Captain Laurence F. Safford, U.S.N.

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  • 1890 - 1973.

Career in Naval Intelligence

In 1937, Safford was head of OP-20-G, the Navy's radio intelligence and code-breaking outfit. OP-20-G operated radio intercept sites at Heeaia (Oahu), Guam, Sangley Point (Philippines), and Astoria, OR. There was a single HF/DF unit in the Philippines. OP-20-G was intercepting some modest fraction of Japanese Naval and diplomatic traffic, and also, on occasion, intercepted commercial traffic from the Japanese mandated islands. The HF/DF unit on Howland originated with OP-20-G. Safford was thus head of an organization that could have been of assistance in the Navy's search for Earhart, and had the capacity, opportunity, and motivation to intercept post-loss messages. Yet, no trace of OP-20-G involvement appears in any available records. However, the bulk of OP-20-G's pre-war archives were apparently only declassified and moved from the Crane Library in Indiana to the National Archives in 2001, so no 20th century Earhart researcher has ever had a look at them.

Earhart Research

In 1967, Safford was working as a research specialist at the Library of Congress, and developed a sudden interest in Amelia Earhart. Safford writes:

"[Earhart's] Oakland-to-Honolulu flight in March 1937 afforded me the chance for competitive testing of two different experimental types of navy high-frequency direction finders plus a third type in actual use by the Pan American Airways. Unfortunately, the test could not be carried out because both sets of Navy HF/DFs were disabled at the time. Then, when Amelia disappeared in July 1937, I heard and believed the rumors and 'inside stories' which were circulated in Washington."
"My interest in Amelia was renewed in 1967 when I read a book titled Daughter of the Sky, in which it was stated: "A high-frequency direction finder had been obtained from the Navy and installed on Howland." Now it so happened that in 1937 the Navy's high frequency direction finders were under my cognizance, and I had no recollection of any such installation. My opposite number in the Bureau of Engineering (Capt. E.N. Dingley, USNR) was unable to throw any light on the subject, yet there were a dozen references to a 'Navy emergency direction finder' in another book called The Search for Amelia Earhart. My curiosity being aroused, I decided to solve this enigma and write a technical article for the Naval Institute."

Flight into Yesterday

Safford's article became the draft of a book. When Safford died in 1973 his widow apparently tossed the manuscript and the research materials in the trash. Reportedly, one Robert Frey and Elgen Long (!) were present, and retrieved the manuscript from the trash.[1] The manuscript eventually wound up in the hands of direction-finding enthusiast Cameron "Cam" Warren and a Mr. Robert R. Payne, a retired Navy cryptographer now resident in Texas. Mr. Payne apparently had some professional connection with Safford's book at the time of Safford's death.

In 2003, Warren and Payne published Safford's 30-year old manuscript under the title Earhart's Flight into Yesterday: The Facts without the Fiction (Paladwyr Press). The book is very odd. Safford wrote multiple drafts, and the editors had access to at least two different drafts. The book has a forward by Warren & Payne, an Introduction by Robert M. Stanley (ex-Lexington search pilot), a Preface by Stafford, and a Publisher's Note. There is a guest chapter by Stanley on the Lexington Search, two chapters of dubious relevance by Stafford (one on the now-forgotten 1928 Pineapple Derby and one on Anne Pellegrino's World Flight); the concluding chapter was paraphrased by Warren; and Warren added his own final chapter on his Bendix RA-1 theory. Warren also interjects bracketed comments throughout the text. Warren implies that he edited out some of Safford's more intemperate language. Apparently there was a whole chapter refuting Goerner that Safford elected not to publish.

Safford's basic thesis is that the management of the radio aspects of Earhart's flight was incompetent and disastrous; that she ran out of fuel and crashed in the ocean at about 9 AM, relatively close to Howland; due to greater-than-expected headwinds and/or an unknown engine management error/failure that caused the aircraft to burn excess fuel; and that that the US Government gave Earhart whatever she asked for but utterly failed to take any initiative to stave off a foreseeable disaster. He excoriated Cmdr. Thompson, among others, for his handling of the preparations of the pre-flight preparations, but praised him for his handling of the search. Safford was contemptuous of the Japanese capture and spy mission hypotheses, arguing that Earhart lacked the time/fuel/speed to make it to any mandated island and still arrive in the vicinity of Howland circa 8am, and she was out of fuel by 9am, so she couldn't have left.

Safford was also dismissive of the post-loss messages, attributing them to hoaxes or mis-interpretations of signals from other sources. He does not, however, really spend any time writing about post-loss signals, and largely ignores the Pan Am DF results.

Interesting information

The most interesting part of the book is not Safford's analysis, but Safford's information. There are several items that are new:

Electra Power Settings

Safford claims to have found a "cheat sheet" on the Electra's engine settings for maximum range flight, developed by Paul Mantz for AE's use, but perhaps never provided to her (the ms. is unclear). This sheet was obtained from Bill Polhemus, navigator on Ann Pellegrino's flight, who presumably obtained it from Mantz before Mantz died in 1965.

In the book, Safford quotes at length from David Dwiggins’ biography of Paul Mantz, Hollywood Pilot, on engine management for the Los Angeles-Honolulu flight.

"For the first three hours, flying at 8,000’ after climb-out, [Mantz] had called for 1900 rpm for the propeller pitch-setting and 28” of mercury for the throttle. Almost wide-own flying. This gave a corresponding reading on the Electra’ Cambridge fuel analyzer of .078, which meant they were consuming 60 gph. ..."
"As the fuel burned off and the ship lightened, Mantz called for a reduction in power setting that would burn only 38 gph and still give a true air speed of 150 mph."

Later, Diggins writes (as quoted by Safford):

"To reach Howland by the shortest route she was stuck with the power curve Mantz worked out for her…propeller pitch at 1600 rpm, throttles at 24” of mercury ... true air speed 150 mph from 6-10,000 feet."

Safford writes that "Unfortunately, Mantz had not given this curve or data to Amelia prior to her 'sneak departure' from Burbank, and then it was too late. Mantz feared that she might run into trouble without it." On the other hand, Earhart had received three telegrams from Kelly Johnson concerning fuel management; if she did not have Mantz's "cheat sheet," that did not mean that she lacked a reasonable plan for fuel management.

Possible new post-loss messages

Possible new post-loss messages heard by Nauru (but it is ambiguous)—this material was also quoted on the "Search for Amelia" web site.

8 July Message

Some extra detail on the July 8 message attributed by the Navy to "the March of Time" radio broadcast.

Howland HF/DF device

Some extra detail on the borrowed HF/DF device—it was done informally in Hawaii, and headquarters never heard about it.

No OP-20-G involvement

Safford says nothing about any OP-20-G involvement in the flight or receipt of any radio messages by his organization.


  1. "Mr. Frey literally rescued the documents from a trash barrel at the Rigg’s storage facility where for some unexplained reason they were about to be trashed" ("Significant Acquisitions: The Safford Documents").