Returning to the roots of the search for Amelia: Josephine Blanco Akiyama’s eyewitness account
Occasionally it behooves us, as students and enthusiasts of the Earhart saga, to return to the very roots of the matter, and to re-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 present 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. (Italic emphasis in original, boldface emphasis is mine throughout.)
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.
“I Saw Amelia Earhart Crash on Saipan”
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. Casimir 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 most 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 souls 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.
Marshalls stamps reflect Earhart’s Mili landing
Anyone familiar with the Earhart saga knows that in 1987 the Republic of the Marshall Islands issued a set of four commemorative stamps and envelope covers in honor of the 50th anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s crash-landing off Barre Island, in the northwest section of Mili Atoll, on July 2, 1937.
The story depicted in the stamps is based largely on the narrative in Vincent V. Loomis’ 1983 book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story, though not all of it can be considered accurate. For example, no evidence exists to support the idea presented by the authors of the one-page information sheet issued with the stamps that the fliers were taken from Jaluit to Truk, and then to Saipan. On the contrary, we have plenty of witness testimony that Earhart and Noonan were taken from Jaluit to Kwajalein, and then to Saipan.
Likewise, the statement that Earhart and Noonan, once realizing they were lost, “implemented their contingency plan and turned into a WNW course for the Gilberts,” and eventually found themselves at Mili Atoll, is speculation. Though this could have happened, we simply do not know precisely how Earhart and Noonan reached and landed off Barre Island, only that they did indeed do so.
Shortly after publication of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, in the summer of 2012, Frank Benjamin, an Earhart researcher and educator who was teaching at Anne Arundal Community College, in Arnold, Md., sent me the syllabus for his course, “Mysteries of History and Science.”
The Earhart disappearance was the featured event in “Mysteries of History and Science,” and Truth at Last was the only book named in the syllabus. To my knowledge, this was the first and only time this book has been the textbook for a college course, thanks to Benjamin. College historians, like virtually all historians, are notoriously and unanimously opposed to the truth in the Earhart disappearance. So much for truth in academia.
Among the materials Frank sent me was the original information sheet that described the creation of the 1987 Marshall Islands stamps and covers, issued by the Marshall Islands Philatelic Bureau. Below, for both the discerning collector and the slightly interested, is the header of the sheet’s contents, followed by its accompanying narrative.
The disappearance of American aviatrix Amelia Earhart during her around-the-world flight attempt in 1937 has been one of aviation’s great unsolved mysteries. Recent investigations by Vincent Looms and David Kabua (son of Marshalls President Amata Kabua) have led to eyewitness accounts of what happened to Earhart and her navigator Frederick Noonan. This issue is based on those accounts.
The Amelia Earhart commemorative is the Marshall Islands CAPEX ’87 issue, released concurrently at Majuro, capital of the Marshalls, and Toronto, Canada. Earhart tended wounded soldiers in a Toronto hospital during World War I, and her first brush with the excitement of aviation came at the Toronto Aero Club Fete of 1918.
Her associations with Canada continued: her 1928 flight, in which she was the first woman to fly the Atlantic, went from Boston, MA, Halifax, NS, and Trepassey, NWF to Carmarthen Bay, Wales; her flight of 1932, when she became the first woman to solo the Atlantic, was routed from Teterboro, NJ to St. John, NB, to harbor Grace, NWF and on to Culmore, Ireland.
At 10 a.m. on July 2, 1937, Earhart’s Electra took off from the Cliffside runway at Lae, New Guinea bound for Howland Island, via the Nikumanus and Nauru; if she reached it all right, the remaining legs to Hawaii and California would be easy. A Guinea Airways pilot [probably Jim Collopy], who saw her takeoff, commented that the craft was so overloaded that it dropped off the end of the runway and wet its props in the Gulf of Huon before Earhart could get to flying speed.
Awaiting her on Howland Island, 2500 [actually 2,556] miles away, was the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, equipped with the latest navigation and communication devices. Commander Warner K. Thompson had search lights aimed skyward all night as a beacon; with the dawn, the Itasca began burning bunker oil, which put out a black plume visible for thirty miles around. An experimental Navy direction-finding unit (DF) was set on Howland itself, and officers also scanned the skies with binoculars.
All through the night and the next morning, radio operators struggled to establish two-way communications with the Electra. Earhart’s transmissions would drift in and out, but she seemed unable to understand messages the Coast Guardsmen were sending, and she never stayed on the air long enough for them to fix her position. Each succeeding broadcast seemed more desperate and confused, until, two hours after sunrise locally, her last message: “We are on the line of position 157-337. We are running north and south.” Then, fifty years of silence.
Thinking they were south of Howland Island, but unable to find it, Earhart and Noonan implemented their contingency plan and turned into a WNW course for the Gilberts. However, since they were north of Howland, their new course carried them directly over Mili Atoll, most southeasterly of the Japanese-held Marshall Islands.
Two Mili fishermen on Barre Island, Lijon and Jororo Alibar, saw a silver plane approach and crash-land on the nearby reef, breaking off part of its right wing. The two Marshallese hid in the underbrush and watched as two white people exited the wreck and came ashore in a yellow raft. A little while later Japanese soldiers arrived to take hold of the fliers. When the shorter flier screamed, the Marshallese realized one was a woman. They remained hidden until long after the captives were taken away.
The Japanese Navy Survey Ship Koshu was sent from Ponape to Barre Island to pick up Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. The canvas sling the Koshu normally used for plucking Japanese seaplanes from the water was still around the big silver bird when the ship returned to Jaluit on July 19, where Japanese Medical Corpsman Bilimon Amaran [sic], who treated Noonan’s crash injuries, boarded the ship and saw Earhart.
The Koshu then sailed immediately for Truk, where Earhart and Noonan were taken aboard a flying boat to Saipan, the Japanese military headquarters in the Pacific. Saipanese Josephine Blanco witnesses the Japanese plane land in Tanapag Harbor, and she was taken by her brother-in-law, a Japanese working at the base, to see the Americans.
Earhart and Noonan were considered spies by the Japanese and so were held on Saipan for questioning. Their fate remains unknown.
This stamp [sic] is based in Amelia Earhart: The Final Story, by Vincent Loomis.
It was designed by William R. Hansen, Lunar Artist-Apollo 16, who also designed the CPAEX cancel and cachet and wrote this panel. The House of Questa printed the issue to the standard commemorative specifications.
I should not have to mention that Loomis was not alone in his findings that revealed the presence of the lost fliers at Mili Atoll in early July 1937. The investigations of other authors and researchers, including Fred Goerner, Oliver Knaggs, Bill Prymak and most recently Dick Spink and Les Kinney have strongly corroborated the truth depicted in the 1987 commemorative stamps issued by the Republic of the Marshall Islands. But what has always been accepted as fact by the Marshallese people continues to be denied by the U.S. government and falsely labeled a “mystery,” while virtually nobody ever questions or challenges one of the greatest lies in American history.