By Larry Clark, Washington State Magazine
(Following is one of Washington State Magazine’s most popular articles, run in its Winter 2015 issue and chronicling the discoveries of a WSU alumnus that have since been featured in a History channel documentary. Enjoy this great story from the archives.)
Dick Spink never intended to hunt for Amelia Earhart’s airplane. He specializes in boats.
He put himself through Washington State University (’85) designing and fabricating aluminum boats. He now holds a day job teaching at Mount Vernon High School, but he’s also a naval architect and licensed master. He sells boat kits all over the world, from Singapore to Africa, and often builds clients’ boats on site. Which is how he found himself in the north Pacific, in the Marshall Islands, and deep into a quest to solve the most enduring of aviation mysteries.
“Right now, to think I’m a leading researcher on Amelia Earhart? A farmer’s kid and school teacher from Mount Vernon? Unbelievable,” says Spink, a broad smile across his boyish face. He wears a brown fedora, a la Indiana Jones, and a brown leather aviator jacket with a Boeing logo embroidered on the front. Spink says he received the coat when he told his Earhart story to a fascinated group of Boeing Company executives in February.
The story begins at a celebration with his Marshallese hosts. At the feast, an older man—a king of one of the islands—told the guests about Amelia Earhart and her navigator crashing on a nearby atoll in 1937. He said his uncle had watched over Earhart for two days. Spink imprudently laughed, and his close friend Ramsay Reimers chided him for disrespecting the elder man. “You don’t laugh at a king,” says Spink.
After several apologies from Spink, Reimers and others explained that the Earhart crash was well-known throughout the islands, and that Spink could meet many locals who had heard the recollection of their parents and grandparents.
The Earhart tale grabbed Spink’s imagination. “I’ve been through just about every scenario they talk about. I’ve read every Earhart book I can get my hands on,” he says. “I started taking my movie camera down and started recording these conversations.” Spink got more than stories. He came home with aluminum parts that could well be from Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.
Amelia Earhart started flying airplanes in 1921, drawn to the daring world of early pilots. In just seven years she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, first with a crew, then solo. Her fame grew, and ticker tape parades welcomed her home from her exploits.
Earhart chalked up one aviation accomplishment after another: first person to fly the Atlantic twice; first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross; first woman to fly nonstop across the United States; and a number of speed records.
Her flying exploits weren’t the only way Earhart increased her visibility and fame. The charismatic pilot wrote two books, a regular aviation column for Cosmopolitan magazine, articles and essays. She even promoted a line of clothes based on her distinctive attire.
Earhart’s husband, publisher George P. Putnam, helped market the aviatrix, and she became “Lady Lindy,” an internationally recognized celebrity who drew crowds of hundreds.
In late 1936, at age 39, Earhart set out to be the first woman to fly around the world. She chose a heavily customized Lockheed Electra 10e, the first twin-engine, all-metal passenger airliner built by Lockheed. Earhart’s ground crew ripped out the passenger seats, added more fuel tanks, and covered most of the portholes. Her first attempt failed with a crash in Honolulu after flying from Oakland, Calif.
The second attempt worked much better, at first. Heading east, Earhart flew the Electra with top navigator Fred Noonan on board. They departed Miami on June 1, 1937, and traveled through South America, Africa, India, and southeast Asia before arriving at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29. They were set to begin the final stage of the circumnavigation. They took off on July 2, destined for remote Howland Island, one of the Pacific islands under U.S. control by League of Nations mandate. A rugged airstrip was built there specifically for Earhart’s flight.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was dispatched to communicate with and guide Earhart’s plane. Through a series of radio miscommunications, it became clear to the Itasca crew that the Electra was not finding its way to Howland. Earhart reported overcast skies and indicated she was barely receiving the signals from the Itasca.
The Itasca heard one last ambiguous message — that the aviators were traveling north-south — before the plane disappeared.
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard spent $4 million and sent an aircraft carrier and other ships to search for some trace of the plane or crew, to no avail. They eventually declared Earhart and Noonan lost at sea. Putnam also sent ships on a futile search.
Theories contradicting the official explanation of her disappearance soon began to pop up and increased with the end of World War II, when Pacific Islanders began to tell of a woman and man captured by the Japanese after their plane crashed on an island in 1937.
It was one of these eyewitness reports that led CBS radio journalist Fred Goerner to pursue the Earhart disappearance. His 1966 book, “The Search for Amelia Earhart,” chronicles a six-year quest he and others undertook to determine the facts about Earhart. He gathered a number of reports of U.S. soldiers and island natives who saw evidence or heard testimony of Earhart and Noonan in captivity on Saipan. Goerner even exhumed remains and had them analyzed to determine if they were the aviators. They weren’t.
One discredited theory said Earhart returned to the United States under a false name, Irene Bolam. An unproven rumor claimed Earhart was Tokyo Rose.
Another prevailing theory is the Mili Atoll crash. Mili Atoll is a group of islands and reefs in the Marshall Islands, ringing a lagoon formed by the caldera of a collapsed volcano. Near a three-acre island there in 1937, Marshallese natives Lajuan and Jororo said they saw the Lockheed Electra crash. The two were fishing in the lagoon of the atoll when they heard the engine and saw the silver plane glide onto the rocks of the reef, tearing off the landing gear and a wing.
The two men subsequently said that a Caucasian woman and man emerged from the plane, the man injured and the woman with short hair and long pants. The fishermen tried to help but couldn’t understand the pair’s language.
The islands were part of the mandated Japanese territory, and a number of Marshallese witnesses later said the Japanese eventually came and took both the fliers and the airplane. Postage stamps from the Marshall Islands even show the airplane being transported away on the Japanese trawler Kosho Maru.
“Generations of Marshallese people have known since 1937 that the famous fliers didn’t just disappear in the ocean,” Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak told news agency Agence France-Presse this January. “The aircraft landed on a small atoll in the Marshall Islands and (Earhart and Noonan) survived.”
The theory contends that the pilot and navigator were treated at a hospital in the Marshall Islands and then taken to Saipan, where they remained in captivity until they died. The airplane was taken to Saipan as well, the theory claims, and was destroyed after World War II.
Marshall Islands search
Spink’s boatbuilding company Dynatrax took him to the Marshall Islands in 2006. He became enamored with the people and culture, visiting several more times for business and vacation, and eventually becoming an honorary Marshall Islands citizen.
On one of those trips he learned about the Amelia Earhart story and Mili Atoll. Later Spink interviewed Shikaro Lajuan, a United Church of Christ minister on the Marshall Islands, who grew up hearing the story from his father, one of the original fishermen.
When Spink first heard the story about Earhart’s plane, people were pretty confident about the location of the crash site. “I talked more and more with Ramsay and my friend Tony deBrum about organizing the first expedition, which we did just two years ago.”
Using metal detectors and ground penetrating radar, Spink and his friends scoured the rocky reef along the tiny island where Lajuan and Jororo said they saw the airplane crash. Their search yielded a number of small aluminum parts, which Spink collected. Among them were a small, thin rectangular painted piece and a bent round piece with a hole in the middle.
Tracing metal pieces
When he returned to the Skagit Valley with these parts, Spink took them to Jim Hayton in Sedro Woolley. Hayton runs North Sound Aviation and Spink knew him as an expert on old aircraft, as well as a recognized authority on plane crashes. Hayton has testified before Congress and consulted with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board.
Hayton recognized the rectangular piece as the cover plate for an auxiliary power unit off an aircraft. The plugs under the plate would have been used to jumpstart an airplane when the batteries failed. The plate was the right size for a Lockheed Electra.
The corroded red paint on the piece caught Hayton’s attention as well. In areas where the paint came off, he could see yellow zinc chromate primer underneath, the kind used on exterior metal surfaces back in the 1930s and ’40s.
Spink points out that Earhart had the wings of her plane painted red, just like the cover plate. There were no other known Lockheed Electras with red trim like that.
The round piece surprised Hayton even more. Despite the bent and stressed metal, he knew the part was the dust cover hubcap of an unusual wheel. He says it came off a Goodyear Airwheel, 36 inches diameter by 15 inches wide, built for Lockheed Model 10e planes, like Earhart’s.
“It was very soft, had low pressure, to land on a beach or unimproved runway over big rocks,” says Hayton. “There were very few ever made.”
Hayton’s certainty comes from his own Airwheel that matches the dust cover, recovered from a Seattle scrapyard when he was a kid in the 1950s. The two parts line up exactly, down to the five bolt marks between the wheel and hubcap.
Although Hayton’s identification of the find was exciting, Spink wanted more proof. He took all of the metal he found to the original manufacturer of parts from Earhart’s plane, Parker Aerospace.
The Parker executives were intrigued. “Parker Aerospace became a sponsor and put $100,000 into this trip. They have all the metal and they’re going to perform an analysis. They’ve got Alcoa and their own labs to try to certify the age,” says Spink.
From pre-World War II to World War II, aluminum is totally different, he says. “We’re trying to date that aluminum. Nobody who has ever been involved with the Amelia Earhart search has ever done that.”
On the next few expeditions, Spink and his colleagues found other curiosities near the potential crash site. Despite the lack of a World War II Japanese landing strip on such a small island, they found steel wheels and rails, used to move aircraft and bombs during the war. “There’s absolutely no reason why those should be on the island,” says Spink.
A portion of the ocean side of the island had also been dredged, which Spink thinks could have been where they moved the plane off the reef over the top of the island and on to a shallow draft barge.
He says the pieces of aluminum they found were in a line from where the plane landed to where the plane was loaded onto the barge.
Other mystery sleuths
In the course of exploring the mystery, Spink met a number of Earhart researchers: Carol Dow, a former pilot and author; Mike Campbell, who also wrote a book and maintains an Earhart blog; Rich Martini, a filmmaker; and Les Kinney, a retired U.S. Treasury agent who lives in Tacoma. Spink made a documentary with Dow about his findings. He also has begun coordinating with Kinney on further exploration.
Despite some disagreements on details, those Earhart experts all agree that the Electra likely crashed on the reef by Mili Atoll, the plane was taken to Saipan, and that Earhart and Noonan were rescued and then imprisoned by the Japanese, and subsequently died.
Spink knows there are doubts about alternative theories of Earhart’s disappearance, but he rebuts each in turn, beginning with the Navy’s official “crash and sink” theory.
“There are problems with ‘crash and sink,’” says Spink. The plane would have floated. “Her airplane had 9,500 pounds of buoyancy on board. Her plane didn’t weigh that much.”
Despite the largest search in naval history, “they never came up with so much as an oil slick.”
Besides, says Spink, “You can’t prove crash and sink because you need to find the airplane. They’ve been sounding for that airplane for decades.”
He also doesn’t buy the assertion by author and researcher Elgen Long and others that Earhart never had enough fuel for a Marshall Islands forced landing.
“I’ve got the fuel study by C.L. Johnson, the guy who designed the Lockheed. It says 4,100 to 4,500 miles of travel,” says Spink. “That’s plenty to get to the Marshalls.”
He quickly dismisses claims by Ric Gillespie and The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery that the plane landed to the southeast, on Nikumaroro Island. Spink says there’s no real evidence the plane landed there, the parts Gillespie found were from a completely different aircraft, and the weather was clear at Nikumaroro at the time of the crash, not overcast.
These competing theories motivate Spink to keep pushing the Mili Atoll idea. “We need to tell this story because of the frauds out there. This muddies the water for people that are serious about this, people like me,” he says.
Some of the hardest questions come about the alleged suppression of information by the government about Earhart and Noonan. Using the word “cover-up” evokes cloak-and-dagger agents and political manipulation, making it difficult for people to believe that Earhart was captured and held by the Japanese Imperial Army.
To Spink and other proponents of the Mili Atoll story, the U.S. government before and after World War II could not afford to let the Earhart capture become known. “If the general public found out Japan had Amelia Earhart, think of the political ramifications. That would have put us in World War II, years before Pearl Harbor,” says Spink.
Spink says more than 200 eyewitnesses put the aviators on both the Marshall Islands and Saipan. Their stories trickled out, leading researchers like Goerner to investigate. Spink says fear kept all those reports from emerging sooner. “Everybody in the Marshall Islands has a relative who was beheaded by the Japanese, and they were terrified. That’s why they never said much about this story. Long after World War II they were still terrified of the Japanese.”
In addition to rank-and-file soldiers’ reports, Goerner wrote that he had subtle confirmation from high-level Navy officers such as Admiral Chester Nimitz that the fliers were captured. Nevertheless, Goerner never found a smoking gun, or more than stories. Instead there were many slammed doors and missing reports.
Spink and Kinney plan to head back to the Marshall Islands and Saipan this year to exhume any remains from that area, with the idea of getting them tested for DNA.
They will also follow up on a lead from Spink’s friend Reimers about a recently discovered underground hospital on Jaluit Atoll, where Noonan was reportedly treated for injuries. Spink says it’s a long shot, but could hold some information.
No matter what they find or don’t find, Spink says he won’t let it take over his life.
The search for Amelia Earhart “destroyed a lot of men’s lives. Fred Goerner died a very frustrated man because of this story,” says Spink. “It’s not going to happen to me. I’m going to stick with the story, make a good push for a couple of years, and if I get nowhere I’ll hang it up.
“It’ll be one of those mysteries that will remain a mystery.”
Meanwhile, he and other Earhart researchers wait for metallurgical laboratory results on the parts he found. Spink knows it won’t necessarily confirm the Mili Atoll theory, though.
“If the results come back as pre-World War II, it still won’t be a pot of gold. People can say it was another plane,” he says, shaking his head. “But there just weren’t any other planes there.
“The more people look at this, the more they research Amelia Earhart, one trip to the Marshall Islands and you’ll be convinced. It’s part of their history.”
For additional articles like these, see Washington State Magazine.