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piece is far from your garden-variety rehash of old Earhart background, and provides many interesting and previously unpublished details on Lae, New Guinea and Guinea Airways, its personnel, airfield and history, and appeared in the January 1997 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society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.)
Really interesting..Amelia pregnant? Never heard that one before..also tge first detailed account of personnel on Lae
There are so many media outlets lookng for new stories, I wish one of them would decide to create a feature on those “last days.” It would give the story great visisbility.
She and Fred were butchered by the God damn WW2 era Japanese. Phuck them. What I don’t like is GITAR or whatever fudging evidence to wait for a Golden pot that will never come. The great Phillipino people had to suffer and so did Fred and E.H. Rock on.
Who is E.H.?
My father served in the US Army during WWII in New Guinea. He brought back stories of head hunters and rats as big as cats. Very different than the area he grew up in Pennsylvania. This newsletter issue brings in the gold mining aspect to the Earhart story making it more colorful. It brings memories for me of the TV show “Gold Rush that featured Parker Schnabel going to PNG to mine gold in the col Yukon off season. He said there was a lot of gold there. Any time gold is found any where, it brings lots of people to far flung places like PNG or the Yukon. Aspects of the Earhart story are still unknown, due to govt secrecy. But Mike Campbell has been filling in the blanks for us with his TAL book and newsletter.
Greetings to All:
Tragically, AE and FN’s actual “last days” were spent in the custody of the Japanese in the Marshalls and on Saipan.
Interesting color commentary. Guinea Airways had two L-10E registered in Australia in 1937. Is there good information about what NR16020 and crew were doing at Bandoeng for a week?
See Last Flight, pages 208-213.