Smithsonian mag throws “Truth at Last” a bone: Says, “it’s possible . . . Campbell is on to something”
In early November 2014, a contributing writer to Smithsonian magazine named Jerry Adler contacted me via email, asking if I’d talk to him for a story about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart he was working on. Adler said the magazine’s editors’ interest in doing the story had stemmed from “Ric Gillespie’s announcement last week of evidence in support of his Nikumaroro theory” [the worst excuse for writing a major piece on the Earhart matter I’ve ever heard], but his piece would “cover the gamut of explanations, including your own.”
Though pleased that someone at Smithsonian, though clearly not this writer, had read Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last and found it worthwhile, I was also quite skeptical. I told Adler, “I couldn’t have been more surprised than to hear from a writer for Smithsonian,” whose sister publications, American Heritage and Invention and Technology Magazine have recently featured the erroneous ideas of Tom Crouch, the Air and Space Museum’s senior curator, and TIGHAR’s Ric Gillespie, while the truth has taken severe beatings on the rare occasions it’s not ignored entirely.
Few if any will be writing reviews of Adler’s story, “Will the Search for Amelia Earhart Ever End?,” but even if it drew plenty of media attention, I’d still feel compelled to go on the record about it. After all, where is it written that Jerry Adler and the Smithsonian editors are the ultimate authorities on what you should think about the Earhart disappearance?
Has Adler or the magazine’s staff made the impossible battle to establish the truth among the top priorities of their lives, studied this matter for the better part of 30 years and been rejected by thousands as a “paranoid conspiracy theorist” by the ignorant and clueless? Do they really care about the U.S. government’s position and the media’s failure to do its job in exposing the truth? Not a chance.
According to its own boilerplate content statement, Smithsonian “looks at the topics and subject matters researched, studied and exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution – science, history, art, popular culture and innovation – and chronicles them for its diverse readership.” This trendy descriptor says nothing about the role that truth and the facts should play as it strives to serve its “diverse readership,” code words that reflect the myriad political, cultural and even religious readerships that publications such as Smithsonian, American Heritage and others of their ilk seek to please.
Unlike Smithsonian, where truth is dispensed only in small dollops for the edification of the most discerning readers — on the subject of Amelia Earhart, at least – readers familiar with this blog know that my observations and conclusions are always tied to known facts, and when speculation is offered, it’s labeled as such. This writer, as do we all now or later, answers to a higher authority than the Smithsonian board of directors, and I try to proceed accordingly.
“The Smithsonian’s Straight Skinny” (Part II)
For those who may not be familiar with recent articles published by highbrow magazines, in 2007, Tom Crouch, Ph.D., the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum senior curator, wrote a piece titled “Searching for Amelia Earhart” for Invention and Technology Magazine. You can read it in its entirely, above, but here’s the statement from Crouch that tells us how he feels about the Marshalls and Saipan scenarios:
… what are we to make of all the eyewitness testimony placing Earhart and Noonan in Japanese hands? Mustn’t there be at least a small flame of truth flickering beneath all that smoke? Sorry. You don’t have to follow many criminal cases to realize just how fallible witness memories can be. How much less trustworthy are the recollections of events that occurred more than two decades before, gathered from witnesses who speak a different language by interviewers who know what they want to hear?
In a quarter-century of looking, no researcher has produced a shred of hard evidence to suggest that Earhart and Noonan were either spies or victims of the Japanese.
I had serious problems with Crouch’s illogical analysis, and dissected his weak argument line-by-line in Truth at Last, in a section titled “The Smithsonian’s Straight Skinny” (see pages 376-382). “Crouch’s article, instead of offering readers a possible glimpse of the truth,” I wrote, “actually served as a platform for the latest government-approved talking points in the Earhart matter, masquerading as informed historical narrative from an unimpeachable authority. . . . Since no ‘archival evidence’ of Earhart’s captivity and death has yet to be produced, none must exist, Crouch asserted, which may be true; files can be destroyed or hidden beyond recovery.
“But even the moderately informed could see through Crouch’s flimsy argumentation against Saipan,” I continued, “and the patronizing arrogance that flavored his comments clearly signaled his loyalty to the falsehoods that are orthodoxy in the establishment he serves.”
Five years later, in the summer of 2012, Crouch was back, this time in American Heritage magazine, with “Amelia Found?” On this occasion, the 75th anniversary of Amelia’s loss, the senior curator didn’t bother to even briefly trace the history of the “Japanese capture theory,” as he’d done in “Searching for Amelia Earhart,” but he simply trashed it as quickly as possible:
What are we to make of all the conspiracy theories? Is there a small flame of truth flickering somewhere beneath all that smoke? Most likely not. In three-quarters of a century of looking, no researcher has produced a shred of hard evidence to suggest that Earhart and Noonan were either spies or prisoners of the Japanese.
Crouch’s contempt for the truth was evident in every word he wrote in this travesty, and again I had to respond. I wrote Crouch and the American Heritage editors a letter I knew would never see print, except on my own blog, where “American Heritage, Crouch do it again” appeared on Oct. 17, 2012.
“American Heritage needs to be reminded that their readership is not totally populated by morons and lemmings,” I wrote in conclusion, “so I hope this brief letter will at least accomplish that modest goal. I also know that American Heritage does not possess the integrity or intellectual honesty to publish this letter, but I’ll make sure I inform as many as I can about the continuing Earhart travesty and your role in perpetuating it.”
Does anyone out there seriously believe that Crouch would retain his job as senior curator and chief Air and Space Museum spokesmouth if he were to change his views on the Earhart disappearance and insist that the government release its top-secret files and come clean after nearly eight decades of denial and obfuscation? Please.
Can you blame me for thinking that the Smithsonian, with government apologist Crouch at the helm of the Air and Space Museum, has been among the most truth-averse organizations in the nation when it comes to the Earhart story? Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Crouch is ignorant or uninformed. On the contrary, he has a doctorate in history from Ohio State on his distinguished Air and Space Museum resume, and is the “author or editor of a number of books and many articles for both popular magazines and scholarly journals.” But when it comes to Amelia Earhart, what are we to conclude? Is it that Crouch just can’t seem to grasp the research that so clearly reveals the truth, or is there something a bit more sinister afoot?
So I asked myself, why would this magazine bother to ask me about my views? Did they think that including a few small snippets about the hated “Japanese capture theory” advanced only by a few addled “conspiracy theorists” would convince readers of their tolerance and dedication to “diversity”? Perhaps, but I figured it would be better to play the game with Adler than to insult him and guarantee no mention at all, so I fully cooperated with him.
Adler told me he had “no preconceptions” going into this story, a typical disclaimer offered by all writers at this level, and one that usually means quite the opposite is true. If Adler – or the editors who direct his work — really had no opinions about the Earhart disappearance before he began researching this story, why did it so strongly resemble nearly every other treatment of this subject we’ve seen for nearly three decades?
These puff-pieces almost always emphasize the latest drippings from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) an impressive title for an organization that is consistently unimpressive, has yet recover a single aircraft, and whose ethically challenged director has yet to establish a single probative link between Earhart or Fred Noonan and the scads of trash he brings back from his bi-annual boondoggles to Nikumaroro.
But before I proceed with more on the odious Gillespie, his Nikumaroro cash cow and the Smithsonian’s gentle treatment of perhaps the most effective enemies the truth in the Earhart disappearance has ever faced — with the exception of the U.S. government – readers should be enlightened about one important principle.
The Big Lie: The “Great Aviation Mystery”
This PRINCIPLE, which has become one of my constant memes, is that the very idea that the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is a “great aviation mystery” is among the biggest lies in American history. So effective has the U.S. government been in inculcating and maintaining this idea into the official historical narrative that it has become a normal piece of our cultural furniture, accepted without question by all but the few who care to closely examine this longtime canard, this straw man our establishment created so long ago to protect its own interests.
Thus, when the Earhart disappearance is analyzed or examined by people we would normally consider intelligent, like Tom Crouch, all the established, traditional rules of investigation, including objective evaluation of evidence, logic and the scientific approach become virtually nonexistent and non-applicable.
Any discerning individual who closely looks at the prevailing Earhart “theories” will discover that not a shred of alleged evidence for either crash-and-sank or Nikumaroro exists that doesn’t completely break down under mere moderate scrutiny, leaving absolutely nothing but smoke and babble. Simple logic will lead any objective investigator to the truth; the problem is that few modern-day “investigators” are either objective or logical.
Both these falsehoods are based upon assumptions made upon more assumptions, yet in polite circles they are considered far superior to the truth, supported by volumes of eyewitness accounts from citizens of the Marshalls and Saipan, four U.S. flag officers and over two-dozen former veterans of the Battle of Saipan, among others. Clearly, the desire to follow all these signposts that lead to the truth does not exist in the establishment media, nor virtually anywhere else, for that matter. In the Earhart case, the Big Lie has completely replaced the truth.
Knowledgeable observers recognize this, and know that TIGHAR’s Earhart operation, from its inception, has been little more than a well-oiled confidence game with two major goals – to separate the unwary from their money and provide Gillespie with a fat yearly salary. Fred Goerner recognized this early on, wasting his time in an August 1992 letter advising Gillespie not to paint himself into a corner by making claims he couldn’t substantiate. A few of Goerner’s uncanny predictions about Gillespie’s plots are presented on page 420 of Truth at Last.
Truth at Last presents an overwhelming, undeniable case for the Marshalls and Saipan presence of our fliers. Simple logic, something sorely missing in most Earhart discussions, tells us that if actually went down in the Pacific or landed and died on Nikumaroro, such a book, like those that preceded it, with its many hundreds of separate threads of evidence and testimony, would simply have been impossible.
Among the few true Earhart researchers active today, none has ever been accused of such craven, mercenary motivations as Gillespie. To my knowledge, the two researchers currently doing the most important work are Dick Spink, who says he’s $50,000 in the hole after four trips to the Marshall Islands, and Les Kinney, who’s never quoted a figure, but is also well in the red after numerous trips around the country in search of many pieces of major new evidence he’ll someday reveal in the book he’s writing.
These good men tread honorably on the narrow trail blazed by Paul Briand Jr., Fred Goerner, Vincent V. Loomis, Oliver Knaggs, Don Kothera, Thomas E. Devine and Bill Prymak, their overriding motivation only to lay this false “mystery” that is the Earhart travesty to rest. Sadly, the real and continuing tragedy of the Earhart saga is that nothing short of the discovery of the Earhart Electra or Amelia herself returning from the grave would put an end to the status quo that 77 years of propaganda has created.
The last time Smithsonian engaged the Earhart story was about three years ago, when it published a shameless promotion of then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s public support for Gillespie’s 10th trip to Nikumaroro, in a March 20, 2012 piece by one K. Annabelle Smith titled, “The Search for Amelia Earhart Resurfaces, 75 Years Later.” Even for Smithsonian, this story reached new lows, which might explain why its editors finally deigned to include a brief mention of the hated Marshalls and Saipan scenarios for its January 2015 issue.
Here’s a sample of the insipid pabulum Smithsonian offered its readers in 2012:
And while new interest in Amelia Earhart’s disappearance has resurfaced as of late, Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum says “Lady Lindy’s” legacy has always held a place in the Smithsonian Institution. “Everybody has a theory, some more serious than others, but it’s still the greatest mystery of the 20th century,” she says, “and looks like it’s heading into the 21st century.”
Note the clueless Dorothy Cochrane’s insufferable insistence that the Earhart disappearance remains not only the greatest “aviation mystery,” but the “greatest mystery of the 20th century,” period. It rarely gets worse than this.
The Smithsonian’s Cover Story
Adler’s Earhart piece is the cover story for Smithsonian’s January 2015 issue. In the cover photo of Amelia, she is particularly striking as she glances at us across 80 years, goggles raised over her brow, impeccably geared up for takeoff in elegant white aviator’s togs. Set against a black background, the photo seems almost perfect, unlike the story itself.
“New Clues, New Controversy,” punctuate Amelia’s photo in bright red headlines, by when even moderately knowledgeable students of the Earhart case open the magazine and start reading “Will the Search for Amelia Earhart Ever End?” they will immediately realize they’ve been taken for another ride on the Earhart disinformation express.
To begin, the lead in Adler’s story is, quite frankly, incredible, as he travels to Gillespie’s “Pennsylvania farmhouse” to fawn over a piece of scrap aluminum that’s long been exposed as worthless junk, breathlessly telling us, “If he’s right, this is one of the great historical artifacts of the 20th century, a piece of the airplane in which Amelia Earhart made her famous last flight over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937.” This is news?
Adler’s story presents no “new clues” whatever. These “new clues, which Adler was told were this story’s very raison d’être, are nothing more than recently debunked, false interpretations of the provenance of a piece of aluminum scrap that’s been one of the centerpieces of the TIGHAR scam since its earliest days. I fail to see why Adler or one of the many researchers on staff at Smithsonian couldn’t have easily found two current newspaper stories that present the real “new evidence,” which emphatically exposes Gillespie’s aluminum claims as pure rubbish, or just asked somebody who doesn’t subscribe to TIGHAR’s latest talking points. But after 25 years of failed trips to Nikumaroro, Gillespie not only gets a pass, he still gets top billing from a magazine believed to represent enlightened thought by many.
Amelia Earhart Society (AES) researcher and pilot Gary LaPook talked to reporters Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald and Bruce Burns of the Kansas City Star about the aluminum sheet, which Smithsonian editors displayed on a full page, as if readers would somehow be more impressed by the importance of the sheet of scrap aluminum if it was blown up into such a huge photo – talk about overkill. Garvin’s Oct. 30 story, “Investigators search for Amelia Earhart’s ghost in old Miami Herald,” was the second he’d done on Gillespie’s new claims, and he saved the most important fact – the “money quote,” so to speak, for the end of the story:
The most important evidence, however, is the linkage of Gillespie’s scrap to Earhart’s plane through study of the photo. And it’s on that point that LaPook and other his other critics insist most adamantly he’s wrong. They says [sic] telltale evidence on Gillespie’s scrap of wreckage prove it wasn’t manufactured until several years after Earhart crashed. The scrap bears a visible stamp of an A and a letter D — probably part of the label 24ST Alclad, the type of aluminum its [sic] made from.
But, LaPook says, Alcoa Inc., the company that manufactured the aluminum, didn’t start stamping it with the 24ST Alclad designation until 1941. Before that, it used the abbreviation ALC. “There are hundreds of photos of aluminum pieces stamped ALC,” LaPook said. “It’s just beyond doubt.”
Brian Burns’ story, “Has the key to Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in the Pacific been found in Kansas?” was a more unbiased treatment of Gillespie’s phony claims than the Miami Herald ran. Besides presenting LaPook’s information in a way that laymen could easily understand, Burns interviewed Louise Foudray, curator of the Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kan., who was very kind to Gillespie. But Burns also asked for my opinion, and unlike the politically correct Foudray, I was in no mood for vaporous platitudes. I also wrote my own story, “LaPook destroys Gillespie’s latest false Earhart claim,” and posted it on my Truth at Last blog on Nov. 2, just a day before Adler contacted me.
“He tells me he’s ‘98 percent’ sure the piece came from Earhart’s plane,” Adler writes of Gillespie’s absurd estimation of the chances his Nikumaroro flotsam is connected to Amelia or the Electra and will bring him unanimous worldwide acclaim as the man who solved the Holy Grail of Aviation mysteries. Adler squanders nearly a third of his 3,500 word essay on Gillespie’s drivel, but at least he comes away quite dubious, as he should be. He closes his section on Gillespie by quoting one of the few intelligent sentences Tom Crouch has ever uttered in the Earhart discussion: “I think if Ric proved anything, it’s that [Earhart and Noonan] never were close to that island.”
Mercifully, Adler foregoes another episode of Tom Crouch’s crashed-and-sank advocacy, otherwise known in enlightened circles as “defending the indefensible,” but he does direct readers to Elgen and Marie Long’s discredited polemic, Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved. This book “remains the simplest explanation,” Adler writes, “but for that very reason, has attracted derision from those who prefer their history complicated.” He’s wrong, of course. Crashed-and-sank wasn’t dismissed by coherent researchers long ago for the very reason of its simplicity, but because it’s simply flat wrong, and there’s never been a sliver of evidence to support it.
In fact, I’m convinced that it was because of the absurd nature of the crashed-and-sank theory that the establishment selected TIGHAR’s not-quite-so-ridiculous Nikumaroro “hypothesis” as its preferred avenue of disinformation in 1989, with Elgin and Marie Long’s defunct Navy and Coast Guard verdict relegated to backup status as a secondary diversion for the confused.
For some unknown reason far beyond my ken, someone at the magazine also decided to include the ideas of one Bill Snavely, who, up until his mention in this story has been a total unknown in Earhart circles. Do a google search, combining his name with “Earhart,” and you will find absolutely nothing.
I’d never heard of Bill Snavely and his Bouganville claims, nor has any other Earhart researcher I’ve asked, but the fact that Travel Channel featured his crackpot ideas, along with Australian David Billings and his New Britain theory, and Gillespie, of course, in a two-hour documentary Jan. 8 was simply further confirmation that the establishment has no room for the truth, but will happily put any kind of nonsense out there to distract and misinform the public.
“This was a complete waste of a serious Earhart enthusiast’s time,” an AES member wrote in its online forum. “It compares to Geraldo Riviera’s search for Capone’s artifacts in Chicago many years ago. Can you imagine searching for downed aircraft in the jungles of New Britain with flash lights at night? Gillespie’s comment of 100 percent got me all shocked up.”
A Crack in the Door
From the beginning of our correspondence, I felt that Adler planned to include some discussion of Truth at Last only because he was told to do so. Sure, the former Newsweek reporter names Truth at Last in his piece, but he has little good say about it, other than admit I present “a mountain of testimony from American servicemen and Pacific Islanders to show that an American man and woman landed in the Marshalls in 1937 and were taken to Saipan, although apparently they never introduced themselves by name (italics mine).”
Adler also does well when he introduces the history of Saipan research by spending more than a paragraph on Thomas E. Devine’s eyewitness account presented in his 1987 classic, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, and he calls Devine’s story “riveting.” A pretty good start, I thought, but one that failed to deliver on its promise.
As our email conversations proceeded (we never actually spoke on the phone), Adler said he had “skimmed” Truth at Last “for my own purposes” in researching his story, and wrote that he found its argumentation “persuasive.” He also asked a few intelligent questions that indicated he’d spent at least a few minutes thinking about what he’d read. But in his story, the best he could manage was to write, “it’s possible to come away thinking Campbell is on to something.” Thus do Adler and Smithsonian magazine engage in the literary equivalent of throwing a bare bone to the poor, starving dog in the back yard that was abandoned by its owners when they moved. I exaggerate only slightly.
Adler did grant my request to include my statement, ”FDR could never have survived public knowledge that he failed to help America’s No. 1 aviatrix of the Golden Age of Aviation,” a pleasant surprise. Editors also displayed the four Amelia Earhart 50th Anniversary Commemorative stamps issued in 1987 by the Republic of the Marshall Islands, thereby proving at least one solid fact about the Earhart case – that Amelia’s landing at Mili and pickup by the Japanese is accepted as fact by the people of that free country. The few Westerners who will ever visit these remote islands can be sure they won’t be subjected to any local media shilling for the latest phony discoveries in the “Earhart Mystery.” The Marshallese people don’t wonder about what happened to Amelia; they already know.
Otherwise, Adler finds ways — all questionable or flatly illegitimate — to deprecate nearly everything about Truth at Last he thinks he can get away with. He also strongly suggests, by his tone, that he considers its author to be among “a group that includes serious historians as well as wild-eyed obsessives, who pile up scraps of evidence into conspiracies reaching right up to the White House” – and it’s clear it’s not among “serious historians” where he thinks anyone should be looking for me.
A close examination of the paragraph that ends with Adler’s grudging admission that I might be “on to something” could easily lead readers to wonder why he even bothers, as he cherry picks what he sees as the easiest targets and attempts to discredit them. First of all, I fail to see how he can write that Truth at Last “is filled with mysterious disappearances, cryptic warnings from sinister strangers and suspicious deaths,” without providing a single example or even explaining the significance of this baseless observation.
He casts a negative pall on Adm. Chester Nimitz’s statement to Fred Goerner – never denied or disputed by Nimitz after Goerner presented it in his 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart – because it was in a phone conversation and Goerner was the “only source,” but he overlooks the statement of Gen. Graves Erskine, former V Amphibious Corps second in command during the Saipan invasion, to CBC West Coast President Jules Dundes and KCBS reporter Dave McElhatton: “It was established that Earhart was on Saipan.”
Adler asserts that much of the evidence in the book is “second- or third-hand,” as if such testimony is unworthy of our consideration. But he conveniently ignores the many direct eyewitness accounts from unimpeachable native witnesses such as Josephine Blanco Akiyama, Anna Diaz Mogofna, Bilimon Amaron, Dr. Manual Aldan, Louis Igitol and John Tobeke, among others, as well as Americans including Erskine, Jim Golden, Robert E. Wallack, Erskine Nabers, Jerrell H. Chatham, Arhur Nash, Henry Duda and many others.
He also fails to mention that the 1960 Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Report has been thoroughly ignored by the entire media since its declassification in 1967; instead he focuses on a single hearsay statement that was included in this report. Citing Devine’s extensive argumentation from Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, I rebutted this revealing yet still unknown document’s findings at length in Truth at Last, which Adler also decided wasn’t worth mentioning.
Nathanial Hawthorne’s infamous scarlet “A” long ago ceased to be a symbol of shame in American, as adultery became a mainstream pastime; now it’s the “C” word, for the despised “conspiracy theorist” that so cruelly taints those smeared by it, fairly or unfairly. It’s a tool of Adler’s trade, but not once throughout our 11-day email discussion did I use this word to describe anything about the Earhart story – most of which he was hearing, or more accurately, reading for the first time.
But in his story, he uses the “C” word not once, but twice in references to me, an undeserved cheap shot by which he signals his readers how they should regard my work. This postmodern aversion to the word is itself absurd, as if no conspiracies have ever existed, and anyone who believes differently is to be assiduously avoided.
Adler cites not a single instance in Truth at Last where I engage in any speculation resembling that of the “wild-eyed obsessives” he describes in the opening of his story. When I quote Fred Goerner’s ideas about why President Franklin D. Roosevelt likely prevented release of the truth about the Japanese capture of Earhart and Noonan in a subsection titled “Roots of the Cover-Up” (pages 353-358), or quote from numerous sources about their knowledge of secret files and a concerted government effort to conceal the truth, does this make me a conspiracy theorist?
Apparently so, but virtually everything I present is labeled appropriately, and the reader understands that this information isn’t about what I think, but about what many of this story’s key characters knew, found and believed through the years that strongly suggested and even sometimes clearly illustrated active government participation in suppressing the truth about what happened to Amelia Earhart.
This use of the “C” word is just another way Adler tried to undermine my work, but it also tells discerning readers that the truth has once again received short shrift, this time from the trusted Smithsonian magazine. If he was really trying to “fairly represent” my work, as he stated during our correspondence, he failed miserably.
“In Earhart’s fate,” Adler writes in conclusion, “we see a reflection of our own deepest fears – the laughing, carefree young woman taking off on a grand adventure, and never coming back.” Perhaps, but anyone with eyes and without an agenda can also see, on regular display, the mendacious work of sophists and propagandists such as Gillespie, Crouch and Long, aided and enabled by writers such as Adler, many lesser talents and the rest of the dubious cast of characters who populate this sordid drama.
The condescension and pervasive relativism that characterize this piece, and which are especially pronounced at its close, are emblematic of the zeitgeist that rules today’s Earhart media coverage. Adler doubtless believes he’s been fair to me and the conspiracy theorists, and he’s now onto his next assignment, all thoughts of the Earhart story behind him. He knows he’s done his job, to maintain the status quo, and keep the myth, the template, the narrative, the conventional wisdom and the Big Lie about the “Earhart Mystery” alive and well, and he’s led readers to as few of the facts as possible while retaining a semblance of credibility in the eyes of the uninformed.
The aging elephant in the room, the Marshall Islands-Saipan Truth, has again been effectively marginalized while not being completely ignored, but the far more respectable and acceptable Earhart “theories” continue to rule the day. All is well; move along, sheeple, there’s nothing to see here.
A few friends have offered congratulations on my work finally being recognized in such a prestigious publication. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, and being included is far better than being ignored. Adler’s narrative on aspects of the Marshall Islands-Saipan scenario, slanted though it is, is still more than Smithsonian or any of its elite relatives have recently managed, at least to my knowledge. But though Adler named Truth at Last, putting it on the map, so to speak, he didn’t recommend it or describe it in such a way that any but a precious few will to seek it out. I remain curious about who at the magazine decided that Truth at Last should be included in this story. It clearly wasn’t Adler, so if anyone should be thanked, it would be this person, likely the story’s chief editor.
Finally, I think the most unfortunate aspect of the Smithsonian article lies in a profound cynicism that prevented Jerry Adler from understanding and appreciating Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last.
This longtime veteran of the information wars is apparently unable to recognize and appreciate the many years of dedication, hard work and a love and respect for the truth that went into the creation of this book, and he missed a real opportunity to make a difference. Either that, or he did see these things in whole or in part, and was able to overlook them, in compliant duty to the establishment he serves.
In his introduction to Paul Rafford Jr.’s “The Case for the Amelia Earhart Miami Plane Change,” in the November 1997 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, Bill Prymak quoted an unnamed, recently deceased “old-time researcher’s poignant reflection on the problems the Earhart case posed for inquiring minds.
“Fail to look under every rock, and you’ll never solve this bloody Earhart mystery,” Prymak began. “And so, patiently, deliberately, methodically, PAUL RAFFORD has plunged into this tangled, labyrinthine morass of inaccurate data, misleading information, speculation, ill-based rumors, all in an attempt to bring some sense to AE’s disappearance. The deep-six theory is too simplistic, leaving too many questions unanswered. In the following three articles, Paul explores some new (provocative?) territory.
In Paul’s revised 2008 edition of his book. Amelia Earhart’s Radio: Why She Disappeared, Paul reprised his April 5, 1997 piece, “The Case for the Amelia Earhart Miami Plane Change” and rewrote it in a more reader-friendly style. Following is my best attempt to combine the best elements of both pieces, which is then following Bill Prymak’s analysis.
“THE CASE FOR THE AMELIA EARHART MIAMI PLANE CHANGE”
by Paul Rafford Jr. (Extracted from Amelia Earhart’s Radio and Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, November 1997)
4th stop, Miami: 23 May to 1 June
A photo taken upon her arrival in Miami, shows the direction finding loop still installed and the short factory version of the fixed antenna in place. In 1940, John Ray was the flight instructor while I was the radio operator aboard Pan Am’s instrument training plane. Flying out of LaGuardia, we trained pilots in instrument approaches and letdowns. He told me that while moonlighting with his aviation radio service business in Miami, he had been contracted to remove Earhart’s trailing antenna.
In January 1990, I wrote and asked him to confirm what he had told me 50 years before. He immediately telephoned and repeated everything he had originally claimed: soon after her arrival in Miami, he had removed her trailing antenna. Seemingly unrelated at the time, Dick Merrill and Jack Lambie made the first round-trip commercial flight from New York to London and back from May 8 to May 14 in 1937 with a Lockheed Electra 10E. They flew over newsreels of the Hindenburg disaster of May 6th, and returned with photographs of the coronation of King George VI of May 12th.
It was declared the first commercial crossing of the Atlantic, and the two men won several awards including the Harmon Trophy because of the feat. To make the flight, the windows of the aircraft had been removed and the plane was modified to carry 1,200 gallons of fuel. The fixed antenna was mounted as far forward as possible to create the best transmission, but no trailing antenna nor D/F loop were installed.
Merrill and Lambie then flew the Daily Express to Miami for the May 24 reception to be greeted by the Mayor plus 10,000 fans, and received silver trophies for their acheivement. Earhart, Noonan, and Putnam met them at the event. In April 1992, I had a long telephone conversation with Bob Thibert after I heard that he had worked on Earhart’s plane during her layover in Miami. I had known Bob in the 1970s. when we both worked for Pan Am. He claimed that the morning before Earhart’s departure, Len Michaelfelder, his boss, handed him a new radio loop and told him to install and calibrate it on the Electra, post-haste. However, newsreels of the Electra taken just after it arrived in Miami from Burbank show a loop already mounted on it.
Thibert was quite surprised when I told him that pictures of the Electra taken during its arrival at Miami clearly show that it already had a direction finding loop. So I asked him if he had seen any evidence that one might have been previously installed on the roof, such as filled-in bolt holes. He claimed he hadn’t. Later in the 1990s, I talked with both John Ray and Bob Thibert. To my surprise, neither of them knew that the other had worked on Earhart’s plane.
The previous day, at Earhart’s request, Michaelfelder had modified the fixed antenna specifically to maximize transmissions on 6210 kHz. Although it was reported that he lengthened the antenna, he actually had shortened the antenna wire and moved the mast back several feet, bringing the lead-in down the right side of the fuselage. This arrangement was supposed to maximize transmission on 6210 kHz. Although never revealed publicly, Earhart switched airplanes after arriving in Miami. In 1940, John Ray told me how he had been called out to remove her trailing antenna shortly after she arrived from Burbank. Although John was an instrument flight instructor for Pan Am, he was also moonlighting an aeronautical radio service business.
Meanwhile, the sister ship to Earhart’s Electra, the Daily Express, had just arrived in Miami after a well-publicized round trip between New York and London. The two airplanes were secretly swapped and the Daily Express was turned over to Pan Am’s mechanics. They then prepared it for the world flight, never suspecting they were not working on Earhart’s original Electra. The Daily Express, however, had no trailing antenna. When queried, Earhart explained to the press corps that she had the antenna removed to save weight and the bother of reeling it out and in. But she did need a direction finding loop and this is how Bob Thibert found himself installing one the day before her departure. Later, the calibration curve he left in the cockpit would be Harry Balfour’s prime reference when he checked the loop at Lae.
During Earhart’s visit with Pan Am officials in Miami, she had a discussion with Charlie Winter, our local radio engineer. During World War II, he gave me the details. Now that she had dispensed with the trailing antenna, he suggested they replace the 500 kHz crystal and coils in her #3 transmitting channel with a Pan Am direction-finding frequency. This would allow our long distance direction finders to follow her progress across the Pacific.
To his surprise, she immediately cut him off with, “I don’t need that! I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.” Period. End discussion. Charlie was flabbergasted! He couldn’t believe she would turn down such an offer without further consideration. Looking back, perhaps we can come up with at least one explanation as to why Amelia was so opposed to Charlie’s suggestion. Could it be that she didn’t want her whereabouts known while crossing the Pacific? In order to explain just what did happen during Earhart’s Miami transit I propose the following scenario.
There was more than one Electra involved when Earhart departed on her second attempt to circle the globe. After the original plane was rebuilt, she flew it to Miami. There, John Ray removed the trailing antenna. She then flew it to an unknown destination, dropped it off, and returned to Miami in plane #2 [the Daily Express]. Jim Donahue [author of The Earhart Disappearance: The British Connection (1987)] claimed that Earhart left Miami in the Electra at least once during her layover.
However, some modifications were needed. Radio antenna-wise, the Daily Express was a bare bones model 10E. It carried no d/f loop or trailing antenna and its fixed antenna was the standard, short factory model. Legend has it that Earhart couldn’t be bothered with the problems involved with carrying a trailing antenna. However, I believe the reason she had her trailing antenna removed from plane #1 was because plane #2 [the Daily Express] would be delivered without one.
Removing it from plane #1 after her arrival in Miami would explain to the press and close observers why she had one when she arrived but not when she left Miami. She had to cover up the fact that she had switched planes. This is also why John Ray was contracted to remove the trailing antenna on #1, but Pan Am mechanics worked on the Daily Express. Had any of the three mechanics worked on both planes they would have immediately recognized the difference.
Although Earhart could dispense with the trailing antenna, she did need a loop and a more efficient fixed antenna. This is where Pan Am came into the picture. Radio mechanic Lynn Michaelfeller would lengthen the fixed antenna and Bob Thiebert would install a loop.
I made two telephone calls to Thiebert in April, 1992. We had both worked at Miami in 1970, when he was Superintendent of Pan Am’s radio/electronic overhaul shops and I was in charge of communications for Central America. … He said the job was top priority as the plane was leaving the first thing the following morning. He had to install a loop on it posthaste.
He went into detail about how he had worked alone doing both the metal and electrical work. I asked Bob the obvious question: during the installation had he seen any evidence of where previous loops might have been mounted? He said, “No,” and was quite surprised when I told him that at one time or another there had been at least two other loops mounted on Earhart’s plane. Bob had found only virgin skin where loops are mounted. He was also quite surprised when I told him that John Ray had removed the trailing antenna after the plane moved in Miami. He didn’t know John Ray, or know that anyone else but Pan Am mechanics had worked on the plane.
Although I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, the aforementioned TIGHAR Tracks article [Page 16 of the September 1995 issue of TIGHAR Tracks shows pictures of Earhart’s Electra parked at Burbank, Calif., and then taking off from Miami at the start of her round-the-world flight.] lends additional credence to the Miami plane change theory. In the last paragraph of page 16 the author claims: “The most apparent change made to NR16020 during the eight day stay in Florida was the replacement of the starboard rear window with a patch of aluminum skin. Again, legend has often described this feature as a removable hatch but the photographic record indicates otherwise. The opening first appears in 1937, and is present as a window in every known shot of the airplane’s starboard side until Miami, when it becomes shiny metal which grows gradually duller in photos taken at progressive stops in the world flight.”
The author implies that the starboard rear window was replaced by a patch of aluminum in Miami. However, I suggest that the plane is actually #2 [Daily Express], and the rear window was modified before the plane left Burbank. (Editor’s note: See photo of Amelia with Nilla Putnam, above.)
The Daily Express was preferable to Earhart’s original Electra for a round-the-world flight because it had approximately 100 gallons greater fuel capacity and hadn’t been through a bad crackup. Meanwhile, stripped of its trailing antenna and repainted, plane #1 would no longer be recognized as having belonged to Earhart. However, there was a discrepancy between the length of the fixed antennas on the two airplanes. Plane #1 arrived in Miami with the short, factory version. Its mast was mounted about midway between nose and tail. By contrast, the mast on the Daily Express was mounted over the cockpit in order to provide the maximum length of antenna wire possible. However, in order to make room for the new loop, it was necessary to move the mast several feet back toward the tail. The end result was that the length of the fixed antenna on plane #2 was longer than the factory version, but shorter than the original Daily Express version.
However, even though the longer fixed antenna of plane #2 would put out a better radio signal than #1, the radiated power was only 5 watts on 6210 kHz. and one-half watt on 3105 kHz. Thiebert’s work was documented by the New York Times.
We can only guess why Earhart would secretly swap planes and do it in Miami instead of Burbank. Was it done at Miami because it would be easier to cover up? What was different about the Daily Express that switching it for the original Electra was so important? Did the powers-that-be feel it was better to switch to a new plane rather than risk flying the original, patched-up airframe around the world? Or, as proponents of the conspiracy theory would be quick to claim, was the Daily Express equipped with special aerial reconnaissance equipment?
As Professor Francis Holbrook wrote me some years ago in connection with the Earhart mystery, “Once you have answered one question about it you discover you’d raised ten more.
(End of Paul Rafford’s “The Case for the Amelia Earhart Miami Plane Change.”)
“Did Amelia Earhart Really Change Airplanes?”
By: Bill Prymak, AES Newsletter, November 1998
Several serious researchers over the years have bandied about the possibility that AE, for some secretive covert reason, switched planes “somewhere along the route.” Strong anecdotal evidence backs these folks, but I have recently come across another way to identify her airplane as it flew some 22,000 miles from Oakland to Lae, New Guinea. I call it a “signature.”
Aluminum aircraft skin production in the mid-1930s was a new, burgeoning science, and the process produced various different tones and shades, even from sheet-to-sheet off the same lot. So, each tone or shade becomes a unique signature, and if we study the rear half of the left vertical rudder below the horizontal stabilizer as illustrated on the blow-up below you will find that the same dark shade consistently repeats itself on every photo I have ever seen as the plane wends its way around the world.
I have only included in this NEWSLETTER five photos showing this unique signature, and I would certainly like to expand my file on this issue. If anybody out there has a photo of AE’s airplane with the above signature clearly shown, please send a clear copy to me. It’ll be deeply appreciated. (End of Prymak analysis.)
The quality of the photos of the Electra displayed in the photocopy and electronic copy of Bill’s article isn’t good enough to reproduce here, but at the bottom of the piece are five photos of the Electra and its dark signature, reportedly taken during the world flight. Three locations are identified: Caripito, Venezuela; Karachi, Pakistan; and Lae, New Guinea. It seems inarguable that this is the same Electra that left Burbank, Calif.
Although Prymak’s “dark signature” appears to be the key to dismissing Rafford’s plane change theory, nagging questions remain. Why did Bob Thibert recall seeing only “virgin skin” on the Electra’s roof where two other devices, the Hooven Radio Compass, a domed direction finder, and the Bendix Radio Direction Finder, with its unmistakable, disctinctive loop? How can this be a case of old age or faded memory, when Bob Thibert was simply confirming an incident he told Paul Rafford about more than 5o years previously? Could Thibert have actually installed a new d/f loop in the Daily Express, which then left Miami for parts unknown, instead of carrying Earhart and Noonan on to the next leg of their doomed world flight?
What is known about the fate of the Daily Express? Precious little is available on the Internet, but two sources agree that the plane wound up in Russia. Paragon Agency Publisher Doug Westfall, who published Rafford’s Amelia Earhart’s Radio, writing on the Verkhoyansk, Siberia Trip Advisor, reported, “It was sold the the USSR in 1938, disassembled and reassembled, being used in WWII. It was last seen crashed on the tundra near Verkhoyansk about 10 years ago.”
The TIGHAR site, when not promoting Ric Gillespie’s erroneous Nikumaroro “hypothesis,” is often an excellent source of Earhart-related material, and in its Earhart Project Research Bulletin, “Detective Story,” of July 12, 2007, we find: “After its epic transatlantic flight, the Daily Express was sold to the Soviet Union and used in the search the lost transpolar aviator Sigismund Levinevski. The airplane’s ultimate fate is unknown.”
Once again, the reader should understand that I’m neither promoting nor dismissing Paul Rafford Jr.’s theory, but am presenting it for your information and entertainment. In the big picture, it makes no difference whether Amelia and Fred landed at Mili Atoll in the Daily Express or the original Earhart Electra.
One problem I have with Rafford’s proposed scenario, besides Prymak’s dark signature that appears to preclude its possibility, is that when Paul wrote that the “two airplanes were secretly swapped and the Daily Express was turned over to Pan Am’s mechanics” who then “prepared it for the world flight, never suspecting they were not working on Earhart’s original Electra,” he doesn’t tell us where, when or how the Daily Express was painted with “NR 16020” on and under the wings and tail. This operation would have been necessary if the Pan Am mechanics working on the Daily Express “never suspected” it wasn’t the Earhart bird.
In a recent email, Paul Rafford’s daughter, Lynn, told me her father still believes in the “possibility of a plane switch at Miami, but does not really know what could have happened to the plane that was switched out.” For now, that’s where we’ll have to leave it.
Today we continue our examination of Paul Rafford Jr.’s writings about what might have have transpired during the last hours of Amelia Earhart’s alleged “approach” to Howland Island, as well as other intriguing and controversial ideas he advanced over the years following his retirement from the NASA’s Manned Space Program in 1988.
On Dec. 7, 1991 Paul Rafford was putting the finishing touches on his new piece, “The Amelia Earhart Radio Deception,” which appeared in the March 1992 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter. “The theory presented herein represents a major digression from the commonly held belief that Earhart was in the vicinity of Howland Island when her voice was last heard on the air,” he wrote. “It proposes that the radio calls intercepted by the Itasca were actually recorded by Earhart before she left the United States, to be played back at the appropriate time later on by another airplane.”
Fifteen years later, Paul presented his evolved theory of an Earhart radio deception as an entire chapter, or “Section 7,” as he called it, in his 2006 book Amelia Earhart’s Radio. That’s our focus for this post — Section 7, edited only for style and consistency, with a few photos added for your reading enjoyment.
“The Earhart Radio Deception”
The Earhart deception was designed to convince the world that she and Noonan were unable to locate Howland either visually or by radio; Itasca Radioman Bill Galten was not convinced. In 1942, after he came to work for Pan Am, he expressed his professional opinion to me, “Paul, that woman never intended to land on Howland!”
She had failed to answer any of his more than fifty calls or even tell him what frequency she was listening to. But to make sure, he called her on all his frequencies. Her method of operating was to suddenly come on the air without a call-up, deliver a brief message and be off, all within a few seconds. In fact, she was so brief that the Howland direction finder never had a chance to get a bearing. Also, every one of her transmissions was such that it could have been recorded well beforehand by a sound-alike actress. Even the Navy’s official report states, “Communication was never really established.”
Itasca heard approximately nine radio transmissions on 3105 kHz. They were divided into two groups separated by an hour. Messages in the first group, transmitted around sunrise or earlier, were weak or almost inaudible. The second group were loud and clear as though the plane was nearby. Chief Radioman Bellarts later declared he felt that if he stepped out on deck he would hear the Electra’s engines.
The above suggests that the two groups were transmitted from different locations. The first group could have been sent from Canton Island where the Navy had set up a station the month before. The second group could have been sent from a nearby ship or Baker Island. The system worked well and the deception was not detected aboard Itasca or by later investigators. However, there is an important clue that indicates the transmissions were not “live.”
Listeners noted that there was a change in the voice pitch between the earlier transmissions and the final transmissions. Those near Howland were higher pitched. They presumed Earhart was getting desperate. But the recording and playback machines of the mid-1930’s did not have the stability of modern equipment. As a result, the Howland area recordings were inadvertently played back at a higher speed than those from Canton. This made the diction sound more hurried. But listeners passed it off as simply proving that Earhart was becoming increasingly nervous at not finding Howland.
In addition to her unorthodox operating procedures, Earhart’s sound-alike asked for 7500 kHz. to use with her direction finder. But this frequency cannot be used with airborne direction finders. When she failed to get bearings she should have switched to 500 kHz, where Itasca was already sending for her. After 45 minutes of silence, during which Itasca called her frequently, she finally came back on the air.
However, it was only to announce that she was on the line of position 157-337 and would switch to 6210 kHz. Itasca never heard her again and the search began. Here are two possible scenarios to explain why Earhart never reached Howland.
Scenario No. 1
Earhart and Noonan were following their announced flight plan from Lae to Howland when he became incapacitated. In her ignorance about radio and navigation, she was unable to get in contact with Itasca or take bearings on the ship. Finally, she simply ran out of gas and fell in the ocean.
The flaw with this scenario is that it doesn’t jibe with published accounts of Earhart’s radio expertise. For example, in Last Flight she describes flying along the routes of the Federal Airways System. She had no trouble communicating with the government radio stations and tuning in their navigation aids.
Scenario No. 2
We’ll never know when Earhart lost faith in Noonan’s navigation but the first indication was during their arrival over Africa after crossing the South Atlantic. She failed to follow his instructions and ended up landing at St. Louis, 168 miles north of Dakar.
After leaving Lae, she could have navigated visually by using the islands below as check points. But her Nukumanu Islands sighting is the only position report to be found in the records. After over flying them at sunset, she signed off on 6210 kHz. with Harry Balfour at Lae, and Alan Vagg at nearby Bulolo. Then, she could have turned toward Nauru, 525 miles east-northeast. She had received a message the day before that it’s giant lights, used for mining guano at night, would be turned on for her. Later, listeners on the island heard her say on 3105 kHz. that she had their lights in sight.
Had she been following a direct Lae-to-Howland track, she would have been far too south to see them. There were only four airfields in that part of the Pacific that could have accommodated Earhart’s plane. They were 1) Lae 2) Howland 3) Rabaul on New Britain and 4) Roi Namur in the Marshalls. But Roi Namur was the only one Earhart could reach without Noonan’s help.
After passing Nauru, Earhart could have headed for Jaluit in the Japanese-occupied Marshalls. She could have picked up its high-powered broadcast station and homed in on it after sunrise. Noonan should have known about the station because Pan Am on Wake Island used it to calibrate their own direction finder. Then, after overheading the station she could use a bearing from it to find the only land-plane airport in the Marshalls, Roi Namur. But would she have been so eager to land there had she known the Japanese were about to go to war with China?
Ten points to the Earhart Radio Deception
- She was quick to reject Pan Am’s offer to track her across the Pacific with its direction finding network.
- She told Harry Balfour that neither she nor Noonan knew morse code.
- She signed off with Harry Balfour at sunset on July 2nd, even though he offered to stay in contact with her until she had established communication with Itasca.
- She never replied to any of Itasca’s numerous calls, done so on all of its frequencies.
- She never announced to the Itasca what frequency she was listening to.
- She never called up the Itasca before she transmitted a message.
- She never stayed on the air long enough for the Howland direction finder to try and get a bearing; never more than seven or eight seconds.
- She requested 7500 kHz from Itasca for bearings, even though her direction finder had been calibrated in the 500 to 600 kHz band.
- She never attempted contact with Itasca after she tuned in on 7500.
- She made no further attempt to contact Itasca, or ask the ship for another direction finding frequency.
Although we have no absolute proof that the flyers were Earhart and Noonan, thru the years investigators have turned up undeniable evidence that two Caucasians did land in the Marshalls before World War II.
One theory is that Earhart was supposed to secretly land on Canton and wait to be picked up. In early June, the U.S. Navy had hosted a solar eclipse expedition on Canton and left behind a radio station and personnel. They could have taken care of the flyers until the Navy was ready to find them. Under the guise of looking for Earhart, our Navy would have an excuse to make a survey of the mid-Pacific islands in preparation for World War II. Believe it or not, their navigators were working with outdated charts based on early 19th century whaling ship reports. When the survey was finished, she and Noonan could be “found.”
But suppose she had panicked at the idea of flying nearly 3,000 miles while depending on Noonan’s navigation? She had already missed Dakar by ignoring his order to change course. Lacking faith in his navigation, there was only one landing field in the mid-Pacific that she could reach by herself using her radio direction finder – Roi Namur. But, it was in the Japanese held Marshalls. After passing abeam Nauru, she could reach it by tuning in the Jabor broadcasting station on Jaluit that operated from early morning until late at night. In fact, the Pan Am direction finder at Wake used it to calibrate their own direction finder. After overheading Jabor, she could follow a bearing from the station to reach Roi Namur.
The flyers had passed Nauru before midnight and Jabor was only 420 miles farther. With sunset still hours away, they would have to slow to their minimum air speed and circle until daylight. But fate intervened and they never landed at Roi Namur.
After delivering my Earhart speech at a Christmas gathering, a man came up to me and introduced himself. During the 1990’s he had been an Air Force civilian worker on Kwajalein. His work was at Roi Namur so he commuted daily by air. One noon he was walking about the island when he met a friendly old Marshallese who spoke good English. He had come back to visit his boyhood home. My friend asked him if he had ever seen any white people on Roi before World War II. To his surprise the old man said, “Yes!” and related his story. When he was a young boy he had seen two white people being loaded aboard an airplane and flown away.
One of the facts that tends to support Scenario No. 2 was the comment made by Secretary of the Interior Henry Morgenthau, Jr. to his colleagues that slipped out from under the veil of government secrecy: “She disobeyed all orders!” Morgentgau was recorded as saying in a telephone conversation. What orders could a private civilian have disobeyed that would upset a cabinet officer?
With regard to landing on Howland, Itasca Chief Radio Officer Leo Bellarts remarked to Fred Goerner that although Earhart might get down OK, he didn’t see how she could ever take off through the thousands of nesting gooney birds. Yau Fai Lum wrote me that even dynamite failed to scatter them. He had gone aboard Itasca to get “a home cooked meal” when he heard a terrific boom! Looking back at the island he saw a mass of gooney birds suddenly become airborne. “They fluttered around for ten or fifteen seconds before settling down again,” Yau wrote. Air Corps Lt. Daniel Cooper advised his headquarters of the bird problem several days before Earhart’s arrival. But it had already been noted several months before during the airfield’s construction. Why did the “powers-that-be” not seem to be concerned about it?
Nevertheless, two airplanes actually did land on Howland, both during World War II. The first, based at nearby Baker, had engine trouble and was forced to use the Howland runways. The second carried a repair crew. Both planes eventually returned to Baker.
Here is the situation that emerges as we put the pieces together. First, Earhart was not on an espionage mission per se. There were government facilities, including ships, planes and professionals, who were much better equipped for spying than private individuals. However, we did need a good look at the Central Pacific before the outbreak of World War II. Like the Axis Powers in Europe, the Japanese were planning a war to conquer and dominate the Far East.
America was ill-prepared for a war in the Pacific. During the Earhart search our fleet was still operating with charts prepared by whaling captains a century before. We needed to get ready for war – and soon! Looking for America’s sweetheart would be an excellent excuse to bring those charts up to date, much quicker than depending upon individual ships and reconnaissance planes.
However, the Administration was faced with a problem. Not only were we just emerging from the Great Depression while still dealing with its problems, but to many isolationists Europe and its war clouds were a ten-day ocean trip away. Japan was even further. A popular song of the era expressed the feelings of many, “Oh the weather outside is frightful. But here inside it’s delightful. Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”
Also, George Washington’s comment in his farewell address was widely quoted: “Beware of foreign entanglements!” Privately, our government realized the need to be prepared to go to war in the Pacific. But although we couldn’t openly send a fleet to survey the area without raising extreme objections, we could send a fleet to look for Earhart. Even the isolationists would cry, “Go find our Amelia!” Meanwhile, under the pretense of looking for Earhart our Navy would update its charts and exercise the otherwise depression idled Pacific fleet. (End of “The Earhart Radio Deception” chapter.)
In his 1991 article I cited at the beginning of this post, presented in a question-and-answer format with Bill Prymak, Paul goes into far more detail in describing the covert operation he envisioned, as well as the logistics he believes were employed to facilitate it. Again, he begins by stating he believes Amelia never intended to land on Howland Island, citing Itasca Radioman Bill Galten’s well-known statement to him that Amelia”never intended to land on Howland.”
Pointing to the widely accepted idea that two-way communication between Amelia and Itasca was never established, Paul suggested that “all of the transmissions received by the ship could have been recorded weeks beforehand for playback by another plane. It could just as well have been a [Consolidated] PBY Catalina [flying boat] flying out of Canton Island.”
In my next post, we’ll delve futher into Paul’s Earhart radio deception theory, as well as take a look at his unique and equally intriguing suggestion that the Earhart Electra was switched for another plane prior to their June 2, 1937 Miami takeoff. Much more to come.
Now that my presentation to the Ninety-Nines at their South Central Sectional Meeting in Wichita, Kansas is history, we return to our regular scheduled programming. Today, as promised, we consider the multiple radio conundrums posed by the final flight of Amelia Earhart, more specifically, the writings of Paul Rafford Jr.
The elder statesman of Earhart research, Paul is alive and well at 95 in Melbourne, Fla., and he remains among the planet’s most knowledgeable on radios and their transmission capabilities during the time of the Amelia’s final flight. He worked with Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer in 1940, flying with Pan Am until 1946. He flew with crew members who had flown with Fred Noonan, and talked with technicians who had worked on Earhart’s Electra. After a promotion with PAA, 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 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.
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 decisions during the final flight. In 2006, Paul’s own book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, was published by the Paragon Agency, and though it didn’t have commercial success, it is a treasure trove of invaluable information you won’t find anywhere else.
“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.”
Paul wrote many articles for Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters between 1989 and 2000, and not only about Amelia’s inexplicable radio behavior during the last flight. He also developed compelling theories about radio deceptions and plane switches, some of the most fascinating 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.
Paul wrote two pieces with basically the same title, “The Amelia Earhart Radio Enigma” in 1997, and “The Earhart Radio Enigma,” in 2000, as if to repeat and emphasize the major problems and unanswered questions that still stumped him – and continue to baffle the experts. We’ll start today with Paul’s 1997 treatment of the Earhart radio enigma, and in coming weeks will explore a host of his analytic and theoretical essays about our favorite missing American aviatrix. Without futher ado, here is Paul’s essay, edited only for style and consistency, written April 10, 1997, which appeared in the AES Newsletters May 1997 edition.
“THE EARHART RADIO ENIGMA”
1) Why did Amelia Earhart have her trailing antenna removed in Miami before starting her second attempt to circle the globe? During the early days of over-ocean flying, airplanes would reel out a long length of wire called a “trailing antenna” for radiotelegraph communication with ships on the international maritime calling and distress frequency, 500 kHz (kilohertz, same as kilocycles). This was in addition to their regular fixed antenna for communicating with land stations.
Legend has it that both Earhart and Noonan’s code speed was very slow, so she removed the equipment required for contacting ships. However, the assumption about Noonan’s radio operating abilities is not supported by former crew mates. On occasion while flying as navigator on Pan Am’s Clippers he would relieve the radio operator for rest periods. However, by eliminating 500 kHz, Earhart also eliminated the possibility that the Itasca’s direction finder could lead her to Howland. She didn’t need to know code in order to transmit on 500 for bearings. Both she and the Itasca had 3105 kHz, and they could have coordinated any bearing procedures by voice.
New evidence indicates the probability that after Earhart arrived at Miami from Burbank during her second attempt to circle the globe, she secretly switched planes. The second plane came from the factory without a trailing antenna. But, in order to explain to curious observers why she arrived with the trailing antenna, but left without one, she had it removed right after she arrived. This would help obscure the fact that she had switched planes. The second plane also came without a direction finding loop. Earhart could dispense with a trailing antenna but not a loop. So, just the day before departure Pan Am installed a new one for her. (Editor’s note: In future posts we will look more closely at Paul’s claim of a plane switch in Miami.)
2) Why did Earhart refuse Pan Am’s offer to track her plane across the Pacific if she would install a Pan Am direction-finding frequency? During Earhart’s eight-day layover at Miami she met with Charlie Winter, Pan Am’s local radio engineer. During their conversation he pointed out that if she would install a Pan Am frequency in place of the vacant 500 kHz channel, our direction finders could track her whereabouts over the Pacific, the same as we did with our Clippers.
As Charlie told me later, she immediately rebuffed his suggestion with the comment, “I don’t need that! I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.” Charlie was flabbergasted. But the question is, why was Earhart so quick to reject his offer? Didn’t she want her whereabouts to be known?
3) Why, after seven hours of contact with Lae, did Earhart dismiss Harry Balfour’s offer to continue communicating with her until she could contact the Itasca, waiting at Howland Island? Seven hours into the flight Earhart advised Harry Balfour that she was leaving 6210 kHz and would try and contact the Itasca on 3105 kHz. Her signals were still coming in well, so Balfour implored her not to break off contact with him until she had established contact with the ship. This was normal operating procedure back then. But, she switched off anyway, and he never again heard her, nor did she ever again have two-way contact with any station.
4) Why did Earhart never engage Itasca in two-way radio contact? Bill Galten’s logs show that Earhart never directly answered any of his more than 50 calls or ever gave any indication that she was heating the ship except on one occasion. She would suddenly come on the air without a preliminary call-up, deliver a brief message and go off, all in the space of seven or eight seconds.
5) Why did Earhart never stay on the air for more than a few seconds at a time? We can only guess, but it would appear, as in the Pan Am direction-finding offer, that she didn’t want her position known. The bare minimum time for obtaining a bearing with a vintage 1930’s direction finder was about 15 seconds, but it usually took longer.
Radioman 2nd Class Frank Cipriani, manning the Howland direction finder, complained bitterly that Earhart never stayed on the air long enough for him to get a bearing. She also confused the Itasca crew by never advising what frequency she would be listening to or if they should answer with code or voice.
6) Why did Bill Galten believe that Earhart never intended to land on Howland Island? Bill left the Coast Guard and came with Pan Am shortly after the Earhart disappearance. We flew together during World War II. On one occasion while discussing the Earhart mystery he exclaimed to me, “That woman never intended to land on Howland!” When I asked why, he had two explanations. First, her radio operating procedures were nothing like that of a lost pilot desperately trying to make a landfall.
Second, Bill claimed that the condition of the Howland runway was unfit for a safe landing. It was covered with thousands of goony birds that, despite the best efforts of the Itasca’s crew to shoo them away, would not vacate the area.
7) Why did Earhart ask for 7500 kHz from the Itasca when 7500 could not be used with airborne direction finders? While Earhart was supposedly approaching Howland, she requested, “Go ahead on 7500 kilocycles.” She had asked for it earlier so she could use it for radio bearings. Although the Itasca’s crew knew that she would not be able to get a bearing, they had no choice but to transmit long Morse code dashes for her. Five minutes later she replied, “We received your signal but unable to get minimum (a bearing).”
Fred Noonan, Pan Am’s ex-chief navigator, would very well know she couldn’t get one on that frequency. Instead of asking for 7500, Earhart should have listened for 500 kHz. The ship was transmitting for her on this frequency almost constantly. Her direction finder had been calibrated to this frequency range before she left Miami. Later, Harry Balfour checked it at Lae with a nearby station operating on 500.
When Earhart declared, “We read your signal but unable get minimum,” it was the only time she admitted hearing the ship. She would also conclude that the ship was hearing her signals because they had turned on 7500 kHz at her request. At this point she should have been ecstatic! Lost and out of communication, she at long last had radio contact. Even though the crew could use only telegraph on 7500, they could at least have sent very slowly and advised her to listen on 3105 for communication and 500 for direction finding. But did Earhart cling to this one chance for survival? No! She went off the air for 40 minutes and when she returned it was only to declare that she was flying up and down a line of position and would switch to 6210 kHz. The Itasca never heard her again.
8) What actually happened during Earhart’s last flight? This is a complex question and we can only propose a scenario based on what facts we know, plus some educated conjectures. War clouds were fast gathering in the mid-1930s. In Europe the Axis powers were getting ready to invade their neighbors and Japan was about to invade China. America was just recovering from the Great Depression and money for defense was scarce. Also, the isolationists were very powerful and opposed any “foreign entanglements.”
To astute observers of international politics, it was obvious that we were rapidly approaching a world war for which we were woefully unprepared. For example, the location of many Pacific islands on maritime charts had not been checked since the early 19th century whaling ships had stumbled across them. Their positions could be no more accurate than the ship’s chronometers that may not have been checked against time standards for weeks or more.
And so it was that the powers-that-be in government came up with a plan. Amelia Earhart was getting ready to circle the globe on a flight that would carry her over the mid-Pacific islands in question. Why not have her disappear during it? The American public would demand that the government find their heroine at any cost. A vast search would ensue. Ostensibly, it would be for humanitarian purposes, but meanwhile our fleet would be quietly updating its century old charts while reconnoitering the area. With war clouds looming, our charts had to be accurate. As an example of the problem, during the search one particular island in the Phoenix group was found 60 miles away from its plotted position.
The centerpiece of the plan would be the action around Howland Island after Earhart supposedly went down. But, after signing off with Harry Balfour, instead of Howland, Earhart would head for the British controlled Gilbert Islands, and land on a predetermined beach. After the Navy finished its survey, the flyers could be rescued. But tragically, rescue never came. Did Earhart overfly the Gilberts and land in the Marshalls? I leave the answer to other investigators.
The wording of all of Earhart’s transmissions was such that they could have been recorded weeks beforehand for later broadcast by a clandestine radio station somewhere in the vicinity of Howland. Coast Guard logs show that just before Earhart’s flight, the Itasca dropped off men and supplies at Howland and then proceeded to Baker Island, which along with Howland, was part of the inter-island weather gathering network operating on 7500 kHz.
At Baker, the ship dropped off four new colonists and their gear. They would secretly set up a radio station to transmit the Earhart recordings on 3105 kHz. (Editor’s note: Baker Island is an uninhabited atoll located just north of the equator in the central Pacific about 1,920 miles southwest of Honolulu, and lies almost halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Its nearest neighbor is Howland Island, 42 miles to the north-northwest; both have been territories of the United States since 1857. Baker Island was the site of a U.S. LORAN [Long Range Navigation] radio station in operation from September 1944 to July 1946. The station unit number was 91 and the radio call sign was NRN-1.)
After word was received that Earhart had left Lae, the plan would go into action. When Earhart was supposedly approaching Howland, the Baker operator would commence sending the recordings at hourly intervals until sunrise. After that they would be sent more frequently, consistent with Earhart’s supposed flight activities when in the vicinity of Howland. The transmitter power was adjustable so the operator could simulate her calls at various distances out from Howland.
The transmissions were kept very brief so Cipriani could never get a bearing. Had he been able to do so, he would have noticed that the signals were coming from the south southeast, instead of west. Although he was unable to get a bearing at the time, days later he heard a strong, nearby station send a long dash on 3105 kHz. This time he got a bearing. It fell on a line of position running north-northwest by south-southeast through Howland. Baker is south-southeast.
For several nights after Earhart’s disappearance, numerous, unidentified signals were heard on her frequencies. Some were obvious hoaxes. However, there is no evidence to indicate that she ever again came on the air “live” after discontinuing contact with Balfour.
9) Why was an official Earhart accident investigation report never issued? Today, any aircraft crash or disappearance would get a far better accident report than Earhart’s did. The only official report we have from the government was that issued by the Navy. But, it is simply a description of the search, and not an accident report.
In a letter to Fred Goerner dated April, 1962, Leo Bellarts, former chief radio operator on the Itasca, commented about the lack of an investigation. “Honestly, I thought there was going to be an investigation of the flight and that is the reason that I have kept certain logs and papers concerning the flight.”
By contrast, the Hawaii Clipper that disappeared between Guam and Manila just a year later under very similar circumstances, was the subject of an intensive investigation. Perhaps the powers-that-be at the time didn’t want the public to know just what happened to Earhart. (End of Paul Rafford’s “Earhart Radio Enigma.”)
Among the most vexing questions about the Earhart flight, of course, the one whose correct answer might help unravel the whole impossibly complicated ball of wax, is WHY didn’t Amelia want anyone to get a fix on her position? We can assume that the Japanese were quite interested in her flight, for obvious reasons, and would have been listening to her transmissions from several of their radio stations in the central Pacific area, including Jaluit, where a powerful transmitter was operational. It seems quite clear by now that Amelia was up to something besides trying to locate Howland Island.
I’ve often said that the Earhart “mystery” can never be solved in the air, that the real answers are kept where our government buries its deepest secrets. But we’ve learned plenty since Fred Goerner started banging on doors, and now, for the most part, it’s mainly the many nagging details that continue to evade us. Readers should understand that this editor is not fully endorsing the entire range of Paul Rafford’s ideas, but presenting them for your consideration.
In coming posts we’ll delve further in Paul theory that Amelia Earhart was engaged in a deliberate, well-planned radio deception during her last flight, as well as several other aspects of the flight that might shed light on the real mystery of the Earhart disappearance – not what happened to her on Saipan, but what was she doing during the final hours of the flight, and most importantly, why did she land at Mili Atoll?