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.