We continue with Part II of Almon Gray’s comprehensive analysis of Amelia Earhart’s radio communications and lack of same during her final flight. Bill Prymak, Amelia Earhart Society founder and president, has called Gray’s analysis of Earhart’s radio problems during her last flight “one of the finest pieces of work ever presented on this subject.”
“Amelia Didn’t Know Radio,” Part II
by Almon Gray
Precisely what happened next remains unknown, but it appears that Earhart conferred with a local aeronautical communication specialist to get information she could use to base a reply to [Richard] Black. A plan was developed that fulfilled her requirements with a minimum of receiver tuning on her part. The Ontario and the Itasca were to transmit on the same frequency but at different times, and each would transmit a distinctive Morse identification signal. The Ontario’s identifier was “N” and the Itasca’s was “A.”
(These were the characters used to identify the quadrants at the four-course radio ranges, then the principal navigation aid in the United States. Hence, Earhart was familiar with them.)
In 1937 it was still common to describe radio emissions in wavelengths expressed in meters, rather than in frequencies expressed in cycles per second. It seems apparent that the specialist did this during his discussions with Earhart and that he suggested that the ships transmit beacon signals on wavelengths as follows:
– Ontario 750 meters (400 kcs)
– Swan 900 meters (333 kcs)
– Itasca 750 meters (400 kcs)
These were excellent choices. All were allocated internationally for aeronautical radio navigation and were ideal for use with the direction finder in the Earhart plane.
Unfortunately, Earhart did not understand the relationship between wavelength and frequency nor how to convert from one to the other. Consequently, when she replied to Black on 27 June, she confused the figures and unwittingly specified incorrect frequencies for the Swan and the Itasca; she was correct with the Ontario.
In the case of the Swan, she apparently confused the wavelength and frequency figures, and specified that the Swan transmit on 900 kcs (rather than 333 kcs). This was a bad error in that 900 kcs was in the broadcast band and not available for aeronautical use. It also was inferior to the intended frequency of 333 kcs for DF purposes. It was not necessarily devastating, however, and fair bearings probably could have been taken on it with the aircraft DF.
In the Itasca’s case, however, it was to have grave consequences when she again apparently reversed the numbers and told Black to use 7.50 mcs (rather than 400 kcs) on the Itasca. The 7.50 mcs frequency was so high that there was practically no possibility of obtaining usable radio bearings on it with the aircraft DF.
Following is the text of Earhart’s reply to Black, sent the day before she left Bandoeng for Koepang and Darwin:
From: Earhart via RCA Manila & NPM Navy Radio Honolulu
To: Itasca (Black) June 27, 1937 [Java Date; it was 26 June on Howland east of the International Date Line]
SUGGEST ONTARIO STANDBY ON 400 KILOCYCLES TO TRANSMIT LETTER N FIVE MINUTES ON REQUEST WITH STATION CALL REPEATED TWICE END OF EVERY MINUTE STOP SWAN TRANSMIT VOICE NINE MEGACYCLES OR IF I UNABLE RECEIVE READY ON 900 KILOCYCLES STOP ITASCA TRANSMIT LETTER A POSITION OWN CALL LETTERS AS ABOVE ON HALF HOUR 7.5 MEGACYCLES STOP POSITION SHIPS AND OUR LEAVING WILL DETERMINE BROADCASTING SPECIFICALLY STOP IF FREQUENCIES MENTIONED UNSUITABLE NIGHT WORK INFORM ME LAE STOP I WILL GIVE LONG CALL BY VOICE THREE ONE NAUGHT FIVE KCS QUARTER AFTER HOUR POSSIBLY QUARTER TO [signed] EARHART
Had normal air-to-surface communications existed with the Itasca as Earhart approached Howland, the homing problem could almost certainly have been solved quickly. The ship could have told her to home on 500 kcs, the frequency already being transmitted (in addition to 7.50 mcs), and she should have been able to get bearings that would have led her to the ship. Unfortunately, she was unable to hear signals from the Itasca on 3105 kcs, although the ship was hearing her well. It was thus impossible for the Itasca and Earhart to coordinate their actions.
THE AIR-TO-SURFACE COMMUNICATION PROBLEM: A report by Guinea Airways Ltd. shows that Earhart’s radio gear was checked at Lae by one of its wireless operators, H.J. Balfour, and found satisfactory. Good two-way communication was maintained during a 30-minute test hop at Lae, although a roughness in the transmitted voice signal made Earhart difficult to understand. Balfour told her that her speech might be more intelligible if she spoke in a higher pitch while transmitting.
After the flight left Lae for Howland, two-way communication with Lae was maintained until about 0720 2 July Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) [now Universal Coordinated Time], when she shifted to her 3105 kcs night frequency. Several times throughout the night she was heard broadcasting at the prearranged times by stations on Nauru Island and the Itasca, but little of her transmissions were intelligible. Nauru, and later the Itasca, called her numerous nines, but there is no indication that she heard any of the calls. At 1515 GMT, the Itasca picked up Earhart calling to say she would listen on 3105 kcs on the hour and half-hour. At 1744 GMT she asked the Itasca for a bearing, to be taken then and given to her on the hour. She then whistled into the microphone on 3105 kcs to create a signal on which the bearing could be taken. The DF operator on Howland heard this signal but was unable to get a bearing. He remarked that the signal had very little carrier and seemed over-modulated. The plane made no response to numerous calls from the Itasca at this time.
At 1815 GMT Earhart again asked the Itasca for a bearing. She wanted it taken then and reported to her in a half hour (at 1845 GMT), and she whistled into the microphone to provide a signal; she said they were about 100 miles out. Again the Howland DF heard her signal but was unable to get a hearing, and again Earhart made no response to numerous calls from the Itasca. At 1912 GMT, Earhart transmitted the following to the Itasca on voice radio:
WE MUST BE ON YOU NOW BUT CANNOT SEE YOU. RUNNING OUT OF GAS. ONLY ONE HALF HOUR LEFT. BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO. WE ARE FLYING AT ONE THOUSAND FEET.
The Itasca was on the correct frequency and putting out strong signals at the time — even San Francisco picked them up. In turn, the aircraft’s signals were very strong when the Itasca picked up her transmission; it was obvious that the aircraft’s fixed antenna and its feeder to the transmitter were still intact. Thus Earhart’s transmission “BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO” clearly indicates that her receiving system had failed, probably early in the flight. Beyond that there was no clue as to the nature of the failure — but the clue was not long in coming.
After twice failing to obtain a bearing from the Howland DF on 3105 kcs, Earhart tried to home on the Itasca radio beacon using the aircraft’s direction finder. At 1925 GMT she broadcast to the Itasca:
WE ARE CIRCLING BUT CANNOT HEAR YOU. GO AHEAD ON 7500 NOW OR ON THE SCHEDULE TIME ON HALF HOUR.
By “7500” she was referring to 7500 kcs, the radio beacon frequency she had specified for the Itasca. The ship complied immediately and transmitted the specified beacon signal — Morse “A” on 7500 kcs. The transmitter had no voice capability, so it was impossible to talk to the plane on that frequency. Earhart responded at once on 3105 kcs, saying:
WE RECEIVED YOUR SIGNALS ON SEVENTY FIVE BUT UNABLE TO GET A MINIMUM. PLEASE TAKE BEARINGS ON US AND ANSWER THREE FIVE NAUGHT FIVE (3105 intended) WITH VOICE.
This was followed by a series of long dashes. No bearing was taken and there was no reply to the Itasca’s subsequent transmission.
Earhart obviously picked up the Itasca’s 7500 kcs beacon signals on the aircraft’s loop antenna, because she reported being “Unable to get a minimum,” (the indication of a bearing) and she would not have expected to get a minimum except with a loop antenna. That she heard the signal indicates her receiver was functioning on at least one band. It was uncommon for only a single band to fail; usually, if one failed, they all failed, and so it is quite likely that the receiver was also functioning on the frequency band containing 3105 kcs. Under existing conditions, Earhart should have been able to hear both signals on the loop and on the fixed antenna. She did hear 7500 kcs on the loop, where signals went directly from loop to receiver, but she did not hear 3105 kcs on the fixed antenna, where the incoming signals had to pass through the send-receive relay before reaching the receiver. It is probable, therefore, that the relay had been damaged by lightning or static discharge so that the contacts were not closing properly on the receive side, thus leaving the receiver without an antenna.
No more requests for a bearing were heard. At 2013 G.MT Earhart came up on 3105 kcs, gave a line of position, and said she was shifting to 6210 kcs; that was the last time the Itasca heard signals from the plane.
Had Earhart been more familiar with her radio gear and manipulated the antenna selector switch on the receiver to transmit on the fixed antenna, but receive on the loop, she probably would have established two-way communication with Itasca. She apparently did not attempt it.
End of Part II.
Once again I’m privileged to offer yet another erudite presentation on radio and Amelia Earhart by the late Almon A. Gray, this one titled “Amelia Didn’t Know Radio.” This article initially appeared in the November 1993 edition of U.S. Naval Institute History magazine before Bill Prymak presented it in the December 1993 issue of his Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.
After graduating from the George Stevens Academy in 1928 and the Massachusetts Radio Telegraph School in 1930, Gray enlisted in the Navy, where he was a radioman and gunner aboard cruiser-based aircraft, and he also learned to fly.
Following his Navy enlistment he joined Pan American Airways, and in 1935 helped build the bases to support the first trans-Pacific air service, and was first officer-in-charge of the PAA radio station on Wake Island. After the San Francisco-Hong Kong air route was opened in late 1935, he was a radio officer in the China Clipper and her sister flying boats. Later he was assistant superintendent of communications for PAA’s Pacific Division. Gray, who flew with Fred Noonan, was a Navy Reserve captain and a major figure in the development of the Marshall Islands landing scenario. He died at 84 on Sept. 26, 1994 at Blue Hill, Maine
This is the first of a three-part presentation. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
“Amelia Didn’t Know Radio”
by Captain Almon A. Gray, U.S. Naval Reserve (Ret.)
Almost certainly, Amelia Earhart could not get a bearing on the radio beacon on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca (WPG-321), lying off the beach at Howland Island, rose the frequency that she had designated –7.50 Mcs* — was so high that her direction finder (DF) was inherently incapable of taking bearings on it.
(* Since 1937 the unit of measurement for radio frequencies has been changed from “cycles” to Hertz (Hz), consequently Megacycles (MCs) and MegaHertz (MHz) will be used interchangeably , as will Kilocycles and Kilohertz (kHz).)
That Earhart and Fred Noonan failed to reach Howland Island on their 1937 around-the-world flight because of radio problems has been studied before — but little has been written about the specifics.
A failure in the plane’s antenna system, which made it impossible to receive signals on the fixed antenna, also was a factor. Had she or Noonan known enough about the system to work around the failure, they could have established voice communications with the Itasca, where someone surely would have suggested they try taking bearings on the vessel’s 500-kilocycle beacon. It could have made all the difference.
BACKGROUND: In early 1937, several weeks before departing Oakland, California, for Honolulu — the first leg of an intended west-about flight around the world — Earhart met at Alameda, California with George Angus, the Superintendent of Communications for the Pacific Division of Pan American Airways (PAA). Angus directed the radio communication and DF [direction finding] networks that supported the PAA clippers on their Pacific crossings, and she was looking for help to augment Noonan’s celestial navigation.
The airline then had specially designed versions of the Adcock radio DF system in service at Alameda, Mokapu Point on Oahu in the Territory of Hawaii, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, and Manila in the Philippines. They could take bearings on frequencies much higher than could conventional loop-type direction finders — like Earhart’s — and were effective over much greater distances. These high frequency DFs were the only ones of their type in the United States and its territories. Angus agreed to help and went to work on the details.
This was complicated inasmuch as PAA could receive but not transmit on either of Earhart’s communications frequencies — 3105 or 6210 kHz — and could not transmit voice on any frequency. Earhart and Angus decided that the aircraft would request a bearing by voice on the frequency in use — usually 3105 kHz at night and 6210 kHz during the day — and follow the request with a series of long dashes lasting in the aggregate a couple of minutes.
The PAA DF station would rake a bearing on the transmission and transmit it to the plane on another previously agreed upon PAA frequency, using continuous wave (CW) telegraphy sent at such a slow speed that the individual dots and dashes could be copied on paper and later translated into numbers.
This arrangement was tested on the flight from Oakland to Honolulu; PAA took the bearings on 3105 KHz and transmitted the bearings in Morse code on 2986 KHz. The flight was handled much the same as a routine Clipper flight. Captain Harry Manning, former captain of the SS Roosevelt,the ship that brought her home from Europe after her 1928 trans-Atlantic flight — and a long-time friend, was an experienced radio operator and handled the Electra’s radio and DF gear while regular PAA professional radio operators manned the ground stations. Radio bearings furnished the plane at frequent intervals, first from Alameda and later from Mokapu Point, checked well with the positions Noonan determined by celestial navigation. Nearing Oahu, Manning set up the plane’s DF to home on the 290 kHz marine radio beacon at Makapu Point, near Diamond Head, and Earhart homed in on it to a successful landfall.
While attempting takeoff for Howland-Island from Luke Field, near Honolulu, on March 20, 1937, Earhart ground-looped the Electra, damaging it to the extent that it was shipped back to the Lockheed plant in California for repairs. The radio gear sustained no major damage, but the Western Electric Model 20B radio receiver and its remote-control apparatus were replaced by a Bendix aircraft radio receiver and accessories. The stub mast supporting the V-shaped fixed antenna also was moved a bit forward, and the antenna feed line was rerouted. The late Joseph Gurr, then a moonlighting United Airlines technician, did the work.
THE NEW RECEIVER: The receiver installed at Lockheed was an experimental model incorporating the latest improvements. Only three experimental units were built, although Bendix later marketed an almost identical design as the Type RA-1 Aircraft Radio Receiver.
The experimental model was a continuous turning superheterodyne that covered the spectrum from 150 to 10,000 kcs in five bands. It could receive voice, CW, or modulated CW (MCW) signals and could be controlled remotely from the cockpit. A switch permitted the operator to connect the receiver to either the conventional wire antenna or the loop antenna. When the loop was used, the combination became an effective radio DF system capable of accurate bearings on frequencies between 150 and approximately 1800 kcs. Signals on frequencies higher than 1800 kcs could be heard, but very seldom could accurate bearings be obtained. Earhart was apparently unaware of this. The receiver was powered by a dynamotor operated by storage batteries charged by the main engines.
THE RADIO SYSTEM: When the plane left the Lockheed plant, the radio system consisted of the following elements:
– The experimental Bendix aircraft radio receiver.
– Western Electric Model 13-C 50-watt aircraft transmitter with three crystal-controlled channels: 500, 3105, and 6210 kHz — capable of voice or CW transmissions. It was mounted in the cabin, but there were remote controls in the cockpit.
– A prototype of a Bendix Type MN-20 rotatable shielded loop antenna. It was mounted on the fuselage above the cockpit; the knob that rotated it was on the cockpit overhead between the pilots. It was used primarily for taking radio bearings but was useful as a receiving antenna in static caused by heavy precipitation.
– Fittings at each side of the cockpit for connecting a microphone, headphones, and telegraph key.
– A telegraph key and a jack for connecting headphones at the navigator’s table.
– A 250-foot flexible-wire trailing antenna on an electrically operated, remote-controlled reel at the rear of the plane. The wire exited the lower fuselage through an insulated bushing and had a lead weight, or “fish,” at the end to keep it from whipping when deployed. A variable loading coil used in conjunction with this antenna permitted its use on 500 kHz., and the antenna was long enough to give excellent radiation efficiency on all three transmitting frequencies.
– A fixed, Vee-configured wire antenna with its apex at a stub mast mounted on the top of the fuselage, over the center section of the wing, and its two legs extending back to the two vertical tail fins. The antenna was so short that its radiation efficiency was extremely low; it was adequate for local communications around an airport when it was not feasible to have the trailing antenna deployed, but not for the long-distance communication Earhart required for her transoceanic flight.
Either wire antenna could be selected from the cockpit. The one selected both transmitted and received by means of a send-receive relay that switched the antenna from the receiver to the transmitter when the microphone button was depressed, and switched it back to the receiver when the button was released.
MISTAKES AT MIAMI: After deciding to change her route to east-about, in late May 1937 Earhart flew the plane to Miami, where she had the trailing antenna and associated gear removed completely. John Ray, an Eastern Airlines technician who had his own radio shop as a sideline, did the work. Once again, Amelia obviously did not comprehend the devastating impact this would have on her ability to communicate and to use radio navigation. With only the very short fixed antenna remaining, virtually no energy could be radiated on 500 KHz. This not only foreclosed any possibility of contacting ships and marine shore stations but precluded ships — most important, the Itasca — and marine shore-based DF stations from taking radio bearings on the plane, inasmuch as 500 kHz was the only one of her frequencies that fell within the range of the marine direction finders. Any radio aid in locating Howland Island would have to be in the form of radio bearings taken by the plane on radio signals from the Itasca. Earhart had cut her options severely.
The shortness of the remaining antenna also drastically reduced the power radiated on the two high frequencies. Paul Rafford Jr., a NASA expert in this field involved in forecasting long-range communication requirements to support astronaut recoveries, estimated that the radiated power on 3105 KHz. was about one-half watt. This obviously was a tremendous handicap in the high static level of the tropics.
The fixed antenna also may have been at least partly responsible for the distortion in Earhart’s transmitted signals reported by the operators at Lae, New Guinea, and Howland as affecting the intelligibility of her voice transmissions. A mismatch between the antenna and the final amplifier of a WE-13C transmitter could cause the transmitter to over-modulate and thus introduce distortion.
After a few days in the Pan American Airways shops during which all systems, including the antennas, were tuned and peaked, the plane departed Miami on June 1, 1937 to resume the flight around the world.
Despite these shortcomings, Earhart got as far as the Dutch East Indies without major incident. There, however, because of her unfamiliarity with radio matters, she unwittingly made the mistake that ultimately led to her failure to reach Howland Island.
THE FAULTY PLAN: The legs from New Guinea to Howland Island and from Howland to Hawaii were the most difficult navigational portions of the flight, and three small vessels were stationed along the way to assist. Each planned to use the ship’s transmitter as a radio beacon for Earhart and Noonan to supplement Noonan’s celestial navigation.
– The USS Ontario (AT-13) was on station midway between Lae and Howland.
– The USS Swan (AVP-34) was positioned midway between Howland and Hawaii.
– The USCGC Itasca was at Howland. Her beacon was particularly important; should Noonan’s celestial navigation not put them within visual range of the small, low-lying island, homing in on the Itasca’s signal would be their only chance.
By June 23 these vessels were on or approaching their respective stations but had not been issued their radio beacon frequency or procedures. That day, in a message addressed to Earhart at Darwin or Bandoeng. Richard Black — Earhart’s representative on board the Itasca — advised her of the radio frequencies available on the three ships and asked her to designate the frequency she wished each ship to use when transmitting beacon signals. This message caught up with Earhart at Bandoeng, Java.
(End of Part I.)
The lengthy “The PAA Post-Flight Radio Intercepts” (What they really tell us and what was the U.S. Government trying to cover up?? Why did they want all copies destroyed?” that appeared in the November 1997 issue of Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters is too dense for normal reading and not suitable for this blog.
The important aspects of its bulky contents are covered extensively in the April 30, 2014, “Earhart’s “post-loss” messages: Real or fake?” May 13, 2014, “Experts weigh in on Earhart’s post-loss messages,“ and May 27, 2014, “Amelia Earhart’s alleged “Land in sight” message remains a curiosity, if not a mystery.”
Today we present Bill Prymak’s “Follow-Up on the PAA Post-Flight Radio Intercepts,” which includes his and other researchers’ analyses; it appeared in the March 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. For enhanced realism, I’ve presented this article in its original AES Newsletter format. To read larger version, please left click on the image.
For further discussion, see Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, Chapter III, “The Search and the Radio Signals,” pages 40-59.
Today we present a historical retrospective of Howland Island that appeared in the February 1999 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, with the headline, “The Story of Howland Island: by the Literary Digest, September 18, 1937.”
The Literary Digest was an American general interest magazine published by Funk and Wagnalls. Founded by Isaac Kaufmann Funk in 1890, it eventually merged with two similar weekly magazines, Public Opinion and Current Opinion. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
During those anxious weeks of late June and early July of this summer when the eyes of the whole world were following the fruitless search for Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Frank [sic]Noonan, the name of Howland Island often appeared in the newspapers. To the average newspaper reader, it was vaguely “one of those islands in the Pacific.”
This pinpoint in the Pacific — this Lima bean of an island in the Largest of oceans — has a story as bizarre, as adventurous, as ironic, as contradictory as anything in the early novels of H. G. Wells. Imagine a sandpit a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, nowhere more than fifteen feet above sea level, and frequently hidden in the surf’s white foam, almost directly on the Equator, nearly 2,000 miles south of Honolulu and 2.400 miles from New Zealand, with nothing but guano, birds, pigweed, rats, burning sun — and the best runways and approaches of any landing field in the world!
The history of Howland Island is brief. In fact, as far as its present importance goes, it may be said to be only a little more than two years old. For it was two years ago that the United States Department of Commerce took formal possession of Howland Island, together with two other tiny Pacific islands — Baker Island, forty miles to the south across the equator, and Jarvis Island, more than one thousand miles to the east. Howland and Baker Islands lie not only almost exactly on the Equator, but are close to the International Date Line meridian.
It is true. Howland Island was known before as a rich source of guano. In 1842, Captain George E. Necker of New Bedford, searching for guano deposits, came upon Howland Island and reported its existence, and for thirty some years afterwards the island was visited, much to the annoyance of the thousands of birds — booby, frigate, and tern — that breed there, for its profitable, if unsavory yield. With the decline of this industry, due to more efficient means of producing fertilizer, interest in the island died and only a few rough graves are left to mark where New England seamen used to land.
With the development of air commerce, however, the situation of Howland Island on a direct air route between Hawaii and Australia, and possibly between the United States and New Zealand, became obvious to both England and the United States, and almost simultaneously the two countries raced to get possession of the tiny scraps of sand and coral as a base for air commerce or national defense — or both. The United States won the race (by a few days) and in April 1935, the US. Coast Guard Cutter ltasca slipped down from Honolulu to land colonists on each of the three “line islands” — Howland, Baker and Jarvis. The colonists were boys from the Kamehameha School in Hawaii — four boys to each island — and their job was to take and keep possession for the United States. Since then relays of Hawaiian schoolboys have lived there, making meteorological observations and maintaining title for the United States. The first expedition was kept secret, and not until nearly eight months later did the news leak out that the three little islands had been colonized and were undisputedly American territory.
On the thirteenth of May in the following year, Howland, Baker and Jarvis islands were placed under the Department of the Interior: a few weeks later, an appropriation was made for their administration, and on Jan. 8, 1937, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter William J. Duane sailed from Honolulu equipped with men and materials to build an airport on Howland Island under the direction of Robert L. Campbell, the airport expert of the Bureau of Air Commerce.
The expedition was one of those rarities — a triumph of inter-departmental cooperation. From the Army came Captain H. A. Meyer, Procurement Officer, and Lieutenant Charles F. Brown, Air Corps Observer, together with several others. From the Navy came Lieutenant Charles L. Lee and David H. Ellsworth, Naval Photographer. The Department of the Interior contributed You Fai Lure and Bak Sung Kim, student aerologists and radio operators, and laborers as well.
The Department of the Interior, the Army Air Corps, the Navy, and the Works Progress Administration in Hawaii supplied the materials, which included two five-ton tractors, a farm-type harrow, a concrete and steel roller, matlocks, axes, plows, cane knives, a field kitchen, flood lamps, radio transmitting and receiving apparatus, and food and water, together with many other items.
The appalling hazards of the job ahead began with the problem of landing. There is nothing resembling a harbor at Howland Island, and there are plenty of jagged reefs and heavy swells. A large boat can’t get within a quarter of a mile of the place. Small boats and pontoons are the only means of getting ashore. It requires little imagination to picture the difficulties of surf-riding a tractor-laden pontoon without mishap. Further complications presented by this remarkably inhospitable isle are the poisonous sea urchins, seaweed, and coral that infest its waters, scars from which many members of the crew will carry for the rest of their lives.
Howland itself is a kind of nightmare. A rim that is six to eight feet higher than the center makes the island into an oblong bowl of sandy soil with outcroppings of coral and everywhere malodorous mounds of guano. (Thirty thousand tons of it is the estimate, which is a large amount for a space that is half a mile by a mile and a half!) The only native vegetation is pigweed, a tough coarse plant, and a few stunted leafless kou trees, although the colonists have planted a few trees. Wildlife is represented by thousands of birds that continually do fly in great clouds by night as well as by day. These birds, incidentally, present the greatest danger to the aviator because of their vast numbers and the fact that they are constantly on the wing. The only way to disperse them is by shotgun fire.
Two harmless reptiles, the Gecko lizard and the snake-eyed skink, cause little trouble — but the rats! The loathsome creatures swarm over the island, literally by the thousands. Five hundred to a thousand rats a night were killed by the crew in the following ingenious manner: An oil drum was sunk into the ground, half filled with water with a liberal sprinkling of cracker crumbs, and by morning it was filled to the top with drowned rats. An appetizing before breakfast ceremony was the pouring of a libation of gasoline over the whole business and setting fire to it. But in spite of this wholesale slaughter there were always more rats. They were everywhere. More than once a man woke up at night to find a rat on his face, licking his lips for particles of food.
To add to the horrors of the working conditions, the smell from the guano was ever present — an intolerable stench made even worse by the tropical sun. Moreover, the guano dust was so poisonous that men had to bathe several times a day prevent dangerous boils. No rain lays this dust or cools the parched earth, for a strange phenomenon of the island is its lack of rainfall in a region where one would expect rain almost daily. Observers say that rain squalls approaching the island split in two before they reach it, and rain will be seen beating on the ocean on all sides while none falls on the island itself. The only explanation offered for this eccentricity is that possibly it is caused by a column of heated air rising from the hot sand.
Despite the savage natural handicaps of the place, there is some slight evidence of South Sea Islander occupation. There are marks of digging and remains of low flat mounds which may have been the foundations for primitive huts. Traces of footpaths remain, and in 1862 fragments of a canoe, a few bits of bamboo, a blue bead, and a human skeleton were discovered — all that was left to tell of a lonely tragedy.
The waters surrounding Howland Island abound not only with poisonous seaweed and coral, but with edible tropical fish which can be caught with spears. It is clear, however, that without proper equipment, life could not be supported there more than a day or two. The heat, the tack of water, and the ferocious rats are a deadly triumvirate.
The three runways built in the face of such formidable handicaps were made of guano, sand and coral. These materials, packed hard, have all the characteristics of pavement. One runway is 5,200 feet long, another is 3.023 feet long, and a third measures 2,439 feet. Each of them is 150 feet wide. Fifteen thousand cubic feet of soil had to be moved in the course of the construction.
Ironically enough, the airport was rushed to completion in order that Amelia Earhart might land on it in the course of what proved to be, tragically, her last flight. She was scheduled to reach Howland in March, but after her crack-up in Honolulu she changed her route and flew the other way around the island. The very person for whom the airport was finished under such hardships never reached it.
Howland Island was linked with Miss Earhart’s name some months later when it was the center of the seventeen-day search for the lost fliers conducted by planes and ships of the United States Navy. During that time four thousand men had an opportunity to familiarize themselves with nearly a quarter of a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, vast areas of which had never before been flown over by naval planes.
If it seems odd to think that only land planes can land on this ocean airport, you are reminded that there are strong arguments in-favor of fast land planes instead of the heavier and slower sea planes for a possible air service to the Antipodes — one of the strongest arguments being the lack of possible airports for refueling en route. To be sure Pan American uses giant amphibians on her Honolulu to Manila route, but the mid-ocean airports along the way, on Midway and Wake lands, are very different affairs from what might be done on the “line islands.“ Midway and Wake both have central lagoons of sheltered water in which flying boats can land, but no seaplane could come to rest in the savage surf that beats on Howland, Baker and Jarvis.
Meanwhile these three steppingstones — neglected for years, and now, suddenly, solicitously cherished by the United States — stand waiting. Whether or not they will ever prove practical as airports is still problematical. (Two of them — Howland and Baker — are so near each other that there seems little chance that both would be needed.) It may be that their ancient inhabitants, the birds, will prove too deadly a hazard for propellers’ whirling blades. Perhaps their tiny size will ever render them too difficult as targets. (End of “The Story of Howland Island: by the Literary Digest, September 18, 1937.”)
Among the great ironies of the Earhart saga is that Amelia’s failure to find Howland Island ended the U.S. military’s “hopes that the three islands could be used for retaliatory or reconnaissance purposes . . . and the crisscrossing Howland runways again became a refuge for birds,” Fred Goerner wrote in The Search for Amelia Earhart. “The abandonment of the islands as possible air bases was only one of the prices military aviation paid prior to the war for the loss of Amelia and Fred. When the Army attempted to demonstrate that land planes could fly over great stretches of ocean to bomb a target or accomplish photo-reconnaissance missions, skeptics pointed to the Howland Island failure. Whether or not Jarvis, Baker, and Howland could have provided a striking force sufficient to hamper the Japanese will never been known.”
A cruel postscript came four years later, when, after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese land-based warplanes bombed the runways and strafed the lighthouse at Howland, killing or wounding several Hawaiian personnel assigned there. On the lighthouse, a plaque honoring Amelia was shattered by Japanese machine-gun bullets.
No aircraft has ever landed on Howland, and all attempts at habitation were abandoned after 1944, according to Wikipedia.
The following monologue from former KCBS Radio newsman, pre-eminent Earhart researcher and best-selling author Fred Goerner appeared in the November 1997 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. It’s a snapshot of Goerner’s thinking in 1987, just seven years before his death from cancer in 1994. He’s clearly learned much since his 1966 bestseller The Search for Amelia Earhart was published, but he’s far from declaring, “Case closed,” and continues to speculate about major aspects of the Earhart case.
The radio station remains unidentified, but it was likely a West Coast outlet, since Goerner lived in San Francisco and spent most of his time there, and could have been KCBS, where he was a prominent newsman during his Saipan investigations of the early 1960s. Bold face emphasis is mine throughout.
“A Thorough Search for An Illusive Answer”
(Fred Goerner speaking on a radio broadcast in 1987)
. . . . I began the investigation in 1960, for the Columbia Broadcasting System. There was a woman named Josephine Nakiyama (sic, Akiyama is correct) who lived in San Mateo, CA who in 1960 stipulated that she had seen an American man and woman, supposedly fliers, in Japanese custody on the island of Saipan in 1937. My reaction to the story was one of total and complete skepticism. It seemed to me that many years after the fact, and 15 years after the end of World War II, that surely if there was such information, our government knew about it.
I was assigned by CBS to follow the story, and I was sent to Saipan for the first time in 1960. I have been to Saipan 14 times since then. I have been to the Marshall Islands 4 times. I have been to our National Archives and other depositories around the country countless times, in search of extant records that deal with the disappearance and with respect to Miss Earhart’s involvement with the US Government at the time of her flight.
This [effort] has now extended over 27 years. You may wonder why I want to record my own statement. It is simply because there are so many people who have involved themselves over the years, for various reasons. When you present something, it often comes back to you in a different manner. [Therefore] I would like to have a record of everything that I have said, so that if somebody is trying to quote me, I can definitely establish what it is I HAVE said and what I have not.
Let me say at the outset here, that there is no definite proof — I am talking about tangible evidence here – that Amelia Earhart was indeed in the custody of the Japanese and died in Japanese custody. [However] there is a lot of other evidence that points to that possibility. [For example:] it was the late Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz who became sort of a second father during the last years of his life, who kept my nose to this story. He indicated to me that there were things behind it all that had never been released.
I wrote the book “The Search for Amelia Earhart” in 1966, and it did reach many people. People in Congress and in the Senate began to ask questions of Departments of Government who, up to that time, had denied that there were classified records of any kind in any of the department of the military and/or government that dealt with Amelia Earhart.
It was not until 1968 that the first evidence began to surface. At this juncture , there have been over 25,000 pages of classified records dealing with Earhart’s involvement with the military. As a sidelight, I think it is a supreme salute to Amelia that, 50 years after her disappearance, we are still concerned with finding the truth where this matter is concerned. These records that have been released reveal clearly, unequivocally, that Amelia was cooperating with her government at the time of her disappearance.
That does NOT mean that she was that terrible word, a SPY, although at one time we at CBS had suspected that this was a possibility. Particularly when we learned that Clarence Kelly Johnson, at Lockheed Aircraft, had been the real technical advisor for her final flight. Mr. Johnson later headed the U-2 program and our SR-71 supersonic reconnaissance program[s]. In conversations that I have had with Mr. Johnson, he has convinced me that Amelia was NOT on an overt spy mission.
The records do indicate, though, that Amelia’s plane was purchased for her by the (then) War Department, with the money channeled through three individuals to Purdue Research Foundation. There was a quid pro quo: Amelia was to test the latest high frequency direction finder equipment that had intelligence overtones. She was also to conduct what is known as “white intelligence,” but that [did] not make her a spy. Civilians very often perform this function for their governments. They are going to be in places at times where the military cannot visit. All one does is to keep one’s eyes open and listen. She was going to be flying in areas of the world then closed to the military. Weather conditions, radio conditions, length of runways, fuel supplies, all information that would be of interest to the military.
They asked her to change her original flight plan to use Howland Island as a destination, and it was to that island she was headed at the time of her disappearance. The United States was forbidden by the 1923 Washington Treaty Conference with Japan, to do anything of a military nature on these islands. Amelia was to be the civilian reason for construction of an airfield [there] that could later be used for military purposes.
At the Amelia Earhart Symposium held at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as few years ago, I revealed that Thomas McKean, who is [was] head of Intertel [Inc.], had been the Executive Officer of the 441st Counter-Intelligence Corps unit in Tokyo after the end of the war. He had done the study for the CIC, and testified that a complete file was established at that time, [which included the information that] Amelia had been picked up by the Japanese and died in Japanese custody.
[Further] there have been over 40 witnesses on the island of Saipan who testified in the presence of church authorities. From them information was gathered that claimed a man and woman answering the description of Earhart and Noonan were held in Japanese custody on the island in 1937, and that the woman died of dysentery sometime between 8 and 14 months after her arrival. And the man who accompanied her was executed after her death. Had you been there too, you would have been won over [by their testimony].
When I heard that information, I personally talked several times to Mr. Hams, and later recounted this story in a presentation [to government officials?] in Washington, D.C., where we began an effort to determine the existence of these records. Several years went by, with naught save denials. Finally, an old friend of mine in San Francisco, Caspar Weinberger [then Sec. Of Defense] said, “Well, we are going to find out.” [Some time later] I received a call from the head of the Navy’s Freedom of Information Office in Washington. She said, “We have good news and we have bad news. The good news is that we have located the records [at Crane], but the bad news is it is part of 14,000 reels of information stored there. We are sending some people to Crane to find out if [what you want] can be released.” [Months later] there was a letter from Mr. Weinberger, dated April 20, 1967, which I quote:
In regard to the US Navy review of records in Crane, Indiana which you hope will reveal information about Amelia Earhart. I understand your eagerness to learn the outcome of the Navy’s review. Unfortunately, however, we are dealing with a very time-consuming and tedious task. There are some 14,000 reels of microfilm containing Navy and Marine Corps cryptological records, which under National Security Regulations must be examined page by page. They cannot be released in bulk. To date, over 6,000 reels have been examined in this manner and the sheer mass prevents us from predicting exactly how long it will take to examine the remaining reels. It may be helpful for you to know that the Naval Group Command’s examination of the index [has] thus far revealed no mention of Amelia Earhart. Should the information be discovered in the remaining reels however, it will be reviewed for release through established procedures and made available to you promptly and as appropriate. I wish I could be more helpful, but I hope these comments will provide assurance that our Navy people are not capriciously dragging out the review. Completion of the task will be a relief to everyone involved.
What do I believe after 27 years of investigating? I have no belief. There is a strong possibility that she was taken by the Japanese at a very precipitous time in Pacific history. There is a possibility that, having broken the Japanese codes, Franklin Roosevelt knew she was in Japanese custody. Several times before the war the records that are now available indicate that he asked the Office of Naval Intelligence to infiltrate agents into the Marshall Islands to determine whether Earhart was alive or dead. He also asked his friend Vincent Astor in 1938, to take his private yacht to those islands to seek out possible information, but the yacht was quickly chased away by the Japanese.
We do know of Roosevelt’s association with Amelia. I do not believe it is a denigration of Earhart that she was serving her government. I believe, instead of being categorized as a publicity seeker trying to fly around the world, that if she was serving her government in those capacities which are established, that she ought to be celebrated even further.
I have no hostility toward Japan. In fact, one of the writers from that country, Fokiko Iuki [sic, correct is Fukiko Aoki, see my July 16, 2017 post on Susan Butler], who has done a book on [the Earhart disappearance] from the Japanese point of view, came to America and I assisted her in its preparation. But until I have satisfied my mind where these last records [in Crane] are concerned, in particular the information from the CIC and the Navy Cryptological Security Units, I’m not going to let it stop there. (End of Goerner’s radio broadcast.)
Knowledgeable Earhart observers will note that nowhere in this 1987 broadcast did Goerner mention where he believed the fliers landed, much less the fact that he later changed his mind about such a significant piece of the Earhart puzzle.
This topic is far too complex to cover here, but in the early years of his Saipan and Marshalls investigations, as well as in his 1966 book, Goerner was adamant that Earhart and Noonan landed at Mili Atoll, based on the significant amount of evidence supporting this all but certain scenario. For much more, see Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, Chapter VII, “The Marshall Islands Witnesses,” pages 129-134 and Chapter VIII, “Goerner’s Reversal and Devine’s Dissent,” 172-178.