We return to the work of Cam Warren, an original member of the Amelia Earhart Society, who, according to one online search is 99 years old and resides in Fountain Hills, Ariz., and has been a member of the Americal Society of Media Photographers since 1966. Otherwise I haven’t heard from him in many years. This piece is far from your garden-variety rehash of old Earhart background, and provides many interesting and previously unpublished details on Lae, New Guinea and Guinea Airways, its personnel, airfield and history, and appeared in the January 1997 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. I’ve added most of the photos. This is the first of two parts.
“The Last Days of Amelia Earhart”
by Cam Warren
The story of Amelia Earhart is a fascinating one from start to finish, and the mystery surrounding her disappearance continues to challenge serious researchers to this moment in time. Countless theories have been advanced, ranging from the wildest speculation to the more reasoned scenario, all based on little or no hard evidence. Paul Rafford, for example, has contributed several possible explanations for Amelia’s erratic radio communications and technical support for even some of the more extreme “government spy” ideas.
As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the ill-fated Flight Into Yesterday (as Capt. [Laurence] Safford described it), few people remain that have any firsthand knowledge of the event. Those who knew Amelia or Fred, worked on the Electra, or contributed in some way have left us and physical evidence is sparse indeed. Documentary evidence does exist, of course, thanks largely to the Freedom of Information Act, and like archeologists on a “dig,” we sort and sift through it on the slim chance a sliver of evidence heretofore overlooked will suddenly assume greater significance.
Saipan and the Marshalls have been pretty thoroughly investigated* and the ever-hopeful TIGHAR crew from Delaware are convinced the answer lies on Nikumaroro (nee Gardner Island). As for other possible landing sites in the vicinity of Howland, I’ve personally discounted the “uncharted reef” theory through a personal visit to the Winslow area and a study of marine geophysical data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Baker and McKean islands have been thoroughly combed over.
* Editor’s [Bill Prymak] Note: Joe Gervais and Prymak were the very first researchers to visit Jaluit Atoll, former Japanese Administrative Headquarters. See post here of Oct. 8, 2019, “Prymak’s “Jaluit Report” recalls ’91 Jaluit visit, interviews of hitherto unknown Earhart witnesses.”
My attention turned back to Lae, New Guinea. Amelia’s penultimate days were spent there, as she and Fred Noonan rested up and The Electra was serviced by the ground crew for Guinea Airways. What was Lae like in those days? Who witnessed the final take-off? Was Noonan suffering a severe hangover? Was Amelia battling dysentery or, as it has been suggested by at least one writer, was she pregnant?
The island of New Guinea (second largest in the world, after Greenland) lies directly north of the continent of Australia, and is centered about 5 [degrees] south of the equator. It was an Australian territory from 1905 until 1973. The climate is monsoonal and thick forests prevail. Moresby is the capital of what is now known as Papua New Guinea, and is located on the south coast. Lae is 200 miles to the north on the eastern side of the island, facing the Huon Gulf and next to the Markham River. The town was founded in 1927 to serve air transport into the Bulolo gold fields in the mountainous interior. Large deposits of gold-bearing gravel had been discovered some years previous, but no roads existed and native bearers were used over the 70-mile-long trail to the diggings, which were located at an altitude close to 7,000 feet above sea level.
An Australian by the name of Cecil Levien, realizing what a bonanza existed in the treacherous terrain, and was well aware of the threat of the local cannibal tribes, decided an airlift was the answer. In 1926 he raised enough money to purchase a British built DeHaviland DH37, capable of carrying a 600-pound payload, the equivalent of a dozen natives with backpacks. So in 1927, Guinea Airways was born, became an immediate success and the entire mining operation thrived. Levien sought additional financing to expand his holdings. His search brought him to Vancouver, British Columbia and a resident mining engineer, Charles A. Banks. They formed a company called Placer Development, Ltd. (later known as Placer Management and now Placer Dome).
Banks brought in two other engineers as directors of the new company; Frank W. Griffin and Frank R. Short. Griffin was a well-known dredge designer, Short a placer engineer. They examined the Bululo field and came up with even rosier estimates as to the yield than Levien had done. Investors were impressed, even in the Depression era of the ’30s.
As for aircraft, Junkers had just designed the G31; a new plane that could carry 7,000 pounds. With capital assured, Banks went to Germany and ordered two planes, but specified more powerful engines, namely, Pratt & Whitney Hornets, and the new aircraft joined the Guinea Airways fleet.
Banks returned to the U.S. Pacific Coast and with Griffin and Short began laying plans for a vast and complex dredging operation. Key to the plan was that the dredges were to be disassembled for transportation to the New Guinea jungles. The organization proceeded quickly and by March 23, 1932 the first dredge went to work. Before long, eight were in operation. As author Russell Bennett reported in Quest for Ore (1986), “A total of 30,000 tons of freight was flown into Bulolo, with not the loss of a pound. It was the first example of large-scale aerial freighting, and set a pattern that has been followed in an almost infinite number of campaigns — including military in World War II — since then.”
At the new town of Lae, a 1,000-yard-long dirt runway had been carved out of the tangled scrub brush jungle, ending just short of a 25-foot drop-off into the gulf. An unpaved road followed around the edge of the bluff. Hangars and workshops were located about 250 yards northwest of that point. By 1937, a small-but-thriving village existed, which included a small hotel (the “Cecil,” named after Levien, who had recently died). About 1,000 Caucasians, mostly Europeans or Australians, lived in Lae, with many hundreds of natives quartered in town or in the many stilt-supported, thatched-roof huts built over the water. Amelia was impressed by the “peroxide-bleached hair” favored by the indigenous population.
Some of the Airways personnel are mentioned in various accounts; Eric H. Chater (not “Chaters” as some have it) was the resident manager and a pilot. He has been characterized as not caring much for radios in airplanes and only authorizing installation in one of the company’s aircraft (possibly their lone Electra 10-E, which was used primarily for executive transport). Sid Marshall was an “Aircraftsman and Aero Engineer” and was the man who took the amateur movies of AE’s near-disastrous take-off. See TIGHAR’s “The Last Takeoff“ for a clip of Marshall’s brief film, and more information about its provenance. George Gurr (not to be confused with Joseph Gurr back in the states) was in charge of the GA hangar and was a radio “ham.” Herman Hotz was the “wrench” who did the actual work on AE’s Electra, according to at least one account.
(End of Part I.)
World War II veteran and American Legion member Robert T. Stocker, of West Haven, Conn., sent the following “In Search Of” item to The American Legion magazine in January 1993. It appeared in the August 1993 issue:
Saipan Marines who guarded Amelia Earhart’s plane at Aslito Field, or those aware of Navy Secretary James Forrestal’s presence there. Contact: Robert T. Stocker . . . West Haven CT, 06516.
John N. Fletcher, of Elkhorn, Nebraska, immediately responded to Stocker’s request. Fletcher, who piloted a B-25 while serving in Europe during World War II, had no eyewitness information, but his longtime friend, Howard Ferris, a Marine machine gunner who served on Saipan and died in 1979, certainly did, and told him all about it when they returned to their hometown of Frankfort, Kansas, after the war.
In August 2008, Fletcher, 83, told me he flew C-47 “Gooneybirds” delivering the mail between Paris and Naples, Italy before his discharge in April 1946, and he had no firsthand Earhart information. But Ferris’ remarkable experience lived on in his friend, and in the letter Fletcher wrote to Devine in September 1993 that vividly described it. Following are excerpts of the letter, a copy of which Fletcher provided after I wrote him:
. . . I have given this matter a lot of thought since receiving your letter and will tell you all I can remember about it. Howard Ferris was a machine gunner in his unit of Marines, and after being wounded was returned to States from Pacific, and was an instructor at aerial gunner school, I believe at Alamagorda, N. Mexico. He was discharged earlier than I was, and had been home for some time before I was discharged. As soon as I arrived home, my mother said Howard was home and wanted to see me. It was a week or so later that I found him at his parent’s home, and spent at least 2 hours going over our wartime experiences. Having been a pilot myself, he asked me what I thought of the story he told me. I said Howard, anything, could be, we only know what we are told.
Howard said they received very short notice, I cannot remember his unit, but there were quite a large number of them, were sent immediately to this island, to guard duty. They came from another island that his unit had taken from the Japanese just to do guard duty on an old hangar structure at end of a runway. This hangar was not large, but he said small trees had grown up in front of big doors, so it was obvious nothing had come in or out recently. At first they didn’t even know what was inside, and were quite put out they had been transported in from another island to do guard duty on an old hangar structure, when the place was crawling with Army personnel already there.
He also said it was guarded with (he named the amount) but I can’t remember the number [of troops guarding] around the clock. His firsthand story to me was, while he was on duty, a vehicle full of high ranking army officers arrived to have a look inside. They exchanged words, and a heated exchange followed. The marine officer at the scene stood his ground, and refused them entrance. The army men threatened the marine officer. The marine said he was following his orders, the army then left with the remark that his orders would soon be changed. Howard said that they were not seen again. This was about the time they learned (how I don’t know) there was an aircraft inside.
Some time went by, and the question all had was how long was this going to go on? Their Captain, Howard said Captain Green or Greene said they were awaiting word from Washington on what to do. By then all marines thought they were guarding the Earhart plane, or at least the crashed parts of it. Howard was not present at the fire, but one of his buddies was. The buddy said a truck arrived with many gas cans, and the guards saturated the entire hangar, the officers going inside with cans first and Captain Green personally started the fire, and it burned totally. Howard said he was at the scene before they left and it had been one plane, twin engine, and twin tail, obviously not a P-38, it was a type neither U.S. or Japan had in the area. It was burned and twisted so badly he could not tell if it had been in flying condition, or was a crash relic. At any rate almost before the fire had cooled down all the marine unit was transported back to the island that they had left, when they left to guard the plane. They were ordered to keep their mouths shut and that the incident never happened.
With the exception of the incorrect identification of the Marine guard as an “officer,” Fletcher’s report of Ferris’ Saipan experience mirrored Earskin Nabers’ story, which was presented here in a Sept. 17, 2022 post.
Though Nabers was a private, not an officer, and no report has mentioned an officer guarding the hangar, Ferris’ recollection of the encounter with “high ranking army officers” who wanted to enter the hangar and were challenged by the Marine who “stood his ground” is too much like Nabers account to be coincidental.
Fletcher didn’t remember Ferris saying anyone from Washington was present at the hangar. “They waited for word from Washington on what to do with the object of their guard,” Fletcher wrote. Though his recollection that Ferris said the “guards saturated the entire hangar” with gas is missing from the Devine and Nabers accounts, it doesn’t completely contradict them, nor does Fletcher’s incorrect identification of Lt. Col. Wallace R. Greene as a captain. But Fletcher’s statement that Ferris’ unit was sent from an unnamed island to Saipan and returned there upon completion of their clandestine mission at Aslito Airfield remains puzzling.
Two decades later, Ferris told Fletcher that Greene had been named commandant of the Marine Corps. “In Howard’s words, ‘What does that tell you?’” Fletcher wrote. “The other thing he would shake his head about was that not one word of this incident was ever reported back to the U.S. during, or after the war. Like Captain Green [sic] had said, it never happened.”