by Hank Boerner
The many evolving elements of the deep mystery surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Air MA 370 have captured the world’s attention. CNN has been calling it “the world’s greatest aviation mystery,” and indeed the facts, myths, rumors and speculation are, well, flying around the universe.
This reminded me of another aviation mystery that took place 77 years ago this July — the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan. They were on a ’round-the-world flight in a small, twin engine aircraft — the early Lockheed Electra.
Ms. Earhart was well known and greatly admired – the Lady Lindbergh, they often called her. She was married to an influential publisher, George Putnam, who made the most of her flying exploits with books, appearances, and lots of newspaper clippings generated.
Early in my journalism career I got swept into this mystery, and I am still somewhat haunted by the experience. What happened out there in the lonely, vast Pacific Ocean as the pair flew from New Guinea to tiny Howland Island, en route (on the last legs) to Hawaii and then California and home?
Let me set the stage for what was going on seven decades ago. The Japanese Empire under military rule (after the cabinet members were murdered) was expanding its influence, creating what the leaders called “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
Fortune magazine devoted an entire issue to this threat to the United States in 1936. The map in retrospect showed all of the areas o Asia and the Pacific region that Japan would invade and occupy, beginning with Manchuria and mainland China (it already occupied the Korean Peninsula since 1905).
So how do you get ready for war and conquest? Ramp up domestic industry to build guns, aircraft, warships, cannon. Raise a large army. Build fortresses and strategically located bases. That is what Japan did; one of the key facilities was Truk, a sheltered port in the Marshall Islands; the Japanese Imperial Navy made it the main base for the fleet. (The U.S. military destroyed the base in 1944.)
In the 1930s, there were no satellites, spy planes, or CIA (the predecessor OSS would not be be formed until we entered WW II). So how to “spy” on the Japanese military buildup?
How about the cover of a ’round-the world flight that is well publicized?
The flight would begin in Oakland, California, proceed through Tucson to Miami, jump off then to Puerto Rico, then to Natal, Brazil and across the South Atlantic to Senegal.
Then on to Sudan, India, down the islands to Australia, north to Papua New Guinea, and from there to tiny Howland Island, and then on to Hawaii and back to Oakland.
Howland was 2500 miles distant from Lae, New Guinea when Earhart and Noonan left Lae on July 1st (Howland was to be reached by the 2nd; Hawaii on the 3rd and Oakland by July 4th) Their tiny target in the midst of the great ocean was about 1600 by 6500 feet – and only 10 feet above the waves..
PBS produced a special on Earhart’s disappearance – here she is with her airplane. Imagine flying that craft over 2500 miles of open ocean to hit a target the size of a school parking lot
The US Coast Guard ship Itasca was standing by to support the fliers near Howland. Perhaps half way there the flight got in trouble. The fliers were lost. Earhart began broadcasting on the plane’s radio, saying they were flying a north – south line that they thought was near the destination. Then all communication ended. The Itasca began sweeping the ocean to search for the missing fliers.
President Franklin Roosevelt (a former naval under secretary during WW I) ordered a full-scale sweep of the ocean, largest in history up to then. Nothing was found after 21 days of intense searching. Those are the facts that are generally accepted.
And now on to the mystery and conspiracy theories, which persist and even grow 77 years later.
In the 1960s I was a business/financial journalist with concentration very often on aerospace, airlines, aviation in all aspects. One day I got a call – a Major Joseph Gervais — then a US Air Force crash specialist — wanted to meet and discuss doing a book together on the Earhart mystery. There was a local “Long Island Early Fliers” club and he would be speaking there. We met one Sunday afternoon at an Air Force base in Westhampton, NY at an Air Force base .
Major Gervais told a fascinating story. His job was to investigate the social and human aspects of plane crashes. The pilots’ mood, behaviors, state-of-mind, etc. One day in the early 1960s he got a call for assistance — a twin engine plane had crashed in the Sierra Nevadas. It was a 1930s Electra. The “N” numbers? NR 16020 – the same as the Earhart craft! The timing was coincidental (or not) with a new book by CBS journalist that claimed the fliers were captured by the Japanese and held for the war (along with many other claims).
Was Lockheed trying to sneak the plane from California to some desert air strip? Why?
Gervais was on the case. The story he told is worthy of Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy thriller. In Miami, the plane was switched, said the major A more powerful, longer distance, faster version (same N numbers) was actually the craft that departed for the Caribbean.
This was a flight on a spy mission for the U.S. military, to see what the Japanese were up to in the Pacific islands.
The faster plane with longer range could fly a triangle, not straight line.
So, picture the last leg then, fliers taking off, heading for Howland, making a left turn, flying north over Truk, taking pictures, and then turning south again to Howland.
That way, the plane would land on schedule. No one would suspect the actual mission.
Things evidently went terribly wrong. And the original plane (the slower model) was the one crashed in the desert and found decades later. It had been sitting, Major Gervais believed, in California for a quarter century in a hanger (hiding) until the CBS-Koerner “expose” was published. Then the actual plane was flown in secret to the American desert, crashing en route, and bringing the Air Force and the major to the crash scene.
The presentation that Sunday years back was very convincing. The major shared a trove of documentation with me and suggested we begin outlining a book; I would be on the east coast doing research; he would return to the Pacific to search some more.
There were a lot of “threads” (as the CNN reporters are noting when discussion MA 370) and I followed many. To dead ends. Eventually there were a half-dozen serious “leads.” One lead was more intriguing that the one before. That’s how conspiracy theories work — it is possible, plausible, then logical, that on to certainty. We’re seeing that with the MA 370 mystery.
I’ll stop here — there is a lot more to my experience and the next chapter in the major’s story that I am putting in a memoir that I have started.
But the lesson from that experience is that when “facts” are presented (like the flight log and convincing photos of the two Earhart planes), and other “facts” surface (that the fliers were captured by Japan), and on to facts that are leaps to fantasy…it is very difficult to unravel all of this and come up with something that everyone will accept. Real “facts: that everyone can accept.
I’m watching the news reports with great interest. The New Guinea-Howland Island leg was 2500 miles, approximately the distance that MA 370 could have flown after contact was lost. There were islands, jungles, deep oceans all around, depending on the direction of the 1937 flight.. And bad guys (terrorism is often mentioned now — was that possible back then. What terrorists?).
And I hold on to my thick Earhart last flights files. Of course I moved on…but then again…mystery beckons.
One day an Edward Snowden type may start posting interesting documents from deep in Japanese, U.S. or allied government archives! Take that, conspiracy theorists!
Stay Tuned to aviation mysteries! They’re good for selling newspapers and attracting eyeballs to TV screens and monitors. Just ask those folks who have made Amelia Earhart’s disappearance a cottage industry seven decades on.
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Author Post Script, July 7, 2017 — The Washington Post story: “A newly unearthed photo shows Amelia Earhart survived her final flights, investigators say.”
So, some 80 years later, the Amelia Mystery continues. On July 9 The History Channel will have a program — “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence” — devoted to “new evidence” identified a few years ago in a “mis-labeled” file at the National Archives by a former U.S. Treasury agent (Les Kinney).
So the story goes, looking through a stock of 20 to 30 photos from the 1937 era, Kinney saw in one photo a man and woman on a dock in Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, the Marshall Islands. This could be the pair of flyers gone missing in July 1937.
On a shirt in the background there could be the outlines of the downed fliers’ Lockheed Electra aircraft. Theory: The Japanese merchant ship then took Earhart and Noonan to Saipan and into Japanese captivity, where both died. Because they were spies for the U.S. government…as the Empire of Japan expanded its territory and built up the military for a great war in the Pacific Ocean?
This theory runs through some of the tales told over the years by various authors, beginning most notably in 1962 by CBS reporter/author Fred Goerner (“The Search for Amelia Earhart”). He was a WW II U.S. Navy “Seabee” and respected journalist based in San Francisco.
Goerner theory: When Amelia and Fred left Lae, New Guinea they headed north to Truk in the Central Carolines (an island chain) to observe airfields and Japanese naval facilities being constructed there.
A published speed of 150 MPH was part of the cover story because the fliers had switched to a sister plane capable of 220 MPH and cruising altitude (above fighter aircraft of the day) of 11,000-feet. (The switch of planes in Miami.)
Therefore — the triangle route flight — New Guinea to Truk and on to Howland Island — was entirely possible. A tailwind heading to Howland would add some six hours of flying time. Turning south and east after successfully cruising over Truk, they ran into bad weather and resorted to “dead reckoning” (here’s where I think we are would be there reckoning without accuracy!).
They got lost. They could not judge the presence of speed of tail or headwinds. They could not see the ocean below. The plane was short of Howland when they began radioing the U.S. Coast Guard vessel. They then overshot their destination.
With daybreak, they had a sun-line for calculating where they were and began broadcasting (we are on line 157-337) – and then turned toward the Gilbert Islands.
Amelia spotted a small atoll, made a low pass and landed wheels up on the lagoon surface…and into the water the plane went.
His theory was that the plane was down on Mili Atoll in the Southeastern Marshall Islands. A dozen natives were present, though none spoke English. Amelia got back in the plane and began to send S.O.S. messages.
As the news broke around the world, someone or some persons began to leak the true story (this in the days before WikiLeaks, of course!). Now the Japanese forces knew of the Truk visit (who it was that invaded their airspace at high altitude).
The U.S. military began the search, as did the Japanese. (The American Navy would search 200,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, with a dozen ships, the U.S.S. Lexington carrier and a battleship included, explains Goerner in his book).
Two weeks in, to the search a Japanese fishing boat stopped by the atoll, took the fliers on board, and then delivered them to a Japanese naval ship. Their journey then ended in Saipan, the Empire of Japan’s military headquarters in the Pacific Ocean.
Goerner noted that at the time of his book, Americans were orbiting the Earth, and could look down everywhere…a far cry from the 1937 flight in a two-engine propeller-powered aircraft.
In the book, a Thomas Devine of West Haven, CT was cited; he claimed that while on Saipan in 1945 (at war’s end) he was shown the Earhart-Noonan grave site. He and two others returned in 1963 to try to find the graves. Guam natives were questioned for their recollections. One Jesus Bacha Salas claimed to occupy a cell next to an American woman flier on Saipan. Pedro Skisag identified Amelia as the women he saw in Tanapag Harborr in 1937. Jose Pangelinan witnessed the deaths — Amelia of dysentery and Fred by beheading.
There are tantalizing streams of claims and statements running through the 80 years of the mystery. (The threads I mentioned earlier.)
The CIA in later years used Kagman Airfield on Saipan for training. The U.S. Navy had 11 installations for agent training. The U.S. military captured Saipan after weeks of grueling battle in 1944. The heroic admiral leading the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during WW II, Chester Nimitz, is quoted in the Goerner book: “I hope that you will go ahead with your book, Fred. It could bring the justice that is deserved.”
The bold names in the book include famed aviator Paul Briand (you saw many of his stunts in flying movies); President Franklin D. Roosevelt; USAF officer Joseph Gervais, whose story was in my original post (he and I collaborated briefly on the story in 1964-65); Charles Lindbergh; George Palmer (the husband of Amelia); William Paley, Chairman, CBS Corp, who approved and paid for Goerner’s Pacific expedition; Paul Mantz (aviation personality of the 1930s and 1940s); and others.
Interesting: Before the “Around the World” flight, skilled pilot Paul Mantz flew the aircraft — “the Flying Laboratory” — to Hawaii, where the aircraft was damaged and returned to the Lockheed factory in California. This supposedly is where the switch was made to a more high-performing airplane. And on and on and on…the mystery goes.
Do you have any theories? Or missing and now found photos of Amelia and Fred in the Pacific? STAY TUNED!
Here is the WashPo story for you: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/07/05/a-newly-unearthed-photo-shows-amelia-earhart-survived-her-final-flight-investigators-say/?utm_term=.371d77e39eb7&wpisrc=nl_most&wpmm=1