Research Document #6
Lt. John Lambrecht’s Report on the Search of the Phoenix Islands
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This report was written by Lt. John O. Lambrecht, USN, Senior Aviator aboard the U.S.S. Colorado, concerning the aerial search for Earhart conducted by the Vought O3U-3 Corsair aircraft under his command. The three aircraft were catapult launched from the deck of the ship and flew search operations for four days in the Phoenix Islands.  This is a transcription.
     
B45/A9  
95--ccl
 
U.S.S. COLORADO
 
 
Honolulu, T.H.,
 
 
16 July 1937.
 
     
From: Senior Aviator, U.S.S. Colorado.
To: The Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics.
Via (1) Commanding Officer, U.S.S. Colorado.
(2) Commander Battle Force, U.S. Fleet
Subject: Weekly News Letter – Aircraft Search of Earhart Plane.
   

1. On Friday, 2 July the Colorado was ordered to proceed to Pearl Harbor for fuel and thence to the Howland Island area in search of Miss Earhart. At that time the unit was temporarily ashore at the Fleet Air Base, trying to complete two 100-hour and one carbuerator check, when, as they say in the newspapers, the story broke.

However, the work accomplished in so far as time allowed was satisfactory except for the carburetor. No new gaskets for this type of carburetor could be found at the Base and it was necessary to replace the old ones. That was not satisfactory and it eventually became necessary to shift to a spare carburetor.

As a matter of fact no spares whatever could be found at the Base for the 03U-3’s. And from the experience gained by the Colorado unit while at that Base it would seem advisable to keep on hand there a limited number of spares for all ship based planes. Pearl Harbor being an outlying base at which it is not uncommon for ships and ship’s planes to visit on occasion, it would greatly facilitate checking and repairs, not only in emergencies such as occurred in the case of the Colorado, but also in the normal routine operations. For example, due to a bent net recovery hook it would have been particularly desirable to have replaced the pontoon on one of the planes prior to the extended operations attending the Earhart search. The Fleet Air Base did not have a spare pontoon and time did not permit repair of the hook. Items such as this are constantly cropping up due to the exigencies of the Service. And to the operating personnel it is highly desirable to be able to obtain a few spares when operating away from home bases in order to reduce the use of baling wire to a minimum.

The planes returned to the ship at ten o’clock Saturday (3 July) morning and what with the Colorado alongside a fuel dock and the wind directly from astern, it required a nice piece of sailing to get the planes under the hook. The ship was underway at one that afternoon.

During the entire period of the Colorado’s search weather conditions were excellent. Ceiling was unlimited, with a visibility of thirty miles, thin scattered clouds at 2000, wind northeast to east, 13 to 15 knots … somewhat stronger and more easterly at 1000 feet. Sea was calm to moderate with moderate northeasterly swells and very few white caps. Wind streaks were well defined and of course here and there the inevitable tropical rain squall. These however, were generally so widely scattered and so small as not to impede the conduct of the search appreciably. Visibility and state of the sea as has been noted, were such that it is believed an object on the water even as small as a rubber boat could have been seen a distance of at least five miles and probably further. Indeed in every instance when the planes were on their return leg the ship was sighted at a distance in excess of thirty miles.

On every flight planes scouted at an altitude of 1000 feet and an interval of three miles. Radio communication was excellent even at extreme scouting distances and signal strength never got below three. During these operations the planes averaged 21.2 hours flying time and covered a distance of about 1900 miles per plane. An accompanying sketch of a chart of the search area shows tracks of planes and ship.

The search with aircraft got underway at 1430 Wednesday 7 July, when the planes were catapulted with orders to search to the southward a distance of eighty to ninety miles to locate and inspect a spot marked on the chart as “Reef & Sandbank”. This, according to the Sailing Directions, was quite possibly Winslow Reef, shown on the chart as being forty-five miles further south. These reefs are close to Howland and Baker Islands and there was a chance that Miss Earhart, finding herself short of fuel, might have chosen a forced landing there. The exact locations of these reefs are not known and, indeed, there seems to be some doubt as to their existence. Several ships have, at various times, reported passing over the Latitude and Longitude of Winslow Reef without encountering any “Rocks and Shoals”, and without even seeing any signs of anything but plain ocean. And that is exactly what the planes found, both on this flight and that of the following morning. After searching an area of ten miles square around the charted position of the “Reef & Sandbank”, planes headed WSW about twelve miles into an area covered by a large rain squall, thinking the reef might have been trying to hide out, but found nothing except more ocean. Incidentally the three planes crossed the Line during this flight in Longitude 174 Deg – 36′ W.

The following morning (Thursday) as the ship steamed south in Longitude 175 Deg – 30′ W the planes searched an area from 00 Deg – 50′ S to 1 Deg – 55′ S and from 174 Deg – 40′ W to 175 Deg – 10′ W in a second attempt to locate these reefs. This area included by a wide margin their charted and/or reported positions. Search was so conducted that at least one of the planes would certainly have passed any point in the area at a distance of not more than a mile and a half. And in light of the subsequent finding of Carondelet Reef there is no doubt in the minds of the pilots and their observers that had a reef been there it certainly would have been sighted. (As an example of the height of something or other the Lex planes will probably find one or both of the reefs without even looking). Anyhow the Senior Aviator wants to go on record as saying that the mariners (?) who saw and reported these reefs are probably the same ones who are constantly reporting having seen sea serpents!!! Suffice to say the Colorado’s “some of the Navy’s crack pilots” (we suppose the news boys will want to take back that appellation of undoubted distinction now that we didn’'t succeed in finding Amelia) did not see any reefs, rocks, or shoals in that area, much less any signs of a Lockheed.

During the rest of Thursday, two additional flights were made searching a seventy-mile front from a position in Lat. 2 Deg.– 00′ S Long. l75 Deg – 10′ W along the course of the ship which steamed SSE on 160 Deg True. This covered a large water area where it was thought Miss Earhart might have been forced down. Here again the condition of the weather, the state of the sea and the extremely good visibility made it highly probable that the missing plane would have been found had it been in that area. Due to repairs necessary on the pontoon of 4-0-4 only two planes were used for the first of these two flights.

At 0700 Friday morning the planes were catapulted to search M’Kean and Gardner Islands, Carondelet Reef and the intervening sea area. M’Kean Island was visited first and when first sighted was about a half point to port, bearing out the statement in Sailing Directions that the island’s actual position is somewhat WNW of that shown on the chart. M’Kean did not require more than a perfunctory examination to ascertain that the missing plane had not landed here, and one circle of the island proved that it was uninhabited except for myriads of birds. Signs of previous habitation remained and the walls of several old buildings apparently or some sort of adobe construction, were still standing. M’Kean is perfectly flat and no bigger than about one square mile. Its lagoon, like those of several of the smaller islands of the Phoenix Group, is very shallow and almost dry. This island had no vegetation whatsoever. As in all of these atoll formations coral extends out from the shore line a distance of 100 to 150 yards and then drops precipitously into water many fathoms deep. There is no anchorage off any of these islands.

As in the case of the subsequent search of the rest of the Phoenix Islands one circle at fifty feet around M’Kean aroused the birds to such an extent that further inspection had to be made from an altitude of at least 400 feet.

From M’Kean the planes proceeded to Gardner Island (sighting the ship to starboard enroute) and made an aerial search of this island which proved to be one of the biggest of the group. Gardner is a typical example of your south sea atoll … a narrow circular strip of land (about as wide as Coronado’s silver strand) surrounding a large lagoon. Most of this island is covered with tropical vegetation with, here and there, a grove of coconut palms. Here signs of recent habitation were clearly visible 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.

At the western end of the island a tramp steamer (of about 4000 tons) bore mute evidence of unlighted and poorly charted “Rocks and Shoals”. She lay high and almost dry head onto the coral beach with her back broken in two places.

The lagoon at Gardner looked sufficiently deep and certainly large enough so that a seaplane or even an airboat could have landed or taken off in any direction with little if any difficulty. Given a chance, it is believed that Miss Earhart could have landed her plane in this lagoon and swam or waded ashore. In fact, on any of these islands it is not hard to believe that a forced landing could have been accomplished with no more damage than a good barrier crash or a good wetting.

From Gardner, the planes headed southeast for Carondelet Reef, sighting its occasional breakers a good ten miles away. No part of the reef is above water and, although it could be plainly seen from the air, the water over it must have been at least ten to twenty feet in depth. Finding nothing here the planes returned to the ship.

At 1430 that afternoon planes were again catapulted and headed some seventy miles to the eastward to search Hull Island. In appearance, Hull is much the same as Gardner, somewhat smaller perhaps, nevertheless, similar in shape and formation, the same lagoon, with the same vegetation and identical groves of coconut palms. The one difference … Hull was inhabited.

As the planes approached the island toward its southern end natives could be seen cloistered around a large shack erected on high stilts and otherwise fabricated in what appeared to be the conventional native fashion. (Page W. Somerset Maugham for further details of construction). When the planes zoomed the beach, the natives, dressed in their traditional loin clothes, turned out en masse to wave and yell (anyhow they looked as if they were yelling) and to wonder at such strange birds. After a circle of the island, during which other (and smaller) native shacks were noted, the “village” was again zoomed. This time as many of the natives as possible were on the roof of their “civic center” and all of them entirely naked waving their loin cloths! It is not known whether this is their especial form of welcome for oceanic flyers, but it was later learned that none of them had ever seen an airplane.

Although the lagoon was spotted with coral reefs that looked from the air to be near or on the surface, an examination disclosed a safe landing area at the southern end closest to the village. The Senior Aviator then decided upon landing his plane for the express purpose of making inquiries, and after a preliminary “dragging”, the plane sat down on the calm waters of the lagoon. (This lagoon was subsequently re-named after the Senior Aviator by members of the Second Ward … hydrographers please note). Almost immediately after the landing an outrigger canoe pushed off from the beach with what later proved to be three native boys and the white resident manager.

Writers of south sea island legends to the contrary, it took those natives exactly forty-five minutes to paddle three-quarters of a mile. But the wait supplied the Senior Aviator and his Cadet observer with sufficient time to take stock of their surroundings.

It was noted that the reefs which from the air appeared to be close to the surface were, in reality, at least four to six feet or more deep. A little sailing afforded a chance to pass over several of these and it was finally decided to turn and taxi down wind, closer in to the beach, and to the approaching canoe. This we did and settled down to wait, meantime limbering up the only “shooting iron” (a Very pistol) which the plane boasted … just in case. (The Senior Aviator has probably been reading too many stories of the aforementioned W. Somerset Maugham.

As the canoe came nearer, the reason for its breath-taking speed was readily apparent … the natives were using small round poles as paddles. Then within hailing distance we received a hearty wave and a cordial “Cheerio” from the resident manager. He was a man of about medium height, deeply tanned, and dressed as may have been expected, in white duck trousers, white shirt and a straw hat, which he removed to wave at us. His appearance led one to believe that his nationality was German, due, no doubt, to his closely cropped hair and rotund face, but his accent proclaimed him British.

We told him we were searching for a plane which we believed may have been forced down somewhere in the Phoenix Islands, that the plane had left Lae, New Guinea for Howland Island a week past and had not heard of since, and we wondered whether he’d seen or heard of it. He replied that he hadn’t and added that he possessed a radio receiver but heard nothing on it. He was ignorant of the flight but evinced quizzical surprise when told it was being made by Amelia Earhart. He then asked where we had come from and was considerably startled we told him “Honolulu”. We hastily explained, however, that our ship was some fifty or sixty miles to the westward, awaiting our return.

After informing him that we expected to search the rest of the islands, we took off, rendezvoused with the other planes, and returned to the ship.

On the following morning (Saturday) the unit was ordered to search four of the five remaining islands. Heading southeast from the ship, we soon picked up Sydney but upon dropping down for an inspection of that island could discover nothing which indicated that the missing flyers had landed there. The lagoon was sufficiently large to warrant a safe landing but several circles of the island disclosed no signs of life and a landing would have been useless. There were signs of recent habitation and small shacks could be seen among the groves of coconut palms, but repeated zooms failed to arouse any answering wave and the planes headed northeast for Phoenix Island.

Several heavy rain squalls were encountered enroute but were negotiated without difficulty. Phoenix proved to be nothing but a blemish on an otherwise blue ocean. It was absolutely flat, bare and colorless and a disappointment in that it did not harbor the missing flyers. Its lagoon was nothing more than a shallow stagnant pool of rusty water and the only indication that the island had ever been visited by man was the stone cairn on the east beach. It was not deemed necessary to spend any more time in that vicinity and we departed for Enderbury.

Enderbury, although a bit larger, was much the same as Phoenix. Here and there were what appeared to be oases with a few surrounding palm trees … no signs of habitation were evident and an inspection did not disclose the object of our search.

It required merely a cursory examination of Birnie Island (the smallest of the group) to prove that Miss Earhart had not landed here. Birnie, except for its size, might just as well have been another M’Kean and after two or three turns about the island the planes headed west for the ship.

Canton Island, the Northernmost of the Phoenix Group, was searched that afternoon. It held the Colorado’s only remaining hopes of finding Miss Earhart and her missing navigator. Search here, however, proved as fruitless as that of the other islands and hopes of locating the unfortunate flyers were virtually abandoned.

In the beginning , after a careful study of the situation it had been considered most likely that Miss Earhart was down on one of the islands of this group. Numerous reports were received that the plane’s radio had been heard. Some of these reports proved to be spurious. Others coming from more reliable sources, though not definitely confirmed, could not be entirely ignored. The plane’s designers insisted however, that had a carrier wave been broadcast the plane must have been in a position capable of turning up one of its engines, i.e. somewhere on dry land.

Hence, since Miss Earhart had not landed at Howland or Baker, the only other possibility of a safe landing was on one of the islands of the Phoenix Group,unless, of course, she had fallen far short of her goal and was forced down in the Gilbert Islands, some four hundred and fifty miles to the westward. Canton proved to be the biggest of the Phoenix group, but showed little difference in appearance from the others. It took approximately fifteen minutes for the planes to make one circle, and, although one end was covered by a heavy rain squall, a careful search was made of the island and its lagoon. Vegetation is sparse and not more than half a dozen palm trees exist on the entire island. At the Western end there still remained the shacks and various constructions of the eclipse expedition. The broad blue expanse of the lagoon was broken at regular intervals by transverse coral reefs and, except for these, the water appeared to be fathoms deep. At either end (eastern and western) an area of open water could be found sufficiently large for operations of any size seaplane or air boat. No signs of contemporary habitation were visible.

This completed the Colorado’'s search with aircraft, and after recovering her planes, the ship headed north towards the rendezvous for fueling the plane guard destroyers. Search operations were turned over to the Lexington which, with her numerous planes, could cover vast stretches of the ocean over an area in which there was a chance Miss Earhart might have been down. And it is to be hoped that in the very near future newspapers will ring with the headline, “AMELIA FOUND”.

J.O. Lambrecht
Lieut., U.S. Navy
This map appears as the final page of Lambrecht’s report.
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