Did Amelia etch her name in prison cell food door?

Whenever the discussion turns to the subject of the possible existence of “hard evidence” of Amelia Earhart’s presence on Saipan or the Marshall Islands, the metal door from the Garapan prison (or jail) with the provocative etching that suggests Amelia Earhart herself was the author is often mentioned.

In With Our Own Eyes: Eyewitnesses to the Final Days of Amelia Earhart (2002), written with much help from Thomas E. Devine, we introduce a fascinating object that captured the imagination of Earhart fans, at least for a time. Since this potential evidence, if confirmed as legitimate, would have placed Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan, the public was never informed about it by our trusted media.

In May 1994, Deanna Mick, of Arlington, Kansas, contacted Devine about an artifact that had recently come into her possession. Deanna and her husband had established an air charter service at Saipan’s International Airport in 1978, flying the neighboring islands in a single-engine 180 Cessna.

When they decided to return to the United States several years later, a former employee and one of their best friends, Ramon San Nicholas, presented her with a small steel door, 7-by-8 inches and about a quarter-inch thick, with broken hinges on one side and a hasp on the other. On one side of the door is this inscription:

July 29 1937                                                                                                                                                                                                           A. Earhart

The 7-by 8-inch steel door through which food may have been passed to Amelia Earhart while she was held prisoner in Garapan Prison, Saipan, in 1937. Thomas E. Devine observed this door and various inscriptions on the prison wall during the American invasion of Saipan in 1944. The door was retrieved by a native islander on Saipan, and is now in the possession of Deanna Mick, a pilot who co-owned an inter-island charter service from Saipan. (Photo courtesy of Deanna Mick, circa 1994.)
The 7-by 8-inch steel door through which food may have been passed to Amelia Earhart while she was held prisoner in Garapan Prison, Saipan, in 1937. Thomas E. Devine observed this door and various inscriptions on the prison wall during the American invasion of Saipan in 1944. The door was retrieved by a native islander on Saipan, and is now in the possession of Deanna Mick, a pilot who co-owned an inter-island charter service from Saipan. (Photo courtesy of Deanna Mick, circa 1994.)

“Ramon said the door came from the Japanese prison on Saipan, and that it was used to pass food and other articles to and from the cell,” Mick wrote, and enclosed a photograph of the door. In a subsequent letter she told Devine that Ramon died in 1986, and that she had no idea when the door was taken from the jail.

Ramon felt Deanna should have the door, Mick recalled, since she was the only woman pilot to fly the Marianas since Amelia Earhart. Ramon said he received it from a cousin on Saipan, who was positive Earhart was in the Garapan jail during the time indicated on the door, and that the etching came from her own hand.

Devine wrote to Mick, asking permission to conduct tests to determine when this inscription was made on the door. After his second letter, Mick responded, saying she would like to certify that the door came from the Garapan jail on Saipan, but she was not interested in giving up the door at that time. She enclosed a sheet of paper with a pencil tracing of the door, telling Devine, “The hinges are broken off and if the other part of the broken hinges are still on the cell at Saipan, which they could very well be, it would certify its authenticity.”

Devine believed the inscription may be authentic, and offered to pay Mrs. Mick for temporary custody of it. He would then have tests made to establish the approximate date of the inscription. When the tests were completed, he would return the door. “If a forensic test establishes an approximate date coinciding with the year of the Earhart disappearance, and with Mrs. Mick’s permission, I shall then compare this small door with the opening in the bars of the jail cell I had entered in 1944,” Devine wrote.

Mick told Devine she was leery of writing to anyone on Saipan about the door or of taking it to Saipan herself. “I am afraid the information could fall into the wrong hands and the door possibly confiscated — or worse,” she wrote. “Simply put, I don’t know anybody on Saipan at this time I would trust. Especially not the government.”

This is the inside of the cell at Saipan's old Garapan prison that is said to have been occupied by Amelia Earhart. Former Marine and Saipan veteran Henry Duda took it during his visit to Saipan for the 50th anniversary of the historic 1944 Battle of Saipan. Note the larger square area at the bottom center of the barred window, which is where the food door was located.
The inside of the cell at Saipan’s old Garapan prison that is said to have been occupied by Amelia Earhart. Former Marine and Saipan veteran Henry Duda took it during his visit to Saipan for the 50th anniversary of the historic 1944 Battle of Saipan. Note the larger square area at the bottom center of the barred window, which is where the food door was located.

In an undated letter than appeared in the November 1997 edition of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, Mick described the basic history of the door, much as she had with Devine. She also sent Prymak a tracing of the artifact, and urged him to “send the picture to your man on Saipan. I would be interested to know if there is even a possibility of a match on Garapan.”

In the same November 1997 AES Newsletter, Prymak reported that AES member Bill Stewart, who resided on Saipan, “was given exact dimensions of the pass door, and a personal visit by Stewart to the GARAPAN PRISON confirms the size; it fits perfectly!”

The  door and its inscription prompted Devine to recall other details of his visit to the Garapan jail in 1944, further increasing the probability of the door’s authenticity. “I must report this,” even though I may be called a storyteller, or my veracity may be impugned,” Devine wrote in his unpublished manuscript, “The Concealed Grave of Amelia Earhart,” circa spring 1995.

On many occasions I have glanced at the photo of the door submitted by Deanna Mick. It has stirred my memory, and I do recall a door of that type on the bars of the cell that I had entered. As I lifted myself from the depth of the jail-cell floor, and grasped the swinging iron gate, I observed a few dark numbers on the dark metal opening. I believe this may be a coincidence, therefore I am seeking through Deanna Mick the names, addresses and any information that may ascertain that this may have been retrieved from the same cell.

“If this can be verified,’ Devine continued, “I am willing to visit the cellblock on Saipan to certify the door hinge matches the opening of the cell. This would establish another certainty: that Amelia Earhart was imprisoned in a filthy unsanitary cell on the island of Saipan.”

The smaller of the two Garapan prison cellblocks, often reserved for “special” prisoners and females, according to some reports, where several witnesses reported that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were held after their arrival on Saipan in July 1937. (Courtesy Tony Gochar.)
The smaller of the two Garapan prison cellblocks, often reserved for “special” prisoners and females, according to some reports. Several witnesses reported that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were held in this building after their arrival on Saipan sometime in the summer of 1937. (Courtesy Tony Gochar.)

The food door evoked another revelation by Devine concerning his 1944 visit to the Garapan jail, another piece of the puzzle he kept to himself, hoping that someday he might testify before Congress in a investigation aimed at getting to the truth in the Earhart case.  Devine’s recollection continues:

Since Deanna Mick has brought forth her artifact, perhaps I should no longer withhold what I had observed in the first cell from where we had entered the prison block, while investigating the pungent odor in 1944.

In 1944, after having climbed up to the walkway of the cellblock with the pungent odor, I looked into the first cell and was very surprised at the depth of the cell, perhaps six feet down from the walkway. Facing directly into the cell, and about two feet from the dirt floor, were two letters on the wall.

They were not Japanese letters, but they were English letters, an F and an N. They were very bright red, which I thought may have been paint. But where would a prisoner get paint? Since this was a Japanese prison, the English letters seemed out of place. If the letters had been placed there by a serviceman, he would usually include his rank, except of course when it was designated that “Kilroy was here.”

Deanna Mick

      Deanna Mick

In 1944 I was fully aware of the presence of Amelia Earhart’s airplane on the island of Saipan, and assumed this incident was a top government matter and none of my business whatsoever. I never for a moment thought that Amelia Earhart had been a prisoner of the Japanese, and the name of her navigator had been relegated to secondary publication over a period of years. I never for a moment connected the letters “F N” to Fred Noonan, in 1944.

Since I did not go down into this cell, I am unaware of any additional lettering that may have been placed upon the wall below the iron grating, unseen by the Japanese guards. It is quite possible that the lettering may have been blood, sustained by an injury, or it may have been a finger rubbing against the wall to induce bleeding. Rain would produce a dripping effect, and over a period of time perhaps eliminate the letters. That is, if it were blood. At any rate, the letters appeared to be finger width, and about four inches high.

Of course the investigation that Devine dearly hoped would shine the spotlight on his extraordinary experiences on Saipan never happened, and is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, or anyone’s lifetimes, for that matter, barring some kind of a miraculous intervention.  That’s the view from here, anyway.

As for the metal door, though it remains a unique curiosity, there’s no way to determine who actually did the etching, or even when it was done. “Whether Amelia did the etching or someone sympathetic to her plight,” Mick wrote to Prymak circa 1997, “I would have no way of knowing, nor do I think does anyone else.”

In a recent e-mail,  Mick said there’s “nothing new for me to add to the information you already have about the door. It is such a unique item though and keeps us asking, ‘What if?'”  

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13 responses

  1. Another great article written by *Mike Campbell and more insight into Amelia’s imprisonment on Saipan. As we can clearly see, this old, metal door has writing on it, and appears to be Amelia’s name and the day it was written. We know Amelia went missing July 2, 1937 and the date on this door plate is July 19, 1937. So this would be the 17th day of her gone missing, a period of over 2 weeks.

    If anyone of us were put into a cement cell alone, such as this one, we would be inclined to do something. Writing would give us a chance to say something, explain ourselves, and a cry for HELP. Viewing this photo and reading this article certainly puts things into Amelia’s perspective.

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  2. This looks like a “smoking gun” to me!!!!….I wonder if the etchings can be verified to determine if in fact they are over 78 years old and if the lettering can somehow be matched to a handwriting sample of AE….how clever of AE to inscribe this on a lower door that would be overlooked by her prison guards.

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  3. Mike, your blog posts are better than watching mystery movies! This is very cool info! I am wondering what AE would have used to scratch these letters on that metal door? Surely the guards made sure she had nothing sharp that might be used as a weapon? A simple nail would have sufficed, but could she have found one in the cell? I doubt they gave her flatware of any kind, not even chopsticks, with her food. (Ugh – cannot imagine what they gave her to eat) I guess she could have pulled a metallic button or something similar off her clothing and used that.

    And didn’t you or someone here say that the guards forbade writing on the walls? I wonder how they failed to notice she had scratched something on this door? Maybe they would have had to be looking at the door from inside the cell to see it – but why wouldn’t they have removed it after she died? Do you think it went unnoticed all that time?

    Fascinating new tidbit – thanks, Mike!!!

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  4. Dear Mike, thank god for your efforts to get to the truth, some day it will come out and I just hope were still alive to see it. Our Government makes the Nazis look like Girl Scouts. Why is the floor of the prison as much as 6 feet below grade? If AE and FN were there could there be some form of DNA still in the ground or on the walls? Or is that why it’s below grade because it’s been excavated in an effort to remove any trace?

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    1. Gordon,
      Thanks for your very nice words. Another reader also brought up the DNA question, but after nearly 80 years any DNA that Amelia might have left would either be contaminated or destroyed by now. And how would one isolate her DNA to the exclusion of the hundreds of other prisoners that were held in that prison. We can only guess at which cell she was in, based on various accounts from witnesses. DNA analysis is way out of the question in this case, Gordon.

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  5. Mike,

    This is just another of the many, many pieces of evidence that continue to surface and prove that AE and FN lived and died on Saipan, and certainly NOT Nikumororo (freckle cream remover jar, indeed!).

    Thank you for continuing the fight and continuing to publish these items as they arise.

    You are the ONLY bright shining light that keeps the spotlight on Amelia Earhart’s legacy in an otherwise dark mainstream media, a media that continues to ballyhoo the “findings” of charlatans.

    Do NOT give up, Mike.

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  6. She went missing that date. She did not arrive at the prison that date. Prisoners would not be allowed anything sharp. Defacing metal like that? No halfway intelligent person would do such a thing at that time. The door was removed and etched by a treasure hunter after the fact.
    Flooring was actually taught woven bamboo 6 ft over the ground. It may be difficult to envision, but try to imagine how pristine and spotless that prison was when newly built. Japanese were fastidiously clean people even then.

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    1. No Judy, she did not go missing on July 29, 1937, the date etched into the door. She went missing on July 2, 1937. Other circumstances, including the scenario you suggest, do make it unlikely that the etching was done by Amelia. Moreover, no such claim was made here, but the artifact is presented merely as an interesting curiosity.
      Mike

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  7. I’m having second thoughts about this door, too…..for example, it looks like the etchings are made on the “outside” of the door, which would face OUT, which would make it impossible for AE to scratch on….notice where the hinges are and the “closing latch”….this door looks like a perfect OUTSIDE fit…which opens/closes from right to left…and notice the hinges….if the hinges “fit” into “grooves” on the left then it is mostly like an outside door in which case it would have been impossible for AE to do carvings on the outside. If the hinges fit into old grooves on the “right” (on the inside of the frame door), then it is possible AE could have done these etchings….but just my thoughts and opinions…what do I know….I’m no expert.

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  8. Thank you for clarifying the date. Yes, interesting and curious.
    Sandy, I like how you think.

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  9. I have looked at the picture of the door and recent pictures I took on a trip to Saipan. I agree with the comments by Sandy.

    I have reviewed the pictures I took of the Garapan Jail on my recent trip to try and determine if the door might be from the jail. I have concerns which I will try to explain.

    From the various pictures I took of the cells it appears all had a similar construction with a bar frame next to the cell entry. This bar frame had a small square at the bottom right which appears to be a place where food could be passed to the prisoner. Unfortunately I did not take a clear picture of the front of the cell where Earhart was most likely kept.

    However, all of the square places on the front of the cells appear to be constructed so any cell food door would open outward. I don’t think a jail would allow a prisoner to be able to control the opening and closing of the small entry way by having the door open inward.
    The problem this presents with the door in the picture is the manner of attaching the door to the frame of the cell. Based on the placement of the hinges on the left side of the picture, the door would open outward from the cell.

    The side of the door with the writing on it would then be on the outside of the door. It is still a possibility that someone etched the name and date to identify Earhart. I don’t think it is likely that she could have etched the name and date due to that side of the door facing outward from the cell.

    Another concern with the door in the picture is the hasp on the right side with the opening for a latch to lock the door. I have looked at the various pictures I have and do not see a place for this part of the door on the frame. As I have said all of the cells have a similar frame in the front. I should also note I did not see any cells that still had a small door attached for this part of the frame.

    I realize that none of this offers an explanation of what the door might be. My opinion is that is does not appear to be a door which was attached to the cells in the Garapan Jail.

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  10. I was at the jai today. And yesterday. I am staying less than a mile from there. The hinges are on the outside of the food door. Which would put the writing on the cell side of the door. For what it’s worth.

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  11. Anon in England | Reply

    What did she scratch her name with? Have you ever tried to scratch text into steel? That’s no ‘prisoner using a nail’ effort!

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