Earhart Project Research Bulletin
The Island of Katagateman:
British Colonial Contributions to the Search for Amelia Earhart, 1937

Katagateman: An island located approximately 75 miles northeast of Tarawa, that is inhabited by spirits, and human eyes are not allowed to see. A half-man, half devil discovered it.1

When aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart went missing over the Pacific in July of 1937, the United States Navy and Coast Guard launched the most massive aerial and sea search and rescue effort the world had ever seen. The Coast Guard cutter Itasca and the seaplane tender USS Swan, a converted minesweeper, already in the neighborhood of Howland Island – Earhart’s destination at the time of her disappearance – searched widely in the area and penetrated both the British-administered Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati). Float planes from the battleship USS Colorado conducted an aerial inspection of the Phoenix Islands. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington and her aircraft, with escorting destroyers, searched the sea seas between Howland Island and the Gilberts. Although the search was unsuccessful, and criticized by some Earhart investigators today as far less thorough than it was touted to be,2 the search was an impressive effort at the time. The official conclusion of the U.S. Government was that Earhart had crashed into the ocean, sinking without a trace. No evidence of wreckage was ever sighted on land or at sea.

Largely forgotten, or ignored, in accounts of the search have been the contributions of other nations, notably the British colonial authorities in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (G&EIC), over whose waters Earhart flew. These contributions merit more credit than they have received; moreover, they are important to keep in mind when evaluating the possibility that Earhart turned back toward the Gilberts when she could not find Howland, crashed there, and was never detected.3

In the course of investigating a different hypothesis – that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, wound up on the island of Nikumaroro in the Phoenix Group4 – researchers from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) have examined records of the Western Pacific High Commission (WPHC), the colonial organization that oversaw the G&EIC. We are by no means sure that we have examined all the pertinent records, but what we have found is interesting enough to justify this short paper. We also hope that by publishing it we can encourage people still living today who participated in or had first-hand knowledge of the search to share their recollections, which may fill some of the gaps in the written record.

British-American Rivalry in the Central Pacific in the 1930s

Relations between the British Empire and the United States in the Pacific were not entirely cordial during the late 1930s. Each wanted its airline companies to be the first to establish commercial flying boat service between North America and Australia/New Zealand for the lucrative mail business. Over-water seaplane service required rest, repair, and refueling stations en route. The United States took the position that no foreign airline would be allowed to fly into Honolulu, Hawaii, as the seaplane facilities there were adjacent to military ports, and would be an easy target for espionage. Without the key stop of Honolulu, all cross-Pacific flying service was doomed to failure. Extensive discussions were conducted between the US, New Zealand, and Australia to help come to some accommodation that was beneficial to all sides. Other islands between Hawaii and Australia were also considered as possible refueling stations, including the Phoenix and Line Islands and their outliers, largely uninhabited coral atolls lying astride the equator in the central Pacific. Sovereignty over these uninhabited islands was problematic. British ships had been first to raise the flag on some, American ships on others. Each nation had asserted ownership of or interest in particular islands, and citizens of each had carried out commercial ventures there. The American Guano Company had mined phosphates on McKean and Enderbury Islands; the British Arundel Company had done the same on Ocean, Nauru, and in the Phoenix Islands. The British issued a license to entrepreneur John Arundel to establish coconut plantations on Hull, Sydney and Gardner Islands (now Nikumaroro). The islands were subsequently controlled (prior to 1937) by the Pacific Islands Company, Lever’s Pacific Plantations Ltd., the Samoa Shipping and Trading Co., Ltd. and the Burns Philp Company;5 but by 1930 or so, most of these islands had been abandoned. In the 1930s, both British and American exploration parties passed through placing plaques and raising flags. Having asserted ownership of Howland and nearby Baker and Jarvis Islands in 1935, the U.S. placed colonizing parties from Hawaii on each.

In June of 1937, scientific parties from both the British and American camps went to Canton Island in the Phoenix Group to witness a total eclipse of the sun. The Americans arrived shortly before the British, took the best anchorage and refused to move when the British asked them to leave, citing sovereignty. Both parties wired their respective governments for instructions and there was a rather tense exchange of diplomatic notes between Washington and Whitehall, but the scientists managed to work it out amongst themselves and achieved some level of cooperation for the eclipse.6 This was not the only incident; in 1938, competition for Canton Island, the best of the potential flying boat bases, prompted another confrontation when an American Coast Guard cutter arrived to set up a weather station on the British-occupied island.7

The Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, a 1938 program of colonization on three of the Phoenix Islands undertaken by the WPHC, though designed to relieve real population pressure in the southern Gilberts,8 also served the geopolitical purpose of welding Gardner, Sydney, and Hull Islands (now Nikumaroro, Manra, and Orona) to the G&EIC. The 1938 British declaration of McKean and Phoenix Islands as bird sanctuaries served a similar purpose, though entirely justified on conservation grounds.

Other incidents exacerbated tense diplomatic relations. For example, the crew of the U.S. private yacht Yankee removed pieces from the wreck of the H.M.S. Bounty at Pitcairn Island.9 Despite these incidents, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Great Britain in the Pacific were generally friendly. However, British colonial authorities in the G&EIC and in Fiji, headquarters of the WPHC, had every reason to be suspicious of U.S. adventures in the Central Pacific.

Amelia Earhart’s Flight and Immediate Aftermath

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were governed by Great Britain by the Secretary of State for Colonies under the Foreign Office. Actual administration was performed by the Western Pacific High Commission, located in Suva, Fiji, under the High Commissioner, Sir Arthur Richards. The High Commissioner was assisted by a number of aides, including R. H. Garvey, who later became Governor of Fiji in the 1950’s. The G&EIC was administered by the Resident Commissioner, J.C. Barley, who was headquartered on Ocean (Banaba) Island, located west of the Gilberts. Each major island had a Senior Administrative Officer. Most communications in 1937 between various authorities were handled by coded or uncoded telegrams, and for non-urgent items, letters. The WPHC maintained meticulous records of these communications, now archived in Britan, Fiji, and Auckland, New Zealand.10

Via the U.S. State Department, Amelia Earhart and her husband, George Putnam, sought permission from various governments for overflight and landing rights. Most were granted, but occasionally, problems cropped up requiring a change in routing. No specific request was made to overfly the Gilberts, which were on the direct path between Lae, New Guinea, and Howland Island. The formal request from the U.S. State Department to British Authorities states that the route was from Honolulu to Darwin, Australia via New Guinea, and did not mention Howland Island or the Gilberts. The British passed the request to authorities in Australia, who had jurisdiction over New Guinea. The Gilbert Island chain was not included in the U.S. request, so neither Earhart nor the G&EIC had much knowledge of one another. Had Earhart inquired seriously about facilities in the Gilberts, she would have learned that there were a few commercial radio stations which she could have used for navigational aides using her radio direction finding instruments. Use of commercial wireless telegraph stations could also have improved her rather poor communication channels between the Itasca at Howland Island and Lae, New Guinea, and these same stations could have been actively used in monitoring her in-flight broadcasts, as the Nauru wireless station.

The WPHC was not unaware of Earhart’s flight. A telegram, dated February 17, 1937 to the Secretary of State for Colonies from the British Consul in Honolulu, describes the construction of landing fields on Howland Island, and advises that Amelia Earhart, the famous aviatri, was expected to leave Oakland, California on or about March 15, flying via to Honolulu, Howland Island, and Lae, New Guinea to Port Darwin, Australia. US naval vessels were reported to be likely to act as plane guards along the route to assist in the flight. Shipment of construction equipment for Howland Island on the US Coast Guard Cutter Duane was well publicized in Honolulu.11

WPHC files include a cutting from the Fiji Times and Herald dated March 18, advising local radio enthusiasts how to listen in on Earhart’s broadcasts. A March 31 March handwritten annotation by colonial officer R.H. Garvey notes that:

Miss Earhart arrived at Honolulu but crashed on taking off at Wheeler Field12 on continuation of flight which was therefore abandoned.

After the crash, Earhart refitted her plane in Burbank, California, and departed with Fred Noonan in May, this time flying east. Neither this event nor any of her subsequent stops, often in parts of the British Empire, are noted in the file, although they were widely reported in the media. Earhart eventually left Lae, New Guinea on July 2, but was unable to find Howland Island. While the crew of the US Coast Guard Cutter Itasca heard radio broadcasts from Earhart as she approached, no two-way radio communication could be established, and the crew believed that she had eventually run out of fuel and crashed into the sea.

The next item in the WPHC files is a cutting from the Fiji Times and Herald dated July 9 – seven days after Earhart’s disappearance – reporting on the U.S. search in the Phoenix Islands. A number of amateur and professional radio stations had heard signals thought to be broadcast from Earhart after her disappearance, and some rather crude direction finding bearings indicated an origin in the Phoenix Islands. The US Navy sent the battleship Colorado with three float planes to investigate all of the Phoenix Islands. In what appears to have been be a cursory flyover the pilots and observers aboard the planes did not find a plane, nor much in the way of human activity. On Hull Island, one plane did land in the lagoon to inquire of John William Jones, the local resident, and his Tokelau copra workers if he had heard anything of Earhart. This breach of U.S. Naval protocol (one must first meet with official representatives of the government upon arrival) caused problems for the US Navy and State Departments. US Navy representatives in Washington conferred with State Department officials to determine whether the British should be notified. Legal opinions indicated that the US did not recognize the sovereignty of the Phoenix Islands by Great Britain (as evidenced in the Canton eclipse party), and that to notify them would jeopardize any future claims to the Phoenix Islands by the U.S.

Meanwhile, on July 3 the US Navy tasked the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, stationed in San Pedro, California, to immediately depart with three destroyers to Honolulu to refuel and assist in the aerial search for Earhart. The search was overseen by the Commandant of the 14th Naval District, headquartered in Honolulu. Once the Colorado finished its aerial search of the Phoenix Islands, the Lexington would search the waters directly west of Howland Island, possibly to the Gilbert Islands. Active correspondence began to obtain British approval to search those islands. On July 13, the Acting Secretary of the Navy, William D. Leahy, wrote to the US Secretary of State to obtain permission for the Lexington to search the Gilberts, should that become necessary.13 The State Department notified the Navy that the British had already been informed of the desire to search the Gilberts. Shortly thereafter, the American Ambassador in London informed the US State Department that verbal permission had been granted. The WPHC office received a telegram to that effect on July 13 as well. The US Navy told the Commandant to go ahead, and immediately the Itasca was tasked to search Arorai, Tamana, Onotoa, Nonuti, Kuria, Maiana, Tarawa, Apia, Taritari, and Maraki. The USS Swan was tasked to investigate Nukunau, Beru, Tabituea, and Nonuti.

The Search of the Gilberts Begins

Sir Arthur Richards was apparently travelling at the time the Secretary of State advised the WPHC of the Lexington's search. The Assistant High Commissioner promptly passed on the notification to Barley at Ocean Island on July 14. Meanwhile, however, Itasca and Swan, unmentioned in the Secretary of State’s note, had steamed into the Gilberts and begun searching islands and interrogating residents. Barley, who probably knew nothing of the Earhart flight and disappearance, was doubtless startled, but put two and two together upon receiving the Assistant High Commissioner’s telegram. He replied on July 15:

Your telegram of 13th July, first report received this morning that coastguard vessel "Ithica" (is also "Nuasca") sighted by motor ship "Ralum" off Arorae a.m. 14th July and left in afternoon in direction of Tamana.

This was followed on the 16 by the following:

Urgent. My telegram of 15th July, reports received this afternoon state it as C.A. (?) has visited Arorae, Tamana, Kuria, Aranuka, and Tarawa, having left Tarawa today, Friday, in Westerly direction. Vessel may possibly visit Ocean Island if oil fuel procurable. "Swan" understood due Onotoa, Beru, Tabiteuea, today.

The Itasca met with the Senior Administrative Officer of Tarawa, C.A. Swinbourne. He told the Itasca officers that they needed to contact Ocean Island regarding the approval to search the Gilberts, as he had not been notified. The Itasca replied that all clearances had been filed. Apparently, the Itasca also was inquiring about procuring fuel, being somewhat unsure as to future duties and fuel availability.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department asked their ambassador in London to determine if the prior approvals to search the Gilberts included surface ships, specifically the Swan and Itasca. The British readily approved, and the US government was so notified. Similarly, the Secretary of State advised the WPHC that:

… United States Government has represented that development in search for person named makes close search of Gilbert Islands desirable. In the circumstances permission has been given for United States cutter "Itasca" and mine sweeper "Swan" to search uninhabited islands and to establish contact with inhabitants of other islands.

Representatives at Beru also were somewhat surprised to be visited by the USS Swan. The Secretary of the Rongorongo Training Institution, London Missionary Society and acting Officer-in-Charge of Beru radio wrote to the US Secretary of the Navy. The letter documents that Beru radio was in constant communication with Tarawa and Butaritari radios and notified the Swan of recent trading vessels in the area. While they were aware of the search for Earhart, it was a noteworthy event for them, and hoped that the information was of use to the officers of the Swan.14

The Assistant High Commissioner passed the message regarding approval for the Swan and Itasca to search the islands on to Barley without comment on July 19. Here the matter seems to have rested for some three weeks – not entirely surprising, since the U.S. officially gave up the search and called its ships home on July 18.

Several interesting points emerge from the documents reviewed above:

  • No one from the U.S. Government seems to have officially notified the WPHC or G&EIC about Earhart’s first or second World flight attempt – despite the fact that her course lay directly over the Gilbert Islands.
  • Upon Earhart’s disappearance on 2nd July, the U.S. launched its search without notifying British colonial authorities. The initial search, of course, took place around Howland Island and in international waters, but even as the search expanded and U.S. ships sailed into the Gilberts, the U.S. delayed notifying British authorities, and then did so in a rather confusing way – referring at first only to Lexington (which arrived on the scene on July 12) when Itasca and Swan had been hard at work since the 2nd. There is no evidence in the file that the WPHC was ever notified of Colorado’s cruise through the disputed Phoenix Islands, which took place between the July 9 and 12.
  • The U.S. requested no help from Great Britain other than access to the islands and residents of the Gilbert Islands and perhaps a fueling stop at Ocean Island. As it happened, the G&EIC had few assets of its own to throw into the search, but the Americans could hardly have known this. Moreover, the colonial government certainly did have contact with the several copra traders whose routes criss-crossed the area. It seems odd that those responsible for the world’s greatest air-sea search should not have thought to ask help from others on the scene, but the Earhart disappearance is fraught with mistakes and missed opportunities.

Search for a Spirit Island

Although the U.S. ended its search on July 18, Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, still had hope, putting considerable faith in mysterious radio messages picked up in the days after Earhart’s disappearance that seemed to come from somewhere south of Howland Island. Putnam had received a number of telegrams from the public, offering advice or descriptions of visions that individuals had received. Both Putnam and Earhart were favorably disposed towards mediums and séances. One telegram, in particular read:

Amelia Earhart alive on coral shoal on one of Gilbert Islands latitude 2 above equator 174 longitude. This messaged [sic] received by Mr. L–– New York medium.

There was nothing remarkable about this particular telegram, except that on the same day, Putnam received a note from Capt. T. M–– of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which read:

"… I am the retired captain of a copra boat that used to trade in the South Seas. I just happened to remember an uncharted island that we frequently visited for turtle eggs. The Gilbertese natives know where it is, too. The island is at … [2 degrees, 36 minutes North, 174 degrees, 10 minutes East longitude, about 85 miles from Tarawa Island]."15

The nearly simultaneous receipt of these two messages by Putnam was remarkable, and Putnam sprang into action, but he was reluctant to disclose the source of his information.

Putnam first contacted the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) on July 17:

Deeply grateful if steps be taken to search area slightly north of intersection of longitude 170 East and equator contemporaneously with search of Gilbert Island. Because peculiar intimate nature alleged information this is a confidential personal request to you. Most compelling unusual circumstances dictate although sole obvious reasonableness lies in westward prevailing drift which might well carried floating plane through Gilberts to indicated area. Anyway cannot pass up this bet forlorn as it may be.16

In a follow-up telegram, Putnam stated “… can’t rationalize or make public why. This is written by practical person.” The Lexington already had searched westward to approximately 176° East, and the suggestion that it to steam 720 miles without justification and with low fuel reserves caused headaches for Navy officials. The CNO asked the Commandant of the 14th Naval District about the idea, and the reply came back that it would require abandoning the existing search plan, but that it would be done if ordered. The CNO telegraphed Putnam of the impracticality of his proposal and reported that all areas where the plane could drift were being searched.

On the 18th, Putnam clarified his request, saying that he wanted the planes from the Lexington to search the area, not to have the ship steam to that location. The CNO firmly replied that all possible areas were being searched and that nothing had been overlooked.

Putnam then turned to his good friend Gene Vidal, head of the Bureau of Air Commerce, a branch of the Commerce Department. Vidal contacted Marvin McIntyre, Presidential Aide to Franklin Roosevelt, who wrote a memo on July 20 reporting that Vidal was in touch with Putnam, and had some interesting sidelights and speculations as to what happened. Would FDR be interested in spending some time with Vidal? Another ten days elapsed before this meeting.

On July 23, Putnam wrote the Secretary of the Navy, thanking him for all the efforts by the Navy. Putnam requested that the Secretary ask the British and Japanese to continue their searches in the Ellice, Gilbert, Ocean, and Marshall Islands, and to the northeast. He also asked if the islands north and northwest of Samoa could be searched.17 The Secretary of Navy responded the following day that the Navy had been informed that British and Japanese had given assurances that all shipping in the area would keep looking for the plane and the fliers.

On July 26, Putnam had the Coast Guard office in San Francisco inquire of the Itasca if Beru and the southern Gilberts were searched, and was Beru inhabited? The Itasca responded that all of the Gilberts are thickly inhabited, and that there was no evidence of plane wreckage.

On July 30, the meeting was held, presumably in the White House, between FDR, Marvin McIntyre, Gene Vidal, and Sumner Wells, the primary point of contact in the State Department working on Earhart matters. While no notes of the meeting are available, we can discern what was discussed based upon later correspondence and the actions of the principals involved. Apparently, Putnam was willing to put up a $2000 reward for information leading to a definitive resolution of what happened to Earhart and Noonan, and he asked that a search be made of an uncharted reef at 2°36′N, 174°10′E, bearing 106° from Making [sic] Island,18 which was reported to lie about 85 miles east from Tarawa.

The next day, Putnam wrote McIntyre, thanking him for his help, and inquired as to what the Japanese were doing regarding a search of the eastern Marshalls, which Putnam thought was the most fruitful location for wreckage. Similarly, Putnam wrote Sumner Wells, clarifying the position as being 106°T from Makin Island. “A former commander of a copra vessel,” he said, “confirmed by a reliable American, claims there exists an uncharted reef, and visited by natives for turtle eggs.” Putnam stated that he believed Capt. I. Handley of Tarawa knew of the island.

Wells forwarded Putnam’s request and the information to the American Embassy in London, and asked the ambassador to contact the Colonial Office (1) to conduct a search by boat from the Gilberts, at Putnam's expense, and (2) circulate knowledge of a reward of $2000 for solution of the disappearance. A follow-up telegram was forwarded on August 2. The State Department informed Putnam of its actions, and Putnam respondeds on August 4 by asking whether the search could be expedited. On August 5, the State Department informes the American Embassy in London that Putnam is “in agony over any delays,” and suggested that since the search would be at his expense, “no delays are warranted.”

On August 6, the American Embassy in London informed the State Department that a message was sent that day to the Foreign Office, thence to the Colonial Office, and then on to the High Commissioner of the Western Pacific. On August 7 (the same day, but next date due to the International Dateline) the WPHC received this telegram from the Secretary of State:

… United States Ambassador states that evidence, which to many sources seems positive, indicates that Miss Earhart was on land two nights following disappearance. Note proceeds to ask if further search of Gilbert Islands could be made at expense, if necessary, of husband, Putnam, who urges immediate search of position 174 degrees 10 minutes east, 2 degrees 36 minutes north, where he has reason to believe that uncharted reef exists of which Captain Handley of Tarawa said to know. Reward of 2,000 dollars offered for any evidence leading to solution of disappearance. Please telegraph what action can be taken.

The same day it was received, the Assistant High Commissioner passed the Secretary of State's telegram on to J.C. Barley, the Resident Commissioner of the G&EIC, adding direction to “do what you can.”

On August 8, Putnam telegraphed the US State Department, asking if there “isn’t some way to expedite things?” If the British won’t cooperate, says Putnam, then “I need to find private actions.” The next day, the State Department responded that there was no reason to think that the British are stalling, as these things take time.

An annotation to the WPHC file by Garvey, dated August 8, notes:

The uncharted reef, according to the position given, would be about 72 miles N.E. of an island in the Gilbert Group named Marakei. As Ocean Island Radio Station is temporarily out of commission owing to the illness of Mr. Moore it has been necessary to send (the telegram) to Nauru. From there it will be sent by the British Phosphate Commission's wireless telephone to Ocean Island.

On August 9, the Resident Commissioner on Ocean Island cabled the Senior Administrative Officer at Tarawa that the British Secretary of State reported a substantial rumor of Earhart’s plane being down on an uncharted reef, possibly being Bikeni-karakara, and that “Handley would know of the position.” The cable went on to note Putnam would pay any expenses associated with a search and offereds a reward of $2000. It asked whether any local firms could take action? The following day, the C.A. Swinbourne, the Resident Administrative Officer on Tarawa, gave a copy of the August 9 telegram to representatives of Burns Philp Company, and asked if any action could can be taken.

Apparently, Capt. Isaac Handley, a copra trader affiliated with Burns Philp, attended this meeting; he is reported to have said that Marakei natives believed that the sand bank to exist, but that he knew of no one who had seen it. Capt. Handley, despite being in poor health and 69 years of age, was reported to be “enthusiastic about trying to find a vessel to search the area.”

Swinbourne prepared a letter of introduction for Handley to proceed in the cutter Kawaetate of Abaiang, a neighboring island in the Tarawa Atoll, to search for Earhart. Handley left Tarawa to Abaiang to see a David Randolf, who he thought had a sailing vessel suitable for the task. Randolf was ill, but offered full use of his boat. After preparing the sailboat, and finding a crew of 5 natives, Handley left Abaiang on the afternoon of August 12, estimating that the search would take about seven days. Meanwhile, Burns Philp representatives formally responded to the request from Swinbourne with a letter on the 12th, stating the inter-island trading vessel Ralum is unable to take any action.

The US State Department, having not heard from any British official since August 6 as to what was going on, asked the embassy in London on August 12 if there is any word from the High Commissioner in Suva. The answer, sent the following day, was no, but reported that a reply had been requested, and that London would would provide any word when it was received.

Swinbourne sent a telegram to the H.M.C.S. Nimanoa, apparently to the Resident Commissioner of the G&EIC, that the vessel John Bolton is at Tulagi, Solomon Islands, and Ralum is enroute to the Ellice Islands. The message further stated that Handley doubted the existance of the reef, but left for Abaiang on the 19th to sail Randolf’s cutter to Marakei and thence to the position of the uncharted reef. The next day, Swinbourne sent a letter to the Acting Secretary at Ocean Island, stating that the couple of vessels available to the F&EIC were unsuitable for deep sea navigation, and that government had to go to Burns Philp for assistance. He enclosed the letter from Burns Philp, stating that Handley was taking the matter up promptly.

On August 14, the British Foreign Office contacted the American Embassy, stating that the information regarding search plans and Putnam defraying expenses was sent on the 6 to the HCWP, who was instructed to report by telegram as to what action could be taken.

Meanwhile, the High Commissioner’s office in Suva had heard nothing back since the telegram went out on August 7, so they asked the Resident Commissioner of the G&EIC to inform the High Commissioner of any information obtained from Capt. Handley, and to advise what actions hadve been taken. The following day, the Officer-in-Charge at Ocean Island responded to the HCWP, stating that he had contacted J.C. Barley, H.M.S. Leith, and the Senior Administrative Officer on August 9, and had requested information from the Senior Administrative Officer in Tarawa. He reported that the vessel Ralum was the only one in the area, and that Handley was serving aboard, but that his whereabouts were unknown. The uncharted reef exists in native legends, he went on, and may have been sighted by a trading schooner in 1900. It is clear that the Officer-in-Charge had not seen much of the correspondence from Tarawa, and was unaware that Handley by now was now deep into his search for of the uncharted reef. Sometime during this same day, the Senior Administrative Officer on Tarawa sent the identical message he sent the Nimanoa the day before to the Acting Secretary on Ocean Island. It appears that the Resident Commissioner of the G&EIC was aboard the Nimanoa, and his personnel back on Ocean Island were not fully aware of circumstances.

The situation at the U.S. State Department was getting tenser. A memo from Moffett, from the Division of Western European Affairs, to Sumner Wells, stated that he was not certain whether the British were reluctant to participate in the search or whether the U.S. didn’t emphasize the matter enough. Moffett had drafted a stiff telegram to London for Wells to send. Later that day, Gene Vidal contacted the State Department, asking them to write Putnam, now in Burbank, California, as to the status of the search. The State Department then telegraphed Putnam that they had instructed the American Embassy in London twice to press the British in the search, but no word had been heard from the High Commissioner in Suva. As soon as the State Department heard anything, they reported, they would forward the information to Putnam.

On August 19, the stiff telegram went out from the US State Department to the British:

We are at a loss to understand failure of High Commissioner at Fiji to indicate what action he is able to take in response to your repeated requests. It has now been 16 days since we telegraphed you. Please take the matter up once again with the appropriate authorities.

The American Embassy responded by saying that the Foreign Office hadn’t heard from the High Commissioner, and would telegraph him requesting an immediate report by telegram. The British Secretary of State promptly sent a telegram to the High Commissioner, asking for an expedited reply.

Meanwhile, the Resident Commissioner of the G&EIC telegraphed the High Commissioner on August 19, reporting that Handley left Tarawa on the afternoon of August 10 for the uncharted reef via Abiang and Marakie. He reported that Handley doubted the position of the reef. The vessel Ralum, he reported, was en route to the Ellice Islands. This was the first real news that the High Commissioner had seen, except for the telegram from the Officer-in-Charge at Ocean Island the previous day. Despite the request from the Foreign Office, and the information now available, the High Commissioner’s office did not send anything to London until August 23.

At this point, Putnam was quite aggravated, since he had heard nothing indicating that anything was being done. He telegraphed Sumner Wells at the State Department on August 20:

Thanks wire. Confidentially, newspaper here now aware request made for specific search my expense three weeks ago and inquiring if action taken. If their investigation discloses cooperation unforth coming resulting publicity might be deeply embarrassing hurtful for all concerned. After all, I could have arranged privately direct with Gilbert long since but relieved the proper course proceed through official channels. Regret being troublesome and appreciate your help.

The State Department responded to Putnam that they appreciated his worry. They reported that Sumner Wells had called the American Embassy, which reported that they hadn’t heard from the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, but that an immediate reply had been requested.

On August 20, Captain Isaac Handley returned to Tarawa, and reported to C.A. Swinbourne, the Senior Administrative Officer. The following is his report:


At the mutual desire of yourself and the Manager of Messrs. Burns Philp S.S. Co. I undertook to go in search of Mrs. Putman (sic) alleged to be on an uncharted reef. Position given.

Nothing known locally of such a reef. There is a native tradition say, there is an isle of Spirits all right in this alleged position but the human eye is not permitted to see it.

However, after a search of three days within a radius of some twenty miles of given position. And no sign of Bird Life. I conclude that it is none existent there.

The natives of Marakei give the name Katagateman to the supposed isle. Half man half devil that discovered it.

Sorry the eventure was unsuccessful. But fate.

Yours faithfully,

Swinbourne then forwarded Handley’s letter to the Acting Secretary to the Government on Ocean Island, and added that the search was not at the direction of the G&EIC officials. He summarized by noting that Handley had returned to Tarawa having searched the position and finding no trace of the plane.

Burns Philp and Company submited a debit of £75 to the G&EIC, of which £10 was is for rental of the launch from Tarawa to Abaian, £24 for rental of David Randolf’s sailing boat, and £41 for labor of 6 men for at 9 days plus rations.

Putnam was still perplexed at the situation. He telegraphed the U.S. State Department that he was puzzled about “why the British are not telling us of their actions,” particularly since they were responding to a humanitarian request at his expense. He noted that a potential newspaper explosion would be embarrassing to all. He had, he said, informed the press that the British were are doing all that they could.

On August 23, the High Commissioner finally sent a telegram to the British Secretary of State, stating:

… I understand that United States vessels … have visited all Gilbert Islands. Captain Handley of Burns, Philp and Company left by cutter 10th August for position mentioned …

This telegram basically described the situation as the High Commissioner knew it, since his office had not received the news of Handley’s return. The High Commissioner’s message was passed to the American Embassy in London, who forwarded it to the US State Department, and then to George Putnam, all on August 24.

On August 24, the Resident Commissioner, G&EIC, telegraphed the High Commissioner to report that Handley had returned to Tarawa, having found no trace of the plane or the uncharted reef.

On August 28, Putnam thanked the U.S. State Department for the copy of the High Commissioner’s August 23 telegram, expressing hope that the “position mentioned” is the uncharted reef that he wanted inspected.

Finally, on August 31, the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific telegraphed the British Secretary of State that Handley had returned without finding any trace of the reef or plane. Surprisingly, this information was held by the HCWP offices for a full week. The telegram was forwarded to the American Embassy in London, who forwarded it to the US State Department, and thence to George Putnam, all on the 31st. We have no record that Putnam acknowledged receipt of the State Department’s telegram, as he would have normally thanked them for their efforts.

On October 12, 1937, the Resident Commissioner of the G&EIC wrote to the HCWP regarding the debit it received from Burns Philp and Company for £75 for Handley’s services. A request was made for authorization to pay out of the G&EIC accounts, with repayment from George Putnam. On December 1, the High Commissioner telegraphed the British Secretary of State regarding the Burns Philp debit, reporting that payment has been authorized, and asking for the Secretary of State to pursue recovery of the amount from Putnam. The High Commissioner also telegraphed the Resident Commissioner of the G&EIC of these same facts, referring to the telegram sent to the Secretary of State of the same day.

On February 1st, 1938, British authorities contacted the American Embassy in London about the charges, and they provided information as to how to deposit funds in the Crown Agents accounts on behalf of the G&EIC. The following day, the Embassy contacted the US State Department regarding the charges. Another 16 days transpired before the US State Department contacted Putnam about the search expenses. Putnam finally sent a check on April 26 for $375.06 in US dollars, using the then-current conversion rates. The US State Department contacted the American Embassy to have them draft a check for £75 Australian to the Crown Agents, which was done on May 18. By then, however, the exchange rate had changed, and a rebate of $76.11 was due to Putnam, according to a telegram from the Embassy in London to the State Department. A check was provided to Putnam in that amount on July 18.

Other British Contributions, Spirit Islands, and Handley’s Fate

It may be that the G&EIC authorities made other efforts to search for Earhart, though none are documented in any of the files we have searched. The reference to notifying HMS Leith suggests that this Royal Navy cruiser may have been in the vicinity, but we have no record of her movements. If J.C. Barley was at sea in Nimanoa, as Swinbourne indicates, he may have done some searching himself, but if he did, he did not report it in a way that is reflected in the file. Foua Tofinga of Tuvalu, who was a student on Tarawa in 1937, has told us he remembers being called out to search the reef, presumably for wreckage,19 though no such search is recorded in the file. Anyone with information on such other contributions to the search is urged to contact the authors.

What are we to make of the spirit island Katagateman – or Bikonikarakara – according to the August 9 telegram from the Resident Commissioner to Swinbourne?

Islands that come and go, and that can be seen only under certain conditions, are not uncommon in the sea lore of Micronesia and Polynesia. Certainly among the world’s most skilled navigators, Micronesian and Polynesian canoe sailors used the stars, animal behavior, currents, sea conditions, and what I Kiribati (Gilbertese) call “sea marks” to guide them. Sea marks could be phenomena that the European mind can understand as permanent markers – whirlpools and reefs, for example, but they could also be whales spouting or fish jumping. They could be metaphorical; one traditional authority in Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia alluded to a huge spirit-octopus whose arms extend out from Wene Island across Chuuk Lagoon and beyond.20 A spirit island could be such a metaphor, describing some kind of sea mark. It could also be – or be a memory of – a real island; volcanic islands do rise and subside, sometimes repeatedly and rather suddenly.

As for the hero of this story, Captain Handley – who took the initiative to search for Katagateman even though he disbelieved in it – his fate was a sad one. Remaining on Tarawa after it was invaded in 1941, he was one of the several Europeans murdered by the Japanese along with Reverend Alfred Sadd, when Sadd refused to obey the order to trample on the Union flag.

Reflections on the Earhart Mystery

According to Earhart biographer Doris Rich, Earhart’s plan on the Lae-Howland leg of the world flight was to “hunt for Howland until she had four hours of fuel left, and then, if she had not located it, to turn back to the Gilberts Island and land on a beach.”21 This reported plan, which Rich says was conveyed by Earhart to her friend and backer Eugene Vidal, has led some Earhart researchers to suggest with some confidence that it was in the Gilberts that Earhart and Noonan crashed. Countering this proposition are the negative results of Itasca’s and Swan’s searches and interviews, the equally negative results of a subsequent cruise through the Gilberts by the U.S. yacht Yankee, and the fact that no physical evidence of Earhart’s aircraft has turned up there.

The documents reviewed in this paper do not support the proposition that Earhart landed or crashed in the Gilberts, but neither do they provide any strong evidence that she did not. The colonial authorities in the Gilberts made an effort to search for the Earhart plane, so their negative results may be added to those of Itasca, Swan, and Yankee. On the other hand, there is no documentary evidence that any search was laid on until over a month after the disappearance. As noted, we have one verbal report of a search of the Tarawa reef, which may have happened at the time the G&EIC was first notified of the U.S. search, but we have found no corroborative data in the WPHC file. For this reason, and simply to complete the historical record, it would be very helpful if anyone with knowledge of search efforts in the Gilberts to contact the authors.



Capt. Isaac Handley, August 20, 1937. Back.

2 C.f. John P. Riley, Jr., The Earhart Tragedy: Old Mystery, New Hypothesis, Naval History, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 20-29, 2000. Back.
3 M.S. Lovell, The Sound of Wings, pg. 294, 1989. Back.
4 T.F. King et al., Amelia Earhart’s Shoe, AltamiraShoes, AltaMira Press, 2001; www.tighar.org. Back.
5 See Maude 1968:327. Back.
6 Letter from American Consulate General in Wellington, NZ to Secretary of State, Washington, DC dated July 24, 1937. Back.
7 Equatorial Islands Cruise Report, National Archives, Record Group 26. Back.
8 See Maude 1968. Back.
9 Luke, 1962: 88. Back.
10 WPHC Archives, file MP N957(MG), Hanslope Park, England. Back.
11 8th edition, Earhart Project, TIGHAR, www.tighar.org. Back.
12 This report is accurate except that the crash, on 20th March, took place at Luke Field. Presumably Garvey was reporting an item in the newspaper. Back.
13 National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), Records of the State Department, Record Group 59, 1930-1939, File 800.79611 Putnam Amel. Earhart/1. Back.
14 NARA, Sec'y. Navy General Correspondence, 1926-1940, A4-5(5)(361030), RG. 3780. Back.
15 Dean S. Jennings, “Is Amelia Earhart Still Alive?”, in Popular Aviation, Dec., 1939. Our thanks to Ronald Reuther for uncovering this document. Back.
16 Navy Historical Center, File Leahy/CNO. Back.
17 NARA, RG. 80. Back.
18 Makin Island or Atoll, now Butaritari. Back.
19 Personal communication to author King and other TIGHAR members, 1999, Suva. Back.
20 Reported in King, Thomas F. and Patricia L. Parker, Piseken Noomw Noon Tonaachaw: Archaeology in the Tonaachaw Historic District, Moen Island. Micronesian Archaeological Survey, Saipan 1984. Back.
21 Doris Rich: Amelia Earhart, Smithsonian Institution, p. 273, 1989. Back.
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