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.
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?
AES: That 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?
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.
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.