Tag Archives: Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts

Earhart was “within 200 miles when she crashed,” Leo Bellarts tells Fred Goerner in 1961 letter

Today we return to the early 1960s correspondence between San Francisco radio newsman Fred Goerner and Leo Bellarts, the chief radioman aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca on July 2, 1937, who retired from the Coast Guard as a lieutenant in 1946. My Feb. 6 post, Revisiting roots of the real search for Amelia,began with Bellarts’ November 1961 letter to Goerner, in which the nearly incredulous Bellarts asked, “why you believe Earhart wound up on Saipan”?

Bellarts’ certainly that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan rested “peacefully on the bottom of the sea, no farther than 100 miles from Howland,” was based entirely on the increase in Earhart’s signal strength in her last transmission. “She was so loud that I ran up to the bridge expecting to see her coming in for a landing,” Bellarts told Elgen Long in a 1973 interview.

In his reply, Goerner brought Bellarts up to date on his findings during to Saipan visits, including “three file cabinets filled with the most painstaking research concerning every aspect of the disappearance [that] has given us very strong reasons to believe Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan for an indefinite period prior to the war.” The KCBS newsman also posed several new questions for Bellarts, many about the Electra’s radio transmission capabilities, as well as those of Itasca and the high-frequency direction finder supposedly set up on Howland Island. Bellarts’ response follows.

1920 State Street
Everett, Washington
15 December 1961

Mr. Frederick A. Goerner
News Department
KCBS Radio
San Francisco 5, California

Dear Mr. Goerner:

Your letter of November 30th arrived December 13th, and I wish to thank you for your reply to my letter. I also wish to thank you for the additional papers you forwarded with your letter. They were very interesting.

First, I will attempt to answer your questions. I have kept a scrapbook on the Earhart case and it contains much information. Therefore, I will not have to rely on a memory of twenty-odd years. Your letter and enclosures will be an interesting addition to my scrapbook.

This candid photo

This candid photo of Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts was taken aboard Itasca on July 2, 1937, hour unknown, according to Leo Bellarts’ son, David Bellarts. (Photo courtesy David Bellarts.)

In answer to your first question regarding people stating that the Earhart radio could not be heard more than 50 to 100 miles. In my opinion this is someone talking about something they know nothing about. This is completely false. I agree with the statement contained in “Facts About the Final Flight” that a 50-watt transmitter airborne will certainly transmit dependably to 500 miles under normal conditions. During nighttime hours, this distance could be multiplied several times under favorable skip conditions. I did not notice any skip conditions during her flight and believe that her signals were copied “ground wave” as they continually built up to the time of her final transmission when she was very loud and could be easily copied on the ship’s loudspeaker. THIS WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN TRUE UNDER SKIP CONDITIONS. (Caps Bellarts’ throughout.)

At this point I wish to state that we were using a CGR-32-1 type receiver on Earhart’s frequency and by present day standards is a poor receiver. I am sure that if present day receivers were then available, we could have read her signals very much better and at an earlier hour.

As to the time and content of all messages changed in the July 5th messages from the contents of the July 2nd messages bewilders me. This point I was completely unaware of.  It appears that there was a bit of the “Press Reports” incorporated somewhere along the line. You may check the authentic receptions from the plane and draw your own conclusions.

In regard to the “30 minutes of gas remaining,” this will be answered in the listing of messages from the plane in the summation of her last messages.

The people stating that the Earhart radio was not functioning properly make such statements on pure guess work. Amelia never stated that our signals were too weak for a minimum, BUT “We received your signals but unable to get a minimum; please take bearing on us,” etc. No mention was made of weak signals or the reason she could not obtain a bearing: Too great a signal, too weak a signal, fading, night effect (which there were none), and other causes. As far as we knew on the ITASCA, Earhart encountered no equipment failure — at least she reported none. Actually, in this case, I believe that our signals were too strong.

In this undated photo from the mid-196s, Fred Goerner holds forth from his perch at KCBS Radio, San Francisco, at the height of his glory as the author of The Search for Amelia Earhart.

In this undated photo from the mid-196s, Fred Goerner holds forth from his perch at KCBS Radio, San Francisco, at the height of his notoriety as the author of The Search for Amelia Earhart. (Photo courtesy Merla Zellerbach.)

Earhart was not alerted to the fact a special D/F had been set up aboard the ITASCA because there was none! No D/F was aboard during her flight that would cover her frequency of 3105 or 6210 KCS. The only D/F was a standard low frequency finder capable of taking bearings of broadcast stations and frequencies below 500 KCS.

There was, however, a high frequency D/F installed on Howland Island for the express purpose of taking bearings on Earhart. This equipment was set up and in operation during her flight, completely aligned and in position. This equipment was NOT ship’s property but was borrowed in Honolulu through the efforts of the C.G. District Radio Electrician, Mr. Anthony. I believe this D/F was actually Navy property.

Lt. Cooper of the U.S. Army Air Force was aboard the ITASCA for two reasons that I know of.  Mr. Cooper was assigned the duty of surveying the airfield and placing the required markers, flags, etc.  He was also available for any technical assistance that Earhart might require after landing on Howland. Memory tells me he had two enlisted assistants.

Actually, the USS SWAN and USS ONTARIO were assigned as weather ships. The ITASCA never worked either ship and I must rely on my memory for that information because, as you say, there is nothing in the log regarding the ONTARIO. As for the reason the ONTARIO didn’t hear Earhart, it was very simple. The receivers aboard that ship could not receive on her frequency. The ONTARIO and the SWAN were small tugs and were one radioman ships, maintaining only schedules for weather through Navy radio Samoa or Honolulu. I was not familiar with their schedules. The equipment aboard the ONTARIO was low frequency rigs and could not operate on anything above 500 KCS for transmitting and could not receive above 3000 KCS. The SWAN was somewhat out of the picture, being stationed between Howland and Honolulu.

“Strength of Signal” certainly strengthened my conviction, and that of others who heard her last transmission, that she was very close to Howland Island. I started my radio career in the USCG in 1924, and believe that I can distinguish when a 50-watt transmitter is close aboard or not. Honestly, we in the radio room could actually hear her voice so near the breaking point that at any moment I expected her to go into an hysterical scream. Giving her plenty of leeway, she must have been within 200 miles when she crashed. Actually, I believe it was much less.

The 157-337 message regarding a position of the Earhart plane was taken as a sunline position, of course not complete. Actually, I believe that she became so upset that she failed to send the entire message which would have given the ITASCA something to go on in the search. As a result, we could only assume that she crashed somewhere before arriving at Howland. She certainly did not pass overhead at 1000 feet without seeing the large smokescreen the ITASCA was laying. I have a photo of that which also shows cloud formations.

I have no idea as to the assumptions of the LEXINGTON as to what Earhart’s speed was. As to the laying out of a search plan, I am sure that this was done as well as could be expected with the scarcity of information at hand.

Amelia with the Bendix Radio Direction Finder Loop Antenna, which replaced Fred Hooven's Radio Compass for use during her world flight attempt in 1937. Hooven was convinced that the change was responsible for Amelia's failure to find Howland Island, and ultimately, for her tragic death on Saipan.

Amelia with the Bendix Radio Direction Finder Loop Antenna, which replaced Fred Hooven’s Radio Compass for use during her world flight attempt in 1937. Hooven was convinced that the change was responsible for Amelia’s failure to find Howland Island, and ultimately, for her tragic death on Saipan. 

Yes, I know Bill Galten but I’m afraid there is a misunderstanding as to his rate at the time of the Earhart search. Galten was a very good and reliable radioman THIRD CLASS. Galten actually relieved me for breakfast that fateful morning. He also maintained the radio log from 0718 to 1035 when I assumed radio log and actual watch. From the first time we heard Earhart, to the last time at 0843, I don’t believe that I was out of the radio room more than 15 minutes, having heard all of her transmissions. I don’t believe that I have seen Galten for over 20 years. However, I believe that he is now a Retired Chief Radioman.

Now, if I may, I would like to make a few comments on portions of your letter and also the enclosure which I appreciate receiving.

On the main matter for conjecture, as you say, “How did Earhart and Noonan reach Saipan?” To me, there is only one answer, if there is an answer. They may have reached Saipan but certainly NOT on the Electra she flew from Lae. The only possibility as far as I’m concerned is that they crashed very close to Howland Island and were fortunate (?) enough to land near a Japanese fishing boat or other Jap vessel which was in that vicinity.

To all known information, no Japanese vessels were anywhere near Howland during that time. Considering the strength of her signals, she was certainly not near enough to any island (except Baker) that she could have possibly landed on. It must have been a sea crash. The Marshalls, Gilberts or Phoenix groups are definitely ruled out in my book.  (Editor’s note: At the time of this letter, neither Bellarts, Goerner or any other American researcher knew about Bilimon Amaron’s eyewitness account, nor those of any of the other Marshall Island witnesses to the crash-landing of the Electra off Barre Island, Mili Atoll.)

In quoting Time magazine of July 19, 1937, I would like to quote from an article regarding Earhart. “Several facts made it clear that much more than simple bad luck was involved. Before the hop off, when capable Navigator [sic] Noonan inspected what he supposed was an ultra-modem “flying laboratory,” he was dismayed to discover that there was nothing with which to take celestial bearings except an ordinary ship sextant. He remedied that by borrowing a modem bubble octant designed especially for airplane navigation. For estimating wind drift over the sea, he obtained two dozen aluminum powder bombs. For some reason, these bombs were left behind in a storehouse.

The Coast Guard Cutter ITASCA, which had-been dispatched from San Diego to Howland Island solely as a help to the flyers, would have been able to take directional bearings on the Earhart plane if the latter could have tuned its signals to a 500 KC frequency. The plane’s transmitter would have been able to send such signals if it had a trailing antenna. Miss Earhart considered all this too much bother; no trailing antenna was taken along.” The ITASCA was entirely unaware of this and, as a result, did not know that she was unable to transmit on 500 KCS.

As to why the LEXINGTON was called into the search, I will quote from the above-mentioned magazine again. “When word that the Earhart plane was lost reached the U.S., husband Putnam wired an appeal for a Navy search to President Roosevelt. But even before the message reached Washington, Secretary of the Navy [Claude A.] Swanson had ordered the Navy to start hunting.”

To add a little sidelight to the search, were you aware that the U.S. Battleship COLORADO served as an oil barge for the USCG cutter ITASCA?

Under a New York dateline, Dec. 4, 1961, there appeared a story about a “Mrs. Clara [Trenckman] Studer, Rome, Italy, who has spent months here studying records of Miss Earhart’s last flight” etc. This same article contains the following: “Mrs. Studer, a writer who collaborated on a book with Miss Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, and helped form the woman pilots’ organization the “Ninety-Nines,” said Miss Earhart’s name and fate “must be cleared” before 1965 when she is eligible for election in the Hall of Fame. Mrs. Studer and other friends of the flier also fear chances of an Amelia Earhart stamp being published next year have been hurt by the story that she was spying on Saipan.”

Clara Studer

Undated photo of Clara Studer, who edited The Ninety-Niner newsletter in the early 1930s, and in 1937 wrote Sky Storming Yankee: The Life of Glenn Curtiss.

(Editor’s note: An online search shows no evidence of any book that Clara Studer and George Putnam wrote together. Studer did author a 1937 book, Sky Storming Yankee: The Life Story of Glenn Curtiss, and in 1933, Studer was the New York-based editor of The Ninety- Niner newsletter. To see the Jan. 15, 1933 edition, please click here.)

Now that I have answered your questions to the best of my ability, may I ask just what connection has Mrs. with CBS, and also the connection, if there be one, between CBS and Mr. Putnam? If Miss Earhart’s name was to be cleared of the spy charge, wouldn’t it be a logical conclusion that an intense investigation be made just how Earhart and Noonan arrived at Saipan (if they did)? My conclusion remains the same; that is, the Electra and its passengers are on the bottom of the sea west of Howland Island, yet very near the island.

In closing, I would like to add that you are quite the “Quiz Master.” However, if there is any doubt in your mind, I see no reason why you should be otherwise. In addition, the enclosure “Facts about the Final Flight” contains several remarks that I would disagree with, but I have never doubted that she crashed very close to Howland Island.

I hope that I have cleared up some points regarding this case. If I can be of any further assistance, don’t hesitate to “start quizzing.” THE INFORMATION THAT I HAVE GIVEN YOU IS FOR YOUR INFORMATION ONLY AND I DO NOT WISH ANY PUBLICITY ON MY PART.

Sincerely,

Leo G. Bellarts

Fred Goerner-Leo Bellarts early 1960s letters: Revisiting roots of the real search for Amelia

During the course of his early Earhart investigations, Fred Goerner, author of the classic 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart, wrote several letters to Leo Bellarts, the chief radioman aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca on July 2, 1937, who retired from the Coast Guard as a lieutenant in 1946. Most of Goerner’s letter of Nov. 30,  1961, below, was initially published in the July 1996 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, as was Bellarts’ reply of Dec. 15, 1961.

Many of the Goerner’s questions are still relevant today, especially since the American public has been fed a steady diet of disinformation for many decades by a U.S. media that hasn’t shown the slightest interest in learning the facts since Time magazine panned Search as a book that “barely hangs together” in its 1966 review that signaled the establishment’s aversion to the truth the KCBS newsman found on Saipan. Goerner died in 1994 at age 69, Bellarts in May 1974 at 66. 

28 November 1961
1920 State St.
Everett, Washington

Mr. Fred Goerner,
% KCBS
San Francisco, Calif.

Dear Mr. Goerner,

I have just received a letter and an article from a San Diego paper relative to your attempt to establish identity of some bones and teeth you found on Saipan. Having a long time interest in the Earhart story I am curious just to know why you believe Earhart wound up on Saipan.

Last year I believe that you attempted to identify an airplane generator as belonging to the Earhart plane. I’m sure that if a search was made around Saipan that many planes could be found and parts by the thousands cold be located, but none from the Earhart plane.

Coast Guard Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the radio teal aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca Itasca during the final flight of Amelia Earhart.

Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the radio team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca during the final flight of Amelia Earhart. (Photo courtesy Dave Bellarts.)

My curiosity stems from the fact that I believe I was one of the very few people that heard the last message from the Earhart plane. I was the Chief Radioman on the USCG Itasca at Howland Island during her ill-fated trip. Having heard practically every transmission she made from about 0200 till her crash when she was very loud and clear, I can assure you that she crashed very near Howland Island. The only island near Howland that it would have been possible for her to land would have been Baker Island and she didn’t land there.

Considering the increase in her signal strength from her first to her last transmission there leaves no doubt in my mind that she now rests peacefully on the bottom of the sea, no farther than 100 miles from Howland. If you could have heard the last transmission, the frantic note and near hysteria in her voice you also would be convinced of her fate but not on Saipan.

I firmly believe that she died a hero in the public eye and that is the way I believe that she would like it to be.

Sincerely yours,

Leo G. Bellarts
Lieut. USCG (Ret)

November 30, 1961

Leo G. Bellarts
Lieut. USCG (Ret)
1920 State Street
Everett, Washington

Dear Mr. Bellarts:

Your letter of the 28th just arrived, and I was delighted to receive it. I believe you may be able to answer a number of questions that have arisen from a thorough scrutiny of the official logs of the ITASCA and the Navy carrier, LEXINGTON. (Caps Goerner’s throughout.)

But, first, to answer your question: Why does CBS believe Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan?

Two expeditions to Saipan and three file cabinets filled with the most painstaking research concerning every aspect of the disappearance has given us very strong reasons to believe Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan for an indefinite period prior to the war. I might add that the Catholic Church authorities on Saipan and many of the Naval Officers at the Saipan facilities are also completely convinced. The Office of Naval Intelligence has admitted that their investigation of the testimony gathered from native Saipanese indicates that it cannot be discounted. Every attempt was made to puncture that testimony this last year, and in several cases it was impossible.

The main matter for conjecture is: How did Earhart and Noonan reach Saipan? Did they fly there in their Lockheed Electra, or were they taken to the Island by the Japanese after a landing in another area? 

Fred Goerner, circa mid-1960s, behind the microphone at KCBS in San Francisco.

Fred Goerner, circa mid-1960s, behind the microphone at KCBS in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy Merla Zellerbach.)

We have submitted the available information concerning the flight to a number of aviation experts familiar with that area of the Pacific, and all have said that it was physically possible for the plane to have flown to Saipan, but it certainly is not probable. The chances have been rated at one in a thousand to one in one hundred thousand.

The aircraft wreckage brought up from Tanapag Harbor during the expedition of June 1960 was almost an afterthought. Two native divers believed they knew where the wreckage of a twin-engine plane was in the harbor. We brought some of it to the surface with little hope it represented the Electra. The fact that a generator was a Japanese copy of the Bendix 50 amp which was carried on the Earhart craft gave hope for a brief time that it might be the proper one.

You are quite right in your assumption that the ocean floor surrounding Saipan is littered with wreckage, wreckage of every conceivable size and shape.

During my most recent trip to Saipan in September of this year, we further investigated the wreckage the generator was taken from, and definitely proved that the plane was Japanese and not Earhart’s Lockheed 10-E. A partially disintegrated name-plate on a direction finder had still legible Japanese markings.

The testimony about Earhart and Noonan being on the island, however, stood firm. The Navy had put two ONI men on the case, and their estimation was that the testimony from several reputable Saipanese in particular was irrefutable.

How then did Earhart and Noonan get to Saipan if they did not fly the Lockheed there. Commander Paul Bridwell,  Commandant NavAd Saipan, came up with the answer. The pair had gone down in or near the Marshalls and had been brought to Saipan, then the military headquarters for the Mandates, by Japanese ship to Yap, and then a flight by Japanese Naval Seaplane. Bridwell said there was proof to this theory contained in the logs of four United States Logistic Vessels, THE GOLD STAR, THE BLACKHAWK, THE HENDERSON, and THE CHAUMOUNT, which had been plying the Pacific in 1938 and ’39 supplying the Far East Fleet. “Certain coded messages sent from Japanese vessels and shore installations,” said Bridwell, “were intercepted by these ships.”

The Japanese code was not broken until just before the war, so I gather these messages may not have been decoded until just recently. That’s the only reason I can imagine why these messages have not been brought to light before. (Editor’s note: At the time of this letter, Goerner lacked important information about U.S. code-breaking abilities in 1937.  See pages 263-264 of Truth at Last, Second Edition, for more on this complex issue.)

Cmdr. Paul W. Bridwell, chief of the U.S. Naval Administration Unit on Saipan, and Jose Pangelinan, who told Fred Goerner he saw the fliers but not together, that the man had been held at the military police stockade and the woman kept at the hotel in Garapan. Pangelinan said the pair had been buried together in an unmarked grave outside the cemetery south of Garapan. The Japanese had said the two were fliers and spies. (Photo by Fred Goerner, courtesy Lance Goerner.)

Cmdr. Paul W. Bridwell, chief of the U.S. Naval Administration Unit on Saipan, and Jose Pangelinan, who told Fred Goerner he saw the fliers but not together, that the man had been held at the military police stockade and the woman kept at the hotel in Garapan. Pangelinan said the pair had been buried together in an unmarked grave outside the cemetery south of Garapan. The Japanese had said the two were fliers and spies. (Photo by Fred Goerner, courtesy Lance Goerner.)

______________________________________________________________________________________

                                                                                               December 10, 1961

As you can see, there has been considerable delay in the completion of this letter. Dr. [Theodore] McCown’s findings regarding the remains has touched off a chain reaction that has kept me away from my office until today.

To say that McCown’s findings were a disappointment is an understatement; however, it in no way changes our basic hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan. As Dr. McCown put it,”It doesn’t mean you weren’t on the right track. You may have missed the actual grave site by six inches. That’s the way it is with archeology.”

(Editor’s note: Dr. Theodore McCown was the University of California anthropologist who examined bones excavated by Goerner from a Saipan gravesite in 1961. See pages 224-225 of Truth at Last for more.)

Along with this letter, I am sending you our most recent press release which details many of the things I have already discussed.

Now, if I may, I would like to ask you several questions. As you were present on the ITASCA the morning of July 2, 1937, perhaps you can clarify some points that seem most enigmatic to us.

Why do many people cling to the theory that the Earhart radio was incapable of transmitting more than 50 to 100 miles when the last check-in with Lae, New Guinea was 785 miles out at 5:20 in the afternoon?

Why was “30 minutes of gas remaining” changed to read “but are running low on gas”?

Why do many people say the Earhart radio receiver was not functioning when one of the messages received by the ITASCA states, “We are receiving your signals, but they are too weak for a minimum”?

Why wasn’t Earhart alerted to the fact that a special direction finder had been set up aboard the ITASCA?

Why was a Lt. [Daniel A.] Cooper of the U.S. Army Air Forces aboard the ITASCA the morning of the disappearance?

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, anchored off Howland Island on July2, 1937, for the explicit purpose of helping Amelia Earhart find Howland and land safely at the airstrip that had been constructed there.

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was stationed next to Howland Island on July 2, 1937, for the explicit purpose of helping Amelia Earhart find Howland and land safely at the airstrip that had been constructed there.

Why is there a complete absence of any mention of the Coast Guard Vessel ONTARIO in the log of the ITASCA? The ONTARIO was a weather ship stationed at the half-way point of the flight. Didn’t the ONTARIO ever read the Earhart plane during the flight? If the ONTARIO didn’t read Earhart, why not? The flight plan would have taken the Electra fight over the ONTARIO.

Why wasn’t the emergency 3105 direction finder set up on Howland Island able to cut in the Earhart plane if the plane was as close to the island as everyone supposed?

Was there anything else beside “strength of signal” that lead those aboard the ITASCA to believe Earhart was within 50 to 100 miles of the vessel?

What was the first reaction of those aboard the ITASCA to “We are 157-337, running north and south”? Did they think it a radio bearing or a sun line? Certainly no one could have believed it a position that an experienced navigator such as Noonan would send if he knew where he was.

Why did the LEXINGTON base its search on the July 2 group of messages rather than the July 5 group? The July 5 group paint an entirely different picture, especially 0515: “200 miles” and 0545: “100 miles.” If the plane made 100 miles in 30 minutes, it’s quite obvious Earhart and Noonan figured their air speed at 200 miles per hour, which is far different than the 111 miles per hour the LEXINGTON assumed. The Electra was capable of 200 miles an hour top speed, but Earhart, conserving gas, would have been at cruise speed of 155. They must have picked up a tail wind, and the ITASCA log indicated the wind had shifted from the southeast.

I know these are a lot of questions, but there is so much that is inexplicable. Would you be so kind as to clarify some of these points for us? We will be most grateful.

Thank you so much for your time and interest.

Sincerely,

Frederick A. Goerner
News Dept., KCBS Radio
San Francisco, California

In future posts, thanks to the generous contributions of Dave Bellarts, of Lakewood, Wash., son of Leo, we’ll continue this fascinating correspondence between history’s foremost Earhart investigator and arguably the most reliable eyewitness aboard Itasca when Amelia sent her final “official” message that fateful July morning.

Earhart’s “post-loss messages”: Real or fantasy?

Among the most misunderstood themes surrounding the search for Amelia Earhart is that of the so-called “post-loss” messages that were allegedly received in the days following Amelia’s last official message on July 2 to the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. These various messages, received both in voice and code by a variety of people, were heard mainly in the central Pacific Ocean area and the West Coast of the United States. Practically since the day of her loss, inquiring minds have asked whether these messages sent by Amelia Earhart, were they the products of the overheated imaginations of earnest ham-radio operators, or were they outright hoaxes? 

While working on Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last between June 2007 and April 2010, I looked into this complex issue as best I could – as a most emphatically non-technical expert on the state of 1930s short-wave radio propagation equipment, capabilities and techniques. The result of my ad hoc study was a lengthy, 11,000-plus word chapter, “The Search and the Radio Signals,” that later had to be cut out of the book because the manuscript was too long to present a publisher. 

Simply trying to read and understand the technical analysis that’s available is a nightmare for a layman not familiar with the scientific terminology that accompanies such discussions. And though these posts will barely scratch the surface of this almost inscrutable subject and represent only an unschooled layman’s perspective, I feel it’s important to revisit these messages, if only for posterity and the scant few who might be interested.

Coast Guard Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the Itasca radio team during the last flight of Amelia Earhart.

Coast Guard Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the Itasca radio team during the last flight of Amelia Earhart.

I’ll try to present the most well-known of the post-loss messages, in some sort of timely order, so that readers can become familiar with some of the key people who were involved in this controversy. Later, we’ll consider what several radio experts have to say about the validity of these messages. No true unanimity or even consensus about whether any of the messages was legitimate has ever been reached among Earhart experts, but the sheer volume of these messages demands that they not be forgotten.

Twelve-and-a-half hours after Amelia’s last message to the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, a radio operator at Nauru, which had not been asked to assist in the Earhart flight, sent a “wire note” to KPH, an RCA short-wave station in San Francisco, requesting that it be sent to Itasca:

“VOICE HEARD FAIRLY STRONG SIGS STRENGTH TO S3 0843 0854 GMT 48.31 METERS (6210 KHz) SPEECH NOT INTERPRETED OWING BAD MODULATION OR SPEAKER SHOUTING INTO MICROPHONE BUT VOICE SIMILAR TO THAT EMITTED FROM PLANE IN FLIGHT LAST NIGHT WITH EXCEPTION NO HUM ON PLANE IN BACKGROUND.”

Commander Warner K. Thompson, Itasca skipper, included this message in his report without comment, but Almon Gray, a former Navy reserve captain and Pan Am Airways China Clipper flight officer, believed the signals, sent on 6210 kc and received at Nauru at 9:31, 9:43 and 9:54 p.m. July 2 (Howland time), merited “serious consideration,” for several reasons, beginning with the fact that 6210 was the correct frequency for the Earhart plane, and that “it was not a commonly used frequency in that area,” Gray wrote.

The McMenamy and Pierson reports

Just before midnight July 2 (Pacific time), the Associated Press reported that amateur radio operators Walter McMenamy and Carl Pierson, both of Los Angeles, claimed to have heard radio signals on frequencies known to have been used by Amelia:

Walter McMenamy said he picked up weak signals on 6210 kilocycles at 6 P.M. (10 P.M. eastern daylight time) and heard the letters “L-a-t” which he took to mean latitude. The letters were followed by indecipherable figures. The signals continued for some time.  Mr. McMenamy expressed belief they came from a portable transmitter. He received other signals from a Coast Guard boat, presumably the cutter Itasca, requesting listeners to “stand by and listen on all frequencies.”

At 8 P.M. (midnight Eastern daylight time), Carl Pierson, chief engineer of the Paterson Radio Corporation, picked up similarly weak signals on 3105 kilocycles, Miss Earhart’s daytime frequency. He said they were erratic and indecipherable.

United Press reported that “the powerful Los Angeles amateur station had been hearing code S O S signals all night. This morning what appeared to be a radioed position of the plane was picked up. ‘It was a 179 and what sounded like 1.6,’ said McMenamy. “If that meant latitude and longitude, we calculate it would be somewhere 300 or 400 miles off the coast of Howland Island.”

McMenamy and Pierson reported hearing more signals on 3105 kc on the morning of July 6 that they believed came from Amelia, but could not make out the indistinct words. The San Francisco Division forwarded McMenamy’s position in its message to Itasca as “QUOTE 179 WITH 1 POINT SIX IN DOUBT UNQUOTE POSITION GIVEN AS QUOTE SOUTHWEST HOWLAND ISLAND.” Since Itasca was erroneously told in an earlier message that the Electa “could probably use its emergency transmitter [in fact, it had no such equipement] on water,” Thompson wrote that “this information could not be ignored” and proceeded to the “westward of the report area and searched 2000 square miles on July 4 without result.”

Both Pierson and McMenamy had met Amelia and monitored her messages during the 1935 flight from Honolulu to Oakland, thus their claims of recognizing her voice carried a degree of credibility. The pair had a new “rig and tower at Santa Paula in Southern California where they thought reception was the best,” wrote Fred Goerner, who interviewed them in the late 1960s.

Unfortunately, McMenamy appears to have fallen victim to the brief notoriety he enjoyed. following his alleged receptions. “Walter McMenamy is a ding-a-ling,” Goerner told Fred Hooven in a 1971 letter. … “McMenamy claims AE flew directly to an island and landed on time. They broadcast from the island for several days, and they were picked up by the U.S. Navy. Noonan, he says, ‘is probably still living.’ He says he saw Noonan in 1949 or 1950. That he had changed his name and was ‘still with Navy intelligence.’ AE, he adds was alive until November 6, 1945, when she was killed in a headon [sic] crash of a pair of Navy planes near Guadalcanal. He said he got his info regarding AE from the FBI.”

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was anchored off Howland Island on July 2, 1937 to help Amelia Earhart find the island and land safely at the airstrip that had been prepared there for her Lockheed Electra 10E.

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was anchored off Howland Island on July 2, 1937 to help Amelia Earhart find the island and land safely at the airstrip that had been prepared there for her Lockheed Electra 10E.

Karl Pierson was “an entirely different story,” Goerner continued. “A quiet, brilliant former radio engineer, he is now in charge of several research projects at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute at La Jolla, California, and he lives in San Diego. He says he is convinced the messages he and McMenamy received in 1937 in the days following the disappearance actually came from AE. He apologized for McMenamy by saying that McMenamy has ‘gone around the bend.’ Pierson says what puzzles him to this day is the attitude of the Navy toward the messages they received. He says he still feels the Navy did everything it could to discredit the amateur radio operators who reported possible Earhart messages. Pierson addes that he had a very close relationship with AE at the time of her 1935 Honolulu-Oakland flight, and that he monitored her radio transmissions during that entire flight with great success.”

McMenamy and Pierson were soon joined by more amateur operators in the continental United States claiming they heard Amelia’s distress calls on their shortwave radios. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, 16-year-old Dana Randolph had designed a new antenna to enhance long-distance reception and was listening during the morning of July 4 when he heard, “This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on reef south of the equator. Station KH9QQ.” [sic] The transmission quickly faded, but Randolph and his father were directed to a local Commerce Department radio operator, whose investigation revealed that the reception was made at about 16,000 kc, a harmonic of 3105.

In messages to Itasca about the Rock Springs report, the Coast Guard’s San Francico Division said “this information may be authentic as signals from midpacific and orient often heard inland when not audible on coast” and “investigation reveals signals heard near sixteen megacycles thought to be from khaqq.” Earlier on the morning of July 4. Ray Mahoney, of Cincinnati, claimed he heard a message similar to the one reported by Dana Randolph. “The signals were weak,” Mahoney told the Associated Press. “About all I could make out were the call letters of plane and apparently it had hit a reef or was near a reef.” The AP report didn’t specify the frequency of Mahoney’s receptions.

George Angus, a Pan American Airways communications official in Hawaii, was notified about 2 a.m. on July 3 that the Earhart plane was missing, and he immediately set up watches at PAA’s radio stations on Midway Island, Mokapu (Honolulu) and Wake Island on 3105 kc and 6210 kc. Angus also arranged a plan with Honolulu’s two commercial radio stations, KGU and KGMB, whereby they would interrupt regular programming to make special broadcasts to Amelia, asking her to respond if she heard them. Immediately after KGU broke into its programming at July 3 at 10:30 p.m. local time, asking her to respond on 500, 3105 or 6210 kc, Mokapu station KNBF reported “a faint carrier on 3105 kc.” About four hours later, PAA station KNBI Wake Island, heard an “intermittent phone of rather wobby characteristics” on 3105 kc, and Midway Island’s station KNBH reported hearing a “weak, wobbly signal which sounded like a phone” on 3105.

The following night, Angus was at the Mokapu station when KGMB broke into its programming at 8 p.m. local time, asking Amelia to send four long dashes on 3105. Angus and K.C. Ambler, a PAA communications supervisor, immediately and distinctly heard four long dashes on 3105. After Angus called KGMB and asked them to repeat their request to Amelia, “only two dashes were heard and the second dash trailed off to a weak signal as though the power supply on the transmitter had failed,” Angus wrote in his report. The first four dashes were heard by the San Francisco Coast Guard station, Navy Radio Wailupe, KNBF (Mokapu), KNBH (Midway took bearing of 201, labeled “approximate”), Baker and Howland Islands, and the battleship USS Colorado (BB-45), soon to join the Earhart search. San Francisco heard the dashes on 3105 for the next six hours at twenty minute intervals, along with “unintelligable voice.” During the same time frame, Baker and Howland Islands heard a “weak carrier ‘NRUI [Itasca’s call letters] from KHAQQ.’”

The 281 Message

Early July 5, Itasca was notified by the Hawaiian Section of the latest possible reception from the Earhart plane:

8005 FOLLOWING COPIED NAVY RADIO WAILUPE 1130 TO 1230 GMT QUOTE 281 NORTH HOWLAND CALL KHAQQ BEYOND NORTH DON’T HOLD WITH US MUCH LONGER ABOVE WATER SHUT OFF UNQUOTE KEYED TRANSMISSION EXTREMELY POOR KEYING BEHIND CARRIER FRAGMENTARY PHRASES BUT COPIES BY THREE OPERATORS 0242

This was the notorious “281 message,” a continuing source of speculation among researchers who have assigned a variety of interpretations to the number 281 that differ from that taken by Thompson and the Coast Guard. The message, sent in poorly keyed code on 3105 kc, was heard by three operators at the Navy’s HF/DF station at Wailupe and by the British steamer SS Moorby, 370 miles north of Howland Island, as well as in California by Charles Miguel of Oakland. Miguel reported hearing “281 … north … Howland … Can’t hold out much longer … drifting … above water … motor sinking … on sand bank 225 miles from Howland.”

Thompson believed it “was probably a faked message originating in the Hawaiian Islands,” and labeled the Oakland reception “clearly fraudulant.” The Itasca was 200 miles west of Howland when it was informed of the message, “searching down the 4 authenticated amateur reports,” according to Thompson, who wrote that it contained “useless information but the report required immediate check up.”

The message was immediately interpreted to mean the Electra was “281 miles north of Howland.” Itasca arrived at the position by dusk, and as USS Swan and SS Moorby approached the area later that night, two Itasca lookouts and the officer of the deck saw “a distinct flare to the northward. It came up from and settled down to the horizon,” Thompson wrote. Itasca headed toward the light and called Amelia, asking her to send up another flare. Moorby had not seen the flares, but Swan reported lights and considered them meteors, and Howland Island, 280- miles distant, also reported “flares to the northeast and burned three drums of gasoline.” The “flares” were a meteor shower, Thompson concluded, but commercial radio stations had apparently been monitoring Itasca, resulting in a “deluge of commercial requests.” An irritated Thompson wrote that the “whole incident illustrates the extent to which ITASCA was being monitored by commercial concerns desiring to ‘scoop’ others. There is a need to control such matters and the release of such traffic to the press by commercial stations is a violation of law, it is believed.”

As Itasca steamed northward to investigate the “281 message,” San Francisco Division sent information that “changed the whole search problems and virtually eliminated all intercepted radio traffic ideas (unless the plane was on land),” according to Thompson:

8005 OPINION OF TECHNICAL AIDES HERE THAT EARHART PLANE WILL BE FOUND ON ORIGINAL LINE OF POSITION WHICH INDICATED POSITION THROUGH HOWLAND ISLAND AND PHOENIX GROUP PERIOD RADIO TECHNICIANS FAMILIAR WITH RADIO EQUIPMENT ON PLANE ALL STATE DEFINITELY THAT PLANE RADIO COULD NOT FUNCTION NOW IF IN WATER AND ONLY IF MOTOR FOR POWER PERIOD NO FEARS FELT FOR SAFETY OF PLANE ON WATER PROVIDED TANKS HOLD AS LOCKHEED ENGINEERS CALCULATE 5000 POUNDS POSITIVE BUOYANCY WITH PLANE WEIGHT 800 1525

“Until this time the Itasca had considered plane had emergency radio capable of transmitting on water,” Thompson wrote. Although this message corrected misinformation San Francisco provided Itasca on July 2 about the Electra’s radio capabilities – “plane may attempt to use radio on water as radio supply was battery and antenna could be used on top of wing” – it perpetuated the false idea that the plane might be still afloat after three days in the water.

Fred Goerner reported that Joe Gurr told him the Electra “was absolutely capable of putting out a radio signal whether on the surface of the water, or on a reef or island. He says he installed an emergency battery in the cockpit, and as long as the top of the plane was above water, a signal could be sent through the antenna on the top of the plane. He also says that it was possible that Earhart’s signals might have been heard in the U.S. and not heard by vessels in the immediate Pacific area because of skip characteristics.”

Most others disagree, and insist that once in the water, the Electra would have been incapable of transmitting for a very simple reason: “Seawater would have short-circuited her electrical system,” Paul Rafford Jr. wrote.

Fred Hooven, the brilliant engineer whose inventions included the modern aircraft radio direction finder, a short-range radar set for World War II bombers, and the first successful heart-lung machine, thoroughly analyzed the post-loss transmissions during his longtime collaboration with Fred Goerner. “I have only two points of very minor disagreement with Gurr — one of which concerns the ability to transmit while in the water,” Hooven told Goerner in a 1982 letter. “I have no doubt that some possibility existed of the transmitter operating with the plane in the water but am quite certain that the battery would not have provided the current to operate it for as much as an hour. So that it is impossible to suppose that the signals that were heard over three days could have been transmitted from a floating plane. It is for that reason that I absolutely agree with Lockheed’s verdict that there was no way for the plane to transmit from the water without the opportunity to run an engine to charge the battery.”

The Electra’s potential flotation time is also unclear. San Francisco Division’s statement that “no fears felt for safety of plane on water” on the third day after a possible water landing was clearly erroneous. In 1998, researcher Bill Prymak, a pilot and engineer whose work in the Marshall Islands is presented in Truth at Last, studied the problem, plotting the Electra’s center of gravity from Lockheed documents and blueprints of the plane. Prymak said he “came to the conclusion that within seconds of a no-damage (a miracle in itself) water landing, the nose would immediately tilt down into the water at a 50 degree angle. For the empty cabin tanks to become buoyancy-effective they would have to be totally submerged, at which point the plane might float for a short while, but the cockpit would be nearly submerged even before the wing tank vents began filling with water. … There were no radio transmissions from Earhart’s plane if it was in the water.”

Prymak estimates the Electra would be completely submerged within an hour or so. Paul Rafford agrees, and writes, “had Earhart ditched, the Electra would have sunk shortly thereafter. An Electra that ditched off Cape Cod a few years later sank in a matter of minutes.”

Other alleged messages were reported in the days following Amelia’s loss, some more believable than others, but I have no desire to tax readers further than has already been done. In my next post, we’ll take at more of what Hooven and other radio experts believed about their possible validity.

 

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