Lost Beyond the Blue

AMELIA MARY EARHART - American pioneer woman aviator (1897-1937)AMELIA MARY EARHART - American pioneer woman aviator (1897-1937). PICTORIAL PRESS LTD / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Women must pay for everything. They do get more glory than men for comparable feats, but, they also get more notoriety when they crash. —Amelia Earhart

By Laurie Bogart Wiles

ON JULY 2, 1937, AT 10 A.M., Lockheed Electra 10-E Special, serial number 1055, U.S. civil certification registration NR16020, took off from Lae Airfield in Papua New Guinea, 1,468 miles north of Australia. Called the “Flying Laboratory,” this aircraft was the most technologically advanced and costly of its day. Originally designed as a passenger plane; this one-of-a-kind aircraft was specially designed to fly as far and as long as possible before refueling. To that end, the passenger seats were removed, and two 118-gallon tanks were installed forward of the Main Beam, three 149-gallon tanks and one 70-gallon tank behind the Main Beam. The auxiliary tanks enabled the Electra to fly 2,565-miles nonstop to its destination: a tiny, remote atoll called Howland Island, approximately 1,700 nautical miles south/southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. Every instrument, every reading, every projection had to be exact because the real difficulty was not only finding Howland in the vast Pacific, but seeing it. This would be the second to last, longest and most dangerous leg of the historic second attempt by Amelia Earhart, the most famous female aviator in history, to circumnavigate the earth as close to the Equator as possible.

The roar of the engines drowned out the buzz of excitement that emanated from a group of awestruck natives that mingled among a few British officials on the edge of the airfield to watch the heavily laden aircraft lift off before the dirt runway dropped into the Huon Gulf. No one—not even Earhart nor her sole crew member, navigator Fred Noonan—realized that fate had just dealt them the hand that would play out in tragedy. The antenna mast attached to the rear belly of the aircraft snapped off when the tail whipped back as Amelia swung the plane sharply onto the runway. Grainy footage shows the antenna hit the ground as Amelia revved the engines for a fast takeoff down the short airstrip. Without its main receiving antenna, the Lockheed Electra 10-E Special was now unable to receive radio transmissions. Earhart and Noonan were doomed to fly in silence over the vast Pacific—into oblivion.

WHO WAS THIS WOMAN WHOSE FATE REMAINS CLOAKED IN MYSTERY? Amelia Mary “Millie” Earhart was born in Achison, Kansas on July 24, 1897. She was the eldest child of Amelia “Amy” Otis and Edwin Stanton Earhart, a mediocre lawyer with an alcohol problem that would eventually destroy his family. Her sister and only sibling, Grace Muriel “Pidge” Earhart, was three years younger. Her parents’ separated when she was twelve. Soon after, Millie and Pidge were separated from both parents. The girls remained in Atchison to live with their wealthy maternal grandparents, Alfred and Amelia Harres Otis, while Amy followed Edwin to find work, in an attempt to save the marriage.

In 1915, after graduating from Hyde Park School, Amelia’s grandparents sent her to Ogontz School, an elite finishing school in Philadelphia, from which she graduated in 1917. Women from good families were to marry well and have children, but Amelia wanted more for herself. From an early age, she kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings of strong, independent women.

Her dream was to attend Bryn Mawr, then Vassar, and become a doctor. But her plans changed abruptly while visiting her sister, who was attending St. Margaret’s College in Toronto, Canada. The United States finally entered World War I. The Spanish Influenza pandemic was a global plague, likewise taking millions of lives. Together, almost 200 million people died. Aware of the dire need for nurses at Spadina Military Hospital, Amelia volunteered.

In 1919, Amelia was prepared to pursue her goal to study medicine and enrolled at Columbia University in New York, but she left after her first year to move to California to support her parents in another attempt at reconciliation. She was 22 when she attended an air show and, for the first time, saw a plane fly. It was the golden age of daredevil flying. Crowds of people flocked to watch stunt pilots risk their lives, defying gravity in their “devil machines,” flying upside-down, doing loops and spins, plunging nose-first before averting the ground seemingly by inches, while scantily clad women walked along the wings and men of derring-do hung from them. Amelia was smitten.

It was the “Roaring Twenties,” arguably the most pivotal decade of change for women in modern times. On August 26, 1920, female empowerment took its first giant leap forward when the 19th Amendment was passed granting women the right to vote. The Age of Independence for women had begun— and it took off with a bang. There were new fashions, new ideas.

The number of working women outside of the home increased by 35 percent between 1920 and 1930. Mary Pickford, the brightest star in the early days of the Silver Screen, co-founded United Artists with her then-husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Humorist Dorothy Parker was embraced as the first female member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table. “The Mother of American modernism,” artist Georgia O’Keeffe, redefined fine art. Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League. Singers Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne were female trailblazers of “The Harlem Renaissance,” a celebration of African-American culture.

Also called the “Jazz Age,” it was that rebellious, sexually liberated time when hemlines rose and morals fell, women bobbed their hair, smoked cigarettes in public and drove cars! Men slicked-back their hair and wore double-breasted blazers, grey flannels and “dirty” bucks just like international playboy, the Duke of Windsor.

The Great Gatsby, debut novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald, became the Bible of his generation. Prohibition spawned the biggest business of all, the Mafia, which monopolized bootlegging and the illegal distribution of alcoholic beverages. More than 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone poured gin into the wee hours. Dirty cops lined their pockets with ‘tokens of appreciation’ for turning a blind eye. Carefree women called “flappers” danced the Charleston, the Black Bottom, the Shimmy and the Turkey Trot with booze-fueled abandon. And, yes—divorce had become oh-so-much easier. None of this would have been possible just twenty years before. The Twenties were the coming of age of America. And it would be Amelia Earhart’s coming of age, as well.

ON CHRISTMAS DAY 1921, AMELIA’S FATHER SURPRISED HER with a gift of a five-minute ride in a biplane. “As soon as I left the ground,” she later recounted, “I knew I myself had to fly.” Determined, she took a number of part-time jobs to earn money for lessons. Her first instructor was female pioneer aviatrix Anita “Neta” Snook, and soon Amelia was living, breathing and dreaming about nothing but flying.

She cut her luxuriant long hair and slept in her new leather flight jacket to give it the crumpled effect of a more seasoned flyer. In the summer of 1921, she purchased her first plane—a yellow, secondhand Kinner Airster biplane she affectionately called “The Canary.”

On October 22, 1922, Amelia achieved a world altitude record when she flew The Canary to 14,000 feet—the first of numerous altitude, distance and speed records she would set over the next 15 years, including an altitude record of 18,000 feet in an autogiro. One of the original feminists, she wanted to prove a woman was just as good as any man in the air, later maintaining, “I’ve had practical experience and know the discrimination against women in various forms of industry. A pilot’s a pilot. I hope that such equality could be carried out in other fields so that men and women may achieve equally in any endeavor they set out.”

In 1923, Amelia became engaged to a chemical engineer named Sam Chapman, but the engagement was short-lived after Amelia declined to wear an engagement ring. In 1924, the money inherited from Amelia’s maternal grandmother had run out and with it, any chance her parents had of saving their marriage. Unable to make a living at flying, Amelia sold her beloved plane and drove across country with her divorced mother to start a new life in Boston. She wanted to continue her medical studies at Columbia University, but money for tuition was simply not there. Living with her mother in a modest house in Medford, Massachusetts, she became a teacher, then a social worker. Finances improved, and in 1927, Amelia was able to return to flying. She became a member of the Boston Chapter of the American Aeronautical Society, a regional sales representative for Kinner airplanes, wrote articles on aviation and became the sixteenth woman to be issued a pilot’s license by the world aeronautics governing body, the Federation Aeronautique.

ON MAY 21, 1927, A 25-YEAR-OLD PILOT NAMED CHARLES LINDBERGH flew 3,600 miles in the first successful transatlantic flight to Paris, France. Flying solo, the courageous journey took Lindbergh 33 1 / 2-hours in his single-engine Ryan monoplane, the “Spirit of St. Louis.” That one feat would make the world a smaller place—and Amelia Earhart’s prospects greater. Not only was this the first time the Atlantic Ocean was successfully crossed by air, but Lindbergh singlehandedly introduced air travel. Now, the sky, quite literally, was the limit. Two months later, New York publisher George P. Putnam published Lindbergh’s autobiography, WE. It sold over 650,000 copies the first year, was translated into every major language and resulted in a highly lucrative promotional tour of 82 cities. Putnam transformed the quiet, former barnstormer and U.S. Air Mail pilot into a national hero. According to contemporaries, Putnam was a “skilled conjuror with a knack for showmanship” and could “pull a best-seller out of his hat.”

Soon after Lindbergh’s exploit, Putnam was in a meeting with Hilton Howell Railey, a Massachusetts businessman and U.S. Marine veteran. “Pull your chair over,” Railey whispered to Putnam, according to an article by Keith O’Brien, published August 1, 2018, in Globe Magazine. Railey had heard that two aviators in Boston were secretly preparing to fly a woman across the Atlantic. Putnam wasn’t the first person to figure out that the next big thing after Lindbergh would be for a woman flyer to cross the Atlantic.The publicity alone would be a gold mine! Putnam urged Railey to find the two men—and find them fast. “By midnight,” O’Brien wrote, “he had found his two airmen at the Copley Plaza Hotel: a mechanic named Lou Gordon and a pilot named Wilmer “Bill” Stultz. Railey plied Stultz with Scotch—the pilot’s weakness—to get the answers he needed and then reported the news back to Putnam. A secret female flight was, indeed, in the works. There was just one hitch in the plan. The woman who had commissioned the flight, the wealthy Amy Guest, had backed out. Her family didn’t want her flying across the ocean.” Socialite Amy Phipps Guest was the daughter of Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Phipps Jr., Andrew Carnegie’s partner in the Carnegie Steel Company. She was also an amateur flyer and wanted to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, if only as a passenger. However, her family protested that it was too dangerous. Six women flyers had already lost their lives in the attempt.

According to Sally Putnam Chapman, granddaughter of George and Dorothy Putnam, in Whistled Like a Bird, her 1997 biography of her grandparents’ and Amelia Earhart’s complex relationship, “George had heard quite by accident that a wealthy socialite from Pittsburgh, Mrs. Frederick Guest, was searching for a suitable candidate to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a plane.” A meeting was arranged in which Amy told Putnam she would sponsor the flight if he could find a well-educated, wellbred, attractive, ladylike aviatrix—“the right sort of girl”—willing to go on the momentous journey. The search was on. Railey put the word out among his U.S. Navy and Marine Corps friends. “Call Denison House,” a retired Navy man told him, “and ask for Amelia Earhart” [IBID,O’Brien, Globe.]

Railey arranged for Earhart to meet Putnam at his office in New York on April 25. Their first meeting did not go well. Putnam kept her waiting outside his office for an hour. When she was finally ushered into his office, she was “as sore as a wet hen,” Putnam later recalled. “I just didn’t like him,” Earhart said of their first meeting, “He was rude, abrupt and took one phone call after another, but by the end of the meeting, I recognized his tremendous power of accomplishments and immediately respected his judgment.”

Putnam came out of their meeting with a different take. He confided his feelings to his wife, Dorothy. “George was infatuated with Amelia and spoke freely to his wife about the young woman’s intelligence and friendly manner. He also noted her graceful hands, her gray eyes and quick laughter, describing the aviatrix as someone Dorothy would enjoy knowing,” according to Sally Putnam Chapman. Though several other women flyers were considered, the choice could only be the quietly composed woman who bore such a startling resemblance to Charles Lindbergh—so close, in fact, that when Railey first reported to Putnam, he referred to Amelia as “Lady Lindy.” And that’s exactly how Putnam would introduce her to the world press.

ON JUNE 17, 1928, “LADY LINDY” took off with pilot Wilmer “Bill” Stultz and mechanic Louis E. “Slim” Gordon from Trespassey Harbor, Newfoundland. Guest had leased and christened “The Friendship.” Twentyhours, 40-minutes later, “The Friendship” landed in Burry Point, Wales. Stultz had flown the entire way, prompting Amelia to privately confide, “I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes. Maybe someday I’ll try it alone.” She sidestepped the question the press asked her about her role in the flight: “Adventure is worthwhile in itself,” she demurred.

On July 6, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker gave Amelia, Bill Stultz and Slim Gordon a hero’s welcome with a ticker tape parade along Broadway. From that day to this, Amelia Earhart would be heralded as the most famous female flyer the world has ever known.

Immediately after the parade, Amelia moved into the Putnam’s home in Rye, New York, where she would stay until she completed writing 20 Hrs., 40 Min., an autobiographical account of her great adventure. Putnam was constantly coming up with new ideas to cash in on Amelia’s fame. Among her many endorsements was Amelia Earhart Luggage, manufactured by Orenstein Trunk Company. Made in linen and leather with silk lining, the line was considered an innovation in stylish travel.

Dorothy and Amelia were thrown together, though not by choice, and became friends at first, sharing a love of travel and adventure and in time, the love of the same man. But inevitable strain surfaced. At the end of August, Amelia and Putnam put Dorothy on a train for a month-long trip to California. During Dorothy’s absence, George and Amelia fell in love. Dorothy had been having an affair with her son’s tutor. One afternoon, during a barbeque party the Putnams were hosting, Dorothy packed her bags and left, as one guest recalled, while Putnam was “gaily spearing hot dogs for a shy young aviatrix named Amelia Earhart.” Dorothy filed for divorce.

Talk of matrimonial plans ran rampant through the press. Amelia’s demure, evasive response was, “You can never tell. If I was sure of the man, I might get married tomorrow.” But she wasn’t sure of the man. She confided in a letter to a friend, “I am still unsold on marriage. I may not ever be able to see it except as a cage until I am unfit to work or fly or be active.” Clearly, the pressure on Amelia was intense as Putnam minutely crafted her image: He told her to keep her lips closed when she smiled to conceal the gap between her two front teeth.

FINALLY, ON FEBRUARY 6, 1931, Putnam telephoned his mother to tell her that he and Amelia were driving to Noank to be married the following day by Judge Anderson. There would be no guests, just Putnam’s mother Frances and two witnesses. There would be no flowers, not even a wedding ring. However, just before the ceremony, Earhart handed Putnam a two-page letter she had typed out on his mother’s grey household stationary: “I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage. I must exact a full promise, and this is that you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.” Putnam agreed. The letter “was brutal in its frankness but beautiful in its honesty,” he would later say.

Then, just moments before the civil ceremony began, Amelia had the word “obey” struck from the marriage vows. Five-minutes later, George Putnam and Amelia Earhart were legally bound together as husband and wife.

Ten days later, on February 17, 1931, the news finally broke. Headlines blared, “Aviation Pioneer Amelia Earhart married George P. Putnam in Noank, Conn.”

Now that she was a married woman, Amelia was even more scrupulous about protecting her privacy and her name. On June 28, 1932, she wrote to Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, from her home in Rye, N.Y.: “May I make a request of the Times through you? Despite the mild expression of my wishes, and those of G.P.P., I am constantly referred to as ‘Mrs. Putnam’ when the Times mentions me in its columns. I admit I have no principle to uphold in asking that I be called by my professional name in print. However, it is for many reasons more convenient for both of us to be simply ‘Amelia Earhart.’ After all (here may be a principle) I believe flyers should be permitted the same privileges as writers or actresses.”

The marriage resembled a business, rather than a conjugal partnership; but as a business, it was extremely successful. Putnam continued to devote himself to licensing and promoting “the goals his wife set for herself as an aviator” and together, as a team, fashioned Amelia Earhart into one of the most lucrative, iconic marketing brands of the day. But it was Amelia’s line of smartly tailored, feminine and functional women’s clothing that gave her the most pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. “The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune,” she said.

Amelia had sewn her own clothing as a girl. The practical flying suit she designed for herself early in her career became the accepted uniform of women aviators. Her sleek, trim style was so universally admired that it netted her a regular column in Cosmopolitan magazine, where she was an advocate for the independent, free-thinking woman. In February 1933, the Putnams invited Amelia’s favorite designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, to lunch to discuss a line of “functional clothing for active living.”

Amelia Earhart Fashions was born in the Putnams’ suite at New York’s Hotel Seymour, where a workspace was set aside for her with a sewing machine, dressmaker’s mannequin made to her proportions and a professional seamstress to turn her concept into reality. “I hate ruffles, and at the price I could pay, that was all I could buy. So, I decided to design clothes.”

Sales were encouraging at first. When she was not giving lectures, Amelia worked on her collection. Putnam encouraged the press to drop by and interview his wife. Her goal, Amelia would say, was to produce well-made, washable, affordable clothing that was “something characteristic of aviation, a parachute cord or tie or belt, a ball-bearing belt buckle, wing bolts and nuts for buttons.” Her trench coat design was redolent of her early flying clothes. A Harris tweed coat had a zip-in and washable lining, and raincoats were made in “parachute” silk with buttons shaped like propellers.

But the clothing line couldn’t maintain the excitement with which it was first met. The Great Depression was in full force, and while $16.75 seems like a reasonable price for a pair of slacks today, it was the equivalent of $300 back then. Women did not have that kind of money to buy clothes— indeed, the majority of Americans had barely enough money to spend on food for their children. Even in December 1934, when the Fashion Designers of America voted Amelia one of the ten best-dressed women in America, the widespread publicity was not enough to sustain Amelia Earhart Fashion, and the collection did not see a second season.

ON MAY 20, 1932, AT 7:12 P.M. AMELIA TOOK OFF IN HER FIRE ENGINE RED, single-engine Lockheed Model 5B Vega, with a wingspan of 41-feet, from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland for her solo transatlantic flight. If successful, Amelia would be the first woman and second person to succeed. Newsreel footage of her climbing into the cockpit had to be re-shot because she turned away from her husband when he went to kiss her. On the retake, she allowed Putnam to kiss her briefly on the cheek.

Trouble struck almost immediately. Thick ice formed on the wings forcing her to fly low in fog. The altimeter failed, the plane’s manifold cracked, the fuel tank leaked, and the exhaust manifold was damaged. With no recourse but to visually search for land, she caught sight of a cow pasture in Culmore, Northern Ireland.

“Where am I?” she asked the farmer who approached the plane.

“Why, you’re in Gallegher’s pasture!” he replied. Though some ways away from her planned destination of London, England, Amelia Earhart had nonetheless completed her goal. On May 21, 1932, 15 hours, 39 minutes after her departure, Amelia Earhart became the first woman aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic—exactly five years to the day after Lindbergh’s inaugural flight—a distance of 1,754 nautical miles (2,109 statute miles.)

Even such a victory was not enough for Amelia. She continued to seek fresh opportunities and break records, flying from Hawaii to California, Mexico City to New York, setting the coast-to-coast speed record.

Then, in 1936, she announced that she would attempt a 27,000 mile air journey that no man or woman had ever accomplished: “I hope to fly from Oakland to Honolulu, then Howland Island to the northern tip of Australia, up through Singapore, Calcutta across India . . . then across Africa to Dakar. From Dakar, I cross the south Atlantic across to Panama, through Mexico, and back to the starting point.”

HER LONG AND GRUELING UNDERTAKING had begun almost a year earlier, on July 24, 1936, when Amelia took delivery of what ultimately would be her flying coffin. She had worked closely with the U. S. federal government to promote commercial air travel to Hawaii. Her navigator Fred Noonan was considered one of the most proficient experts in naval and aerial navigation. On the morning of March 17, 1937, the plane took off from Burbank, California for Luke Field (NAS Ford Island), Honolulu, Hawaii. It was not a smooth flight; weather conditions were poor, and Paul Nantz, who was sharing the pilot duties with Amelia, made a hard landing. The flight to Honolulu took 15-hours and 47-minutes. Three days later, on the morning of March 20 with Amelia at the helm, the heavily laden aircraft attempted to take off when purportedly a tire was blown. Amelia lost control of the aircraft, which spun on the runway and crashed.

On May 20, Earhart set out once more, this time flying west to east, now judged safer due to changing global weather patterns. But something else beside the weather patterns had changed their plans. Harry Manning backed out, leaving Amelia, Noonan and Nantz to fly to Miami. Once there, Nantz decided not to go on, claiming “contract disputes,” leaving Noonan as Amelia’s sole crew member. The official reason given for his departure was that the plane was too heavy. With Amelia at the helm, it stood to reason that Nantz, a second pilot, was dispensable while Noonan, the only remaining navigator, was not. Another last-minute change that would ultimately prove fatal was Amelia’s decision to leave in Miami a low-frequency Morse code radio, which meant she could only communicate on high-frequency radio. Despite their experience in the sky, Amelia and Noonan were considered to have only average radio skills. Now the crew was down to one pilot, one navigator and one radio device.

The second leg of the flight, over South America, went without incident, but as they began to cross the Atlantic for Africa, trouble brewed. Noonan directed Amelia to turn south; she disagreed and turned north. Noonan was right, and they were forced to land in the wrong city. They crossed Africa in six stops to the eastern border of India where, on June 17, monsoons hit southeast Asia and hit hard—so hard that driving rain peeled the paint off the plane. They landed in Java, experiencing a six-day delay due to weather and equipment repairs. From there, they flew to Australia and on June 29, landed in Lea, Papua New Guinea. They were just two stops away from their return to Oakland, California —the first, on Howland Island for refueling and the second, in Honolulu. They were finally on their way home, having completed more than three-quarters of their journey. “The whole width of the world has passed behind us except this broad ocean,” Earhart said upon landing in Lae. “I shall be glad when we have the hazards of its navigation behind us.” On July 1, however, Earhart telegrammed from Lae that they would hold one day due to “personal unfitness” of the crew.

Landing on Howland Island would not be easy under any circumstance. The atoll was a mere 6,500 feet long, 1,600 feet wide and at most, 20 feet above sea level. If dense cloud cover hung over the island, it would be difficult to spot until they were almost upon it. Finally, at 10 the morning of July 2, with a full load of gas, the Lockheed Electra took off for the 2,556 mile flight to Howland Island, where the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was waiting to help with navigation and communication. The forecast relayed from the Itasca was not good: dangerous local rain squalls about 300 miles east of Lae and scattered heavy showers for the remainder of the route period with winds east southeast about twenty-five knots to Ontario, then east to northeast about 30-knots to Howland.” The overriding question is, how far off course could sustained winds of roughly 30 to 40 miles per hour push the aircraft? If the crosswinds took them 15-degrees in an easterly direction, could that have steered them off-course by as much as 300 miles? And, with four extra, full fuel tanks, if they continued on that course, how far could they have overshot Howland? Could that have put them in open waters between Palmyra and Johnston Atolls?

At this point, Amelia’s flight instruments were not keeping accurate time, the radio direction finder had ceased to function, and the Itasca, which was waiting off Howland to guide Earhart and Noonan to a landing, was unsuccessfully broadcasting to them on the low-frequency equipment Amelia had left in Miami. What’s more, the Electra left Lae 50 gallons under fuel capacity.

As dawn broke on the morning of June 2, the Itasca received a message from Amelia approximately 500 miles from Howland. At this juncture, they had been flying 17 hours, without functional equipment. There was no communication from Amelia for what seemed an eternity when finally, the Itasca heard her say, “We must be on you but cannot see you.” The Itasca disgorged thick, black smoke from its smokestacks hoping Amelia and Noonan would catch sight as the ship’s radio operator continued to signal their coordinates. Thirtythree minutes after her previous transmission, Earhart acknowledged they still could not locate the Itasca’s signal. It was now 8:45 a.m.

Earhart and Noonan had been flying 20 hours and 14 minutes and were dangerously low on fuel. “Itasca,” she radioed the ship, “we are on the level position. We are now running north and south.” It would be the last message the Itasca would ever receive.

At 10:15 a.m, an hour and a half since her final message, the Itasca reported Earhart and Noonan missing and radioed the Pacific Fleet in Honolulu to send all available assistance. News spread like wildfire, and the world held its breath as the Itasca scanned the waters for the rest of that day.

At 10:15 a.m, an hour and a half since her final message, the Itasca reported Earhart and Noonan missing and radioed the Pacific Fleet in Honolulu to send all available assistance. News spread like wildfire, and the world held its breath as the Itasca scanned the waters for the rest of that day and all night waiting for help to arrive. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Coast Guard and Navy to spare no expense. If Amelia managed to land the plane on water, it would have floated for hours or even days.

The plane was equipped with an inflatable raft. If she and Noonan had landed on any one of the uninhabited islands in the Pacific, they could survive on their emergency supplies.

The Gilbert Islands, which lie 400 miles west of Howland, were scouted by air, but there was no sign of a wreckage, or engine oil or debris on the ocean surface. As time passed, the odds of a rescue, and all hope, grew dimmer. Sixtysix aircraft and nine ships had been authorized by President Roosevelt in the most extensive search for missing persons at sea in history, 250,000 square miles at a cost of $4 million. With not one clue, the search officially ended July 18, and the U.S. Navy ships turned home for Honolulu, their flags flying at half-mast.

THE WHEREABOUTS OF THE CREW OF THE FLYING LABORATORY REMAINS A MYSTERY TO THIS DAY. Many continue to believe Earhart and Noonan were stranded on a remote, uninhabited island—quite possibly, Nikumaroro—and perished. If they crashed outside of the reef, they would have been torn by the sharp coral and prey to the multitude of tiger sharks that has seethed in those waters.

And what of other speculations? That Amelia survived and assumed a new identity to start a life away from the limelight and an unloving husband? Perhaps Amelia had not fully recovered from a serious bout of dysentery and still was not fit to fly. . . or that Amelia was on a top-secret spy mission to the Marshall Islands, authorized by President Roosevelt. Was she captured by Japanese troops . . . ?

And most far-fetched of all, that Amelia was sympathetic to the Japanese, purposely crashed her plane and became the voice of Tokyo Rose. Impossible.

The fact is that these were dangerous times. Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, coveted the Flying Laboratory, convinced the aircraft was a topsecret United States spy plane equipped with the most modern technology and that Amelia and Noonan may indeed have been on a top secret mission to fly over Japanese controlled waters and scout military island strongholds. Of the numerous small islands and atolls in that part of the Pacific, a number were already populated by Japanese troops. It is more than likely Amelia’s plane was being monitored by the Japanese from the highfrequency radio signals emitted from the Flying Laboratory and that her precise location was known at all times. This would qualify the conspiracy theory that—Amelia and Noonan were rescued, captured and imprisoned by the Japanese for years on Saipan and executed in retribution when it became clear Japan had lost World War II. This theory is evidenced by witnesses who attest to guarding, feeding and doing the laundry of “two American prisoners, a man and a woman.”

Furthermore, two natives on the Marshall Islands purported to have seen a Japanese war ship come into harbor with a silver twin-engine airplane with a damaged wing suspended above deck. Indeed, there is photographic evidence that shows Amelia and Noonan at a dock with an aircraft that conforms to the Flying Laboratory.

And what of the cryptic White House telephone transcript dated just three days after the disappearance of Earhart’s plane that suggests foul play—a transcript that was “misfiled” and mysteriously lost for 55 years?

WHO WAS THIS FEARLESS, COURAGEOUS WOMAN WITH BROAD SMILE, WAVY BLONDE BOB AND SAD, UNSMILING EYES? WHO, INDEED? Alas, the world will never know. “I have a feeling there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this is it,” she had told reporters when she embarked upon her final quest. “As far as I know, I’ve only got one obsession—a small and probably typically feminine horror of growing old—so I won’t feel completely cheated if I fail to come back.”

 

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