Mrs. Michiko Sugita’s 1971 letter to Tom Devine: “Amelia was so beautiful and fine a person”
In late 1970, Mrs. Michiko Sugita told the Japan Times that Japanese military police shot Amelia Earhart as a spy on Saipan in 1937. The story, headlined “Japanese Woman Says Police Executed Amelia on Saipan,” was released by the Tokyo office of United Press International on November 12:
Sugita’s account is the only known witness report from a Japanese national that directly corroborates Earhart’s presence on Saipan in 1937. Thomas E. Devine eventually obtained Sugita’s address from the director of Asian services for the Tokyo bureau of UPI, and they shared a friendly but brief correspondence that ended suddenly and without explanation. In an Aug. 12, 1971 letter, Sugita described her childhood in the Caroline Islands where her father was chief of police, and on Saipan when he was promoted to district chief.
Sugita recalled that she was made aware of Earhart on Saipan at “the time of the China Incident: the Pacific War had yet to be declared,” which was early to mid-July 1937, correlating perfectly with the date of Earhart’s disappearance. Because Mrs. Ann Devine destroyed the entire collection of Devine’s papers only days after his death in 2003, I have only a copy of Sugita’s original letter to Devine, translated from Japanese. First published in Devine’s 1987 book, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, following is Sugita’s letter, slightly edited for clarity. My copy has no salutation, and begins thusly:
I hasten to inform you that I received your letter with a great deal of surprise. How did you ever succeed in obtaining my address? I wonder. It must have taken you lots of patience to have been in search for it as long as ten months.
My Personal History and the Circumstances Surrounding the Amelia Incident
I was born in Tokyo and at the age of two moved to Ponape Island. My father [Mikio Suzuki] was then transferred to the island to serve as Police Chief. Later we moved from Ponape to Yaluta and finally settled at Saipan. I spent the next 12 years or so (including the time spent in the U.S. Military compound) on the Saipan Island. Since you indicated your desire to find out the details of the story of Amelia, I will relate the following account to you.
It was still the time of the China Incident: the Pacific War had yet to be declared. [Editor’s note: Sugita was undoubtedly referring to the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, July 7 to July 9, 1937, which is often used as the marker for the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War.] During that period we invited to our home some members of MPs for a sake party, and it was on this occasion when I heard their conversation on this topic. From what I heard, Amelia’s plane was forced to land due to some mechanical failure on her way to the Truk Island, and she was arrested then.
She was suspected of and charged with spy activities in the region and sent to Saipan where her execution took place. Meanwhile U.S. Navy was engaged in search for her and her plane. I recall seeing some U.S. Naval ships in the far distance with the aid of binoculars. This incident was kept a secret within the Police Department and the high officials of both Navy and Army. At the time there was a great deal of influx of soldiers into Saipan to prepare for the out coming war. My father was quite busy all the time and often out of the house. For the nature of my father’s occupation we knew a number of officers and MPs, and many of them had opportunities to visit our home for parties . . . etc.
On one of these occasions MPs were saying, “Amelia was so beautiful and fine a person that she did not deserve the execution.” Yet I was told by my father not to mention any part of the conversation outside the family so that until now I had never told this to anyone. The fate and place of her execution was never made clear to me even by my father. I recall my father’s words: “Since she came here to carry on her duties as spy, it cannot be helped that she be executed. But on the contrary the Geneva Convention rules against the killing of P.O.W. under any circumstances, which makes it hard to understand the course of action taken by the Military.”
I was young then (enrolled in Saipan Public High School for girls) and used to chat with my sister about Amelia — that she must have been an incredible character to fly all the way from America. The sister herself took her life in 1944 when Saipan was taken by the Americans.
Starting in October of 1944 I was engaged in hospital work for two years at U.S. General Hospital No. 148.
I understand that you were a sergeant stationed at Aslito Airfield, and you must know how difficult it was for us to live in the military compound as prisoners. On that airfield, we, the girls, used to work almost every day, picking up rocks and grass and leveling the ground for the sake of country — or was it for the United States? It’s just part of my memory now.
My reply to your questions numbered 1 and 2 in your letter.
It was speculated here last spring that Amelia had lived in the court of the Royal Family and that she was released in return for the favor of having the Emperor not guilty of any war crimes. As I inquired further into this matter, it was discovered that the person named Amelia, who said to be living in the U.S., was an impostor. [Editor’s note: Because of the approximate date of this letter, circa 1970, Sugita could only have been referring to the Irene Bolam fiasco.]
Some German journalist visited me to borrow the photograph related to this matter and carelessly misplaced it. It then took almost 40 days to get it back to me. This photo [of Sugita?] is as precious as our family treasure, and I can only send you a copy of it upon receipt of the payment.
And please let me know what your occupation is.
My father was “poisoned to death” at the U.S. Public (General?) Hospital on October 10, 1944 when the U.S. took over Saipan. This was perhaps because he had served in the Police Department.
The above is to the best of my knowledge what happened surrounding the incident of Amelia. I do hope to hear from you further upon this matter.
P.S. It was difficult and too a while to have your letter translated in Japanese. Please pardon the delay in my reply. It would be helpful if you could write in Japanese next time.
Post Scriptum No. 2.
I shall add here parts I’ve failed to include in my letter.
In response to your question whether I attended the Second National Nippon School: by the time I was graduated from primary school, the war was not in progress and the school in which I was enrolled was simply called GARAPAN-PONTAM Primary School. I spent six years there and then proceeded to attend Saipan High School for girls from which I graduated in March of 1944. At that time the war was well into the last stage.
Another thing to jot down. I am in possession of a few photos of myself which were taken during this period. Also kept are the picture of my family and that of my father in uniform photographed along with the members of the Police Dept. All these were given to me by friends and, needless to say, are my treasure. I have only once corresponded with you and am not sure if I should (let you use them). As I explained to you the case of a German journalist, carelessness has caused a great deal of anxiety on my part. Should you wish to use them, however, it would be possible for me to send you a copy of each photo. Please let me hear from you on this in your next letter.
By the way the postage on the last letter was short by about 20 cents.
This has certainly become a long letter.
Take care and goodbye,
Michiko Sugita’s letters to Devine ceased sometime in the mid-1970s, and Devine’s were returned with the notation, “No such person, unknown.” Devine asked UPI in Tokyo to help locate Sugita, but received no response; a few researchers have also tried to locate her without success. It appears that the Japanese government may have reached out to silence and “disappear” a voice of truth from 1937 Saipan—a singular, courageous woman whose fortitude in the face of her nation’s denials should never be forgotten.
Klaas tracks lost fliers in “Next Stop Kwajalein”
Joe Klaas, who passed away earlier this year, is best known for his authorship of the notorious Amelia Earhart Lives: A trip through intrigue to find America’s first lady of mystery, the 1970 book that introduced Irene Bolam as Amelia Earhart. Amelia Earhart Lives forever cast a shadow on the credibility of all Earhart research, further driving the truth into the tiny corner it now inhabits, largely ignored, if not ridiculed by the mainstream media, entrenched in its longtime refusal to acknowledge the truth in the Earhart disappearance. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
But Klaas didn’t create the Irene Bolam travesty. His fellow Air Force officer and friend, Joe Gervais, wove the Bolam fiction out of whole cloth and his Earhart-addled imagination. Klaas, the author of 11 other books, served mainly as Gervais’ personal stenographer during the creation of Amelia Earhart Lives, though he might have questioned Gervais’ absurd Bolam claim a bit more assiduously before he wrote a book and exposed himself to ridicule from nearly every corner of the Earhart research community, as well as much of the reading public.
None of that is relevant to the following essay, however, written by Klaas in 2001 and posted on the website of the Amelia Earhart Society. In “Next Stop Kwajalein,“ Klaas takes the available eyewitness and witness testimony and crafts a plausible version of the events surrounding the delivery of Amelia and Fred Noonan by the Japanese, from stops at Jaluit and Kwajalein, to their final destination at Saipan.
Several aspects of the scenarios laid out by Klaas, such as his belief, based on statements made by Mrs. Amy Otis Earhart, Amelia’s mother, that Amelia was allowed to broadcast by captors or that the fliers may have been taken to Japan, are clearly false or highly doubtful, and are not endorsed by this writer, but have not been edited out of Klaas’ narrative, which I present for your entertainment and discernment.
“Next Stop Kwajalein”
by Joe Klaas with Joe Gervais
Four years prior to the three weeks of media frenzy triggered by the 1970 suggestion in Amelia Earhart Lives that the supposedly dead flying heroine might be alive in New Jersey, Fred Goerner, whose The Search for Amelia Earhart deduced she had died of dysentery or was executed on Saipan, wrote to her sister, Muriel Morrissey, in West Medford, Massachusetts.
“I want you to know that I decided to go ahead with the book last December at the advice of the late Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz who had become my friend and helped me with the investigation for several years,” Goerner told Earhart’s sibling on Aug. 31, 1966. “He said, ‘It (the book) may help produce the justice Earhart and Noonan deserve.’ The Admiral told me without equivocation that Amelia and Fred had gone down in the Marshalls and were taken by the Japanese and that his knowledge was documented in Washington. He also said several departments of government have strong reasons for not wanting the information to be made public.”
What “strong reasons for not wanting the information made public” short of their being assassinated by our own government would motivate the endless cover-up of the fact that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were still alive after July 2, 1937?
“Even when we investigators join together in The Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, and The [Yahoo!] Earhart Group on the internet, those who’ve been out here spend so much energy picking each other’s evidence apart,” I said to Joe Gervais aboard a 95-foot boat anchored off a bomb-dented concrete relic of a seaplane ramp in Imiej harbor at Jaluit, “we look only at how one another’s interviews with islanders don’t agree.”
It was Joe’s seventeenth trip to Pacific islands in search of Amelia Earhart. Ten of us aboard the 1997 AES expedition led by Bill Prymak disagreed 10 different ways.
“To hell with the differences!” I complained. “Why don’t we focus on only those details which match?”
I told Joe that when we got home I would follow five decades of conflicting interviews from dot-to-dot to determine only the ways they agree on Amelia Earhart’s after death journey from across the 1937 pre-war Pacific until now.
“To hell with inconsistencies that lead nowhere!” I griped. “Let’s see only where we all match will take us.”
1937 residents of Jaluit and Majuro atolls said they heard the white woman pilot named “Meel-ya” and her flying companion with knee and head injuries were taken by Japanese ship to Saipan in the Mariana Islands where the Emperor’s South Sea Islands military governor was in command. Others said they took her first to Kwajalein, and then to Saipan.
“After I treated the man’s knee with paraply,” Bilimon Amaron told Joe Gervais and Bill Prymak, “I overheard Japanese nearby say the ship was going to leave Jaluit to go to Kwajalein. I remembered that because I had relatives on Kwajalein. From there it would maybe go to Truk and on to Saipan.”
Majuro Attorney John Heine, who clearly remembered seeing the flyers in custody at Jaluit after their prematurely reported deaths, also believed that “after the ship left Jaluit, it went to Kwajalein, then on to Truk and Saipan.” From there, according to what he was told by his missionary parents, whom the Japanese at Jaluit later beheaded as spies, “he thought the ship would later go to Japan.”
Heine told Joe and Bill a simultaneous event at his school enabled him to place the crash and departure for Kwajalein in “the middle of July 1937.”
Marshall Islanders Tomaki Mayazo and Lotan Jack told Fred Goerner in the 60s that the woman flyer and her companion “were taken to Kwajalein on their way to Saipan.” In The Search for Amelia Earhart, Goerner reported that four Likiep Island residents of Kwajalein, Edward and Bonjo Capelli, and two men known only as Jajock and Biki told Navy Chief Petty Officer J.F. Kelleher, stationed on Kwajalein in 1946, that a man and a woman who crashed a plane in the Marshalls “were brought to Kwajalein.”
Ted Burris, a 1965 government employee on Kwajalein, volunteered as neighborhood commissioner for the Aloha Council, Boy Scouts of America. He set out to establish Scouting three islands-north of Kwajalein on Ebeye [Island]. In January 1997 he informed members of the AES that while waiting for a boat back to his workplace one night his interpreter, Onisimum Cappelle, introduced him to an old man who had met two Americans there “five years before the war” even though “the Japanese had closed the Marshall Islands to foreigners in the late ‘20s.”
The war reached the Marshalls in 1942, so “five years before” meant 1937, when Earhart and Noonan vanished.
“How did you meet the Americans before the war?” Burris asked the old man.
“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.”
“Come. I show you.”
They walked to the south end of the perimeter road where there were two A-frame houses with a line of coconut trees.
“You see those trees?” the old man asked. “The plane was exactly in line with them.”
“How far out?”
“About a hundred yards from the land.”
“What happened then?”
“Two people got out. A man and a woman. The Captain made me take my boat out and pick them up. I didn’t talk to them.”
“The boss. The Japanese officer. The Captain took them away. I never saw them again. He said they were spies.”
Arrival of the boat to take Burris to nearby Kwajalein ended the conversation.
All who heard the story, including Burris, jumped to the conclusion that the plane was Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 10E, not a very “big plane” in comparison to Japanese flying boats that occasionally landed there. They assumed that was where she had actually crashed.
But what the old man precisely said was: “A plane landed on the water.” He didn’t say it crashed there. Aircraft with landing gear are seldom said to have “landed on the water.” They would normally have been said to have “crashed into the water” or “ditched in the water.” Not that they had “landed on the water.”
One simple question, “Did the plane land or crash?” might have cleared that up, but apparently assumption overcame curiosity, and that question was never asked.
Jaluit and Kwajalein had something in common. In 1936 a concrete seaplane ramp was built at Kwajalein in addition to its already existing airstrip for land planes. Land planes and seaplanes used two different Kwajalein facilities.
A year later in 1937 at Saipan, a concrete seaplane ramp was under construction to augment an air strip already used only by land planes. Had a flying boat ever before made a water landing at Saipan? It’s a good question.
Isn’t it more likely that, unbeknown to the Marshallese at Jaluit, instead of taking Earhart and Noonan to Kwajalein aboard ship on the Koshu, they changed plans and flew them there in a flying boat which would match the old man’s memory of “a big plane” which “landed on the water”?
To understand what an eyewitness meant, might it not be a good idea to take what they said literally? Going a step further, would it not be possible that natives of Saipan, who might only have previously seen planes touch down on their one airstrip, might mistakenly think a flying boat landing in Garapan Harbor was a land plane crashing into water off-shore?
How would the Japanese Captain be able to tell the old man “they were spies” if they hadn’t arrived from Jaluit already accused of espionage?
“None of this registered with me in particular until a couple of years later when I had moved to another assignment on Roi Namur (also in the Kwajalein group),” Burris said. “The Island Manager there was Frank Serafini. I mentioned the story the old man had told me.”
“Let me tell you a few things.” Frank went to his desk and took out a letter from a Navy Commander, whose name Burris couldn’t remember after thirty years. “He was with Navy Intelligence during the war, and 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 evidence that Amelia Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan, had been there!”
“Why here?” Burris 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.” He pointed to a place on its second page: “I was rummaging through a pile of debris in a corner 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. They were here all right!”
“What did the Commander do with the map case?” Burris asked.
“He said he turned it over to Naval Intelligence. He doesn’t know what happened to it after that.”
“Does anybody know about this?” asked Burris. “Why would they keep such a thing secret?”
“Because even now the Navy doesn’t want to admit they had anything to do with spying against the Japanese before the war.”
When Burris heard about a plane with two American spies aboard landing 100-yards off-shore at Kwajalein, he naturally assumed it was Earhart’s land plane.
But couldn’t a twin-engine Japanese seaplane have “landed in the water” at Kwajalein, from which they were then flown to Saipan where the Japanese pilot landed alongside the beach?
As reported in both Goerner’s book and mine, Josephine Akiyama watched “a silver two-engined plane belly-land” in shallow water at Saipan and “saw the American woman who looked like a man and the tall man with her . . . led away by the Japanese soldiers.”
At first, those who heard her story assumed it was Amelia Earhart’s plane.
All of us who heard eyewitness reports from Kwajalein or Saipan made the same mistake. We all wanted so hard to find the Earhart plane, we assumed any aircraft that came down with her aboard was hers. At both Saipan and Kwajalein we were wrong. She and Noonan were aboard all right in both places, not as pilot and navigator, but as captured spies!
Wouldn’t it be more logical to deduce from eyewitness reports that Earhart and Noonan were flown from Kwajalein Atoll in a seaplane which made no attempt to land on Saipan’s completed airstrip, but instead “belly landed” along a beach in Garapan Harbor?
“None of it can be true!” objected a radio engineer at a 1998 gathering in Aspen, Colorado. “Those islanders made it all up!”
“What makes you think that?” I gasped.
“Because it’s all predicated from the start on her originally ditching into the water at Mili Atoll on July 2, 1937 and then sending out a bunch of so-called radio signals for three days. That could never have happened.”
“Because if she went down in the water, she couldn’t have broadcast at all. Her transmitter was incapable of broadcasting from the water.”
No one thought to ask a radio engineer how he would have made a radio work if he crashed in the water off a strange island in the middle of the Pacific. In such a matter of life and death, wouldn’t a radio engineer figure out some way to make a transmitter broadcast from a downed airplane still afloat in salt water?
Absolutely impossible! Without a bigger source of power than the battery aboard that Lockheed 10E aircraft, I was assured by three other experts I consulted, there was no way it could happen! Without the extra power provided by the engines operating, she could not have broadcast from in the water!
And yet the messages existed, logged by professional radio operators all across the Pacific so they can be read to this day. AES President Bill Prymak sent me a copy of actual loggings of her radio calls for help. Remember, she was supposed to have died the morning of July 2,1937.
(Editor’s note: For a lengthy discussion of the alleged “post-loss messages,” please see Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, Chapter III, “The Search and the Radio Signals.”)
Here were 30 distress call broadcasts recorded on paper as actually heard by experienced operators at twelve different radio stations from one side of the Pacific to the other. . . . Beginning on July 3, 1937, 12 experienced operators at official radio stations thousands of miles apart across the vast Pacific heard and logged 30 distress messages they identified as Earhart’s for three days after she supposedly crashed and drowned on July 2, 1937.
Since these 30 distress signals were obviously heard as logged by 12 of the most highly trained and experienced radio operators across the Pacific, how could she have sent them if her radio transmitter could not possibly operate from her plane sitting in the water at Mili Atoll?
Could Amelia Earhart’s mother, Amy Otis Earhart, give us a simple clue as to how her daughter managed to transmit these “impossible” broadcasts? Was Mother Earhart, from sources of information peculiarly available to her, in possession of knowledge withheld from the public that would explain how her daughter was able to send all these messages for help?
“I know she was permitted to broadcast to Washington from the Marshalls,” Amelia’s mother told the Los Angeles Times on July 25, 1949, and then does she give us the answer? . . . “because the officials on the island where she was taken — I can’t remember the name of it — believed she was merely a trans-ocean flier in distress. But Tokyo had a different opinion of her significance in the area. She was taken to Japan.”
Is it not rather clear from Mother Earhart’s inside information that Amelia Earhart was rescued as a celebrity by the Japanese on Mili Atoll? Wouldn’t the Japanese on that island permit the famous American flyers to use their island transmitter to call for help for three days?
Isn’t it obvious that if it were impossible for her to transmit messages from the water, she must have done so from the land? And wasn’t a Japanese transmitter the only way that could have been done? And wouldn’t the messages suddenly stop when Tokyo ordered the Mili Atoll Japanese outpost, through channels, to quit sending her distress broadcasts and arrest Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan for espionage?
“I am certain that Amelia’s voice was recognized in the radio broadcast from the Marshalls to the capitol,” Earhart’s mother told The Los Angeles Times and later repeated in a letter to Earhart’s flying instructor, Neta Snook.
“I have kept quiet through the years, but certainly this could hurt no one now.”
“That’s quite a stretch,” Joe Gervais said in awe when I explained how all of us had mistaken Japanese planes for hers, and seaplanes landing on the water for her land plane crashing at sea. It may seem a stretch to those who want to believe Earhart and Noonan drowned at sea near Howland Island on July 2, 1937.
“All Earhart hunters have been so busy challenging differences in eyewitness reports each of us gathered,” I sighed, “we became blind to all the many points we agree on, where the truth may finally be found.” Well,” Joe exhaled slowly. “If we’re gonna quit sneering at one another’s versions of what happened, and connect dot-to-dot to what’ll crack one of the biggest cover-ups in American history, we’d best not be afraid to stretch!”
Next stop for prisoners Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan was by land plane or flying boat to Saipan, it makes small difference which. There on Saipan, more witnesses than were talked to on all other islands combined remembered seeing them alive.
They were in custody as spies!
(End of “Next Stop Kwajalein.”)
Two years before Klaas and Gervais collaborated on “Next Stop Kwajalein,” Klaas advanced a scenario that differed from the seaplane-landing-on-Saipan situation they proposed in 2001. In a 1999 e-mail to Rollin Reineck, Bill Prymak and others, Klaas reviewed the Ted Burris account and insisted it wasn’t a seaplane that landed in Tanapag Harbor:
This incident has too long been thought to be a false report that Earhart’s Lockheed 10E crashed off Kwajalein. But what the old man precisely said was: “A plane landed on the water.” He didn’t say it crashed there or ditched there. Planes with landing gear don’t land “on the water.” What “landed” Earhart and Noonan “on the water” off Kwajalein was obviously a seaplane from Jaluit. . . . Nobody ever said there was a crash at Kwajalein.
Earhart and Noonan were then flown by land plane from Kwajalein to Saipan, where its pilot got into trouble. [Italics mine.] Josephine Akiyama, the very first witness in the Earhart mystery, watched “a silver two-engined plane belly-land” in shallow water along a beach. She “saw the American woman who looked like a man, and the tall man with her, led away by the Japanese soldiers.”
We must never assume every twin-engined aircraft in the Pacific had to be the Earhart Plane to be significant. We don’t need Darwin to find the missing link from Howland to Mili to Kwajalein to Saipan. Keep it simple and follow facts in sequence to the truth. Above all, let’s start believing our witnesses. Why would they lie?
I asked Klaas if he could explain his differing visions of Earhart’s arrival at Saipan, suggesting that a land-based aircraft might indeed be most likely in the Tanapag Harbor-landing scenario. “Very well could be,” Klaas told me in a September 2007 email.
“However, I do believe it was a seaplane that landed in the water at Kwajalein, according to the man who picked her up there and rowed her ashore,” Klaas wrote. “There was a landing field there at that time. A lot of people jumped to the conclusion that she had crashed into the water there, according to witnesses. However that was only because the native who picked her up said the plane had landed in the water, obviously flown there from Majuro. She could very well have been transferred to a land plane there [at Kwajalein] after that and have been flown in it on to Saipan, where a lot of us at first mistook as she and Noonan crashing on the beach in her own plane. It was obviously a Japanese aircraft, however.”
So despite the many witnesses who reported that they saw a woman flier who could only have been Amelia Earhart in the Marshalls and later on Saipan, how she reached Saipan from Kwajalein is a major question that lingers. Was it a land plane or a seaplane that took the doomed fliers to their final destination?