Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison , Kansas , in the United States of America . Amelia embarked on a flying career, which culminated in the possession of a Lockheed Electra Model 10E aircraft, which had been fitted out for long distance flying.
Her attempt at a long distance flight around the world in 1937 is well documented, the flight ending on 3 rd July 1937 with her disappearance. Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan set out from Lae in New Guinea on the morning of 2 nd July 1937. They were last seen on the take-off from Lae at 10:00am local time, 0000 Hours Greenwich Meantime (GMT). They were headed for Howland Island , a tiny speck of ground far out into the Pacific Ocean . Several radio calls were heard from the aircraft but it was not seen again in that year. They did not arrive at Howland Island and the disappearance of Earhart, Noonan and the Lockheed Electra is the biggest aviation mystery in the World.
When she disappeared, Amelia Earhart was quite famous as an aircraft pilot and was a heroine in America . She had set many aviation records; she had advanced the cause of women and had established societies for women in business and in aviation. She openly set out to complete tasks that only men had done before. The round the world flight in 1937 was to be the pinnacle of her aviation career. Promoted by her husband George Palmer Putnam, Earhart was a household name, a beacon to women and she was adored.
The “World Flight” beginnings came in 1936 when Purdue University purchased the Lockheed Electra for her, the intention being to use the aircraft as a “flying laboratory” but the real intent was to set records with this aircraft. The Lockheed Model 10E Electra carried the Constructors Number 1055. It had the civilian registration “NR16020” on the underside of the left hand (port) wing, the top surface of the right hand (starboard) wing and on the outer faces of the two vertical stabilisers (fins) as the aircraft was known as a “twin-tailed” aircraft. The Electra was powered by two 550 Horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1340 S3H1 engines. These engines were known as “Wasp” engines and could deliver 600 Horsepower for take-off if 100 Octane fuel was used. The engines in 1937 normally used 87 Octane aviation gasoline.
There were two attempts to fly around the world. In March 1937 Earhart, together with Paul Mantz, Harry Manning and Fred Noonan set out from Oakland in California bound for the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Group of islands. The flight was a success and set a new record for the sector of 2400 Statute Miles. The Electra landed at Wheeler Field eight miles north of Honolulu after nearly sixteen hours of flying time.
Because of fuel problems at Wheeler Field, the aircraft was moved to Luke Field on Ford Island, within Pearl Harbour and the aircraft refueled there. Paul Mantz was to remain in Hawaii but Earhart, Manning and Noonan; (the two navigators) were to continue on to Howland Island, 1900 Statute Miles to the southwest, as this first attempt was made flying West to East. The take-off ended in disaster, the Electra was seen to slew around, the landing gear collapsed and the aircraft dropped to the ground. The accident was what is called “a classic Groundloop”. It was severely damaged and required major repairs. Manning left the attempt there and then, returning to his normal profession as a maritime captain of ships. Noonan stayed with the project. The aircraft was disassembled and shipped back to the United States, to Burbank in California, where it had been built the previous year.
The aircraft had been extensively damaged and during the repair, one new starboard wing outer panel was fitted. One new engine mount was supplied for the right hand position (No.2 engine) and the left hand mount for No.1 engine would have required to be repaired. The engines were removed for examination as the propellers had struck the ground while the engines were at high power. New propeller blades were also supplied. Much sheet metal work was needed on the aircraft. It was an extensive repair and took almost two months to complete.
In May 1937, the Electra was ready and Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan set out again but this time the World Flight was to be carried out from West to East due to climatic changes in mid-year. Noonan was an experienced aerial navigator, said to have been the finest navigator at the time. Noonan had previously been a maritime navigator but had transferred to airline work and flew with Pan American Airways on the flying boat flights out into the Pacific from California. Some of PanAm's Pacific routes had been pioneered by Noonan. Noonan had resigned from Pan Am to be able to undertake the navigation of the Electra as he hoped to set up his own aerial navigation school and succeed in this from the fame that the World Flight would bring.
Both now experienced flyers, Earhart and Noonan set out across America and departed the United States from Miami. They flew to South America, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in Africa. The Sahara Desert was crossed, the Indian sub-continent, the Thai Archipelago, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Darwin in Australia and then New Guinea, arriving at Lae in one month. They had not had much rest in this condensed journey and a two day layover in Lae was planned. The arrival back in the United States was to be at Oakland and had been timed for Independence Day, July 4 th .
They were delayed in Lae as Noonan required to set his chronometer, which was essential for the Astro Navigation for which the flight depended. Noonan was to shoot the stars, calculate and obtain position fixes along the way on the 2556 Statute Mile flight from Lae to Howland Island.
The Electra carrying Earhart and Noonan, left Lae on July 2 nd , 1937 and as this website will explain, the Electra was not seen again until 17 th April 1945.
New Britain: Short History and Topography
New Britain Island is a large island to the North-East of the main island of New Guinea . The island is a former German Colonial possession which was seized by Australia at the outbreak of the First World War. From then, until Papua New Guinea Independence in 1975, the island was administered by Australia . There are two Provinces, East New Britain and West New Britain . This article deals with East New Britain only.
The main centre of commerce of East New Britain was Rabaul until the town was devastated by volcanic eruptions in 1994 and the main centre is now Kokopo, 50 kilometres to the East of Rabaul.
Rabaul was a tourist paradise with friendly people and wide tree-lined avenues, the panoramic views of the magnificent harbour were excellent. Rabaul is to be rebuilt. Formerly aircraft movements were at Lakunai close to Rabaul town, now the airport for Rabaul is at Tokua at the north-east tip of the Gazelle Peninsular, 70 kilometres from Rabaul.
Rabaul and Kokopo sit on the northern edge of the Gazelle Peninsular. To the south-east is a range of mountains across the peninsular, called the Bainings with hills to 7,000 feet high. The Gazelle and the mountains are heavily wooded with thick jungle spread beneath the canopy.
Amelia Earhart passed to the South of New Britain Island on her track out towards Howland Island in July 1937.
WW2 in New Britain
The Japanese invaded New Britain at Rabaul on 23 rd January 1942. There was a token force of Australian Militia troops at Rabaul and a Flight of seven single-engined aircraft. Both units were destroyed, the troops escaping on the northern and southern Gazelle Peninsular coasts and five of the seven aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force were destroyed. The Japanese had complete control over the land in East New Britain from 1942, until Australian Army units began the land counter-offensive along the North coast and along the South coast of New Britain in 1945. The Japanese had plenty of time to fortify Rabaul and the surrounding area, building three more airfields and even using captured prisoners of war to dig 500 kilometres of tunnels in the hillsides. Over 700 anti-aircraft gun emplacements were made. Units of the USAAC, the RAAF, the USN and the RNZAF pounded Rabaul almost daily from late 1942 until mid-1945 dropping a reported 20,000 tons of bombs on shipping and on the fortifications. In mid-1945 the Japanese were cut-off from supplies by sea and led a subsistence life. In 1945, the Australian objective was not to take Rabaul, the objective was to bottle up the nearly 100,000 Japanese garrison in the Rabaul area and prevent them from escaping along the length of New Britain and joining up with Japanese forces on New Guinea , the main island. One place was ideal for this and it was the narrow neck of land 38 kilometres wide which separates the Gazelle Peninsular from the main part of New Britain Island .
An Australian Army Patrol finds aircraft Wreckage.
An Australian Army reconnaissance patrol of 20 men was operating in a no-man's land between Australian and Japanese lines in April 1945. At their first night camp, a section of two men crossed a river to clear their front, to make sure there were no Japanese in the vicinity. A shot rang out from a Japanese rifle and the section leader heard the bullet pass by his head removing his jungle beret. He saw movement in the bushes ahead of him and fired off two rounds from his Lee-Enfield rifle. There was a scream and he knew that someone had been hit. He had seen two Japanese in uniform, one native and he had heard a dog bark. It had been a close call and he and the section returned to their camp whispering the password “shilling”. It was now dark and a leader's conference decided that they would cross the river in the morning and pick up the trail of the Japanese. They tried to alert Company HQ of the incident but nothing was heard from the radio set they were carrying.
In the morning the patrol Warrant Officer and three men crossed the river and found the site where the exchanges of rifle fire had been made. They found the two spent cartridge cases from the Lee-Enfield and saw traces of blood on the jungle vines further on. The whole patrol set off trailing the Japanese.
Meanwhile, their Company HQ had realised that they must have a dead radio and had organised a contacting patrol of two men from the Company and two New Guinea Policemen to catch up with the main party. This contacting patrol set off by jeep before first light with the new radio. They left the jeep at a river and set off as fast as they could to catch up with the main party.
The reconnaissance patrol had set off from their overnight camp and they journeyed for one and a half miles before the contacting patrol caught up with them and handed over the new radio. On the way back the contacting patrol saw Japanese footprints over the footprints left by the reconnaissance patrol. The Japanese must have seen the contacting patrol but let them through, probably hoping to ambush the main patrol on their return. This event was reported to their Company Headquarters when the contacting patrol returned to base.
The reconnaissance patrol carried on with the new radio, oblivious to the fact that they were either being followed, or that they were to be ambushed on the way back. They kept on through the jungle following the footprints of the small party of Japanese who had fired on them until the prints went to a river bank. They could see that one man was being carried or dragged by the marks left behind. The prints ended at the river and the hull mark of a canoe was left in the mud of the river bank. The Japanese had gone across the river some time previous and must have alerted more Japanese who had come across the river in the hope of catching the reconnaissance patrol by surprise. It had been this larger party's footprints that the contacting patrol had seen on their way back to base.
The reconnaissance patrol carried on following their patrol orders until they came to a sharply angled river bank which would expose them to possible enemy fire. This sharply angled bank stretches for 500 yards. They decided to climb this bank higher up and did so but in doing so, this led them into another river valley, which they initially thought was the same river. By now it was starting to get dark and they made camp on a ridgeline just above the river. The radio man laid out an aerial in the lower branches of the trees and at last they had could hear their base HQ although they still could not contact their base.
Base HQ had been trying to contact them for some time to alert them to the possibility of ambush. This warning they heeded and decided to return to base by a difference route which they came to call the “alternate route”. They set off at first light on the third day and followed the river to the South-west for about one half mile. They then climbed a very steep hill to the South and rested at the top for about one hour. The Lieutenant in charge of the patrol decided to take a compass heading which would bring them out at the junction of two rivers.
The country they then entered is very wild, although the hill they had to cross is not very high. It had folds and gullies and several ridgelines, steep climbs and descents, no water, dry creek beds and tall trees, the canopy being up to one hundred feet. Working ahead of them with the point section was a New Guinea policeman named “Illip”. Illip kept moving ahead looking for the best way through. The jungle was extremely dense and they were cutting a trail with their bushknives.
At around mid-afternoon the point man, a Corporal, saw what he thought was a Japanese gun emplacement right in front of him at a distance of ten to fifteen feet. He dropped to the ground, rifle at the ready expecting at any moment to be shot at. When nothing happened he focused and saw that the vine covering over the mound ahead of him was hiding something metallic. He saw a round tube about three or four inches diameter which was hollow and which he had thought was a gun but behind the tube he could make out what looked like an aircraft engine. He signalled for the patrol Lieutenant to come forward.
The Lieutenant and the Warrant Officer both came forward to see what the problem was. The Corporal pointed to the vine covered mound. The Lieutenant and the Warrant Officer both moved forward to inspect the object and signalled for the remainder of the patrol to take up defensive positions. At the rear of the patrol the rearguard party automatically went into rearguard action as the patrol had stopped. The Warrant Officer cleared off the vines covering the object
As described by the Warrant Officer in 1994, the wreckage seen in 1945 was an aircraft radial engine in an unpainted aluminium nacelle tilted down at the front and one third buried in mud. The nacelle had burst open. The propeller was also unpainted and was of a narrow chord. Only one propeller blade was seen in a 12 o'clock position and it was bent backwards over the front cowl ring. The front face of the cowl ring was heavily corroded with finger size holes and the typical look of corrosion lacework. There was no serious corrosion on the sides of the nacelle sheet metal. There were rivets on the front cowl ring, which were “ugly-looking” rivets. The interior sheet metal surfaces were painted in a yellow paint. At the rear of the nacelle behind a large sheetmetal disc, were some tubes, which were twisted and torn, these tubes were painted black. The nacelle was about five feet in diameter and about the same in length. There was tubing at the rear of the engine inside the nacelle and from this tubing a small metal tag was removed.
The patrol Lieutenant walked on from the engine for about thirty yards to another, larger vine and tree debris covered mound and states that he saw some airframe wreckage, consisting of a metal fuselage structure, the wings, one engine (still attached) some glass and a round black shiny object. The starboard (right hand side) wing is bent upwards about ten feet from the tip and the cockpit area is smashed backwards to the wing leading edge. There was a round hole in the jungle canopy about 30 to 40 feet across and the breaks in the tree limbs looked old. The patrol was at, or near the top of, a hill and under the jungle canopy it was dark and it was raining.
Due to the fact that they had been told they were possibly being followed, the patrol did not stay long at the wrecksite, perhaps five or ten minutes, the order then being given to continue on. After two or three hours and after crossing a river, the patrol camped for the night and contacted their Company HQ by radio. They obtained contact and gave their Grid Reference. Company and Battalion HQ were relieved to hear from them as they had been out of contact for three days.
The next day they returned to their base at around 5:00pm. The patrol had taken four days and they had exhausted their food on the third day. They had been issued with 36 tins of bully beef for the twenty men.
The patrol Warrant Officer made out the patrol reports and it is mentioned here that at that time he did not know that airframe wreckage had also been sighted, he thought that there was only an engine at the scene.
An early appraisal of the identity of the Wreckage
Like in all armies, significant reports are sent to the top. The report of the find of an engine was passed up the chain of command until it was sent to the United States Army Air Corps. The Lieutenant also considers that the metal tag removed from the engine mount by the Warrant Officer would also have been passed on through channels to the USAAC.
Five and a half weeks later, the USAAC replied to the Australian Unit that the engine did not belong to the USAAC. The message received by the men was that the USAAC had said that “It is not one of ours. It is a Wasp engine and is probably from a civilian aircraft”.
The matter rests.
There the matter rested for 45 years, except that when at Army reunions of the particular unit, the question always came up, “Whose aircraft was that, if it did not belong to the Americans ?”
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