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Meridian Passages, Volume XIII, Number 16

Central Pacific Edition

Living History

Carl Panhorst, Itasca Helmsman

Carl-Panhorst_Tom-Vinson_Rod-BlocksomeIn June 2005, a documentary program on our Earhart project aired on the Travel Channel. After seeing that program, Rose Pierson contacted Nauticos about her father Rufus and her Uncle Carl Panhorst being crew members of the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca during Amelia Earhart’s flight July 2, 1937. A few days later Tom Vinson and I placed a call to Carl.

Carl started the interview b y emphatically stating “Well, let me tell you boys something – I’m 91 years old and still have all my marbles.” I looked at Tom and we both knew this was going to be good.

Carl related how he was a crewman on Itasca that fateful day when Amelia Earhart disappeared somewhere near Howland Island. He had galley duty that morning and had to stay behind on the ship while all his mates went ashore to assist with Earhart’s anticipated landing on Howland. So when Carl finished in the galley, he went up and stood on deck outside the open hatch to the radio room and listened to Earhart’s radio transmissions.

We were incredulous at this tale unfolding over the phone for we realized we were most likely speaking to the last person alive to have heard those radio transmissions. Tom asked Carl a few more questions. Then, as Carl was describing the search activities of the Itasca, he said “I’ve got pictures too!”

“You do?!” I asked.


At this point I knew we had to visit Carl, so I asked “Can we come out and see you?”

“Sure …. I’m not going any place” was Carl’s response.

About 10-days later, I’m in Minneapolis attending my youngest son’s second college graduation ceremony when Tom called and said he has a business trip to Arizona in two days . Quickly he changed his ticket to leave a day early with a stop in Salt Lake City, Utah. I commandeered one of the college computers and quickly booked a ticket. After the graduation, it was a fast trip home to pack a bag and run to the airport.

On the way home, I stopped long enough to buy a video camera and a portable scanner to take along. I arrived at Salt Lake City on time, collected my bag and met Tom. We caught the shuttle bus to the hotel.

It’s deja vu all over again: the hotel is on Amelia Earhart Drive. In fact, we eat supper in the Amelia Grill at the nearby Holiday Inn.

The next morning, Carl’s niece Rose Pierson with her mother Marie, picked us up and we drove an hour to Carl’s house in Provo.

We were welcomed by Carl and Wanda, his wife of 65 years, their two sons, Dan and Chuck and Dan’s wife Hilda. Lee Benson, a reporter from the Desert News was also there. It was an atmosphere of high anticipation. Tom and I explained a just bit about our project but withheld details until after we interviewed Carl as we wanted his recollections untainted by what we think. Carl re-iterated what he told us on the telephone earlier: He’s over 90, has all his marbles, doesn’t wear hearing aids, nor does he wear glasses (never did). I also observed he didn’t need a cane to get around the house. This was even more remarkable after we learned what happened to him in WWII.

We videotaped the interview with Carl for nearly 2 hours then took a break for juice and muffins. During the break and with my video tape recorder off (unfortunately), I casually asked Carl if he stayed in the Coast Guard or what he did in the years afterward.His reply was “No, I got out and got a job with the US Postal Service in Los Angles.” “But then the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor and I got drafted.” This grabbed my attention and I asked “So where did you serve – In the Pacific?”

helm“No, I was in the Army Infantry and was sent to Europe” “And where in Europe?” I asked “Oh, I was all over….. I was in the battle of the Hurtgen Forest and was wounded there.” I asked how it happened.

Carl very nonchalantly replied “Well we were dug-in and the Germans were shelling us for two days. At one point a shell landed near a fellow in a nearby foxhole and severely wounded him. We could hear him screaming in pain so I says to my buddy ‘We’re probably going to get it next. We might just as well be doing something useful when it happens, so let’s go get him’!

“So we jump out of our hole, run over and pick him up and we’re carrying him back to the medics when a shell burst behind us. The next thing I remember is lying on the ground with a blanket over my face. I started yelling ‘I’m alive…. I’m alive!’ A medic came over and pulled the blanket off me. I had shrapnel wounds in my shoulders and back and spent the next 9 months in hospitals.”

I thought to myself “What a tough guy (and lucky) to be wounded so badly in his youth and yet walk around at age 91 without even the use of a cane.” Meeting people like Carl Panhorst and hearing their remarkable stories is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Earhart Project. Carl passed away on Jan. 6, 2008 at age 93. It was both an honor and privilege to have known this great man.

— Rod Blocksome

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