In the final installment of Fred Goerner’s 1984 retrospective, “In Search of Amelia Earhart,” the former San Francisco radio newsman presents an excellent summary of the status of the Earhart investigation at that point in time, tracing the important discoveries since his Saipan investigations began in 1960.
His essay, ostensibly written for Orbis Publishing Ltd., a British company, but never published in the United States, explores the roots of the Marshall Islands landing scenario; the origins of the theories that proliferated in the days following Amelia’s loss; his original interviews with the native witnesses in the Marshall Islands and Saipan; and for the first time, the stunning revelations by Marine Generals Alexander A. Vandegrift and Graves Erskine that placed Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan in the days following their tragic disappearance.
Conclusion of Fred Goerner’s “In Search of Amelia Earhart”
There were rumors in 1937 that Earhart had somehow been working for the U.S. government at the time of her disappearance. There were rumors, too, that she had purposefully lost herself so the U.S. Navy could search the Japanese controlled islands, or that she and Fred Noonan had been forced to land on or near one of those Japanese islands and they were being held prisoner. The speculation was not taken seriously by the American public.
The Oakland Tribune newspaper in May 1938 began a series of articles about the Earhart disappearance by reporter Alfred Reck. Somehow Reck had managed access to the then highly classified Coast Guard files. In the first article, Reck alleged that Earhart and Noonan had been lost because of the failure of the U.S. Navy high-frequency direction finder on Howland Island, and that Richard B. Black, the U.S. Department of Interior representative who had brought the Navy HF/DF aboard Itasca, had supplied the wrong kind of batteries causing the equipment to fail at the moment it was needed the most.
The U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Richard Black jumped all over the Oakland Tribune and reporter Reck, and the rest of the articles in the series were carefully censored.
Again in 1938, popular Smith’s Weekly newspaper, published in Sydney, Australia, printed a lengthy article alleging that the U.S. had used the Earhart disappearance as a pretext to overfly Japanese held islands and that Australia’s defense establishment had been made aware of the plan and its results: “So when Amelia Earhart went down and her faint distress signals located her plane around the Phoenix Islands, the search gave the needed excuse. Sentiment comes second to secret service.”
Isolationist Republican U.S. Senator from North Dakota Gerald P. Nye was incensed by the report. He had long suspected that President Roosevelt was trying to get the U.S. involved in a war with Japan, and he announced his intention of bringing the whole Earhart matter before the U.S. Senate.
Adm. William D. Leahy, chief of U.S. naval operations, and Cordell Hull, U.S. secretary of state both wrote to Senator Nye denying the charges. Nye accepted the denials but pledged to make every effort to determine the source of the article because “the primary motive may have been to stimulate ill feeling between Japan and the United States.“
The Japanese sinking of the American Navy gunboat USS Panay in the Yangtze River two months later effectively buried Nye’s concern. Ill feeling had become outright hostility.
U.S. Congressman William I. Sirovich one day dropped by to see his friend Claude A. Swanson, who was secretary of the U.S. Navy. Sirovich, curious about the seeming mystery surrounding the Earhart disappearance, asked Swanson for his feelings about the matter.
“This is a powder keg,” replied Swanson. “Any public discussion of it will cause an explosion. I’m not the only one in this department who feels that she saw activities which she could not have described later and remained alive. To speculate about this publicly probably would sever our diplomatic relations with Japan and lead to something worse.”
The “something worse“ came on the wings of Japanese carrier aircraft the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and Amelia Earhart was virtually forgotten.
In April of 1943, however, RKO Motion Pictures released a film titled Flight For Freedom (starring Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray) which followed the events of Amelia’s last flight almost perfectly to the point of the Lae, New Guinea takeoff. According to the script, the aviatrix, on a mission for the U.S. government, was to fly to a “Gull” Island in the Pacific and pretend to be lost while U.S. Navy planes, ostensibly searching for her, photographed the Japanese Mandates. At Lae, New Guinea, however, the script writer had the heroine learn the Japanese were aware of the ruse and would immediately pick her up at “Gull” Island. Thereupon Rosalind Russell courageously crashed her plane at sea so the U.S. Navy could conduct its intelligence operation anyway. Amelia Earhart’s name was never used in the film, but the plot left no doubt that she was intended as the central character.
This film undoubtedly had an impact on many American servicemen who were preparing for or already participating in combat in the Pacific theater. It might explain many strange — often bizarre — rumors during the island invasions. At one point a rumor that Amelia Earhart might actually be the infamous “Tokyo Rose“ broadcasting from Japan caused U.S. Army Intelligence to send George Palmer Putnam, Amelia’s now remarried husband, to a radio station in China where he could clearly hear the broadcaster’s voice. He vowed it was not Amelia. Post-war investigation proved him right.
There were other happenings that could not be explained as easily. In 1944 on Majuro Atoll during the invasion of the Marshall Islands, Vice Adm. Edgar A. Cruise learned from a native interpreter named Michael Madison that an American man and woman flyers had been picked up and brought into the Marshalls in 1937.
At almost the same time, Eugene F. Bogan, serving as a senior military government officer at Majuro (Bogan is now one of America’s leading tax attorneys in Washington, D.C.) interviewed a Marshallese native named Elieu Jibambam, who told the same story.
Four other U.S. Marine corps and U.S. Navy Officers turned up similar information: An American man and woman, flyers according to the Japanese, had been brought into Jaluit in the Marshalls, then transported to Majuro and Kwajalein, also in the Marshalls, and finally, taken to Saipan in the Marianas Islands which was Japan’s military headquarters for the Pacific islands before and during World War II. They all filed reports which still remain classified somewhere in military archives.
During the invasion of Saipan in June 1944, the possibility of Japanese capture of Earhart broadened with testimony of Saipanese natives that two Americans, a man and woman, identified by the Japanese as fliers had been brought to the island in 1937 and detained. The woman had died of dysentery and the man reportedly had been executed sometime after her death. They had, according to the testimony, been buried in unmarked graves outside the perimeter of a native cemetery.
(Editor’s comment: Note that in 1984, the 26 former American GIs who contacted Thomas E. Devine after publication of his book, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, in 1987, and whose accounts were presented in our 2002 book, With Our Own Eyes, were completely unknown to Goerner. These former Marines included Robert E. Wallack and Earskin J. Nabers, two of the most important eyewitnesses in the Earhart saga.)
It would be 1964 before two former U.S. Marines, Everett Henson, Jr. of Sacramento, California, and Bill G. Burks of Dallas, would come forward to say they were part of a group of Marines who recovered the remains of Amelia Earhart and Frederick Noonan on Saipan in July of 1944. The remains had been found in an unmarked grave outside a small graveyard and placed in metal canisters for transport to the United States. To this writing, the U.S. Marine Corps will neither confirm or deny that such an event occurred.
Just after the end of World War II, early in 1946, the U.S. Navy reiterated that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were considered and had always been considered merely civilians on a pioneering flight. They were still to be considered “lost at sea.“
It would not be until 1960 that a real investigation began, and that investigation would be civilian. The Columbia Broadcasting System sponsored four expeditions to Saipan Island and two to Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands to try to find answers to the Earhart mystery.
The effort spanned the years 1960 to 1964, and your author was selected by CBS to conduct the inquiry. I was working as a correspondent-broadcaster at that time for KCBS in San Francisco. Several hundred natives were questioned on Saipan with the help of the Monsignor and Fathers of the Catholic Church Mission. More than 30 individuals told stories that supported the theory that two American fliers, a man and woman, had lived and died on Saipan before the war.
At Majuro, we found the persons who had given information during World War II, and we found others as well. Dr. John Iman, Biliman Amran [sic, more commonly Bilimon Amaron], Tomaki Mayazo, all would tell stories of the man and woman American fliers. Amran had worked at the Japanese hospital, and he had been called to tend the Americans who had been brought in aboard a Japanese ship. It was the man who needed treatment. He had been cut on the head and on the knee. “He spoke something in English to me,” Amran says, “but at that time I only spoke Japanese.”
I had told him that “something“ in connection with Earhart had been found on one of the islands during World War II, but he had not been greatly impressed because of the pressures of ongoing battle.
(Editor’s note: Unaccountably, here Goerner failed to mention the statement he claimed Nimitz made to him on the phone in late March 1965: “Now that you’re going to Washington, Fred, I want to tell you that Earhart and her navigator did go down in the Marshalls and were picked up by the Japanese.”)
Later Admiral Nimitz became vitally interested in the Earhart questions, providing suggestions for further research and attempting to help with access to classified information. Before his death in 1966, Nimitz advised, “Never give up. You are on to something that will stagger your imagination.”
The same year, 1966, I wrote The Search for Amelia Earhart, which was published by Doubleday in the U.S. and Bodley Head Press, Ltd. in England. It detailed the six years of CBS research and basically asked why the U.S. government still, nearly thirty years after the event, had not released the classified files in the case.
By good fortune the tome remained on the best sellers’ lists for many weeks, and a gratifying number of readers were motivated to write to their U.S. senators or congressmen, asking that truth for Earhart and Noonan finally be established. At the time, there was little response. It was not until the Freedom Of Information Act became law in 1968 that quite a number of files began to appear, and each year since more pertinent material has been found and declassified.
This would seem to be the right time to say that this author is a standard patriot. I am grateful for the freedoms I enjoy in America. I would not willingly choose to live anywhere else, and I far more often compliment my country than criticize it. Perhaps I may then be forgiven if I say that responsible search for truth could sometimes be eased by those charged with keeping secrets.
From 1968 to present day, well over 20,000 pages of records concerning the Earhart flight from seven different departments of the U.S. government and military have been released, and we are convinced there is a great deal more still to be revealed.
The idea for Earhart’s around-the-world flight had begun with an entity known as the Purdue Research Foundation at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. She had served the University for brief periods as a lecturer and counselor to women students.
The Foundation had been formed by David E. Ross of Lafayette, Ind., and J.K. Lilly of Indianapolis for the purpose of seeking “new knowledge in the field of aviation, with particular reference to National Defense,” and it (the Foundation) maintained close communication with the then U.S. War Department and U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. naval aviation.
Ross, an enormously wealthy engineer and inventor, and Lilly, one of the founders and directors of Eli Lilly Company, provided the funds for the purchase of Amelia’s Lockheed Electra with the understanding that the plane would be used “for the purpose of improving radio direction finding equipment.“
In 1937, America was still deeply in the grip of the great depression, and details of the transaction that involved what was then a considerable sum of money were not disclosed to anyone save the principals.
Amelia flew the plane to Wright Field in Ohio to have the latest 500 kilocycles low-frequency direction finder, invented by Frederick Hooven for the Army Air Corps, installed in the Electra. Later, the U.S. Navy and representatives of the Bendix Company would ask Amelia to jettison Hooven’s creation and use the Navy high-frequency DF.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally interested himself in the flight, directing the War, Navy, Army and State Departments to cooperate. Enthusiasm was not unanimous. One high-ranking Navy officer wrote in longhand on the margin of the directive, “Why are we doing this? There isn’t that much to gain, and it’ll excite the Japs.”
What did excite the Japanese was construction of the airfield on Howland Island. Earhart first planned to fly the Pacific from east to west, being refueled in flight over Midway Island by a specially equipped U.S. Navy plane. Such techniques were in their infancy; therefore, the risk factor was very high.
Then Earhart and U.S. military needs coincided. Amelia needed a safer method for crossing the Pacific and the US Navy and US Army Air Corps needed a civilian reason to build an airfield on an island near the equator. America had agreed with Japan at the Washington Naval Treaty conference in 1923 that military construction on most Pacific islands controlled by each nation would be prohibited. The U.S. had long believed that Japan was violating that treaty in the Mandated Islands, but could not prove it. The U.S. had countered on Midway and Wake Islands through cooperation with Pan American airways, and now Earhart would become the civilian reason or cover for Howland. To further disguise the Howland venture, President Roosevelt diverted funds from the civilian Works Progress Administration, an obfuscation tactic he had used several times before.
From the records released to this writing, Earhart does not seem to have been conducting an overt spy mission during the world flight. At one time we had thought that possible. There is evidence and testimony that Earhart and Noonan were gathering “white intelligence.” As civilians they were going to be visiting and flying in and out of places seldom if ever visited by the U.S. military, and observations of these areas could be valuable. Of particular interest would be weather and radio conditions, length of runways, fuel supplies and repair facilities. All valuable information in the event of conflict. After the end of World War I, the records indicate that many American civilians performed like services in many parts of the world. Not clandestine and not at all unusual.
There is nothing in released records to date that would document Japanese capture of Earhart and Noonan, other than gathered testimony of Marshallese and Saipanese native witnesses Nor is there anything which would substantiate the recovery of the human remains of Earhart and Noonan on Saipan in 1944 by the US Marines.
There is evidence that President Roosevelt and U.S. Naval Intelligence suspected that Amelia and Fred might have fallen into the hands of the Japanese. The ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) arranged with one Kilsoo Haan (an American working with the Korean Underground against the Japanese) in December of 1937 to sneak several of his agents into the Japanese mandated islands “to determine whether Miss Earhart and Captain Noonan are alive or dead.“ The results of that intelligence mission still have not been found.
(Editor’s note: In a 1993 letter to J. Gordon Vaeth, Goerner wrote that the Kilsoo Haan mission “fell through because the ONI did not have sufficient funds available for the operation.“ See p. 178 of Truth at Last for more.)
(Editor’s note: Here Goerner, who continued to reject Thomas E. Devine’s contributions to the Earhart saga, failed to mention the 1960 Office of Naval Intelligence Report of its investigation of Devine’s claim that he was shown the gravesite of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan by an unidentified Okinawan woman in August 1945. This report was declassified in 1967, has never been mentioned by any known media organizations, and is the closest thing we have to a smoking-gun document in the Earhart search. For more on the ONI Report, see pages 95-100 in Truth at Last.)
Early in 1938, President Roosevelt arranged with his close friend and trusted intelligence agent William Vincent Astor to penetrate Japan’s Marshall Islands aboard Astor’s huge personal yacht Nourmahal. Accompanied by FDR’s cousin Kermit Roosevelt, Astor took his ship into the Marshalls in April, 1938, a daring and highly dangerous exploit that infuriated the Japanese. Astor and Kermit Roosevelt were not able to land on any of the islands, but they got close enough to find fuel supplies and air strips on Eniwetok and Wotje Islands and to predict to President Roosevelt that Japan was in the process of developing military bases and facilities in the Mandates. From what has been released to date, they did not find out anything about Earhart and Noonan.
The Japanese protested vehemently to the U.S. State Department, and one Japanese press report indicated that the U.S. Navy had sent “warships” into the Marshalls and was forming a task force for an attack. Astor had caused a storm with Japan, but his mission was unknown in America. He was but one of dozens of civilians that Roosevelt had used and would use as personal secret agents.
In the last several years, two Americans have come forward with information that indicates the Earhart saga is far from ended. Thomas McKeon, vice president of Intertel, based in Washington, D.C., one of the world’s largest private intelligence networks, staffed by former ONI, FBI and CIA agents, has testified that the 441st U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps Unit discovered the complete truth regarding Japanese capture of Earhart of Noonan when it occupied the Japanese Kempeitai (Military Secret Police) headquarters in September of 1945 . McKeon says he read the files when he served as an officer with the 441st in Tokyo, and that at one point he talked with a former Japanese officer who had served as an interpreter when Earhart and Noonan had been questioned.
Carroll Harris of Sacramento, California, recently retired from his post as dispatcher for the California State Highway Patrol, a top law enforcement agency in California. From 1942 to 1945, he was one of the U.S. Navy personnel responsible for the Security Room in Washington, D.C., of the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Ernest King. In the top-secret vault was an extensive file on Amelia Earhart dealing with pre-WW II U.S. Navy involvement and information picked up during the invasion of various Japanese held islands during World War II.
Harris recalls that the records were carefully boxed and sent to the U.S. Naval Supply Depot at Crane, Ind., toward the end of the war in 1945. Crane was and apparently still is the repository of top-secret material, including records of U.S. Naval code-breaking operations before and during the war.
To this writing, the records referred to by McKeon and Harris have not been found, but an effort to locate them continues. A search for truth is underway in Japan today as well. Fukiko Aoki, one of the brightest young writers and investigative journalists in Japan, has for more than a year been seeking answers in Japanese archives and from former Imperial Japanese Naval Officers.
What do I believe now after 23 years of research, including 12 trips to Saipan and four to Majuro Atoll in the Marshalls? Earhart and Noonan were cooperating with their government at the time of their disappearance, and there is strong testimony that an American man and woman, identified as fliers, were picked by Japanese military units somewhere and taken first to the Marshalls and then to Saipan. Just where the Electra landed is very much a matter of conjecture. If the Japanese know, they have said nothing.
(Editor’s note: Once again Goerner, by neglecting to reference Thomas E. Devine’s account to him in 1963 during their Saipan visit, which he included in Search, revealed his contempt for Devine and his claim that he saw the Electra on Saipan on three occasions in July 1944, the final time in flames. Devine said that before he left Saipan in August 1945, the remains of Amelia’s plane had been bulldozed into a huge hole underneath Aslito Airport, which is now Saipan International Airport, and there it remains to this day, along with untold tons of other war refuse, including Japanese planes destroyed during the Saipan invasion.)
If Earhart and Noonan were off course considerably to the north of Howland Island, they may have landed at Mili or one of the other islands in the southern Marshalls. Many believe that theory. If Amelia and Fred were blown south of their course because they did not receive the weather forecast predicting significant winds from the northeast, the Phoenix Islands surely would have been their alternate choice. Until the mystery reefs that lie between Howland and the Phoenix Islands are thoroughly searched and the lagoons of several of the islands are plumbed, the possibility the aircraft can be found remains.
Gen. Graves B. Erskine, USMC (Ret.) one of the U.S. Marine Corps’ most distinguished officers told CBS in a 1966 private interview, “We did learn that Earhart was on Saipan and that she died there.”
Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC (Ret.), who commanded the US Marine Corps during the later stages of WW II the Pacific wrote to me on August 10, 1971, “It was substantiated that Miss Earhart met her death on Saipan. The information was given to me directly by General Thomas Watson, who commanded the 2nd U.S. Marine Corps Division during the assault on Saipan in 1944.”
Saipan has many mysteries. Much more questioning of the Saipanese people has produced stories of an American woman spy from “Los Angeles“ who was executed in 1937. Was that woman Amelia Earhart? Or was it another woman sent by American intelligence to ascertain Japanese activities in the mandated islands — a woman whose mission and fate have never been revealed by anyone?
I believe the full truth will be made public in the not distant future. (End of “In Search of Amelia Earhart.”)
After writing “In Search of Amelia Earhart,” Goerner lived 10 more years before losing his battle to cancer in September 1994, dying at 69, but he would never again write so lucidly and boldly about the Earhart disappearance. In June 1977, Goerner appeared briefly in a muddled episode of the TV series In Search of . . . , narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and his final small screen appearance came in the popular Unsolved Mysteries program, with Robert Stack, where he shared time with Thomas E. Devine, T.C. “Buddy” Brennan and Robert E. Wallack in a 1990 presentation. It would also be the last time both he and Devine would have a national platform to share his Saipan experiences, though the Saipan veteran lived until 2003.
Fred Goerner remains the greatest of all Earhart researchers, despite his failings, which I’ve not been remiss in chronicling on this blog and in Truth at Last. The Search for Amelia Earhart was, by far, the most important Earhart disappearance book, but the fame and acclaim his 1966 bestseller brought was fleeting. Goerner and his message became anathema soon after Time magazine’s damning review of Search; henceforth, the mere mention of Amelia Earhart and Saipan in the same sentence was seldom heard in American media. To this day, anyone who dares say those words is, with few exceptions, banished to the land of fringe conspiracy theorists, where the truth, no matter how compelling, is deemed worthy only of ridicule and rejection. In fact, it’s worse now than ever.
Someday the Earhart truth will be universally recognized and acknowledged, but nothing in our current or past government’s actions should lead anyone to believe that disclosure is likely to occur in our lifetimes. The few who still care continue to work toward that eventuality, whenever it might come, and we never forget Fred Goerner and the other intrepid souls who blazed this lonely trail, lighting the way and making it just a little easier to tread.