The Mystery Of Amelia Earhart
July 1 & 2,1937

Prepared By William H. "Bill" Stewart, 
Military Historical Cartographer
 

In the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, Saipan has featured prominently in several stories.

On July 1, 1937, the famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared somewhere in the vicinity of the Phoenix Islands southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Many theories abound and those familiar with Saipan know that some believe that she was eventually found by the Japanese and brought to Saipan. The Japanese have consistently denied having any knowledge of the fate of Amelia Earhart.

Some have theorized that she may have been engaged in espionage for the United States in an attempt to learn more about military activities in the Japanese Mandated Islands of Micronesia, particularly in the vicinity of Truk which was believed at the time to be the site of a Japanese naval base. The theory rests upon the last message ever received from Earhart by the U. S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca and whether or not the information received was a compass heading or a sun line. She radioed, "We are on a position 157 degrees - 337 degrees, we will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles. We are running north and south." The entire theory rests on two of several radio messages transmitted from her aircraft that provided flight information to the Itasca. One message being a position fix 5 hours after her departure from Lae, New Guinea and a second message radioing either a heading on a compass or a sun line as she searched for her destination. For more than sixty years her disappearance has been a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

 Although it has been consistently denied by the United States Government, there must have been several high ranking officers within the American naval establishment who saw in Earhart's plan for a flight around the world a golden opportun ity to reconnoiter the developments being carried out within the Truk Lagoon by the Imperial Japanese Navy. The mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart (Mrs. George P. Putnam) and her navigator, Fred Noonan, (previously a Pan American Airways navigator), along with their Lockheed Electra -10 after the aircraft left Lae, the capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea, is a puzzle that still remains fascinating to many. It is not known if American intelligence officers ever bothered to read the annual reports the Japanese were required to submit to the League of Nations in the late thirties on their activities in the islands. If the United States authorities analyzed such reports they must have become curious as to the purpose of the imports of certain commodities listed in the statistical tables of the Annual Reports for 1936 -'37 which included 3.8 million tons of rice, (enough to feed a huge naval establishment). Did knowledge of these increasing imports prompt General Henry "Hap" Arnold, Army Air Corps Chief, to attempt to find out what had been taking place within the Japanese Mandated Islands beyond their wall of secrecy by ordering the flight of two U. S. Army aircraft to reconnoiter the area barely two weeks before the outbreak of war in the Pacific and attempt to learn what Earhart failed to do 4 years and 5 months earlier?

While the buildup of Truk as a great Gunko, (naval base) had been kept a closely guarded secret,U. S. naval vessels were prohibited by the Japanese from entering the harbors of the Mandated Islands.

The Japanese exercised strict control over all shipping in the Mandated Islands and only those ships were permitted navigation rights which had received prior permission from the Imperial Navy or the Headquarters of the Extraordinary South Sea Islands Defense Corps. No such permission was ever granted the United States Navy. Since the islands of Micronesia sit astride the sea lanes between Hawaii and the U. S. administered protectorate of the Philippine Islands, the situation presented a difficult problem in maintaining a transportation link between the two American naval bases. Indeed, Japanese author, Kinoaki Matsuo published a book before the war in which he wrote, “Japan is naturally blessed by double defensive walls linked both inside and outside by a chain of islands. The outside link (the Japanese Mandated Islands) extends many thousands of miles embracing the Marshalls, Carolines, Marianas and Pelew (sic.) which are scattered like stars across the routes of the United States Navy.” He continued, “ It will be impossible for the United States fleet to reach it’s destination.”

By 1937, American naval authorities were becoming increasingly apprehensive of Japan's rearmament and the growing belligerency of its military. So much so that on Thanksgiving Day in 1941, (two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor) General Arnold order ed two aircraft stationed in San Francisco (1) to fly to Manila. While enroute they were ordered to fly over Jaluit in the Marshall Islands and Truk in the Eastern Caroline Islands to photograph the naval installations there and attempt to find out what had been taking place at these locations within the Japanese Mandated Islands. Did the American military's curiosity about these islands prompt an earlier (1937) request of Amelia Earhart to also attempt to fly over the same islands for the same purpose but from a different direction? Did she do so?

The only serious problem with such a supposition is that a position report received from Earhart while in flight occurred at 5:20 p. m. (Lae time) and indicated her position at 04 degrees - 33 ' south latitude by 159 degrees - 06' east longitude, a fix which would place the aircraft in the vicinity of Nukumanu Island, northeast of Bougainville and in the area where it should have been assuming the original flight plan was being followed. This fix would place the aircraft on a track from Lae to Howland Island some 742 nautical miles or about one third the distance between the two points which are separated by 2,227 nautical miles. This radioed position is far to the southeast of Truk and almost due south of Ponape (Senyavin Island, now Pohnpei) and north of Guadalcanal. That the transmission was picked up in Lae is strange indeed, since the Electra's radio r ange was said to be (although not confirmed by this researcher) not much more than 400 miles. If this was in fact true - how is it that the signal was picked up from almost twice the distance? Was it a hoax? Was it a deceptive position directed to confuse any Japanese radioman at Truk who might have been monitoring the much publicized flight path (presumed to be from Lae to Howland) and the radio frequency of 6210 KHz? If so, the report was received at Truk only a short time before the aircraft could have roared over the encircling reef at Truk to carry out its assignment of aerial espionage before turning east to fly toward Jaluit and thence south east to Howland. To intentionally radio a false position with the objective of disguising one's true position is a classic technique of deception. Had a Japanese been monitoring the radio at Truk he could have plotted her position as a result of those coordinates and assumed she was outside the boundary of the Mandated Islands when in reality she could have been only an hour or so flying time south of Truk bearing down on the Japanese anchorage. Then zoom over the lagoon with enough light to observe the base before turning to fly east into the cover of the advancing evening darkness.

On July 2,1937, Earhart departed Lae, New Guinea with Howland Island, as her destination 2,227 n. miles distant on an course of 79.8 degrees - almost due east. The aircraft was to rendezvous with the U. S.Coast Guard Cutter Itasca at Howland Island which had been assigned by the U. S. Government to provide weather information and a directional beacon signal. Another American vessel, the U S S Ontario was on station at 3 degrees south, 165 degrees east to provide assistance that might be needed. There is no record this vessel was ever contacted by Earhart. Since the ship was astride her intended route from Lae to Howland she would have had to fly over it. By not flying over the ship and having her voice picked up by Radio Nauru, which did occur, Earhart would have flown well north of her “publicized” course to Howland.

Howland is a low, uninhabited island with the highest point not ten feet above sea level. It is located at 00 degrees- 48' north latitude- 176 degrees - 38' west longitude, a mere dot on a Pacific chart.

It is interesting to note that on May 11,1935, two years before the flight, Fred Noonan replied to a letter from Navy Lt. Commander, P. V. H. Weems, an authority on aerial navigation, in which Noonan wrote about certain equipment for the planned flight. He stated, "For reasons which I am certain you can understand, we are not permitted to discuss the particulars of the flight for dissemination among the general public." (2)

For some time the aircraft identified as King - How - Able - Queen - Queen had been trying to communicate by radio with the American vessel. However, some of the signals received by the Itasca, and there were several, were at times either inaudible or incomprehensible. As the ship waited at Howland its radio crackled shortly after 8 A. M , July 1st, with a women's voice. " We are on the line of position 157 degrees - 337 degrees - we will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles wait listening on 6210 kilocycles - we are running north and south." This was the last message received by the Itasca from Earhart. For sixteen days thereafter eight United States Navy ships and sixty four aircraft scanned 138,000 square miles of the Pacific for some evidence of the aircraft with the registry number 160 and its crew of two. Nothing was found.

Flying a heading of 79.8 (2) degrees in a northeasterly direction would result in approaching Howland from the southwest. Flying a heading of 157 degrees (if this was in fact a compass heading rather than a sun line) would result is approaching the island from a northwestern direction. The question to be posed being - what would one have to do to approach Howland on a heading of 157 from the northwest? Could it be possible that Earhart, on a secret mission for the U. S. military, flew north from Lae over the Truk Lagoon to observe the installations and then anticipate a change in heading over Eten Island in the lagoon which would take her east over Jaluit in the Marshall Islandsand then continue to fly east to approach Howland from the northwest on a compass course of 157 degrees? If she did -then she was engaged in espionage - about that there can be no doubt. The distance in nautical miles from Lae to Truk is 888; from Truk to Jaluit - 1,063; and from Jaluit to Howland (via Great Circle) - 878 n. mi. The total distance is 2,829 n. mi. as compared with 2,227 n. mi. when flying direct from Lae. The most direct route (Great Circle) from Jaluit to Howland is on a heading of 109.9 degrees for 878 n. miles. However, this route, while shorter, would require her to be in Japanese airspace and over several populated islands in the Marshalls for a longer period of time which would afford the Japanese more time for interception should the flight be discovered. Even so the cover of darkness would provide added safety. Did she maintain an easterly heading of 090 degrees after passing over Jaluit to reach a (critical) point for a turn on the "western" side of the Dateline then turn southwest on 157 degrees to reach Howland? The precise turning point on the U. S. side of the Dateline would be critical. If flying short - or flying beyond this critical point - a heading of 157 could still be flown -but the island would be missed in the empty expanse of the Pacific.

One could indeed depart Lae for Howland on a heading of 79.8 degrees (the direct route), and without a functioning auto-pilot, drift off cours e either to the north or south of the intended tract and fly to a point southeast or northwest of Howland then turn the aircraft to 157 degrees or it reciprocal of 337 degrees either before or beyond the critical point in this area and miss the island. It is also quite possible that the islands were not accurately plotted on the charts of the period which could account for a navigational error at the desired destination of the flight. She departed Lae at a time selected to result in arrival at Howland after sunrise for the obvious reason of being able to see the island and the crude, unlighted airstrip during daylight.

 The United States Government certainly will never admit she was engaged in espionage if in fact that was the case since the country was not at war at the time and the Japanese have nothing to gain by admitting any knowledge of the fate of the two aviators. The mystery is left to the interested reader to ponder.

In the interest of objectivity it should be stated that professional navigators do not believe Earhart was involved in a reconnaissance flight over the Japanese Mandated Islands. This author bears full responsibility for any errors in the theory or calculations. However, one thing can be acknowledged, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were two courageous pioneers in the true American spirit.

Forty years after the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, four Chamorro women were interviewed on Saipan by a Catholic Priest in November 1977. Their names have been intentionally omitted from this brief summary for obvious reasons. Their comments and recollections of the late thirties were provided to a U. S. Navy Admiral on Guam for forwarding to Washington. Summarizing the interviews, one woman stated that when she was a young girl, sometime around 1937 or ‘38, a foreign woman, thin in stature with brown hair - cut short similar to that of a man, would sometimes pass her house and on one occasion, looked “sickly” with one side of her body and one hand burned. The foreign woman, with whom the Chamorro lady could not communicate as she did not speak English at the time, was believed to be staying in a nearby building referred to by the local people as a hotel. This woman gave a ring with a “white” stone in it

along with some pleasant smelling balsam to the young Chamorro girl. Later, two Chamorro girls were asked to make two wreaths and, when asked why - the girls were told that the “American” had died of “amoeba” (dysentery or diarrhea). The Chamorro woman related that when the foreign woman was alive she was guarded. The other Chamorro woman recalled that as a child she remembered hearing that a plane had crashed “southwest of us” and the pilot was a woman. The Chamorro recalled that the Japanese were ‘very startled” because she was pilo ting the plane.

Still another Chamorro woman, when interviewed stated, “it could be 1939 or something like that when I first heard there was a woman spy who came to Saipan but they said she was most likely killed. But I did hear that an American woman was caught spying.”

 A third Chamorro woman when interviewed recalled, “hearing about a plane that crashed, the topic of conversation in Saipan. I remembered going to church, I wanted to light a candle for my husband because a battleship was scheduled to come into port about 10 o’clock in the morning. The plane was exhibited and that was when the Japanese made an announcement to all the people that those who wanted to see an airplane may come and see it. That was the year 1937 or 1938.”

“There were talks (sic.) about the plane having fallen down (sic.) in the island south of us in Micronesia. I know of a ring that belonged to that woman. I don’t know what ever happened to it.”

If the signals heard by Radio Nauru, Wake, Midway and Makapu Point originated from the Electra then it could be assumed that Earhart did not crash in the sea but on an island since sea water would have rendered the Electra’s radio inoperable. Being on land and having been heard by Radio Nauru it may be surmised that she survived a crash landing and was alive, and with the aircraft, until 0948 (GMT) July 5, 1937. If so,this was the last signal ever received.

The possibility cannot be ignored that Earhart flew off course, strayed into air space over the Japanese Mandated Islands, ran out of fuel and was picked up by the Japanese and taken to Saipan.

If, on a heading from Lae of 79.8 degrees, it is possible that position report of 157 - 337 degrees is a navigation sun line. If so, the Truk theory may be incorrect.

Since the departure from Lae, Amelia Earhart was in flight 20 hours and 15 minutes with 30 minutes of fuel remaining. It is not known for certain if she flew the Lae - Truk - Jaluit route, (2,829 n. miles) or the direct Lae - Howland route, (2,227 n. miles). The difference between the two is 602 n. miles.

The former route would require an average ground speed (g. s.) of 140 n.m.p.h. while the latter would require an average ground speed of 110 n. m. p. h. The take-off weight of the aircraft, length of the runway at Lae and fuel capacity of the Electra are also critical factors to consider.

 Many bizarre stories have been advanced surrounding her disappearance.

Among the strangest stories includes that of a United States soldier stationed on Saipan in 1944-‘45 who claims to have seen the Lockheed Electra destroyed by American military in a damaged Japanese aircraft hanger at As Lito Field.

Still another intriguing story concerns that of a bottle with its cork sealed with w ax which washed ashore on the coast of France in October, 1938 with a note inside. The French language message stated that the writer had been a prisoner of the Japanese on Jaluit where he claims to have seen Amelia Earhart and a male individual, both of whom were being held on the atoll for alleged spying on Japanese installations. The writer of the note stated he had been placed on a Japanese vessel bound for Europe and would throw the bottle overboard when the ship neared port. This message is in the U. S. National Archives in Washington after having been given to American authorities at the U. S. Embassy in Paris.

 Earhart's position report at 0720 hours GMT of 04 degrees - 33 minutes south by 159 degrees 06 minutes east results in an approximate estimated time of arrival in the vicinity of Howland at approximately 2005 hours GMT or two hours later than originally anticipated.

 One might ask the reason for the continued interest in the Earhart saga. She was married to George P. Putman a public relations specialist (founder of Putman Publishing Co.) who saw in the flight an opportunity to capitalize on the adventure which was widely followed throughout the world. He actively promoted the attempt of an around the world flight in the news media. Amelia Earhart might be also recognized as being in the vanguard of what would later become known as the women's liberation movement. These factors have kept the issue before us through the years.The possibility cannot be ignored that Earhart flew off course, strayed into air space over the Japanese Mandated Islands, ran out of fuel and was picked up by the Japanese and taken to Saipan. Rejecting this possibility, one must consider the alternative that she ran out of fuel and either went into the water and drowned or died on an uninhabited island.

(1) The order to fly over Truk was a result of communication dated 26 November, 1941, from General Adams, Adjutant General to General Walter C. Short and the memorandum from Brig. General Leonard T. Gerow to General George C. Marshall concerning the 27 November meeting in the Office of Secretary of War, Henry L. Stinson. One Liberator arrived at Hickam Field in Hawaii on December 5, 1941 and was destroyed on December 7th during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The mission of the second aircraft which had not arrived on Oahu was canceled.

(2) Source: Popular Aviation, May 1, 1938, - Courses and distances are Great Circle calculations based on the International Ellipsoid courtesy of the National Geographic Society. Compensation has been made for a minus 9 degree east magnetic variation in the Howland area. Other sources: U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings , February 1971, April 1993, December 1993