The mystery of Amelia Earhart: She disappeared on her ’round-the-world flight, and was never seen again

Amelia Earhart and her lost plane

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In the late 1930s, aviator Amelia Earhart mysteriously vanished on her multi-hop flight around the globe.

To this day — despite extensive searches and scientific analysis — no definitive trace of her or her plane has been found.

Here’s a look at some of the original newspaper reports at the time of her disappearance — but first, take a look back on the events from a quarter-century later.

The mystery of Amelia Earhart: What happened to Lady Lindy? (1962)

Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Honolulu, Hawaii) June 30, 1962

Somewhere in the endless stretch of the Pacific lies the solution to the mystery of Amelia Earhart. But where? In the depths of the great ocean? In a Japanese grave? In crumbling rusted wreckage laced with jungle vines?

For 25 years, the world has searched, pondered and wondered. But there has been no answer.

Amelia Earhart with her plane

By M.A. Raiser

Oakland, Calif. (AP) — “Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio… We are circling but cannot see you…”

These last desperate words of aviatrix Amelia Earhart were heard by tense listeners on tiny Howland Island in the loneliest wastes of the Pacific Ocean 25 years ago, on July 2, 1937.

After that — silence. And a clueless mystery that has captivated the imaginations of thousands from that day to this.

Did America’s most famous woman flier and her able navigator, Fred J. Noonan, lose their way and blunder to their deaths in the sea?

A big error?

Did Noonan make a navigational error of more than 90 degrees and fly northwest toward Saipan Island? Was the end of Miss Earhart’s life skein snarled in some eerie way to the sand snit that is Howland Island? Was she on a secret espionage mission for the United States government?

Did she literally talk herself into disaster, dragging the hapless Noonan with her? Did she have a premonition of death in the far Pacific? Or did Japanese militarists rescue the two Americans only to take their lives later?

Amelia Earhart and Mrs Maddux in Grand Central Terminal

The evidence

All these ideas have their advocates. Here is the evidence. First, who was Amelia Earhart? She was called “Lady Lindy” because of her supposed resemblance to transatlantic flier Col. Charles A. Lindbergh. She had a slender, almost lanky figure, short windblown auburn hair, and a freckled face known to millions.

Born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1898, she learned to fly by the time she was 20. But it was 10 years later, while doing social service work in Boston, that she went along for the ride with fliers William Stutz and Louis Gordon when they flew the Atlantic on June 17, 1928.

Her career

She decided to make aviation her career and was encouraged by her husband, the late George Palmer Putnam, a New York publisher whom she married in 1931.

She soloed the Atlantic in 1932 and the Pacific from Honolulu to Oakland in 1935. Then she began planning the world flight — her last.

“Why this ’round the world flight?” her husband asked her shortly before she took off in 1937.

Miss Earhart smiled. “Because I want to. Pilots are always dreaming dreams. But if the flight is successful, I hope it will increase women’s interest in flying.

Amelia Earhart and her husband George Palmer Putnam

Knew danger

“I realize the danger of the world flight. But I just must try. With it behind me, life will be fuller and richer. I can be content. Afterward, it will be fun to grow old.” But she also once said, prophetically, “I think probably I’ll not live to be old.”

Her global flight originally chartered westward from Oakland. Paul Mantz, famed movie stunt flier who was her technical adviser, said he planned it that way as a safety factor — because of Howland Island.

“If she missed Howland, she would have had enough gas to get back to Honolulu,” recalled Mantz, who at 58 now operates a flying service at Santa Ana, Calif. Mantz made the first leg from Oakland to Honolulu with her and navigator Noonan March 17, 1937.

The missing fliers - Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan

2,400 miles

The 2,400-mile flight took 15 hours, 51 minutes. Jets now fly it in 4 hours, 45 minutes. The next hop was 1,532 miles overwater to Howland. But they didn’t get close to Howland that time.

As the plane roared down the Honolulu runway March 20, 1937, a tire blew and the plane cracked up. Miss Earhart and Noonan, 44 and a recent bridegroom, escaped injury.

The plane, a Lockheed 10 low-wing monoplane that cost $80,000 and had a top speed of 205 miles an hour, was repaired for a new start from Oakland, which she regarded as her lucky city. She and Noonan took off again May 20, 1937. This time they flew in the opposite direction, eastward, to benefit from prevailing tailwinds.

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March 18 1937 - Amelia Earhart starts her last adventure

Far reports

Their progress was reported from faraway places — Dutch Guiana, Natal, Brazil; St. Louis, French Senegal… over the jungles and deserts of Africa to Khartoum, to Massawa, across the Red Sea and Arabia to India.

Finally, they reached Lae, New Guinea. Their next stop was to be Howland Island. But this time it would be 2,556 miles over water — and no turning back if gasoline ran low, From Howland they would fly to Honolulu, then to Oakland and their world flight would end in glorious triumph.

After Miss Earhart took off from Lae, squalls and electrical storms were reported across her flight path. Now. flying at 1,000 feet, she spoke to Howland Island: “We must be on you but cannot see you.”

Honolulu newspaper headlines - Amelia Earhart lost - July 2 1937

Arrival time

What had gone wrong? “Miss Earhart was due in about 7 that morning,” said Dr. David J. Zaugg, 54, now medical officer of the Merchant Marine Hospital in San Francisco. “We were on Howland to service her plane when she arrived. It was quite a sunshiny day.”

“She was flying right into the rising sun. She might not have seen Howland at all. The Coast Guard cutter Itasca began putting out a big cloud of black smoke to help her see the island.”

“We started picking her up quite clearly on our radio. But the difficulty was that she persisted in using her voice when we needed Morse dots and dashes to triangulate her position. “I think she just went into the drink.”

Nothing found

No scrap of wreckage was ever found. despite one of the greatest air-sea searches ever made by the U. S. Navy. The weather was bright and clear during the 10-day search,” recalled 73-year-old retired Vice Adm. Donald R. Beary of Coronado, Calif., who was executive officer of the searching battleship Colorado.

“It is my guess that Miss Earhart ran out of fuel, crashed and drowned.” Aboard the Colorado as a civilian guest was the late Dr. M. L. Brittain, then president of Georgia School of Technology — Georgia Tech.

Amelia Earhart - Photos from her life

An interview

Dr. Brittain in a newspaper interview before his death some years ago said of Miss Earhart: “I knew her in Atlanta as an extremely careful and experienced flier.

“I knew the Japanese had a mandate over certain Pacific islands and I also knew of the rumor that they were fortifying and building plane runways on these islands in defiance of treaties.

“I believe there was considerable basis for the idea the Japanese had crippled her plane somehow in Lae or had killed her or taken her prisoner when she reached the mandated islands area.

“I believe there was an understanding on the part of some U. S. government officials with Miss Earhart that she have a look, if possible, at the Japanese mandated islands.”

The mystery of Amelia Earhart: No conclusion

Brittain’s theories never were confirmed or denied. The Japanese, whose ships aided in the search for Miss Earhart and Noonan, denied any knowledge of their fate.

Retired Rear Admiral Kenneth M. Hoeffel, 67, of Chevy Chase, Md., gunnery officer aboard the carrier Lexington, which launched 100 planes and searched a corridor 800 miles wide and 250 miles long each day, said:

“I’ve always believed Miss Earhart and Noonan crashed and drowned. I’ve never accepted the idea that she might have been captured by the Japanese and executed.

“As for her landing on some of her island — there just aren’t any.”

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Lady Lindy song about Amelia Earhart - Vintage sheet music

Final jump

Saipan Island in the Marianas is 1,500 miles north of Lae, Miss Earhart’s final hopping off place.

Fred Goerner, 36, a Navy veteran and radio newsman at San Francisco, believes Miss Earhart and Noonan came down safely and were taken to Saipan by the Japanese. Goerner made two trips to Saipan for the Columbia Broadcasting System in June 1960 and September 1961.

He said he had testimony from 19 reputable Saipanese and Caroline Islanders that a white man and white women were flown to Saipan Island. sometime in 1937 or early 1938, that they answered the descriptions of Noonan and Miss Earhart, and that Japanese military police interrogated them as spies.

Woman died

“The story is,” Goerner said, “that after much questioning they were imprisoned and the woman died of dysentery at some later date, and the man was beheaded a day or so after her death.”

Goerner dived in Saipan harbor and recovered a generator from a plane. But it was Japanese. He also recovered bones and teeth from a grave on Saipan, but they proved to be those of natives. Goerner said he still hopes eventually to ascertain what happened to Miss Earhart and Noonan.

“I never put any credence in the statements by the natives on Saipan,” said Dr. Zaugg. “It seemed highly improbable that the fliers could have reached that area.”

Amelia Earhart at Lockheed Airport

Secret mission

Paul Mantz was asked whether he recalled anything about a secret mission. “I won’t say yes or no,” he replied. “It makes a man think — it was so long ago.” Dr. Zaugg said he’d never heard of any such mission.

Mantz said: “All the plane’s gas tanks were tied into a massive vent which I had installed. All she had to do was to pull a lever and all the tanks would have been sealed for flotation. “The plane could have floated indefinitely.

“Amelia Earhart had all the survival equipment necessary. It included a rubber life raft, two-way radio phone, voice transmitter, radio direction finder.

July 2 1937 - Amelia Earhart mystery - headline feared lost

Left behind

“I don’t know why, but at the last minute, she left some equipment behind. She left a hand generator and some other things—I can’t remember just what.

“I’ve speculated about what happened to her, naturally. Perhaps she didn’t have enough has to find Howland. “Maybe she landed and disappeared. Maybe she’s still alive.”

A memorial — Amelia Earhart Light — was built on Howland Island.

During World War II, the Japanese shot the top off the lonely lighthouse. It has never been restored. Once a year, a Coast Guard cutter visits Howland, a U.S. trust territory. Last March, crewmen from the cutter Buttonwood painted the lighthouse foundation white as a marker for day navigational bearings.

On the foundation is a plaque inscribed simply: Amelia Earhart 1937.

Amelia Earhart palm print from 1933


San Mateo Times (San Mateo, California) July 2, 1937

Navy ships ordered to begin hunt – Plane over 2500-mile Pacific waste – Island is goal – Tiny spot in Pacific to be landing site

Howland Island, Oceania, July 2 – The coast guard cutter Itasca, failing to hear from Amelia Earhart, en route here from Lea, New Guinea, on a ’round-the-world flight, began preparations at 2 pm (PST) to leave the island to search for her.

No radio signals

The order to prepare to hunt for the woman flyer and her navigator, Frederick J Noonan, was given when the cutter failed to pick up any radio signals from the plane although it was due here about this time.

The last definite word received from Miss Earhart’s $80,000, twin-motored Lockheed Electra was at 9:16 am, when a message from the craft said it was progressing satisfactorily and that it hoped its gas supply would be sufficient.

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Amelia Earhart flight plan - 1937

Fear fuel failure

The exact position of the plane at the time of the report was not given. Expressed fears of a possible fuel failure expanded as the hours went by.

Officers on the Itasca could not understand the failure of its radio to reach Miss Earhart’s plane. Miss Earhart and Noonan left Lea at 6 pm (PST) last night and expected to negotiate the 2550-mile over-water jump here by noon PST.

Ask Navy help

Shortly after 2 pm, the Itasca radioed coast guard headquarters at Honolulu, suggesting that the navy be asked to furnish a seaplane to search for Miss Earhart. The message said the Itasca had plenty of gasoline and oil to fuel a searching plane.

Amelia Earhart standing in front of the Lockheed Electra in which she disappeared in July 1937

SAN FRANCISCO, July 2, 3 pm – Silence this afternoon enveloped progress of Amelia Earhart as she raced across the Pacific toward Howland Island, tiny speck in the South Seas, on the most dangerous lap of her round-the-world flight.

Miss Earhart and her navigator, Captain Fred Noonan, flying a single-motored Lockheed Electra, failed to reach Howland island at noon, PST, their tentatively scheduled arrival time — or 18 hours after their takeoff from Lae, New Guinea, 2550 miles away.

Reported this morning

The last definite report of the plane was made at 6:18 am PST, by the coast guard cutter Itasca at Rowland. At that hour, the Itasca radioed that signals from Miss Earhart’s plane were “coming in.”

George Putnam, husband of Miss Earhart, refused to be alarmed. “She might have slowed up for any number of causes,” he said. “She’ll make it, all right.”

Spouses await news from fliers (July 2, 1937)

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) July 2, 1937 & July 4, 1937

Here, perhaps, are the two most anxious persons in Oakland today as the Earhart around-the-world plane speeds across the Pacific from Lae, New Guinea, to tiny Howland Island.

They are George Palmer Putnam, husband of Miss Earhart, and Mrs Frederick J Noonan, wife of the navigator. They are shown watching the teletype machines in The Tribune office for word of the fliers.

Near the last lap on her ’round-the-world flight, Amelia Earhart today was over the wide South Pacific expanse between Lae, New Guinea, and Howland Island, the tiny island where a Coast Guard boat awaits her. After Howland, all that remain are the jumps to Hawaii and here.

Spouses await news from fliers (July 2, 1937)

The mystery of Amelia Earhart: Speculating on what happened (July 4, 1937)

Mrs. Frederick J. Noonan, wife of Amelia Earhart’s navigator, and George Palmer Putnam, Miss Earhart’s husband, met yesterday, each trying to cheer the other.

They are shown above in Mrs. Noonan’s home, 906 Creed Road, looking at a world globe for the spot where the around-the-world plane was believed forced down.

Husband of Amelia Earhart and wife of Fred Noonan waiting for news - July 1937

“Howland no bigger than this,” she said – and missed it

When Amelia Earhart disclosed plans for her ’round-the-world flight, a reporter asked her how big Howland Island looked on the map compared to the other places she would visit, and she smilingly held up her hand as shown.

Today rescue ships sought her on the broad Pacific after she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, failed to find the dot of land.

Amelia Earhart says Howland Island is tiny - 1937

Amelia Earhart planned to settle down in California with life’s dream realized (July 4, 1937)

The around-the-world flight which terminated when Amelia Earhart was forced down somewhere near Howland Island in the lonely Pacific, was to have been her last hazardous air voyage, George Palmer Putnam, her husband, revealed here yesterday.

“We decided,” said Putnam, “before she left Oakland, that when she returned from this flight, there would be no more spectacular water flights.

“If this trip had been successful, she would have crossed all the oceans there are to fly over. We were going to settle down to a normal life at our home in Southern California.


“It had been her life’s dream to fly completely around the world. When this flight started, we agreed there would be no more.

“‘I have a feeling,’ she said as she left Miami, “that there is just about one more good flight in my system. I hope this trip around the world is it.

“Anyway, when I have finished this job I mean to give up long-distance stunt flying; I have a feeling that I’m getting old and I want to make way for the younger generation before I’m feeble, too.’

Vintage portrait of Amelia Earhart

“Of course, she did not plan to give up flying, and she will always have her own plane, but there was Ito be no more record-breaking attempts and no more spectacular flights.”

In her last dispatch to The Oakland Tribune, sent just before she left Lae, New Guinea, for Howland Island, Miss Earhart expressed nothing but confidence in the success of her venture, and said both she and Frederick J. Noonan, her navigator, were impatient over delays caused by adverse weather.


Her last dispatch indicated that both fliers were in a jocular mood. Miss Earhart told of visiting a native village where the houses were built on stilts with the dogs and pigs congregating underneath.

“We were told.” Miss Earhart wrote, “that the pigs were trained as ‘watchdogs.’

“F. N. (Noonan) remarked that he’d hate coming home late at night and have to admit being bitten by a pig.”

ALSO SEE: Hawaii-bound plane crashed into the ocean in 1957, killing 44 – and we still don’t know why

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