Monthly Archives: August, 2015

Burris’ account among many to put Earhart on Kwaj

The Amelia Earhart-Mili Atoll connection is well known to those familiar with the work of authors and researchers such as Fred Goerner, Vincent V. Loomis, Bill Prymak and Oliver Knaggs, as well as readers of this blog and Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last.

Much less understood is what transpired between the time of Amelia and Fred Noonan’s pickup at one of Mili’s tiny Endriken Islands in July 1937 and their horrible deaths on Saipan on dates still not precisely known.

In “The Marshall Islands Witnesses” chapter of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last is a subsection titled “The Kwajalein Connection.” The following is taken from “The Kwajalein Connection,” and was originally published in the February 1996 edition of Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.

Other compelling stories, unseen in any published books before Truth at Last, will be presented in future posts so that interested readers can connect the dots in the Mili Atoll to Saipan logistical scenario.

ANOTHER GI EXPERIENCE IN THE PACIFIC ISLANDS
By Ted Burris

In 1965 I was working on Kwajalein, in the Marshall Islands. Having been there since 1964, I knew my job well enough to become a bit bored, and cast about for some volunteer work to absorb time and interest.

As it happened, the Aloha Council, Boy Scouts of America out of Honolulu, was looking for a neighborhood commissioner for the islands. I thought I’d try it.

My primary assignment was to introduce Scouting into the Marshall Islands. Kwajalein already had a couple of troops made up of the children of American families working on the island. So I determined to try to establish the program on Ebeye, three islands north of Kwaj, where most of the Marshallese in that part of the atoll lived.

Organizational meetings required my presence on Ebeye sometimes two or three evenings a week. The meetings were usually concluded by nine or shortly after, but I had to wait until 11 o’clock to get the last boat back to Kwaj. My friend and interpreter, Onisimum Chappelle, tried to keep me entertained until the boat got there.

One evening he mentioned that there was an old man there who had a story to tell. This intrigued me because I was interested in the history of the area.

In the course of our conversation, I asked the old man when was the first time he met Americans? “Before the war.” I was surprised, because I knew the Japanese had closed the Marshall Islands to foreigners in the late ’20s. “I don’t understand,” I said. “How long before the war?” “Five years,” he said.

Ebeye Island is the most populous island of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, as well as the center for Marshallese culture in the Ralik Chain of the archipelago. Settled on 80 acres of land, it has a population of more than 15,000.

Ebeye Island is the most populous island of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, as well as the center for Marshallese culture in the Ralik Chain of the archipelago. Settled on 80 acres of land, it has a population of more than 15,000.

“How did you meet Americans before the war?” I asked. “Well, I didn’t exactly meet them,” he said. “But I did bring them in.”

“Bring them in? I don’t understand. What happened?”

“A plane landed on the water,” he said. “A big plane.” “Four motors?” I asked. “No, two.” “Where?” I asked again. “Come. I show you,” he said. The old man walked with us from his house to the eastern shore of Ebeye. We went to the south end of the perimeter road. There stood two A-frame houses with a line of four coconut trees. “You see these trees,” he said. “The plane was exactly in line with them.” “How far out?” I asked. “About a hundred yards from the land,” he said.

I should tell you that, at the lowest tides, the reef there is virtually dry. And the Marshallese consider the reef as part of their ’land-holding’ or ’weito’. In retrospect I was never sure whether the distance was 100 yards from the edge of the island, (i.e. on the edge of the reef), or 100 yards out from the edge of the reef. In the latter case the prevailing currents could have swept the plane south along the reef toward Big Buster before it sank.

“What happened then?” I asked. “Two people got out.  A man and a woman,” he said. “The Captain made me take my boat out and pick them up. I didn’t talk to them.”

“The Captain?” I asked. He answered, “The boss, the Japanese officer. The Captain took them away. I never saw them again. He said they were spies.”

It was time to go for the boat back to Kwaj. I thanked the old man and left.

Frank H. Serafini. circa 1970.Atoll. (Photo courtesy Frank B. Serafini.)

Frank H. Serafini,  circa 1970, at his Kwajalein office.  (Photo courtesy Frank B. Serafini.)

None of this registered with me in particular until a couple of years later when I had moved to another assignment on Roi Namur. The Island Manager there was Frank Serafini. He, too, was something of a history buff. Frank and I had many pleasant chats about the history of the islands. In one of these I mentioned the story the old man had told me.

“So that’s where it came down!” he exclaimed. “That answers it!”

“Answers what?” I said.

“Let me tell you a few things.” Frank went to his desk and took out a letter. “This is from Navy Commander so-and-so.” (I don’t remember the name.) “I’ve been corresponding with him for years.” “Who was he?” I asked.

“He was with Navy Intelligence dining the war, and he was attached to the 4th Marines when they invaded Roi-Namur. He went in with the first wave on Roi. His specific task was to look for any evidence that Amelia Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan, had been there!”

“Why here?” I asked. “Because Roi had the only airfield on the atoll at that time,” Frank said. “If the Japs were going to take them anyplace from Kwajalein Atoll, they had to come through here!”

“Did he find anything?”

“Here, read this letter.  Starting here.” He pointed to a place on the second page. “I was rummaging through a pile of debris in a comer of the burned-out main hanger,” the writer said, “when I came across a blue leatherette map case. It was empty. But it had the letters AE embossed on it in gold leaf! They were here all right!”

“That’s enough,” Frank said. He took the letter back, and that’s the last I saw of it. “What did the Commander do with the mapcase?” I asked. “He said he turned it over to Naval Intelligence. He doesn’t know what happened to it after that,” said Frank.

“Does anybody know about this? Why would they keep such a thing secret?” I wanted to know. “Because even now the Navy’ doesn’t want to admit they had anything to do with spying against the Japanese before the war.” Frank said.

Frank eventually left Roi and went to Saudi Arabia on another project. He and his wife moved to Sun City, Ariz., and may still be there. He also may still have his correspondence from the Commander.

In Kwajalein: From Stonehenge to Star Wars, Ted Burris self-published 2004 book, he poses this question on the cover: "Is this where Amelia Earhart's plane ditched in 1937?" The answer is almost certainly negative, but Burris' account suggests a more complex scenario involving the presence of Amelia Earhart and Fred Goerner at Kwajalein Atoll.

In Kwajalein: From Stonehenge to Star Wars, Ted Burris self-published 2004 book, he poses this question on the cover: “Is this where Amelia Earhart’s plane ditched in 1937?” The answer is almost certainly negative, but Burris’ account suggests a more complex scenario involving the presence of Amelia Earhart and Fred Goerner at Kwajalein Atoll.

I went back to Ebeye to find the old man, but I was told that he had gone back to Likiep, his birthplace, to die. I had wanted to ask him about his “five years before the war” comment. Then it hit me. The old man probably counted the war as starting when the U.S. made their first carrier strike against Kwajalein in late 1942.

I tried to talk the Army into using their recovery submarine to look around the reef; they told me they wouldn’t touch that situation with a ten foot pole, and I should forget it. But — I never have. (End of Ted Burris account.)

The empty “leatherette map case” with the “letters AE embossed on it in gold leaf” reported by the unnamed Navy commander is strangely similar to a “locked diary engraved 10-Year Diary of Amelia Earhart,” discovered by former Marine W.B. Jackson on Namur Island in 1944. Jackson reported his experience o Fred Goerner in 1964, and Goerner presented it in his 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart. Were these different descriptions of the same item?

And what about the twin-engine plane that ““landed on the water . . . about a hundred yards from the land,” as the old man told Ted Burris? Was it Amelia Earhart’s Electra, or an altogether different aircraft? We’ll try to answer this question in future posts.

I was unable to locate Burris, but the Roi-Namur Links page of the The Kwajalein Community Web Site, an impressive local history collection created by local personality Shermie Wiehe offers additional information about Frank H. Serafini, Roi-Namur assistant resident manager during the 1960s and ’70s.

Frank was well known for making Roi-Namur beautiful by planting 100s of  coconut trees,” Shermie wrote.  “He was highly respected by the Roi-Rats for his excellent management of island  life and not forgetting “Shermie & Friends Band” was treated very good by Frank’s Staff during  our trips to entertain the Roi-Rats.  Some of the best memories of performing was at Roi-Namur. Thanks Frank!  Roi-Namur will never be the same.  The days you were managing were the best!”

On the same page, Serafini’s son, Frank B. Serafini, a Shell official living in Egypt, recalled that his father was living in San Antonio, Texas, was in good health at 97, and though he didn’t hear well or use a computer, was otherwise “just the same ol’ guy he always was.”

In a recent email to me, Frank said his father will be 100 in December 2015, and though most of his friends are gone, “It is always a pleasure to hear from anyone who can recall his passion for work on the islands he so deeply cared for.  Us people from the Pacific have an ingrained fascination for the Earhart story.”

I hope others who lived and worked on Kwajalein, where the captured Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were undoubtedly taken by the Japanese military in 1937 on their way to their miserable fates on Saipan, will help keep the truth alive, regardless of its continuing status as a sacred cow, not only in Washington but throughout the U.S. media establishment.

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An interview with Marshalls icon Robert Reimers: “Everyone knew” of AE’s landing, tycoon said

Once again we dip into the archives of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters to present another of  the late Bill Prymak’s invaluable contributions to Earhart research, an interview with the legendary Robert Reimers just a year before his death in 1998.  Without Prymak’s efforts, the voice of this well-known Marshallese entrepreneur would likely never have been heard outside of his beloved islands. The following piece appeared in the May 1997 issue of the AES Newsletters, and is presented for your information and entertainment, as always.

INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT REIMERS by Bill Prymak

The passengers queuing up at the Majuro International Airport for the Air Micronesia flight to Honolulu were getting restless. The flight was already one hour late, there were no seat reservations, the plane was overbooked (as usual) and the terminal was crowded and hot.

Quite inconspicuously, but with obvious authority, an elderly couple (the man deeply tanned and spry), were ushered to the head of the line and escorted to the airplane. Not feeling slighted, but curious, I asked one of the airport security men who the couple was.

With great reverence he whispered, “Why that is our Mr. Robert Reimers, with his wife.”

Robert Reimers, founder, CEO, and genius behind the sprawling Robert Reimers Enterprises, Inc. (RRE as it is known), has hotels, shopping centers, hardware stores, travel agents, and dive boat operations at Majuro. And flung across the vast length and breadth of the Marshall Islands, RRE owns perimeter hotels, fuel depots, stores and nearly every commercial enterprise that exists on the outer atolls and islands. He is number ONE. Even his address: P.O. Box 1, Majuro, Marshall Islands, tells you of his station. 

Robert Reimers, the top businessman in the Marshall Islands in 1991, told Bill Prymak that the Mili Atoll landing of Amelia Earhart in 1937 was common knowledge among his people. Reimers passed away in 1998.

Robert Reimers, the top businessman in the Marshall Islands in 1991, told Bill Prymak that the Mili Atoll landing of Amelia Earhart in 1937 was common knowledge among his people. Reimers passed away in 1998.

This man, I said to myself, has got to be interviewed!!

Once we were aboard and seated on the plane, I was able to finagle Mr. Reimers’ grandson into swapping seats with me, and for the next three hours I had a fascinating insight to one of the most powerful and influential men in the whole Marshall Islands. My interview:

 AES: Mr. Reimers, we just came back from Jaluit . . . do you personally know much about the Island?

 REIMERS: Bill, I was born at Jabor (Ed. Note: main island and town at Jaluit Atoll), in 1909, and was raised there until 1935, when our family moved to Likiep Atoll. Tourists never visit Jaluit; what made you go there?

AES: Some of my group had been there before. We wanted to see the children again, and we were looking for additional information on Amelia Earhart.

REIMERS:  Ah, yes, the Earhart woman . . . why are you Americans still looking for her and her airplane?

AES:  Mr. Reimers, she has never been found, and her sister, still living, and other family have been searching for so many years . . . they deserve to know.

REIMERS: Ah yes, family.  I know family very well; do you know I have eleven children and sixty-seven grandkids?

AESThat is remarkable. We have observed that family ties are very strong in the outer islands. Can you tell me some of your experiences with the Japanese before Word War II?

REIMERS: The Germans had made Jaluit their commercial headquarters before WWI, but you’re not interested in events that far back. When the Japanese Navy kicked out the Germans, they sealed the (Marshall) Islands to all foreigners. Those very few Americans and other foreign nationals that did sneak under the curtain were shown only what the Japanese wanted them to see, and that was very little. About 1930, I had established myself with the Japanese as a responsible trader, and I did much commerce with them right up until and through WWII. I even supplied them with construction materials and local labor for their island projects.

AES: In what kind of “projects” were you involved?

REIMERS: Well, before 1935, it was mainly commercial and communication facilities: harbor dredging; wharves; docks; hospitals; and big, tall radio towers. But after 1935, the Japanese began some military projects like the airfields at Wotje and Maloelap. I had a good business relationship with them. But after 1936, they began bringing in foreign construction laborers, and conditions got worse for my local people.

AES: When did construction work begin at Emidj?

In June of 1946 Dr. Leonard Mason snapped this shot of Robert Reimers standing on the stern of an outrigger canoe with two friends as they sailed across the lagoon, probably at Kwajalein.

In June of 1946 Dr. Leonard Mason snapped this shot of Robert Reimers standing on the stern of an outrigger canoe with two friends as they sailed across the lagoon, probably at Kwajalein.

REIMERS: Emidj was a very secret place, and even my local people had little access to this area. I was one of the few Marshallese allowed in because I delivered construction materials regularly.  Jabor docks were built in 1936, and the seaplane ramps and docks for the naval base at Emidj were started about the same time. My shipping records were all taken by the Japanese when the great war started, but I am sure of the dates I just mentioned. Military construction projects at Mili did not start until 1940.

AES: What hospital facilities were available in 1937 at Jaluit?

REIMERS: The Japanese converted the old German hospital at Jabor to a very small medical facility, and at Emidj they built a hospital because so many workers, mostly Korean, were there working on the concrete phase of the seaplane naval base.

******************************

A meal break was taken at this point, so I had time to reflect on what he had stated so far. Mr. Reimers has a remarkable memory, and perfect command of the English language. At first glance, and after listening to him, you’d swear he was only sixty or so. His wife, hearing the conversation but not participating, obviously understood every word, with her smiles, nods, and concurrence to her husband’s words. Without any doubt, this man was telling it as it indeed happened. When everyone finished their meal, we continued:

AES: Many of your people that we interviewed at Jabor and Emidj, notably the elders, speak of the brutality of the Japanese against your people during the war years. They described how for the theft of a coconut, a head was severed . . . how Emidj became the execution center for both Allied prisoners of war, and the local population. Can you comment on this tragic chapter in your country’s history?

REIMERS: Remember, Mr. Bill, I called Likiep Atoll my home during the war period, but I was conscripted by the Japanese military to continue my supply lines of materials to their many island bases. And some of my travels took me back to Jabor. Emidj was very secretive, but the stories you hear today from the elders ring true. I must add that towards the end of the war, when things were going badly for the Japanese, my people feared for their lives, and fled to unoccupied islands to escape what they expected as mass slaughter for those who stayed. These times were very bad for the Marshallese . . . the elders remember as I do.

AES: In July of 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator disappeared, and the Western world did not hear from them again. Can you help me, and her family, with any information you may have regarding the possibility of her being down in your islands?

REIMERS:  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. They then transferred them to a bigger boat. They were brought to Jabor, where Bilimon [Amaron] treated them. Oscar deBrum, and the Carl Heine family (including the boys), were living there and knew of this. They were then taken to Kwajalein and from there to Truk and then Saipan. There was no mystery . . . everybody knew it!

AES: But Mr. Reimers, the Japanese strongly denied seeing the two American aviators. They even sent airplanes and ships out to search for her. How can this be?

REIMERS: Even in 1937, an intrusion in these islands was a very serious offense. And in the case of Earhart, a woman pilot, great cover and secrecy was placed upon them by the Japanese. But, of course, these are our islands. And my people — even in their fear — proved very resourceful knowing about such things.

AES: Did you personally know Bilimon, and the Heine family?

REIMERS: I knew Bilimon very well, and rest easy if you worry about his story of treating the two Americans. You will never fmd a more honest man. You know, of course, he died last year. He was a good man. And the Heine family . . .  John and Dwight’s parents were executed during the war. I grew up with them, and they were the finest missionary people I had ever met. John and Dwight knew about the Americans, but would never talk much.

Bill Prymak and Joe Gervais pause with the iconic Earhart eyewitness Bilimon Amaron at Amaron's Majuro home in 1991.

Bill Prymak and Joe Gervais pause with the famed Earhart eyewitness Bilimon Amaron at Amaron’s Majuro home in 1991.

AES: Researchers like Joe Gervais, sitting across the aisle, have visited your islands several times. Even as far back as 1960, he made several trips to SAIPAN where he met the same curtain of silence. Do the natives not care, or are they still fearful of the Japanese?

REIMERS: It is difficult for Americans to understand the fright and fear of my people during the war. At any moment the Japanese could come smashing into your house and take away any possession you may have, and then march you off to prison—or even worse. After the war, these fears did not die easily. There are some old timers who still think the Japanese might come back. It would not be wise to discuss things deemed secret during the great war. People saw so much killing, they may say, “Why the big fuss over one lady flyer? We saw thousands die!”

AES: Ah, but Amelia was special to the American people.

******************************

I could hear the 727’s engines power back for descent, and Mr. Reimers’ eyes told me the interview was concluded. After expressing my deepest gratitude, I wished him well, and told him our group would come back again to his Islands.

“Don’t forget,” he chided with a parting smile, “call me, and I’ll  find the right boat you. Maybe one of mine will do the job. Good Luck! Find your Amelia.”

POSTMORTEM THOUGHTS:  Three hours with Mr. Reimers certainly taught me a great deal more about the man and his country than the above highlights reveal. Here was a man of intense pride, unquestioned integrity, and now in his mid-eighties, a very private person. I kept imagining what it would be like, to be at his side in the mid-thirties, sailing with his men and boats between the islands, dealing with the Japanese as they prepared for their inevitable confrontation with America. Couldn’t we magically just once turn that clock back, only for a day, to be with Bilimon that summer morning in Jabor, 1937, and truly see the cast of characters that played out that historic event? Oh, my kingdom for a camera, and all I ask for is only one photograph. (End of Prymak article.)

Robert Reimers died on Sept. 27, 1998; his wife Lupe followed on July 23, 2000. They are survived by seven children: Richard (Kietel), Francis (Teruo), Vincent, Ramsey, Minna, Ronnie and Reico; and hundreds of grand-, greatgrand and great-greatgrandchildren. For more information on the life of Robert Reimers, please click here. 

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