History of the Search for Amelia Earhart Part 2

About the search for female flying ace Amelia Earhart, biography and history of the missing woman pilot.


Waiting for them at Howland Island was the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was to maintain close radio contact and operate a direction finder set up on the island, where an airstrip had been built especially for Amelia. At 2:45 A.M., July 3, the first message arrived. "Cloudy and overcast," radioed Amelia, but static drowned out the rest. In subsequent messages, Amelia reported that gas was running low and asked the Itasca to take a bearing on her. But Amelia's transmissions were too short for the Coast Guard cutter to get a fix on her position. At 7:58 A.M. she reported, "We are circling but cannot hear you...." Then at 8:45 A.M., "We are on a line of position 157 dash 337.... We are running north and south." That was her last message.

Clues for the Hunt

Since many people in the late 1930s correctly suspected that war between Japan and the U.S. was inevitable, rumors immediately sprang up that Amelia and Noonan were on a secret mission to scout the Japanese-mandated islands. Nonsense, the federal government said. The official version was that Earhart and Noonan overshot Howland, ran out of gas, plunged into the sea, and drowned.

There the matter rested until July, 1944, when the U.S. forces took Saipan, headquarters of the Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. Then clues began to surface right and left. A U.S. Army sergeant accidentally discovered a civilian plane, an Electra, which was kept under guard and later destroyed. It carried the registry number NR 16020, as had Amelia's Electra. Among Japanese possessions, some U.S. Marines found a picture album documenting Amelia's aviation career. They also found a suitcase with women's clothes and a locked book which had "10-year Diary of Amelia Earhart" inscribed on its cover. Numerous natives recalled having seen a white man and a white woman, under Japanese guard, on the island in 1937. The descriptions matched Amelia and Noonan. The woman had died of dysentery and the man had been beheaded, they said. Some even claimed to know the burial site of the pair. When two marines on a special work detail dug up a pair of skeletons, they asked their officer about their find. "Did you ever hear of Amelia Earhart?" he replied, and then cautioned them to keep quiet about what they had seen. U.S. troops also found a file on Amelia in Tokyo. But the file has mysteriously disappeared, as has other evidence.

The Search

After Amelia's last message--on July 3, 1937--the Itasca stayed around Howland for another hour, broadcasting continuously and making black smoke which was visible for miles. Then the cutter headed northwest into a squall, where Amelia was believed to have gone down. Later a task force which included the carrier Lexington, the battleship Colorado, and some smaller ships joined the search. After covering an area of 250,000 sq. mi., the task force, including the Lexington's 60 planes, reported nothing. The search lasted three weeks and cost $4 million.

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