Today we continue with the conclusion of Cam Warren’s “The Last Days of Amelia Earhart.” I’ve again added photos, and some of my own comments will follow.
“The Last Days of Amelia Earhart”
by Cam Warren
Bert Heath has been mentioned as the Chief Pilot and reportedly viewed the take-off from the air as he was approaching the strip from a flight up country. Guinea’s radio operator at Lae was 37-year-old Harry Balfour, who played a critical role in Earhart’s final flight. He checked out the radio transmitter and receiver in the Electra and attempted to calibrate the direction finder without notable success. Another local pilot has been mentioned, Thomas F. O’Dea, described as working for Guinea, but Balfour later stated (in a 1961 letter to [Joe] Gervais) that O’Dea worked “as a part-time manager for Stephens Aircraft Co.”
Over a dozen Caucasians viewed the historic take-off (17 by some reports). Joe Gervais visited Lae in 1960 and found that only seven were still alive. Their recollections differed, but as any police detective can attest, eyewitnesses, despite the best of intentions, seldom agree. The more time passes, the more divergent become the accounts. Fortunately, we have the evidence of Marshall’s film, and the testimony of James Collopy, the District Superintendent of Civil Aviation for the territory.
Among those present were L. J. Joubert, a mining engineer that worked for Placer in Bulolo and his wife. O’Dea had flown them and another couple, Mr. & Mrs. F.C. Jacobs, down from the gold fields to meet Earhart and view her departure. O’Dea also took a large number of snapshots at Lae, some of which were published in the Morrissey/Osborne book Amelia, My Courageous Sister. (Balfour said Amelia considered him something of a pest, but we can be glad he was there.) Another photographer, Australian Aubrey Koch has been mentioned, although I’ve not seen any of his shots.
Allan Vagg, the Amalgamated Wireless operator at Bulolo was also interviewed by Gervais, but was not on hand at takeoff time. A recent discovery, as far as I was concerned, was the name of Robert Iredale, manager of the Socony/Vacuum (Standard Oil) facility at Lae. Photos show a “Stanavo” employee fueling the Electra; Stanavo was the local SO brand name). Iredale told Fred Goerner that Noonan was his overnight guest while at Lae, and definitely did NOT spend the time drinking. As was often the case, Iredale’s recollections in the early 1980s suffer from some inconsistencies, but Goerner considered him a very reliable source
Balfour corresponded with a number of researchers and described having two-way conversations with Earhart as she flew eastward. Vagg claimed to have heard one or two of these, but no written records survived World War II, neither from Vagg nor Balfour unfortunately. To the best of my knowledge, no American researcher ever managed to interview Balfour face-to-face. (The only published interview appeared in PEOPLE Magazine [SYDNEY HERALD, Australia] in 1967). Balfour passed away in the mid-1980s apparently. As of this writing no information as to his wife and children has surfaced.
Writer Dick Strippel says he interviewed the sole surviving takeoff witness in 1987. “Mrs. Ella Birrell” was the daughter of Flora “Ma” Stewart, the colorful manager of the Cecil Hotel, and helped out around the premises. She recalled Amelia “wanted a room of her own and didn’t really mix with people.” The 70-year-old lady told Strippel “I remember the plane could barely lift on takeoff. . . We all rushed out to watch her go; it was a very brave thing she did.”
Yet another Guinea Airways employee, Alan Board, who was a stringer for the Australian Associated Press, confirmed that Earhart used every inch of runway and then some. “Marshall nearly dropped his camera,” Board told Gervais, as the plane dipped below the seaside bluff and continued to hug the waves for a considerable distance before starting a slow climb. To the best of our knowledge, the Electra was never seen again . . . or was it?
Two surviving documents remain as the most reliable accounts of Earhart’s last days in Lae. The best known is the “Collopy Report” to the Secretary of the (Australian) Civil Aviation Board, dated Aug. 28, 1937. In 1 1/2 pages, it summarizes the activities at the airfield, quotes Noonan as to the fuel load, quotes Balfour about communications and draws some conclusions as to why the flight failed. (Collopy told Ann Pellegreno there was a complete file that had “disappeared” from his department by 1967.) Then in 1991, a copy of a report from Eric Chater to William Miller of the U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce surfaced in Placer Management files. It had been relayed to Miller via the Placer representative in San Francisco (Maurice E. Griffin — son of Frank?) and consists of eight pages of detailed observations. (This is likely the same report that was sent on to George Putnam, as mentioned by Collopy.)
The village of Lae was pretty well destroyed by Japanese bombing early in World War II, rebuilt by them into a major base and later bombed into rubble again by the Allies. Little remained amid the ruins, particularly radio logs and other documents from 1937. Today Lae is the second largest city in Papua New Guinea, with 85,000 residents, but Eric Chater did not live to see it, having met a violent end just before the Japanese invasion. Early in the morning of Monday, Oct. 13, 1941, he absent-mindedly walked into the spinning propeller of one of the Guinea Airways Junkers that had just landed on the Lae airstrip. After an active life that included a stint as a fighter pilot during the deadliest days of World War I, Chater died at the age of 45, the apparent victim of a careless accident. Yet another curious footnote in the saga of Amelia Earhart.
In September of this year [1996?], I sent a letter to the Commandant of the Coast Guard and requested, a copy of the unexpurgated, official report, including the radio log of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca as it related to the flight of Amelia Earhart on 2 July 1937. I cited the Presidential Directive #12958, dated 17 April 1995, concerning the automatic declassification of documents that are more than 25 years old, as authority. The Coast Guard Commandant advised me that all documents relating to that event were in the National Archives.
With the name of a contact for Coast Guard material in the National Archives, I again requested the original, unexpurgated log of the Itasca. Again I was told that no such document exists in their files. However, they did send me a copy of an index of material that they had relating to Earhart and the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. Although much of the information in the index is familiar, I did send for some documents that may offer some new light.
Why all the mystery about what happened to Amelia Earhart? It is my judgment Morgenthau knew what happened to Amelia Earhart from “a verbal report and all those wireless messages and everything else.” But he put a cap on the release of all information about her shortly after she disappeared. I believe he took that action to protect the reputation of Amelia Earhart from that day forward so that people of the world would remember her as a beautiful and courageous young lady who was willing to challenge the concept of a man’s world and would live on as a legend for all to love and admire.
On Jan. 6, 1935, Amelia Earhart planted a Banyan tree in Hilo, Hawaii. (Earhart was in Hawaii preparing for her flight to Oakland.) On Aug. 12, 1937, Secretary of the Treasury for President Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau Jr., planted a Banyan tree next to the Earhart tree. They are there today on Banyan Tree Drive, Hilo, Hawaii. (End of Cam Warren commentary.)
As always, the opinions expressed in the foregoing commentary are solely those of the author, Cam Warren. In particular, I vehemently disagree with Warren’s contention that Henry Morgenthau Jr.’s motivation in preventing release of “all information shortly after [Earhart] disappeared” because he was concerned that the world might not remember Amelia as a “courageous young lady” and wanted to ensure that her legend would endure for all to “love and admire.”
In fact, Morgenthau was a pure political animal whose sole concern was the reputation of his boss, FDR, and in turn, his own; he knew that if the truth about the president’s abandonment of Earhart to the hands of the barbaric pre-war Japanese on Saipan ever became known, Roosevelt’s reputation as the New Deal savior of the middle class would turn to ashes, as would his political future. Thus we have the “Earhart mystery,” which is not a mystery at all, but one of several sacred cows that the Washington establishment and its media allies protect at all costs.
For much more, please see my posts of March 31, 2015, “Amelia Earhart and the Morgenthau Connection: What did FDR’s treasury secretary really know?“ and May 9, 2020, “Morgenthau papers could reveal Earhart truth.“