“What is the hardest task in the world? To think.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
In August and September 2006, David Billings, 76, an Australian researcher who has drawn attention in the United States as well as Down Under with his own controversial Electra-at-New Britain theory, took up the baton from Alex Mandel and launched a series of pointed attacks against the Irene Bolam-as-Amelia Earhart doctrine. But unlike the conciliatory and diplomatic Mandel, Billings went straight for the jugular, tying his assault to revelations released more than a year earlier in The Atchison Report, to be discussed shortly.
The information was provided by Gertrude Hession, a former friend of Irene Bolam and sister of Monsignor James Francis Kelley, Reineck’s incoherent main witness, and Diana Dawes, another longtime Bolam friend. It all concerned one Mary Eubank, whose association with Bolam could be traced with certainty back to their high school days, through the war and up until Bolam’s death in 1982. This evidence alone was absolute proof of the theory’s falsehood. In a September 2006 message to the AES Forum, Billings addressed the Mary Eubank connection, the redoubtable Monsignor Kelley’s dementia, and made a revelation of his own:
Joseph Klaas and Joseph Gervais compiled a book “Amelia Earhart Lives” in 1970. I do not know whether you have read it but if you have not, I suggest that you may like to read it. It costs around $1 on abebooks.com and the postage is $4. That alone should tell you something.
I am at around page 80 in that book and I have tagged all the inaccuracies, inconsistencies and all the plain mistakes that are blatantly obvious in that book written by Joe Klaas. Joe Klaas, it seems to me, should be ashamed that he ever wrote that book. I have not yet got to the part where Gervais “recognized” Irene Bolam as Amelia Earhart. Gervais and Klaas and the publisher McGraw-Hill had to pay Irene Bolam as they lost the case.
In 2003, The Colonel, Rollin C. Reineck, goes through the same motions and resurrects the Irene Bolam MYTH. He uses Gervais’ supposed “recognition” of Irene Bolam as AE and he also uses the words of a Catholic Priest, Monsignor James Francis Kelley in support of the myth, the story, the fable, the whatever.
I have here an audio tape of Colonel Rollin C. Reineck interviewing the Monsignor in September 1991. It is not pretty. The Monsignor is obviously suffering from senile dementia at age 90.
He (the Monsignor) speaks of Eisenhower leaving the troops behind, of his meeting with Emperor Hirohito to discuss Amelia being freed, of Hirohito not agreeing to free Amelia and of the Monsignor finally getting a General Keane to freedom along with Eamon de Valera who was later to become the “Emperor of Ireland.” Amelia appears and stayed at his house at Rumson, N.J., for around three or four weeks, after that she went out and got injured. He doesn’t say by what. He then rambles on about having to go to Le Bourget field to meet Lindbergh because there was no one else there to meet him. The Monsignor also captured Bruno Hauptmann and when in London helped with the administration of that city for three years. There was more. I take it that you have the tape?
So, really, Reineck should have stopped the interview but he did not. Reineck even says on 1st January 1992, that he found nothing “valid” in what the Monsignor said, but in 2003 he publishes the drivel that the Monsignor said in support of his contention that AE returned to the United States.
In 1992, Joseph Gervais and Bill Prymak interviewed Gertrude Hession, the sister of Monsignor James Francis Kelley. Gertrude told them that she had been trying to put the Monsignor away for some time due to his dementia. She also told of a Mary Eubank who had known Irene Bolam from their teenage years and that Joe and Bill should meet with Mary Eubank and discuss Irene. Gervais declined the offer even though the trip back by car from Delaware to New Jersey took them past Eubank’s home town and they had PLENTY of time. Bill Prymak told me all this himself. You wanna question Bill Prymak, be my guest.
Gervais swore Bill Prymak to secrecy because if it got out that Irene Bolam had been known by any one person since teenage it meant that she could not possibly be Amelia Earhart. This meant that Klaas’s book was false and it also means Reineck’s book is false. There have been many inside mails telling Bill Prymak that he was weak not to face up to Gervais and let the MYTH continue.
Billings should never have been let in and others who question the armchair researchers should never be let in. Someone said some time back, that Bill Prymak would regret recommending me for membership of the AES. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t.
Billings and Mandel, those two non-Americans, who question authors of books supposedly written as FACT should NEVER, EVER, question those American authors and should not have the temerity to question senior members of the AES Forum AT ALL. Billings and Mandel have no right to question historical authors.
Forum Members: We do not live in a perfect world, there are things which happen out there over which we have no control whatsoever and there is ZILCH that we as ordinary citizens of our various countries can do in the short term. However, when we do have the opportunity to correct a wrong, there should be no hesitation on any citizen’s part to do that very thing.
I do not hesitate, you should not hesitate.
Bill Prymak supplied me with information, as did other members of this AES Forum, which made it obvious to me that Klaas, Gervais and Reineck are completely and utterly incorrect in the Irene Bolam as Amelia Earhart Theory.
I did broadcast that information with the approval of Bill Prymak. He repeatedly praised me for outing the lie. Now Bill Prymak has done the dirty on me and wrung his hands and now he and Reineck and Co. are all friends again. Well good on them but it still does not make the whole thing right.
Bill told me — I have the letter here — that Gervais was a very shaken man after speaking with Gertrude Hession and he “made” Bill Prymak promise never to release the information about Mary Eubank and that was in 1992. . . . Gervais was too concerned with himself and that he would be seen as an idiot if the word got out. Of course, Gervais would also be concerned about Klaas, as he had dragged Klaas into the mire with the “recognition” of IB as AE, and Klaas would not be pleased at this new revelation. Bill Prymak said to me, “That’s why” the release never appeared in the AES Newsletters about the interview with Gertrude Hession by Gervais and Prymak. . . . You can paint me as black as you like, but don’t put the lid on the paint pot yet, there are others who need a lick of paint too.
I am already receiving private mail over tonight’s postings to the AES Forum. I should not be receiving private mail, put it on the Forum. If you have something to say, say it. Spit it out.
Australia (Sept. 16, 2006)
Billings was ejected from the AES forum by moderator Michele Cervone in late September 2006 for posting third-party e-mails – messages from nonmembers — to the Yahoo! Earhart Group Web site without prior approval. Although that justification may have been technically valid, Cervone’s sanction was, in fact, a case of shooting a messenger who had delivered a most unwelcome message – the unvarnished truth about how the Bolamite falsehood was protected and perpetuated by longtime members of the AES inner circle.
Other members had violated forum rules regularly and with impunity, including Reineck himself. Nearly a year before Billings’ revelations to the group, the 1992 incident that brought Gervais face-to-face with the truth was disclosed by Prymak to several of his AES associates. Moreover, the Mary Eubank-Irene Bolam connection had already been well established in The Atchison Report — released to the AES forum and publicly disseminated in July 2005 – with information provided by Prymak.
Mandel, among the scant few voicing support for the beleaguered Billings in the days following his bombshell, characterized the Aussie’s blunt missives as “reasonable, competent, proper and legitimate on-topic questions to Rollin Reineck.” I expressed full concurrence with Mandel’s summary, depicting Billings’ postings as “tough but fair . . . not personal attacks against Rollin, but [against] his theory and his book although many cannot see the difference.” In several on- and off-forum messages to Prymak, Billings and the AES, Mandel expressed his disdain for the pernicious notion, accepted in some quarters, that certain reputations must be protected at all costs, rightly attributing the decline of the AES to the proliferation of this unethical practice. A few others agreed, and after many rancorous off-forum message exchanges copied to a handful of insiders, Mandel’s laconic response to an unfriendly e-mail from Prymak brought the situation into stark focus:
Read my lips. The “collapse of AES” started just in moment when you agreed to be manipulated by Gervais, who wanted to use you for [sic] to hide the information that would discredit his theory.
The Gervais-Prymak-Mary Eubank incident was a paradigm that revealed the true nature of what most “Earhart research” had become, and not only in the AES. Integrity, full disclosure and accountability about the discovered truths or falsehoods are mission statements rarely found, and even less frequently actuated nearly everywhere one finds public discussion of the Earhart disappearance.
“Joe Gervais is on your trail, Amelia,” Joe Klaas the mythmaker wrote in the closing sentences of Amelia Earhart Lives. “There’s no use trying to die, for he’ll follow you wherever you go, and as long as he shall live, you shall live.” Thus began the cult of Joe Gervais, “the Dean of Earhart research,” according to his acolytes in the AES. But was Gervais’ exalted status an honest reflection of his achievements, or mere hyperbole designed not only to mythologize Gervais, but to enhance the reputations of his associates, as well? A brief review of a few of Gervais’ more notable “contributions” to Earhart research, with thanks to David Billings for his input, should be instructive:
In Chapter 5 of Amelia Earhart Lives, Gervais implied that an Electra 12A, registration number N 16020, which crashed into Mount Tiefort in California in 1961 could have been Earhart’s lost Electra 10E. Gervais based his belief largely on the fact that the plane’s exhaust manifold had been delivered on May 13, 1937, a few weeks before Earhart began her second world-flight attempt. Gervais’ suspicions were aroused despite the fact that he knew the plane belonged to Charles Kitchens, who had bought it from Paul Mantz, a director who had planned to use the 12A in a movie about Earhart (thus the N 16020, as close to Earhart’s as possible). Later in the book, Klaas flatly states, “It was Joe Gervais who climbed a mountain in California to find the wreckage of a plane supposed to be at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”
“Gervais, the trained aircraft crash investigator, finds it incredible that exhaust manifolds built in 1937 could last until 1961,” Billings wrote in a December 2006 e-mail. “There is nothing unusual in this at all. The aircraft could have had any number of manifolds fitted in its life and ALL of them could have been made in 1937 and stored.”
In Amelia Earhart Lives, Gervais said there was no record of what became of the Lockheed XC-35 Electra, the first successful enclosed-cabin, pressurized airplane, capable of altitudes up to 40,000 feet, and suggests it could have been used by Earhart during her last flight. Klaas then theorized that Earhart could have “switched” from her own Electra to the XC-35 to fly a photographic spy mission, and that Lockheed could have built two XC-35s, one of which Earhart and Noonan flew on their special mission. In fact, the only Lockheed XC-35 ever built, with commercial serial number 3105 and military serial number 36-353, was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1948, and has remained there until this day. Billings said Klaas was still advocating this idea in recent years, and message records bore out his contention.
“Joe Klaas and Joe Gervais (the two Jo-Jo’s) proposed that Amelia Earhart espied the capabilities of this XC-35 and requested this experimental aircraft for her own use,” Billings quipped. “The Jo-Jo’s, in realizing that the United States Army Air Force and the Unites States Navy had ‘helped’ Amelia at various stages, now proposed that the U.S. Army Air Force would now get into the act and help her out by ‘lending’ her the XC-35.
“Back around 2003,” Billings continued, “Joe Klaas was still peddling the nonsense about Earhart using the XC-35, as he wrote to the AES forum: ‘The XC-35 was flown to an airfield to the north of Lae and after she took off from Lae, Earhart went to that airfield and exchanged the Lockheed 10E for the XC-35. I have the name of the airfield in my notes.’. . . To the north of LAE there were no airfields and it was very hilly and up to 10,000 feet into the Saraweged Range. So which airfield did he mean? Klaas could not answer and instead now offered that the airfield must be to the south of Lae but he did still have the name of the airfield. I pursued Klaas for over two years as to the name of the airfield and whether the three aircrew from the XC-35 had caught a Number Nine bus back to the United States or were they still at the airfield together with the Electra 10E? Klaas went silent for some three or four weeks. . . . Rest assured, the one and only XC-35, built at a cost of some $120,000 in 1936 rests at the [Smithsonian’s] Garber facility [in Suitland, Maryland]. Klaas’s postulations about the XC-35 are absolute nonsense and rubbish.”
In Chapter 9, we see that Gervais claimed a photo of Earhart, anonymously mailed to him in 1980, was taken while she was in Japanese custody. The photo was determined to have been taken in Hawaii, following Earhart’s aborted takeoff at Luke Field on March 20, 1937.
Perhaps the most preposterous idea among many presented in Amelia Earhart Lives – other than Earhart as Bolam – is that the location of Earhart’s final landing could be determined by the discovery and breaking of a secret code, which Gervais decrypts in Chapter 18, “The Code.” Billings discussed this legendary contribution to the annals of Earhart research in a colorful essay he coined, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” which he wrote, on the spot, during our private online discussion, and sent me in December 2006:
According to Joe Klaas, Joe Gervais called him on the telephone from Las Vegas in March 1967 and excitedly told Klaas that he would show Klaas a picture of the Earhart wreck, and where it went down. Presumably, this time Gervais was actually referring to the Lockheed Electra 10E, Construction No. 1055. Gervais, on the telephone added that he had “broken” something called The Earhart Code.
Klaas and Gervais arranged to meet at Gene Autry’s Continental Hotel in Hollywood. Klaas took his son Tony along to the meeting. Tony, who was 16 years of age, was taken along so that he could record the conversation during the meeting between our two “experts.” If that tape, recorded by Tony Klaas still exists, its value is priceless for what you are about to read. If [it’s] on tape, it would be concrete evidence of the insanity which evolved during the meeting, if Klaas’s book has recorded the freakish content of that conversation correctly.
Gervais began by informing Klaas that he knew that the 1943 RKO Movie Flight to Freedom had been produced by Floyd Odlum, whose wife Jackie Cochrane was a friend of Amelia Earhart’s. The flight in the film taken by a character bearing a similarity to Earhart, named “Toni Carter” (played by Rosalind Russell), had ended on a fictitious island named in the film as “Gull Island.” Gervais then produced a film of Hull Island in the Phoenix Group of islands in what is now Kiribati. This film had been taken by the U.S. Navy during the search for Earhart and Noonan in July 1937. Gervais now proclaimed Hull Island to be Gull Island, the fictitious island from the film. Gervais proceeded to pull the film through a projector so that each frame in the film could be examined one by one.
The object in this action was to introduce to Klaas and his son (who it is presumed had managed to stay awake so far) to one frame in the film where it appears a similarity to a Japanese “meatball” flag is flying over the beach on Hull Island in the U.S. Navy black and white film. The Japanese flag that Gervais insists is shown is a complete white background with a red circle (a so-called “meatball”) in the centre of the white background field. In fact the naval ensign of Japan in 1937 was the same basic design, i.e., a white background with the red circle, but it also had 16 “rays of the sun” radiating out from the central or offset circle which went equally spaced out to the edge of the flag. Whatever Gervais thought he saw in the single frame was not the Japanese naval ensign.
Now, let us suppose, if the Japanese did go to Hull Island for whatever reason, those Japanese would have been naval personnel in naval ships, and therefore if a flag had been left behind it would have been a naval flag and at the time the naval ensign had the representations of the sun’s rays (16 rays), which would have not shown up in a photograph or film frame as a white flag with a red blob on it. If the Japanese had gone to Hull Island for whatever reason, it is extremely unlikely that they would advertise their presence there by leaving a Japanese naval ensign. Hull at that time in July 1937 was populated by Gilbertese plantation labourers with a Captain Jones as an overseer. Jones did have a radio and the first thing he would have done would have been to contact Tarawa, the headquarters of the British Colonial Service in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands as the Phoenix Group was British territory.
Gervais, Klaas and Klaas Junior then can see something else on the film frames as they were drawn through the projector. Amazingly, they can see aircraft wreckage and murmur that they can see a wing section, a tyre [sic], an engine and incredibly they can see a “salvage hook.” Now hallucinatory drugs were not banned in 1967 to the extent that they are now, and one has to wonder whether these two gentleman had discovered a new line in potent licorice at pharmacies or whether it was a new line in “magic spectacles” in that they and they alone could see aircraft wreckage on the beach at Hull Island where Lieutenant [John] Lambrecht and his fellow experienced aviators had not seen anything at all, and had in fact landed on the lagoon at Hull to ask Captain Jones if he had seen anything. Neither Lambrecht or the other aviators from the USS Colorado or Captain Jones had seen wreckage on Hull Island or any sign of Earhart and Noonan.
We now come to the most weird outpouring from a supposed expert on Earhart that defies all logic and surely must be classed as one of Gervais’ best faux pas. The “breaking” of what he called The Earhart Code. This supposed code is related to the use of the name Guy Bolam in a sequence which defies logic, for Amelia Earhart never did know Guy Bolam, the husband of Irene Bolam. How could Earhart compose a code using Guy Bolam’s name if she did not know him and the names of the islands in the Phoenix Group of islands? The short answer is that she could not.
This is how the imaginative brain of Gervais received a mind-compelling injection of fantasy which resulted in derived figures which represent the latitude and longitude position of Hull Island, or, I should say, the figures derived roughly locate to within a few nautical miles, the position of Hull Island. This is why Gervais torturously managed to come up with Hull Island as Earhart’s final landing place. . . . This is how Gervais came upon what he called The Earhart Code.
The name GUY BOLAM has eight letters and each of the islands in the Phoenix Group contains one letter of the name Guy Bolam In Gervais’ convoluted mind, the positioning of those letters within the island name is then given a number according to the position. … Therefore if as Gervais does we lay out the numbers horizontally we get: 1, 7, 2 (or 6), 1, 3, 4 (or 3), 2 and 1. Looking at the alternatives we can get 17213421 or 17613321. Gervais said in 1967 that this first string of numbers, 17213421, represents the longitude and the latitude of Hull Island by saying this string represents 172° 13′ W, 4° 21′ S. The latitude and longitude of Hull Island is 4° 30′ S 172° 10′ W. So, The Earhart Code has Hull Island 3 nautical miles to the West and 9 nautical miles to the North of where it actually is. Now what of the other possibilities in the other string of numbers? The alternative is 176° 13′ W, 3° 21′ S. This would put the position way to the west of the entire Phoenix Group by close to 200 nautical miles.
What of this Earhart Code? Does it exist? The answer is no, it cannot possibly exist and is a very weird figment of Joe Gervais’ imagination, and Klaas swallowed it. Amelia Earhart did not know Guy Bolam. She did know Irene Craigmile Heller, but she did not know Guy Bolam. He did not enter Irene Craigmile Heller’s life until 1957, so how could Earhart have possibly made up a code before she disappeared in 1937 incorporating Guy Bolam’s name into a sequence which also had the Phoenix Islands names in that very sequence? The answer is that Earhart did not make up this supposed code and it is sheer fantasy and absolute rubbish. It just so happens that the numbers as Gervais brought them out using Guy Bolam’s name fell into a sequence which very closely matches the position of Hull Island, nothing more, nothing less, just sheer coincidence.
Gervais says, through Klaas, that he did spend three years of his spare time trying to discover a code. He also discovered not only the supposed tripe he called The Earhart Code but fostered and encouraged the finding of a thousand and one conspiracies mainly perpetrated by the United States Government and its agencies. There are those who spend their whole lives inventing conspiracies and myths which are always there to confuse and confound genuine people trying to research the truth and to discover the fate of the two American aviators.
Gervais and those of his ilk would have been far better off and more gainfully employed planting turnips in their spare time. That occupation would have been more suited to the level of intelligence displayed in that dreadful book which, in all honesty, should never have been published. (End of “The Blind Leading the Blind.”)
It’s doubtful that any reviews of Amelia Earhart Lives were more amusing than the foregoing by David Billings. Joe Klaas, a talented writer with 12 books to his credit, wove an enchanting spell in the latter chapters of Amelia Earhart Lives, but he fell victim to the absurd delusion that struck Joe Gervais and, amazingly, spread to many others over the years. It was a shame, because the eyewitness interviews conducted by Gervais and Robert Dinger on Guam and Saipan in 1960, on the heels of Fred Goerner’s arrival on Saipan during his own investigation, were some of the most important ever done.
In our final installment of “Irene Bolam and the Decline of the Amelia Earhart Society,” we will continue with yet more of the Joe Gervais Follies, and conclude by attempting to put the whole sordid mess into some kind of coherent perspective, a daunting prospect in itself.
To anyone familiar with this blog, the late Bill Prymak needs no introduction. Prymak the founder and first president of the Amelia Earhart Society (AES) was a great researcher and good friend whose significant contributions to the repository of Earhart knowledge continue to resonate.
For those new to this blog, this page of posts will give you an idea about Prymak’s legacy, which included three trips to the Marshall Islands, where he interviewed Bilimon Amaron in 1989 and found a previously unknown witness on Enajet Island, Joro, whose knowledge of the July 1937 landing of Amelia Earhart and Electra NR 16020 off Barre Island was considerable.
As one might imagine, Prymak had some very definite opinions about what happened to Amelia Earhart, and he wasn’t shy about airing them when asked. Today I present a previously unpublished commentary, from February 2011, in which he looks at perhaps the most popular of the so-called “conspiracy theories” that have attached themselves to the Earhart phenomena. The opinions expressed in the following essay are not necessarily those of this blog’s owner, but they do make sense.
“A DISSECTION OF EARHART SPY THEORIES”
By Bill Prymak
I wish to put to rest the following spy theories that have been circulating around for so many years, to wit:
- Was she on a spy mission?
- What did the government want her to do?
- Was there a second Electra involved in her around-the-world flight?
- Was the engine changed at Bandoeng?
(To save space, I will hereafter call U.S. government intelligence “GI.”)
The Spy Mission
Did GI put surveillance cameras on board, in violation of her granted permission to fly over 14 countries if she possessed no cameras other than a hand-held?
If GI did install cameras, where? There are only six inches between the floorboards and the belly skin. No surveillance cameras circa 1937 existed to fit those dimensions. Besides, a camera-control panel would of necessity be in the cockpit or on Fred’s table — pretty obvious to customs or mechanics working the aircraft.
So what could she photograph on her 1,800-mile-flight Hawaii to Howland?? The nearest Japanese Mandated island, Mili Atoll, was 2,250 miles direct Hawaii to Mili, then another 800 miles back to Howland for her necessary landing there. Mili Atoll in 1937 had no military fortifications to photograph, and, in that time period, only Jaluit Atoll, some 100 more miles farther away, had something for the camera– the seaplane base at Emidj.
Kwajalein, 250 even miles farther, could not be considered in range for her aircraft. I have hydrographic maps of Mili and Majuro entitled SKETCH SURVEY FROM THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT CHART of 1928 — plenty of details, non-military of course, and certainly available to GI. This was much more detailed than what any aerial photos would show.
Another popular theory making the rounds: GI orders her to “get lost so U.S. planes can scour the area, including the Japanese Mandates, for much-needed intelligence information.” But everybody believing this loses sight of the fact that this order is a virtual death warrant! In the vast Pacific Ocean, there is very rarely a Captain Sully-Hudson River dead-calm water landing available, and no beaches, no flat, open land areas anywhere in range. Pacific open waters are nearly always rough, too rough for a safe airplane landing.
(Editor’s note: Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, 63, is a retired airline captain and aviation safety consultant. He was hailed as a national hero in the United States when he successfully executed an emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan, N.Y., after the aircraft was disabled by striking a flock of Canadian Geese during its initial climb out of LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. All 155 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft survived.)
Would Fred Noonan, Harry Manning and Amelia approve of such a PLAN? Would [her husband] George [Putnam] and Mother [Amy Otis] Earhart approve?
We can’t compare Capt. Sully to Amelia. He was fresh, beginning a new day, highly skilled while Amelia was some 18-plus hours in the air and dog tired — not a good candidate for a much-needed precision water landing, if they could find some flat water. I personally have compelling evidence of where she did land, but that issue is not within the province of this report.
And if the GI plan was to get her “lost” and scour the area with U.S. search planes, why wasn’t the USS Lexington deployed earlier to Hawaii instead of laying in shore leave mode on the west coast?
Outside of the usual request to international pilots to LRR — LOOK, RECORD, REPORT — not considered spying, I see no merit or need for AE being on a spy mission, and I will prove it in the next segment.
The Hawaii Crash
This event has engendered more hype, speculation and fantasy tales than any other aviation mystery. Let’s for the moment assume that she really was on a spy mission, totally planned and controlled by GI. First scenario: She gets to the airport on March 20, ready to go, when she receives a phone call from GI: ABORT, RENDER AIRCRAFT INOPERABLE. She is furious and shouts over the phone, “This is crazy!! We’ve planned this trip for months, have cached thousands of gallons fuel all over the world with spare parts, and now you tell me not to go?”
Bottom line: Obey orders, tell the press that the flight crew is unfit or the aircraft un-airworthy. She certainly would not have fired up the engines.
Second scenario: She fires up the engines, and while taxiing for takeoff, receives the same order to abort. So she ground loops the aircraft, rendering it un-airworthy. So much easier (and safer!) to run a wingtip into a truck, run a wheel into a ditch, or a dozen safe ways to inop [sic] the aircraft.
The above scenarios never happened. What proves this is the fact that both Amelia and George, after the crash, scratched, clawed, begged and borrowed the $30,000 to pay the repair bill. These efforts are well chronicled in various research books (see Elgen Long’s book, Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, for details of their efforts.)
If this was a spy mission, George Putnam, ever the astute businessman, would have written to GI, stating, “It was your order to abort, causing the crash. Bill from Lockheed herewith attached. Please take care of it.”
What really happened is what Harry Manning stated: ”SHE SIMPLY JOCKEYED THE THROTTLES AND LOST IT.” A bad day like this happens to every good pilot once or twice in his/her lifetime. Happened to me once. Amelia Earhart was destined to have two bad days.
In conclusion I must add my personal experiences with Art Kennedy. I spent a week with him in Portugal, in 1992, he telling stories about his experiences in the aviation world. Art showed me test cell papers proving that AE had more than six hours reserve when she called near Howland — six hours plus if the engines were flown properly.
Art was a lonely man, and privately admitted that his manuscript, given to JoAnn Ridley (a sweet lady who died last year , and who knew nothing about aviation) was rife with bursts of imaginative stories, all to be included in their book [High Times: Keeping ’em Flying, 1992] to boost his recognition and sell copy. Some of his imaginative tidbits that ran wild:
1. Amelia suggested to him that she was on a spy mission
2. He helped Amelia adjust the broken landing gear before the CAA inspector arrived.
3. He stated that Lockheed engine installers Firman Grey & Carl Leipelt and a crew went to Bandoeng to install fresh engines. (See below.)
A Second Airplane Involved in the RTW Flight?
I can only state no such airplane ever existed, and I have absolute irrefutable photographic proof that ONLY ONE AIRCRAFT, NR 16020, was used for the entire flight. Discussion on this issue ends right here.
The Infamous Engine Changes (How Silly Can You Get?)
First, AE arrived at Bandoeng with less than 120 hours on engines that were overhauled to new factory specs rather than service limits (Art told me this) — engines barely broken in and good for some 500 hours. Did some brain trust at GI feel these engines were inadequate for the Lae takeoff? Did they claim that [Pratt 7 Whitney] S1H1 engines with 12:1 blowers [an aircraft engine compression ratio] instead of the typical 10:1 blowers would reduce the risk, thus sending out the order to change engines?
A chronology of this entire circus act blows the claim apart, to wit:
1. AE was on American soil until June 1. It is quite apparent that GI would have wanted these engines installed on U.S. soil by American technicians. So decision date on new engines had to have been made after June 1.
2. Art stated that bigger blowers alone (for more horsepower) would be very difficult to install in the field because of the complex internal changes on the engines. Further, bigger blowers meant bigger cowlings.
3. Everything and everybody had to be in Bandoeng by the third week of June, her estimated time of arrival. Those big engine crates could not fit and be carried in any known air carrier of the day, so they had to be shipped by tramp steamer. Pratt & Whitney engines from Hartford factory to Boston, catch a freighter to Lisbon, then through the Suez Canal, on to Singapore, then by mule or truck to Bandoeng. Run a time frame on the above and you see it is impossible to meet the schedule. And when and how did the new cowlings from Lockheed (West Coast) arrive at Bandoeng?
4. To clinch the fantasy, my very good friend Dave Kenyon, now living in Eugene Oregon, worked on her repair at the Lockheed factory, and ultimately rose to rank of vice-president of engineering. We spent many pleasant evening discussing Earhart and her final voyage, and every time the engine-change story came up, he made the same statement: “[Carl] Leipelt and Firman [Gray] could never have left for such a lengthy time as they were the only ones at Lockheed who installed, fine tuned and signed off on the engines coming off the production line. I believe they were the only ones with CAA certification to do this.” Ed Cooper and Art Kennedy certainly would have been called in to fill the gap. They never mentioned this issue. Art Kennedy’s imagination just out-finessed himself on this one.
To all the pundits out there who claim AE was on a spy mission, I ask the questions: What were her orders from GI? What were the GI agency’s mission objectives? I haven’t the slightest clue towards answering any of the above.
Let’s try, “Get lost, dump into the ocean, and a sub or surface vessel will pick you up.” Impossible. The precise navigation (GPS) tools required for such a rendezvous did not exist in 1937.
The GI (knowing how the government works) must have comprised a sizable group of men dedicated to successfully completing her “spy mission.” And yet there has never been a single peep out of anybody claiming to be part of this unique group. Amazing, when you consider the tabloid value (millions, in today’s dollars) that one could reap if he were part of this group, revealing a crucial part of America’s greatest aviation mystery. (End of Prymak analysis.)
The possible Truk Lagoon scenario
One possible Earhart-as-spy scenario not mentioned by Prymak has been suggested by some: Earhart overflying Truk Lagoon to observe “the number of airfields and extent of Japan’s fleet-servicing facilities in the Truk complex,” as Fred Goerner wrote in the closing pages of The Search for Amelia Earhart.
Before and during World War II, Truk Lagoon, now known as Chuuk Lagoon, part of Chuuk State within the Federated States of Micronesia, was the Japan’s main base in the South Pacific theatre, a heavily fortified base for Japanese operations against Allied forces in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, serving as the forward anchorage for the Japanese Imperial Fleet.
In 1937, U.S. intelligence would have been extremely interested in the status of this naval base, once known to Allied forces as Japan’s “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” and Amelia might have been asked to observe and possibly even take some photos with her small, hand-held Kodak camera. The Electra would have arrived over Truk at about 7 p.m. local time, with plenty of daylight left. Of course, we have no proof that Amelia attempted to perform such a mission, but her actions during the final flight suggest something very strange was afoot, and she had two meetings with top U.S. officials during April 1937, according to Margot DeCarie, her personal secretary. (See Truth at Last for more.)
As seen in the above map, found on the Mystery of Amelia Earhart webpage, created by William H. Stewart, a career military-historical cartographer and foreign-service officer in the U.S. State Department and former senior economist for the Northern Marianas, the distance from Lae to Truk is 1,022 statute miles, from Truk to Jaluit 1,223 statute miles, and from Jaluit to Howland (via Great Circle), 1,010 miles. While shorter, this route would require Earhart to be in Japanese airspace and over several populated islands in the Marshalls for a longer period of time, which would give the Japanese more time for interception should the flight be discovered. The total distance is 3,255 statute miles as compared to 2,556 miles when flying direct to Howland from Lae, and indeed pushes the range limits of the Electra, said to be 4,000 miles in the absence of headwinds.
“The only serious problem with such a supposition,” Stewart, the author of the 1993 book, Saipan in Flames: Operation Forager: The Turning Point in the Pacific War, wrote, “is that a position report received from Earhart while in flight occurred at 5:18 p. m. (Lae time) and indicated her position as “4.33 SOUTH 159.7 EAST HEIGHT 8000 FEET OVER CUMULUS CLOUDS WIND 23 KNOTS,” which would place the aircraft in the vicinity of Nukumanu Island, northeast of Bougainville and in the area where it should have been assuming the original flight plan was being followed. This fix would place the aircraft on a track from Lae to Howland Island some 742 nautical miles [854 statute miles] or about one-third the distance between the two points which are separated by 2,227 nautical miles [2,563 statute miles].
“This radioed position is far to the southeast of Truk and almost due south of Ponape (Senyavin Island, now Pohnpei) and north of Guadalcanal,” Stewart continued. “That the transmission was picked up in Lae is strange indeed, since the Electra’s radio range was said to be (although not confirmed by this researcher) not much more than 400 miles. If this was in fact true, how is it that the signal was picked up from almost twice the distance? Was it a hoax? Was it a deceptive position directed to confuse any Japanese radioman at Truk who might have been monitoring the much publicized flight path (presumed to be from Lae to Howland) and the radio frequency of 6210 KHz? If so, the report was received at Truk only a short time before the aircraft could have roared over the encircling reef at Truk to carry out its assignment of aerial espionage before turning east to fly toward Jaluit and thence southeast to Howland.”
Was Amelia Earhart on some kind of intelligence mission that went wrong? Goerner later changed his mind about the mission to Truk he proposed in Search, instead adopting the idea that Amelia had been asked to simply collect what was known as “white intelligence,” meaning that “she simply observed things during the course of her flight,” according to Goerner, who could hardly have been less specific. Goerner also changed his mind about the Mili Atoll landing scenario he proposed in Search, and made other serious misjudgments as well, so despite his great contributions to the Earhart saga, Goerner’s work is no longer the ultimate source for answers in this and other areas.
Like many things about the Earhart disappearance, the answers are buried deep within top secret, eyes-only federal archives, where only a scant few even know of their existence. Until the contents of these files are revealed to the public, the question of whether Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were lost while engaged in an intelligence mission for FDR will continue to be discussed and argued about by those who seek the truth.
Occasionally it behooves us, as students and enthusiasts of the Earhart saga, to return to the very roots of the matter, and to examine some of the original accounts that sparked the seminal investigations that paved the way for seven decades of research that now so emphatically reveals Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s Mili Atoll landing and subsequent deaths on Saipan.
Today we offer the first-person account of Josephine Blanco Akiyama, as presented by Josephine herself in Family Weekly, the San Mateo Times Sunday magazine, on July 3, 1960. In all fairness, we should note that Josephine was not the first Pacific islander to share her knowledge of the post-July 2, 1937 survival of the American fliers with outsiders.
In my Feb. 16, 2015 post, “Marshall Islands ‘fishing boat pickup’ update,” we saw the March 1944 story from AP correspondent Eugene Burns, “Clue Obtained To Mystery of Amelia Earhart,” that appeared in the Benton Harbor (Mich.) News Palladium and a few other newspapers across the country.
In his story, Burns reported the account of Marshall Islander Elieu Jibambam as told to Navy Lieutenant Eugene Bogan in early 1944. “A Jap trader named Ajima three and a half years ago on Rita island told me than an American woman pilot came down between Jaluit and Ailinglapalap atolls,” Elieu reportedly told Bogan. “She was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat and the trader Ajima heard that she was taken to Japan.”
Elieu told other American military men the same story, but Burns’ report caused nary a ripple in the United States, largely because it was ignored by most papers and buried in others. The nation was focused on far more pressing wartime business in early 1944, and the Earhart story had no legs. But by 1960, the world had changed immensely, and when Linwood Day of the San Mateo Times was alerted to Josephine Blanco Akiyama’s childhood story as revealed by Paul Briand Jr., in his 1960 book Daughter of the Sky, the real modern search for Amelia Earhart began.
Without further background already available in several other posts on this blog, the following story, bylined “Mrs. Josephine Blanco Akiyama” appeared in Family Weekly, the July 3, 1960 Sunday magazine of the San Mateo Times, and begins with the following introduction:
On July 1 [sic], 1937, Amelia Earhart, at 39, America’s most famous aviatrix, disappeared without trace while on the last lap of a round-the-world flight.
Accompanied by her navigator, Capt. Fred J. Noonan, she had set out from the East Indies toward Howland Island in the West Pacific. It has been variously speculated that they perished at sea, were made prisoners of the Japanese, were cast away on an undiscovered island, even that they are still living in Japan under assumed names!
Now an eyewitness claims that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were shot by the Japanese as spies in her native Saipan. Mrs. Josephine Blanco Akiyama, who was 11 years old when she witnessed Miss Earhart’s crash landing on the beach of her homeland, taught school and worked as a dental assistant for the U.S. Navy in Saipan before she came to the United States three years ago. She now lives in San Mateo, Calif., with her husband and eight-year-old son.
Josephine’s San Mateo Times account:
I SAW AMELIA EARHART crash on Saipan in the summer of 1937. I know that Miss Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were executed as spies by the Japanese a few days later.
I was 11 years old then and probably the only civilian witness because they crashed in a restricted zone of the island. But I had a special pass to let me bicycle through this area because my brother-in-law worked as a mechanic for the Japanese Navy, and I was permitted to bring him his lunch every noon.
That day the sky was not particularly clear. There were clouds hanging over the beaches.
About three or four minutes after I entered the restricted zone, I heard a plane. I looked up and saw a twin-engine plane cut through the clouds. The motors seemed to be functioning all right, but I was too young to know much about that.
The plane circled briefly, disappeared, same back into view, and dived toward the beach. It seemed to level off at the last moment.
I was not close enough to see how badly it was damaged. Nor did I dare go closer. I had been raised to curb my curiosity about anything military. And everything that happened in a restricted zone was military.
But my curiosity was too great to overcome, so I waited around to see what would happen. After a few minutes I saw soldiers rush to the scene. They surrounded the plane and, a little later, escorted two people past me: a fairly tall slim woman with a short haircut and dressed in man’s clothing; and a tall man who was wearing dark trousers and a light shirt with short sleeves.
I could tell that both were terribly exhausted. But they didn’t appear to be hurt. Nor were their clothes torn.
When I saw my bother-in-law a few minutes later, I tried to tell him what had happened. There were so many people around that I didn’t dare speak up. But I did tell my parents as soon as I got home.
I can still hear their reaction. “Don’t tell anyone, Josephine, or we’ll all be in serious trouble,” my father pleaded.
“We might get shot,” my mother cried out. “Forget what you saw!”
They were scared. All of us on Saipan were scared, for we had come under Japanese control when the island became its mandate shortly after World War I and was turned into an important naval base. Before, it had belonged to Germany and before that to Spain.
I was born there and, like most natives, was taught early to respect, obey, and fear the Japanese. At least the military. Socially, we got along quite well with them, and there were many intermarriages. My own family was so prominent that whenever a Japanese dignitary came to Saipan, he would be taken to our house for a native meal.
WHILE WE HAD a lot of Japanese civilian friends, we knew only a few of the military. I asked one of them repeatedly what happened to the man and woman who were captured. At first he kept evading the issue, but finally he told me they both had been shot as spies.
Again my parents warned me never to mention what I had seen or heard, or all of us would surely be killed. This time I put it out of my mind till after World War II.
When the Americans captured Saipan, a Navy dental clinic was established on the island. I was trained and then hired as a dental assistant. I worked with a Navy lieutenant, Dr. Kasimir Sheft. It was to him that I mentioned one day the Americans who had been captured and killed in 1937.
His curiosity about them was immense. He asked me to describe the people, the plane, and the time it happened. He was very excited about what I told him.
A few days later he showed me a picture of a man and woman whom I identified as the same two who had crashed on the beach when I was 11.
“That’s Amelia Earhart!” he exclaimed, pointing at the lady.
“Who was Amelia Earhart?” I asked.
It was only then, after he explained, that I realized I had been an eyewitness to a momentous and fateful event in aviation history.
(End of July 3, 1960 Family Weekly story.)
On one of the copies of the story I have, Fred Goerner scribbled, “Who was ghost writer?” directly under Josephine’s name in the byline. It was a natural question, as the story was clearly edited, if not completely written, by a professional. Since Linwood Day penned all the Earhart stories presented in the San Mateo Times that summer (see “Linwood Day: Forgotten hero of the Earhart saga“), it’s likely that Day also worked with Josephine on this one.
Goerner wrote other interesting comments as well, numbering them from one to 13 across the top of the page. Number one for the KCBS radio newsman who was soon to become a national celebrity, was “Lady Pilot and Her Navigator — Who told her?”
Other comments included “Originally said man was injured,” “Told Briand she heard shots,” a “few days later” and “a few weeks later,” and other discrepancies Goerner found in the Family Weekly story as compared with Josephine’s account to Dr. Casimir Sheft and related to Paul Briand Jr. in his 1960 book, Daughter of the Sky, and later as seen in Linwood Day’s San Mateo Times stories of May through July 1960.
When we consider the many and varying witness accounts given to investigators over the years, we can also be fairly certain that, contrary to Josephine’s original story that the fliers were shot by the Japanese soon after their arrival on Saipan, Amelia and Fred did survive for a still-undermined time before meeting their ends.
Whether the plane that “belly landed” in Tanapag Harbor, as Josephine described it to Sheft, who was later indirectly quoted by Briand in his book, was a Japanese seaplane or land-based aircraft is still not known, and remains one of the more nagging of many unresolved questions in the Earhart-arrival-on-Saipan scenario.
But these are the natural problems that arise when a 34-year-old woman is relating an incident she witnessed as a youth of 11. Josephine Blanco Akiyama will always be remembered as the first and best known of the Saipan witnesses, whose account as initially reported by Briand spurred Goerner’s four highly publicized investigative trips to Saipan, and without which Goerner’s blockbuster The Search for Amelia Earhart would never have been written.
In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it was Josephine’s story that made it possible for a few intrepid truth seekers to break through the decades-old establishment truth embargo and set out upon the real modern search for Amelia Earhart. It is no small distinction.