What happened to Amelia Earhart?
Sitting in a lonely field next to the site of the old Lae airport is a forlorn slab of concrete that once bore a plaque dedicated to the brave aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, who was last seen flying from the grass and gravel strip to her intended destination in the Pacific in July 1937.
The popular narrative is that she was never seen again. But was she?
Lae has long since been served by the more favourably located airport at Nadzab. With the busy gold mining industry, old Lae airport was once among the busiest anywhere and that’s how Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, found it when they arrived on June 29 after completing 35,000 kilometres of their round-theworld flight.
The intrepid pair checked into Lae’s ‘plush’ and only hotel, the Cecil, and were greeted by the owner, Flora ‘Ma’ Stewart. Once
the only art-deco building in Papua New Guinea, it somehow survived Japanese occupation, but was demolished in the 1970s. It would be enthralling to be a fly-on-the-wall at the dinner table as Earhart and Guinea Airways general manager, Eric Chater, discussed the flight thus far and the dangerous and complicated 11,000-kilometre trans-Pacific legs that lay ahead.
While Earhart dined privately in the comfort of the Chater household, Noonan took the opportunity, in the absence of an invitation to join Earhart, to go drinking with some of the local flyers, Bertie Heath and Jim Collopy. Noonan waxed on about his time with Pan American flying their Clippers around the Pacific and how he had no specific apprehension about the next leg as he felt particularly qualified to find the speck that was Howland Island. The two noisily put the drunk Noonan to bed about
midnight, waking Earhart in the next room.
While the pair enjoyed a break at Lae, Chater’s mechanics were busy servicing Earhart’s Lockheed Electra, attending to several issues Earhart had noted on the eight-hour flight from Darwin. Chief mechanic, Ted Finn, oversaw the operation and Earhart spent some time in the hangar watching them work on the engines, radio and gyro.
Earhart was keen to get going as soon as possible, but first had to attend to many messages that were relayed via the AWA wireless station, as there were no phones in Lae. Harry Balfour was the sole operator of the rudimentary station.
She had to rely on expensive, hand-transcribed dispatches, which contained crucial weather observations and route advice from both the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the US Coast Guard vessel, Itasca, which was stationed off Howland Island to provide radio guidance.
Heavily laden with 1100 US gallons of fuel, the Electra took off from old Lae airstrip amid great fanfare, with many locals turning out to see the pair off. A black-andwhite film taken by young Guinea Airways employee Alan Board, and the still photos taken that day, are the last known images of her, Noonan and the Electra.
The film and images were recently analysed by Jeff Glickman, an expert forensic examiner, and it has been determined that an antenna attached to the underside (belly) of the aircraft was likely
Heavily laden with 1100 US gallons of fuel, the Electra took off from old Lae airstrip amid great fanfare, with many locals turning out to see the pair off.
ripped from the Electra as it taxied to take off. The specific function of this device has been subject to some debate, and how it could have affected the flight ahead has been debated by experts in many books and internet forums.
As the aircraft disappeared to the east, the weather reports Earhart had been waiting for arrived from Hawaii and attempts were made to transmit this information to her. The success, or otherwise, has never been fully established and crackly, garbled transmissions continued for the next few hours. The last verified position report was near the Nukumanu Islands, 1300 kilometres from Lae.
From this point on, matters get confused. There have been many theories about the ‘disappearance’, but it helps to understand the political mood in the region at the time, especially relations between the US and Japan.
In 1937, the Japanese had control of most of Micronesia through to the Marshall Islands, having been ceded them by the League of Nations as a protectorate after the defeat of Germany in World War 1. Beginning in the 1920s, the Japanese were expanding the settlements all through this huge territory by encouraging civilian migration from Japan.
Things were going fine for a while, but in the early 1930s Japan began to quietly build its military presence in these territories in contravention of its agreement with the League of Nations. Chuuk in Micronesia, for example, was expanded to a huge military base to rival Pearl Harbor, as well as suspicious installations in the Marshall Islands, uncomfortably close to the main US base in Hawaii.
The US government had taken particular interest in the ambitious empire, especially after Japan’s military intervention in China and clear signs it was building its armed forces elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. What if an otherwise innocent civilian flight could be diverted to reconnoitre these secret islands and determine if Japan was demonstrating hostile intentions to its neighbours, the US included?
It was well known that Earhart was short of funds after the first (east to west) attempt at the round-the-world flight ended in an expensive accident in Hawaii. But she miraculously acquired enough money to relaunch her attempt just two months later, when the flight took off from Oaklands, California, in the opposite direction.
For the final and most difficult section across the Pacific, the aircraft was equipped with advanced RDF equipment and, as mentioned earlier, had the support of the US Coast Guard and a specially built airstrip on remote Howland Island. Proponents of this theory have suggested that was quite an unusual and conspicuous investment for a pair of ‘stunt flyers’.
Oral history in the Marshall Islands strongly supports the theory that the Electra either crash-landed or was forcelanded at Mili Atoll, near the regional capital of Jaluit. A set of storyboard postage stamps were even issued to recall this event.
The theory goes that the pair, accused of espionage, became
prisoners of Japan and were sent to jail on Saipan where they were incarcerated for several years until they either died or were executed.
“It was widely known throughout the islands by both Japanese and Marshallese that a Japanese fishing boat first found them and their airplane near Mili,” recalls one of the Marshall Island’s most prominent modern pioneers, Robert Reimers. “They then transferred them to a bigger boat (believed to be the Koshu Maru). They were brought to Jabor, where (local medic) Bilimon (Amaron) treated them. They were then taken to Kwajalein and from there to Truk and then Saipan. There was no mystery ... everybody knew it!”
Another theory gaining much traction at the moment, despite scant evidence, is that when the plane become lost or disorientated near Howland Island, they crashed near Nikumaroro (then known as Gardner Island) in Kiribati. It is here that it is believed they survived for a time as castaways until dying.
But in recent years a far more intriguing theory has emerged: that the wreckage of the Electra is hidden in the jungle near Kimbe.
Timothy Joe Aiap, from Urin village high in the Whiteman’s Range in the Kandrian district of West New Britain, claims to have found wreckage that conforms to the description of the Earhart aircraft. Other commentators have cast doubt on that, claiming instead that he has found a lost US bomber or fighter aircraft, possibly a B-24 (Liberator) or P-38 Lightning.
One of those experts interested in the West New Britain theory is retired Australian aviation engineer David Billings, who is working from a World War 2 map unearthed from lost archives in 1993, which detail findings by Australian soldiers on patrol in East New Britain in April 1945.
The most perplexing clue in this mystery is that the soldiers recovered a manufacturer’s tag from the wreckage that matches ‘precisely’ the serial numbers from Earhart’s Lockheed 10E Electra. While the tag itself was handed in to authorities at the time, the notes still exist handwritten on the original patrol map. This theory suggests that Earhart invoked a contingency plan to turn back in the event of an emergency.
All of this reminds us that the enduring mystery of Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance continues to grip the imagination and spawn a wealth of conspiracy theories that go beyond a simple recordbreaking stunt to espionage, official secrecy and a meticulously orchestrated cover-up.
Flight path ... Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were on the final leg of their recordbreaking, round-the-world flight in 1937 when they took off from Lae and vanished.
High flyer ... a publicity photo of Amelia Earhart and her Lockheed Electra at Miami, in the US. About a month later she disappeared after leaving PNG.
Plane talk ... Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan discussing the route across the Pacific (right); one of the last photos of Earhart as she prepares to leave Lae (opposite page).