Conclusion of Rafford on radio in AE “Mystery”

Today we present the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s fascinating and thought-provoking analysis of Amelia Earhart’s final flight, “Amateur radio’s part in the Amelia Earhart Mystery,” previously unpublished.  Rafford sent this gem to the Amelia Earhart Society’s online forum in 2008, too late for admission to the AES Newsletters.

Conclusion of “Amateur radio’s part in the Amelia Earhart Mystery”
by Paul Rafford Jr.

Government records claim that after the shore party was hastily called back to Itasca, four radio operators remained behind to man the Howland direction finder.  They were Yau Fai Lum, Henry Lau, Frank Cipriani and Ah Kin Leong.  The latter three were part of the shore party while Lum was the resident radio operator. Supposedly, they operated the station for nearly two weeks, keeping nightly vigil on 3105 kHz.  Their logs can be found in the government’s Earhart files.

However, close inspection of the records shows that Cipriani signed off with Itasca at 0802 July 2, stating No signals on 3105 and impossible to work.  The shore party was ordered to return at 0826 and arrived aboard Itasca at 0912.  There is no evidence indicating that Cipriani and the others were told to remain behind.  No reference to the group appears in the records until July 5.  At 0001 a message is allegedly received by K6GNW from Itasca.  It orders the Chinese boys to assist Cipriani in manning the direction finder during Itasca’s search.  Are we to believe that Cipriani and the others, having made a last-minute decision on their own to stay on Howland are now, three days later being pressed into service to man the direction finder?

A close-up look at the Howland Island camp, taken Jan. 23, 1937, that Amelia Earhart never enjoyed.  (National Archives.)

When John Riley questioned Lum, he was vehement in declaring that Cipriani, Leong and Lau had returned to the ship as soon as word was received that it was about to leave on a search for the missing flyers.  In a letter to Riley dated September 4, 1994 Ah Kin Leong backs up Lum.  He declares, “No idea who wrote the false log.  Stood no watches on Howland Island.  Cipriani, Henry Lau and me were on the Coast Guard cutter Itasca when it left Howland Island looking for Earhart.”

In October 1994, Lum wrote Riley as follows,This letter from Ah Kin Leong proves that I am right and Captain Thompson’s report is not accurate.  If we were watch standers we would have spoken to Cipriani at least 16 times when we change shifts in monitoring Earhart. This never happened.  I have never seen the CG equipment nor did Cipriani ever come over to look at my equipment. I stand by my previous statement, ‘The radio report is false!’ ”

In his answer to Lum, Riley sums up the situation as follows: Unfortunately, if the Itasca log is partly fraudulent, it means that all research since Earhart disappeared, whether conducted by Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, or by private parties, has been based on deliberate misinformation put out by a few.  The radio logs of the Itasca are the most fundamental, most primary, of reference material.  Nothing else compares.  They supposedly tell us what is known of this tragedy.”  If, as it appears, the Howland logs are forgeries, what would have been gained by such a subterfuge and who would have directed it?

[See my March 30, 2022 post,Rafford and Horner on the bogus Howland log for the full story on Yau Fai Lum’s claim that challenged the veracity of the Howland radio log, and thus the Coast Guard’s version of the final hours of the Earhart flight.]

Exactly three years after Earhart and Noonan disappeared, I joined Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer. I soon met several people who were involved one way or another in the mystery and/or knew Fred Noonan.  My first boss, Harry Drake had shared bachelor quarters with Fred in Miami during the mid-1930’s. Later, Harry was the station manager at Caripito, Venezuela where the flyers spent their second night He offered to collect the latest weather forecasts along the route they would follow the next day.  Earhart rebuffed him with, “I don’t need that!  I got it all back in California.” 

Amelia Earhart is greeted upon her arrival at Caripito, Venezuela, June 2, 1937.  “A muddy river wound through the mountain pass we followed, a reddish-brown snake crawling among tight-packed greenery,” Earhart wrote in Last Flight.  “A few miles inland lay the red-roofed town of Caripito, with squat oil tanks on the outskirts. There was a splendid airfield, with paved runways and a well-equipped hangar.  It is managed jointly by Pan American Airways and the Standard Oil Company.“

The latest weather? Harry mused to himself.  Nevertheless, he sat up all night collecting the weather as promised.  But to no avail!  Just as he pulled into the airport parking lot he heard the roar of her engines as she took off.  The thought struck him, “I wonder if I’ll ever see Fred alive again?”

My first assignment with Pan Am was on the training plane flying with John Ray, instrument flight instructor.  John had been moonlighting an aviation radio service business when he was contracted to remove Earhart’s trailing antenna.  She had just arrived from California at the start of her round-the-world flight.  Her explanation to reporters was that she had it removed to save weight and the bother of reeling it out and in.  But the weight saving would be little more than a gallon of gas, while Noonan was familiar with the operation of trailing antennas aboard our Pan Am planes.

For years I wondered why Earhart would have discarded her trailing antenna.  I even built a model of her plane on a scale of 9 to 1, transmitting on a frequency 9 times 3105 kHz.  I equipped it with both a trailing antenna and a fixed antenna. I discovered that transmissions on 3105 kHz with the small, fixed antenna would have been 20 dB (decibels), weaker than with a quarter wave trailing antenna.  To check the experimentally derived measurements, I referred to the antenna formulas in my engineering hand books.  After working the equations, I found the theoretical values very closely matched my experimental values.  Earhart’s fixed antenna radiated only one-half watt on 3105 kHz.

During World War II, I discussed the Earhart disappearance with our Miami radio engineer, Charlie Winter.  He had offered Earhart the services of the Pan Am direction finding net in the Pacific if she would carry a Pan Am frequency.  She rejected his offer with a terse, ”I don’t need that!  I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.”  Charlie wasn’t offering to send the positions back to her.  He was merely offering a flight following service in case of an emergency.  But Earhart would have none of it!  Why?  Didn’t she want anyone to know where she was?

Also during World War II, I met Bill Galten after he came to work for Pan Am.  He had been the Itasca radio operator assigned to contact Earhart.  Despite his more than fifty calls on all his frequencies, she never answered him.  Her method of operating was to suddenly come on 3105 kHz. without a call-up, deliver a brief message and be off, all in less than ten seconds.  [Navy] Radioman Cipriani, manning the portable direction finder on Howland, never had a chance to get a bearing.

Many thousands of “Gooney birds” like these pictured on Midway Island posed a real threat to plane landings or takeoffs on Howland, another factor that led many to believe that Amelia Earhart never intended to land there.

Bill Galten expressed his opinion to me, “Paul, that woman never intended to land on Howland!”  There were several reasons.  Chief among them was the bird problem. Howland, the tip of an extinct underwater volcano, was the home of thousands of sea birds, many as large as turkeys.  They found its runways an ideal nesting spot.

Yau Fai Lum wrote me how he had watched an attempt to disburse the birds by setting off a dynamite charge the day before Earhart’s expected arrival.  “The birds leaped in the air, fluttered around for about ten seconds and then settled right back down again.” Because of the bird problem, Howland’s runways were never used except in emergencies.  Today, the island is a bird sanctuary.  Visitors, such as ham DX-peditions, must be accompanied by U.S. Government officials.  For a DX-pedition, how far away from the rest of the world can you get than the intersection of the equator and the International Date Line?

While working for Pan Am in Miami I had known Bob Thibert when he was head of Pan Am’s electronic overhaul shops during the 1970’s.  But it was not until the early 1990s that I learned he had installed and calibrated a radio direction finding loop on Earhart’s plane the day before she left Miami.  But pictures of the plane arriving at Miami from California show that it already had a loop.  What was going on here!  When I queried Bob he was quite surprised.  No, he hadn’t seen any evidence that a loop might have been installed previously.

I realized we must be dealing with two different planes, but why the great secrecy?  And where could that second plane have come from?  Also, Thibert was surprised to learn that John Ray had worked on Earhart’s plane before he did.  Why hadn’t Pan Am’s radio shop removed the trailing antenna at the same time it performed the other work?

It was not until just recently that I got some answers. The publisher of my book, AMELIA EARHART’S RADIO, Douglas Westfall of the Paragon Agency (SpecialBooks.com) uncovered some interesting historical facts.  Less than a month before Earhart and Noonan left Miami, a sister ship of their Electra, the Daily Express had flown round trip between New York and London.  It carried pictures of the Hindenburg disaster to London and returned with pictures of King George’s coronation.  It was billed as the first commercial flight to fly the Atlantic.

Pictures show the Daily Express had no radio loop or trailing antenna during the London flight.  I maintain it was secretly swapped with Earhart’s Electra after John Ray removed the trailing antenna.  Earhart didn’t want a trailing antenna but she did need a direction finding loop.  This is where Bob Thibert came into the picture.  As he told me, the morning before she left Miami his boss handed him a new loop and told him to install and calibrate it immediately.

This primitive looking device is the main chassis of an RA-1 manual direction finder, which was installed on Earhart’s Electra, according to Paul Rafford in his book Amelia Earhart’s Radio.  The RA-1 control head was mounted in the cockpit.  The loop drive wheel was above Earhart’s right shoulder, Rafford wrote.

But why swap the original plane for the Daily Express?  There were two reasons.  Primarily it had 100 gallons greater fuel capacity and had already flown round trip between New York and London, non-stop each way.  Secondly, on Earhart’s first attempt to circle the globe she had cracked up at Honolulu.  Although Lockheed had repaired her plane, it was no longer a factory fresh model.  By contrast, the Daily Express was a proven flyer.  But why all the secrecy?

There is evidence that Earhart finally came down in the Marshall Islands, occupied by Japan.  She could have reached them without Noonan’s help by homing in on the high-power AM broadcasting station on Jaluit with her loop.  After over heading it she could have followed a bearing from it to the only land plane field in the Marshall Islands, Roi Namur.  But legend has it that she was forced down by a carrier-based fighter pilot before she could reach it.  In any case it was a very inappropriate time for an American to land in the Marshalls — Japan went to war with China just five days later!

Fast forward to 2004. Little had I realized that my fellow engineer on the Space Program, James Raymond Knighton, W4BCX would later work on Roi Namur when I delivered my Earhart speech to our Pan Am Management Club.  Later, he provided me with a fascinating story:

I was on Kwajelein from 1999 to 2001, living on Kwajelein Island but working on Roi-Namur, which is 50 miles north of Kwajalein.  I flew back and forth each day to work.

One day during lunch I was walking around Roi and I happened across an old Marshallese who was very friendly.  He was back visiting Roi after a long time.  He was very talky and spoke pretty good English.  He was excited because he was born on Roi-Namur and lived there during the Japanese occupation and the capture by the Marines in 1944.  Of course I was interested in his story of how it was living under the Japanese and the invasion.  I was very inquisitive and he was happy to talk about old times.                     

Then he said he saw Amelia Earhart on Roi when he was a young boy.  It was the first white woman he had ever seen and he could not get over her blond hair.  Basically, he told me that Earhart crashed on the Marshall Island of Mili.  The Japanese had gotten her and brought her to Roi, the only place that transport planes could land.

Sadly, John Riley joined silent keys before we had a chance to work together in writing this article. However, he had already shared his files with me so at least I have been able to work with his notes as well as my own.

Paul Rafford Jr., July 23, 2008 (End of Rafford article.)

Rafford, among the last of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society, passed away on Dec. 10, 2016 at age 97.     

 

17 responses

  1. Good morning to all.

    This account leads me to pose a question I have been puzzling about lately. If it actually happened that Nauru picked up Amelia at 1030 AM (or 930) saying “Land in sight ahead.” why didn’t Itasca hear it when they supposedly were doing their best to hear from her? Also, Nauru picked up Amelia at 1100 PM 3 times. The operator knew her voice and it was her, but her message was “not readable.” Maybe Itasca did hear her and the log they cooked up after months, was it? was simply a fantasy used to prove the government’s case she “Crashed and sank.”

    These days I am becoming more convinced (I know, tomorrow upon reading a new “fact” I may change my mind) that Amelia was definitely on a spy mission or the equivalent whether it was her idea or FDR’s and the reason for her queer radio communications was to confuse the Americans, not just the Japanese. She wanted no one’s help because then PAA or whoever helped her would know what she was actually doing and it is obvious to me she was up to something that no one needed to know.

    With the support of Rafford’s account, I also believe it a strong possibility her plane was switched for the Daily Express plane (which ultimately ended up in Russia according to TIGHAR). This might account for her plane (C/N 1055) ultimately ending up in the New Britain jungle as David Billings claims.

    Now, one may wonder why, if she was lost and had to crash land somewhere, she didn’t broadcast distress calls and then as she was landing, give her position. I tend to believe she did exactly that, it would be almost preposterous that she wouldn’t. However, the Itasca log may not have bothered to report that. When the Navy finally figured out what actually happened to her, the log was published then as a cover-up to conceal what would have been very embarrassing to the FDR administration. Just to reiterate, the reason she refused help from PAA was to conceal exactly what she was planning. This, by far, is the most logical answer. To me.

    Sincerely,
    David

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  2. It certainly is strange..nothing in this case seems to be straight forward.. a”publicity stunt”that actually could very well have turned out to be a government mission..Earhart’s refusals for additional radio assistance..one would have thought Noonan would have insisted on some of the precautions she over-ruled, unless he too was part of the plan..the plane change certainly seems plausible, although you would think some savvy aeronautical person would have caught that along the way besides Rafford..One wonders when it occurred to Earhart and Noonan that all that planning went terribly wrong.. no one was coming to rescue them, and the government would have to disavow any knowledge of the plan as the were not ready to take on Japan. It must have been quite disheartening to know they would end up their days on Saipan. I guess the only answer to the Daily Express question is if someone tore up the airfield at Aslito Field, which i assume is not possible. All these answers must lie in some file stored away in some warehouse, like in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

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  3. Dave,

    I agree completely with your observation that nothing in this case seems straightforward. For example, here we are discussing the airfield at Roi-Namur for land based planes, when many months ago, William Trail claimed the Japanese had no such airfield in the Marshalls. My apologies if I read this wrong. I’m not searching the archives here for who said what and when. So, theoretically, the JAps could have shot her down. Or she could have landed at Roi-Namur, but I don’t believe either of those possibilities. I still speculate that since Kelly Johnson figured in both the design of the U2 spyplane and also most likely Amelia’s plane, I wonder if there was some secret technology built into her plane such as spygear, or superior aircraft design that the Japs would have been very interested in. Most accounts claim that wasn’t possible, as the L10 was available to anyone to buy, but still, I wonder if her plane wasn’t specially modified. (by Kelly Johnson)

    That would give a strong motive for the destruction of her plane on Saipan, but that doesn’t seem at all necessary to conceal advanced technology. And it would have been long after the Japanese had already inspected it. At this time, I think that she might have been tasked with spying on Truk and then heading for Howland. As we have discussed here before, she would have been flying over the Marshalls in the dark, and I have never heard of any important miltary facilities in the Marshalls in those days anyway.

    To my surprise, it is now permitted on this log to speculate here that the Itasca log was cooked up long after her disappearance to promulgate a “set of lies everyone believes” to quote Napoleon or Henry Ford or somebody. Or, in the case of war, truth is the first casualty. So the flying on the line 157/337 might just be nonsense, and there is NO reason for Amelia to say it, since it is practically meaningless, anyway.

    Sincerely,
    David

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  4. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Roi-Namur airfield was constructed by the Imperial Japan Navy (IJN) in 1943 — six years after AE and FN’s loss.

    https://www.tracesofwar.com/sights/95567/Roi-Namur-Airfield.htm

    All best,

    William

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  5. For aviation reasons, it’s understandable AE wanted to leave the long wire antenna behind. It tends to cause difficulties flying the plane because its so long. Acts like a fulcrum.

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    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      Ken,

      Having spent some time flying sailplanes, I’ve noticed that the tow line which we can reasonably presume to be thicker and heavier than AE’s discarded trailing wire antenna does not adversely effect the stability or controlability of the towplane. Just an observation.

      All best,

      William

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      1. William,

        I agree that the trailing wire antenna would not pose a problem with regard to flying characteristics for AE. I used to tow banners off the beach in south Florida (low powered Cub); no problems at higher speeds, but some pitch sluggishness at low speed (especially immediately after picking up a banner….you are about 200′ AGL just above a stall, full power, nose high attitude and FULL foward stick…and you can’t lower the nose; you just limp away from the airport and slowly gain speed/altitude).

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      2. Tom,

        Towing banners is truly hanging it all out there on the edge!

        All best,

        William

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  6. I was aout to ask some silly questions, but luckily for the readership, I decided to look up the answers myself and give them here. https://tighar.org/wiki/Removal_of_trailing_antenna

    Probably most of the blog readers (including mysel) know nothing about trailing wire antennas. Now, at least, I know a little. Possibly Amelia was giving those short and unpredictable transmissions to prevent DF from finding her, when, in reality, the Japanese had units that could instantly find signal direction without the cumbersome directional loop antenna. If that was the case, maybe the only people Amelia was deceiving was the Americans. I don’t know if the Americans knew the Japs had the capability for instant DF. If they didn’t know that, it was a major intelligence failure. I don’t think the lack of a trailing antenna had any bearing on her loss, since her purpose seemed to be deception, not identification.

    Sincerely,
    David

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    1. David,

      You wrote, ” … in reality, the Japanese had units that could instantly find signal direction without the cumbersome directional loop antenna.”

      I have been unable to find anything about a Japanese HF-DF capability in 1937. What is the source of your information?

      Amelia may have chosen not to use the LF maritime band since they expected to be tracked by the U.S. Navy the entire time they were crossing the Pacific. That would have been a good test of the 2nd gen. USN HF/DF system which had been deployed in the Pacific region starting in early 1937. Short transmissions could have also revealed the existence and capability of any Japanese HF-DF system. At the time the U.S. Navy could read any IJN radio message they could receive.

      It would also be interesting to know the capability of the HF-DF units at the Pan Am bases. Even though their assistance had been refused it’s likely that the Pan Am radio operators tracked as much of the flight as possible.

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      1. I did a cursory search, but I couldn’t even find out if modern DF units take instantaneous direction reading on signals. I assume they can, but if and when they were deployed I have no idea. When I read on the blog that jim Golden says the Japs had superior DF units what else could he mean? I am guessing that the Japs could use her very short messages to locate her. This gets into so much speculation that to me it’s not worth the bother of studying DF technology. It wouldn’t solve the mystery.
        David

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  7. Greetings to All:

    I respectfully invite everyone’s attention to TTAL (2nd Ed.), pages 266 and 267 regarding Rear Admiral Joseph Wenger comments stating that, “Japan, Germany, and England were all ahead of us in the development of HF/DF in 1937.” Wenger does not elaborate or provide details.

    Further along in the same paragraph it states, “From Wenger, Goerner learned that the Japanese had at ‘least a dozen radio directionfinder stations in the Marshall Islands by 1937 and were monitoring U.S. Fleet activity on a regular basis.'”

    All best,

    William

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    1. It’s doubtful that Adm. Wenger would be anymore forthcoming about what they knew, when they knew it, and especially, how they knew it than Laurance Safford or anyone else who worked in OP-20-G in the years prior to WW2. Seems like Wenger might have been blowing smoke to put Fred Goerner off the track.

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      1. Exactly right. See pages 266-268 in Truth at Last for more on this idea.

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  8. I have a couple comments here. William, when you cite Roi-Namur airfield was constructed in 1943, then what was Rafford talking about? He seemed to be saying the airfield was there in 1937. Is he mistaken, or misleading, or both? Or am I not reading him right?

    Also, I am still interested in the subject of the US Navy aerial photos of all the Pacific Islands (or many of them) specifically their photos of the Gilberts. I read a startling piece of info, that when the Japs left the Gilberts in 1945 only after their surrender, they killed all 150-200 natives of Ocean Island (Banaba) for which they were convicted of war crimes. Still, this seems completely bizarre, even for the Japs, as I have never heard of them doing a massacre of the natives anywhere else in their conquered Pacific territories.

    I wonder if the Japs were trying to conceal something that may have shown up in the photos, if they were taken before the war ended. They were most likely taken after the Jap surrender, but I’m trying to find out. If somebody was diligent enough they could look at this collection and see if they see Amelia’s plane anywhere, maybe even the one wing plane said to have been parked at Taroa would still show up.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_Island_massacre

    Sincerely,
    David

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    1. David,

      I simply presented the facts regarding construction of the Roi-Namur airfield. I have no special insight into the mind and thoughts of the late Paul Rafford, Jr.

      William

      Like

  9. You’re right, William. We can’t ask Rafford where he got his info from. I think it means he could have been mistaken, at least once, in his account.

    To go back to my other subject, it turns out that the USN picture of Nonouti was dated March 9, 1945. It shows a bomb crater near the shoreline. I was told the pictures were taken to ensure there were no more Japanese left, which I took to mean after the surrender. But of course they were still left if the picture was taken in March. In fact, it must mean the USN was taking comprehensive pictures of Pacific islands even still held by Japanese long before the war ended. I would have to visit the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to straighten this all out. Not planning to.

    It does mean that after the Americans took Tarawa in 1943, the Japs were left to stay on other Gilbert Islands until the end of the war. This seems really odd, but that is my conclusion right now. I think the Japs took over the Gilberts in 1942. I’m sure I could research this, but I don’t think it would concern the AE mystery, so I probably won’t. I’ll just categorize this as background info.

    Sincerely,
    David

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