s Dublon Island was an old “Franco-Micronesian” named Robert Nauroon, who wasn’t interested in Amelia Earhart, but had quite a story to tell Gervais nonetheless.
As described by Hill in Fix on the Rising Sun, in 1938 the Japanese planned to build a small naval hospital on Dublon Island, and hired Nauroon and a man named Taro Mori to supervise the pouring of a 30-by-60 foot concrete slab upon which the hospital would rest. Hill continued:
According to Gervais’ account of Nauroon’s story, Nauroon, Mori and their crews arrived at the hospital site early one morning in the late summer of 1938. There were a number of Japanese guards and officers waiting for them, and Nouroon quickly realized why. There, in the northern half of the excavated slab site, were fifteen men, or the bodies of fifteen men, lying face down and arranged in three rows of four men each and one row of three. Some . . . wore dark uniforms (as did the PAA crews), but the rest wore western civilian clothing. At some point, Nauroon was made aware of the fact that the fifteen men were Americans.
The crews worked quickly in the growing heat, and by noon, the fifteen Americans had been covered and the concrete surface was finished. Nauroon explained to Joe that they had all worked quickly because the job had turned out to be so unpleasant. But perhaps they realized as well, that the sooner they left the site, the safer they might be: the Japanese were not above executing civilians on any pretext — and knowledge of this job would certainly have been such a pretext.
Nauroon insisted many times to Joe that the Americans had been dead when the slab was poured, but he added that, when recovered, there would be found “no marks of death upon them.” (Italics in original.) That is, they had not been beheaded or shot, and they may well have been poisoned, as was suspected in the case of Earl Ellis, in 1923. But, according to Joe, Mori, confirming all that Nauroon had told him, had added that it had been necessary to fasten reinforcing wire over the men — “to keep them down.” Mori may have been referring to a tendency of bodies to “float” in wet concrete, but he may also have been referring to men struggling to lift their heads above the concrete — as it engulfed them.
Hill claimed that at the time he heard Nauroon’s story, Gervais wasn’t even aware of the Hawaii Clipper disappearance, but was focused on the Earhart case. “In 1964, Gervais felt that he was hot on the trail of Earhart and had no desire to pursue another story,” Hill wrote in Fix.
In 1980, Gervais “circulated numerous copies of the PAA [Engineering] Report [of Aug. 2, 1938], the ASB [Air Safety Board of the Civil Aeronautics Authority] Report [of July 29, 1938]* and the notes of his own brief pursuit of the Clipper,” Hill added. “It was from one of those copies, provided by fellow researcher, John Luttrell, of Atlanta, that the present analysis has been derived. In recent years, Joe has provided additional material., relating to medical war crimes committed at the naval hospital, many of them committed against American military personnel.” Following his involvement in these murky events, Gervais disappeared from Hill’s narrative.
- [Editor’s note: All reports were inconclusive, with none attributing the Hawaii Clipper’s disappearance to hijacking, though none ruled out the possibility.]
McLean returns to Truk
Returning to Larry McLean, at some point he met Guy Noffsinger, Hawaii Clipper researcher and owner of Hunt for the Lost Clipper, who, he learned, was working on a movie about the Hawaii Clipper. McLean and Noffsinger became “fast friends,” and McLean found himself becoming even more involved in the 1938 mystery. In a previous visit to Truk, Noffsinger and his crew were rudely “run off of Dublon at gun and knife point,” McLean wrote. “The Chuukese don’t take kindly to uninvited strangers. . . . Often the landowners require huge sums of money to set foot on their land. At the minimum you have to respect that this is their land and you must be invited or allowed on.”
On the other hand, McLean had established himself with the locals on Truk. He knew several member of the Mori family, had a good working relationship with the former mayor of Dublon (Tonoas), knew and respected the culture of the islands, having worked for the S.S. Thorfinn live-aboard and briefly had a dive shop in Moen (Mwan) with a local partner, and he speaks Chuukese.
“In 2014 I had a planned mapping expedition exploring shipwrecks for an upcoming book,” McLean continued in his recent message:
It turns out my trip to Truk was happening a few weeks before Guy’s next [planned] expedition. When I arrived in Truk in 2014 I connected with the former mayor of Dublon, Gradvin Aisek of Blue Lagoon Dive Shop and Resort. Gradvin then reached out to the current Mayor of the Dublon and gained permission for me to visit and explore. I explored Dublon for two days. I went around and looked at every potential post in the target area. I met landowners and was able to build relationships with locals who could facilitate Guy’s objectives on his next trip. With the help of my local crew we gained their full support and cooperation.
After two days of searching on Dublon with the local guides, McLean smoothed the way for Noffsinger and his crew to visit the island, this time under much friendlier terms than their previous foray. “At that point, Guy nicknamed me his ‘Ambassador to Truk’ and assured me that I would be recognized as a production assistant in his upcoming movie,” McLean wrote.
“The key to finding this location was finding the post and the slab in Joe’s [Gervais] pictures,” he went on. “This is where Mr. Mori and others reported to have buried the Hawaii Clipper crew in a concrete slab. The slab was the foundation for an IJN Hospital building. By 2014 the Hospital building was long gone and the local land owners had built a house over the slab.”
Within a few weeks Noffsinger and his team were permitted to dig up the floor of the house. “But the dig was incomplete and they found no bones,” McLean wrote. “It appears the original slab had been demolished and possibly used as fill for the new foundation. They did find evidence of the hospital and artifacts from the hospital. The search for Mark Walker’s grave continues. There may be another dig in the future. There is more work to do here.”
Perhaps, but well-known Earhart researcher Les Kinney’s lengthy, skeptical comments of Aug. 4 on this blog cast a shadow on some of Hill’s claims. “Gervais and Hill put out so much garbage, it’s hard to tell what was good research and misinformation,” Kinney wrote. “When something is repeated over so much it tends to become accepted as fact. Greenwood’s story fits in nicely with Hill’s and Gervais’ wild speculation.” For much more on Kinney’s comments, please click here.
Tony Gochar, of Guam (see pages 263, 264 of Truth at Last), another researcher with an interest in the Hawaii Clipper case, advised me of a few “serious oversights” upon his initial review of this post, notably the lack of any reference to Ronald Jackson’s 2017 book, China Clipper: The Secret Pre-War Story of Pan American’s Flying Boats (First edition, 1980).
“His redo in 2017 provides some good insight,” Gochar wrote, “and the Epilogue is worth a read and mention. Hill mentions him in many places.” He also recommended Witness to War: Truk Lagoon’s Master Diver Kimiuo Aisek (2015), by Dianne M. Strong.
I told Tony that not mentioning Jackson’s and Strong’s books, neither of which I’ve read, isn’t a serious oversight as long as this post doesn’t pretend to be more than what it is — Larry McLean’s Truk-Dublon experience and more on Charles N. Hill’s vision of the Hawaii Clipper disappearance, and not any sort of definitive disquisition on the Hawaii Clipper mystery. We’ll get to Jackson and Strong if their work and insights are compelling enough to merit it.
As readers of this blog know, I rarely stray from the subject of the Earhart disappearance, but this likely isn’t the last time we’ll hear about the Hawaii Clipper.
Did Earhart tell Walker about her “real mission”?
Today we further explore the strong possibility that Amelia Earhart was not trying to find and land on Howland Island on July 2, 1937, but instead was engaged in an entirely different mission.
The below letter appeared in the July 1995 and July 1998 issues of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, but was initially published in the Jan-Feb issue of Shipmate, the official alumni magazine of the U.S. Naval Academy, accessible only to members. I don’t have the November ’86 Shipmate article referenced by R.B. Greenwood, a 1943 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, naval aviator and cousin of Mark Walker, who was lost in the 1938 Hawaii Clipper disappearance and whose fascinating conversation with Amelia Earhart is the main subject of this post. Bold emphasis mine unless indicated otherwise. Following is the AES presentation:
Letter in Shipmate Jan-Feb 1987 magazine, by R.B. Greenwood ’43, referring to an article in Nov. ’86 Shipmate – “The Search for Amelia Earhart,” by Capt. William B. Short, Jr., USN (Ret). (Bold in original.)
This article presents a most interesting account of one aspect of the Earhart story, the search. It also brings to light a common situation where the participants in a naval operation may not be privy to intelligence information concerning their activities. Apparently Capt. Short and his shipmates were not aware of the true circumstances of Amelia Earhart’s daring flight and the more likely position of her disappearance.
In the referred article, Capt. Short’s 5 July 1937 letter vents emotion about this “publicity stunt” and its effect on public confidence.
In the summer of 1938 my first cousin, Mark Walker, was visiting the family in Texas. We had a long discussion about his life in the Navy — flying off [the carrier] Saratoga in the early thirties, his employments in aerial photography, experiences as a Pan Am pilot in Sikorsky flying boats in Central and S. America, his current life as a China Clipper first officer, and test flights in the new Boeing Yankee Clipper which he was to captain on the Atlantic route. He was home because the test seaplane had suffered sabotage, and the schedule of test flights had to be delayed.
Walker was convinced that Japanese agents were responsible for the damage to his Boeing Clipper, and the subjects were raised about possible sabotage by Japan to one of the Martin China Clippers. He also talked about Earhart’s disappearance. He was convinced that she had been forced down by the Japanese. And, his opinion was much more than guesswork.
Early in 1937, Mark had been assigned to work with Amelia Earhart and her navigator Noonan on their Pacific area phase. He at once urged his friend Earhart not to risk the emphasis that Pan Am placed on flight safety by such a foolhardy “publicity stunt.” He told her that her equipment was barely adequate.
Her reply was direct. She had not proposed the flight. Someone high in the government had personally asked her to undertake the mission. Her navigator was an accomplished aerial photographer. The flight was to be laid out with two routes. One was to be publicized. The other was to be directed over intelligence objectives in the islands controlled by Japan. Positions on the published route could be translated to positions on the actual route. (Bold and underline emphasis in AES Newsletter presentations.)
As a side note, Mark Walker described how he and fellow Pan Am pilots had discussed how easy it would be for a saboteur to sneak aboard a China Clipper and with no more than a pistol, commandeer the flight and direct it to another destination. The clippers had all of the latest Navy instrumentation and communications equipment which he felt the Japanese wanted.
About a month after Iris visit home, Mark substituted for an ailing pilot as first officer in Philippine [sic] Clipper on a flight leg from Guam to Manila. The Clipper disappeared at the nearest point to a Japanese controlled island. Their position was known because their radio transmission stopped abruptly after reporting fair weather and their precise location. Contact could not be reestablished-although radio conditions were good. Walker’s prophetic conjecture had apparently come true. The cargo on that particular flight was Chinese gold bullion and a few high Chinese officials, including, I believe, the defense minister.
In the years that followed, several visits were made to Mark Walker’s father by Naval Intelligence officers. However, his father would never reveal the purpose of these visits because he had agreed to secrecy.
As regards the Earhart search, the Navy obviously knew more about the flight than was communicated to the search force participants. Perhaps the misguided search was a planned public diversion to reinforce the image of the United States as a peaceful, non-spying nation. This attitude apparently still covers other unpublicized intelligence probes into the Mandated Islands that were conducted in the pre-war period. (End of Greenwood letter.)
Paul Rafford Jr., the last of the plank owners of the Amelia Earhart Society to leave us, was impressed enough by Greenwood’s letter that he wrote about it in his 2006 book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio:
Yet Mark Walker, a Naval Reserve Officer, heard something different from Earhart. I heard about Mark from his cousin, Bob Greenwood, a Naval Intelligence Officer. Bob wrote to me about Mark and what he had heard.
Mark Walker was Pan Am copilot flying out of Oakland. He pointed out to Earhart the dangers of the world flight, when the Electra was so minimally equipped to take on the task. Mark claimed Earhart stated: “This flight isn’t my idea, someone high up in the government asked me to do it.”
“Earhart’s crack-up in Honolulu is a classic example of how minor events can change world history,” Rafford wrote. “Had she not lost control and ground looped during takeoff, Earhart would have left navigator Fred Noonan at Howland and radio operator Captain Harry Manning in Australia. Then, she would have proceeded around the world alone.
“Fate decreed otherwise.”
For much more on Rafford and others’ theories about Earhart’s March 1937 Hawaii ground loop and subsequent reversal of her flight plan, please see my Nov. 2, 2018 post, “Did Earhart crash on purpose in Hawaii takeoff?”
Charles N. Hill, author of Fix on the Rising Sun (2000), an often speculative tome that focused on the 1938 Hawaii Clipper disappearance and Hill’s strident ideas about what happened, had more than most to say about Earhart’s alleged words to Mark Walker. Hill is best known for his conviction that the “Hawaii Clipper did not simply ‘disappear:’ ” as he writes in his book’s opening pages, “she was hi-jacked [sic] to Truk Atoll by radical officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Her fifteen crew and passengers were murdered and entombed within a slab of wet concrete on Dublon Island, at Truk Atoll, and quite inexplicably, the United States Government continues to keep this secret for the Japanese government — and from the American People [sic] — as it has, since 1938.” (Italics in original.)
Prior to his five-page discussion of Mark Walker, first officer on the lost Hawaii Clipper, Hill presents the same 1987 R.B. Greenwood letter to Shipmate that twice graced the pages of the AES Newsletters.
“An extensive discussion of the details of Walker’s reported encounter with Earhart, which follows, has been provided because it is especially unique,” Hill wrote. “Many researchers have either indicated, or attempted to prove, that the last flight of Amelia Earhart was, in fact, a covert intelligence operation undertaken in the interest of America’s national security. Walker’s story is one of the few, if not the only, account (albeit hearsay), in which she is alleged to have admitted to be preparing for an intelligence flight over the Japanese Mandates.”
Hill then reintroduces the entire money paragraph in Greenwood’s letter, the one underlined and bolded above, and then launches into a parenthetical discussion, the more salient portions of which follow. For consistency, let’s begin with the final short sentences that Greenwood wrote in this paragraph, followed by Hill’s discussion:
Greenwood: “The flight was to be laid out with two routes. One was to be publicized. The other was to be directed over intelligence objectives in the islands controlled by Japan. Positions on the published route could be translated to positions on the actual route.”
Hill: [This was not only technically possible, but also consistent with anomalies in Earhart’s flight from New Guinea. As to the technical possibilities, the published routes specified a ground speed of 150 mph, yet Earhart’s own notes, written during the March 17, 1937, flight to Hawaii (and available to researchers at Purdue University), indicated a speed of “180 mph Boy oh boy . . . ” but, as she later noted, they had “ . . . throttled down to 120 indicated airspeed so as not to arrive in darkness.” Moreover, the text of Last Flight, largely ghost-written by publisher George P. Putnam, her husband, noted that “actually, we were going about as slowly as possible. We throttled back the engines and most of the way our craft was ‘under wraps.’ ”
. . . Later, during Earhart’s second (and final) world flight attempt, the New York Times reported her speed, from San Juan, Puerto Rico down to Carripito, Venezuela, as being nearly 190 mph (true air speed, that is, for a ground speed, against headwinds well above 30 mph, of just over her desired 150 mph average). The NYT also cited a top air speed of 250 mph [italics in original], which makes it apparent that, whatever her ultimate plans may have been, Earhart could have appeared to make a flight from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island, at 150 mph ground speed, but while actually detouring to Truk, in the Japanese Mandates, in the same time — but at higher air- and ground-speeds, which, for the most part were, understandably, kept “under wraps.”
What Earhart told Walker regarding this spy flight, while clearly serving to “put him in his place” for his criticism, was, technically, quite feasible. And, if Walker’s comments were abrasive, as Captain Greenwood has indicated that they may have been, then her “direct” reply, while constituting a serious breach of security, can easily be seen as an understandable, if careless, rejoinder. The omission of a book credit for Walker would be consistent, as well, with several reports of Earhart’s unforgiving temperament.
Most important, there is a “ring of truth” to the detail regarding a translation, or tie-in, of reported positions, to actual positions, along a secret route. In 1985, the author found that Earhart had the speed and fuel to fly to Truk, en route to Howland, but could not include Mili Atoll and still reach Howland with the fuel and time available. The tactic served the hi-jackers [sic] of Hawaii Clipper far better than it served the Earhart spy-flight planners.] (Italics Hill’s.)
. . . Captain Greenwood’s letter and subsequent reflections on his conversation with Mark Walker, while providing valid speculation regarding Earhart’s last flight, also confirms, not only that PAA flight officers were aware of the possibility of a hi-jack attempt, but that at least one of them believed that a Clipper hijacking might well be successful.
We won’t get any further involved in the Hawaii Clipper disappearance now, but I thought some of Hill’s speculations might be interesting to many readers of this blog, especially the most imaginative, and so offer them for your consideration.
The foregoing and much more in this blog and Truth at Last leave me convinced that responsible researchers cannot disregard the real possibility that Amelia Earhart overflew Truk Atoll on the way to her Mili Atoll forced landing.
The total distance from Lae to Truk to Howland Island is 3,250 statute miles, compared with 2,556 statute miles when flying direct from Lae, well within the Electra’s normal range of 4,000 miles, even without modified engines. For further discussion of a possible Truk overflight, please see my Jan. 2, 2019 post, “Art Kennedy’s sensational Earhart claims persist: Was Amelia on mission to overfly Truk?”