Published April 01, 2007
It's the coldest of cold cases, and yet it keeps warming to life. Seventy years after Amelia Earhart disappeared, clues are still turning up.
Long-dismissed notes taken of a shortwave distress call beginning, "This is Amelia Earhart ...," are getting another look.
The previously unknown diary of an Associated Press reporter reveals a new perspective.
A team that has already found aircraft parts and pieces of a woman's shoe on a remote South Pacific atoll hopes to return there this year to search for more evidence, maybe even DNA.
If what's known now had been conveyed to searchers then, might Earhart and her navigator have been found alive? It's one of a thousand questions that keep the case from being declared dead, as Earhart herself was a year and a half after she vanished.
For nearly 18 hours, Earhart's twin-engine Lockheed Electra drummed steadily eastward over the Pacific, and as sunrise etched a molten strip of light along the horizon, navigator Fred J. Noonan marked the time and calculated the remaining distance to Howland Island.
The date was July 2, 1937, and the pair were near the end of a 2,550-mile trek from Lae, New Guinea, the longest and most perilous leg of a much-publicized "World Flight" begun 44 days earlier in Oakland, Calif.
At the journey's end there a few days hence, Earhart, already the most famous aviator of the decade, was to become the first female pilot to circumnavigate the globe.
Noonan, a former Pan American Airways navigator, estimated when the plane would reach an imaginary "line of position" running northwest-southeast through Howland, where they were to land, rest and refuel for the onward flight to Hawaii.
Earhart pushed the talk button on her radio mike and said, "200 miles out."
Her voice — described as a "whispery drawl," evoking her Kansas roots — was heard by the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, rocking gently in calm seas off Howland. The U.S. government had built an airstrip on the treeless, 500-acre coral spit, and at the request of Earhart's husband and manager, publisher George Putnam, dispatched the cutter from Hawaii to help her find her way.
During the night, Itasca's radio operators had become increasingly exasperated. Earhart's voice had come through in only a few, brief, static-marred transmissions — "sky overcast" was one — and hadn't acknowledged any of Itasca's messages or its steady stream of Morse code A's sent as a homing signal: dot-dash, dot-dash ... They decided the glamorous 39-year-old "Lady Lindy" was either arrogant or incompetent.
What nobody knew — not Earhart, and not Itasca — was that her plane's radio-reception antenna had been ripped away during the takeoff from Lae's bumpy dirt runway. The Itasca could hear Earhart, but she was unable to hear anything, voice or code.
Also listening in the Itasca's radio room was James W. Carey, one of two reporters aboard. The 23-year-old University of Hawaii student had been hired by The Associated Press to cover Earhart's Howland stopover. His job was to send brief radiograms to the AP in Honolulu and San Francisco.
But during the eight days since arriving at Howland, Carey also had been keeping a diary.
In small notebooks, he jotted down comments about the island's "gooney birds," beachcombing and poker games in Itasca's wardroom. He also noted how Earhart's delayed departure from Lae was affecting crewmembers' morale, writing on June 30: "They are getting tired of waiting for a `gooney' dame who doesn't seem to be aware of the annoyance the delays have made."
Carey's diary was unknown to Earhart scholars until last September, when a typewritten copy turned up on eBay and was bought by a member of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR. The non-profit organization believes Earhart and Noonan were not lost at sea, but landed on an uninhabited atoll called Gardner Island, and lived for an unknown period as castaways.
"Even though the diary doesn't answer the big question, it's an incredible discovery," said TIGHAR executive director Ric Gillespie, who has led eight expeditions to the island since 1989, and plans another this July if his group can raise enough money.
"We have long had the transcripts of the radio traffic, but this is the first document that puts a real person aboard Itasca and tells us something from a firsthand witness about what went on during those desperate hours and days."
On July 1, word came from New Guinea that the Electra was finally airborne.
Early on Friday, July 2, Carey wrote in his diary: "Up all last night following radio reports — scanty ... heard voice for first time 2:48 a.m. — `sky overcast.' All I heard. At 6:15 am reported `200 miles out."'
By the time Earhart, her voice stronger, reported she was "100 miles out," a welcoming committee had gone ashore and was "waiting restlessly," Carey wrote.
If Noonan's dead-reckoning did not bring the plane directly over Howland at the "line of position," Earhart would fly up and down the 337-157 degree line until she found the island.
"To the north, the first landfall is Siberia," says Gillespie, "so if they didn't find it soon, they'd have turned back south, knowing that even if they missed Howland, there were other islands beyond it — Baker, McKean and Gardner — on that same line."
But nothing was that simple. By now, Earhart would be burning into her five-hour fuel reserve, and even in daylight, islands could be obscured by billowy clouds and their shadows on the water.
At 7:42 a.m. local time, Earhart's voice suddenly came loud and clear: "KHAQQ to Itasca. We must be on you but cannot see you. But gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet."
At 7:58 a.m., there was a nervous edge to Earhart's normal calm. A log entry had her saying, "we are drifting but cannot hear you." An operator changed this to "we are circling." Gillespie believes she actually said, "we are listening."
As birds wheeled over the Howland shoreline, human ears strained for the sound of engines, and binoculars scanned for any sign of the silver Electra. Itasca continued sending Morse code A's.
About 8:30 a.m., believing Earhart must be out of gas, Itasca's captain, Cmdr. Warner K. Thompson, ordered the welcoming committee back to the ship. "Flash news from ship Itasca: `Amelia down,"' Carey wrote in his diary.
Suddenly, at 8:55 a.m., Earhart was back on: "We are on the line 157 337... we are running on line north and south." The radiomen agreed she sounded distraught; one thought she was near hysteria.
Then the radio went silent.
Having won a coin-toss with his United Press rival, Howard Hanzlick, to decide whose news bulletin would go first, Carey had prepared two versions: "Earhart landed —— Howland time," and "Flash Earhart crackup landing —— Howland time."
He had not anticipated a third alternative, that she might not land at all.
Now, with all frequencies reserved for possible distress calls, neither reporter could send anything. While AP broke the "Earhart missing" story from Honolulu, quoting Coast Guard officials there, it would be 18 hours before Carey's first report reached San Francisco.
In the meantime, he kept busy with the diary: "Itasca set off `full speed ahead' to search the northwest quadrant off Howland," the most likely area for the plane to be afloat on empty gas tanks.
Nothing was sighted, and by evening the ship's mood, Carey wrote, had "taken a turn to the more serious side."
Seventy years later, the mystery lingers. Millions have been spent on expeditions and deep-sea probes, and although legally declared dead by a California court in early 1939, Earhart has been the subject of more than 50 nonfiction books.
"In 1937 she was a celebrity — today she's an icon," says Gillespie, of Wilmington, Del., whose own book, "Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance," was published last year.
Theories have ranged from the official version — that the Electra ran out of gas and crashed at sea — to the absurd, including abduction by aliens, or Earhart living in New Jersey under an alias.
A 1943 Hollywood movie, "Flight for Freedom," echoed groundless claims that the pair were on a secret government spying mission against the Japanese and were captured and executed. A 1999 book asserted, without proof, that "the solution to the Earhart mystery lies on the ocean floor under 17,000 feet of water."
Gillespie's book, along with "Amelia Earhart's Shoes," a 2001 book written by four other TIGHAR volunteers, offers a bold, reasoned thesis that Earhart and Noonan crash-landed on a flat reef on Gardner, in the Phoenix Islands, 350 miles south of Howland, and survived, perhaps for months, on scant food and rainwater.
Searches of the remote atoll, now called Nikumaroro, have produced a tantalizing, if inconclusive, body of evidence.
In 1940, Gerard Gallagher, a British overseer on Gardner, recovered a partial human skeleton, a woman's shoe and an empty sextant box at what appeared to be a former campsite, littered with turtle, clamshell and bird remains.
Earhart being his first thought, Gallagher sent the items to Fiji, where a British doctor, examining the human bones secretly to avoid "unfounded rumors," decided they belonged to a stocky European or mixed-blood male, ruling out any Earhart-Noonan connection.
The bones later vanished, but in 1998, TIGHAR investigators located the doctor's notes in London.
Dr. Karen Ramey Burns, a forensic osteologist at the University of Georgia, found the Fiji doctor's bone measurements were more "consistent with" a female of northern European descent, about Earhart's age and height. Burns' report was independently seconded by Dr. Richard Jantz, a University of Tennessee forensic anthropologist.
On their own visits to Gardner, TIGHAR teams recovered an aluminum panel that could be from an Electra, another piece of woman's shoe and "Cat's Paw" heel dating from the 1930s; another shoe heel, possibly a man's, and an oddly cut piece of clear Plexiglas.
The sextant box might have been Noonan's. The woman's shoe and heel resemble a blucher-style oxford seen in a pre-takeoff photo of Earhart. The plastic shard is the exact thickness and curvature of an Electra's side window.
The evidence is promising but, as Gillespie is careful to note, remains circumstantial. "We don't have serial numbers," he says.
As the news that the aviators were missing flashed around the world, confusion, official bungling and missed opportunities had only begun.
Itasca searched along the "line of position" northwest of Howland, wrongly assuming the plane's empty fuel tanks would keep it afloat.
The Navy ordered six warships into the hunt, including the battleship USS Colorado from Pearl Harbor and the aircraft carrier USS Lexington from San Diego, 4,000 miles away.
On July 3, a day after Earhart vanished, her technical adviser, Paul Mantz, suggested to reporters that she had crash-landed in the Phoenix Islands. Even if the plane's undercarriage was damaged, Mantz said, "the fliers could have walked away ... uninjured."
Meanwhile, several shortwave radio listeners as far away as the U.S. mainland were picking up the faint voices of a woman and a man, sending apparent distress calls. And both the Itasca and a New Zealand cruiser, HMS Achilles, reported what seemed to be Morse code "dashes."
When Pan Am's Pacific stations triangulated the signals to the Phoenix Islands, the Achilles, less than 48 hours away at its top speed of 32 knots, was ignored. Instead, the Colorado was sent south, but by the time it reached the area a week later, the radio calls had ceased.
After a float-plane search of eight atolls, senior pilot Lt. John O. Lambrecht reported that "signs of recent habitation were clearly visible" at Gardner Island, but "repeated circling and zooming failed to elicit any answering wave from possible inhabitants, and it was finally taken for granted that none were there."
Had Lambrecht known that the island had been uninhabited for more than 40 years, he might have looked more closely. In an interview years later, he described the signs only as "markers," without elaboration. Inexplicably, the final report by Colorado's captain said no sign of habitation had been found.
Among reports of voice messages, two from teenagers using shortwave antennas rigged by their fathers were most disturbingly credible.
In Rock Springs, Wyo., Dana Randolph, 16, heard a voice say, "This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on a reef south of the equator." Radio experts, aware that "harmonic" frequencies in mid-ocean often could be heard far inland, viewed the report as genuine.
Turning the shortwave dial in St. Petersburg, Fla., 15-year-old Betty Klenck was startled to hear a woman say, "This is Amelia Earhart Putnam," followed by pleas for help and agitated conversation with a man who, the girl thought, sounded irrational.
Having heard Earhart's voice in movie newsreels, she had no doubt that it was her.
"In my mind, a picture of her and what she was saying lasted for years. I remembered it every night of my life," Betty Klenck Brown, now 84 and widowed, said in a recent telephone interview from her home in California.
The man, she recalls, "seemed coherent at times, then would go out of his head. He said his head hurt ... She was trying mainly to keep him from getting out of the plane, telling him to come back to his seat, because she couldn't leave the radio.
"She was trying to get somebody to hear her, and as the hours went by she became more frantic."
Betty listened for nearly two hours, taking notes in a school composition notebook as the signals faded in and out. They ended when the fliers "were leaving the plane, because the water was knee-deep on her side," she said.
She believes she may be the last living person to have heard Earhart's distress calls.
Her father, Kenneth, who also heard the voices, contacted the Coast Guard at St. Petersburg, but was brushed off with assurances that the service was fully engaged in searching for the fliers, she said. "He got mad and chucked the whole thing because of the way he was treated."
Both teenagers' accounts would support TIGHAR's premise that Earhart crash-landed on Gardner's flat reef at low tide, was able to run its right engine to power the radio, and escaped the aircraft before tides eventually carried it off the reef into deep water.
On July 18, 16 days after Earhart and Noonan disappeared, the Navy and Coast Guard ended what the AP called "the greatest search ever undertaken in behalf of a lost flier." To justify the official finding that the Electra was lost at sea, the government dismissed the radio distress calls as hoaxes or misunderstandings.
Betty Klenck Brown's response today: "I know I am right."
Last September, Arthur Rypinski, a TIGHAR volunteer who regularly scans the Internet for Earhart-related material, found a woman in West Virginia offering an "Amelia Earhart Original Flight Plan" for sale on eBay.
"I was deeply intrigued," says Rypinski, of Rockville, Md., and he bought the document for $26.
The "flight plan" proved instead to be a copy of Carey's diary, along with news clippings and other items. Stamps showed it was once owned by the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa. The seller, Dolores Brown, told Rypinski she probably had found it at a Goodwill store.
According to Carey's son, Tim Carey of Woodbridge, Va., his father served as a naval officer in the Pacific in World War II and had a career in public relations before his death in 1988.
His role as an AP reporter on the Earhart story became part of family history, his son says. And he adds: "The diary was completely in character for him. He was a real note-keeper."
Now raising funds for a ninth TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro in July, Gillespie says the Carey diary serves as a reminder to always "expect the unexpected" in the Earhart case.
"Pacific islanders don't wear shoes, so we know there was one foreign castaway, and maybe two, a man and a woman, on Gardner ... We hope this summer to recover human remains for DNA testing and find aircraft pieces that could be conclusively identified as from Amelia's plane.
"This is the expedition that could at last solve the mystery. I think we are right on the edge of knowing for a certainty what happened."