Marshall Islands “fishing boat pickup” update: Logs, news clips, witness accounts suggest real event
With the recent finds of several small artifacts on one of Mili Atoll’s tiny Endriken Islands, any or all of which may have once been parts of Amelia Earhart’s Electra, as well as the emergence of a rare 1937 U.S. newspaper clipping, a new look at the origin and evolution of the “fishing boat pickup” story and how it fits into the Earhart saga might be instructive.
In the wake of the Battle of Kwajalein, fought from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, 1944, on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, several discoveries were made relative to the presence of Amelia Earhart at different locations in the Marshall Islands, including Kwajalein in the years before the war. The below story appeared in the Benton Harbor (Mich.) News Palladium on March 21, 1944, under the headline “Clue Obtained To Mystery of Amelia Earhart,” by Eugene Burns, an Associated Press war correspondent posted at Majuro, the capital and largest city in the Marshalls:
MARSHALL ISLANDS, March 4 – (Delayed) (AP) The possibility that Amelia Earhart Putnam, world famed aviatrix, ran out of gas in the Marshall Islands and was taken to Japan has been revived by a remark of a mission trained native to Lieutenant T. Bogan, New York City.
Lieutenant Bogan, a representative of the Marshall Island military governor, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, said Elieu, the 30-year-old native, limited himself to these statements and stuck to them: “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 and that she was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat and the trader Ajima heard that she was taken to Japan.”
Elieu insisted that he heard of no man being with the “American woman pilot.” Fred Noonan flew with Miss Putnam as navigator on her world-girdling trip in 1937.
Since the story was an Associated Press release, we can be reasonably sure that it appeared in a number of newspapers throughout the country, including the New York Daily News, the New York Sun and the Oakland Tribune, according to Bogan’s 1961 account to Fred Goerner in The Search for Amelia Earhart, but this story made very little impression on a nation still at war. Thanks to various investigations in the Marshalls over the past 65 years, we know that much of this story that Elieu passed to Burns was incorrect in many details, but its major thrust, that she landed in the area and was picked up by the Japanese, was certainly true.
In 1961, shortly after Goerner returned to San Francisco after his second trip to Saipan and an unsuccessful attempt to visit Kwajalein, he was called by John Mahan, a local realtor and former Navy yeoman stationed on Majuro in 1944. “Amelia Earhart crash-landed somewhere between Majuro, Jaluit, and Ailinglapalap in the Marshalls,” he told Goerner. “We knew it back in 1944.” Mahan said several Marshallese natives who served as interpreters, among them Joe and Rudolph Muller, told him the Japanese picked up two American fliers, “a man and woman, and brought them for a while into either Jaluit or Majuro, then took them to another island. They said it was 1937, and the Japs thought they were spies.”
Mahan referred Goerner to Eugene Bogan, his commanding officer on Majuro, who recalled that a Majuro native named Elieu, a schoolteacher with a reputation for integrity among the Marshallese, was the source of the Earhart information. Shortly after the Navy arrived on Majuro, Elieu overheard a conversation about the Japanese preoccupation with secrecy, Bogan continued, “and asked if they knew of the white woman flier who ran out of gas and landed between Jaluit and Ailinglapalap.”
Elieu wasn’t an eyewitness but had heard the story from a Japanese friend named Ajima, a trader with a company the Japanese used as front to cover military activities in the Mandated Islands. The woman was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat and taken to either Jaluit or Majuro, Ajima told Elieu, and later to Kwajalein Atoll or Saipan. No man was mentioned in the story, “because the Japanese would have been greatly impressed by a woman pilot,” Bogan said.
This was Goerner’s introduction to the Marshall Islands landing scenario, the “front-end” of the Earhart disappearance story, so to speak, which he didn’t investigate quite as extensively as Amelia’s Saipan presence as revealed by the Chamorro witnesses, as well as the GIs who fought in the Battle of Saipan in the summer of 1944.
In Search, page 165 of the first edition, we have Bogan’s key statement to Goerner via Elieu’s story: “A Japanese fishing boat picked her up and brought her into either Jaluit or Majuro. Then she was taken presumably to Kwajalein or Saipan.”
Most Earhart enthusiasts are familiar with the famous July 1949 interview given by Amy Otis Earhart, Amelia’s mother, to the Los Angeles Times. But many don’t realize that unless they’ve seen the original Times article, they probably missed some or all of the most revealing and provocative statements Amy made that day. The newspapers clips that I’ve seen edited Amy’s remarks to various degrees; I don’t know why this occurred, only that I’ve seen the entire interview only in the original Times version of the interview.Among Amy’s most interesting comments in the July 24, 1949 Times article are those where she repeats allegations she made in a May 1944 letter to Neta Snook. Virtually all newspapers included Amy’s statement that she believed Amelia landed on a “tiny atoll” in the Pacific, and “was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat that took her to the Marshall Islands, then under Japanese control.” Eugene Burns’ March 1944 article could well have been the source of Amy’s statement about the fishing boat pickup, but her statements weren’t limited to this aspect of her daughter’s loss.
Amy also told the Times that Amelia “was permitted to broadcast to Washington from the Marshalls, because the officials on the island where she was taken — I can’t recall the name of it believed she was merely a transocean flier in distress. But Toyko had a different opinion of her significance in the area. She was ordered taken to Japan. There, I know, she met with an accident, an ‘arranged’ accident that ended her life.”
Five years earlier, in Amy’s May 6, 1944 letter to Neta Snook, she told Amelia’s first flight instructor that she had information brought to her “by a friend a few days after Amelia’s S.O.S [in July 1937] who was listening to a short-wave radio when a broadcast from Tokyo came in saying they were celebrating there, with parades, etc. because of Amelia’s rescue or pick up by a Japanese fisherman. That was before the war you know, and evidently the ordinary Jap had no knowledge of their military leaders’ plans so were proud of the rescue and expected the world to be. That young girl drove 27 miles at 11 o’clock at night, and through a horrid part of Los Angeles to tell me. It was too late when she arrived at my house in North Hollywood, but the next day I went with her to the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles and asked him about it.”
Of course by the time Amy saw anyone at the consulate, nobody knew anything about the fishing boat story. But she never forgot it, and later in her letter to Snook, she wrote, “So the hope is only the finding out what happened after the Jap fishing boat picked her up from the small island where she had landed. One can face anything she knows is so, but unless she goes through the torture of not knowing, it is not possible to understand the agony connected with uncertainty, nor the loopholes it leaves for the imagination to get in its work.”
In my Dec. 9, 2014 post, “Amy Earhart’s stunning 1944 letter to Neta Snook,” I expressed doubts about the veracity of Amy’s claims that Amelia was allowed to broadcast for a few days from the Marshalls after being captured by the Japanese. I still have these doubts, because although many alleged post-loss messages were reported in the Pacific area as well as the United States in the days immediately following July 2, none of them contained anything that could have been construed to mean that Earhart and Noonan were in Japanese custody, much less taken to Tokyo. Most were incomprehensible snippets.
But what of Amy’s claim of the “short-wave radio … broadcast from Tokyo [that] came in saying they were celebrating there, with parades, etc. because of Amelia’s rescue or pick up by a Japanese fisherman” that Amy’s “young girl” friend (probably Margot DeCarie, Amelia’s secretery) in Los Angeles drove 27 miles to tell Amy that night in 1937? Could this have really happened as Amy was told? Can’t we assume the broadcast would have been in Japanese? Did Margot DeCarie speak Japanese, and if not, how did she understand its message?
On Majuro in 1979, Judge Kabua Kabua, the chief magistrate on Jaluit in 1937, told Vincent V. Loomis he heard about the “lady pilot” from the Japanese. “Part of the story, I heard, her plane ran out of gas and she came down near Mili,” the judge said. “The Japanese picked her up in a fishing boat and took her to Saipan, the Japanese headquarters.”
Through Loomis’ 1981 Tokyo investigation, we know that Koshu, which wasn’t a part of the 12th Squadron, was anchored in Ponape on July 2, 1937, and at 5 p.m., July 6, Lieutenant Yukinao Kozu, the ship’s radioman, logged the official order for the ship to depart Ponape for the Marshalls to join the Earhart search. Koshu was steaming for Jaluit on July 9, arriving there just after noon July 13. “That night she took on coal,” Loomis wrote. “One of those loading the fuel was Tomaki Mayazo, who heard the crew members excitedly mention they were on the way to pick up two American fliers and their aircraft, which had crashed at Mili. The next day the ship steamed out of Jaluit for Mili Mili, where it picked up both the Electra and its crew.”
If Koshu did pick up the fliers at Mili Mili, located in the southwest part of Mili Atoll at least 20 miles from Barre Island, in the northwest part of the atoll, it’s possible they were taken to Mili Mili by this alleged fishing boat. However, we have no accounts or evidence of their presence at Mili Mili besides Loomis’ statement.
When Japanese journalist Fukiko Aoki visited Fred Goerner at his San Francisco home in June 1982, the fishing boat story was among the first topics he raised. “Did you know that on July 13, 1937, a Japanese newspaper reported that Amelia Earhart was rescued by Japanese fisherman?” Goerner asked the young woman who told Goerner that she wanted to help his cause, something she never came close to doing.
The claim that a Japanese paper published a story about Amelia’s pickup in the Marshalls was directly related to a “most urgent” message sent by Japanese foreign minister Koki Hirota to Japan’s British ambassador, Shigeru Yoshida, in London, also on July 13, 1937, and reported by Loomis in Amelia Earhart: The Final Story. “The Advertiser here [in Japan] reports that they received a London international news dispatch at 2:00 AM today to the effect that a Japanese fishing boat had rescued the Earhart plane,” Hirota wrote. “Please verify this and confirm by return.”
Panic descended upon “the small circle of Japanese officials who knew what was happening in the Marshalls,” Loomis wrote. “Had the truth leaked out from one of their classified sources – radio, a letter, a loose statement? Or even worse, had the secret diplomatic code been broken? Would the Americans press them for more details or would they accept this as rumor? A few tension-ridden days passed, and nothing more came of this coincidental near exposure of the truth.”
Aoki told Goerner that she would look into the fishing boat story, but her findings further confused the matter (see pages 147-148 of Truth at Last). Aoki wrote that “the Tokyo Asahi Shimbum [newspaper] dated July 15  reported, ‘The report of the rescue is without foundation,'” and so she concluded, “Goerner’s theory of the Japanese fishing boat rescue is extremely weak.”
Aoki was eager to dismiss the fishing boat story, but her report of the newspaper’s July 15 printed retraction of the article nonetheless proved the fishing boat pickup story had appeared two days earlier, as Goerner’s information indicated. But why did one newspaper retract a story that had appeared in another two days earlier?
I’ve never seen an original copy of the story that allegedly appeared in the Japan Advertiser newspaper on July 13, 1937, or the July 15 retraction of the story in Tokyo Asahi Shimbum. But thanks to Woody Peard, an enterprising researcher in Santa Maria, Calif., we’re now one step closer to the original Japanese story.
In December 2014, Woody, an avid Earhart collector who’s amassed hundreds of newspapers, magazines, scrapbooks, article cutouts, documents, philatelic covers and other memorabilia on Amelia and Fred Noonan since 1998, made an amazing find on eBay – an American newspaper that reported on the Japanese fishing boat pickup story’s Japanese origin.
The below story appeared at the top of page 1 in the July 13, 1937 edition of the Bethlehem (Penn.) Globe Times.
For those not able to easily read this clip, here’s the top three paragraphs:
Vague and unconfirmed rumors that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan have been rescued by a Japanese fishing boat without a radio, and therefore unable to make any report, found no verification here today, but plunged Tokio [sic] into a fever of excitement.
The Navy Department had no official word of any such rescue, but were striving to ascertain the position of the fishing boat rumored to have effected the rescue.
Tokio newspapers had a virtual field day. Stories speculating about the rumors were given a tremendous play, competing with developments in North China for the most prominent display.
The rest of the story, filed by Paul Brooke, an International News Service correspondent aboard the carrier USS Lexington, is an update on the carrier group’s ocean search for the Earhart plane, suspended July 19 after 262,000 square miles of ocean was searched by Navy and Coast Guard ships. Only one other researcher has ever told me he has a copy of this story in an American newspaper from July 1937; obviously very few U.S. newspapers ran it.
Woody has been focused on the Earhart saga since 1998, and has a fascinating family connection, beginning with his grandfather, a career Marine officer who graduated from the University of Kansas in 1909. “After serving with the 1st Marine Division in France during World War I, he took a year of international Law at the Sorbonne,” Woody wrote in an email. “He was also the Judge Advocate General for the Eastern Seaboard from 1916-1936, an ONI agent for his entire career and an aerial photo reconnaissance specialist. He was moved to Hawaii in early 1936 as the XO [executive officer] of the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor. Comments made by my father over the years, also a career marine, test pilot and accident investigator led me to believe my grandfather was transferred there to be in charge of security for Earhart’s flight. That was the beginning of my obsession with the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance.”
Like most ruled by logic, reason and respect for facts, Woody is convinced Amelia and Fred died on Saipan, but he believes the Earhart Electra is buried on Taroa, an island on Maloelap Atoll in the Marshalls about 185 miles from Mili Atoll, and the site of a major Japanese airfield during the war. He plans to return to Taroa for a fourth time after he raises the money he needs for a ground-penetrating-radar search, and is seeking a financial backer. Woody is on Facebook and invites comments. I wish him luck, but don’t believe the Electra is on Taroa. The sooner he crosses this idea off his list, however, the sooner he will come to fully support the Saipan truth.
The Japanese fishing boat pickup of Earhart and Noonan is a common thread in the Marshallese saga of the American fliers for a very good reason, but what transpired between the fliers’ July 2 landing and their pickup by the Japanese at an as yet unknown date is largely still unknown.
Through Vincent V. Loomis Tokyo 1981 research in Tokyo, which was later supported by Fukiko Aoki, we know that the Japanese survey ship Koshu was anchored in Ponape on July 2, 1937, was underway for Jaluit on July 9, arrived on July 13 and “the next day steamed out of Jaluit for Mili Mili, where it picked up both the Electra and its crew,” Loomis wrote. We also know that Koshu returned to Jaluit on July 19 (see pages 157-158 of Truth at Last.)
Marshallese eyewitnesses John Heine and Tokyo have told investigators about seeing a silver airplane on a barge in different locations, and many others knew of it. In 1997 the elderly Robert Reimers, then 88 and the most powerful man in the Marshalls, told Bill Prymak, “It was widely known throughout the islands by both Japanese and Marshallese that a Japanese fishing boat first found them and their airplane near Mili.” (see Truth at Last pages 173-174).
Thus it seems clear that the July 13 reports of the “fishing boat pickup” of Earhart and Noonan involve another, unnamed and unidentified vessel, and that the Koshu could not have been the fishing boat alluded to in the July 13 stories. Unfortunately, we have no account from any eyewitness or even hearsay witness that indicates the identity of this vessel, what the fliers were doing or where precisely they were, between the time of their Mili landfall and the unknown time of their pickup.
Once again, even as it seems the big picture in the Earhart disappearance is coming into better focus, the process of actually “getting a visual,” so to speak, on what really happened continues to elude us, as many nagging smaller mysteries present themselves without hinting at easy or quick solution.
Earhart researchers Dick Spink and Les Kinney, who led a search team sponsored by Parker Aerospace, returned from Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands Jan. 30 after spending five days combing the tiny Endriken Islands near Barre Island with high-tech equipment including ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors.
Although no one has made any more claims that “concrete proof” or a “Holy Grail” has been found, they didn’t return empty-handed, either, and some of the artifacts appear to have serious potential.
“Wow, what a trip!” Spink wrote in an email Feb. 3. “Two of the pieces we found are very consistent with what I found on my first couple expeditions to Mili. One piece in particular is some type of identification plate that is consistent in size with that of a Lockheed airframe tag. There is no way of knowing this until we get it to the lab, but you can tell it was some type of ID tag.
“Something important to note,” Spink continued, “is that all of the aluminum pieces we found were in a direct line between where [I believe] the [Earhart] plane came to rest and the location of where the plane was loaded onto the shallow draft barge. Very interesting indeed, and the foundation of this story is becoming more solid.”
Readers unfamiliar with the full background on this story and the new search at Mili for parts of Amelia Earhart’s Electra can find details in my three earlier posts, Yahoo! News announces new search for Electra parts, “Recent find on Mili Atoll called “Concrete proof” and “Update to Recent find on Mili story.”
“We found six small artifacts that could or could not have come from the Electra,” Kinney wrote in a Jan. 29 email. “We also found a couple of small unidentified pieces of aluminum, and a round one inch diameter rusted magnet. Most of this stuff was buried — all except one piece were found by metal detectors.”
Kinney urged caution about making any premature announcements until thorough testing can be done. He will coordinate the tests, financed by Parker Aerospace and conducted as soon as possible. None of the tests will likely provide absolute proof that an artifact came from the Earhart plane, but Kinney, Spink and antique aircraft Jim Hayton all believe the aluminum plate and airwheel dust cover found by Spink in previous trips to the Endrikens were probably from the Electra.
Kinney also interviewed some native Marshallese he called “knowledgeable locals” in the Mili Atoll area, and says he “confirmed there were no aircraft wrecks on any of the nearby islands stretching out for at least ten miles” during or before the war years, with only one exception. This supports his earlier research, and makes the possibilities even stronger that one or more of the artifacts’ came from the Earhart plane.
“We also got some Japanese aircraft samples we picked up on Mili Island to compare the aluminum we got from our island,” Kinney wrote, adding that “everything has been cleared by the Marshallese government. I wrote up a release and the President signed it as well as the Historic Preservation Office Manager. Everything is legal.”
As is usually been the case when Earhart searches are undertaken by TIGHAR, Nauticos and others, the media has enthusiastically informed the public about the great adventure. These same news agencies have almost invariably failed to publish follow-ups when the searches fail to deliver. Much the same is the case here, though on a far smaller scale; nothing about the search has been published to date by Yahoo! News or any other media outlet, though Spink says he will be talking to a local newspaper soon, and other possible media exposure may be forthcoming.
Readers of this blog can be sure that this reporter will do all that he can to keep them informed about any news in what might be properly called “the postmodern” search for Amelia Earhart.