Today we take a look at the Howland Island radio log through the eyes of two of history’s most accomplished and respected Earhart researchers, Paul Rafford Jr. and Dave Horner. The questions raised by the multiple discrepancies between the two sets of radio logs associated with the Earhart flight, the radio room of the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca and the one kept on Howland Island, are disturbing to say the least, and open doors to a wide range of justifiable speculation about what was really going on during those critical hours in the morning of July 2, 1937.
The following article appeared in the March 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface and italic emphasis mine unless noted.
“The Cipriani/Howland Island Radio Log: Fact or Fiction?”
by Paul Rafford Jr., Jan. 25, 1998
In 1994, while looking for a friend’s address in the Radio Amateur Call Book, former Naval Officer and retired radio engineer John P. Riley suddenly caught sight of a familiar name, Yau Fai Lum. This had been the name of the radio operator on Howland Island during Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated flight. Could the Yau Fai Lum listed in the call book be the same one? — He was! And as a result, John’s discovery set in motion an exchange of correspondence with Lum that now challenges the credibility of the Coast Guard’s Earhart files.
Howland was one of the Pacific islands occupied by the United States during the 1930s using civilian personnel under contract to the Department of Interior. In addition to sustaining America’s claim to the islands, the “colonists“ collected weather information and radioed it to Honolulu. In order to keep expenses to a minimum, the Department used adventurous young amateur radio operators and their equipment to man the weather network, rather than professionals.
By chance, three of these radio operators were on Howland at the time Earhart was to arrive. Yau Fai Lum was the operator assigned to Howland, while Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau were traveling aboard the Itasca, en route either to or from their assignments on Baker and Jarvis. They were sent ashore to help prepare for Earhart’s arrival. [Coast Guard] Radioman [2nd Class] Frank Cipriani, ashore from the Itasca, was assigned to operate the high frequency direction finder.
According to the Itasca’s report and radio logs, after the ship departed in search of Earhart, Cipriani, Leong, and Lau remained on the island with Lum. Under Cipriani’s direction, they would maintain a watch on her frequencies and use the direction finder to obtain bearings, if possible. Except during periods of battery charging, contact would be made with the Itasca every few hours.
Copies of the Howland radio log, allegedly kept by Cipriani and the Interior Department radio operators, can be found in the National Archives. The entries reflect bona fide activities that would be expected to occur, such as watch changes, battery charging periods, attempts at direction finding, and exchanges of communication with the Itasca. However, there is one obvious error. Items that we know happened on July 2 carried a July 3 dateline.
After locating Lum, Riley exchanged correspondence with him for several months. Although suffering from the infirmities of old age, Lum’s mind was clear and memory good. But, to Riley’s amazement, he completely denied having taken any part in keeping radio watches for Cipriani. In fact, Lum denied ever having met him.
When Riley pointed out his difficulty in believing that the two men could have lived together on Howland for two weeks without meeting, Lum emphatically declared that Cipriani had not been on the island during that period. But he did not deny that Cipriani could have been on the island for brief periods before Earhart’s disappearance. He pointed out that any work Cipriani did would have been in the Coast Guard’s own radio shack, some distance from Lum’s station at Government House. He writes, “I did not interfere with their duties and stayed out of the way.”
Henry Lau was now deceased, but Lum was able to put Riley in touch with Leong. He verified what Lum had claimed, and wrote the following:
Sept. 4, 1994
“No idea who wrote the false log. I stand no radio watch on Howland Island. Cipriani, Henry Lau and me were on the Coast Guard cutter Itasca when it left Howland Island looking for Earhart.”
By law, radio operators must sign their names when going on and off watch. However, Lum’s first name, Yau, is repeatedly misspelled ’Yat’. His comment is, “If I really wrote that log, how come I misspelled my own name?”
If, as it appears, the Howland log is a fraud, then what about the authenticity of the Itasca’s log? In order to check it, those entries in the Howland log referring to contacts with the Itasca were compared with the Itasca’s log entries. In nearly all cases where the Howland log indicates a contact with the Itasca, there is a corresponding entry in the Itasca’s log. So, if the Howland log is a forgery, then at least some of the entries in the Itasca’s log are forgeries.
Sixty years later, which are we to believe: the word of two old gentlemen who have no reason to bear false witness: — or our Government’s questionable records? I prefer to believe the two elderly gentlemen.
But, we must question, if the log is false why would our Government have engaged in such a surreptitious effort to make it appear that Earhart’s frequency was monitored with a direction finder on Howland for ten days after her disappearance? But if true, why classify it for 25 years? (End of Rafford’s comments. Rafford passed away in December 2016 at 97.)
Even more comprehensively than Rafford, Dave Horner, and author and former AES member who’s still with us, examines this complex situation and devotes his entire Chapter 6, “The Howland Direction Finder,” in his fine 2013 book, The Earhart Enigma (Pelican Publishing Co.), to a comprehensive look at the Howland Island direction finder, the personnel assigned to Howland Island and the serious questions the phony Howland Island radio log raised and continues to raise about Earhart’s final flight.
In his wide-ranging chapter, Horner expands on the information Rafford referenced in his AES Newsletters story from radio propagation expert John P. Riley Jr.’s 2000 story, “The Earhart Tragedy: Old Mystery, New Hypothesis,” which appeared in the August 2000 issue of Naval History Magazine (available by subscription only). Other sources Horner cites are 1994 and 1995 letters from Yau Fai Lum to John Riley, and Rafford himself. None of it puts Cmdr. Warner Thompson in a favorable light.
Horner begins this lengthy, complex chapter by stating that the “July 29 [actually July 19] 1937 report “Earhart Flight” [Radio transcripts, Earhart flight] by Cmdr. Warner K. Thompson, Itasca’s commanding officer “raised more questions than it answered.”
This is a huge understatement, and the confusing situation among personnel on Howland Island, as well as the capabilities of the direction finder placed there to assist in helping Earhart find a safe landing on Howland, doesn’t easily lend itself to a complete treatment here, given the limitations of this blog and its editor, who has never possessed or claimed any significant degree of technical acumen.
Unlike some, Horner held Rafford in some esteem, calling the former NASA specialist “always a gentleman,” and drew from his work throughout Chapter 6 of The Earhart Enigma.
“This whole affair of the Howland DF log didn’t get messy until Yau Fai Lum claimed years later that Cipriani did not remain on Howland but returned to the ship,” Horner wrote. “All of this surfaced in the early 1990s, when Lum told Earhart researcher and author Paul Rafford and John Riley, both contemporary radio experts, that he had never even met Cipriani.” Horner continued:
Rafford was stunned. “Never met Cipriani? According to the log of the Itasca you were on that flyspeck of an island for over two weeks with him. How could you possibly not have met him in all of that time?”
Lum responded directly and to the point. Cipriani was only on Howland Island the evening before and early morning of Earhart’s anticipated arrival.
. . . Rafford continued his questions of Lum: “There are daily direction finding reports written until the search was over. Your name is there, along with Cipriani’s. [Ah Kin] Leong, and [Henry] Lau. You all stood FD watches. Your name is right there in black and white! How can you deny this?”
Lum illustrated this disparity with one immeasurable comment: If I signed or typed the log, how could I misspell my own name? Yat instead of Yau [Italics Horner’s.] Our names as well as our call signs are typed, not signed by us. It is a counterfeit!”
Horner called the above “an almost unbelievable development. The Itasca report from Commander Thompson placed Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau ashore on Howland Island in order to assist Cipriani staff the high-frequency DF. But Lum asserted, ‘That is a false report, full of –.’ ” Lum explained that neither he nor any of the radio operators on Howland were trained or capable of operating the high frequency direction finder — Cipriani was the only one there who was trained to operative the HF/DF.
All this should be disturbing to anyone who has put any faith in the official Itasca Radio Logs, Itasca Cruise Report or “Radio transcripts, Earhart flight,” all of which were produced by or under the auspices and responsibility of Cmdr. Thompson.
Big questions have never been answered, to wit: Who tampered with the Itasca and Howland Island logs, and why? Just as disturbingly, what other changes were made to the Itasca and Howland logs — what might have been added, subtracted or in any way made to misrepresent the truth about Earhart’s final flight and the hours immediately after her last message at 0843 Howland Island time?
See my March 31, 2015 post, “Amelia Earhart and the Morgenthau Connection: What did FDR’s treasury secretary really know?” as you further consider what really occurred in the final hours of the Earhart flight, as well as how and why these strange, irregular occurrences have affected the entire official face of the Earhart disappearance.
In a 1973 interview with crashed-and-sank author Elgen Long, former Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts said, “One or two things should never be published as long as anyone on the Itasca remains alive.” What could Bellarts have meant?
For anyone who’s interested in further studying the Howland Island direction finder and all that it entailed, I strongly recommend The Earhart Enigma, available in used, inexpensive copies on Amazon, as well as new.
Fred Goerner’s first investigative visit to Saipan in June-July 1960 made serious noise in newspapers here and around the world, as the witnesses he interviewed revealed a completely different reality about what happened to Amelia Earhart than the official U.S. propaganda that had been perpetrated and accepted by the masses since 1937
“In July 1960,” Goerner wrote in Chapter 15 of The Search for Amelia Earhart, “U.S. Congressman J. Arthur Younger, of San Mateo, California, responded to the international headlines generated by the once-obscure newspaper in his district by asking the U.S. State Department to open all its Earhart files to the public, and to request an official statement from Japan.”
In early August, the Japanese Foreign Office announced through the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo that it had completed an exhaustive investigation “which revealed no basis whatsoever for the rumor the Japanese had executed Amelia Earhart at Saipan.” It added that all available Japanese records had been searched and all former officers and officials were reached during the investigation. The report was transmitted to the State Department by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. . . . The State Department also denied it held any classified information on Earhart.
The message above (click for larger view), dated July 15, 1960 and sent to “Secretary of State” from a State Department official named only “Macarthur” and titled “Embassy Telegram 121,” was a prelude to the “early August” statement referenced by Goerner. It came from the Japanese Foreign Office and dishonestly and flatly denied Japan’s involvement with the execution of Amelia Earhart. I don’t have the August message in my files, but this one tells the same story just as convincingly.
“FONOFF [foreign official] informed us today that preliminary search of Japanese files has uncovered no indications Amelia Earhart was executed by Japanese,” the message begins, all in upper case. Please click on the image if it’s not easy to read clearly on your monitor.
“The Japanese response was what we expected in 1960,” Goerner wrote in Search. . . . “However, the Japanese even then were careful to state Amelia had not been ‘executed at Saipan in 1937.’ Other possibilities were not discussed.”
This document appeared in the July 1995 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. In an editor’s note Bill Prymak added at the bottom, he wrote, “Why would the U.S. Government still be chasing Amelia when they declared her ‘down at sea’ in 1937?? [sic] Note July 15, 1960 date above.”
Researcher Woody Rogers recently forwarded an old newspaper story I’d not seen before, from a paper whose pages lacked any datelines or folios for easy identification, but which could only have been the Charleston (South Carolina) Evening Post, the only Evening Post operating in the United States in 1939. *
This provocative screed, published as early as July 1939 but possibly later that year (based on other stories on the page), would have the local South Carolinians, and by extension, the entire world, believe that Amelia Earhart’s Electra had “washed up” on Canton Island in the Pacific, minus Earhart and Fred Noonan, of course, during the July 1937 Navy-Coast Guard search, and that the Navy kept the news from the public.
Here’s the story, presented as best I can to retain some of the original, while adding some informative images (boldface emphasis mine throughout; caps emphasis in original; please click on images for larger views):
message was suppressed, but never denied. A few days afterward, the navy abandoned the search that cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Take Over Island
And by a rare coincidence, the United States government over the indignant protestations of European powers, TOOK OVER CANTON ISLAND A FEW WEEKS LATER.
Why should America want this insignificant island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Why should this country have risked certain diplomatic relationships for the right to possess this deserted bit of land?
And why, above all, was the order given to send virtually the entire Pacific fleet on an extensive manhunt when the Oriental situation was ready to boil over at any moment?
What About Data
Was Miss Earhart’s mission as innocently scientific as the world was led to believe? And what was the nature of the scientific data she hoped to gather ostensibly for Purdue university? Exactly what she and Noonan were after has never been revealed. The purpose of her journey was cloaked simply with the mysterious phrase, “scientific observations.“
Why did the government permit her to take off in the first place, inasmuch as the department of air commerce [sic] publicly frowned on the flight and doubted its scientific value? And why, then, did the government immediately order most of its Pacific fleet, along with scores of navy fliers, to seek the missing plane when word was first received that it was lost?
Search First of Kind
Never before in the history of transoceanic flying had such a search been ordered?
Why? the world new asks.
The public may never know the real answers. We may only guess the exact fate of
(Continued from page one)
If the Earhart flight were an innocent scientific excursion, why should the navy want to keep secret the fact that the airplane was beached in this this lonely island in the middle of the Pacific? What was there to be gained by such secrecy?
On the other hand, if Miss Earhart had in her possession important diplomatic information picked up on her tour of the globe, would it not be to the great advantage of this country to remain forever silent on the discovery of the airplane? And if silence was so important, wouldn’t it be logical that the island which contained the only evidence of Miss Earhart’s tragedy be taken over and held by the United States government?
May Not Be Answered
The entire situation is rife with questions. Questions which will probably never be answered officially.
It must be borne in mind that at the time of the Earhart flight, conditions in the Orient were none too secure. Most Americans took an aloof stand on the Sino-Japanese war. America will never war with Japan, it was said. But the navy knew better. The navy was taking no chances. There were Americans in China, and they were there because there were extensive American holdings in the Orient
The entire Pacific fleet was hovering in Oriental waters at the time. It left the danger zone ONLY LONG ENOUGH TO SEARCH FOR MISS EARHART’S PLANE [sic].
Let’s study a purely hypothetical case.
An American flier has won the hearts of the world. The flier is better beloved because she is a woman, and her soul is in aviation. She has been successful in a number of previous flights. And now she is contemplating a round-the-world flight.
In various capitals of the world, agents of the government have obtained secret military information, valuable to American authorities. It is sometimes difficult to get such information safely back to the state department [sic] without interference by outside countries.
Suddenly the government sees and ingenious way of obtaining the information, bringing it back for expert study in Washington. What could be more innocent than a round-the-world flight by one of America’s most popular heroines? Who could possibly suspect such a woman of ulterior motives?
So arrangements are made. The government officially frowns on the flight but issues the license. All part of the plan. It is announced that the mission is a scientific one, but it is never deemed necessary to announce precisely what the nature of the scientific investigation is.
No Embarrassing Papers
As the flier speeds around the globe, she is greeted by hundreds of persons wherever she stops. She is cheered all along the way. There are no embarrassing papers to be filled out. No questions to answer, passports a mere formality. That is one of the courtesies governments extend to daring fliers of another nation.
But in some of the crowds are secret government agents. With absolute safety, they slip her maps, charts, notes bearing important military secrets, obtained in devious ways known only to agents.
Meanwhile. her own nation is watching with keen interest the success of the flight. Everyone hopes she succeeds, but state department officials have a double reason for praying for the success of the undertaking.
The flier is on her last long hop. She has everything she wants. Everything her government is waiting for. And then, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, something happens. There is a frantic flash from her radio. Something has gone wrong. She is overdue. Nothing more is heard.
AND IMMEDIATELY ALMOST THE ENTIRE PACIFIC FLEET IS DISPATCHED TO FIND HER.
Wouldn’t that be logical? Might not those secrets be more important than keeping a full patrol in Chinese waters?
Wouldn’t it be exceedingly dangerous for a vessel of another power to come upon whatever documents her plane contained?
Word came once that a message had been received from Miss Earhart, giving her position after she was forced down. It was some distance north of Howland Island where she was expected to land. But navy officials must know that this message DID NOT COME FROM MISS EARHART BECAUSE HER RADIO COULD NOT SEND MESSAGES IF IT WAS AFLOAT.
That both Miss Earhart and Frederick Noonan are dead the world has little doubted. THE NAVY KNOWS. There was apparently no sign of either flier when the ship [sic] washed up on the beach of Canton Island.
Whatever happened, whatever information Miss Earhart was carrying back to her government, the world may never know. But a few people know that Miss Earhart’s craft was found. And for them the mystery only becomes deeper, less fathomable. (End of Evening Post story.)
The best the Evening Post could to do identify its source for this potentially world-changing story was to write, “The wireless message was seen by a member of one of the crews who said it was never denied.” Thus, anyone vaguely familiar with the Earhart disappearance and able to read at a high school level — which should be all readers of this blog — can easily discern the bogus nature of the Canton Island claim.
This story is pure disinformation, rife with innuendo and wild speculation meant to confuse readers, sell papers and, most importantly, further obscure and hide the Marshall Islands-Saipan truth. Earhart’s Saipan fate was almost certainly known to Navy Intelligence and thus FDR and those closest to him, possibly within the first few months of the fliers’ disappearance — though how this information first came to them remains uncertain. The story itself tells us the government knew the truth, and it’s so poorly written than its stink is impossible to ignore.
It was all to no avail, as this particular Earhart propaganda operation was a miserable failure. The Canton Island claim got no traction, and wasn’t picked up by any other newspapers, books or publications that I’m aware of. A search of websites for Canton Island has yet to uncover any mention of the idea that the Earhart Electra “washed ashore” there in July 1937, or any other time.
The story was so transparently bad that FDR’s central planners didn’t dare put in the New York Times or The Washington Post, instead opting for a trial run in the relatively obscure Charleston Evening Post. Further, a web search for the writer of this travesty, one Norman Arthur, produces zero results, which strongly suggests he never existed.
Attempting to dig deeper, my sincere, good faith query to the local Charleston librarian who has access to the old Evening Post archives was rudely ignored — frustrating but not unusual in this line of work — but I believe Norman Arthur was a fake name attached to this fake story. This phony claim ranks among the lowest scrapings in a still-growing 84-year-old trash bin of “Earhart mystery” bilge, and made absolutely no dent in the public consciousness, then or ever.
Nonetheless, the 1939 Evening Post story is notable, even remarkable, for one important reason. More than any reports about the disappearance up to that time, just two years after Earhart’s loss, it emphatically demonstrates that the U.S. government was actively engaged in media manipulation, disinformation and propaganda, despite the fact that virtually no one publicly questioned the government’s crashed-and-sank verdict at that time. The truth was known in the White House, and FDR wasn’t about to let the public know of his perfidy in the Earhart matter, when he abandoned America’s beloved First Lady of Flight, leaving her to the barbaric mercies of the Japanese on Saipan.
As I wrote in Truth at Last (pages 322-323):
If the American public had learned of the abandonment of Amelia Earhart— one of the most admired and beloved figures in our history—on Saipan by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, his transformation from popular president to national pariah would have been instantaneous, his political future reduced to ashes.
[*Editor’s note: March 10, 2022 update: The Charleston Library archivist has informed me that the foregoing story, which I was so sure came from the Charleston Evening Post, actually did not. She performed a thorough search of the paper’s archives to determine that fact, as well as that no record for Norman Arthur existed in the paper or in any Charleston listings in 1939. I appreciate and accept her findings, and also apologized for my impatience.
This doesn’t change anything else about the story, except to tell us that the Charleston Evening Post is off the hook for committing gross journalistic malpractice, at least in this case. I’ll keep you updated on any new information that can shed light on who actually was responsible for this travesty.
March 11 update: Woody Rogers replied and said the page he sent came from the Minneapolis Star, sometime in 1939. I searched the online archives and can’t find the page at this time. I asked Woody, whose files aren’t available right now, to let us know where the story came from as soon as he can, if possible.]
March 12 update: As requested by Les Kinney, below is the front page of the publication from which the above story came, minus the folio or banner at the top, which normally identifies the newspaper or publication. The page-wide headline also appears unusual. We await further developments.