By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2022
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
— Doctor Albert Einstein, 1930.
“Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done.”
— Amelia Earhart.
“Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace…
The soul that knows it not, knows no release…
How can life grant us boon of living…Unless we dare…
Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the restless day,
And count it fair.”
— From the poem “Courage,” by Amelia Earhart.
In 1937, Amelia Mary Earhart, age 39, the great, aviation pioneer, was by far the most famous woman in the world, the first female to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air, initially as a passenger in 1928, and later, as the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. Earhart fully realized that her exploits were potentially hazardous, stating in July 1928 that, “Of course, I realized there was a measure of danger. Obviously, I faced a possibility of not returning when first I considered going. Once faced and settled, there really wasn’t any good reason to refer to it.”
In 1931, Amelia married famous, New York publisher George P. Putnam, but continued to use her maiden name for publicity purposes, although sometimes referring to herself as Amelia Putnam. She was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1932, the French Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor, the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society in 1932, and the Harmon Trophy as America’s outstanding airwoman in 1932, 1933, 1934, and 1935. In late May 1937, Earhart boldly embarked upon a planned journey around the world along the Equatorial route, from Oakland, California, flying eastward. She told her husband that, “I have a feeling there is just one more flight in my system. This trip is it.”
The momentous trip was originally scheduled to begin on March 20, 1937, beginning at Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with Amelia piloting a twin-engine, highly-modified, $80,000 (about $1.5 million value today), brand-new, 1937 Lockheed Electra 10E Special, registered as NR 16020, one of only two such aircraft ever constructed (the only other Electra 10E Special now lies derelict but largely intact on a remote airfield in Verkhoyansk, Siberia, Russia, after a 1945 crash on the tundra.)
Earhart was in the left seat, with navigator Harry Manning in the right seat, and the aircraft crashed midway down the runway while attempting to take off (This author has stood on the exact spot, near a banyan tree, in April 2016.) The incident was officially blamed on a blown tire, but Manning later told an investigator that the crash was caused by Amelia jockeying the throttles and having trouble controlling the takeoff of the heavily-laden (with extra fuel) Electra. The blown tire was a result, not the cause, he explained.
Manning bluntly stated that, “One second, I was looking at the hangars (to their right, now occupied by the modern, Pacific Aviation Museum), the next second, the water. I was ready to die. It was phenomenal that none of us were injured. She simply lost it. That’s all. I decided then and there that was it for me.” He quit the same day. Earhart and her husband then decided to hire Fred Noonan, age 44, a former instructor navigator for Pam Am Airways, with a stellar reputation as the finest celestial navigator in the world at that time, who also had a private pilot’s license.
Unfortunately, Harry Manning’s report of Earhart’s piloting skills was not an isolated assessment. She was undoubtedly a bold, courageous, aviation pioneer and world-renown celebrity, but definitely not the world’s best pilot. Her landing in Miami, Florida, after the third leg of their global trip, was so hard that it fractured the Plexiglas window on the right side of the aircraft for the lavatory compartment, and it had to be hastily replaced at a Pan Am facility there with a non-standard, aluminum, repair patch about 19 by 23 inches in size to cover the area, as seen in a Miami Herald photograph dated June 1, 1937. Upon departing from Miami that same day, Amelia is alleged to have teased the world with the prophetic words, “Find me if you can.”
Furthermore, according to Richard E. “Ric” Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR, pronounced “Tiger”), based in Oxford, Pennsylvania, “Amelia Earhart had what today we would call acquired, situational narcissism. Her planning for that (global) flight was abysmal. It’s amazing that she got as far as she did. She had a very cavalier attitude toward the radio. Earhart really didn’t know how to work the radio.” Gillespie has probably researched Amelia Earhart more extensively than anyone else on the planet, so his words are not to be taken lightly.
In addition, her aircraft was equipped with a Bendix RA-1 radio direction-finding set, which operated only on frequencies below 1400 KHz, and Amelia used frequencies 3105 and 6210 KHz. She had posed for smiling, publicity photos with the RA-1 loop antenna, but never took or passed the required, radio-navigation test, so she was not qualified to use the equipment, and therefore selected the wrong frequencies.
Fred Noonan was rumored by some to be a heavy drinker, but this was fairly common in the 1930s, and there is no solid evidence that he was ever an alcoholic, or that drinking ever affected his navigational duties. In fact, Fred’s assigned job was to get the aircraft within 100 miles of any destination point, which he always did perfectly. It was Amelia’s job to make the terminal approach and landing, using radios, direction-finding equipment, and visual piloting skills, since Noonan had no radio experience.
The very last photos and film clip of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan alive, in New Guinea, show Fred to be looking bright, cheerful, sober, and alert, just moments before takeoff on their fateful journey. Eyewitness Bob Ireland said, “I can assure you…he had no drink for at least 24 hours before taking off.” In the very last film clip of the two, Fred is pulling Amelia up onto the wing of the Electra. If he were drunk, she’d have to pull himup. So, there was no drinking problem, certainly none that affected their mission.
Fred and Amelia arrived at the remote, rugged, rough-and-tumble, grass-strip aerodrome at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937, climbing down from the aircraft with beaming smiles. The customized Electra was fitted with four huge, internal fuel tanks inside the passenger cabin, just behind the cockpit, holding 1,100 total gallons of aviation fuel, with a flat sheet of aluminum across the top for Earhart and Noonan to slide across when transiting from the cockpit to the rear area of the aircraft.
After resting and refueling over the next two days, Amelia and Fred finally departed from Lae at 10:00 AM local time on July 1, 1937, bound for tiny Howland Island, a U.S. possession, 2,223 nautical miles away, and measuring only 1.23 miles long by .30-mile wide, with a makeshift, grass airstrip and a U.S. Coast Guard crew to assist them. The flight would take 18 hours, with a two-hour time difference between stations, so their anticipated, arrival time at Howland was 8:00 AM on Friday morning, July 2, 1937. The Electra was to fly at 123 knots (142 mph) airspeed at 12,000 feet altitude for the best fuel consumption, and their average fuel supply lasted for 22.3 hours, giving them a typical, 4.3-hour fuel reserve for safety.
However, upon takeoff from the bumpy, grass airstrip, actual film footage shows a puff of dirt and dust from the ground, and zooming in on the film, the aft, ventral antenna mast for radio reception appears to have broken off, so now Amelia could transmit, but not receive radio calls. And, while it was not a required procedure, Earhart failed to accomplish a quick, radio check after takeoff to verify that her two radios, one for transmitting (a Western Electric 13C model) and one for receiving (a Western Electric 20B model), were fully operational.
They flew on a true heading of 078 degrees toward Howland Island until about 6:20 AM Howland time, or 35 minutes after sunrise, when they were approximately 200 nautical miles from the island, fully aware that a wind out of the southeast at 15 to 23 knots had probably pushed them off-course toward the north slightly. Noonan then made a course correction to 067 degrees, directly toward the rising sun, a known, celestial object in the morning sky. Celestial navigation is only accurate to within 10 miles, but Fred’s fairly simple task was to get them within 100 miles of Howland, and then Amelia would take over with the radios and direction-finder for a terminal approach.
By flying toward a known object in the sky, still for the required 18 hours, they should come out along a line of position (LOP) directly perpendicular to Howland, and then simply turn south along that line until the found the island. So, by arriving along that LOP at the correct time, they would turn 90 degrees toward the right, to a new heading of 157 degrees, and should come out fairly close to Howland Island within a very short time.
At 7:42 AM, Amelia radioed that, “We should be on you, but cannot see you…we are flying at 1,000 feet.” This transmission was received by the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, just offshore from Howland Island to the west. The signal strength was registered as S-5, meaning “loud and clear,” which would place the aircraft within 30 nautical miles (34.5 statute miles) of Howland Island. But, aside from the signal-strength consideration, Amelia and Fred both clearly thought that their navigation techniques were accurate, and they were almost to Howland Island, when she said, “We should be on you.” This fact alone is confirmation that they were very close, indeed.
The problem for all concerned was that the island was now obscured by a heavy overcast of clouds at about 1,000 feet altitude, so Earhart was trying to get beneath it in order to see either Howland itself, or the Itasca. It was now clearly evident to the Itasca crew that Amelia could transmit on the radio, but could not receive their instructions.
She and Fred still could not see the island, however, even though the radio signal strength placed them very nearby. They evidently kept circling Howland for the next hour, still registering S-5 strength on the radio until 8:45 AM. Finally, between 8:43 AM and 8:55 AM, Earhart transmitted her very last messages: “We are running on the line 157-337…We are running on line north and south.” By 8:55 AM, Amelia had about three hours of fuel reserves remaining, and was flying at 1,000 feet, with a reduced airspeed of 110 knots, still attempting to locate the tiny island. They could fly onward only for another 375 nautical miles under those conditions.
As the world’s best navigator, Noonan realized that the 337-degree course would take them nowhere, toward Vladivostok, Russia, more than 3,900 nautical miles away. But the 157-degree heading took them directly toward the Phoenix Islands group to the south. In fact, Gardner Island, a British possession, was exactly 360 nautical miles (414 miles) away, and only 13 miles west of their 157-degree course, just a few minutes before they were likely to run out of fuel. If there was no cloud cover, they couldn’t possibly miss it!
Along this openly-reported route, they would bypass tiny Baker Island, their alternate landing zone, also with a rough airstrip, but there is no evidence at all that they landed there. Well off-course toward the east is McKean Island, with no landing strip, but this island was searched in 1989, finding no evidence of Earhart and Noonan.
This brings us to Gardner Island in the developing story, within the Phoenix Islands, at geographic coordinates 044035 South by 1743118 West, in an extremely remote location, literally thousands of miles from civilization. It measures 4.7 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, and is a volcanic atoll with approximately 6.5 miles of shoreline, and a huge, central lagoon, open to the South Pacific Ocean on the west side. It was named Gardner Island by the USS Vincennes crew in 1840, and was completely uninhabited at that time. In May 1892, it was formally claimed by the United Kingdom, and from 1892 to 1893, 29 Gilbertese islanders lived there for less than a year and planted coconut palm trees, but there was a drought, and the island was again deserted.
During a severe, tropical storm on November 29, 1929, the SS Norwich City (pronounced “Nor-itch City” in British English), a 397-foot-long, British freighter, built in 1911, with a crew of 35 men, ran aground on the island’s northwestern reef, killing 11 men, three of whom were buried on the island. The remaining 24 men survived for five days, until they were rescued, but they left behind a small shelter from the 1893 coconut-planting project, stocked with bottles of water and Benedictine cognac.
The island is beautiful, with white, sandy beaches, but quite inhospitable, with a dense jungle full of thick underbrush, surrounding a large lagoon full of reef sharks up to 14 feet long, barracuda, a wide, razor-sharp, coral reef all around, oppressive heat averaging over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months (this was July 2), a four-foot-high, daily tide, some toxic fish in the ocean, and fierce, giant, coconut crabs measuring 38 inches wide from pincer to pincer, and weighing up to 40 pounds. They feed on coconuts and small animals, can strip a dead human or animal body clean in about six days, and move the bones. Gardner Island is also home for rats, spiders, ants, and scorpions. There are coconuts to eat, clams, and clumsy, red-footed, tropical birds that are easy to catch, but absolutely NO drinking water!
Just north of the Norwich City wreckage, the northwestern reef is a half-mile long by 550 feet wide, and mostly flat and dry at many points in the day, with very little surface water. A reef landing was definitely possible there, and Earhart and Noonan would have been passing very near the island at about 11:55 AM, in the full heat of the midday sun, with the beautiful, massive, flat reef beckoning them exactly as they had only about five more minutes of fuel remaining. The island was easily four times the size of Howland Island, much easier to spot from the air, and there was the enormous, largely-intact, uninhabited wreckage of the SS Norwich City sitting plainly upon the reef, looking exactly like an occupied vessel that could be Amelia’s and Fred’s salvation.
Not only was a reef landing entirely feasible, but Amelia had surely read the true story of the ST-18 Croydon aircraft, very similar in design to a Lockheed Electra 10E, and piloted by Harold H. “Timber” Wood, which had made a successful landing upon Seringapatam Reef, north of Australia, on October 7, 1936. The crew later wrote that, “The fuel supply was rapidly decreasing…we sighted a reef…a landing looked possible…Wood flattened out to make a fine, three-point landing…heavy breakers were pounding…That we survived at all is, of course, an amazing piece of good fortune.”
Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan disappeared forever on that fateful morning, however, and whatever may or may not have transpired at Gardner Island remained unknown for the next half-century. Officially, the U.S. Navy concluded that, “Earhart ran out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean…All radio distress calls were hoaxes.” But, the problem with this government account is that there was never any evidence, no floating debris, no life rafts, aircraft tires, or bodies. Nothing at all was ever found, no evidence at all that they crashed into the ocean.
The largest rescue search in history was launched, involving 66 aircraft, nine ships, and 3,000 people, spanning 16 days, covering 262,000 square miles of ocean, and costing $4 million ($77 million in today’s dollars.) Even the Japanese government assisted, sending the survey ship Koshu to help with the exhaustive search effort. No trace of Earhart, Noonan, or the Electra was ever found, making it one of the greatest, unsolved mysteries in world history.
Three main theories emerged to explain this great tragedy: 1. Earhart ditched in the ocean, the official, Navy version, with no evidence whatsoever to support it. 2. She landed in the Marshall Islands, was captured by the Japanese, and either executed, or survived. Once again, there is not a single trace of solid evidence to support these various stories. 3. Earhart and Noonan crash-landed on Gardner Island, and died later of thirst and dehydration. This was the hypothesis advanced by Ric Gillespie and his TIGHAR organization, and incredibly, there’s a wealth of actual, physical and forensic evidence that supports this conclusion.
The scientific principle known as Occam’s Razor, or the Principle of Simplicity (the “KISS Principle”), states that given a number of competing hypotheses, the simplest one that accounts for all of the known facts is the most-likely to be correct.
Testing the official, “ditched-in-the-ocean” theory, Nauticos, based at Cape Porpoise, Maine, used their NOMAD deep-sea, sonar-imaging system to scour the ocean floor west of Howland Island, along the Electra’s most-likely routes of flight. They had previously located the missing, Japanese cargo submarine I-52 (laden with 146 gold bars inside) at a depth of 17,000 feet in 1998, so great results were expected. In March and April 2002, they searched 630 square miles of ocean for 27 days, at depths down to 18,000 feet, and found nothing. They tried again in March and April 2006, covering 600 square miles for 38 days, and also found nothing. A planned, 2010 Nauticos expedition never took place.
Then, from February 15 to May 12, 2009, the Waitt Institute for Discovery used their Catalyst autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), covering 2,200 square miles over the course of 72 days west of Howland and Baker Islands, but again found absolutely NOTHING!
The next unproven theory was that Earhart was a spy for the U.S. government, photographing Japanese military installations in the area. Except that Japan was a friendly nation toward us at that time, and they even helped to search for her. Remember all the movies about the Pearl Harbor attack, and how shocked the United States was that the Japanese ambassador in Washington was still talking about peace and harmony, even as the attack in Hawaii was underway?
There are at least 17 eyewitnesses who all claim to have seen Amelia and Fred on Saipan, in the Marianna Islands, literally thousands of miles from Howland Island. This is entirely hearsay, anecdotal evidence, second- and third-hand rumors, with witnesses all contradicting one another. They said that Amelia was either shot down, or landed, was either beheaded, or shot, or died of dysentery, or survived (as New Jersey housewife Irene Bolam, who adamantly denied the allegations, and was later proven by DNA evidence not to be Amelia Earhart.)
Witnesses pinpointed alleged, Earhart and Noonan graves on Saipan and Tinian Islands, and bulldozers were actually used to excavate, but no evidence of any kind was ever discovered. There was also a theory about Electra engines found in the jungle of New Britain, but they turned out to be from a B-17E bomber instead. Then, in June 2017, the History Channel produced an old photo of Jaluit Harbor, in the Marshall Islands, purported to show a “captured” Amelia and Fred (but with no soldiers or guards anywhere.) As it turned out just a few weeks later, the mysterious image first appeared in a Japanese photo book in Japan’s national library, and the book was published on October 10, 1935, so it could not possibly be Earhart and Noonan in the photo.
Furthermore, all of the Saipan, and Marshall Islands, and New Britain stories are utterly impossible from the very beginning, because Amelia and Fred definitely made it to the vicinity of Howland Island, as proven by the Coast Guard radio signals, and had a fuel reserve limit of only 375 nautical miles from there in any direction, so any other explanation is simply not physically possible.
This brings us back to TIGHAR’s remarkable, Gardner Island hypothesis, which is actually fully supported by a wealth of very surprising, physical and forensic evidence. In the first six days following her disappearance, Amelia Earhart apparently made as many as 100 radio transmissions, repeatedly calling for help. Pan Am radio direction-finding stations on Oahu in Hawaii, on Wake Island, and on Midway Island, all triangulated these calls, most of which came from the vicinity of Gardner Island at low-tide times of the day. Researchers later analyzed 120 reported, distress signals after Earhart vanished, and found 57 of them (47.5 percent) to be credible. They ALL pointed toward Gardner Island!
In Rock Springs, Wyoming, 16-year-old Dana Rudolph heard short-wave radio transmissions stating that, “This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on a reef south of the Equator.” Gardner Island was, in fact, 4.66 degrees, or 276 nautical miles, south of the Equator. Radio experts have subsequently said that these calls were probably genuine.
Betty Klenck, age 15, of Petersburg, Florida, heard a woman on the short-wave radio identify herself as Amelia Earhart and Amelia Putnam, ask for help, and she was talking with a man who sounded irrational. The man was incoherent, and said that his head hurt. There was a struggle. Amelia tried to keep him inside the airplane, because she had to stay with the radio. Finally, Amelia said: “We’re leaving the plane, because the water is knee-deep on my side.” Klenck recognized Earhart’s distinctive voice from recent, movie newsreels, and was certain that it was her. Klenck’s father notified the U.S. Coast Guard, but their information was brushed off.
The really interesting and detailed part of Klenck’s story was that she listened for over two hours, and took detailed notes in a school notebook. Klenck later recounted in 2007 that, “I could hear her heartbreaking tone…she became more frantic…I know I am right.” Amelia kept repeating something in the static that sounded like “New York City.” She would have known that Lloyd’s of London and other maritime insurers keep detailed records of the exact locations of every shipwreck in the world, and all she would have to do was say, “This is Amelia Earhart, and I’m at the wreck of the Norwich City,” in order to be swiftly located, but that obviously didn’t work out. Also, there were staticky references to someone apparently named “Marie,” and Noonan’s wife’s name was Mary, so these key details certainly added credibility to the Klenck report.
There was also a very fascinating report from three U.S. Navy radio operators in Wailupe, Hawaii, stating that they heard a woman’s voice calling “NRU1” (the Coast Guard cutter Itasca) from “KHAQQ” (Amelia Earhart’s own callsign.) This indicated that she may still have been alive on Gardner Island on the evening of July 7th. Her transmission was, “Earhart calling NRU1; NRU1 calling from KHAQQ: On coral (reef) southwest of unknown island. Do not know how long…KHAQQ calling, KHAQQ, we are cut a little…” Then, the signal faded out. These Navy radio operators may have been the last Americans ever to hear Amelia Earhart’s voice. So, it is entirely possible that she was still calling on the nights of July 6th and July 7th, 1937.
All of this amazing, radio evidence certainly indicates that the U.S. Navy was rather hasty and definitely mistaken in summarily asserting that, “All radio distress calls were hoaxes,” when, actually, almost 48 percent of them were later proven by experts to be credible. Was the Navy in a huge hurry to prematurely close the case? In fact, as researchers Robert “Bob” Wheeler and Harold “Fred” Nicely, both retired, military pilots, pointed out in an investigative report, “We…can conclude that the thought processes of the people who were supposed to rescue her were fatally flawed.”
Very soon afterward, during the intense, 16-day search for Earhart and Noonan, the USS Colorado battleship catapult-launched its three O3U-3 Corsair floatplanes, and Lieutenant John O. Lambrecht flew directly over Gardner Island at 400-feet altitude, taking just one grainy, black-and-white photograph (now known as “The Lambrecht Photo”) from off the southeastern coastline between 8:30 AM and 9:30 AM on July 9, 1937. This was an officially uninhabited, British island at the time, and Lambrecht made only a single pass, noting that, “Here, recent signs of habitation (footprints in the sand, etc.) were clearly visible.” But, no one ever investigated his brief-but-revealing report!
Three months later, on October 15, 1937, at about 12:40 PM, Cadet Officer Eric Bevington, of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, took a remarkable photograph offshore from Gardner Island, showing the SS Norwich City wreckage mostly intact, and amazingly, an odd anomaly in the shallow water of the flat reef. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded in 2012 that the object in this photo was entirely consistent with a Lockheed Electra 10Emain landing gear assembly, but offered no government funding for any research or expeditions.
In the March 20, 1937, Electra crash in Hawaii, the right main gear separated from the aircraft. That appears to have been a structural weakness. Was that the right main gear on the reef? The anomaly continued to show up in aerial photos taken in 1938, but was gone by January 1942, when the rear half of the SS Norwich City separated from the main wreckage, and slid 980 feet down the steep, oceanic abyss surrounding the edges of the island, which descends 17,000 feet to the ocean floor.
Bevington’s British Survey Team arrived in late 1937 with 20 Gilbertese settlers, scouting the area for possible aircraft and seaplane landing sites. They found a fresh, recent, bivouac site on this supposedly-uninhabited island, and the settlers established the tiny village of Karaka on the west side of the atoll, constructing grass-roofed huts and officially inhabiting Gardner Island for the foreseeable future.
Part 2 to follow soon! Stay tuned at GPM for “the rest of the story.”
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian (also investigating historical mysteries.) You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.