By Rick Leswick
It is believed that the final words Amelia Earhart transmitted by radio were picked up on the powerful 20-tube set owned by Toronto resident Mrs. Ernest Crabbe. The following words crackled on July 15, 1937, the day the world-famous aviator likely crashed into the Pacific Ocean with her navigator Fred Noonan.
“Are you alright? ... Hold this line ... Do you think they got our SOS?”
Mrs. Crabbe, along with several other local persons, reported hearing the transmission for help and later reported the distress call to The Toronto Star.
The Toronto connection with Amelia Earhart, born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897, began in December 1917 when she travelled to the Canadian city by train to visit her younger sister Muriel, who was in Toronto to study teaching at Saint Margaret’s College. At that time, Amelia had been enrolled in school, preparing to enter college as a pre-med student, and had little intention of staying in Canada beyond the Christmas holidays.
After the holidays she returned to Ogontz School in Philadelphia, but only remained a few weeks. Against her parents’ wishes she returned to Toronto where she volunteered as a nurse’s assistant at the Spadina Military Convalescent Hospital, located in Knox College on the campus of the University of Toronto.
Although the first doughboys of the U.S. Army had slowly begun to take their places amid the horror of the Great War’s Western Front, Amelia had little appreciation for what was going on in Europe.
That was soon to change as she spent most of 1918 treating returning Canadian soldiers who had suffered both physically and emotionally during their exposure to armed conflict.
She wrote: “There, for the first time I realized what the World War meant. Instead of new uniforms and brass bands, I saw only the results of four years’ desperate struggle: men without arms and legs, men who were paralyzed and men who were blind. One day I saw four one-legged men at once, walking as best they could down the street together.”
In the States, Amelia had tried to join the American Red Cross in some formal capacity, but she failed to do so. When she came to Canada she became a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). The VAD supplied field nursing services mainly in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries, including Canada. She remained with the organization until the cessation of hostilities in November 1918.
When war broke out in 1914, the British Red Cross dissuaded women from becoming nurses in overseas hospitals. The VAD, which had been formed in 1909 in anticipation of future hostilities, accepted volunteers — mostly middle- and upper-class women who had little experience with hardship or the routine of hospital discipline.
Members of the VAD were not allowed to serve at the front lines. Nonetheless, the semi-trained nurses drove ambulances, worked as cooks and maids, provided some medical assistance, and toiled under conditions that were physically and emotionally taxing.
Amelia’s duties were varied, ranging from “scrubbing floors to playing tennis with convalescing patients.” She also worked in the dispensary after admitting to superiors, “I knew a little chemistry.” The dedicated 21-year-old also worked hard to improve the general diet of the patients.
At the hospital, Amelia worked long hours, seven days a week. When she took an occasional Sunday off — her free day coincided with her sister’s — the two young women enjoyed horseback riding. Both Amelia and Muriel were skilled equestrians. Ever seeking challenges, Amelia made a pet of a “man-eating bronco” thoroughbred named Dynamite.
As the summer receded, on one of her Sundays off she visited former patients at a local airfield. There were two aerodromes in Toronto, which at the time was regarded as the unofficial capital of the Royal Flying Corps.
Muriel recounted the experience in her 1987 book, Amelia, My Courageous Sister: “At (Armour Heights airfield, near what is now Highway 401 and Avenue Rd), we admired the planes, especially as they came in for landing. Amelia wanted to fly with our friend, Captain Spaulding, but regulations against civilian passengers were strict, so we had to be content to be spectators.”
Amelia also had an experience during a local air show. She and a friend were watching the aerobatics when one of the young stunt pilots dove straight for the two women. When she relayed the story years later she told an interviewer, “I am sure the pilot said to himself, ‘Watch me make them scamper.’” But she had firmly held her ground and recalled, “I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”
When the war ended on November 11, 1918, Amelia observed the overwhelming displays of celebration with a mixture of elation and deep sadness. By this time, having tended to hundreds of gravely wounded soldiers who had returned from France to Toronto, Amelia was a staunch pacifist. She was disturbed by the joyful exuberance of the Toronto citizenry that conducted themselves without what she felt was due consideration for the victims of war. But, she also understood that pent-up emotions, created by more than four years of global war, needed to be released. She was with the huge crowds in the downtown streets of Toronto on Armistice Day and remembered, “What a day ... supposedly dignified citizens snake-danced and knocked each other’s hats off!”
A short time after the conclusion of the war, Amelia returned to live with her parents, who were now living in California. In 1920 she flew for the first time because “the interest aroused in me in Toronto led me to all the air circuses in town.”
Shortly after her first airborne adventure she obtained her pilot’s licence and purchased a small plane of her own. It had been her intention to become a professional pilot, but she instead headed in another direction.
In 1928 she was a social worker in Boston and was offered the chance to join two men on a transatlantic flight. This was an extremely dangerous trip, but she eagerly accepted the invitation. Completing the flight made her the first woman to fly across the ocean and, as a result, she attracted instant public attention.
Four years later, in May 1932, she completed her first solo flight from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland to Londonderry, Northern Ireland. It was a nerve-wracking 20-hour, 40-minute flight during which Amelia encountered the worst of weather conditions, including rain and fog.
People were ecstatic over her accomplishment that occurred only five years after Charles Lindbergh’s historic feat and the press assigned her the moniker of “Lady Lindy.”
Fifteen years after Amelia first came to Toronto to visit her sister, she was yet again in the city. Just before Christmas she spoke to an assembly at the University Women’s Club in celebration of her flight across the Atlantic. In 1932, the downtown Toronto Simpson’s department store was quickly selling Solo-Flite hats, in honour of Amelia’s accomplishment. The stylish head covers retailed for $10.95 — a fair sum of money in the early days of the Great Depression.
While in the city, she said, “I think I can attribute my aviation career to what I experienced here in Toronto. Even though I worked from 7 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock at night, I found the time to visit — well, they were hardly airports, they were flying fields ... I had a chance to see the fliers.”
At the bastion of male influence, The Canadian Club, she was interrogated by the irascible Gordon Sinclair, a seasoned world traveller and author of then recently released book, Footloose in India. Sinclair was no friend to feminists and he lit into Amelia with a question that displayed his pugnacious style.
He wanted to know why Canada had dozens of laws requiring men to support their wives, “but not one lonesome little law to protect men from women.”
Although the question was totally irrelevant to the nature of the aviator’s luncheon address, promoting the still-new concept of commercial aviation, Amelia answered without hesitation. She fired back, stating that the laws were “archaic and antique,” adding, “Modern women don’t want them.”
Sinclair later admitted that he was “a bit startled” when Amelia continued.
She said that she was weary of “this first-woman business. Its time biology and sex were squeezed out of accomplishment.”
Gordon Sinclair’s jaw dropped when Amelia proudly exclaimed, “I’m no torch-bearer for women’s rights.” She explained simply, “I flew because I wanted to try it.”
Looking at Sinclair, she said: “I’m not crusading about the country for greater feminine freedom because that’s coming without crusading.”
Amelia had triumphed over the male writer and Sinclair struggled. “You’re saying then that women are, or should be, equal to men in aviation.”
“No, not in aviation,” she answered. “In everything.”
The Toronto Star newspaper that had hired Gordon Sinclair to interview Amelia Earhart later reported that she was “a delightful personage of entertaining wit.”
On July 15, 1937, almost five years after Amelia spoke at The Canadian Club, she disappeared. It is believed Amelia likely crashed into the Pacific Ocean, although other theories have circulated since then, including her having been captured and executed by the Japanese as a spy.
A number of privately funded expeditions to the South Pacific have also been engaged, but it was not until the summer of 2007, when Ric Gillespie of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) went to Nikumaroro Island and discovered what is believed to be leather from a woman’s shoe and pieces of dried makeup. Could these scant pieces of evidence support the theory that Amelia died on the deserted western Pacific Ocean island?
What is known is that it was not until April 17, 1964 that a woman pilot, Jerrie Mock, successfully flew around the world. Mock had been inspired by Amelia Earhart, whose love of flying had its genesis in Toronto.
At the 1932 Canadian Club luncheon, Amelia spoke of the men who flew the early airplanes she had watched years earlier in Toronto. “Perhaps there is some of the romance,” she said, “because they were very young and very handsome, taking off in the airplanes and I remember the sting of the snow hitting my face as I stood behind the planes and the propellers whirled and blew it back on the spectators.”
She finished by saying, “I think the aviation bug entered my system at that time and probably never left, because I went back to the States and took my first ride in 1920.”