Conclusion of “The Last Days of Amelia Earhart”

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 workedas 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.

Guinea Airways employee Alan Board is credited with this photo of the Electra just before leaving the ground on its takeoff from Lae, New Guinea on the morning of July 2, 1937.  This is the last known photo of the Earhart Electra.

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 Stanavoemployee 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?

View of group posed in front of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10-E Electra (NR 16020) at Lae, New Guinea, July 1937, just before the fliers’ July 2 departure from Lae. From left to right are Eric Chater (Manager, Guinea Airways), Mrs. Chater, Amelia Earhart, and Fred Noonan.

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 haddisappeared 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.

Cam Warren on “The Last Days of Amelia Earhart”

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 NewslettersI’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 extremegovernment spyideas.

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.

This was the official flight plan, 2,556 statute miles from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island. The 337-157 line of position, or sun line, passed through the Phoenix Islands, near Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, and the popular theory, though completely false, is in part attributable to this phenomena.  From Laurance Safford’s Flight Into Yesterday, The Facts Without the Fiction (2003).

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 reeftheory 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).

Gold Dust and Ashes is a book by Ion Idriess set in Bulolo in the New Guinea goldfields.  It covers the history of gold exploration in the region, including occupation by the Germans, transfer to Australian governorship, the efforts of Cecil Levien to pioneer gold mining, and the role of New Guinea Airways in the industry.

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.

In this photo taken from Last Flight, Amelia is shown shortly after her arrival at Lae, New Guinea on June 30, 1937,

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 Engineerand 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.)


Ferris’ Saipan account closely mirrors Nabers’

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.

Undated photo of Army Air Force veteran John N. Fletcher, who contacted Thomas E. Devine in 1993 to relate the eyewitness experience of his friend Howard Ferris on Saipan in the summer of 1944.

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 againThis 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.

Robert T. Stocker (undated), World War II vet and friend of Thomas E. Devine, whose 1993 notice in the American Legion Magazine elicited a fascinating response from John Fletcher about this friend Howard Ferris’ Saipan experiences in the summer of 1944.

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.”

John Fletcher passed away at 88 on July 17, 2013, at Arbor Manor in Fremont, Neb.  Robert T. Stocker, Sr., 90,  passed away on Aug. 12, 2016 at the VA Hospital in West Haven.

Joe Klaas’s ’99 AES email traces fliers’ movements

Joe Klaas, who died in February 2016 at his home in Monterey, Calif., at 95, was probably the most gifted writer of all Earhart researchers.  Unfortunately, Klaas was best known as the author of the most controversial — and damaging to legitimate research — Earhart book of all time, Amelia Earhart Lives: A trip through intrigue to find America’s first lady of mystery (McGraw-Hill, 1970).

Klaas accomplished far more in his remarkable life than pen history’s most scandalous Earhart disappearance work.  Besides Amelia Earhart Lives, Klaas wrote nine books including Maybe I’m Dead, a World War II novel; The 12 Steps to Happiness; and (anonymously) Staying Clean.

In July 1999, long after the delusional Amelia Earhart Lives had done its insidious damage, Klaas wrote a fairly lengthy, pointed email to several associates at the Broomfield, Colo.-based Amelia Earhart Society including Bill Prymak and Rollin Reineck, presenting his vision of the movements of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan just after their July 2 landing in the Marshall Islands, though Klaas did not specify Mili Atoll or Barre Island as the location of the Electra’s descent. 

Joe Klaas, circa 2004, author of Amelia Earhart Lives, survived a death march across Germany in 1945 and wrote nine books including Maybe I’m Dead, in 1945 and passed away in February 2016.

Klaas’s email, with the subject “Keep it Simple (I HAD TO CLEAN THIS UP, OR WE’D ALL BE LOST!),” appeared in the October 1999 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.  Boldface emphasis mine throughout.

1937 Jaluit and Majuro residents said they heard a white woman pilot named “Meel-ya” and her companion, both prisoners, were thought to have been taken by Japanese ship to Saipan.

Others said they took her first to Kwajalein, and then to Saipan.

Medical corpsman Bilimon Amaron told Joe Gervais and Bill Prymak:

“I overheard Japanese nearby say the ship was going to leave Jaluit to go to Kwajalein . . . from there it would maybe go to Saipan.” 

So the Japanese ship, Koshu, and Earhart and Noonan, were reported to have headed for Kwajalein. Naturally, all concerned assumed they were aboard the ship.  But no one saw them leave on it.  They assumed it.

Majuro Attorney John Heine, who saw the flyers in custody at Jaluit, said: “After the ship left Jaluit, it went to Kwajalein, then on to Truk and Saipan.” He thought the ship would later go to Japan. An event at his school fixed the date in his memory as “the middle of July, 1937.” 

[Editor’s note: John Heine did not see the fliers at Jaluit or anywhere else.  See page 156 and rest of Chapter VII: The Marshall Islands Witnesses” of Truth at Last, 2nd Edition for more on Heine’s account.]

Marshall Islanders Tomaki Mayazo and Lotan Jack told Fred Goerner in 1960 that the woman flyer and her companion “were taken to Kwajalein on their way to Saipan.”

They didn’t say how they were transported.

Goerner said that in 1946 four Likiep Island residents at Kwajalein, Edard and Bonjo Capelli, and two more known as Jajock and Biki, told U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer J.F. Kelleher that in 1937 a man and woman who crashed a plane in the Marshalls “were brought to Kwajalein.”

Bill Prymak and Joe Gervais pause with the iconic Earhart eyewitness Bilimon Amaron at Amaron’s Majuro home in 1991.

A 1946 U.S. employee on Kwajalein, Ted Burris, told Amelia Earhart Society members that his interpreter, Oniisimum Cappelle (Capelli?) introduced him to an old man who had met two Americans there five years before the war,which didn’t start in the Marshalls until 1942, five years after 1937.

How did you meet Americans before the war?Burris asked.

Well I didn’t exactly meet them,the old man said.  But I did bring them in.” 

“Bring them in?  I don’t understand.” 

“A plane landed on the water,” the old man remembered. Come.  I show you.”

They walked to the south end of the perimeter road where there were two A-frame houses and a row of coconut trees.

You see these trees? The plane was exactly in line with them.” 

 “How far out?” 

About a hundred yards from the land.” 

What happened then?” 

“Two people got out. A man and a woman. The Captain made me take my boat out and pick them up.  I didn’t talk to them.”

Lotan Jack, circa 1983, who worked as a mess steward for the Japanese in 1937, told researcher T.C. “Buddy” Brennan in 1983 that he was told by a “Japanese Naval Officer” that Amelia Earhart was “shot down between Jaluit and Mili” and that she was “spying at that time — for the American people.”

The Captain?” 

“The boss. The Japanese officer.  The Captain took them away.  I never saw them again.  He said they were spies.”  [See my Aug. 28, 2015 post, Burris’ account among many to put Earhart on Kwaj.]

This incident has too long been thought to be a false report that Earhart’s Lockheed 10E crashed off Kwajalein.  But what the old man precisely said was:

A plane landed on the water.” 

He didn’t say it crashed there or ditched there.  Planes with landing gear don’t land on the water.” 

In 1936, a concrete airstrip was built at Kwajalein.  It was being used in 1937 while a still unusable seaplane ramp was under construction at Saipan.

What “landed” Earhart and Noonan “on the water” off Kwajalein was obviously a seaplane from Jaluit. Earhart’s Electra couldn’t have “landed on the water.”

Nobody ever said there was a crash at Kwajalein.

They were already in custody.  How could the Japanese Captain tell the old man “they were spies” if they hadn’t arrived at Kwajalein from Jaluit lready charged with being spies?

The Kawanishi H6K was an Imperial Japanese Navy flying boat produced by the Kawanishi Aircraft Company and used during World War II for maritime patrol duties. The Allied reporting name for the type was Mavis; the Navy designation was “Type 97 Large Flying Boat”

Earhart and Noonan were then flown by land plane from Kwajalein to Saipan, where its pilot got into trouble, the very first witness in the Earhart mystery, watched a silver two-engined plane betty-landin shallow water along a beach.  She saw the American woman who looked like a man, and the tail man with her, led away by the Japanese soldiers.” 

We must never assume every twin-engined aircraft in the Pacific had to be the Earhart Plane to be significant.  We don’t need Darwin to find the missing link from Howland to Milli to Kwajalein to Saipan.

Keep it simple and follow facts in sequence to the truth. Above all, let’s start believing our witnesses. 

Why would they lie?

— Joe Klaas, 7/14/99

Paul Rafford Jr. provided more witness evidence supporting the idea that Earhart and Noonan departed Kwajalein bound for Saipan in a land-based Japanese aircraft.  In an unpublished 2008 commentary, Rafford recalled the account of fellow engineer James Raymond Knighton, who worked for Pan Am with Rafford at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the 1980s and was later assigned to the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll facility from 1999 to 2001.  Knighton worked on Roi-Namur, 50 miles north of Kwajalein, commuting to work each day by air.

“One day during lunch I was walking around Roi and I happened across an old Marshallese who was very friendly,” Knighton told Rafford in 2007.

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.  

For more on Rafford’s account, please see my Sept. 6, 2022 post, Conclusion of Rafford on radio in AE Mystery.

For much more on Joe Klaas, please click here.

AES’s Cam Warren on “Noonan & Earhart”

Cameron A. “Cam” Warren, former longtime member of the Amelia Earhart Society, may be still with us and in his upper 90s in Fountain Hills, Ariz., but my information on his current status remains nil.  Warren was among the best known of the few “crashed-and-sankers” in the AES, along with former ONI agent Ron Bright and Gary LaPook, who are both alive and well, to my knowledge.

Warren’s “Noonan and Earhart” appeared in the October 1999 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.  It’s a good general summary of the nuts and bolts of the Earhart story, something you don’t see often, and good to use occasionally as a reference.  Opinions expressed in this piece are those of the Cam Warren and do not necessarily reflect those of the editor or anyone else.  Boldface emphasis mine throughout.

“Noonan & Earhart”
by Cam Warren

What exactly was the relationship between Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan?  Originally Amelia was going to fly around the earth solo, at least if her husband, George Putnam, had his way.  And his way was to revive a fading star, turn her into the World’s Most Famous Woman, and live comfortably ever after on book royalties, endorsements and the other fruits of international fame.

Accounts and interpretations vary, and curiously enough the true relationship of the Putnams has been well glossed over by most biographers.  There is little doubt of Amelia’s accomplishments both in aviation and in the field of what we now know as the feminist movement.  We have been told of the love that presumably existed between George and Amelia, but the latter herself showed some doubt as to how well the marriage would work out.  And there is more than a little suspicion that George was very much the Svengali, manipulating Amelia to his own purposes.  Perhaps, but she had her own ambitions too, and probably didn’t require a great deal of persuading to set forth on the next big adventure — a solo flight around the world.

This photo appeared in the October 1999 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters with the tagline, “Amelia at Wheeler Field, Hawaii 1935.”  Courtesy of Col. Rollin Reineck.

When Putnam & Company got into the serious planning for the ambitious undertaking, it didn’t take long for them to realize that the long over-water portions would require some help in the form of a skilled navigator.  (Apparently a co-pilot wasn’t considered — this was to be an Earhart showcase.)  So Amelia would have the services of Harry Manning, an accomplished sea captain, skilled in navigation and radio operation.  He would accompany Amelia as far as Australia, shepherding her over the vast Pacific.  Since Howland Island, the first stop after Hawaii, was such a small target, it was further decided to obtain the services of ex-Pan American Airways navigator Fred Noonan, an acknowledged expert on trans-Pacific flying.

Noonan’s credentials included Pan Am survey flights, and the first commercial seaplane operations in the Pacific.  There have been hints he was relieved of his Pan Am position as the result of a drinking problem, although precise confirmation of this has not surfaced.  Suffice to say, he was available and, despite having just been married, was willing to accept the risks of the flight.  It has been said he planned to open a school for aviation navigators after his stint with Amelia; undoubtedly, he felt the attendant publicity would be useful. 

But to avoid any upstaging of Amelia, Noonan’s contribution would be relatively small — he would accompany her to Honolulu, and then to Howland, where he would disembark and catch a ride back to Hawaii on a Coast Guard cutter.  But plans had to be revised when Earhart cracked up her Electra on takeoff from Hawaii’s Luke Field.  Manning, saying his leave of absence from the cruise line for which he normally worked was about to expire, bowed out when Amelia spoke of a “retry.”  Privately Manning expressed great relief at surviving the accident and did not wish to press his luck further.

Amelia Earhart with Harry Manning (center) and Fred Noonan, in Hawaii just before the Luke Field crash that sent Manning back to England and left Noonan as the sole navigator for the world flight.

Noonan agreed to stay on, even after Putnam explained his role would be expanded to the full circumnavigation — this time starting eastward.  One suspects it was made clear that Amelia would be the star; Noonan’s role was to be minor — he would be merely a hired hand.  A proud and capable man, Fred was still a good soldier, and knew all about performing a subordinate role on a team.  AE would be the boss — no doubt about it — and Fred would carry out her orders without question.  Mindful of his less than strong bargaining position, he accepted the terms.

A word about teams, especially the two-party type.  Successful ones depend heavily on inter-personal relationships; the pair must fit together like Yin and Yang.  Abilities must be respected, but an occasional misstep must be accepted without rancor, in the full knowledge that the mistake was not an intentional one.  Most commonly, the experienced know that A’s error will most assuredly be matched, sooner or later, by B’s.  Any tendency to flare up by one of the parties is extremely serious, and quickly becomes theburr under the saddle.  A famous recent example being a young couple, very much in love, who undertook to row to Australia together.  They eventually made it, but never spoke to each other again.

It’s highly likely that friction developed within the Electra, and a safe bet that of the two, Fred was the more restrained.  Obviously, the success of the mission largely depended on a comfortable rapport between them. Quite likely, under the stress and strain of the long hops, patience wore thin, and the chances are good that when operational questions arose, Amelia did it her way.  Perhaps this could be excused; she was very proud of her flying ability and justifiably so, but “seat of the pants” judgments are risky.  Noonan would go by the book, but would no doubt accept her decision if need be.

Earhart was impressed by Fred’s navigational wizardry, although her self-confidence apparently led her astray as they approached Dakar, on the African west coast.  She overrode Fred’s advice and turned left to St. Louis, a couple of hundred miles to the north.  This has been explained as intentional by some researchers, but Amelia sounded contrite about her move in Last Flight, the book put together from her in-flight notes by ghost-writer Janet Mabie, and hastily published by Putnam.  The book seems to indicate Fred rode up front, at least during the early days, but moved back into the navigator’s “office” as time went on and the atmosphere grew chilly.

If my analysis of the situation is correct, several puzzling facts in the story of the Electra’s disappearance are explained. Firstly, why was Noonan never heard on the radio?  Certainly, common sense would dictate his sitting up in the co-pilot’s seat as they looked for Howland Island.  A second pair of eyes would help Earhart’s visual search, and Fred could easily man the radio.  But such does not appear to have been the case; Fred had his charts and his navigation gear and a convenient table back aft, and most likely Amelia thought he should remain back there calculating their position.

Researcher Joe Gervais interviewed Jim Collopy at his home in Melbourne, Australia in 1962.  Collopy, the former regional aviation administrator at Lae, told of joining Noonan for a drink before dinner the evening following the Electra’s arrival in New Guinea.  He described a confidence Fred privately shared about his employer. After describing Amelia in a less-than-complimentary, fashion, Noonan added she can fly and I can navigate and let’s leave it at that!”  Incidentally, although he may have been sorely tempted under the circumstances, Fred did not do any heavy drinking the night before takeoff, as some reports have stated.

Fred certainly knew the value of radio communications; Amelia treated the facilities in a cavalier fashion.  This can partly be traced to previous flights, when eavesdropping listeners were plotting the Electra’s progress to the annoyance of Putnam and the newspapers to which he had promised exclusive coverage.  “Keep your messages as brief as possible” he likely warned her, “and don’t give away anything over the radio.”  How else to explain her on-the-air reticence; the terse broadcasts only on a set schedule?

Another look at the original flight plan that targeted Howland Island, the “line of position” of 157-337 Amelia reported in her final message, and the close proximity of Baker Island, just southeast of Howland, as well as the Phoenix Group, farther to the southeast. which includes Canton Island, as well as Nikumaroro, formerly known as Gardner Island, of popular renown.

As they approached Howland, Earhart was heard to say, We must be on you, but cannot see you, referring to the waiting Coast Guard cutter Itasca.  Then we are circling but cannot hear you — go ahead on 7500 [kc] [an unsuccessful attempt to get a direction finder fix].  This offers us a clue as to her mind-set.  “Circling” was what an old barnstormer would do, while looking for a landing place, or trying to spot a ship.  A highly unlikely maneuver for Noonan to suggest — search patterns are invariably flown in a precise rectangular pattern that can be plotted.  Circling, on the other hand, is an imprecise maneuver.

When Howland did not appear, and a search was not bearing any fruit, Noonan would certainly suggest a heading for the nearest land, and land of sufficient size to be easily spotted.  His choice most likely would have been to the southeast, toward Baker and the Phoenix Islands.  Had they headed in that direction, they would have emerged from the cloud bank they undoubtedly were in.  Then they might have spotted the Itasca, which was making black smoke, or at least Fred could have worked out a position based on the now-visible sun.

Earhart allegedly told friends that if she couldn’t find Howland, she would reverse course and “head back to the Gilberts.”  Again, most likely a choice not enthusiastically supported by Fred.  Many researchers feel they were much further north than believed, and somehow reached the Marshall Islands instead.  No one knows just how close to Howland they really were — there is conflicting evidence — but the nearest land to the west or northwest was a long distance away, and even with her gasoline reserve, probably unreachable.

Cam Warren, circa 2003.

The Coast Guard, the Navy, and most experts are sure the Electra splashed down hard and went to the bottom.  A few optimists postulate Earhart made a successful water landing, and the plane floated for a time.  If so, perhaps the crew WAS rescued by a Japanese ship, although none has ever been positively placed in the vicinity.  No matter, the ending may well have been a success story, despite the ill-luck with the weather and the malfunctioning, or the mishandling, of the radio and direction finder, if only the crew had been able to work together more smoothly.

No hard evidence supports this scenario, so we cannot claim to have solved the mystery.”  However, it certainly is credible, and a thoughtful analysis of the personalities involved offers considerable substantiation.  Even Putnam’s post-loss behavior tells us something, for he lost no time in having his wife declared legally dead within months, and quickly took a new bride.  Hardly the behavior of a devoted husband, grieving over his true love.  Of Amelia and Fred, my deepest sympathies go to the latter; to a talented and capable man thrust into a life-threatening situation, saddled with an ambitious and overconfident pilot.  Fred undoubtedly never faltered in his assignment, and most likely died with a slide-rule in his hand.

For more on Cam Warren’s work, please see my Feb. 1, 2019 post, Fred Hooven: ‘Man Who (Nearly) Found Earhart. ” 

%d bloggers like this: