1928 Latham expedition
Findings and theories
After Latham 47.02 took off from Tromsø on 18 June 1928, a number of observations, findings and theories were presented. The interest was enormous and did not diminish when in July 1928 a sum of 10,000 kroner (approx. 350,000 kroner in 2020) was offered as a reward for those who could contribute key information. The money was later distributed between the crew of the two ships that discovered the first wreckage that could be linked to the Latham.
Even almost 100 years later, new theories are still being put forward about what may have happened. But what really happened to Roald Amundsen and the others on board is still a mystery.
Below we have gathered the observations, findings and theories that have generated the most attention over the years.
The first radio signal after Latham 47.02 takes off from Tromsø at 16.00 on 18 June 1928, is received at Ingøy radio station in Masøy, at 17:40. The message is signed Guilbaud, with questions about updated information about ice conditions.
A quarter of an hour later, the telegraph operator on Ingøy hears the Latham trying to call the radio station in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, but no one there hears them and the Latham gets no reply.
An hour later, at 18:45, the telegraph operator at the Geophysics Institute in Tromsø overhears the Latham trying to make contact with the radio station at Kings Bay (Ny-Ålesund), on Spitsbergen. This is the last reliable report of a radio transmission from Amundsen and the crew. When Bjørnøya Radio tries to call the Latham at 19:15 there is no contact.
There were several claimed sightings of Latham 47.02 after it flew north from Tromsø. These have been important in creating an understanding of where the Latham may have flown and what may have happened. But they are also uncertain and difficult to confirm retrospectively.
On June 19, the day after the Latham took off from Tromsø, a fisherman from Harstad observed a grey biplane at an altitude of 200 metres northwest of Bjørnøya. Before the fisherman’s information could be examined, however, he had gone back to sea.📜 A week later, newspapers reported that a Russian fishing vessel had observed the Latham and its crew on an ice floe south of Svalbard, but no more precise information followed. In July 1928 came another report from Bjørnøya, when newspapers carried the claim that two Norwegian fishermen on the island’s plateau had seen “tracks from two wheels about six feet apart over a length of 80 feet. The track led to the edge of a precipice, with a large drop to the sea. Near the edge of this abyss the fishermen found a leather hat, part of a fur coat and some pieces of wood”.📜 The observations were later refuted.
In August 1928, the crew of the fishing vessel Jopetter announced that they had observed the light from a fire on Edgeøya in the Svalbard archipelago. Since no other hunters were reported to be in the area, the sighting generated rumours that the fire could have come from the Latham crew. The ice conditions around Edgeøya meant that no one from the Jopetter got ashore and the sighting was never investigated further.📜
In 2002, 95-year-old Jenny Johansen revealed that one evening in June 1928 she and her sister Kaspara had seen a plane lying out at sea off Værholmen, Hillesøy. By the time others in the family arrived at the scene, the plane was gone.📜 In the same year, 2002, it also emerged that a plane had been observed around midnight at Vasstrand, not far from Værholmen. This plane was seen flying at low altitude over the fjord.📜
Another type of sighting was made by so-called clairvoyants. Karl Tandstad and his daughter Olga, from Sykkylven, were known for their psychic abilities and had several times claimed to have “seen” Amundsen. In the summer of 1928, there were therefore a large number of enquiries to the Tandstads about Amundsen. They believed that Latham 47.02 had landed in the ice, but that the crew there had to repair the engine. One day in late June, Olga had a bad feeling and imagined that Amundsen was dead. 📜 Karl Tandstad stated in July 1928 that he had lost the “connection” with the Latham due to fog, but that when he “saw” it again its wings appeared to have become shorter, and although the engine had been repaired, the crew were having difficulty taking off again because of the ice conditions. 📜
In Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia, the female astrologer Maria von Borgia-Knoll claimed that the Latham 47 had had an accident in Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, and that Amundsen was alive but needed help to survive 📜. From the same city came a claim from a clairvoyant man to have “seen” Amundsen lying in the middle of a group of people, Amundsen was said to have been very exhausted and to have clutched at his heart.
In 1930, rumours were published that Amundsen had been discovered by Inuit in Greenland, where he was said to have lived until the spring of 1929 and later died and been buried on the coast. It was also said that Amundsen’s friends from Nome, Alaska had gone to investigate the case. Whether anyone went to search at all is unknown, but no finds were ever reported. 📜
In the period after the Latham’s departure from Tromsø on 18 June 1928, several finds were made of objects that were claimed to have come from the flying boat. Most of these turned out to have nothing to do with the Latham, and others disappeared before they were properly examined, but three objects have been identified as wreckage from Latham 47.02.
In addition to the 3 objects that were positively identified, other reported finds have also generated a lot of discussion and headlines in the newspapers:
- A cylindrical object:
Found by some school children in the autumn of 1928, at Skittenelv, north of Tromsø. It was handed over to the local teacher, but what happened to it then is unknown. The object was described as being white and about half a metre long. It was said that “Latham” was written on the object, but misspelt. 📜
- Message in a bottle:
On December 26, 1928, a message in a bottle was found with the following text dated June 18, 1928: “Our engine has stopped and we have fallen into the sea about 120 km south-east of Bjørnøya. Misty and easterly wind. – We are drifting with the wind and the aircraft is sinking. Maybe we can stay afloat for 2-3 hours. We are trying to repair the engine, but it appears to be impossible. We are sinking slowly. Latham’s expedition
Roald Amundsen.” 📜
The find was reported by fisherman Baard Paulsen off Ingøy, in Måsøy municipality in Troms and Finnmark. Paulsen handed the message to the local sheriff, the shopkeeper O.S. Digre. From the beginning, the “bottle post” was viewed with great scepticism, and upon closer examination by forensic chemist Charles M. Bruff was found to be forged. The fisherman Paulsen who reported the find was later convicted of forgery and received a fine of 50 kroner, while Digre was strongly criticized because he had, it was claimed, sold the rights to some newspapers. Gustav “Goggen” Amundsen, for example, wrote a letter to the Ministry of Justice expressing his desire that the forgery should have legal consequences. Digre appeared less greedy in his version of the case published later. 📜
- Two floats:
Found 31 December 1928 at Tunes near Nordkapp, Troms and Finnmark. The find was made by the fisherman Johan Olsen Tunes and was described as being “…two connected floats. One of the floats bore the inscription ‘Latham, Paris’.”📜 The “floats” were about 30 centimetres long and weighed 2 kilos. The find made great headlines, but after further investigation was denied to have any kind of relation to Latham 47.02. It turned out not to be floats and the inscription was later interpreted as “Pat. No 286 573”. 📜
- Message in a bottle:
On September 14, 1928, a message found in a bottle read:
“Latham is located in a north-easterly direction from Greenland 78 degrees 52 east together with balloon party. Two men insane. Bad food situation. All are alive together. The aircraft were seen, but no one came to our aid. Adr. Roald Amundsen.”
The message was written on thin white paper soaked in oil. The bottle was English and with a screw cap. It was handed in to the local sheriff, but quickly dismissed as a fake message.📜
In 1933/34, a float/tank was found at Skolmen in Vestvågøy and later handed in to the sheriff in Svolvær. Neither the submission nor the object has since been traced.
- Plywood panel:
Discovered in 1964 by hunter Per Johnson on Edgeøya, Svalbard. The panel was made of double plywood with a frame in between, screwed together with brass screws. The size was about 120 cm x 120 cm and the colour grey. It also carried remnants of an electrical device. Johnson used the panel to patch up his hunting cabin. When the panel was examined several years later at the Norwegian Aviation Museum, it was concluded that it was difficult to link it to Latham 47.02, and its origin remained unidentified. Today it is on display at the North Pole Museum in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
- Aircraft wreckage and a skull:
In 1991, a skull related to an aircraft wreck in the sea off the island of Auvær, off Tromsø was handed over to police. The skull was never identified and was lost during the relocation of the police station in 1995-96.📜
- A tank:
On the island of Håja, off Tromsø, what was described as a slip tank was discovered on the shore. It was cylindrical and about 140 cm long. The tank was probably thrown away and is now lost. 📜
- Object fished up at Kap Duner, Bjørnøya:
In 1933, the fishing vessel MS Kvitholmen reported catching a large metal object in the trawl, estimated to be 2 metres long and weigh 200 kilos. But before they could get it on board, the line failed and the panel disappeared at sea and was not recovered.📜 📜
In addition to these finds, there are also three parts of Latham 47.02 in the collection of the Whaling Museum, Sandefjord. These pieces must have been given to Amundsen’s friend Helmer Hanssen before departure from Tromsø.📜
In addition to findings and sightings, the years since 1928 have seen several theories advanced to explain what may have happened to Latham 47.02. Here are some of those that have received the most attention:
- Accident at sea along the Norwegian coast: Can be explained on the basis of sightings, but based on the positively identified object finds seems unlikely.
- Accident at sea south of Bjørnøya: The identified objects support the theory that Latham 47.02 either landed in the sea voluntarily or was forced down. The repairs to the float and the attempt to use the fuel tank as an alternative buoyancy aid may have failed and the flying boat been wrecked. If the Latham 47 had crashed in the sea south of Bjørnøya, then it is plausible that the float and petrol tanks that were found along the Norwegian coast had drifted there with the ocean currents.
- Newfoundland: In August 1928 came the news that a cargo ship had observed a crashed plane lying in the sea off Newfoundland, Canada. The observation was never confirmed and did not lead to any further investigations.
- Novaya Zemlya: In 1931, when the photographs from the Graf Zeppelin airship expedition in 1929 were examined, it was claimed that a photograph taken over Novaya Zemlya showed a plane in the sea ice. Some thought that it could be the Latham, but based on other discoveries and calculations of ocean currents, this was eventually viewed as very unlikely.📜
- Tent camp on the Platen Peninsula (Platenhalvøya): In the book “Roald Amundsen’s siste reise”, published in 2017, Monica Kristensen presented a theory that Amundsen and the crew may have met members of the Italia expedition and reached the Platen Peninsula, Nordaustlandet in Svalbard. In 1936, a camp site with objects that may have belonged to both Italians and Norwegians was discovered there.
- Incognito in Alaska: In the 1940s, there were several rumours that Amundsen had been sighted in Alaska with a group of Inuit. Photographer Anders Beer Wilse, who took pictures of Amundsen on several occasions, told the newspapers in 1942 that he saw this as very unlikely, but that he still had an “ever so slight suspicion that the fairy tale could be reality”. 📜
An even more “alternative” theory claims that Amundsen was picked up by Lincoln Ellsworth and went to Mexico where he lived incognito for decades.