The 1937 Search

The First 24 Hours

The captain of the Itasca, Commander Walter K. Thompson was quite anxious about Earhart not communicating well with the ship and her inability to find Howland. By 1956GMT (8:26 local Itasca time), Thompson had initiated a recall of the landing party, obviously concerned that the ship might have to immediately depart for search and rescue. This was approximately 20 minutes prior to Earhart’s last radio message. This message largely reinforced Thompson’s notion that Earhart was in deep trouble, as she stated she was switching frequencies and would repeat that message on 6210kHz, but despite listening on that frequency, nothing further was heard in the Itasca radio room. The silence, together with Thompson's mistaken belief that Earhart said a half-hour’s gas was remaining at 1912GMT, make clearer Thompson’s mind-set and actions.

Commander Walter K. Thompson decided fairly early that Earhart must have run out of fuel and that she landed the aircraft at sea shortly after the 08:43 (20:13 GMT) transmission received by Itasca. Curiously, Thompson sent a radio message to Naval authorities at American Samoa and Hawaii at 2138GMT (9:08 local time) that although he believes that Earhart has enough fuel to stay aloft until noon, local time, the Itasca would depart by then to search northwest of Howland if she has not arrived by then. Thompson must have changed his mind, because at 10:40 (22:10 GMT), he ordered his ship to leave Howland Island and begin searching the ocean to the northwest.1 Thus began what would be called “the greatest organized effort ever undertaken in behalf of a lost flier.”2 Over the next seventeen days a total of seven U. S. government vessels searched an estimated 262,281 square miles of ocean for anything from the flight which might be afloat.3 Sixty-two aircraft from the U. S. S. Lexington (CV-2) flew 1,591.1 hours and covered 151,556 square miles of the Pacific.4 In addition, three aircraft from the U. S. S. Colorado spent 2 days (two flights each day) searching the eight islands of the Phoenix Group,5 spending an estimated 15 minutes over each island. In short, 99.996% of the U. S. Navy’s aerial search for Amelia Earhart was devoted to inspecting the surface of the open ocean. At no time, throughout the entire operation, was a ground search conducted anywhere by anyone.

Because the search was prejudiced so heavily upon the assumption that the airplane came down at sea, and because, despite the wide area covered, not one scrap of debris was found, a close inspection of the evidence upon which Thompson based his conclusion is warranted.

It is clear from a message he sent to USCG San Francisco Division filed at 10:15 (21:45 GMT) that Thompson originally believed that Earhart had enough fuel to remain aloft until local noon (23:30 GMT).6 Given the aircraft’s 00:00 GCT takeoff, he therefore thought that the aircraft could remain aloft for 23 hours and 30 minutes. The available evidence certainly indicates that this was a sound estimate:

  • Applying Kelly Johnson’s fuel consumption figures to Earhart's assumed fuel load of 1,100 U. S. gallons gives the airplane an expected endurance of 24 hours and 9 minutes.
  • If we accept that Earhart expected to reach Howland after approximately 20 hours of flying, as indicated by her choice of takeoff time and her 1912 GMT message “… We must be on you but cannot see you …,” the 24+ hours endurance figure gives her roughly a four-hour or 20% reserve. This is entirely consistent with her comment in Last Flight referring to the earlier trip from Oakland to Honolulu: “... we arrived at Hawaii with more than four hours’ supply of gasoline remaining, which would have given us over 600 miles of additional flying, a satisfactory safety margin.”7
  • The figure also matches a guideline mentioned in Air Corps Lt. Cooper’s comments on the flight, “Note that 20% gas reserve is usually required.”8 Lt. Cooper returned to the Itasca about 2042GMT, and was available to advise Thompson.
  • Thompson states in his radio transcripts that Cooper indicated in his report only a fuel reserve of 7%,9 an obvious mis-citation, but perhaps deliberately misquoted to strengthen his written argument for leaving Howland prior to noon.
But sometime in the next few minutes Thompson changed his mind and became convinced that Earhart was not still aloft but was, in fact, already down at sea. At 10:40 (22:10 GCT) he abandoned his station at Howland (after having just told San Francisco he would stay there until noon) and steamed off to the northwest. He indicates in his Radio Transcripts that this was the only area within visual range of the Itasca that had any cloud cover, and would be the most likely place for Earhart to be, as she could not see either the island or Itasca. He sent no further message until over two and a half hours later and even then he implied that he had done what he had said he would do, saying at 13:15 (00:45 GMT), “Earhart unreported Howland at 1200 believe down shortly after 0915 AM searching probable area and will continue.”10 What caused Thompson to change his plan, cover up the change, and then announce that he thought Earhart had gone down “shortly after 0915?”

Thompson’s actions apparently were based upon his conviction that Earhart had said, at 07:42 (1912 GMT), that she only had half an hour of fuel left. Because there is no land other than Howland and its sister island Baker which could possibly be reached within that fuel limitation, the conclusion that the airplane went down at sea is inescapable. If the quote is accurate Thompson was certainly correct in beginning the search rather than sitting at Howland waiting for an airplane that was already in the water. Where does the quotation come from? The only source is what Thompson calls the “Other Log” which he quotes in his July 19th report as saying “Earhart on now says running out of gas only 1/2 hour left.” The entry was made by Radioman 3rd Class O’Hare who had been on watch since 02:00. Evidence that the phrase was not said includes:

  • Radioman 3rd Class Galten’s entry in the Itasca’s radio log, “KHAQQ calling Itasca. We must be on you but cannot see you but gas is running low. Been unable reach you by radio. We are flying at a 1,000 feet.”11
  • An entry in the Itasca’s deck log by Lt. (jg) W. J. Sevarstan, “0742 Planes position reported as near the island and gas running low.”
  • Lt. Cooper’s report, “0741. Earhart. We must be on you but cannot see you but gas is running low...”12 However, this is a second-hand report, as Cooper was still on Howland Island.
  • The July 4th press release sent by Itasca, “0730 Quote we must be on you but cannot see you but gas is running low...”13
  • At 08:43 (2013 GMT), a full hour after Earhart supposedly said she had “only 1/2 hour gas left,” Earhart was still aloft and transmitting.
  • Not once in the three messages received by Itasca after the 07:42 message did Earhart repeat her concern over fuel.
  • In Thompson’s typed report the quote from the “Other Log” is followed by the parenthetical comment “(unverified as heard by other witnesses)” but the “un” in “unverified” has been lined through by hand.14 However, it is impossible to determine when this line-out occurred and/or whether it was there when originally delivered to the Coast Guard.
The available evidence argues strongly that the phrase “½ hour gas left” was never said. It may, in fact, have been a simple misunderstanding. In three of the nine transmissions heard by Itasca, including the next message received 16 minutes later, the ship’s radio log recorded Earhart’s use of the phrase “half hour,” but always in reference to the radio schedule, never to fuel.

Nevertheless, Thompson treated the phrase as fact. His estimate that the airplane went down “shortly after 09:15” may have been the result of transposing the supposed “½ hour gas left” phrase from the 07:42 message onto the 08:43 message. By 20:15 (07:45 July 3rd GMT), when he sent a long message to San Francisco Division describing the events of the day, he had decided that “...Earhart apparently had barely enough fuel under the conditions to make Howland.”15 The commander of the Lexington Group would later, in his justification of the search carried out by the aircraft carrier and its three accompanying destroyers, list the “one half hour fuel” quote as one of 26 “Known Facts” about the flight.16 It is abundantly clear from the historical record that, far from being a “known fact,” this phrase became one of the largest single contributions to mythology surrounding the Earhart disappearance, possibly biasing the entire search mission of the Coast Guard and US Navy. Thompson was firmly convinced at this time that the Lockheed Electra could float for some time and that an emergency radio was available.17

When the Itasca left Howland, leaving behind Radioman 2nd Class Frank Cipriani along with the Department of Interior colonists from Hawaii, the ship took a course of 337 degrees true towards the “cloud bank” noticed by the Itasca crew. Putting a number of men on visual look-out, Thompson claims that the Itasca could search for 7 miles on either side of the ship during daylight hours.18 Based upon today’s standards, the visual search front from a ship is well below this swath width, and the probability of sighting rapidly decreases away from the ship. Most intriguing is that Thompson never stated to anyone outside of the Itasca crew as to why he chose the NW until July 16, when the US Navy search leader asked Itasca about probable drift patterns and where plane was most likely to have come down.19 The reason was that visibility was clear in all directions, except to the north and west at approximately 50 nm range, near the limits of Itasca’s observations.20 Thompson’s assumption was that Earhart did not come down within 40nm of Howland.21 He wanted to search a sector of a circle between 40 and 200 nm from Howland, between 337° and 45°.22 The Itasca searched out to a range of about 65 nm, then turned to 80° true at 0130GMT, searching for another 120nm.

July 3 (July 2 local time)
0031 Commander, Hawaiian CG Section suggested that the Itasca send an “all ships” message to be on the look-out for the plane.23
0040 The Chief of Naval Operation’s (CNO) office heard of the search effort, and directed the Commandant, 14th Naval District (COM14, Admiral Orrin Murfin) to use all practical assets to assist in the search.24
0042 A message from George Putnam was sent from the USCG office in San Francisco, stating that technicians familiar with the plane believe it can float almost indefinitely; a ditch a sea is possible if the seas are calm. 25
0045 Itasca stated to its CG superiors that Earhart was unreported at Howland by noon-time, and that it is believed she was downed shortly after 9:15 local time (2045GMT), and Itasca was now searching the most probable area, without stating what that area is.26
0103 Itasca sent out its first all ships, all stations broadcast on 500kHz: “Earhart is unreported since 2045GMT and apparently down at sea, am searching the NW quadrant. Request ships listen/monitor 50kHz for any of her signals.”27 This message was sent at 1333 local time, and at 1418, 1610, 1700, 1820, 1905, 1925, 2026,2200, and 2312 local time.28 Of course, anyone listening in to 500kHz could pick up this transmission, as could almost all of the Navy traffic, should the radio listener know what frequencies to listen to. However, 500kHz is the international emergency frequency, and most radio operators do listen to it, including the ham amateurs. From this point on, amateur reports of Earhart signals could be suspect.
0132 Itasca told its CG superiors that it received no position, speed, or courses from Earhart except for a suspected Line of Position without a reference point. She gave no bearings to help in Itasca’s search, but it is believed she passed to the north and west of the island about 0800 local time (1930GMT) and missed the island due to sun glare, despite Itasca’s smoking its engines.29
0145 Fleet Air Base, Pearl Harbor (FABPH) said it was “prepared to send out a PBY to help in the search at 0430GMT; operations must be in the lee of the island as there is no anchorage and may well have to land on Howland due to refueling constraints; can only operate in ideal conditions; only one plane can be sent due to lack of tendering facilities (i.e. the Swan); very hazardous mission.”30
0200 PAA Honolulu was notified that Earhart had been confirmed to be down at sea. 31
0245 CG radio station San Francisco issued an all ships, station broadcast that Earhart was down.32
0310 CG San Francisco told Itasca that Earhart might attempt to use the radio on water as the radio and antenna could be placed on the wing; that the aircraft could remain afloat for a long time; that an emergency raft and rations were carried on the plane – all according to George Putnam.33 Once again, Putnam is issuing erroneous information that is seriously biasing the conduct of the search.
0330 COM14 informed the CNO that no other facilities were available to search for Earhart, except perhaps the battleship Colorado, which has scout planes, and is currently on an ROTC cruise.34 Approval to make the Colorado available was sent at 0612.35
0420 Putnam got into the act again by requesting that CG units get in touch with Mr. Coll of KGU radio, Honolulu, who might be able to offer assistance by broadcasting to Earhart.36
0517 PAA radio station in Honolulu opened up its radio guard, and heard carrier and tests, but no modulation on 3105 kHz.37
0525 FABPH directed the Swan to proceed to Howland at best economical speed, as there would be a PBY plane departing Honolulu at 0545GMT, and to guard 355, 4235kHz series.38 While there was great hope for the PBY to assist in the search, it will be seen shortly that not only did it return back to Honolulu due to bad weather, it also prevented the Itasca from maintaining a complete radio watch for Earhart during the night hours, when radio propagation is much better than during the day. In fact, at 0530GMT, the Itasca picked up S1 signals on 3105 kHz with a weak voice, but nothing readable. Itasca immediately responded on 3105 kHz in Morse code to reply.
0553 The PBY left Honolulu with Lt. W.W. Harvey as pilot, along with LTJG W. M. Drane, E. S. Lytle, and cadets P. W. Smith, W. C. Curry, C. L. English, radiomen E. J. McCormick and F. M. Williams.39
0555 Itasca heard a voice, very weak and unreadable, on 3105kHz, and responded accordingly.
0604 Itasca heard a signal on 3105 kHz, described like a generator start and stop, and responded accordingly. Three and a half minutes later, the Itasca heard the word Earhart on 3105 kHz, responds in voice and key, and heard a return call, but it was distorted and unreadable. By 0611GMT, the radiomen concluded that the signals were not from Earhart after all.40
0613 The Itasca caught snippets of a radio communication between two stations on 3105 kHz. These stations, QZ5 and KACA, are not listed in the Berne List of international ship and shore stations, and are probably either hoaxes or unauthorized radio stations. Itasca attempted to call Earhart on 3105 kHz, and heard an immediate response, but it was QZ5 calling KCWR, another station not identifiable. These transmissions are described by the HMS Achilles, and were thought by many at the time to be from Earhart. The Achilles described the transmission as “unknown station heard to make ‘please give us a few dashes if you get us,’ both heard at good strength, on 3105 kHz; first station made ‘KHAQQ KHAQQ’ then disappeared. Nothing more heard of either at 0620Z.”41 While the Itasca logs don’t exactly match what was quoted at 0620GMT, it seems clear that the Itasca is identifiable as Station 1, and QZ5 or KCWR was station 2, which was not directly responding to the Itasca. Itasca continued to broadcast until 0635 on various frequencies to Earhart, then heard QZ5 again at 0650GMT.
0710 Itasca sent out its first detailed message regarding what had happened to its immediate CG superiors in Hawaii and San Francisco. Ten minutes later, COM14 directs Itasca to Howland to act as the PBY plane guard and to arrive by dawn; to communicate directly with the plane on 355 and 4245kHz and to provide tender services; the plane will report position hourly; the ship should advise plane of Itasca’s position when the plane is within 500 miles of Howland; and the ship is to provide radio bearings to the plane and radio procedures to be followed.42 This message was not received by the Itasca until 0915GMT, according to the radio logs, and at 1003GMT, the Itasca changed course to Howland.
0727 The first independent report of someone other than the Itasca hearing Earhart was reported by Fort Shafter army radio station in Hawaii, which heard dashes on 3105 kHz.43 Commander, CG Hawaiian Sector confirmed this report, and also reported that it heard 6210 kHz signals of long dashes and voice as well at 0800GMT.
0730 The PBY plane sents its first position report back to FABPH.44 In fact, there are records of the PBY plane position and sighting reports by the Swan during its entire flight, allowing for careful reconstruction of its flight path. This is in dramatic contrast to Earhart’s radio messages, which are nearly useless for detailed information as to progress. Indeed, the PBY demonstrated to both the US Navy and Itasca personnel just how a plane can communicate successfully during a long over water mission. However, the PBY had several crewmen aboard, including a dedicated radioman, and was able to use Morse code which allowed greater readability than voice over large distances. It appears that the PBY was also monitoring 3105 kHz and attempting to establish communication with Earhart.45
0745 The Colorado was directed by COM14 to get underway as soon as possible with its scout planes.46
0831 Nauru radio heard a voice, similar to Earhart's the previous night, on 6210kHz.47 Two minutes later, Itasca heard an unreadable signal on 3105 kHz, and replied at 0835GMT.
0837 Itasca again heard a weak, unreadable voice on 3105 kHz, and at the same time, Nauru heard what it thinks are Earhart voice signals on 6210 kHz. At 0854GMT, Nauru reported a third set of voice signals on 6210 kHz. Itasca heard weak voice signals on 3105 kHz at 0900GMT. Itasca continued to occasionally broadcast to these 3105 kHz signals, asking Earhart to reply in key or code. At 1000GMT, Sydney radio heard voices, frequency unknown.48 Shortly afterward, Itasca intercepted a radio message from KPH, Radiomarine Corporation of America, Bolimas, CA to CG radio San Francisco describing the Nauru reports.49 The Itasca attempted to call Nauru on 600kHz at 1033GMT but without success until 1127GMT.50
1057 The Commander, Hawaiian Sector of the Coast Guard reported a series of long dashes heard on 3105 kHz for 22 seconds, but no identifying call.51 In a follow-up message three minutes later, the Hawaiian CG provided the first information regarding Earhart’s flight progress by providing the 0918GMT/2 position report received at Lae, New Guinea.52
1145 The first amateur radio reports from Earhart arrived via the CG station in San Francisco, relayed to the Itasca: "Los Angeles men report hearing position report from KHAQQ eleven thirty but as quote 1.6 179 unquote."53 This was undoubtedly Walter McMenamy who later claimed that it was at 18:00 (02:00 GMT/3) that he heard the first of a series of distress calls from the missing aircraft.54 As reported the next morning, McMenamy
...recognized the voice he heard during the night distinctly as that of Miss Earhart. McMenamy said the voice said: "SOS, SOS, SOS, KHAQQ, SOS, SOS -- "55
And for the Oakland Tribune he elaborated:
"It was Miss Earhart all right," he said. "I know her voice very well. She just kept repeating that over and over again. Once she said something else but I couldn't make it out. ... The calls are coming every (15) minutes," said McMenamy. "About every third time they are signed by the call letters KHAQQ. No position is given. Regularly by my watch we hear an SOS every 15 minutes. It's just a single SOS each time. They are apparently conserving their batteries."56
McMenamy was only the start of what was to become a deluge of calls from people claiming to have heard Earhart (TIGHAR has catalogued 148 separate reports of radio distress calls from the missing plane). None of these reports proved to have any credible information behind them, yet they did change the course of the search and rescue operations by the Itasca. Since everyone believed that Earhart had emergency radio equipment capable of being operated while down at sea, this obviously meant that the plane had ditched successfully, was afloat, and she and Noonan were in dire need of being rescued. Since any land was so far away from Howland (with the exception of Baker which also had colonists on the island), it was inconceivable to anyone at the time that Earhart might have made landfall.
1210 A report from CG San Francisco was provided the Itasca that the steamer New Zealand heard dashes on 3105 kHz, and the vessel was 1200 miles from Howland Island.57 No information was provided as to when the steamer heard the signals. It is but one of several messages provided by the CG station that are intended to help the Itasca in its search, but for the most part are merely distractions, as they do not provide any useful data.
1243 The PBY plane passed overhead of the Swan, reporting that to both the Swan and FAB, PH.58 Two minutes later, the Itasca shut down its radio station monitoring for Earhart in favor of guarding the PBY plane approaching Howland.59 This was indeed unfortunate, as the night time hours were the best times to listen to radio signals, should they be coming from Earhart, and Itasca was in the best position to be listening. For the next several hours, the Itasca only occasionally listened for Earhart when there were no radio traffic or schedules to be met. A similar shut down of Earhart radio watch was conducted by Navy Radio Wailupe in Hawaii.60
1330 The first two press releases were sent by reporters from the Itasca.61 The first erroneously stated that the last message was received from Earhart at 0855 local time; the second mentions the cloud bank to the NW. Interestingly, the second message was bylined by James Kamakaiwi, the leader of the colonists still on Howland Island. Whether this was written by someone else and ascribed to Kamakaiwi (who later in life was a press reporter), or provided to the Itasca before she left Howland or transmitted by radio is unclear.
1515 The PBY reported that the weather it is encountering is deteriorating, with lightning strikes.62
1600 The PBY asked the Itasca for a local weather report,63 to which Itasca responded at 1613 GMT with generally favorable weather conditions.64
1740 The weather conditions have deteriorated so badly around the PBY that it reports back to the Commander, FAB PH, that with the onset of snow, sleet, rain, and lightning between 2 and 12,000 feet elevation, it is forced to turn back.65 What the PBY encountered is typical weather for the Intertropical Convergence Zone, which is the meteorological “equator” where the southerly and northerly trade wind systems converge, producing poor weather conditions throughout the year. While the ITCZ does migrate with seasons north and south around the Earth’s equator, this “storm” that the plane was encountered was normal and is not indicative of a emergent typhoon or hurricane. In fact, each ship that traversed this band of latitude (roughly 5 degrees north) in search of Earhart experienced bad weather and choppy seas. If the PBY could not get through this weather system, one wonders whether Earhart could have done so with a less capable plane had she made a successful landing on Howland. Of course, this weather system was completely missed by the FAB meteorologist in all of his forecasts for Earhart’s track from Howland to Honolulu. This is not surprising, since this was probably the first time Navy aircraft had encountered the ITCZ in the Pacific. The return of the PBY to Honolulu must have been exasperating news for the Itasca crew, since its weather was ideal, and the Itasca had been diverted from an important search and rescue mission to guard the plane.
1840 The CG station in San Francisco forwarded to Itasca a report from a radio amateur who believed he heard Earhart on 3480 kHz, stating she was 225 miles west of Howland and for Putnam to “go fly a kite.”66 Unbelievably, this message was sent in a sincere manner to the Itasca.
1841 The Itasca sighted Howland Island at an estimated distance of 10 miles, and 10 minutes later, sighted what appeared to be smoke on the horizon, but later identified it as a water spout.
1936 The Itasca finally reached Howland Island, and drifted offshore until 2100GMT, intending to load aviation gas, as per instructions.67 Itasca asked its superior in Hawaii whether it should load the gas or continue its search and rescue mission at 1935GMT.68 No reply was provided until 2207GMT, when permission was granted to continue the search.69
2105 Without waiting, the Itasca left Howland Island on a northerly course to continue its search for Earhart.70
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