It is one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries – the disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Earhart is known for many things – including being the first woman to receive the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean – but none has captured the imagination of Americans quite like her disappearance on her quest to fly 29,000 miles around the globe. On the 75th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, Compass brings you the story of Coast Guard Cutter Itasca’s role in the search for the missing pilot and navigator.
On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, departed Lae, New Guinea, for the next leg of their now-infamous attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Their intended destination was Howland Island, a tiny atoll only 20-feet high and a few miles long.
With Earhart and Noonan airborne, Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was anchored off Howland; A month earlier, Itasca was ordered to proceed from Los Angeles to Honolulu for a routine cruise to deliver food, water and other supplies to U.S. Department of the Interior personnel on Baker, Jarvis and Howland islands. In addition to the ship’s regular cruise, the crew had been ordered to act as a plane guard and to provide radio navigation and communication support to Earhart.
From June 26 to 30 Itasca sailed off the coast of Howland and awaited the arrival of the Earhart plane while Interior Department personnel and technical aides were at work on runways and other precautionary work connected with the flight.
The cutter was in contact with the Earhart plane after it departed New Guinea and intermittently thereafter. Radio reception was poor, but at 6:14 a.m the plane reported its position as 200 miles away from Howland.
With the plane getting closer and day breaking, Itasca commenced laying a smokescreen – a mass of dense artificial smoke to serve as a signal for Earhart. At 7:42 a.m. the plane reported their gas was running low and they had yet to spot land. Just before 8:00 a.m. the plane radioed they were circling and requested bearings. Earhart and Noonan reported they had received the cutter’s signals, but were unable to obtain a minimum for a bearing. At 8:43 a.m. the plane reported being on line 157-337 and running north and south with no reference point given.
It was the last Itasca heard from Earhart and Noonan. With no sign of the plane, it was assumed it had gone down. Itasca got under way at full speed to commence a search, much of it dictated by Navy assets in the area as well as communications from the Coast Guard district office in San Francisco.
The ship’s logs indicate the sea was smooth and the ceiling unlimited as far as could be observed. The sun was rising clear and bright and visibility to the north and west was excellent to the horizon. But beyond that, continuous banks of heavy cumulus clouds were visible.
Earlier radio transmission from Earhart indicated they flew through cloudy and overcast skies throughout the night. Due to the conditions north and west of Howland and the fact that the plane obtained no fix during the latter part of its flight due to cloudy weather, it was assumed the plane might have missed Howland due to flying into the glare of the rising sun.
Searchers deduced from a line of bearing previously passed by the missing aircrew the airplane did not come down within a 40-mile radius of Howland. The most logical area of search, therefore, lay in a sector of a circle between 40 and 200 miles off the island.
There was a possibility the plane’s radio could still operate while on the water and it could stay afloat a considerable time. There was also an emergency two-man rubber lifeboat and emergency supplies, including flares, a pistol, a large yellow signal kite which could be flown above the plane or the lifeboat and emergency rations.
With five of Itasca’s crewmembers and a radio operator remaining on the island – left in charge of the high frequency radio direction apparatus to obtain bearings, if possible, on the plane – Itasca continued searching with spotlights, extra lookouts and all hands on alert.
Because of the reported survival equipment, Itasca searched the Pacific from July 4 to July 16 in a coordinated search led by the Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Lexington. Itasca and crew went as far west as Tarawa Island and as far south as Arorai Island.
While at Arorai, officers disembarked the ship and queried native islanders on whether they had seen anything out of the ordinary. Despite countless interviews, they failed to get any information regarding the plane from the natives.
After searching for 12 consecutive days, querying native islanders and keeping a sharp eye for any sign of wreckage, Itasca was officially relieved of search duty on July 16.