This story originally appeared in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier, on Sunday, June 16, 1996, and was republished in Bill Prymak’s July 1996 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter. Of all the eyewitness accounts from soldiers, sailors and Marine veterans of the 1944 invasion of Saipan that revealed the presence and deaths of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan – and 26 such accounts were presented for the first time in my 2002 book, With Our Own Eyes: Eyewitnesses to the Final Days of Amelia Earhart – this one has troubled me more the most.
Titled “Soldier’s Secret,” it concerns Army veteran Paul Erwin’s claim of finding what amounts to a treasure trove of Amelia Earhart’s papers, writings and other related personal belongings in a cave on Saipan in February 1945, seven months after the island was secured.
Besides Erwin’s dubious story itself, this piece is an excellent example of how numerous falsehoods have been re-reported and perpetuated through the years by credulous reporters who so often fail to check sources and details. Reporter Jennifer Jacobs probably meant well, but her naiveté about the Earhart story and her bias in favor of Erwin and his weird tale are unmistakable. Let’s take look at this monster first, presented in its entirety and edited only for readibility, and then I’ll have few things to say. I have a feeling most will agree with me this time. (Please note: All boldings are mine.)
C.F. man says he saw missing Earhart’s possessions
CEDAR FALLS: The official story is that aviatrix Amelia Earhart vanished without a trace. Paul Erwin can add a wrinkle to the tale. The Cedar Falls Army veteran stumbled upon what he believes were belongings of Earhart’s that made it through her crash.
He found them buried in a cave on a Pacific island during World War II. This is a piece of the unsolved puzzle that the 78-year-old has never shared publicly – 51 years ago he was warned by his superiors to keep silent.
But it’s something he can’t prove. Paul Erwin of Cedar Falls holds a picture of himself while he was in the Army during 1942-45. He says he found the belongings of Amelia Earhart while in the service overseas. He did not pocket one of the airplane parts or ferret away a notebook with the signature “Amelia Earhart” penned on it. Still, Erwin said, each time word of the intriguing pilot pops up on TV or in the newspapers, “I say to myself, “Why, I found those things.’”
The mystery boxes
Since Earhart’ s airplane seemingly melted into the cloudy air somewhere between New Guinea and Howland Island in 1937, speculation about the famous flyer’s fate has fueled imaginations worldwide.
Did her plane run out of fuel and crash into the ocean during this leg of her round-the-world flight? Or was she a spy captured by enemy Japanese forces?
Did she survive and return to the United States under an assumed name? Or was she executed by the Japanese troops? And why are government files that could reveal the truth about Earhart still inaccessible today?
Erwin doesn’t have the answers to all those mysteries, but he has clues that confirm what some researchers theorize: that Earhart did indeed live past the day the U.S. government said her radio trans-mission went dead.
Stationed on the Pacific island of Saipan during WWII eight years after Earhart’s disappearance, Erwin, then 28, discovered boxes of her personal possessions – seemingly intact and without water damage – in a dirt floored cave.
A few airplane parts and papers were scattered around the isolated cave, Erwin recalls. And in holes 6 inches underground, were two brimming boxes and a third box two-thirds full of what appeared to be Earhart’s personal writings and other belongings.
The Army private didn’t rifle through the boxes to further investigate the contents, but historical accounts mention that in her cockpit Earhart stowed maps, a thermos bottle, a bamboo fishing rod rigged to pass messages to the back seat to Fred Noonan, her navigator (the roar of the engines overwhelmed voices), notebooks, a diary, oceanographic charts and a bubble octant for establishing the plane’s position in relation to the stars while over seawater.
According to the government, none of these items were recovered – despite a 16-day, post-crash Navy task force hunt that covered 250,000 miles of ocean, air and land. In public, officials concluded the plucky pilot and her skilled navigator were “lost at sea.”
All Erwin knows is that he retrieved those three boxes from a cave on an island thousands of miles from Earhart’s flight route. He acted on orders from his commanding officers, who told him never to mention the items again. Since that day in 1945, Erwin hasn’t heard anything about them. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. hasn’t, either.
Dorothy Cochrane, curator at the National Air and Space Museum, a bureau of the Smithsonian, said people cite the Freedom of Information Act and demand to see the Earhart goods found on Saipan.
“It’s easy to send them everything we have,” she said, “’because we just don’t have a thing. People have loved to speculate on this for years,” Cochrane said. “They don’t want to let it go. Nobody really wants it solved – they do and they don’t, you know what I mean?”
The theory that Earhart was a spy shot down and arrested by the Japanese is “absolutely false,” Cochrane said. “We don’t think there is any evidence of that.” (Editor’s note: We’ve heard similar statements from this government shill before. Why do you think she has her job?)
The fatal log
On July 2, 1937, the 39-year-old Earhart and Noonan, a 44-year-old former Pan American Airways navigator said to have a penchant for marathon drinking bouts, were scheduled to take off from Lae, New Guinea. The celebrated pair had already traveled 20,000 miles on their ambitious quest to complete the first flight girdling the globe at the equator. An entranced world followed each leg of their trip on radio. Earhart’s $80,000 twin-engine Lockheed Electra monoplane was fueled with enough gas for 3,000 miles, more than enough to reach Howland Island, a tiny strip of land 2,556 miles away.
After a 21-hour ride in cramped quarters, with a malfunctioning radio system that dispatched Earhart’s traffic to ground crews but failed to transmit their responses, the panicking pilot called out SOS, saying she was near Howland Island but couldn’t see it, and gas was running low. Then she vanished. What happened is anyone’s guess. (Editor’s note: Nothing in the Itasca log indicates Earhart ever “calling out SOS” prior to her last transmission at 8:43 am Howland time, July 2, 1937.)
Various authors have written that they tracked down evidence to prove Earhart was taken to Saipan. One claims to have found her shoe there, another interviewed natives who remember seeing her, another witnessed her plane being torched there by the then-Secretary of the Navy.
(Editor’s note: Nobody has ever claimed to have found a shoe belonging to Amelia Earhart on Saipan. Jacobs is convoluting the Cat’s Paw shoe heel found by TIGHAR on Nikumaroro in 1991 that was later shown to have come from a shoe size too big for Earhart.)
In one of the most recent works of nonfiction, the 1994 book “Lost Star: The Search for Amelia Earhart,” author Randall Brink tries to document Earhart’s role in a covert government mission. It all stemmed from President Franklin Roosevelt, Brink writes. Earhart’s request for the Navy’s help with an air-to-air refueling operation over Midway Island inspired Roosevelt to consider the military advantage. Japan was warring in China and expanding its frontier in the Pacific island by island. Howland Island, long claimed by the British, was a key strategic location. Earhart’s flight was a good excuse to build an expensive airfield there. Navy staff took over the planning of her trip; Earhart’s longtime staffers were cut off, Brink said.
Evidence of espionage
According to Lockheed staff Brink interviewed, aerial cameras for photographing Japanese outposts were mounted in the belly of Earhart’s plane. It was a model that could fly twice as fast as the public knew – making it capable of zipping off course and returning to the publicized route with no one the wiser.
Witnesses told Brink that Japanese troops patrolling the seas north of Howland Island picked up Earhart’s SOS calls. They fired a warning signal at her plane, then opened fire. Brink said Earhart made an emergency landing on an atoll northwest of Howland Island and continued sending radio messages heard by operators on Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. A Japanese warship picked up Earhart, Noonan and their plane, and took them to Japanese Pacific Central Command on Saipan.
Because the Navy’s massive search never turned up a sliver of wreckage, a single scrap of paper, an oil slick, human remains or other tangible evidence of an ocean crash, Brink believes Earhart lived.
(Editor’s note: In her subsections “The Fatal Log” and “Evidence of Espionage”,” Jacobs repeats several false ideas presented by Randall Brink in his error-riddled Lost Star, which doesn’t help her own credibility. We’ll leave the countless misstatements in Lost Star for another time, but not even Brink could have stated that “Japanese troops patrolling the seas north of Howland Island picked up Earhart’s SOS calls,” to track and shoot her plane down, as Jacobs writes. Even Earhart hobbyists know that Earhart never sent Maydays or SOS signals before she went off the air permanently.)
A telegram Earhart’s husband received from Weishien, China, via the American Embassy in Chungking in August 1945 (reprinted in Brink’s book) says: “Camp liberated; all well. Volumes to tell. Love to mother.” The U.S. government didn’t declassify and release this telegram until the week of July 2, 1987, when newspapers ran stories on the 50th anniversary of the disappearance.
(Editor’s note: Researcher Ron Bright’s investigation into the telegram determined that it originated with a friend of G.P. Putnam, Ahmad Kamal, and not Amelia Earhart. For details, see page 130 of With Our Own Eyes.)
In the years after the crash, no one entertained such notions of espionage and conspiracy. But Erwin, along with virtually everyone in America, had definitely heard of Earhart and her disappearance.
As a child, his mother read aloud newspaper articles about the media sweetheart: Amelia modeling her own fashion designs, Amelia marrying millionaire publisher George Palmer Putnam, Amelia hobnobbing with the rich, Amelia cozying up to FDR and his wife Eleanor, Amelia speaking on the women’s equality, Amelia hopping from continent to continent in daring record-setting solo flights.
The disappearance of the “First Lady of the Air’’ only added to the myth of the woman, described by the press as shy and modest but pegged as a bullheaded prima donna by her friends and co-workers.
Earhart’s round-the-world flight and presumed death occupied front pages worldwide for two months. But no one seemed to question the government’s conclusions, and America’s attention was soon distracted by World War II.
A Redfield boy
Saipan fell to Allied forces on June 15, 1944. [Editor’s note: June 15 was the day of the initial assault. Saipan was declared “secure” on July 9.] Erwin, after spending 17 weeks in basic training at Camp Roberts, Calif., and several months assigned to a heavy weapons unit on New Caledonia, a flee French island east of Australia, was ordered to Saipan in February 1945. Army officials read in Erwin’s records that he’d taken first aid courses, so he was sent to a unit called the 39th General Hospital.
On free time from nursing soldiers wounded in various battles, including Okinawa, the Redfield native explored the 14-mile-long island. The other soldiers advised against it: there could be leftover mortars off the beaten paths or Japanese hiding in the hills. Erwin was cautious. One day, walking along a narrow path on the side of an out-of-the-way cliff, the sun shone down in the doorway of a small cave.
“Inside, I found two boxes and two-thirds of another,” he said. “They were Amelia’s belongings from her crash.” The discovery stunned Erwin. “I thought she was down to some other islands,” he said, “but here I found these, and I was very amazed at them being on Saipan.
Three well-dressed men
Erwin said he excitedly carried a few things to his department head, including [sic] 1st Lt. Charles Mauer. “They didn’t pay much attention to me,” he said. Later, “three well-dressed men” possibly Office of Naval Intelligence staff, told him to “go back and dig up this cave.”
Erwin scraped away the soil with his hands to get to the boxes. “They were in pretty good condition,” he said. After that, “it was all hush, hush,” Erwin said. “They wanted me to keep quiet about it.” But Erwin doesn’t assume anything. Earhart might have crashed, he thinks, although she was a highly experienced flyer. As for the Japanese, “they might’ve got her, I don’t know.”
Some researchers suspect that after World War II, the truth about Earhart was withheld because of the tenuous peace with Japan and concerns for national security. Government documents that would prove this aren’t necessarily hidden, but buried in unmarked files.
Some buy the government’s story that Earhart’s plane – with her and Noonan inside it – rests at the bottom of the sea. Don Whitnah, a retired University of North Iowa history professor who did research in Washington while writing his 1967 book, “Safer Skywards: Federal Control of Aviation, 1926-1966,” falls in the second category. “There are all sorts of rumors of all sorts of effects of Earhart’s that have been found and parts of airplanes,” he said, “’but we just don’t know. I hate to scotch ideas, but it’s like in any other mystery. You get all sorts of conflicting reports. I’m skeptical.”
Next year, during the centennial of Earhart’s birth, scholars expect people will emerge from the woodwork to tell their Earhart-related stories. But until something definitive breaks through, the Earhart mystery will remain like the Bermuda Triangle, the lost city of Atlantis, the missing tribe of Roanoke, or the UFO at Roswell – just another historic riddle.
There you have it. For all the bluster and buildup, there’s very little substance to this story, very little beef in this burger. In describing Erwin’s claim, Jennifer Jacobs quotes him directly only once, when he tells her, “Inside, I found two boxes and two-thirds of another. They were Amelia’s belongings from her crash.”
Besides this, Erwin apparently told Jacobs that he found a few airplane parts, a notebook with “Amelia Earhart” penned on it, and papers were scattered around the isolated cave, but she doesn’t directly quote this information, nor does she directly quote Erwin whe she writes, “in holes 6 inches underground, were two brimming boxes and a third box two-thirds full of what appeared to be Earhart’s personal writings and other belongings.”
Is that so? I seem to recall similar claims by former GIs that are far more credible than Erwin’s. In January 1964, a Pampa, Texas radio station manager told Fred Goerner that W.B. Jackson, a Marine who served in the Marshall Islands in 1944, knew three unnamed Marines who had found some of Earhart’s things in a barracks room that was “fitted up for a woman, with a dresser in it.” Among the findings was a suitcase containing woman’s clothing, newspaper articles about Earhart and a “locked diary engraved 10-Year Diary of Amelia Earhart,” according to Jackson, who ordered the Marines to turn over the articles to intelligence and never heard about it again.
Jackson’s account was corroborated by former Marine Captain Victor Maghokian, who told Goerner that one of his men had “found a diary and personal belongings that were supposed to belong to Amelia Earhart,” according to Maghokian. Goerner learned that Maghokian had never heard of Jackson, though Jackson told Goerner he vaguely remembered a captain named Maghokian.
Further research has revealed that Goerner misspelled Maghakian’s name, and this mistake has been repeated for decades by too-trusting writers including this one. From Wikipedia: “Victor Maghakian, also known as Captain Victor “Transport” Maghakian (Dec. 30, 1915 – Aug. 17, 1977), was an Armenian American member of the United States Marine Corps during World War II. Having received over two dozen medals and awards, he is considered one of the most decorated American soldiers of the war.”
We also have the eminent claim of former Marine Pfc. Robert E. Wallack, who along with Thomas E. Devine, is the best known of the Saipan GI witnesses. Wallack, who lived in nearby Woodbridge, Conn., a 15-minute drive from Devine’s West Haven home, contacted Devine in 1987 soon after hearing about his book, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident. Wallack’s notarized statement was published in the December 1987 issue of 6th Marine Division magazine, and over the years became among the most prominent features of the Earhart-on-Saipan scenario.
The details of Wallack’s find of Amelia Earhart’s briefcase in a blown safe in the ruins of a Japanese administration building in Garapan are well known to all Earhart observers, but for newcomers to this blog, below is an extract from Wallack’s signed deposition that partially describes what he found after a Japanese safe was blown open during a souvenir-hunting party he and a few of his fellow Marines had had embarked upon a few weeks after victory on Saipan was declared:
The contents were official-looking papers all concerning Amelia Earhart: maps, permits and reports apparently pertaining to her around-the-world flight. I wanted to retain this as a souvenir, but my Marine buddies insisted that it may be important and should be turned in. I went down to the beach where I encountered a naval officer and told of my discovery. He gave me a receipt for the material, and stated that it would be returned to me if it were not important. I have never seen the material since.
Wallack’s account never changed, and the media-friendly veteran shared it with countless listeners, including millions in a 1990 Unsolved Mysteries segment with Robert Stack, a 1994 appearance on CBS’s Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, and a 2006 interview for The National Geographic Channel’s Undercover History special on Amelia Earhart. For more on Wallack and the Earhart briefcase, you can begin on pages 204 to 206 of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last.
Wallack never located any of the Marines who with him when he found the briefcase, but Saipan veteran Bob Everett, of Indianapolis, wrote to Devine and endorsed Wallack’s story in 1991. Everett told Devine he was the only demolition man left in his battalion at the time and was assigned to a group rounding up stragglers. He and a group of Marines entered a building in Garapan that appeared to have served some sort of governmental function. There he applied the explosives that blew open the safe Wallack described, but in the ensuing commotion Everett didn’t see the contents of the briefcase retrieved by Wallack, who died in July 2008 at eighty-three.
So, we might ask, just how many boxes of “personal writings” and other “belongings from her crash” were left in a shallow hole discovered by Erwin in a Saipan cave, after we consider the two preceding, far-better-documented finds on Kwajalein and Saipan? Earhart’s obsession with conserving fuel and making the Electra as light as possible for the critical flight to Howland is chronicled throughout a vast array of books and news articles; to suggest that she stored three extra boxes of her scribbles and personal papers aboard NR 16020 – in addition to her briefcase and diary – is beyond ridiculous.
Erwin’s description of the “three well-dressed men is equally absurd; Saipan was still in a war zone, and ONI agents would have been dressed in Navy khakis without insignia, as was the man who appeared to be in charge of the disposition of the Electra on Saipan, who former Marine Earskin J. Nabers identified as James H. Nichols.
I presented Erwin’s account in Truth at Last (see page 222) as if it were just another of the more than two dozen we’ve received from former Saipan GIs, though I did characterize it as “perhaps the strangest Earhart-related account to come from a Saipan veteran.” Erwin didn’t step forward to share his story with Devine as the others did when Devine asked for help in the conclusion of Eyewitness, however; he waited until 1996 to tell his story to an uncritical reporter from a small Iowa newspaper. I now sincerely regret taking Erwin’s story at face value and not seriously questioning it, as I’m now doing. Better late than never.
Is Erwin’s story just another piece of the “historic riddle” of the Earhart disappearance, as Jacobs so naively asks, or is this just a phony story concocted by a dying old man desperate for attention? I think the real puzzle here is Paul Erwin himself, and what motivated him to concoct this yarn about finding Amelia Earhart’s papers, writings and other effects in the dirt floor of an open cave on Saipan, seven months after the Japanese garrison of 30,000 was wiped out by U.S. forces in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War.
We’ll assume that Jacobs rendered Erwin’s account accurately, and that she didn’t simply fabricate or imagine that he said these things. In either event, Erwin’s story is extremely weak, and quite suspicious as well. Left unanswered are several obvious questions, which the credulous Jacobs failed to ask, including: Why didn’t Erwin “rifle through the boxes to further investigate the contents”? Why did he wait until 1996 to tell his story to the media? Did he ever tell anyone else about this, someone who might step forward and perhaps support his contentions? And so forth. The answers to these questions are uniformly negative,
At this point I’ll dispense with any more formalities. Quite frankly, I think Erwin’s story stinks worse than a week-old kettle of dead cod, and never should have been published, at least not the way the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier presented it, as if it were real news.
Once I applied minimal scrutiny to this tale, which should have been done long before finalizing the manuscript of Truth at Last, its bogus nature became fairly obvious, and I’m embarrassed that this sorry yarn was included in Truth at Last. I was temporarily blinded by the all the other credible accounts from the dozens of former GIs who didn’t fabricate tales about their Saipan experiences, but that’s a pathetic excuse.
Moreover, nobody else in the media picked up Erwin’s story until Bill Prymak decided to include it in his newsletters, which in itself tells us something. Considering the magnitude of Erwin’s claim, this is a strong indication that virtually no one the normally gullible and apathetic media believed Erwin’s whopper, or at least found it unworthy of publication for a variety of reasons related to its credibility, or lack of same.
Finally, fish tales about phony Earhart discoveries on Saipan like this one have not been helpful to the cause of the truth that serious Earhart researchers have labored so hard to present over the decades. As a result of stories like this and many others, the general public has a severely jaded attitude about the truth in the Earhart disappearance.
Erwin passed away in 1999, so the opportunity to cross examine him about this fish-wrapper is long gone. Admittedly, I was fooled, but this is an occasional occupational hazard in Earhart research. If anyone out there disagrees with me, please let me know, but only if you can provide one or more good reasons why Paul Erwin’s story should be believed.