Itasca & the search for Amelia Earhart

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.

Amelia Earhart was born July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. Her flying career began in Los Angeles in 1921 when, at age 24, she took flying lessons and bought her first airplane-- a Kinner Airstar. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Amelia Earhart was born July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. Her flying career began in Los Angeles in 1921 when, at age 24, she took flying lessons and bought her first airplane– a Kinner Airstar. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

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.

Coast Guard cutter Itasca was named for a lake located in central Minnesota and was commissioned July 12, 1930. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard cutter Itasca was named for a lake located in central Minnesota and was commissioned July 12, 1930. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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.

Amelia Earhart became a household name in 1932 when she became the first woman, and second person, to fly solo across the Atlantic, on the fifth anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's feat. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Amelia Earhart became a household name in 1932 when she became the first woman, and second person, to fly solo across the Atlantic, on the fifth anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s feat. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

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.

The original log book from Coast Guard Cutter Itasca detailing the search for Amelia Earhart. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

The original log book from Coast Guard Cutter Itasca detailing the search for Amelia Earhart. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

 

Tags: , , , , , ,


  • Anonymous

    What a story.  With this info, surely our current technology has a better chance of finding any wreckage or other clues of the plane.  An enduring mystery of our time.  Thanks for the article!

    I love getting these emails.  A big thanks to the Coast Guard!

  • Cnorrid

    we never lost one glass fish net ball.
    how did they loose a plane ?

  • Cnorrid

    the same way i over looked my spelling”

  • CAPT Don Taub

    The USCG’s “Duck Hunt” team is participating in the search for one of its own missing aircraft toward recovering the remains of the 3 men lost in LT John Pritchard’s Grumman Duck of the USCGC Northland, which was lost on November 29,1942, on the SE coast of Greenland a few minutes after its 2nd landing & take-off on the Ice Cap during the rescue of the crashed USAAF B-17 PN9E on the Koge Bay fjord’s glacier. An equipped on-site visit is being planned to take place in August 2012.
     Five USCG volunteers led by ENS Richard Fuller went ashore from the ship to assist. The ship was soon forced to depart and they became stranded there from December 4, 1942 to May 8,1943.

  • spyguy3

    Here’s the mystery many have overlooked. The Coast Guard cutter Itasca’s report of 0843 stated that Earhart’s plane was running NORTH-SOUTH on the line of 157-337. That means LONGITUDE 157 degrees about a thousand miles east of new Guinea and 337 degrees LATITUDE— which is the SOUTHERN COAST OF AUSTRALIA and WEST of NORTHERN NEW ZEALAND!! THAT’S NOWHERE NEAR HOWLAND ISLAND!! SHE WAS HEADED SOUTH, NOT EAST!! AND WHY?? Because her TRUE ULTIMATE destinantion must have been NEW ZEALAND to the SOUTHWEST of Gardiner’s Island. She was on a SPY MISSION to lland on New Zealand from which her navigator Fred Noonan would monitor Japanese transmissions regarding any pending air attacks on US nanal stations in the Pacific Islands; particularly HAWAII!!

  • Fred

    What was the range of Itasca radio signal on that morning