Recently news organizations reported on the $2.2 million project that was mounted this summer to use new clues and equipment to try to uncover what happened to Amelia Earhart, who along with her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared on July 2, 1937, in Earhart's Lockheed Electra airplane.
The pair was closing in on the last hundred miles or so of what was the most dangerous part of Earhart's round-the-world-at-the-equator journey -- a 2500-mile trip from Lae, New Guinea, to tiny Howland Island. Howland was only a little better than a dot in the vast South Pacific Ocean but it was the only place for planes to land and refuel for this type of cross-ocean journey. The U.S. Navy had recently completed a landing strip anticipating its use.
Most Americans alive today had either not yet been born or were too young to remember the news stories of the 1930s, so when we read now of Earhart's efforts, our minds' eye envisions a brave woman continuing her mission to break flight records. In the process she was putting her gender into the history books and proving that women, too, could be smart and brave and capable.
While we might guess that a missing plane flown by the famous aviatrix would spawn massive press attention, most people today would be surprised to learn that within a couple of hours of determining that the Electra was lost, the Navy and Coast Guard -- joined by British and Japanese ships -- launched a very thorough and well-thought-out search for the missing aircraft.
What they knew was that Earhart was flying into the area much later than she had anticipated, that the plane was running low on fuel and that Earhart thought she was near Howland. One of the last messages was "We must be on you but cannot see you. Gas running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet."
George Putnam, husband of Amelia Earhart, knew how Earhart had specified the plane be built, and he assured everyone that the plane's gas tanks were big enough that if empty, the plane would be able to float for a time.
Within hours of the realization that the Electra was not going to make it to Howland, nine ships, 66 aircraft, and well over 3000 men searched more than a quarter million square miles of open sea during the sixteen days that followed. Radio communication had been poor even when the fliers had been aloft, and several storms blew through the area, complicating the search. While various ships reported faint signals in the couple of days immediately after the search began, ultimately, no trace of the two were found that summer.
New Book with Firsthand Stories
Now, finally, we can read firsthand accounts of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard sailors who were there to immediately launch a hunt for the plane when it became very clear that something had gone wrong.
The Hunt for Amelia Earhart, published by Paragon Agency, is riveting reading. Today's readers are there with the men, most of them ages nineteen to their mid-twenties, who were there to monitor Earhart's progress. For the book, they recall what they heard, what they saw, and what they felt during this search that was being followed by the entire western world.
The Concept for the Book
The idea for the book started with James Carey, who was working his way through college and studying journalism at the University of Hawaii in the mid-1930s. He had a part-time job working for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. That summer, the Associated Press was looking for someone to be aboard the Itasca, one of the U.S. Navy ships that was to be in the area to observe Earhart's progress at the 31st stop of her trip. James Carey was in the right place at the right time, and the press service decided that with careful instruction, he would be fine to file the stories on Earhart's progress.
In addition to the stories Carey filed, he kept a diary of his time onboard, and many years later he approached Douglas Westfall, who had formed the Paragon Agency to publish first-hand accounts of American history.
Westfall told Carey what would be needed for a book, and Carey set about collecting his own material, maps and charts, and also collecting other first-person memories from men who were serving on Howland or who were assigned to some of the ships who were pulled in for the rescue operation.
When Carey died in 1988, his family contacted Westfall who stepped in to complete the remainder of the book, which now includes seven first person accounts, the transcriptions of the messages sent directly from Earhart and Noonan, and over 100 maps, charts, & drawings, plus 160 photographs, one hundred of which have never been published before.
While most of the book is centered on Earhart's flight and the search for the missing plane, there is a side story that well captures the spirit and the age of the men, and the fact that on board, the men looked for entertainment. The book reports on a sailors' tradition that when a ship crosses the equator, then all "landlubbers" and "pollywogs" who have never gone across this boundary before must be welcomed to King Neptune's World and the "mysteries of the deep." The ceremony takes place so that pollywogs and landlubbers can become Shellbacks, and the process seems to involve various levels of hazing (drinking, paddling, hair cutting, crawling through slimy garbage, etc.) Because of the serious nature of the Earhart search, the ceremonies were not held as the ships crossed the equator during the search, but afterward, the Shellbacks remembered that there was business to attend to. Several of the first-person stories included memories of these initiations.
The book makes for fascinating reading and is available from the Paragon Agency at its website.
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