In the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her
navigator Fred Noonan, Saipan has featured prominently in the stories.
On July 1, 1937, the famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator,
Fred Noonan, disappeared somewhere in the vicinity of the Phoenix Islands
southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Many theories abound and those
familiar with Saipan know that some believe that she was eventually found
by the Japanese and brought to Saipan. The Japanese have consistently
denied having any knowledge of the fate of Amelia Earhart. Some have
theorized that she may have been engaged in espionage for the United
States in an attempt to learn more about military activities in the Japanese
Mandated Islands of Micronesia, particularly in the vicinity of Truk which
was believed at the time to be the site of a Japanese naval base. The theory
rests upon the last message ever received from Earhart by the U. S. Coast
Guard Cutter Itasca and whether or not the information received was a
compass heading or a sun line. She radioed, "We are on a position 157
degrees - 337 degrees, we will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles.
We are running north and south."
The entire theory rests on two of several radio messages transmitted from
her aircraft that provided flight information to the Itasca. One message
being a position fix 5 hours after her departure from Lae, New Guinea and
a second message radioing either a heading on a compass or a sun line
as she neared her destination. For almost sixty years her disappearance
has been a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
Although it has been consistently denied by the United States Government,
there must have been several high ranking officers within the American naval
establishment who saw in Earhart's plan for a flight around the world a
golden opportunity to reconnoiter the developments being carried out within
the Truk Lagoon by the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart (Mrs. George P. Putnam)
and her navigator, Fred Noonan, (previously a Pan American Airways
navigator), along with their Lockheed Electra -10 after the aircraft left Lae,
the capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea, is a puzzle
that remains fascinating.
It is not known if American intelligence officers ever bothered to read the
annual reports the Japanese were required to submit to the League of
Nations in the late thirties on their activities in the islands. If the United
States authorities analyzed such reports they must have become curious
as to the purpose of the imports of certain commodities listed in the
statistical tables of the Annual Reports for 1936 -'37 which included 3.8
million tons of rice, (enough to feed a huge naval establishment).
Did knowledge of these increasing imports prompt General Henry "Hap"
Arnold, Army Air Corps Chief, to attempt to find out what had been taking
place within the Japanese Mandated Islands beyond their wall of secrecy
by ordering the flight of two B -24's to reconnoiter the area barely two
weeks before the outbreak of war in the Pacific and attempt to learn what
Earhart failed to do 4 years and 5 months earlier?
While the buildup of Truk as a great Gunko, (naval base) had been kept a
closely guarded secret, U. S. naval vessels were prohibited by the
Japanese from entering the harbors of the Mandated Islands . By 1937,
American naval authorities were becoming increasingly apprehensive of
Japan's rearmament and the growing belligerency of its military. So much
so that on Thanksgiving Day in 1941, (two weeks before the attack on
Pearl Harbor) General Arnold ordered two B-24 aircraft stationed in San
Francisco (1) to fly to Manila. While enroute they were ordered to fly over
Jaluit in the Marshall Islands and Truk in the Eastern Caroline Islands to
photograph the naval installations there and attempt to find out what had
been taking place at these locations within the Japanese Mandated Islands.
Did the American military's curiosity about these islands prompt an earlier
(1937) request of Amelia Earhart to also attempt to fly over the same
islands for the same purpose but from a different direction? Did she do so?
The only serious problem with such a supposition is that a position report
received from Earhart while in flight occurred at 5:20 p. m. (Lae time) and
indicated her position at 04 degrees - 33 ' south latitude by 159 degrees -
06' east longitude, a fix which would place the aircraft in the vicinity of
Nukumanu Island, northeast of Bougainville and in the area where it should
have been assuming the original flight plan was being followed.
This fix would place the aircraft on a track from Lae to Howland Island
some 742 nautical miles or about one third the distance between the two
points which are separated by 2,227 nautical miles. This radioed position
is far to the southeast of Truk and almost due south of Ponape (Senyavin
Island, now Pohnpei) and north of Guadalcanal. That the transmission was
picked up in Lae is strange indeed, since the Electra's radio range was
said to be (although not confirmed by this researcher) not much more than
400 miles. If this was in fact true - how is it that the signal was picked up
from almost twice the distance? Was it a hoax? Was it a deceptive
position directed to confuse any Japanese radioman at Truk who might
have been monitoring the much publicized flight path (presumed to be
from Lae to Howland) and the radio frequency of 6210 KHz? If so, the
report was received at Truk only a short time before the aircraft could have
roared over the encircling reef at Truk to carry out its assignment of aerial
espionage before turning east to fly toward Jaluit and beyond the
International Date Line thence south east to Howland . To intentionally
radio a false position with the objective of disguising one's true position is
a classic technique of deception. Had a Japanese been monitoring the
radio at Truk he could have plotted her position as a result of those
coordinates and assumed she was outside the boundary of the Mandated
Islands when in reality she could have been only an hour or so flying time
south of Truk bearing down on the Japanese anchorage. Then zoom over
the lagoon with enough light to observe the base before turning to fly east
into the cover of the advancing evening darkness.
On July 2,1937, Earhart departed Lae, New Guinea with Howland Island,
as her destination 2,227 n. miles distant on an azimuth of 79.8 degrees -
almost due east. The aircraft was to rendezvous with the U. S. Coast
Guard Cutter Itasca which had been assigned by the U. S. Government
to provide weather information and a directional beacon signal.
Howland is a low island with the highest point not ten feet above sea level.
It is located at 00 degrees- 48' north latitude- 176 degrees - 38' west
longitude, a mere dot on a Pacific chart.
It is interesting to note that on May 11,1935, Fred Noonan replied to a
letter from Navy Lt. Commander, P. V. H. Weems , an authority on aerial
navigation , in which Noonan wrote about certain equipment for the planned
flight. He stated, "For reasons which I am certain you can understand, we
are not permitted to discuss the particulars of the flight for dissemination
among the general public." (2)
For some time the aircraft identified as King - How - Able - Queen - Queen
had been trying to communicate by radio with the American vessel.
However, some of the signals received by the Itasca , and there were
several, were at times either inaudible or incomprehensible. As the ship
waited at Howland its radio crackled shortly after 8 A. M , July 1st, with a
women's voice. " We are on the line of position 157 degrees - 337 degrees -
we will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles wait listening on 6210
kilocycles - we are running north and south." This was the last message
received by the Itasca from Earhart. For sixteen days thereafter eight
United States Navy ships and sixty four aircraft scanned 138,000 square
miles of the Pacific for some evidence of the aircraft with the registry
number 16020 and its crew of two. Nothing was found.
Flying a heading of 79.8 (2) degrees in a northeasterly direction would
result in approaching Howland from the southwest. Flying a heading of
157 degrees (if this was in fact a compass heading rather than a sun line)
would result is approaching the island from a northwestern direction. The
question to be posed being - what would one have to do to approach
Howland on a heading of 157 from the northwest? Could it be possible
that Earhart, on a secret mission for the U. S. military, flew north from Lae
over the Truk Lagoon to observe the installations and then anticipate a
change in heading over Eten Island in the lagoon which would take her
east over Jaluit in the Marshall Islands and then continue to fly east and
cross the International Date Line to approach Howland from the northwest
on a compass course of 157 degrees ? If she did -then she was engaged
in espionage - about that there can be no doubt. The distance in nautical
miles from Lae to Truk is 888; from Truk to Jaluit - 1,063; and from Jaluit
to Howland (via Great Circle) - 878 n. mi.
The total distance is 2,829 n. mi. as compared with 2,227 n. mi. when
flying direct from Lae. The most direct route (Great Circle) from Jaluit to
Howland is on a heading of 109.9 degrees for 878 n. miles. However, this
route, while shorter, would require her to be in Japanese airspace and over
several populated islands in the Marshalls for a longer period of time which
would afford the Japanese more time for interception should the flight be
Even so the cover of darkness would provide added safety. Did she
maintain an easterly heading of 090 degrees after passing over Jaluit to
reach a (critical) point for a turn on the "western" side of the Dateline then
turn southwest on 157 degrees to reach Howland? The precise turning
point on the U. S. side of the Dateline would be critical. If flying short
- or flying beyond this critical point - a heading of 157 could still be flown -
but the island would be missed in the empty expanse of the Pacific.
One could indeed depart Lae for Howland on a heading of 79.8 degrees
(the direct route), and without a functioning auto-pilot, drift off course either
to the north or south of the intended tract and fly to a point southeast or
northwest of Howland then turn the aircraft to 157 degrees or it reciprocal
of 337 degrees either before or beyond the critical point in this area and
miss the island. It is also quite possible that the islands were not
accurately plotted on the charts of the period which could account for a
navigational error at the desired destination of the flight.
She departed Lae at a time selected to result in arrival at Howland after
sunrise for the obvious reason of being able to see the island and the
crude, unlighted airstrip during daylight.
The United States Government certainly will never admit she was engaged
in espionage if in fact that was the case since the country was not at war
at the time and the Japanese have nothing to gain by admitting any
knowledge of the fate of the two aviators.
The mystery is left to the interested reader to ponder.
In the interest of objectivity it should be stated that professional navigators
do not believe Earhart was involved in a reconnaissance flight over the
Japanese Mandated Islands. This author bears full responsibility for any
errors in the theory or calculations. However, one thing can be
acknowledged, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were two courageous
pioneers in the true American spirit.
Forty years after the disappearance of Amelia Earhart , four Chamorro
women were interviewed on Saipan by a Catholic Priest in November 1977.
Their names have been intentionally omitted from this brief summary for
obvious reasons. Their comments and recollections of the late thirties
were provided to a U. S. Navy Admiral on Guam for forwarding to
Washington. Summarizing the interviews, one woman stated that when
she was a young girl , sometime around 1937 or ‘38, a foreign woman, thin
in stature with brown hair - cut short similar to that of a man, would
sometimes pass her house and on one occasion, looked “sickly” with one
side of her body and one hand burned. The foreign woman, with whom the
Chamorro lady could not communicate as she did not speak English at the
time, was believed to be staying in a nearby building referred to by the local
people as a hotel. This woman gave a ring with a “white” stone in it along
with some pleasant smelling balsam to the young Chamorro girl.
Later, two Chamorro girls were asked to make two wreaths and, when
asked why - the girls were told that the “American” had died of “amoeba”
(dysentery or diarrhea).
The Chamorro woman related that when the foreign woman was alive she
was guarded. The other Chamorro woman recalled that as a child she
remembered hearing that a plane had crashed “southwest of us” and the
pilot was a woman. The Chamorro recalled that the Japanese were ‘very
startled” because she was piloting the plane.
Still another Chamorro woman, when interviewed stated, “it could be 1939
or something like that when I first heard there was a woman spy who came
to Saipan but they said she was most likely killed. But I did hear that an
American woman was caught spying”.
Still another Chamorro woman when interviewed recalled, “hearing about a
plane that crashed, the topic of conversation in Saipan. I remembered
going to church, I wanted to light a candle for my husband because a
battleship was scheduled to come into port about 10 o’clock in the morning.
The plane was exhibited and that was when the Japanese made an
announcement to all the people that those who wanted to see an airplane
may come and see it. That was the year 1937 or 1938.”
“There were talks (sic.) about the plane having fallen down (sic.) in the
island south of us in Micronesia. I know of a ring that belonged to that
woman. I don’t know what ever happened to it”.
If the signals heard by Radio Nauru, Wake, Midway and Makapu Point
originated from the Electra then it could be assumed that Earhart did not
crash in the sea but on an island since sea water would have rendered the
Electra’s radio inoperable. Being on land and having been heard by Radio
Nauru it may be surmised that she survived a crash landing and was alive,
and with the aircraft, until 0948 (GMT) July 5, 1937. If so, this was the last
signal ever received.
The possibility cannot be ignored that Earhart flew off course, strayed into
air space over the Japanese Mandated Islands , ran out of fuel and was
picked up by the Japanese and taken to Saipan. If, on a heading from
Lae of 79.8 degrees, it is possible that position report of 157 - 337 degrees
is a navigation sun line . If so, the Truk theory may be incorrect.
Since the departure from Lae, Amelia Earhart was in flight 20 hours and 15
minutes with 30 minutes of fuel remaining. It is not known for certain if she
flew the Lae - Truk - Jaluit route , (2,829 n. miles) or the direct Lae -
Howland route, (2,227 n. miles). The difference between the two is 602 n.
miles. The former route would require an average ground speed (g. s.) of
140 n.m.p.h. while the latter would require an average ground speed of
The take-off weight of the aircraft, length of the runway at Lae and fuel
capacity of the Electra are also critical factors to consider.
Many bizarre stories have been advanced surrounding her disappearance.
Among the strangest stories includes that of a United States soldier
stationed on Saipan in 1944-‘45 who claims to have seen the Lockheed
Electra destroyed by American military in a damaged Japanese aircraft
hanger at As Lito Field.
Still another intriguing story concerns that of a bottle with its cork sealed
with wax which washed ashore on the coast of France in October, 1938
with a note inside. The French language message stated that the writer
had been a prisoner of the Japanese on Jaluit where he claims to have
seen Amelia Earhart and a male individual, both of whom were being held
on the atoll for alleged spying on Japanese installations. The writer of the
note stated he had been placed on a Japanese vessel bound for Europe
and would throw the bottle overboard when the ship neared port.
This message is in the U. S. National Archives in Washington after having
been given to American authorities at the U. S. Embassy in Paris.
Earhart's position report at 0720 hours GMT of 04 degrees - 33 minutes
south by 159 degrees 06 minutes east results in an approximate estimated
time of arrival in the vicinity of Howland at approximately 2005 hours GMT
or two hours later than originally anticipated.
One might ask the reason for the continued interest in the Earhart saga.
She was married to George P. Putman a public relations specialist
(founder of Putman Publishing Co.) who saw in the flight an opportunity to
capitalize on the adventure which was widely followed throughout the world.
He actively promoted the attempt of an around the world flight in the news
media. Amelia Earhart might be also recognized as being in the vanguard
of what would later become known as the women's liberation movement.
These factors have kept the issue before us through the years.
The possibility cannot be ignored that Earhart flew off course, strayed into
air space over the Japanese Mandated Islands, ran out of fuel and was
picked up by the Japanese and taken to Saipan.
(1) The order to fly over
Truk was a result of communication dated 26
Other sources: U. S. Naval
Institute Proceedings, February 1971, April