The Nina Paxton Papers

Have you heard about the other post loss radio transmission? This report comes to us from noted Earhart researcher Les Kinney and project guest Dick Spink. Read on to learn all about Nina Paxton, her connection to Amelia Earhart and a post loss radio transmission that is not widely known about in the general public.

The following is shared here with permission


At about 2:20 in the afternoon of July 3rd, 1937, 41 year old Nina Paxton was fiddling with the tuner on her Philco radio in Ashland, Kentucky when she heard Amelia Earhart. "KHABQ calling, KHABQ calling. We are down here in the ocean on a little island –perhaps a coral reef at a point near Marshall Islands." For a few seconds, Nina attended to the needs of her five year old son Paul, thinking Miss Earhart must be on a training flight. When she realized Amelia was crying for help, she took a few notes. A few minutes later, Earhart was gone and Nina Paxton would never be the same.

On July 3, 1937, Nina had no idea where the Marshall Islands were located. Nor did she know the call sign for Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra wasn't KHABQ. After hearing Earhart on her radio, Nina called the Ashland Police Department and then a nearby Coast Guard Station. They laughed and said the call sign for Earhart's Electra was KHAQQ. Nina would never have known the call sign for Earhart's previous plane, a Lockheed Vega was KHABQ. A tired, exhausted, worried, and emotionally drained, Amelia Earhart blurted out her old call sign. It would have been an easy thing to do. Nina was embarrassed and the reason she didn't tell the local paper of Earhart's distress message until a week later.

It took me three years and quite a bit of luck to locate the Paxton papers. Eventually, I found them at tiny Mars Hills University in the mountains of western North Carolina. They were donated to the University by a wife of a doctor who had worked with Nina in the 1950's. Nina Paxton's file had been collecting dust in a library store room since 1975.

The Courier-Journal from Louisville, Kentucky · Page 100 Sunday, January 14, 1962

I planned to report the Paxton findings in the book I am writing on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Recent events caused me to change my mind. TIGHAR just released a new Post Loss Radio Study touting the claims of Betty Klenck. Betty was 15 in 1937 and claimed to have heard Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan over a period of several hours on her home radio. According to Betty, she was doodling in her notebook drawing sketches of movie stars, when she heard Earhart. But the downed flyers never once gave their location.

According to the jottings in Betty's notebook, Amelia seemed to be more concerned what was in her closet back home in North Hollywood, California.

None of the other 56 post loss radio messages collected by TIGHAR gives a location where Amelia and Fred went down. The Paxton paper's tells us Earhart and Noonan landed in the Marshall Islands. Since Mars Hills University recently decided to put a few of Nina Paxton's letters on the internet, I decided it was time to share my findings.

After hearing Amelia, and when time permitted, Nina stood vigil over her radio through the rest of July and into August 1937. Occasionally, she picked up a few garbled words, but she was never sure it was Earhart. For the next several days, she tried to remember the three or four hundreds words she thought Amelia spoke, and then put them in sequential order. On July 22, Nina wrote to Mrs. Noonan, and on the 30th sent a letter to George Putnam, Amelia's husband. Both letters contained an attached "message." The "message" was the compiled notes Nina had later typed while listening to Earhart on July 3, 1937.

"This is an SOS. KHAB calling, KHABQ calling. We are down here in the ocean on a little island – perhaps a coral reef at a point near Marshall islands." At that point Earhart's voice must have been fading in and out as Nina wrote, "Directly north-east of a part of Marshall Islands, 90 *** *** *** *** *** *** 173 longitude and 5 latitude." Nina then recorded what she thought Earhart was saying, "We missed our course yesterday and came up here. We can see a part of Marshall Islands in daytime. There isn't any habitation or life here but some vegetation. There are no trees here but we can see a few small trees on a part of Marshall Islands in daylight."

Nina didn't hear every word Earhart uttered. In an early letter to George Putnam dated August 5, 1937, Nina described the Marshall Islands as "Marshall Island," and gave Earhart's location as 173 Longitude, 5 Latitude." It is doubtful Nina heard "there were no trees here" unless Earhart was describing the reef at low tide with an island close by. Nina's letters conveyed honesty. If she wasn't sure of what she heard she said so. In her first letter to Putnam she wrote, "Since hearing her so well on Saturday, July 3, I have heard a few sentences at times that could have been KHAQQ unless they were KHAQQ," and in a letter to Congressman Vinson on August 12th said, "Sunday August 8, at 10:15 p.m., I heard the word "Earhart" and a few sentences which I could not understand other than the sound "matoe" on 12 megacycles." In a third letter to George Putnam dated September 20, 1937, Nina said, "Since July 3rd, I have heard sentences at various times which may have been KHAQQ but nothing of importance unless they were KHAQQ."

By the third week of September, Nina must have been looking at maps of the Pacific to make sense of what she heard. Her September 20th letter to Amelia's husband, Nina offers an opinion where Earhart might be found. "In my own mind, I am wondering if they could have landed on a reef as far north as 8 or 10 longitude and near 180 degrees latitude which I believe would have been directly northwest of Marshall Island (location of 173 latitude and 5 longitude may have been for Marshall Island.)"

Several months later, Nina wrote to Rand McNally looking for detailed information on the Marshall Islands. She continued to search for new memories, words, and phrases Amelia might have spoken that escaped her. Throughout the rest of the summer of 1937, Nina caught a few static filled voices for a second or two on her Philco and wondered if they were Amelia and Fred still crying out for help.

The July 3, 1937, edition of the Ashland Daily Independent is pictured. FILE PHOTO

Nina began telling anyone who would listen she had heard a distressed Amelia Earhart on her radio. In the mid-1940's, she reached out to the Office of Naval Intelligence, Walter Winchell, and the FBI. In a July 10, 1944, letter to Henry Luce, editor of Life Magazine, her exasperation was on display. My effort over the period of years since July 3, 1937, at 2:20 P.M. E.S.T. to get the attention of anyone interested in these lost flyers has almost acquired the comical atmosphere of a "Neglected Nanny", movie short."

Lack of enthusiasm didn't dampen Nina's letter writing campaign. In 1947, she wrote to the State Department and in the late 1960 to Fred Goerner, the bestselling author of The Search for Amelia Earhart. Her letters carried the same message: Amelia Earhart landed in the Marshall Islands and nothing has been done about it.

Skeptics have said Nina could have gotten her information from newspapers, radio, and seeing the 1943 movie Flight to Freedom. The fact that she waited a week to tell her local newspaper didn't help Nina's credibility. On July 9th, 1937, a brief article appeared in the Ashland Daily Independent. It varies from Nina's notes from July and August 1937. For instance, the news article reports "our plane about out of gas." Her notes say "our plane out of gas." "Out of gas" versus "about out of gas" changes everything. Earhart's couldn't transmit off the battery for more than a few minutes unless one of the Lockheed Electra's engines was sending power to the generator. As is often the case, it appears the reporter didn't get it all right. Nina had more to say than the local reporter sent to print. Ashland Lady hears Earhart Mrs. C.B. Paxton, 3024 Bath Avenue, told the Independent she heard the distress message of Amelia Earhart noted American woman flyer lost in the Pacific ocean last Saturday afternoon at two o'clock. Miss Earhart and her navigator Frederick J. Noonan, last were heard from in the air at 2:12 EST last Friday when they said they had only a supply of gas good for thirty minutes. "The message came in on my short wave set very plain," Mrs. Paxton said, "and Miss Earhart talked for some time. I turned the radio down one time to talk to my little child and then turned it back up to catch the last part of the message. I didn't understand everything Miss Earhart had said, Mrs. Paxton told the Independent," because there was some noise." She gave the following message as she understood it: "Down in ocean," then Miss Earhart either said "on or near little island at a point near…" after that Mrs. Paxton understood her to say something about directly northeast although she was not sure about that part. "Our plane about out of gas, Water all around very dark." Then she said something about a storm and that the wind was blowing." Will have to get out of here," she said. "We can't stay hear long."

The message was proceeded by Miss Earhart's call letters, "KHAQQ calling, KHAQQ calling." Prior to my finding the Paxton papers, the handful of known letters Nina's wrote in the mid-1940 were so passionate, I suspect what she said was true. She had no motive to lie; she was educated, married, a registered nurse, caring and had an excellent professional reputation. She had no bone to pick and didn't seek out fame. When I started investigating her background, I discovered Nina died a widow in Ashland, Kentucky on Christmas Day in 1970. She left no family and had few friends. Her husband, a railroad agent, had passed away in 1954. An only son, the one mentioned in the news story, got into one scrape after another until he ended up in prison.

There are well over a hundred letters, some notes, and a few newspaper and magazine clippings making up the Paxton material. The first known letter is dated July 14, 1937 and addressed to the Editor of Time Magazine. Nina continued to write and offer insight into the Earhart disappearance until close to her death. After my review of the Paxton Papers, it's apparent there are a letters and reference notes missing. There is one piece of correspondence from the mid-1940 that speaks despairingly of Amelia's husband. One might wonder how that spat came about.

Nina Paxton heard the only post loss radio message of Amelia Earhart that gives a specific location where Amelia and Fred landed. During the two months following Earhart's disappearance, Nina enclosed her rough notes in the letters she sent to Mrs. Noonan, George Palmer Putnam, Walter Winchell, and Congressman Fred M. Vinson. Nina typed the rough notes out twice and tried not to embellish what she had heard. She created spaces where she was unsure of a word or phrase. The first rough note is without a heading. The second one is titled, "Call of a Courageous Lady." She didn't like that either and scratched it out.

In some of Nina's later notes, not on Mars Hill's web site, she wonders why Amelia used 2:20 as her arrival time. She possibly thought Earhart might have converted the time to Eastern Standard Time and makes that point in later letters. It’s a confusing point and Nina put's this confusion in parentheses. Nina's rough notes held by Mars Hill University seem to be a cumulative compilation from sometime in August of 1937. Nina says "the plane was damaged in landing near a part of Marshall Islands," and "Noonan was injured," and that he "doesn't walk very well, and that he (Noonan) bruised his leg badly when landing."

In the letter to George Putnam of August 5, 1937, Nina said she found a piece of scratch paper she had written while listening to Earhart. "Miss Earhart mentioned three little islands. The little one (perhaps a reef) they were on, north of Howland Island at a point very near an island she called "Marshall". (Sadly, this little piece of scratch paper is missing from the Mars Hill holdings.) Rather naively, Nina tells Putnam, "If there is an island known by the name of Marshall and it can be contacted, I believe it well worth-while to do so at once as I am sure Miss Earhart, and Captain Noonan will be found in this area."

Vincent Loomis and Oliver Knaggs, Earhart researchers from the late 1970's and early 19080's interviewed several Marshallese witnesses at Mili Atoll. Those witnesses said a silver plane went down long before the war inside the ocean side reef and pointed to the middle of three islands at the northwestern corner of Mili Atoll. On our recent trips to the Marshall Islands, we discovered airplane artifacts at the middle island of a grouping of three small islands close to the northwest corner of Mili Atoll.

No one knows whether Fred Noonan carried sectional maps for the Marshall Islands. The U.S. Navy hadn't the opportunity to map the area since the Japanese had taken control of most of Micronesia in 1914. They weren’t on Amelia's planned route and its likely Fred relied on an old British map of the Pacific from his sea faring days. There is a picture of Amelia and Fred on the internet standing next to the tail of the Electra looking over such a map. If they relied on that map, Fred would have only had a general idea where he and Amelia had gone down.

Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan CREDIT: AP/AP

When Nina heard Amelia Earhart on the afternoon of July 3, 1937, she dictated Amelia's words. "90 ******173 longitude and 5 latitude". If you look on a map, 5 degrees North latitude and 173 East longitude is close to Mili Atoll.

- Les Kinney

Article Notes:

The Nina Paxton Papers

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