Donated Records: A Worthwhile Adventure
Today’s post is written by Kimberly Kronwall.
My grandfather was an avid pilot and builder of airplanes. As a child, I remember walking into his garage to check on the progress of his latest Taylorcraft aircraft. Other than this limited exposure to airplanes (and the commercial flights I frequent) I am not by any means an aviation enthusiast. Yet when I came across the donated records of Leo G. Bellarts, I found myself engrossed in his story and his records. If you don’t know who Bellarts is, don’t worry, I didn’t either. As I was looking into the map collection donated by Lincoln Ellsworth, I accidentally pulled another accession dossier from the box as I was grabbing one of Ellsworth’s. My eyes were immediately drawn to the collection title: “Records Relating to the Last Flight and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart.”
Many of the donated records here at the National Archives are of people who experienced amazing adventures firsthand. For example, the polar collection of donated records is quite extensive and you can see a sampling of this on view right now at the National Archives Public Vault exhibition in downtown D.C. Robert Peary’s explorations of Greenland and the North Pole will be up for several more years. Knowing that the Archives collects some fascinating and sometimes thrilling personal records, I was excited to see what the Bellarts collection would hold.
While the Bellarts collection is small (only one scrapbook), it packs a whopper: the original radio log showing the last transmissions received from Amelia Earhart before she disappeared. This simple document is the rough copy of the radio log with notes and edits. One can see where the radiomen aboard the United States Coast Guard cutter Itasca “x”-ed out and retyped transmissions. The log begins on July 1, 1937 and ends on the afternoon of July 2nd. Earhart’s call sign KHAQQ is seen clearly throughout July 1. However, beginning at 8:00am on July 2nd, Earhart’s transmissions are recorded as intermittent and the log shows the Itasca trying to get a fix on her. Then, the last transmission came at 0843 after a period of silence. According to Bellarts’ account, Earhart’s signal strength was at the highest registration and was coming in so loud that Bellarts ran up to the bridge expecting her to come in for a landing. Instead, the sky was clear with no plane in sight. Bellarts also recalls, “The last time we heard her voice it was so loud and clear that you could hear her outside the radio shack. We heard her quite a few times, but that last time, it sounded as if she would have broken out into a scream if she hadn’t stopped talking. She was just about ready to break into tears and go into hysterics, that’s exactly the way I’d describe her voice, I’ll never forget it.”
It is a good thing that Bellarts had the foresight to save these pages, as they would have been disposed of as they are temporary records. Traditionally, the smooth logs (meaning cleaned up and retyped) are the permanent records. So even though Bellarts had a disposable federal record in his possession for almost 40 years, he ended up saving a noteworthy piece of aviation history.
Amazingly enough, NPR just released the story that a new search for Earhart’s plane will commence this summer. The privately funded group The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) will be heading to the Pacific island Kiribati in July. Perhaps this group will be able to recover Earhart’s plane and help solve one of the great aviation mysteries of the 20th Century.