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 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 offer 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.

This is the story that appeared in the San Mateo Times' Family Weekly on July 3m 1960, the paper's Sunday edition.

This is the story that appeared in the San Mateo Times’ Family Weekly on July 3, 1960, the newspaper’s Sunday edition.

Without further background already available in several other posts on this blog, the following story, bylined “Mrs. Josephine Blanco Akiyama” appeared in Family Weeklythe July 3, 1960 Sunday magazine of the San Mateo Times, and begins with the following introduction:

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.

Josephine’s San Mateo Times account:

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.

Josephine Blanco circa 1960. Few photos of Josephine are available. She never sought fame, money or publicity for sharing her momentous story with Paul Briand Jr, the San Mateo Timeattention for

Josephine Blanco, circa late 1940s. She never sought fame, money or attention for sharing her momentous story with Paul Briand Jr., Linwood Day, the San Mateo Times, Fred Goerner and others, and is largely forgotten by all except Earhart devotees. She’s still alive at age 89 in Foster City, Calif.

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.

Dr. Casimir Sheft and Josephine Blanco, far right, Saipan, circa 1946. It was Josephine's childhood memory of seeing Amelia Earhart's arrival at Tanapag Harbor as told to Sheft when she worked for the Navy dentist on Saipan that ignited the true modern search for Amelia Earhart.

Dr. Casimir Sheft and Josephine Blanco, far right, Saipan, circa 1946. It was Josephine’s childhood memory of seeing Amelia Earhart’s arrival at Tanapag Harbor as told to Sheft when she worked for the Navy dentist on Saipan that ignited the true modern search for Amelia Earhart.  (Photo courtesy Mrs. Josephine Blanco Akiyama.)

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. Kasimir 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?”

The quality is grainy, but this is the original photo and caption that appeared in Josephine's Family Weekly story.

The quality is grainy, but this is the original photo and caption that appeared in Josephine’s July 3, 1960 Family Weekly story.

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 more 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 truth seekers 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.

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9 responses

  1. Mike, how do you make sense of this witness saying the plane crashed just off Saipan? What I mean is: her details sound much like the details of the story related by the Mili natives (Alibars), but the locations are completely different. My hunch is that she became familiar with the Alibars’ details and eventually took them as her own, but changed the setting to Saipan? If this is the case, why would someone do this? For the attention? Like a fishing yarn? These minor inconsistencies – seems to me – are part of the ammunition many use to blow the entire account out of the water.

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    1. Wolfy,

      Your question is a good one, and I didn’t even begin to get into the various discrepancies between the many Saipan witness accounts. It’s quite possible, as Amelia Earhart Lives author Joe Klaas once suggested, that the plane was a Japanese “land-based” plane that got into trouble and crash-landed on the beach near Tanapag Harbor. We simply don’t know; many believe it was a seaplane that Josephine, as an 11-year-old, didn’t yet understand was landing in the harbor. Other Saipan witnesses say the plane was seriously damaged and the props were bent backward on the beach, a disturbing detail that strongly suggests it was a land plane — if the account is accurate.

      As for the similarities of accounts of the plane’s arrival with the Marshalls witnesses, you write, “My hunch is that she became familiar with the Alibars’ details and eventually took them as her own.” Are you, who have been among this blog’s greatest supporters, accusing Josephine of making this story up? In the late 1940s, when she told Navy dentist Casimir Sheft on Saipan about her childhood sighting, basically the same account she gave to Goerner in 1960, she had no way of knowing about Amelia’s Mili Atoll landing. No, Josephine was not doing anything but telling the truth as she knew it. I think there’s absolutely no question about that.

      In Truth at Last, I don’t gloss over the different accounts of the fliers’ Saipan arrival, which are significant. But far more significant is the cold fact of Amelia and Fred Noonan’s Saipan presence and deaths on Saipan at some point after their July 1937 loss.

      Mike

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      1. 😦 I hate to admit to accusing her of a falsehood, Mike – since I have not studied her documentation firsthand, I don’t want to draw any conclusion nor make an accusation. I do admit that the huge overlap among many accounts of witnesses from Saipan to Mili Atoll plus the several divergent details (Saipan vs. Mili, crash vs. landed, life raft or not, hauling the Electra to a waiting ship using something like trollies on rails, etc.) are a little bewildering to me. I know it is not uncommon for people to latch onto a story (tale, yarn, etc.) and retell it, gaining attention, and sometimes they begin to believe it was their own original account. Many times this is innocent enough, unintentional, no desire to reap rewards.

        I lean more towards that they went down on Mili, were taken along with the plane onto a ship, taken to Jaluit etc., Fred’s injuries were treated on board ship, and all three wound up on Saipan. So maybe Josephine saw some other plane come down on Saipan, heard the stories about Earhart growing up, and two stories became one – quite innocently. I figure there is a vital communication circuit among the islanders, similar to the efficient “grapevine” that exists on every Native American reservation.

        More than questioning Josephine’s memory, I meant to say that it is exactly these little discrepancies from one account to another that – I believe – give critics fuel for their rejection of all the accounts.

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      2. Wolfy,

        There is no better documentation of Josephine’s account available than the Family Weekly story of July 3, 1960, and you can see for yourself what she said. The account presented in Briand’s Daughter of the Sky is similar, but is not a direct quote from her. Briand simply related Dr. Sheft’s story as he heard it.

        I’m quite surprised, given your history with this story, that you would say “maybe Josephine saw some other plane come down on Saipan, heard the stories about Earhart growing up, and two stories became one – quite innocently. I figure there is a vital communication circuit among the islanders, similar to the efficient “grapevine” that exists on every Native American reservation.”

        That is precisely the kind of talk the doubters and skeptics offer. There were few Saipanese eyewitnesses to the plane’s arrival, and those who had heard about it said they didn’t see it themselves. Fred Goerner weeded out the eyewitnesses though his use of the Catholic priests as translators. Josephine never changed or waivered in her story that she saw the “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.”

        If we didn’t have so much other evidence, not only of the fliers’ presence but of the Electra from the GIs such as Earskin Nabers, Devine and others, perhaps Josephine’s account could be attacked with more credibility. But the mountain of evidence speaks for itself, and this is not a matter of a false story being spread via a “grapevine.”

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  2. Is there a photo of the newspaper column in the “Family News” section in the San Mateo Times dated 1960 referring to Ms. Akiyana Earhart revelation?

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    1. Yes Lewis, you’re looking at it in the photo displayed in the blog!
      Mike

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  3. Do you suppose they could have taken her and Fred to Saipan in her own plane at that time? When the term “summer” is used on Saipan does that mean there is a real summer and winter contrast? I thought the temperature was about the same year round. Do they actually have “seasons” on Saipan or the Marshalls where people speak of spring and fall? What I am getting at is maybe it was many months after July 1937 when Josephine saw them and perhaps AE’s plane had been repaired by then. Has anybody ever found record of the Japanese ship they loaded her plane on actually docking in Saipan at any specific time?

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    1. It wasn’t only Josephine’s memory of the event happening in the summer, but several others as well. But we also have Marshalls eyewitness John Tobeke who said Mera Phillips cooked and served food to the white woman for three months (p. 168 TAL). I don’t believe AE was there for three months before being taken to Saipan, but it could have been three weeks and still have been remembered by the Saipanese as happening in the summer of 1937.

      No way did they take the fliers to Saipan in the Electra, which by most accounts suffered a broken wing at Mili. The plane was likely taken to Saipan and repaired, because it was seen intact by Devine and others in 1944.

      See p.157 of TAL: “Koshu departed Jaluit on July 19—the date the Japanese government officially ceased its search for Earhart—for Truk and Saipan.” Logs found by Loomis and Fukiko Aoki confirmed Koshu was at Saipan soon after departing Jaluit on July 19, 1937, though I don’t have the hard copy.

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  4. Dear Wolfspecter: Actually there was NO grapevine between Mili Atoll, and Saipan, as A friend of mine who lived on both Majoro(Marshall Island near Mili), and Saipan, told me. He said that his rough estimate was that Mili and Saipan was over 1,500 miles apart, with NO communications to speak of, and especiallly so, since Saipan was a closed society due to the Japanese presence there. Also, the late Bill Prymak noted that it was to much of a coincidence that the tall man with a bandage around his head was seen at both the Marshalls, put there by Bilimon Amaron, and also seen around his head at Saipan. Also the description of his partner was identical: A thin woman with hair cut short like a man, and wearing trousers like a man. Clearly, Blanco Akiama, saw the same two, Earhart and Noonan. Sincerely, Rob Ellos

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