Amelia Earhart Burry Port 1928

I can only show you some memorials – I can’t afford to visit where she rests, even if we could be sure where it was. There isn’t a grave, but then, there isn’t a body, for it might have been eaten by coconut crabs. Let us hope fervently that she died before they got to her.

     In Wales we have things more solid by which we can remember Amelia Earhart. And they are in Burry Port in Carmarthenshire. Or alternatively there is one in Pwll, two miles away. There can be no compromise, no third way. Along the shore of Carmarthen Bay you are defined by the answer you give to this question; where exactly did Amelia Earhart land? Such a simple question and yet so very complicated.

     Amelia Earhart was born into comfortable affluence in Atchison, Kansas in 1897 – her father was a lawyer and her grandfather a judge and president of a savings bank. It was however a troubled childhood and her early adult years were difficult too, as family finances crumbled.  During the war she worked as a nurse’s aide in a military hospital in Canada and later became a social worker in Boston.
     She was always unconventional, always looking for new challenges. It is interesting too that she collected newspaper articles about women who succeeded in what were then considered to be male careers. And it was aviation that became her passion. She had her first lesson in January 1921 and within six months bought her first plane, which she used to set the women’s altitude record.
     In 1928, in response to her growing celebrity, she was invited to join pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon on a transatlantic flight as a passenger. They left Trepassey Harbour in Newfoundland on 17 June for Southampton, and arrived at Burry Port, Carmarthenshire 21 hours later, in a Fokker seaplane that was running out of fuel, convinced that they were landing in Southampton in time for a civic reception. Well, it’s a mistake easily made.  They had been flying through such fog and rain that they didn’t see Ireland at all and were therefore a little disorientated.
     Now the people of Pwll claim they spoke to Amelia first, when she put her head out of the door of the seaplane and asked ‘Where am I?’ A boy on his way home from school for his dinner answered. ‘You are in Pwll Slip,’ he said, words which can unsettle even the most intrepid of travellers. It has to be acknowledged however, that everyone’s uncle is credited with those fateful words. The plane was then towed into Burry Port Harbour by Ossie Roberts from Pwll.
     However, Burry Port insists that she shouted ‘Where am I?’ at Dai Harvey Thomas who was fishing and approached the plane cautiously in his rowing boat. She was unable to understand a word he said, slammed the door in disgust and was towed in to Burry Port by Mr Fisher, the manager of the local Frickers Smelting Works who had a motor boat.
     This difference of opinion has simmered for over ninety years and shows no sign of diminishing. Everyone agrees that the first woman to fly across the Atlantic set foot on land in Burry Port but that was only because Burry Port has a harbour, something else that Pwll has never been happy about. So both places have a memorial, for it is undeniable that Amelia Earhart was brought across the Atlantic and touched down in Carmarthen Bay. It is just that Burry Port has two memorials. The name of the seaplane was ‘Friendship,’ by the way.
     When the crew returned to the United States, they enjoyed a ticker-tape welcome in Manhattan  and went to a tea party with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House, a privilege no longer afforded to contemporary  transatlantic passengers.
     Amelia always acknowledged that ‘Stultz did all the flying. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes. Maybe someday I will try it alone.’ She did too, in 1932, landing in a field near Derry in Northern Ireland, for which she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and this time got to meet President Hoover.
     She became an iconic figure, America’s daring darling. Huge crowds came out to see her land after flights to Honolulu and to Mexico.  In August 1928, Earhart has become the first woman to fly a return journey across America alone. ‘Women,’ she said, ‘like men, should try to do the impossible and when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.’
     She had started to see herself as a brand and that brand needed constant feeding. She had to keep herself in the public eye, with new challenges, new adventures. Celebrity endorsements helped her finance her flying, as did her appointment as an associate editor for Cosmopolitan magazine. Her husband, George Putnam, was a publisher and publicist and later an executive at Paramount Pictures. Soon a wide range of promotional items bearing her name appeared, including luggage, women’s clothing and sportswear.  It is interesting to note in the light of subsequent events, that she used her initials A.E as a brand name, for this was the name used by her family and friends.
     But there was one challenge she was anxious to take on –to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in a plane. A Lockheed Electra was built specifically for her. Most of the cabin windows were removed since they were redundant; the fuselage was filled with extra fuel tanks. Her first attempt in March 1937 failed at an early stage in Hawaii, when the landing gear collapsed on take-off, so she tried again in June 1937. This time Amelia travelled east from California to Florida and then onwards to  a whole host of exotic destinations – Khartoum, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, a journey which included the thrills of dysentery and the worrying removal of parachutes in Darwin, Australia. She arrived with her navigator Fred Noonan in Lae, Papua New Guinea, after covering 22,000 miles. The remaining 7,000 miles would be over the Pacific and she took off on 29 June 1937. She was never seen again.
      The next scheduled stop to refuel was a small uninhabited scrap of land, Howland Island, very small, very undistinguished but, helpfully, very flat. An American Navy vessel, the Itasca was sent there to guide the Electra into land by radio. But there were inadequacies in their radio communication and Earhart and Noonan do not seem to have seen the tiny island. The Itasca generated smoke from her boilers but they did not appear to see that either. The plane disappeared.
     The search for the plane began within an hour and continued for two weeks but to no avail. It was felt that Amelia Earhart had run out of fuel and crashed into the sea. Of course, alternative theories still persist. One popular idea suggests that she was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned briefly on the island of Saipan, were she left her initials scratched into the wall and ceiling of her prison cell before she was shot as a spy. Those initials, A.E.  Straight lines. Easy to scratch into a wall, perhaps?
      The most enduring version has Amelia and Fred landing on the exposed reef of Gardner Island in the western Pacific (now called Nikumaroro and today part of Kiribati) where they lived as castaways for a short period. For ten days or so, radio hams across the world claimed to have picked up uncorroborated messages from her.  Eventually, debilitated and dehydrated, they were terrorised and then dismembered and devoured by fearsome coconut crabs.
Recent archaeological digs on the island have been inconclusive. A jar which might once have contained freckle cream might be significant evidence. Bones were found but then subsequently lost. But these could the legacy of a British project to establish a settlement there between 1938 and 1963, which failed due to a lack of fresh water.
     Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were officially declared dead in their absence in January 1939.
     She has left a legacy behind her as a pioneer and an adventurer, though for some her death is far more important than her life and there are obsessives everywhere who are convinced that they have solved the mystery of Amelia Earhart. But proper evidence is unlikely to emerge now – unless the remains of the plane suddenly emerge from the deep.
     On the basis that common things are common, perhaps it is most likely that she couldn’t find Howland Island and crashed into the hazy vastness of the Pacific when she ran out of fuel. Perhaps that is better to hold on to that idea, rather than think of poor Amelia being eaten alive by those  coconut crabs with monstrous claws.

My latest book, Grave Tales from Wales, explores other surprising stories from our past, using notable gravestones from across the whole of Wales
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