Tag Archives: Bill Prymak

Weishien Telegram: Another sensation that fizzled

We begin 2017 with a look at the notorious Weishien Telegram, as it was known, one of the more sensational claims we’ve seen in recent years.  In 2001, this hot potato was relegated to the dustbin of dead-end myth, when researcher Ron Bright definitively disproved the idea that Amelia Earhart had been confined at the Weihsien, China civilian internment camp during World War II.  This notion sprang from the 1987 discovery in State Department archives of an unsigned telegram, or “speedletter” to George Putnam from Weihsien in 1945; Amelia Earhart was soon “identified” as its sender by a group heavily invested in the Amelia Earhart-as-Irene Bolam canard.  The unsigned telegram reads, “Camp liberated — all well — volumes to tell — love to mother.” Sent from Weishien, north China, and dated Aug. 28, 1945, this document created a huge buzz among researchers who speculated it could have been sent by Amelia herself.

During the ensuing debate within the Amelia Earhart Society, Bright, working with Patrick Gaston, an Overland Park, Kansas, attorney, obtained key documents, witness accounts and other evidence that helped put the lie to this lingering pest of a theory. Before we get to Bright’s findings, which hammered the final nails in the coffin of the Weishien falsehood, we’ll hear from others involved in the promotion and debunking of this once-popular idea.

Longtime researcher Ron Bright, of Bremerton, Wash.,

In 2001,. longtime researcher Ron Bright, of Bremerton, Wash., with a few associates, debunked the Weishien Telegram theory, which proponents claimed showed that Amelia Earhart was alive in a Japanese civilian internment camp in 1945.

In the September 1993 issue of Omni Magazine, Amelia Earhart Society President Bill Prymak offered an informed rebuttal of the false claims by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) that Earhart crashed-landed on Nikumaroro Atoll, formerly known as Gardner Island, in the central Pacific’s Phoenix Chain. As for her true fate, Prymak said he had “tantalizing evidence but nothing concrete. We do have a telegram from her to her husband, George Putnam, which was dated Aug. 28, 1945, from a prison camp in China.” Thus, Joe Gervais’ long-discredited claim in Amelia Earhart Lives that Earhart had lived in the Emperor of Japan’s palace before returning to the United States as New Jersey housewife Irene Bolam was transformed into an equally implausible — if less glamorous — scenario. Bright’s findings would later force Prymak and most others to admit their errors, but not before several years of confusion had passed.

Though Prymak and many of his AES associates believed that the telegram sent to George Putnam “informed Putnam that his wife was alive” in a Japanese internment camp in 1945, others with knowledge soon attempted to debunk this notion.  In late July 1993, Devine sent me a copy of a recent letter from Langdon Gilkey, 73, author of Shantung Compound (Harper and Row, 1966) to retired New York Police Department forensic specialist and Earhart theorist Jerome Steigmann, who died in 2003, as did Devine.  

In 1943 Gilkey was an American bachelor teaching at Peking’s Yenching University, a privately owned Anglo-American school and one of 10 “Christian Colleges” in China. Gilkey was advised by the Japanese that he and other American and British nationals then in Peking would be sent to a “civilian internment center” for their “safety and comfort.” Many people, including doctors, professors, instructors, businessmen, missionaries and travelers were incarcerated in the facility in Weishien. Shantung Compound is Gilkey’s account of his experience there. Gilkey was released from captivity on Sept. 25, 1945.

Undated photo of Langdon Brown Gilkey....

Undated photo of Langdon Brown Gilkey, author of the 1966 book Shantung Compound, his first-person account of American and British nationals in China who were incarcerated by the Japanese at the Weishien, China civilian internment center for several years during World War II. Gilkey, who authored 20 books, has been called “one of the most influential American Christian theologians of the 20th century,” by a colleague who taught alongside him at the University of Chicago for 20 years. Gilkey passed away in Charlottesville, Va., at 85 in November 2004.

In his letter to Steigmann, Gilkey says, “I have never heard of the Yank female, nor of her solitary captivity in Weishien. I am also as positive as I am of anything in my life that this story is fiction, that, in other words, it did not and could not have happened without one hearing or knowing of it. I am, as I say, as sure of this as I am of anything in my past.”

“Not one person of the hundred or possibly thousands of internees held at Weishien has ever reported Earhart’s presence at the camp,” Devine wrote in “The Concealed Grave of Amelia Earhart,” his unpublished manuscript. “Langdon Gilkey certainly would have known, as he emphatically states.”

Responding to my July 2001 letter asking his clearance to quote him in my 2002 book, With Our Own Eyes: Eyewitnesses to the Final Days of Amelia Earhart, Steigmann provided more evidence against the idea that Earhart spent time at Weishien. He sent copies of a few introductory pages to The Mushroom Years: A Story of Survival (Henderson House Publishing, 1998), by Pamela Masters, another veteran of the Weishien “Civilian Assembly Center.” Masters, who was held at Weishien with her family, briefly discusses the alleged Earhart-Weishien connection and says she recently located the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) major who commanded the operation to liberate Weishien in 1945.

“The first time he heard of Amelia Earhart supposedly being in Weishien was in December of ’97,” Masters wrote in her opening note to The Mushroom Years. “And to all those souls who want to find closure regarding Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, I empathize with you, but all I can say is: Forget Weihsien — look somewhere else.”

Steigmann also sent Devine a copy of a letter from former Col. John A. White of Millbrae, California, who wrote, “I have never heard anything about Amelia Earhart being a prisoner in China.” White told Steigmann a friend of his had been interned in Weishien during World War II. Devine wrote to this woman, who informed Devine, “I have asked old friends whether the rumor was true about Amelia Earhart coming into the camp at the end of the war, and protected by Catholic priests and sisters. NO is the big answer.”

This is the story of one such group of American, British, and Allied nationals who were caught in North China and imprisoned in Wei-Hsien (Way-shen) Prison Camp in Shandong Province.

Pamela Masters’ 1998 memoir, The Mushroom Years, is “the story of a group of a group of American, British, and Allied nationals who were caught in North China and imprisoned in Wei-Hsien (Way-shen) [sic] Prison Camp [sic] in Shandong Province,” according to Masters’ website.

Gilkey did not respond to Devine’s correspondence, but in another letter to him, Steigmann wrote, “In addition to the Gilkey letter, I have been in contact with other former internees of the Weishien, China Camp. They all agree Amelia Earhart was never in the hospital or any other part of the camp.”

In late August 1993, Steigmann took his information to the Amelia Earhart Symposium, sponsored by the Amelia Earhart Society and held at Morgan Hill, Calif.  There, amid a gathering of AES luminaries including Gervais, Prymak and Reineck, Steigmann ripped a gaping hole in the Weishien Telegram theory: “The ‘Heavy Hitters’ of the AES were putting the audience to sleep,with their boring discussions about fuel, navigation, radio messages, etc.,” Steigmann wrote. “Ann P. [Pellegreno] persuaded the ‘Good Ole Boys’ to let me speak, and I ‘Awakened Them’ very fast, and even though there was a time limit, the audience insisted that I have all the time I needed to finish my scenarios. The AES ‘Clique’ [sic] were upset that they were upstaged by an ‘outsider!’ During the breaks, I was surrounded by publishers, authors, members of female flying groups, etc., who wanted me to speak at other events. Rollin Reineck, of Hawaii, who still claims Amelia was ‘interned’ at Weishien, China, was not too happy when I produced additional letters from former camp residents that AE was never at the camp.”

Steigmann’s derailing of the telegram theory was convincing enough for Prymak and company to rethink their ideas. In the Dec. 3, 1993 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, Prymak wrote, “Steigmann’s conclusions seem most logical.”

Meanwhile, Steigmann had other ideas about the Earhart disappearance, strange flights of fancy far removed from logic. In Steigmann’s world, Amelia was a “double agent, working simultaneously for the U.S. Marine Corps, the ONI and the Japanese from the early 1920s through her contact with Admiral Yamamoto and Japanese Naval Intelligence: As an agent for Japan, Amelia Earhart rendered technical assistance to the Japanese Naval air forces and in the development of their fighter plane, the Zero. She furnished Japanese Naval Air Intelligence photos of U.S. Army and Navy airfields in Hawaii as well as their schedules.”

The infamous Weihsien Telegram, which caused such an uproar in the Earhart research community during the 1990s.

The infamous Weihsien Telegram, which caused an uproar in the Earhart research community during the 1990s.

Steigmann also advocated the Joe Gervais-Joe Klass idea that Earhart lived in the Japanese Imperial Palace during the war: “When Amelia was liberated from ‘guest status’ at the Imperial Palace, she was secretly repatriated to the U.S. by the unseen hand of the Secretary of the Navy Forrestal. It was Forrestal who had inherited the Amelia Earhart mission from his predecessors, who was the prime architect when Amelia was facially renovated at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.”

Steigmann concluded his fantasy by claiming Earhart “is still alive, at 96, awaiting the appropriate time to emerge from her long exile.” Steigmann sent Devine a copy of an unidentified tabloid with a picture of Earhart, Fred Noonan and the Electra. The story is headlined “Amelia Earhart’s Plane Is Found — In Japan” and subtitled “U.S. knew it for 48 years.” As if this validated Steigmann’s ideas, he wrote over the headline, “It was never on Aslito Airfield, Saipan!” and under the subtitle he wrote, “So did Jerry Steigmann.”

Devine had no use for such delusions, nor did he need Steigmann to shed the light of truth on the Weishien Telegram theory. He already possessed decades-old information that strongly suggested the possible identity of the telegram’s originator, and it certainly wasn’t Amelia Earhart.

“Many years ago, during my early investigation, I had located the son of George Putnam. David Binney Putnam was in the real estate business in Florida,” Devine explained. “During our phone conversation, he was a bit cool regarding Amelia since it was Amelia who parted his parents. I questioned as to which branch of the service he may have served in during the war. He immediately responded he had spent most of the war years in a prison camp in China. I did not want it to appear that I was about to cross-examine him so I did not press on which branch of the service he may have served in. But he may have been incarcerated as an American citizen, or he could have been employed in clandestine activities involving our secret Office of Strategic Services [OSS].”

Devine said that when he first heard about the telegram, he was merely amused. He recalled visiting Muriel Morrissey in Boston in 1961: “She was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned David Binney Putnam, and asked me for his address, which I forwarded to her on a later date. She had lost track of him for many years. He was, she said, in a prisoner-of-war camp, which she thought was in China. When I first saw the news item of a woman in Washington who had found the cablegram, unsigned, I thought it may have been one that he had sent to his father. I never realized that Gervais and his cohorts would stipulate it was from Amelia. I had nothing in writing to refute them, only a phone conversation.”

Seeking to confirm his theory, Devine tried to contact David Binney Putnam in 1993, but learned he had passed away in May 1992. Hoping David’s brother, George P. Putnam Jr., could help clear things up, Devine was initially disappointed. Finally responding to Devine’s inquiries, Putnam told Devine he hadn’t the “faintest idea” what he was talking about. “No member of our family was ever in prison in China during the WWII era,” Putnam told Devine.

“If Putnam had received a telegram from his wife Amelia in 1945, he would have announced it to the entire world. Since it was unsigned, Putnam would know it was from his son of a prior marriage,” Devine wrote. “‘Love to mother’ was indicative of this association. Prymak’s remark, ‘We do have a telegram from her to her husband George Putnam which was dated Aug. 28, 1945 from a prison camp in China’. . . perpetuates the three-ring atmosphere, rather than the authenticity of the tragedy that befell Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. Perhaps the general public is receptive to some of the rumors peddled by these individuals, since they are so succinctly resolved. But because of my firsthand knowledge and eyewitness involvement, I feel it is sickening.”

The Weishien Telegram’s true author found

As it turned out, Devine’s best guess was wrong. Ron Bright and Patrick Gaston initiated a well-executed investigation aimed at nailing the source of the Weishien Telegram, the details and results of which were initially published in the May 2001 TIGHAR Tracks newsletter. As I’m not a member of TIGHAR, Bright kindly provided a copy for my use, and it was included in With Our Own Eyes.

Ahmad Kamal, circa 1935, who sent the "Love to Mother" speed letter from Weihsien, China, to George Putnam in August 1945.

Ahmad Kamal, circa 1935, who sent the “Love to Mother” telegram from Weihsien, China, to George Putnam in August 1945. The speedletter created a sensation among Earhart researchers when it was discovered in U.S. State Department archives in 1987.

Bright found that the author of the controversial telegram was Turkish author and world traveler Ahmad Kamal, who was interned at Weishien from summer 1943 to August 1945. Kamal knew George Putnam well enough to ask him to look in on his elderly mother, who apparently lived in the Los Angeles area, while he was away. Bright also secured what he called “the entire list of the 1,800 plus internees at Weishien” from former camp administrator Desmond Powers, a Canadian.  Needless to say, Amelia Earhart’s name wasn’t on the list.

(Editor’s note: A google search reveals a site that contains a spread sheet that claims to be said list of Weishien internees.  Neither Amelia Earhart nor any Putnam is on it. To view the list, please click here.)

Kamal died in 1989, but Bright found his son, Turan-Mirza Kamal (1951–2004) an American-born classical guitarist and composer, in Southern California, and the veil on the Weishien mystery was finally lifted. Kamal told Bright his father was a pilot, and kept his airplane at Burbank Airport in the early 1930s, where he met Howard Hughes, George Putnam and Amelia Earhart.

Bright’s investigation finally put the Weishien speculation to rest. Here is the former ONI agent’s summary of his findings:

Sometime about 1939–1940, Kamal returned to China where he met and married his wife at Tientsin, China. The war broke out in December 1941 and, soon afterward, the Japanese Secret Police captured him and his wife. Refusing to cooperate, they were transferred to Weishien Camp in the summer of 1943. There they remained until liberated in August 1945.

Turan-Mirza Kamal (1951–2004) an American-born classical guitarist and composer, in Southern California, and the veil on the Weishien mystery was finally lifted. Kamal told Bright his father was a pilot, and kept his airplane at Burbank Airport in the early 1930s, where he met Howard Hughes, George Putnam, and Amelia Earhart.

Turan-Mirza Kamal (1951–2004) an American-born classical guitarist and composer, in Southern California, and the veil on the Weishien mystery was finally lifted. Kamal told Bright his father was a pilot, and kept his airplane at Burbank Airport in the early 1930s, where he met Howard Hughes, George Putnam and Amelia Earhart.

According to his son, shortly after the camp was liberated, Kamal sent out two radio messages: One to Scribner and Sons about publishing a book, and one to George Putnam. His son said he has seen either notes or a journal of that message and could repeat it almost by heart — something like “camp liberated, all was well, volumes to follow and love to mother.” The “love to mother” was added, said Kamal’s son, because Putnam had agreed to look after Kamal’s aging mother when Kamal left for China. Mrs. Kamal lived nearby and Putnam was to look in on her. It was an informal caregiver arrangement.

Kamal said his father often discussed Amelia Earhart and the mystery of her disappearance, and believed she went down in the sea. The elder Kamal had also told his son that Earhart was not at Weishien while he was there, from 1942 until August 1945.

Kamal was an American, and probably a convert to Islam, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ian Johnson, author of A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). Johnson obtained Kamal’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, which reveals that Kamal was born on Feb. 2, 1914, in Arvada, Colo., and his birth name was Cimarron Hathaway; his mother was Caroline Grossmann Hathaway, his father, James Worth Hathaway. According to an interview Johnson obtained with a daughter, James was a stepfather and Cimarron’s biological father was Qara Yusuf, a Uyghur from Turkestan who was much older than Caroline – he was 64 and she 16 when they married.

This lengthy story by Ahmad Kamal appeared in the Sept. 26, 1953 Saturday Evening Post.

This compelling first-person account by Ahmad Kamal appeared in the Sept. 26, 1953 Saturday Evening Post.

Kamal’s 1940 book Land Without Laughter, was “one of those fascinating, slightly archaic, offbeat adventure books set in that mysterious region, Chinese Turkestan,” wrote Leslie Evans, whose review of A Mosque in Munich and more on Kamal can be found online at The Strange Career of Ahmad Kamal and How He Helped the CIA Invite Radical Islam into Europe.Kamal also wrote Full Fathom Five (Doubleday & Co. 1948), “a wonderful story of the sponge fishermen Americans of Greek ancestry of Tarpon Springs, Florida, their strange and beautiful customs, and the warmth and goodness of their way of life,” according to the book’s paperback description on Amazon.com. “It is a story told by Alek Paradisis, a man who believed he could solve any problem with his fist.”

Paul Rafford Jr., “Elder Statesman” of Earhart researchers, dies in Florida hospice at 97

Paul Rafford Jr., the “Elder Statesman” of Earhart research and the last of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, passed away on Dec. 10 in a hospice in Rockledge, Fla., at 97. Michael Betteridge, Paul’s nephew and general manager of WTHU AM 1450, a talk radio station in Thurmont, Md., said his uncle passed peacefully with his daughter, Lynn, at his side. “We lost a great man on that day,” Betteridge said in an email.

Earhart fans will recall Paul’s name from Vincent V. Loomis’ 1985 book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story (Random House), wherein he presented his then-current ideas about the Electra’s radio propagation capabilities and Amelia’s strange decisions during the final flight. In 2006, Paul’s book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, was published by the Paragon Agency, and though it wasn’t a commercial success, it remains a treasure trove of invaluable information unavailable anywhere else.

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, is among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s.

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, is among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s. He wrote more than a dozen unique, scholarly articles for the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter between 1989 and 2000.

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with Paul’s fascinating and inventive work. In the past few years, I’ve written three lengthy pieces that brought new focus on his important contributions to the modern search for Amelia Earhart: “The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change”: Another unique Rafford gift to Earhart saga; Rafford’s “Earhart Deception” presents intriguing possibilities; and  Rafford’s “Enigma” brings true mystery into focus: What was Earhart really doing in final hours?

Paul was a regular contributor to the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter between 1989 and 2000, expounding his theories about radio deceptions and plane switches, some of the most imaginative and compelling possibilities ever advanced to explain what could have happened during those final hours of July 2, 1937, before and after Amelia’s last officially recognized message was heard at 8:44 a.m. Howland Island Time. He even wrote two pieces with the nearly the same title, “The Amelia Earhart Radio Enigma” in 1997, and “The Earhart Radio Enigma,” in 2000, as if to emphasize the major problems and unanswered questions that still stumped him – and continue to baffle Earhart researchers.

Paul began his aviation career with Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer in 1940, flying with Pan Am until 1946. He worked with crew members who had flown with Fred Noonan, and talked with technicians who had worked on Amelia Earhart’s Electra 10E. After a promotion with Pan Am, he continued to fly as a technical consultant before transferring to the U.S. Manned Spaceflight Program in 1963. During the early space shots he was a Pan Am project engineer in communications services at Patrick Air Force Base, and joined the team that put man on the moon. He retired from NASA in 1988.

Paul Rafford Jr., now 95, the elder statesman of Earhart researchers. As a Pan Am radio flight officer from 1940 to 1946, Rafford is uniquely qualified as an expert in Earhart-era radio capabilities.

A recent photo of Paul Rafford Jr., the “Elder Statesman” of Earhart researchers. As a Pan Am radio flight officer from 1940 to 1946, Rafford was uniquely qualified as an expert in Earhart-era radio capabilities.

“I know of no person more qualified than Mr. Paul Rafford to present to the American public the most probable cause of Earhart’s failure to find her destination island,” Bill Prymak wrote in 2006. “Mr. Rafford is world recognized for his astute radio propagation analysis and is THE man to contact re: radio problems. We are proud to have him as an AES member and radio consultant.”

With Paul Rafford’s passing, we can now mark the end of the “Greatest Generation” of Earhart researchers, an exclusive club whose members include Paul Briand Jr., Fred Goerner, Vincent V. Loomis, Bill Prymak, Thomas E. Devine, Almon Gray, Joe Gervais, Joe Klaas, Rollin Reineck, Don Kothera and of course, Paul himself. If there were an Earhart Research Hall of Fame, Paul Rafford Jr. would have been inducted long ago on the first ballot. He was a fine and decent man, admired and respected by his peers, and loved by many. He made many significant contributions to the Earhart saga, and he will be missed.  May he Rest in Peace.

Klaas tracks lost fliers in “Next Stop Kwajalein”

Joe Klaas, who passed away earlier this year, is best known for his authorship of the notorious Amelia Earhart Lives: A trip through intrigue to find America’s first lady of mystery, the 1970 book that introduced Irene Bolam as Amelia Earhart and forever cast a shadow on the credibility of all Earhart research, further driving the truth into the tiny corner it now inhabits, largely ignored, if not ridiculed by the mainstream media, entrenched in its longtime refusal to acknowledge the truth in the Earhart disappearance.

But Klaas didn’t create the Irene Bolam travesty. His fellow Air Force officer and friend, Joe Gervais, wove the Bolam fiction out of whole cloth and his Earhart-addled imagination. Klaas, the author of 11 other books, served mainly as Gervais’ personal stenographer during the creation of Amelia Earhart Lives, though he might have questioned Gervais’ absurd Bolam claim a bit more assiduously before he wrote a book and exposed himself to ridicule from nearly every corner of the Earhart research community, as well as much of the reading public.

None of that is relevant to the following essay, however, written by Klaas in 2001 and posted on the website of the Amelia Earhart Society. In “Next Stop Kwajalein,” Klaas takes the available eyewitness and witness testimony and crafts a plausible version of the events surrounding the delivery of Amelia and Fred Noonan by the Japanese, from stops at Jaluit and Kwajalein, to their final destination at Saipan. 

Several aspects of the scenarios laid out by Klaas, such his belief, based on statements made by Mrs. Amy Otis Earhart, Amelia’s mother, that Amelia was allowed to broadcast by captors or that the fliers may have been taken to Japan, are clearly false or highly doubtful, and are not endorsed by this writer, but have not been edited out of Klaas’ narrative, which I present for your entertainment and discernment.

“Next Stop Kwajalein” by Joe Klaas with Joe Gervais      

Four years prior to the three weeks of media frenzy triggered by the 1970 suggestion in Amelia Earhart Lives that the supposedly dead flying heroine might be alive in New Jersey, Fred Goerner, whose The Search for Amelia Earhart deduced she had died of dysentery or was executed on Saipan, wrote to her sister, Muriel Morrissey, in West Medford, Massachusetts.      

Joe Klaas, circa 2004, who survived a death march across Germany in 1945 and wrote Amelia Earhart Lives, passed away on Feb. 25, 2016.

Joe Klaas, circa 2004, who survived a death march across Germany in 1945 and wrote the 1970 book Amelia Earhart Lives, passed away in February 2016 at 95. 

“I want you to know that I decided to go ahead with the book last December at the advice of the late Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz who had become my friend and helped me with the investigation for several years,” Goerner told Earhart’s sibling on Aug. 31, 1966.  “He said, ‘It (the book) may help produce the justice Earhart and Noonan deserve.’ The Admiral told me without equivocation that Amelia and Fred had gone down in the Marshalls and were taken by the Japanese and that his knowledge was documented in Washington. He also said several departments of government have strong reasons for not wanting the information to be made public.”   

What “strong reasons for not wanting the information made public” short of their being assassinated by our own government would motivate the endless cover-up of the fact that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were still alive after July 2,1937?   

“Even when we investigators join together in The Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, and The [Yahoo!] Earhart Group on the internet, those who’ve been out here spend so much energy picking each other’s evidence apart,” I said to Joe Gervais aboard a 95-foot boat anchored off a bomb-dented concrete relic of a seaplane ramp in Imiej harbor at Jaluit, “we look only at how one another’s interviews with islanders don’t agree.”  

It was Joe’s seventeenth trip to Pacific islands in search of Amelia Earhart.  Ten of us aboard the 1997 AES expedition led by Bill Prymak disagreed 10 different ways.     

“To hell with the differences!”  I complained.  “Why don’t we focus on only those details which match?”     

I told Joe that when we got home I would follow five decades of conflicting interviews from dot-to-dot to determine only the ways they agree on Amelia Earhart’s after death journey from across the 1937 pre-war Pacific until now.   

“To hell with inconsistencies that lead nowhere!” I griped. “Let’s see only where we all match will take us.”     

1937 residents of Jaluit and Majuro atolls said they heard the white woman pilot named “Meel-ya” and her flying companion with knee and head injuries were taken by Japanese ship to Saipan in the Mariana Islands where the Emperor’s South Sea Islands military governor was in command. Others said they took her first to Kwajalein, and then to Saipan.   

“After I treated the man’s knee with paraply,” Bilimon Amaron told Joe Gervais and Bill Prymak, “I overheard Japanese nearby say the ship was going to leave Jaluit to go to Kwajalein.  I remembered that because I had relatives on Kwajalein.  From there it would maybe go to Truk and on to Saipan.”    

Majuro Attorney John Heine, who clearly remembered seeing the flyers in custody at Jaluit after their prematurely reported deaths, also believed that “after the ship left Jaluit, it went to Kwajalein, then on to Truk and Saipan.” From there, according to what he was told by his missionary parents, whom the Japanese at Jaluit later beheaded as spies, “he thought the ship would later go to Japan.”   

Heine told Joe and Bill a simultaneous event at his school enabled him to place the crash and departure for Kwajalein in “the middle of July 1937.”

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

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

Marshall Islanders Tomaki Mayazo and Lotan Jack told Fred Goerner in the 60s that the woman flyer and her companion “were taken to Kwajalein on their way to Saipan.” In The Search for Amelia Earhart, Goerner reported that four Likiep Island residents of Kwajalein, Edward and Bonjo Capelli, and two men known only as Jajock and Biki told Navy Chief Petty Officer J.F. Kelleher, stationed on Kwajalein in 1946, that a man and a woman who crashed a plane in the Marshalls “were brought to Kwajalein.”

Ted Burris, a 1965 government employee on Kwajalein, volunteered as neighborhood commissioner for the Aloha Council, Boy Scouts of America.  He set out to establish Scouting three islands-north of Kwajalein on Ebeye [Island]. In January 1997 he informed members of the AES that while waiting for a boat back to his workplace one night his interpreter, Onisimum Cappelle, introduced him to an old man who had met two Americans there “five years before the war” even though “the Japanese had closed the Marshall Islands to foreigners in the late ’20s.”     

The war reached the Marshalls in 1942, so “five years before” meant 1937, when Earhart and Noonan vanished. 

“How did you meet the Americans before the war?”  Burris asked the old man.      

“Well, I didn’t exactly meet them,” he said.  “But I did bring them in.”      

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

A plane landed on the water,” he said.  “A big plane.”

“Where?”

“Come.  I show you.”

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

“You see those trees?” the old man asked.  “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.”      

“The Captain?”     

“The boss. The Japanese officer. The Captain took them away. I never saw them again. He said they were spies.”  

Arrival of the boat to take Burris to nearby Kwajalein ended the conversation.

All who heard the story, including Burris, jumped to the conclusion that the plane was Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 10E, not a very “big plane” in comparison to Japanese flying boats that occasionally landed there. They assumed that was where she had actually crashed.      

Lotan Jack, 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."

Lotan Jack, 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.”

But what the old man precisely said was: “A plane landed on the water.” He didn’t say it crashed there. Aircraft with landing gear are seldom said to have “landed on the water.” They would normally have been said to have “crashed into the water” or “ditched in the water.” Not that they had “landed on the water.”   

One simple question, “Did the plane land or crash?” might have cleared that up, but apparently assumption overcame curiosity, and that question was never asked.

Jaluit and Kwajalein had something in common.  In 1936 a concrete seaplane ramp was built at Kwajalein in addition to its already existing airstrip for land planes.  Land planes and seaplanes used two different Kwajalein facilities.  

A year later in 1937 at Saipan, a concrete seaplane ramp was under construction to augment an air strip already used only by land planes.  Had a flying boat ever before made a water landing at Saipan?  It’s a good question.   

Isn’t it more likely that, unbeknown to the Marshallese at Jaluit, instead of taking Earhart and Noonan to Kwajalein aboard ship on the Koshu, they changed plans and flew them there in a flying boat which would match the old man’s memory of  “a big plane” which “landed on the water”?

To understand what an eyewitness meant, might it not be a good idea to take what they said literally?  Going a step further, would it not be possible that natives of Saipan, who might only have previously seen planes touch down on their one airstrip, might mistakenly think a flying boat landing in Garapan Harbor was a land plane crashing into water off-shore?     

How would the Japanese Captain be able to tell the old man “they were spies” if they hadn’t arrived from Jaluit already accused of espionage?         

“None of this registered with me in particular until a couple of years later when I had moved to another assignment on Roi Namur (also in the Kwajalein group),”  Burris said.  “The Island Manager there was Frank Serafini. I mentioned the story the old man had told me.”         

“Let me tell you a few things.” Frank went to his desk and took out a letter from a Navy Commander, whose name Burris couldn’t remember after thirty years. “He was with Navy Intelligence during the war, and was attached to the 4th Marines when they invaded Roi-Namur. He went in with the first wave on Roi. His specific task was to look for evidence that Amelia Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan, had been there!”         

“Why here?” Burris asked.         

“Because Roi had the only airfield on the atoll at that time,” Frank said. “If the Japs were going to take them anyplace from Kwajalein Atoll, they had to come through here!”         

“Did he find anything?”         

“Here, read this letter.” He pointed to a place on its second page: “I was rummaging through a pile of debris in a corner of the burned-out main hanger,” the writer said, when I came across a blue leatherette map case. It was empty. But it had the letters AE embossed on it in gold. They were here all right!”  

 “What did the Commander do with the map case?” Burris asked.         

Frank H. Serafini. circa 1970.Atoll. (Photo courtesy Frank B. Serafini.)

Frank H. Serafini, circa 1970, at his office on Kwajalein Atoll. (Photo courtesy Frank B. Serafini.)

“He said he turned it over to Naval Intelligence. He doesn’t know what happened to it after that.”         

“Does anybody know about this?” asked Burris. “Why would they keep such a thing secret?”         

“Because even now the Navy doesn’t want to admit they had anything to do with spying against the Japanese before the war.”  

When Burris heard about a plane with two American spies aboard landing 100-yards off-shore at Kwajalein, he naturally assumed it was Earhart’s land plane.     

It wasn’t.     

But couldn’t a twin-engine Japanese seaplane have “landed in the water” at Kwajalein, from which they were then flown to Saipan where the Japanese pilot landed alongside the beach?     

As reported in both Goerner’s book and mine, Josephine Akiyama watched “a silver two-engined plane belly-land” in shallow water at Saipan and “saw the American woman who looked like a man and the tall man with her . . .  led away by the Japanese soldiers.”    

At first, those who heard her story assumed it was Amelia Earhart’s plane.  

It wasn’t.     

All of us who heard eyewitness reports from Kwajalein or Saipan made the same mistake.  We all wanted so hard to find the Earhart plane, we assumed any aircraft that came down with her aboard was hers.  At both Saipan and Kwajalein we were wrong.  She and Noonan were aboard all right in both places, not as pilot and navigator, but as captured spies!     

Wouldn’t it be more logical to deduce from eyewitness reports that Earhart and Noonan were flown from Kwajalein Atoll in a seaplane which made no attempt to land on Saipan’s completed airstrip, but instead “belly landed” along a beach in Garapan Harbor?     

“None of it can be true!” objected a radio engineer at a 1998 gathering in Aspen, Colorado. “Those islanders made it all up!”     

“What makes you think that?” I gasped.   

“Because it’s all predicated from the start on her originally ditching into the water at Mili Atoll on July 2, 1937  and then sending out a bunch of so-called radio signals for three days. That could never have happened.”     

“Why not?”    

“Because if she went down in the water, she couldn’t have broadcast at all.  Her transmitter was incapable of broadcasting from the water.”     

No one thought to ask a radio engineer how he would have made a radio work if he crashed in the water off a strange island in the middle of the Pacific.  In such a matter of life and death, wouldn’t a radio engineer figure out some way to make a transmitter broadcast from a downed airplane still afloat in salt water?

An udated photo of Amy Otis Earhart, Amelia's mother, and sister, Muriel Earhart Morrissey.

An undated photo of Amy Otis Earhart, Amelia’s mother, and sister, Muriel Earhart Morrissey.

Absolutely impossible!  Without a bigger source of power than the battery aboard that Lockheed 10E aircraft, I was assured by three other experts I consulted, there was no way it could happen! Without the extra power provided by the engines operating, she could not have broadcast from in the water!   

And yet the messages existed, logged by professional radio operators all across the Pacific so they can be read to this day. AES President Bill Prymak sent me a copy of actual loggings of her radio calls for help.  Remember, she was supposed to have died the morning of July 2,1937.  (Editor’s note: For a lengthy discussion of the alleged “post-loss messages,” please see  Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, Chapter III, “The Search and the Radio Signals.”)

Here were 30 distress call broadcasts recorded on paper as actually heard by experienced operators at twelve different radio stations from one side of the Pacific to the other. . . . Beginning on July 3, 1937, 12 experienced operators at official radio stations thousands of miles apart across the vast Pacific heard and logged 30 distress messages they identified as Earhart’s for three days after she supposedly crashed and drowned on July 2, 1937.   

Since these 30 distress signals were obviously heard as logged by 12 of the most highly trained and experienced radio operators across the Pacific, how could she have sent them if her radio transmitter could not possibly operate from her plane sitting in the water at Mili Atoll?   

Could Amelia Earhart’s mother, Amy Otis Earhart, give us a simple clue as to how her daughter managed to transmit these “impossible” broadcasts? Was Mother Earhart, from sources of information peculiarly available to her, in possession of knowledge withheld from the public that would explain how her daughter was able to send all these messages for help?         

“I know she was permitted to broadcast to Washington from the Marshalls,” Amelia’s mother told the Los Angeles Times on July 25, 1949, and then does she give us the answer? . . .  “because the officials on the island where she was taken — I can’t remember the name of it — believed she was merely a trans-ocean flier in distress. But Tokyo had a different opinion of her significance in the area.  She was taken to Japan.”         

Is it not rather clear from Mother Earhart’s inside information that Amelia Earhart was rescued as a celebrity by the Japanese on Mili Atoll? Wouldn’t the Japanese on that island permit the famous American flyers to use their island transmitter to call for help for three days?     

Isn’t it obvious that if it were impossible for her to transmit messages from the water, she must have done so from the land? And wasn’t a Japanese transmitter the only way that could have been done? And wouldn’t the messages suddenly stop when Tokyo ordered the Mili Atoll Japanese outpost, through channels, to quit sending her distress broadcasts and arrest Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan for espionage?

“I am certain that Amelia’s voice was recognized in the radio broadcast from the Marshalls to the capitol,” Earhart’s mother told The Los Angeles Times and later repeated in a letter to Earhart’s flying instructor, Neta Snook.         

“I have kept quiet through the years, but certainly this could hurt no one now.”     

“That’s quite a stretch,” Joe Gervais said in awe when I explained how all of us had mistaken Japanese planes for hers, and seaplanes landing on the water for her land plane crashing at sea.  It may seem a stretch to those who want to believe Earhart and Noonan drowned at sea near Howland Island on July 2,1937.     

“All Earhart hunters have been so busy challenging differences in eyewitness reports each of us gathered,”  I sighed, “we became blind to all the many points we agree on, where the truth may finally be found.” “Well,” Joe exhaled slowly.  “If we’re gonna quit sneering at one another’s versions of what happened, and connect dot-to-dot to what’ll crack one of the biggest cover-ups in American history, we’d best not be afraid to stretch!”   

Next stop for prisoners Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan was by land plane or flying boat to Saipan, it makes small difference which.  There on Saipan, more witnesses than were talked to on all other islands combined remembered seeing them alive.     

They were in custody as spies!  

(End of “Next Stop Kwajalein.”)

The Hiro H4H1 Navy Type 91 Flying Boat, a twin-engine monoplane in limited production since 1933, that might have been mistaken by the native witnesses for a land-based plane crashing in the water. “It was not exactly like the Electra, of course,” Mandel wrote in an e-mail: It was a two-motor, all-metal (aluminum, usually non-painted!) monoplane with two radial engines over the wing, also with a twin tail, and the size and dimensions of the plane were similar to the Electra. It was used by the Japanese Navy, but not extensively, so its visit to Saipan could be a rare event, possibly the first such event between the bases in Japan and Japanese Mandated Islands. From a distance, the Hiro could look pretty much like a landplane for any unaware witnesses, as it was a flying boat, not a float plane—i.e., it didn’t have a large obvious float under the fuselage as other seaplanes had, and its quite little under-wing floats were not obvious from a distance.

The Hiro H4H1 Navy Type 91 Flying Boat, a twin-engine monoplane in limited production since 1933, that might have been seen by a native witness landing on the water off Kwajalein, and later mistaken for a land-based plane crashing in the waters of Tanapag Harbor off Saipan.  “It was not exactly like the Electra, of course,” researcher Alex Mandel wrote. “It was a two-motor, all-metal (aluminum, usually non-painted) monoplane with two radial engines over the wing, also with a twin tail, and the size and dimensions of the plane were similar to the Electra. It was used by the Japanese Navy, but not extensively, so its visit to Saipan could be a rare event, possibly the first such event between the bases in Japan and Japanese Mandated Islands. From a distance, the Hiro could look pretty much like a land plane for any unaware witnesses, as it was a flying boat, not a float plane—i.e., it didn’t have a large obvious float under the fuselage as other seaplanes had, and its quite little under-wing floats were not obvious from a distance.”

Two years before Klaas and Gervais collaborated on “Next Stop Kwajalein,” Klaas advanced a scenario that differed from the seaplane-landing-on-Saipan situation they proposed in 2001. In a 1999 e-mail to Rollin Reineck, Bill Prymak and others, Klaas reviewed the Ted Burris account and insisted it wasn’t a seaplane that landed in Tanapag Harbor:

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.” What “landed” Earhart and Noonan “on the water” off Kwajalein was obviously a seaplane from Jaluit. . . . Nobody ever said there was a crash at Kwajalein.

Earhart and Noonan were then flown by land plane from Kwajalein to Saipan, where its pilot got into trouble. [Italics mine.] Josephine Akiyama, the very first witness in the Earhart mystery, watched “a silver two-engined plane belly-land” in shallow water along a beach. She “saw the American woman who looked like a man, and the tall 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 Mili 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?

I asked Klaas if he could explain his differing visions of Earhart’s arrival at Saipan, suggesting that a land-based aircraft might indeed be most likely in the Tanapag Harbor-landing scenario. “Very well could be,” Klaas told me in a September 2007 email.

However, I do believe it was a seaplane that landed in the water at Kwajalein, according to the man who picked her up there and rowed her ashore. There was a landing field there at that time.  A lot of people jumped to the conclusion that she had crashed into the water there, according to witnesses. However that was only because the native who picked her up said the plane had landed in the water, obviously flown there from Majuro. She could very well have been transferred to a land plane there [at Kwajalein] after that and have been flown in it on to Saipan, where a lot of us at first mistook as she and Noonan crashing on the beach in her own plane. It was obviously a Japanese aircraft, however.” 

So despite the many witnesses who reported that they saw a woman flier who could only have been Amelia Earhart in the Marshalls and later on Saipan, how she reached Saipan from Kwajalein is a major question that lingers. Was it a land plane or a seaplane that took the doomed fliers to their final destination?

Almon Gray’s “Amelia didn’t know radio,” Part II of III

We continue with noted Pan American Airlines radio officer Almon Gray’s analysis of the radio problems that Amelia Earhart encountered during her final flight. Before we proceed, a word from the late Art Kennedy, an aircraft technician for the Pacific Airmotive Company in Burbank, Calif., during the 1930s, who directed the repairs of the Electra when it was shipped back to the Lockheed facility following the “ground-loop” at Luke Field, might be instructive.  In Kennedy’s 1992 autobiography, High Times, Keeping ’em Flying, he was quite frank in his appraisal of Amelia’s radio skills, or lack of same.

Kennedy believed that Earhart’s cavalier attitude toward radios led to her undoing. “In her unique fashion Earhart was quite a lady, although it is well known that she punctuated her airport conversation with a spectacular lexicon of aviation vulgarities,” Kennedy wrote. This was especially the case when she had trouble contacting the tower, because she was notoriously lazy about learning how to use the radio properly. She would get so frustrated that her language became unprintable and Burbank tower operators often found it necessary to reprimand her. That failure to learn radio procedures may be significant in light of the apparently frantic transmissions before she disappeared. I remember Paul Mantz telling her that she must be up to speed on frequencies for daylight and night transmissions, but she flippantly replied that if she couldn’t get what she wanted she’d just keep trying until she got a response.”

Art Kennedy, Alverca, Portugal, circa 1991. According to Bill Prymak, who knew him well, Kennedy fabricated stories about what Amelia Earhart told him after she crashed the Electra on takeoff from Luke Field in March 1937. These tales from Kennedy have been cited by some as strong evidence that Amelia was ordered to ground loop her plane, change directions of her world flight and even embark on a spy mission.

Art Kennedy, circa 1937, who directed the repairs for Amelia Earhart’s Electra at the Lockheed facility at Burbank, Calif.  Kennedy said that Earhart was “notoriously lazy about learning to use the radio properly.”

 “AMELIA EARHART AND RADIO,” By Almon A. Gray

Part II of III

ANATOMY OF A GOOF

While we shall never have a positive and complete answer to the above questions, it is possible to deduce a great deal. Therefore there follows a hypothetical scenario which, it is believed, reflects quite accurately what actually transpired. It is emphasized that some parts are conjecture.

1. Earhart was at Bandung having maintenance done on the plane when the query came in from Itasca as to what radio frequencies she wished Itasca, Ontario and Swan to use in supporting her flight from Lae to Howland. Time was running out and she had to provide the answers right away. It had been pounded into her head time and time again that-she needed low frequency radio beacons for homing purposes. She knew that was what she wanted from the ships but she did not know what particular frequencies to specify. She therefore sought advise from the best local source available and arranged for herself and Noonan to meet with the top KLM airline communications man.

2. The KLM man did not speak English very well and was accustomed to talking in terms of wavelength and meters rather than frequency and kilocycles. From his service in the British Navy, Noonan was familiar with the wavelength/meters system so he and the KLM man did most of the talking. Earhart scribbled notes. Among them they developed the following plan:

(a) Ontario and Itasca would both use the same frequency but transmit at different times. This would allow Earhart to receive signals from both ships without the necessity of re-tuning her receiver. To avoid any uncertainty as to which ship’s signals were being received, Ontario would transmit the Morse code character for the letter “A” rather than the customary Morse “M O” as its homing signal. Itasca would transmit the Morse character for the letter “N” as its homing signal. These same characters (A and N) were used it identify the quadrants of the four-course radio ranges in the United States and Earhart could readily recognize them.

Apparently it was envisaged that there would be an overlap of signal coverage over a good part of the leg, and that Earhart would be able to take bearings alternately on the two stations and thus keep on course. The frequency chosen for Ontario and Itasca was 400 kilocycles, which is equivalent to a wavelength of 750 meters. It was a frequency assigned worldwide for aeronautical radionavigation and was an excellent choice. It probably was chosen over equally good frequencies in the same band because it was easy to remember and easy to find on the receiver tuning dial.

(b) Swan used the frequency of 333 kilocycles which is equivalent to a wavelength of 900 meters. Use it for voice communication with the plane if possible, but in any event be prepared to send homing signals on it. 333 kc was in the band allocated worldwide for aeronautical radio navigation and air-ground communications. It was widely used in Europe, the Commonwealth nations and other countries having close ties with Europe, as a calling frequency and for ground-air communications. Earhart had probably received on it during earlier legs of her flight but called it “nine hundred meters.” It was an excellent direction-finding frequency.

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

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

3. Noonan left the meeting satisfied that the radio navigational plans were adequate, or at least as good as could be developed.

4. Earhart went back to the hotel and drafted and dispatched her message of June 27 to Itasca (Black). She did not show the message to Noonan.

5. It had been difficult for Earhart to understand the adviser’s English, and she had experienced great difficulty in following the discussion as it shifted rapidly back and forth among “frequency,” “wavelength,” “megacycle,” “meter,” kilocycle,” etc. Perhaps too she was suffering from dysentery and was actually ill. Whatever the reason, the message she drafted suggested frequencies for the Swan and Itasca vastly different from those settled on in the meeting. Specifically:

(a) The frequency for Swan was changed from an intended 333 kilocycles (900 meters) to 900 kilocycles. One can readily deduce that the wavelength in meters was used but was labeled as frequency in kilocycles.

(b) The frequency for Itasca was changed from an intended 400 kilocycles (750 meters) to 7.50 megacycles. Again it appears that the figures for the wavelength in meters were used but labeled as a frequency.

Had normal air-ground communications existed between Itasca and the plane, the homing problem could almost certainly have been solved quickly. All that was needed was for Itasca to tell Earhart to home on 500 kHz, which frequency was already being transmitted (in addition to 7.50 MHz) by Itasca. She should have been able to get bearings on that frequency that would have taken her right in to the ship. Unfortunately she was unable to hear signals from Itasca on 3105 kHz, although the ship was hearing her well. It thus was impossible for Itasca and Earhart to coordinate their actions.

THE AIR/GROUND COMMUNICATION PROBLEM

Why could Earhart not hear Itasca‘s transmissions on 3105 kHz?  Here again we probably shall never know for sure, but from the information which is available it is possible to hypothesize an answer which is reasonable and probably reflects quite accurately the actual situation. Following are some of the things that are known which are germane to the question:

1. There was but one radio receiver aboard the plane and it was used for both communication and radio direction finding purposes. There were two antennas aboard, a conventional fixed antenna and a rotatable shielded loop. Either of these, but not both simultaneously, could be connected to the input of the receiver by means of an antenna selector switch on the receiver. Radio signals could be received on either antenna but usually were stronger when using the fixed antenna, therefore it was the one generally used for communications. Direction finding could be done only when using the loop antenna.

2. The fixed antenna was used for both receiving and transmitting purposes. There was a so-called “send-receive” relay in the transmitter which switched the antenna back and forth between the units. Normally the antenna was connected to the receiver, but when the relay was energized by pushing the “push to talk” button on the microphone, the antenna was switched over to the to the transmitter and remained that way until the microphone button was released.

3.  Energy from the loop antenna went directly to the antenna selector switch of the receiver. Energy from the fixed antenna passed through the “send-receive” relay mentioned above before reaching the antenna selector switch of the receiver.

4. The receiver had six frequency bands; however, the vacuum tubes, voltage determining resistors, bypass capacitors etc., were for the most part, common to all band, and it was rare that a single band would fail. It usually was none or all.

5. The radio equipment aboard the plane was checked at Lae by Harry Balfour, the Guinea Airways wireless operator, and was found satisfactory. The only unusual thing noted was a roughness of the transmitted signal on 6216 kHz, which made Earhart’s speech difficult to understand. Two-way communication was maintained during a 30-minute test hop at Lae.

Harry Balfour, circa 1937, the radio operator at Lae, New Guinea, the last person to carry on a two-way radio conversation with Amelia Earhart.

Harry Balfour, circa 1937, the radio operator at Lae, New Guinea and the last person to carry on a two-way radio conversation with Amelia Earhart.

6. After takeoff from Lae to Howland it appears that two-way communication with Lae was maintained until about 0720 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) (6 p.m. Lae time) July 2, at which time Earhart shifted to her “night” frequency (3105 kHz). Several times after that, throughout the night, she was heard by Nauru and Itasca broadcasting at the pre-arranged times, but little of what she said was intelligible. Nauru, and later Itasca, called her numerous times but there is no indication she heard any of the calls. At 1744 GMT (seven hours, 44 minutes into the flight), she asked Itasca for a bearing on 3105 kHz and made a signal upon which the bearing was to be taken. Itasca made a response but Earhart did not acknowledge receiving it. The same thing happened at 1815 GMT. At 1912 GMT (0742 Howland Island Time), Earhart said the following to Itasca:

“WE MUST BE ON YOU NOW BUT CANNOT SEE YOU. RUNNING OUT OF GAS. ONLY ONE-HALF HOUR LEFT (there is controversy about that phrase). BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO. WE ARE FLYING AT ONE THOUSAND FEET.”

At this time the signals from the plane were very strong. It is known that the Itasca was putting out strong signals and was on the correct frequency. (They were heard in San Francisco.) Therefore the statement “BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO” clearly indicated that a failure had occurred in her radio receiving system, and that it probably had occurred early in the flight. Inasmuch as she could still transmit it was obvious that the fixed antenna was intact; beyond that there was no clue as to the nature of the failure. That clue was given very shortly however. AT 1925 GCT Earhart asked Itasca to transmit signals “on 7500,” meaning 7.50 MHz. This indicated that she intended to take radio bearings on Itasca with the plane’s direction finder.

Itasca complied immediately and sent the desired homing signals. The transmitter had no radiotelephone capability so it was impossible to also talk with the plane by voice on that frequency. Earhart responded immediately saying, “WE RECEIVED YOUR SIGNALS ON SEVENTY FIVE HUNDRED BUT UNABLE TO GET A MINIMUM. PLEASE TAKE BEARING ON US AND ANSWER THREE FIVE NAUGHT FIVE (3105 intended) WITH VOICE.” This was followed by a series of long dashed on 3105 kHz on which bearings were expected to be taken by Itasca/Howland. This was the first (and only) time Earhart acknowledged hearing signals from Itasca. From the fact that Earhart asked for the homing signals it is clear that she intended to take a bearing, which could be done only with the loop antenna. From her report of hearing the homing signal but being unable to get a minimum on it, it is obvious that she, in fact, shifted the receiver to the loop antenna, and that the homing signals were received on the loop antenna.

Why could she receive 7500 kHz signals on the loop but not 3105 kHz on the fixed antenna? At the distances and time of day involved, propagation would not account for it, so something must have changed in the receiving system. Actually two changes had been made: (a) The receiver had been shifted from band IV which included 3105 kHz to Band V or VI, both of which included 7500 kHz and (b) The receiver had been shifted from the fixed antenna to the loop antenna.

It is possible that some component peculiar to band IV had failed making reception on that band impossible, whereas reception on other bands would be normal. However, as mentioned previously, the probability of that happening was small, therefore it is unlikely that shifting bands, per se, made the difference between not receiving and receiving signals. Shifting antennas however was a horse of a very different color. With the antenna selector switch in the “DF” position incoming signals picked up by the loop antenna went directly to the input of the receiver. With the switch in that position Earhart heard signals from Itasca.

With the antenna selector switch in the “FA” (Fixed Antenna) position, signals picked up by the fixed antenna did not go directly to the input of the receiver; instead they passed through contacts on the “send/receive” relay in the transmitter. With the switch in the “FA” position Earhart did not hear signals from Itasca. This indicates very strongly that signals from the fixed antenna were not reaching the receiver and that the receiver, in effect, had no antenna.

Radio room of USCG Cutter Tahoe, sister ship to Itasca, circa 1937. Three radio logs were maintained during the flight, at positions 1 and 2 in the Itasca radio room, and one on Howland Island, where the Navy's high-frequency direction finder had been set up. Aboard Itasca, Chief Radioman Leo G. Bellarts supervised Gilbert E. Thompson, Thomas J. O'Hare and William L. Galten, all third-class radiomen, (meaning they were qualified and "rated" to perform their jobs). Many years later, Galten told Paul Rafford Jr., a former Pan Am Radio flight officer, “That woman never intended to land on Howland Island.”

Radio room of USCG Cutter Tahoe, sister ship to Itasca, circa 1937. Three radio logs were maintained during the flight, at positions 1 and 2 in the Itasca radio room, and one on Howland Island, where the Navy’s high-frequency direction finder had been set up. Aboard Itasca, Chief Radioman Leo G. Bellarts supervised Gilbert E. Thompson, Thomas J. O’Hare and William L. Galten, all third-class radiomen, (meaning they were qualified and “rated” to perform their jobs). Many years later, Galten told former Pan Am Radio flight officer Paul Rafford Jr., “That woman never intended to land on Howland Island.”

The feed line from the fixed antenna was in two sections. One was between the antenna and the “send/receive” relay in the transmitter. This section was used both for receiving and for transmitting. Earhart’s transmissions were being heard, therefore this section, including the “send” part of the relay, was functioning. The other section was between the receiver input and the “send/receive” relay, including the “receive” part of the relay. There appears to have been an open circuit or a complete “ground” in this section, either of which would have prevented the receiver from picking up signals.

It is possible that the wire in that section of the feed line broke or came loose from a binding post; however, that possibility is very small.  It is much more likely that the trouble was in the “send/receive” relay. Those devices were subject to damage from several sources. Lightening or heavy static discharge sometimes burned the contacts completely off or welded them together. Contacts on the “receive” part of the relay were particularly subject to this type of damage. Mistuning of the transmitter or antenna sometimes caused arcing and subsequent pitting and sticking of contacts. And sometimes contacts would stick, or not make good contact, for no apparent reason.

It should not be implied from this that the relays were inherently unreliable; they were not. Most went hundreds of hours between routine replacement with no trouble, but occasionally one would fail. This appears to have been one of those times. In this writer’s judgment the odds are about 95 to 5 that Earhart was unable to hear Itasca on 3105 kHz because she was switched to the fixed antenna and the “send/receive” relay was defective on the receive side.

Had she shifted to the loop antenna she no doubt would have heard Itasca very well on 3105 kHz or whatever frequency the ship might be using and she was tuned to. It probably never occurred to her to do that, however. Earhart knew very little about the technical aspects of radio and consequently operated the gear by rote. Obviously she had been taught to turn the antenna selector switch to “FA” if she wanted to talk, and to “DF” if she wanted to take a bearing — and that is precisely what she did. (End of Part II of Almon Gray’s “Amelia Earhart and Radio.”)

For the pilots and other technically astute readers among you, Almon Gray’s analysis might be easily understood, even if you disagree with some or all of his ideas. But for the lay person, which includes this writer, it’s not so easy to follow Gray’s narrative with clear comprehension. Just when I thought Gray was attributing Earhart’s radio failures to a misunderstanding about the meters and wavelengths that the “KLM man” was advising Earhart and Noonan to use during their meeting at Bandung, he launched into completely different set of reasons to explain the communications nightmare that was the final flight. I must admit that I don’t fully grasp the totality of  Gray’s narrative thus far, and may never.  Still, I think it’s important to present the important and unique work of experts like Almon Gray, regardless of how much I fail to understand.

In the final segment of “Amelia Earhart and Radio,” Gray will examine some of the possible “post-flight signals” that have long been sources of controversy and contention among researchers, take a closer look at Fred Noonan’s role in the proceedings, and present his well-informed conclusions. Please stay tuned.

Pan Am radio pioneer Capt. Almon Gray: “Amelia didn’t know radio,” Part I of III

Almon Andrew Gray was a pioneer in aeronautical communications.  After graduating from the George Stevens Academy  in 1928 and the Massachusetts Radio Telegraph School in 1930, he enlisted in the Navy, where he was a radioman and gunner aboard cruiser based aircraft. He also learned to fly.

Upon expiration of his enlistment he signed on with 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 was also  a Navy Reserve captain,  flew with Fred Noonan in the 1930s and was an important figure in the development of the Marshall Islands landing scenario. He died at 84 on Sept. 26, 1994 at Blue Hill Maine. In coming weeks and months, some of Gray’s writings will be featured on this blog.

Capt. Almon Gray, USNR. wrote extensively on Amelia Earhart's radio problems during her last flight.

Capt. Almon Gray, USNR, wrote extensively on Amelia Earhart’s radio problems during her last flight.

More than anyone in Earhart research history, with the possible exception of Paul Rafford Jr., Almon Gray was qualified to discuss Amelia Earhart’s radio arrangements and behavior. “Amelia Earhart and Radio” first appeared in  the June 1993 issue of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.

From the outset, readers should understand that in this analysis, Gray assumes that Earhart was actually trying to reach Howland island, and that she was attempting to establish two-way communication with Itasca, which never happened. In his piece, Gray also doesn’t try to explain why she was never on the air for more than 10 seconds, something that has led many to speculate that Earhart didn’t want her position to be known and that something else was afoot besides her official flight plan.  

 “AMELIA EARHART AND RADIO,” By Almon A. Gray

Part I of III

INTRODUCTION

Most of that written about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart while on an around-the-world flight in 1937 attributes her failure to reach Howland Island to unstated deficiencies related to radio. It appears however that very little has been written about the nature of those deficiencies, or how they came about. What follows will attempt to fill that gap and show what errors in planning and execution were made in respect to radio; what failure or malfunctioning of radio equipment occurred and the probable reason for it; and will point out the single item or event deemed most directly responsible for the failure of the plane to reach Howland Island.

Since 1937 the unit of measurement for radio frequencies had been changed from “cycles” to “hertz” (Hz), consequently kilocycles (Kc) and kilohertz (kHz) will be used interchangeably, as will megacycles (Mc) and megahertz (MHz). It is assumed that the reader already is familiar with the general history of the flight.

BACKGROUND

In early 1937, several weeks before her Oakland-Honolulu flight, and while she still intended to circumnavigate the world in a westerly direction, Miss Earhart met at Alameda, Calif., with George Angus, the superintendent of communications for the Pacific Division of Pan American Airways. Angus was responsible for the radio communication and radio direction finding networks which supported the PAA clippers on their trans-Pacific crossings, and Miss Earhart wished to arrange for help from those facilities during her planned flight. She was particularly interested in obtaining radio bearings to augment her celestial navigation. At that time PAA had specially designed versions of the Adcock radio direction finding system in service at Alameda; Mokapu Point, Hawaii; Midway Island; Wake Island; Guam; and Manila, Philippines to support Clipper operations.

These systems were capable of taking radio bearings on frequencies much higher than could be utilized successfully by conventional loop-type direction finders, hence were effective over much greater distances. They were commonly referred to as “high frequency DFs,” and were the only ones of that type in the United States and its territories. Angus agreed to help Earhart while she was within radio range of PAA stations, and details for so doing were worked out.

This was somewhat complicated inasmuch as PAA was not equipped to transmit on either of Earhart’s communication frequencies (3105 kHz and 6210 kHz.) and could not transmit voice on any frequency. The solution agreed upon was that the plane would request a bearing by voice on the frequency in use, (usually 3105 kHz at night, 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 take a bearing and transmit it to the plane on a previously agreed upon PAA frequency, using “CW” (telegraphy) sent at such a slow speed that the individual dots and dashes of the numbers could be copied on paper and later translated into numbers. This arrangement was tested on the flight from Oakland to Honolulu with the bearings being taken by PAA on 3105 kHz and sent to the plane on 2986 kHz It worked out very well.

The RA-1B was a brand new Bendix product and was reputed to be pushing the state of the art in aircraft receiver designed

The Bendix RA-1B, used in Amelia Earhart’s Electra during her final flight without apparent success, was a brand new product and was reputed to be pushing the state of the art in aircraft receiver design.

The Oakland-Honolulu flight was uneventful, and from the standpoint of radio was handled much the same as a Clipper flight. Captain Harry Manning, an experienced radio operator, handled the Electra’s radio and DF gear while the ground radio facilities were operated by the regular PAA professional radio operators. Radio bearings were furnished the plane at frequent intervals, first from Alameda and later from Mokapu Point. They checked well with the positions Noonan determined by celestial navigation. As the plane neared Oahu, Manning set up the plane’s direction finder to home on the Marine Radio Beacon (290 kHz.) at Mokapu Point (near Diamond Head) and Earhart homed in on it to a successful landfall.

During an attempted takeoff for Howland Island from Luke Field, near Honolulu, on March 20, 1937 the Electra ground-looped and was damaged to the extent that it was shipped back to the Lockheed plant in California for repairs. There had been no major damage to the radio gear, and the main thing done to the radio system while at Lockheed was to replace the Western Electric Model 20B radio receiver and its remote control apparatus with a Bendix Type RA-1B Aircraft Radio Receiver and its accessories,which included means for complete remote control from the cockpit. This work was done by Lockheed contract technician Joe Gurr.

 THE NEW RECEIVER

The RA-1B was a brand new Bendix product and was reputed to be pushing the state of the art in aircraft receiver design.  It was a super heterodyne, which had the frequency range .150-1.50 and 1.80-15.0 Megahertz, which was divided into six bands: I: .150 – .315; II: .315 – .680; III: .680- 1.50; IV: 1.80 – 3.70; V – 3.70 – 7.50; VI: 7.50 – 15.0.

The gap between 1.50 and 1.80 MHz was to accommodate the intermediate frequency. It could receive voice or “CW” signals, and there was a three-position antenna selector switch which permitted three choices of antenna. With the switch in the “DF” position, the receiver was connected to the Bendix type MN-20 rotatable loop mounted atop the fuselage over the cockpit, and the combination comprised a radio direction finder. With the switch in the “TA” position the receiver was connected to the trailing antenna, and when in the “FA” position it was connected to the fixed antenna. It should be noted that signals from the loop antenna went directly from the loop, through the antenna switch, to the input of the receiver, whereas signals from the fixed or trailing antenna passed through the “send-receive” relay in the transmitter before going through the antenna switch to the receiver input.

It also should be noted that on this model receiver any radio signal within its overall frequency range could be received on the loop antenna. Because of this, some people had the impression that radio bearings could be obtained on any frequency within the receiver’s frequency range, and the unit was sometimes spoken of as a “high frequency direction finder.”  The unit of course had no such high frequency direction finding capability, and in later models circuitry was introduced to limit reception on the loop antenna to only frequencies in that part of the overall range deemed suitable for radio direction finding with a loop antenna, i.e. below about 1.80 MHz.

A rare photo of Amelia Earhart and her Electra at the Burbank repair facility sometime during the spring of 1937.

A rare photo of Amelia Earhart (right) and her Electra 10E, NR 16020 at the Lockheed repair facility in Burbank, Calif., sometime during the spring of 1937.

THE RADIO SYSTEM

When the plane left the Lockheed plant after being repaired the radio system was comprised of the following elements:

(1) Bendix Type RA-1B Aircraft Radio Receiver. Mounted in the cabin but having remote controls in the cockpit.

(1) Western Electric Model 13-C 50-watt Aircraft Transmitter. It had three crystal-controlled channels, 500, 3105 and 6210 kHz and could be used for voice or “CW” (radiotelegraph) transmissions. It was mounted in the cabin but there were remote controls in the cockpit.

(1) Bendix Type MN-20 rotatable shielded loop antenna. It was mounted on the top of the fuselage over the cockpit, with the knob which rotated it located on the overhead of the cockpit, between the pilots. It was used primarily for taking radio bearings but was useful as a receiving antenna under conditions of heavy precipitation static noise.

Provision for plugging in a microphone, headphones, and a telegraph key at each side of the cockpit.

A telegraph key and provision for plugging in headphones at the navigator’s table.

A 250-foot flexible wire trailing antenna on an electrically operated, remote-controlled reel, located at the rear of the plane. The wire passed to the outside through an insulated bushing and had a lead weight, or “fish,” at the end to keep it from whipping when deployed. There was a variable loading coil used in conjunction with this antenna to permit its use on 500 kHz. This antenna was long enough to give excellent radiation efficiency on all three of the transmitting frequencies.

 A fixed antenna which was a wire “Vee” with its apex at a stub mast mounted on the top of the fuselage, about over the center section of the wing, and the two legs extending back to the two vertical fins. This antenna was so short that its radiation efficiency was extremely low. It was not intended to be used on 500 kHz and probably the radiated power on the other two frequencies was very low. It was meant to be used mainly for local communications around an airport when it was not possible to have the trailing antenna deployed. According to some accounts there was a second “V” antenna mounted on the underside of the fuselage and connected in parallel with the top “V” antenna.  If so, it was removed or disconnected before the plane left Miami.

THE SECOND MISTAKE

Earhart flew the plane to Miami in the latter part of May 1937, and there made her second major error of judgment in respect to communications. (The first was in deciding on rely completely on radiotelephone for her air-ground communications.)

One of the first things she did after arriving in Miami was to have the trailing antenna and associated gear completely removed. John Ray, an Eastern Airlines technician, who had his own radio shop as a sideline, did the work.

This had a devastating impact both on her ability to communicate and on her ability to use radio navigation. With only the very short fixed antenna remaining, virtually no energy could be radiated on 500 kHz. This not only precluded her contacting ships and marine shore stations, but more importantly, it prevented ships (including the ITASCA) and marine shore direction finding stations from taking radio bearings on the plane, inasmuch as 500 kHz was the only one of her frequencies within the frequency range of the marine direction finders. Thus 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 U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca.

The shortness of the antenna also drastically reduced the power radiated on the two high frequencies. Paul Rafford Jr., an expert in this field, 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 responsible for the distortion in Earhart’s transmitted signals reported by the operators at Lae, Howland and Nauru as seriously 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.)

Despite the shortcomings of her radio system, Miss Earhart got as far as the Dutch East Indies without major incident. There however, through lack of understanding, she made an error which ultimately lead to her failure to reach Howland Island.

Amelia with the loop radio direction finder

Amelia with the Bendix Type MN-20 rotatable shielded loop antenna, which was mounted on the top of the fuselage over the cockpit and apparently failed to help her in any significant ways during the final flight. 

THE THIRD MISTAKE

Three ships had been assigned to assist Earhart on the South Pacific over-water flights.  Itasca was at Howland Island, Ontario  about half way between New Guinea and Howland, and Swan between Howland and Hawaii. One function of these vessels was to transmit radio signals upon which Earhart could take bearings with her radio direction finder and thus be helped with her navigation. Suitable homing signals from Itasca were extremely important, in fact vital. Should Noonan’s celestial navigation not hit Howland right on the nose, homing in on Itasca‘s signals with her DF was the only way Earhart could be sure of finding Howland before her fuel was exhausted.

In a message dated June 23, 1937 addressed to Earhart at Darwin or Bandung, Mr. Richard Black, aboard Itasca, advised her of the radio frequencies available aboard the Ontario, Swan and Itasca, and asked her to designate the frequency she wished each ship to use to provide homing signals for her. The same day the Commanding Officer of Itasca requested that he be advised twelve hours prior to her departure from New Guinea of her desires in matter of radio, and warned her of the slowness of communication via Port Darwin.

Miss Earhart received these messages while she was at Bandung, Java, having work done on the plane. On June 27, the day before she took off from Bandung for Koepang and Darwin, she sent the following response:

From: Earhart via RCA Manila & N-PM Navy Radio Honolulu
To: ITASCA (Black) June 27, 1937 (Java date: June 26, Howland)

SUGGEST ONTARIO STANDBY ON 400 KILOCYCLES TO TRANSMIT LETTER N FIVE MINUTES ON REQUEST WITH STATION CALL REPEATED TWICE END OFEVERY 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

A person experienced in radio direction finding would find that message very strange. Why would Swan be asked to transmit homing signals on 900 kc, a frequency in the broadcast band, when a lower frequency in the aeronautical radio navigation band would be much better? And why would Itasca be asked to send homing signals on 7.5 Mc when that frequency was so high that the possibility of getting useful bearings on it with the plane’s direction finder was nil? Perhaps some of the personnel in Itasca had those questions but took the attitude “She is in the Flying Laboratory. Who knows what hush-hush gear she has aboard? If she wants 7.5 Mc, that is what she is going to get.”

No one questioned the message and Itasca tuned up its transmitter to send homing signals on 7.5 Mc. What happened after that has been well covered in the media and in numerous books. When the plane arrived at what Earhart believed to be the vicinity of Howland, no land could be found despite considerable visual searching, whereupon Earhart asked Itasca to send homing signals on 7.5 Mc, Itasca complied. Earhart heard the signals but reported to Itasca that she was “unable to get a minimum” on them. This meant she could not get a bearing on that frequency. She then asked Itasca to take bearings on her 3105 kHz. transmissions, apparently believing that the direction finder ashore on Holland Island could take bearings on that frequency just as the PAA Adcock systems had done on the earlier flight from Oakland to Honolulu. When she heard no response from Itasca (the reason she did not hear any response will be addressed elsewhere) she transmitted her line of position, said they were running north and south and that she was shifting to 6210 kHz. She was not heard again by Itasca.  Apparently she commenced execution of her Emergency Plan at about that point.

Because the unsuitability of the homing frequency used by Itasca had such an adverse impact upon the flight it seems appropriate to digress a bit here to try to find out:

(a) How was the plan for the use of radio homing beacons aboard the three ships developed?

(b) What was the plan?

(c) Did the message of June 27 from Earhart to Itasca (Black) accurately reflect the plan which had been developed? If not, what were the differences and why had they been introduced? (End of Part I.)

In Part II of “Amelia Earhart and Radio,” Almon Gray will continue to analyze Amelia Earhart’s radio communications during her doomed last flight. He will also attempt to explain how and why Amelia’s transmissions were so completely ineffective, or at least appeared to be.

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