Joe Klaas, a popular figure in the Earhart research community and author of the controversial 1970 book Amelia Earhart Lives: A trip through intrigue to find America’s first lady of mystery, died at his home Feb. 25 at the age of 95. Klaas, of Monterey, Calif., wrote nine books including Maybe I’m Dead, a World War II novel; The 12 Steps to Happiness; and (anonymously) Staying Clean.
Klaas died “peacefully and without apparent pain, as he talked with his wife in their apartment,” according to a Facebook posting by family friend Sean Durkin. Klaas’ passing leaves Paul Rafford Jr., 96, of Melbourne, Fla., the “Elder Statesman” of Earhart research, as the lone remaining male charter member of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers.
Readers of this blog know Klaas through his authorship of the notorious Amelia Earhart Lives, as well as his longtime friendship with the late Joe Gervais, his Air Force comrade whose 1960 Guam and Saipan Earhart investigations with fellow officer Robert Dinger were among the most important ever conducted. But Gervais, who died in 2005, was better known for his false Earhart claims, most notably his delusion that Amelia Earhart was New Jersey housewife Irene Bolam, a myth made famous by Klaas in the final chapter of Amelia Earhart Lives.
But Klaas did far more in his remarkable life than pen history’s most controversial Earhart disappearance work. He began his World War II service by flying British Supermarine Spitfires as an American volunteer in the Royal Air Force. After Pearl Harbor, Klaas transferred to the U.S. Army Air Force and fought in the North African invasion of Morocco, as well as the Algerian and Tunisian campaigns, where he was shot down and captured by Arabs who sold him to the Nazis for $20.
According to the biography found on his now-defunct webpage, Klaas spent 25 months in German prison camps, escaped to be recaptured and worked for the X-Committee that planned “The Great Escape” from prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III. The camp was known for two famous prisoner escapes that took place there by tunneling and were depicted in the films The Great Escape (1963) and The Wooden Horse (1950).
Klaas survived a torturous death march across Germany, in which thousands of Allied prisoners of war froze to death. From a total of 257,000 Allied POWs held in German prison camps, over 80,000 POWs were forced to march westward across Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany in extreme winter conditions, over about four months between January and April 1945. This series of events was known by many names, including “The Great March West,” “The Long March,” “The Long Walk,” “The Long Trek,” “The Black March,” “The Bread March” and “Death March Across Germany,” but most survivors just called it “The March.” Klaas’ novel Maybe I’m Dead was based on his harrowing, near-death experience as a German POW.
The war hero remained in the U.S. Air Force Reserve for 28 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel and Chief of Information for the 6th Air Force Reserve Region (13 western states) with 25 decorations. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Washington, was elected to the Sigma Delta Chi journalism fraternity, and received a master’s degree in creative writing.
During his 30-year media career, Klaas was an Associated Press news correspondent in Alaska, worked for one newspaper, two film companies, 15 broadcasting companies and retired from the American Broadcasting Company.
He was also the grandfather of Polly Hannah Klaas, the 12-year-old whose October 1993 murder gained national attention when she was kidnapped at knife point from her mother’s home in Petaluma, Calif., and later strangled. Richard Allen Davis was convicted of her murder in 1996 and sentenced to death. Davis remains on death row at San Quentin State Prison, California.
Joe Klaas’ survivors include his son, Marc, and his wife, B.J. Complete survivor information is currently unavailable, as no news source has published an obituary.