We begin 2017 with a look at the notorious Weihsien Telegram, as it was known, one of the more sensational claims we’ve seen in recent years. In 2001, this hot potato was relegated to the dustbin of dead-end myth, when researcher Ron Bright definitively disproved the idea that Amelia Earhart had been confined at the Weihsien, China civilian internment camp during World War II.
The notion sprang from the 1987 discovery in State Department archives of an unsigned telegram, or “speedletter” to George Putnam from Weihsien in 1945; Amelia Earhart was soon “identified” as its sender by a group heavily invested in the Amelia Earhart-as-Irene Bolam canard. The unsigned telegram reads, “Camp liberated — all well — volumes to tell — love to mother.” Sent from Weihsien, north China, and dated Aug. 28, 1945, this document created a huge buzz among researchers who speculated it could have been sent by Amelia herself.
During the ensuing debate within the Amelia Earhart Society, Bright, working with Patrick Gaston, an Overland Park, Kansas, attorney, obtained key documents, witness accounts and other evidence that helped put the lie to this lingering pest of a theory. Before we get to Bright’s findings, which hammered the final nails in the coffin of the Weihsien falsehood, we’ll hear from others involved in the promotion and debunking of this once-popular idea.
In the September 1993 issue of Omni Magazine, Amelia Earhart Society President Bill Prymak offered an informed rebuttal of the false claims by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) that Earhart crashed-landed on Nikumaroro Atoll, formerly known as Gardner Island, in the central Pacific’s Phoenix Chain. As for her true fate, Prymak said he had “tantalizing evidence but nothing concrete. We do have a telegram from her to her husband, George Putnam, which was dated Aug. 28, 1945, from a prison camp in China.” Thus, Joe Gervais’ long-discredited claim in Amelia Earhart Lives that Earhart had lived in the Emperor of Japan’s palace before returning to the United States as New Jersey housewife Irene Bolam was transformed into an equally implausible — if less glamorous — scenario. Bright’s findings would later force Prymak and most others to admit their errors, but not before several years of confusion had passed.
Though Prymak and many of his AES associates believed that the telegram sent to George Putnam “informed Putnam that his wife was alive” in a Japanese internment camp in 1945, others with knowledge soon attempted to debunk this notion. In late July 1993, Devine sent me a copy of a recent letter from Langdon Gilkey, 73, author of Shantung Compound (Harper and Row, 1966) to retired New York Police Department forensic specialist and Earhart theorist Jerome Steigmann, who died in 2003, as did Devine.
In 1943 Gilkey was an American bachelor teaching at Peking’s Yenching University, a privately owned Anglo-American school and one of 10 “Christian Colleges” in China. Gilkey was advised by the Japanese that he and other American and British nationals then in Peking would be sent to a “civilian internment center” for their “safety and comfort.” Many people, including doctors, professors, instructors, businessmen, missionaries and travelers were incarcerated in the facility in Weihsien. Shantung Compound is Gilkey’s account of his experience there. Gilkey was released from captivity on Sept. 25, 1945.
In his letter to Steigmann, Gilkey says, “I have never heard of the Yank female, nor of her solitary captivity in Weihsien. I am also as positive as I am of anything in my life that this story is fiction, that, in other words, it did not and could not have happened without one hearing or knowing of it. I am, as I say, as sure of this as I am of anything in my past.”
“Not one person of the hundred or possibly thousands of internees held at Weihsien has ever reported Earhart’s presence at the camp,” Devine wrote in “The Concealed Grave of Amelia Earhart,” his unpublished manuscript. “Langdon Gilkey certainly would have known, as he emphatically states.”
Responding to my July 2001 letter asking his clearance to quote him in my 2002 book, With Our Own Eyes: Eyewitnesses to the Final Days of Amelia Earhart, Steigmann provided more evidence against the idea that Earhart spent time at Weihsien. He sent copies of a few introductory pages to The Mushroom Years: A Story of Survival (Henderson House Publishing, 1998), by Pamela Masters, another veteran of the Weihsien “Civilian Assembly Center.” Masters, who was held at Weihsien with her family, briefly discusses the alleged Earhart-Weihsien connection and says she recently located the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) major who commanded the operation to liberate Weihsien in 1945.
“The first time he heard of Amelia Earhart supposedly being in Weihsien was in December of ’97,” Masters wrote in her opening note to The Mushroom Years. “And to all those souls who want to find closure regarding Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, I empathize with you, but all I can say is: Forget Weihsien — look somewhere else.”
Steigmann also sent Devine a copy of a letter from former Col. John A. White of Millbrae, California, who wrote, “I have never heard anything about Amelia Earhart being a prisoner in China.” White told Steigmann a friend of his had been interned in Weihsien during World War II. Devine wrote to this woman, who informed Devine, “I have asked old friends whether the rumor was true about Amelia Earhart coming into the camp at the end of the war, and protected by Catholic priests and sisters. NO is the big answer.”
Gilkey did not respond to Devine’s correspondence, but in another letter to him, Steigmann wrote, “In addition to the Gilkey letter, I have been in contact with other former internees of the Weihsien, China Camp. They all agree Amelia Earhart was never in the hospital or any other part of the camp.”
In late August 1993, Steigmann took his information to the Amelia Earhart Symposium, sponsored by the Amelia Earhart Society and held at Morgan Hill, Calif. There, amid a gathering of AES luminaries including Gervais, Prymak and Reineck, Steigmann ripped a gaping hole in the Weihsien Telegram theory: “The ‘Heavy Hitters’ of the AES were putting the audience to sleep,with their boring discussions about fuel, navigation, radio messages, etc.,” Steigmann wrote. “Ann P. [Pellegreno] persuaded the ‘Good Ole Boys’ to let me speak, and I ‘Awakened Them’ very fast, and even though there was a time limit, the audience insisted that I have all the time I needed to finish my scenarios. The AES ‘Clique’ [sic] were upset that they were upstaged by an ‘outsider!’ During the breaks, I was surrounded by publishers, authors, members of female flying groups, etc., who wanted me to speak at other events. Rollin Reineck, of Hawaii, who still claims Amelia was ‘interned’ at Weihsien, China, was not too happy when I produced additional letters from former camp residents that AE was never at the camp.”
Steigmann’s derailing of the telegram theory was convincing enough for Prymak and company to rethink their ideas. In the Dec. 3, 1993 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, Prymak wrote, “Steigmann’s conclusions seem most logical.”
Meanwhile, Steigmann had other ideas about the Earhart disappearance, strange flights of fancy far removed from logic. In Steigmann’s world, Amelia was a “double agent, working simultaneously for the U.S. Marine Corps, the ONI and the Japanese from the early 1920s through her contact with Admiral Yamamoto and Japanese Naval Intelligence: As an agent for Japan, Amelia Earhart rendered technical assistance to the Japanese Naval air forces and in the development of their fighter plane, the Zero. She furnished Japanese Naval Air Intelligence photos of U.S. Army and Navy airfields in Hawaii as well as their schedules.”
Steigmann also advocated the Joe Gervais-Joe Klaas idea that Earhart lived in the Japanese Imperial Palace during the war: “When Amelia was liberated from ‘guest status’ at the Imperial Palace, she was secretly repatriated to the U.S. by the unseen hand of the Secretary of the Navy Forrestal. It was Forrestal who had inherited the Amelia Earhart mission from his predecessors, who was the prime architect when Amelia was facially renovated at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.”
Steigmann concluded his fantasy by claiming Earhart “is still alive, at 96, awaiting the appropriate time to emerge from her long exile.” Steigmann sent Devine a copy of an unidentified tabloid with a picture of Earhart, Fred Noonan and the Electra. The story is headlined “Amelia Earhart’s Plane Is Found — In Japan” and subtitled “U.S. knew it for 48 years.” As if this validated Steigmann’s ideas, he wrote over the headline, “It was never on Aslito Airfield, Saipan!” and under the subtitle he wrote, “So did Jerry Steigmann.”
Devine had no use for such delusions, nor did he need Steigmann to shed the light of truth on the Weihsien Telegram theory. He already possessed decades-old information that strongly suggested the possible identity of the telegram’s originator, and it certainly wasn’t Amelia Earhart.
“Many years ago, during my early investigation, I had located the son of George Putnam. David Binney Putnam was in the real estate business in Florida,” Devine explained. “During our phone conversation, he was a bit cool regarding Amelia since it was Amelia who parted his parents. I questioned as to which branch of the service he may have served in during the war. He immediately responded he had spent most of the war years in a prison camp in China. I did not want it to appear that I was about to cross-examine him so I did not press on which branch of the service he may have served in. But he may have been incarcerated as an American citizen, or he could have been employed in clandestine activities involving our secret Office of Strategic Services [OSS].”
Devine said that when he first heard about the telegram, he was merely amused. He recalled visiting Muriel Morrissey in Boston in 1961: “She was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned David Binney Putnam, and asked me for his address, which I forwarded to her on a later date. She had lost track of him for many years. He was, she said, in a prisoner-of-war camp, which she thought was in China. When I first saw the news item of a woman in Washington who had found the cablegram, unsigned, I thought it may have been one that he had sent to his father. I never realized that Gervais and his cohorts would stipulate it was from Amelia. I had nothing in writing to refute them, only a phone conversation.”
Seeking to confirm his theory, Devine tried to contact David Binney Putnam in 1993, but learned he had passed away in May 1992. Hoping David’s brother, George P. Putnam Jr., could help clear things up, Devine was initially disappointed. Finally responding to Devine’s inquiries, Putnam told Devine he hadn’t the “faintest idea” what he was talking about. “No member of our family was ever in prison in China during the WWII era,” Putnam told Devine.
“If Putnam had received a telegram from his wife Amelia in 1945, he would have announced it to the entire world,” Devine wrote. “Since it was unsigned, Putnam would know it was from his son of a prior marriage. ‘Love to mother’ was indicative of this association. Prymak’s remark, ‘We do have a telegram from her to her husband George Putnam which was dated Aug. 28, 1945 from a prison camp in China’. . . perpetuates the three-ring atmosphere, rather than the authenticity of the tragedy that befell Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. Perhaps the general public is receptive to some of the rumors peddled by these individuals, since they are so succinctly resolved. But because of my firsthand knowledge and eyewitness involvement, I feel it is sickening.”
The Weihsien Telegram’s true author found
As it turned out, Devine’s best guess was wrong. Ron Bright and Patrick Gaston initiated a well-executed investigation aimed at nailing the source of the Weihsien Telegram, the details and results of which were initially published in the May 2001 TIGHAR Tracks newsletter. As I’m not a member of TIGHAR, Bright kindly provided a copy for my use, and it was included in With Our Own Eyes.
Bright found that the author of the controversial telegram was Turkish author and world traveler Ahmad Kamal, who was interned at Weihsien from summer 1943 to August 1945. Kamal knew George Putnam well enough to ask him to look in on his elderly mother, who apparently lived in the Los Angeles area, while he was away. Bright also secured what he called “the entire list of the 1,800 plus internees at Weihsien” from former camp administrator Desmond Powers, a Canadian. Needless to say, Amelia Earhart’s name wasn’t on the list.
(Editor’s note: A google search reveals a site that contains a spread sheet that claims to be said list of Weihsien internees. Neither Amelia Earhart nor any Putnam is on it. To view the list, please click here.)
Kamal died in 1989, but Bright found his son, Turan-Mirza Kamal (1951–2004) an American-born classical guitarist and composer, in Southern California, and the veil on the Weihsien mystery was finally lifted. Kamal told Bright his father was a pilot, and kept his airplane at Burbank Airport in the early 1930s, where he met Howard Hughes, George Putnam and Amelia Earhart.
Bright’s investigation finally put the Weihsien speculation to rest. Here is the former ONI agent’s summary of his findings:
Sometime about 1939–1940, Kamal returned to China where he met and married his wife at Tientsin, China. The war broke out in December 1941 and, soon afterward, the Japanese Secret Police captured him and his wife. Refusing to cooperate, they were transferred to Weihsien Camp in the summer of 1943. There they remained until liberated in August 1945.
According to his son, shortly after the camp was liberated, Kamal sent out two radio messages: One to Scribner and Sons about publishing a book, and one to George Putnam. His son said he has seen either notes or a journal of that message and could repeat it almost by heart — something like “camp liberated, all was well, volumes to follow and love to mother.” The “love to mother” was added, said Kamal’s son, because Putnam had agreed to look after Kamal’s aging mother when Kamal left for China. Mrs. Kamal lived nearby and Putnam was to look in on her. It was an informal caregiver arrangement.
Kamal said his father often discussed Amelia Earhart and the mystery of her disappearance, and believed she went down in the sea. The elder Kamal had also told his son that Earhart was not at Weihsien while he was there, from 1942 until August 1945.
Kamal was an American, and probably a convert to Islam, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ian Johnson, author of A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). Johnson obtained Kamal’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, which reveals that Kamal was born on Feb. 2, 1914, in Arvada, Colo., and his birth name was Cimarron Hathaway; his mother was Caroline Grossmann Hathaway, his father, James Worth Hathaway. According to an interview Johnson obtained with a daughter, James was a stepfather and Cimarron’s biological father was Qara Yusuf, a Uyghur from Turkestan who was much older than Caroline – he was 64 and she 16 when they married.
Kamal’s 1940 book Land Without Laughter, was “one of those fascinating, slightly archaic, offbeat adventure books set in that mysterious region, Chinese Turkestan,” wrote Leslie Evans, whose review of A Mosque in Munich and more on Kamal can be found online at “The Strange Career of Ahmad Kamal and How He Helped the CIA Invite Radical Islam into Europe.” Kamal also wrote Full Fathom Five (Doubleday & Co. 1948), “a wonderful story of the sponge fishermen Americans of Greek ancestry of Tarpon Springs, Florida, their strange and beautiful customs, and the warmth and goodness of their way of life,” according to the book’s paperback description on Amazon.com. “It is a story told by Alek Paradisis, a man who believed he could solve any problem with his fist.”