Even casual observers of the Earhart saga are familiar with the statement allegedly made by Navy Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, then retired but still bound by classified information laws, to Fred Goerner in late March 1965, just before the radio newsman left San Francisco to interview Marine Commandant Gen. Wallace M. Greene at his Pentagon headquarters in Arlington, Va. “Now that you’re going to Washington, Fred, I want to tell you Earhart and her navigator did go down in the Marshalls and were picked up by the Japanese,” Goerner claimed Nimitz told him.
Only the most cynical accused Goerner of fabricating Nimitz’s statement, while some ignored it completely, but we’ve had only Goerner’s word that Nimitz shared this blockbuster secret with him. However, another iconic World War II hero, Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps from 1944 to 1947, actually put a similar statement in writing — not once, but in two letters he wrote in response to the indefatigable Goerner, still hot on the Earhart case.
These letters, first reported in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, are reproduced here for the first time. Vandegrift’s first letter, of May 10, 1971, was typed in all upper case, while his second, of Aug. 10 1971, was handwritten, but otherwise they are unedited. I do not have Goerner’s initial letter to Vandegrift, which prompted his response.
10 May 1971
Frederick Allan Goerner
Twenty-Four Presidio Terrace
San Francisco, California 94118
My Dear Mr. Goerner,
In reply to your letter of 6 April, relative to the rumors in reference to the way Miss Earhart met her death, I’m sorry I can’t help you in any way.
I heard the rumor during the South Pacific campaign, particularly the one in Saipan, but when I tried to investigate I found nothing to substantiate the charges made. I have no doubt that Miss Earhart met her death in that area because that has been substantiated. But how and why I have no information. I’m sorry that I can’t be of more help.
General USMC (Ret.)
9 June 1971
General, USMC (Ret.)
720 ELDORADO Lane
DELRAY BEACH, Florida 33444
Dear General Vandegrift
I was most grateful to receive your recent communication containing response to my questions concerning the fate of Miss Amelia Earhart.
As I wish to quote from your comments, I want to make absolutely sure that the implications of those comments is clearly defined and no false conclusions are reached.
You mentioned that you had received information which alleged that Miss Earhart had been on Saipan, and you added, “I have no doubt Miss Earhart met her death in that area because that has been substantiated. But how and why I have no information.”
Did you mean that it had been substantiated that Miss Earhart had been on Saipan and had died on Saipan, but it was not determined how and why she died?
If that is the correct interpretation, it would be most helpful to know how it was substantiated that Miss Earhart had been on Saipan and had met her death there. Were her remains recovered or was documentation to that fact uncovered?
I thank you very much for your gracious attention to this letter. I shall look forward to your comments with tremendous interest.
With respect and admiration, I am,
Frederick Allan Goerner
24 Presidio Terrace
San Francisco, California
P.S. For your convenience, I am enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
720 Eldorado Lane
Delray Beach, Florida
10 August 1971
24 Presidio Terrace
San Francisco, Calif.
Dear Mr. Goerner:
Please pardon my delay in answering your letter of June. In the meantime, I have been in the hospital and have not felt too well since my return.
In writing to you, I did not realize that you wanted to quote my remarks about Miss Earhart and I would rather that you would not.
General Tommy Watson, who commanded the 2nd Marine Division during the assault on Saipan and stayed on that island after the fall of Okinawa, on one of my seven visits of inspection of his division told me that it had been substantiated that Miss Earhart met her death on Saipan. That is the total knowledge that I have of this incident.
Having known General Watson many years, I naturally accept this information as being correct. General Watson I’m sorry to say, died some years ago and therefore cannot be contacted.
I am sorry if my remarks misled you but I cannot add anything more to this report.
General, USMC (Ret.)
Vandegrift’s Aug. 10, 1971 letter was written in longhand by an unknown party, possibly his second wife, Kathryn Henson Vandegrift, who was still alive at the time. The general must have been ill at the time, as his signature was shaky and bore no resemblance to the rest of the document; he died two years later. Like Nimitz and Gen. Graves Erskine, two other major flag officers who revealed the truth to Goerner in clandestine ways, the general must have wanted to encourage Goerner, though he was still sworn to silence in the top-secret case.
Vandegrift’s claimed source for his information, former Lt. Gen. Thomas E. “Terrible Tommy” Watson, died in 1966, and this could be why Vandegrift shared the truth with Goerner as he did. The letter could be technically considered hearsay, and he probably assumed it would afford him a level of protection against any ramifications if his disclosure became known.
With a distinguished career that culminated in his selection as the Marine Corps’ first four-star general, who could possibly question Vandegrift’s credibility? He was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross for his actions at Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Gavutu in the Solomon Islands in 1942, honors that conferred upon its bearer the gravest moral responsibilities. Undeniably, in that bygone era, long before the modern-day corruption that has stained even our esteemed Marine Corps, the word of a Medal of Honor recipient who also led the world’s greatest fighting force was as good as gold. Moreover, Vandegrift had nothing tangible to gain from telling Goerner the truth, and he had no self-interested reason to do so.
Vandegrift’s claim that his “total knowledge” about Earhart’s death on Saipan was limited to the brief statement he attributed to Watson could not have been true. A three-star general in July 1944, Vandegrift had been commandant of the Marine Corps since Jan. 1 of that year. Watson, as commander of the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan—wherein Lt. Col. Wallace E. Greene performed as operations officer—was at the tip of the spear in the top-secret operation to destroy the Electra, charged with its successful execution by a chain of command that included Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal and beyond to the commander-in-chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the highly unlikely event that FDR’s orders to destroy the Electra had not passed through Vandegrift, he would have been fully briefed by Watson about the operation immediately upon their next meeting, if not sooner. Goerner’s reply to Vandegrift’s August 1971 contained two pointed questions:
●Did General Watson communicate to you HOW it had been substantiated that Miss Earhart had met her death on Saipan?
●Did General Watson indicate whether or not the human remains of Miss Earhart or her navigator had been recovered?7
Goerner’s query was returned undated, with “No” handwritten after each question, signed again by Vandegrift in a trembling hand. Goerner’s file on Vandegrift ends with a brief November 1971 note to Goerner, thanking him for sending a copy of The Search for Amelia Earhart, wishing him “every success in the publication and sale of this book,” and promising to have it read to him as soon as he returned from the hospital. Vandegrift died on May 8, 1973.