Amelia Earhart fell out of the sky and into the history books on the morning of July 2, 1937. She had been expected to land on tiny Howland Island in the South Pacific as one of the last legs of her record-setting around-the-world flight.
But although people waiting on the island and on the nearby Coast Guard cutter Itasca had brief radio contact with her, the plane did not land on the island. In fact, neither it nor its famous passengers were ever seen again.
What happened to Earhart and her navigator, Fred J. Noonan, has become one of history's great mysteries, inspiring countless books, theories, speculations, renewed searches and more in the 70 years since her plane went down.
In July 1937, Richard G. Beckham was a radioman 3rd Class stationed on the USS Colorado. The ship was based out of Long Beach, Calif., but had taken aboard a group of ROTC cadets for a training experience and was in Honolulu.
Little did Beckham know that over the next couple of weeks he would take part in one of the greatest searches of all time.
Now 92, retired and living in the St. George area, Beckham talked about that adventure in a recent telephone interview. His story is also part of a new book, "The Hunt for Amelia Earhart," by Douglas Westfall, which contains eyewitness accounts, diary and memoir entries, background and other information about the search for the aviatrix.
Over the years a lot of attention has been given to Earhart and her ill-fated flight, but no one has really focused on the huge effort the U.S. government put forth to try to find her, said Westfall, in a telephone interview from his home in Orange, Calif. "These guys were going out and risking their lives to find her. Their story needs to be told."
Plus, he said, the $4 million effort is a testament to the "fact that Americans go after their own; they don't leave them out there. No one has ever done the story of what Americans did to find America's sweetheart."
Westfall didn't start out to be the one to tell it. He had a good friend, Richard K. Mater, whom he had known since high school, who wanted to write the book and had collected a lot of material. And then he died. "His mom gave all the stuff to me. I looked through it and found he had not written anything. So I had to write it for him, and I dedicated it to him."
The book contains dozens of pictures and accounts that have not been published before, said Westfall. He found Beckham through a newsletter published for sailors who had served on the USS Colorado.
Most of his material came from people who have already died, "and then, by Jove, we find a guy living in Utah who was actually there. And he's a really great guy. He's a gem. His account is a memoir he wrote independently. I'm so happy to see it published."
Beckham said, "They tell me that I'm the last guy alive who participated in the search."
Two ROTC cadets who were on the ship are still around, Westfall says. They both went on to become doctors, and he has talked with both of them, but they didn't really participate in the search. "Dick was flying out over the islands. He was one of the ones up there looking, one of the ones who risked his life. He was only 22 at the time, really just a boy."
At the time Beckham didn't know exactly what he was getting into.
He'd heard a little about Earhart, "but I didn't really know who she was. You don't get all the news in the Navy. You're too busy with everything else."
By 1937, he had been in the Navy for three years. He was working in the radio room when the first dispatches on Earhart's disappearance came in. "We got word that she was supposed to have landed at 8 a.m. and didn't. Then they started sending messages to the chief of operations in Washington, D.C. When the messages came back, I knew we were going out."
The next morning, July 3, he woke up to find the ship at Pearl Harbor, taking on fuel and food. And then it headed out to sea toward Howland Island, a tiny spit of land that had been in U.S. possession since 1858 but was not used for much. It had the distinction of being the closest land to the international date line and the equator.
The Coast Guard cutter Itasca was already at the island. It had been there to meet and refuel Earhart's plane. It was already patrolling the open waters surrounding the island. The mission of the Colorado would be to send reconnaissance flights over the other scattered islands in the area.
The Colorado arrived in the area on July 7, and the chief radio officer asked for volunteers among the radio crew to go up as "radio ops and observers." Beckham volunteered. "I guess some of the fellows in the radio division didn't grab the moment. I had never flown before, but I had always wanted to. This was my chance."
The planes they would fly were O3U-3 Corsairs, with "two open cockpits and fabric-covered wings and tail assembly." These biplanes didn't take off; they were catapulted into the air.
"That first catapult shot, that was something else," Beckham said. "In hardly more than a second, you're at 65 feet high and going 65 miles per hour. You're supposed to go straight out, but I'd watched and knew they sometimes dipped, so I had my head ducked down. You have to align your head and shoulders so there's no whiplash. I didn't have a headrest, only handles to hold on to."
Beckham made three flights this way, flying over islands in the Phoenix group. He saw nothing. "We didn't see any signs of wreckage. There were some shacks on some of the islands that had been built for watching solar eclipses, but no one was there now. We made enough noise that if anyone had been in them, they'd have come out."
The flights took off at daybreak. "In the evenings I was in the radio room transmitting press reports to a commercial radio station in Honolulu. In those days all our communication was done by Morse code."
Eventually, other ships joined the search, and the Colorado's job was to provide fuel for them. "They'd come up alongside and throw big hoses over," Beckham said. "We refueled two or three destroyers before we left."
The intensive search lasted for 16 days; nothing was ever found.
Beckham stayed in the Navy for several more months. "They called me in two weeks before my discharge and wanted me to ship over, but I had other plans."
He went to engineering school in Washington, D.C., then returned to the Northwest, where he had grown up. He eventually went to work for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which later became the Federal Aviation Administration. He managed an FAA regional office in Montana during World War II.
He worked for the FAA until 1964. At one time he served in Guam, so he did get back to the South Pacific. He also learned to fly and had half-ownership in a plane.
Beckham went back to school and became a high school teacher for a year but decided he'd rather work in electronics, which he did until he retired and moved to Utah.
Since then he's also "read some on Amelia Earhart" and has come to have mixed feelings about her. She did some pretty amazing things, he said, "but she seemed to be interested in promoting herself. Some people think she wasn't that good of a pilot. And she was not interested in radio at all. If she had gone to radio school, she could have learned enough to save her life."
He had talked to some of the radiomen on the Itasca, he said, and learned that "she didn't seem to understand radio at all. She would hold the key down for three or four seconds, is all, but it needed more than that." That may be why some of her radio messages seemed to be garbled, he said.
He learned that she had had a life raft in her plane but left it in Australia. "Even in New Guinea, she left personal belongings behind. She was just going by weight."
But another problem, he said, was that "Howland was not where it was shown on the chart. The Brits had gone through a hundred years ago and located things as best they could. Some had been repositioned; some had not. Howland was about 5 1/2 miles from where it said." It hadn't mattered a lot until then.
A lot of things could have been different. History is like that.Beckham looks back at the whole experience with no regrets. "We did our best," he said. But one image does stick in his mind. "The Itasca had come aside us, and it sent over some 55-gallon cans of aviation fuel. They had had them there to refuel her plane. I remember seeing those blue cans sitting on the deck, and a sad feeling came over me. I knew we had given up."