By Judy Ann Newton-Harzer
Dateline: 2 July 1937, near Howland Island, South Pacific
Eyes and ears strained for the faintest glimmer or drone. If things had gone according to plan, the small aircraft would have been within radio range long ago. The transmission signals from the responding US Coast Guard Cutter
would have provided navigational bearings for the final approach to Howland Island … if things had gone according to plan. But the sky and airwaves had remained vast and vacant like the endless miles of the South Pacific.
‘We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.’
The scratchy message was faint and much too short for the radio operator to get a fix. He responded on all settings and frequencies hoping his words would be received. The crackle of an open line and the static hum of the radio’s cathodes filled the small radio room. Breathless anticipation welled like sweat in the tropical heat, strangling any effort to move.
‘We are on the line 157 / 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.’
The message came in like a staccato stutter and hope was fading for the flight to be on the correct heading. As each moment ticked by in a hushed monotone, malevolent fate settled in for an unwelcome visit. The desperate radio operator aboard the
positioned off of Howland Island now hailed the aircraft with Morse code, unaware that no one aboard the small twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10E understood Morse. It would prove to be a moot point as the Electra’s Morse system had been removed before takeoff to allow for petrol weight.
The support ship stoked its oil-fired boilers, marking the landing destination with a thick, stygian smoke that should have been visible for many miles â¦ if it hadn’t been a cloudy and overcast day.
The small aircraft had been aloft for 19 hours with an estimated 20 hours of flying time and 50 gallons short of its 1151 gallon capacity. The numbers were falling.
‘We are running north and southâ¦..’
Flying on wings and a prayer, these were the final recorded words from the Electra. By mid-afternoon a full scale search that would eventually cover land and sea over 262,281 square miles arced over the south Pacific from Howland Island. By sunset on that fateful day, the radio reports completed the aviators’ circumnavigation as the shocking news was announced worldwide that the heroic female pioneer pilot, Amelia Earhart, and her navigator, Commander Fred J Noonan, had disappeared without a trace.
The End Of The Story â¦
The Beginning Of The Legend
In the modern world of aviation, meticulous examination of the conditions leading up to the disappearance of a small craft with two persons aboard would most likely end with a neatly typed report from a Federal Aviation back office. But Amelia Earhart was no ordinary pilot and there was no such thing as a routine flight in 1937. Already regarded as the female counterpart of Charles Lindbergh, Earhart’s flying had set world records in altitude, distance and endurance during the 1920s and 1930s. Even though she was the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic and held the woman’s non-stop transcontinental speed record, these accomplishments seemed to only whet her appetite for the ultimate aviation challenge â a flight around the world.
Supported by an American population stifled by the Depression, Amelia Earhart epitomized the hopes, dreams and victory to a world that was kneeling to the tightening grip of world conflict in Germany and Japan. Like a golden goal for the beleaguered home team, Earhart flew with the crest of a brighter tomorrow sewn to her sleeve. When Earhart and Noonan were declared ‘presumed dead without a trace’, a legend was born so that the dream would never die.
To this day, the fate of Earhart, Noonan and the Electra 10E lures mystery seekers to search for any bit of information that will confirm or deny the numerous theories surrounding the historic vanishing.
Theories, Speculation And
A Lack Of Evidence
The most obvious theory purports that the aircraft, with only 30 minutes of fuel remaining, off-course by an estimated five nautical miles and flying into a head wind, had missed Howland Island and crashed into the sea where the plane and flying duo came to rest 5,000 metres down. Several sonar expeditions by undersea search experts at Nauticos Corporation failed to locate any evidence within a 1,000 square mile area calculated as the impact point.
Another theory sprouts from over 300 reports of transmissions that supposedly came from Earhart’s plane in the early days after her disappearance. Deemed by most as errors, hoaxes and wishful thinking, these curious communiquÃ©s fuelled speculation that Earhart had found terre firma and had survived the landing. What happened beyond that point has spawned a plethora of supposition.
The rumblings of war bolstered theories that the Japanese had shot down Earhart’s flight because she was on a spying mission on Japanese movements in the Pacific for President Roosevelt. The 1943 movie Flight for Freedom added a postscript that her disappearance was staged to provide justification for US Naval Forces â under the guise of a wide scale search â to survey Japanese military installations firsthand. Files recovered in Japan after the war supported no charge of Japanese involvement in Earhart’s disappearance or any suspected spying mission.
Once again eyeing the complicity of Japan, the book Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident (Thomas E Devine author) asserted that Earhart and Noonan were captured alive after crashing on Japanese occupied Saipan Island in the Northern Marianas archipelago. The book included eye witness testimony of Earhart and Noonan’s execution, a revelation that was echoed in 1990 via a televised witness interview on the NBC-TV series Unsolved Mysteries.
The captive theory gained a bit more ground when a former US Marine revealed he had found Earhart’s breifcase in a Japanese military safe on Saipan. A former US Marine wireless operator stated he had decoded a message from US naval officials that the plane had been found at Aslito Air Field and that he had been present when the plane was destroyed.
The small island of Tinian bearing five miles from Saipan, was pinpointed as the final resting place of two unmarked graves bearing the remains of Earhart and Noonan. However, a scientific search of the region recovered no bones and failed to locate the described graves. As for the ‘eye witness’ accounts of the executions, no further corroboration has been forthcoming to support the claims, while the photographic proof of the captive Earhart have proven to be fakes or snaps taken prior to her flight.
If the rumour of Earhart’s execution did not ring true, there would be even less evidence to support the hypothesis that she had been forced to make propaganda radio broadcasts as Tokyo Rose. And venturing even further into the realm of amazing allegory, a friend of Earhart’s reportedly travelled to Japan as a journalist and discovered files (which later disappeared) about the missing Earhart. In 1965, a retired Air Force office concluded that Earhart had actually been located by her friend and secreted her back into the US where Earhart assumed a new identity and lived out her life in silent obscurity.
The ‘second live’ theory was posed again in the book Amelia Earhart Lives (1970 Joe Klaas). This version details how Amelia Earhart returned to the US, changed her name, remarried, moved to New Jersey and was known as Irene Craigmile Bolam until her death in 1982. The real Irene Bolam, a former New York banker, sued the publisher for $1.5 million in damages and provided lengthy evidence that she was indeed not Amelia Earhart.
Betting On A Hunch
What has become the most probable theory with ongoing investigations focuses on Gardner Island – now Nikumaroro, the Phoenix Islands, Kiribati. Working on the information from the final transmission, Earhart and Noonan may have flown on the 157 / 337 heading and set down on a shallow reef. This theory does require the aircraft had more than the estimated 30-minutes of fuel on board to reach the uninhabited island 350 miles southeast of Howland Island.
The Gardner Island theory does have some substance. In 1940, a British colonial officer reported finding a ‘skeleton… possibly that of a woman’ and an ‘old-fashioned sextant box’ under a tree on the island. The remains were sent to Fiji for examination in 1941 and determined they were the bones of a stocky man. In 1998, a reassessment of the forensic data suggested otherwise. The bones had irionically vanished since the initial examination, but detailed measurements and notations provided forensic anthropologists sufficient information to declare the skeleton to be a ‘tall white female of northern European ancestry.’
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has done extensive archaelogical studies on the island and discovered notable artifacts. The size nine heel of a Cat’s Paw shoe, similar to the shoes seen in the photos taken before her final takeoff from Lae, New Guinea, has been dated to the 1930s. Improvised tools were also discovered, plus a two-foot-square scrap of aluminum aircraft skin, and a piece of Plexiglas matching the curvature and thickness of an Electra windshield and a15-inch-long piece of baseboard from a civilian aircraft cabin.
The most recent TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro concluded on 2 August 2007. Significant recovered artifacts included bronze bearings which might have belonged to the Electra, a zipper pull, possibly from a flight suit and a range of items with ‘as yet uncertain origin.’
Legend Larger Than Life
Amelia Earhart was 37 years old when she vanished from the skies. The legend and the mystery have survived her for nearly 71 years. Whether she died near Howland Island on the morning of 2 July 1937, or survived for an unknown time as a castaway on a rugged island, her real fate may never be known. And that might not be such a bad thing as we tend to forget the accomplishments of brave adventurers unless they are shrouded in doom and disaster. Charles Lindbergh’s daring might have passed silently into record with the last of his generation if it had not been for the kidnap-murder of his infant son. If not for the great unsolved mystery surrounding Amelia Earhart’s final flight, today she might have suffered the same footnote in history as John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown.