From the archives: 75th anniversary of Amelia Earhart's disappearance

Amelia Earhart and her Electra aircraft.
Amelia Earhart and her Electra aircraft.

Earhart down in Pacific; coast picks up new SOS

SAN FRANCISCO, July 3, 1937 (UP) -- Miss Earhart's husband, George Palmer Putnam, maintaining a ceaseless vigil at Oakland airport, was not convinced today that the voices heard by amateur radio operators were those of either Miss Earhart or Captain Noonan, her navigator.


He also was not certain that the plane actually had sent out earlier dot and dash signals picked up by Coast Guard stations, by the British cruiser Achilles and the freighter New Zealand.

"I would be tremendously cheered if these reports were true," he said, "but the plane is obviously down somewhere, and, being down, I am afraid its radio would be completely out of commission."

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Guarding against emergency, Miss Earhart and Captain Noonan had taken along a large supply of rations-condensed food such as malted milk tablets and chocolate, enough to last for several weeks. Also aboard was a "rebreather outfit," a device which manufactures drinking water through the simple means of condensing human breath.

A two-man rubber raft was also on board, the plane, together with flares and a bright orange kite, which could be sent aloft to attract attention.

Mr. Putnam said the plane itself could stay afloat for a long time.

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The position of the lost plane was not definitely fixed, but was believed to be perhaps about 100 miles north of Howland Island.

Miss Earhart apparently overshot Howland Island, her objective, and then came down at sea when she exhausted her fuel. The plane is a land ship, but was constructed to stay afloat indefinitely with its retractable landing gear. The empty gasoline tanks, as well as the wings and fuselage, were built with this contingency in mind, but exceptionally heavy seas might soon smash and sink the plane.

Miss Earhart's repeated SOS messages were picked up in the United States and as far off as Australia. The best guess that could be hazarded from the plane's messages and allowing for known currents in that vicinity placed it about 100 miles north of Howland Island.

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The Coast Guard cutter Itasca was patrolling the waters off Howland Island from the hour it became apparent to Miss Earhart that she was going to be forced down at sea.

The British cruiser Achilles, which was first to pick up the Earhart signals, reported that after hearing the SOS the plane asked:

"Give us a few dashes if you hear this-KHAQQ."

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An amateur radio operator in Los Angeles reported that he heard Miss Earhart's voice distinctively this morning and two other California operators likewise picked up her distress signals and her call letters, KHAQQ.


"It was Miss Earhart all right," said Walter McMenamy. "I know her voice very well. She just keeps repeating SOS over and over. A little while ago she said something else, but I could not make it out.

"She can't use code herself, so I assume Noonan is busy or asleep, or something. Her voice sounded pretty good. Not scared at all-she never sounds that way."

Mr. McMenamy said he intercepted signals from the plane which he thought might be Miss Earhart's navigational reading.

"It was 179 and what sounded like 1.6," the amateur operator said. "That position would be considerably more than 100 miles off Howland Island."

Earlier code signals, presumably from Mr. Noonan, came in steadily every fifteen seconds. Shortly after 7 A. M. New York time, signals became loud enough to be picked up by a loud speaker and relayed over telephone. The radio operators attributed this to the fact that it was dark the entire distance and there was no longer daylight static.

Steady and clear-cut at first, the calls became ragged and jerky hours later, as though the hand on the key was growing nervous under the strain, the radio men said.

"It's the most jittery code I ever heard," McMenamy commented.


The station operated by Mr. Pierson, short wave radio engineer, and Mr. McMenamy appeared to be the only mainland wireless steadily receiving signals from the plane.

This station is one of the few equipped with an amplifying, directional, inside-beam antenna, which permits long-range reception, it was explained.

Lieutenant S.K. Johnson, of San Francisco Coast Guard headquarters, said that the Itasca at Howland Island had identified weak radio signals as coming from Miss Earhart's plane.

"The signals are so faint," Lieutenant Johnson said, "that the Itasca operator is unable to determine the plane's location."

He added that the signals were being heard on all sides, even down in Sydney, Australia.

"But, he said, "they are weak and there is no way of running them down."

The signals were on international airplane frequencies of 31.05 and 62.10 kilocycles, and also on the international distress frequency of 500 kilocycles.

Meanwhile the U. S. S. Swan was ordered to proceed to Howland Island from a point between that island and Honolulu. Naval authorities at Honolulu also said the U. S. S. Colorado would leave Pearl Harbor shortly for Howland Island arriving there within two and a half or three days. The Colorado carries three planes which would be used almost constantly in searching for Miss Earhart.


The last word from the plane while it was in flight was picked up at 12:55 P. M., P. S. T. (4:55 P. M. New York time) yesterday by the Itasca, stationed at Howland Island. The Itasca had only heard the plane's signals.

Early today Admiral William D. Leahy, chief of naval operations in Washington, ordered the commandant of the Honolulu district to make all naval facilities available in the search. The Admiral acted when Mr. Putnam appealed to the Navy Department for aid.

The supposition was that by some slight miscalculation in navigation, Miss Earhart's plane had missed the island, which could not be seen even from a plane, 100 miles away. It never has been visited by air.

The island was the only available landing place. It is about two and a half miles long and less than half a mile wide. The Itasca had been stationed there with fuel for Miss Earhart's plane.

Just fifty-six minutes before her final radio message, Miss Earhart had estimated in another radio contact that she was about 100 miles from the Itasca, but was unable to give the relative bearings. Coast Guard operators estimated that the plane might be found floating within 100 miles of the island, possibly northwestward.


Continual radio messages were being broadcast to the plane from the Honolulu Coast Guard station and from the Itasca. Both voice broadcasts and signals were sent. The signal is the letter "N" which the plane could pick up for direction with its Bendix finder.

Only one steamship, the Matson Line's S.S. Monterey, was known to be in the area. The Monterey was bound for Suva and some distance off Miss Earhart's route.

The Itasca had fuel for a six-day search. The U. S. S. Ontario, which had been stationed half-way between Lae and Howland in case of emergency, was equipped for a shorter search and was farther removed from the scene.

Navy planes out of Honolulu would have to fly directly to Howland, search as long as their fuel supplies permitted, and then go to Johnstown Island to await a naval tender which would bring fuel. Howland is 1,800 miles southwest of Honolulu. Johnstown is 600 miles from Howland, in the direction of Honolulu.

The "flying laboratory" was powered with two Wasp engines that were capable of developing 550-horsepower and 220 miles an hour top speed.

Its fuel capacity was 1,151 gallons, and its cruising range 4,000 miles. Cost of the plane and its elaborate equipment was paid by Mr. Putnam and by Purdue University, which was interested in the scientific aspects of Miss Earhart's flight.

Storm grounds plane searching for Earhart


HONOLULU, July 3, 1937 (UP) - Naval headquarters announced that a snow and sleet storm, almost unprecedented in the South Seas, today forced back to Honolulu a giant Navy seaplane which left here last night for Howland Island to aid in the search for Amelia Earhart.

It was feared that this storm might have been responsible for the disappearance of Miss Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, after overshooting Howland yesterday in their twin-motored Lockheed-Electra.

Twenty-four hours since Amelia Earhart's disappearance in mid-Pacific passed at 4:55 P. M. today-with no word from her plane since 1:55 P. M. (New York time).

Amateur picks up message from Earhart

SAN FRANCISCO, July 6, 1937 (UP) - Charles McGill, Oakland radio amateur, reported today that he picked up at 10:35 A. M. (New York time) a weak voice message on the band of Amelia Earhart's plane down in the Pacific. The message said: --


"281 North Howland

"Cannot hold out much longer.

"Drifting slowly northwest.

"We above water. Motor sinking in water. Very wet."

Miss Earhart's husband, George Palmer Putnam, said he placed "fair credence" in the authenticity of the message.

Coast Guard officials were skeptical.

Mr. Putnam and his representative, E.H. Dimity, explaining why they put faith in the message, said; --


"McGill picked up this message at 6:35 A. M. (Coast time) today. He previously picked up a message on Miss Earhart's band at 5:55 A. M. Saturday.

"We happen to know that Miss Earhart, in event of a forced landing, would attempt to broadcast every half-hour-on the hour and on the half-hour.

"Saturday's message was heard at 5:55 A. M.-practically on the hour.

"This morning's message was heard at 6:35 A.M.-almost on the half-hour."

Three ships cruised the area off Howland Island where Miss Earhart and her navigator, Fred J. Noonan, were forced down Friday in their hop from New Guinea.

Meanwhile it was learned that the Japanese navy had ordered the survey ship Koshu, now located in the Marshall Islands, to communicate with all nearby Japanese vessels in an effort to help locate the plane.

Tokyo earlier had ordered an aircraft carrier and a supply ship to join the search and asked the southern Pacific fishing fleet to keep a sharp lookout.

McGill said this morning's message was in a faint voice. He was unable to say whether it was a man's or a woman's.

"It was too faint and came widely interspersed over the carrier of 31.05, one of Miss Earhart's bands."


McGill said Saturday's message was in Miss Earhart's voice.

"She said SOS four times, followed by the call letters of her plane-KHAQQ," he added. "Then she repeated SOS twice, followed by KHAQQ.

"Then she said: --Fred Noonan taking over.

"Her voice stopped and it was immediately followed by code."

The code message, McGill said, was: --

"225 north northwestward off Howland. Battery very weak.

"Can't last long.

"Flares all wet.


McGill was unable to explain the meaning of "Baks."

Husband of missing flier Earhart secluded after long vigil

SAN FRANCISCO, July 6, 1937 (UP) -- George Palmer Putnam, motion picture executive and husband of Amelia Earhart, went into seclusion today in the home of a San Francisco doctor.

Mr. Putnam was exhausted by his vigil at Coast Guard headquarters, where he has been awaiting word from his lost wife and her navigator, Captain Fred Noon, since Friday when they went down at sea.

Friends said Mr. Putnam was "completely worn out and badly in need of rest."

Before he left the Coast Guard station Mr. Putnam expressed his belief that naval and Coast Guard ships were searching the wrong area for the fliers.

He said he believed Miss Earhart and Captain Noonan were down on a reef in the Phoenix Islands, south of Howland. Naval charts show no land in the area 281 miles north of Howland, where vessels are conducting their search. The Phoenix group is dotted with small coral reefs.


Mrs. Noonan resumed her household duties today.

U.S. ships search South Pacific for Earhart

HONOLULU, July 7, 1937 (UP) - The battleship Colorado, carrying three swift airplanes, was steaming at top speed today toward the Phoenix Islands to search in a new area of the South Pacific for Amelia Earhart and Captain Frederick Noonan.

The Colorado was scheduled to reach Winslow Bank, on the north edge of the Phoenix group of small coral reefs and volcanic deposits, at 10:30 P.M. New York time today.

From this narrow line of shoals, if daylight and visibility permit, Captain Friedell, the Colorado's commander, plans to catapult his planes and launch the search immediately. Winslow Bank is 280 miles southeast of Howland Island, where Miss Earhart planned to land last Friday afternoon on her attempt to fly around the world in her $80,000 "Flying Laboratory."

The Colorado planes, two-seaters, have a cruising range of 200 miles from the mother ship. Captain Friedell planned to deploy them spokewise from the ship.

Also converging on the Phoenix Islands were the Coast Guard cutter Itasca and the Navy mine sweeper Swan. The British freighter Moorby was forced to give up the search because of fuel shortage.


Speeding to the rescue in addition were the airplane carrier Lexington, with sixty planes aboard, and four destroyers. They were due in the vicinity of the Phoenix Islands this week-end. When they arrive the complement of the searching party will include ten ships and 4,000 men. The Lexington is due at Pearl Harbor tomorrow to refuel.

"We will have made a thorough search of the northern Phoenix group by Friday," Captain Friedell said. "Then, if the search has brought no results, we will proceed to Howland."

Naval headquarters said that it did not plan to send planes directly from this base to the Howland Island vicinity. One seaplane sought to make the 1,800-mile flight Saturday, but was turned back 400 miles short of its goal by a sleet storm.

Additional reports, were received on the mainland today-from amateur radio operators-purporting to give information from or about the lost fliers, Charles Miguel, Oakland amateur who reported he heard signals Saturday and yesterday on Miss Earhart's wave length, said he picked up another message at 10:30 A. M. (New York time) today.

This message, in a feeble voice which Miguel could have been from either a man or woman, was :--"NRUI-NRUI-KHAQQ calling...on coral reef southwest of unknown not know how long ...we are OK."


The message faded out, sputtering, Miguel said.

George Putnam, Miss Earhart's husband, placed no faith in this report. Navy and Coast Guard officials were skeptical.

NRUI is the call of the cutter Itasca. KHAQQ is the call of Miss Earhart's plane.

Another message, which officials said read like a fortune teller's prediction, was received at Oakland Airport from George Huxford, Washington. It said:

"Amelia landed exhausted small boat small reef fifty miles southwest of Howland. She was weak. Portable radio, food and water, but hardly strength use them. She will be rescued alive by ship, probably Japanese, and taken to Howland. Noonan not with her. Confirmation coming tomorrow."

Mr. Putnam said he did not know Huxford. He placed no credence in the message. Coast Guard and Navy officials also doubted its authenticity.

Mr. Putnam remained in seclusion at the home of a friend in San Francisco.

Five radio amateurs reported that they heard rippling signals this morning on the wave length assigned to Miss Earhart's plane. They said the signals-on a carrier wave-sounded as if they were powered by a motor generator.

Two of the amateurs were Honolulu men, two were in Los Angeles and one was in Whittier, Cal.


From Howland Island also came reports that new distress signals had been heard-signals that indicated that the flier was trying desperately to guide rescuers to her position.

The Itasca, which had been surveying the area around Howland Island since Saturday in the hope of finding some trace of the "Flying Laboratory," reported to headquarters that new directional bearings had been obtained.

Those indicated that Miss Earhart had been flashing SOS signals from a line running south-southwest or north-northwest of the island. Coast Guardsmen said this line coincided with the last position report broadcast by the flier before she and Captain Noonan disappeared.

Previous signals came on the same line, but those in charge of the search then believed that they indicated Miss Earhart and Captain Noonan went down in an area about 281 miles north and west of Howland Island. That section was searched for nearly twenty-four hours, however, by three ships. Now the search had been turned southward.

Transfer of the search to the area south of Howland Island cheered Putnam, who, in messages from San Francisco, had urged such a course.

Mr. Putnam is convinced that Miss Earhart and Captain Noonan landed short of their goal rather than beyond it. He believes strong winds threw them slightly off course and used up so much fuel that an emergency landing was necessary.


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