Weishien Telegram: Another sensation that fizzled

We begin 2017 with a look at the notorious Weishien 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.  This 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 Weishien, 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 Weishien falsehood, we’ll hear from others involved in the promotion and debunking of this once-popular idea.

Longtime researcher Ron Bright, of Bremerton, Wash.,

In 2001,. longtime researcher Ron Bright, of Bremerton, Wash., with a few associates, debunked the Weishien Telegram theory, which proponents claimed showed that Amelia Earhart was alive in a Japanese civilian internment camp in 1945.

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 Weishien. Shantung Compound is Gilkey’s account of his experience there. Gilkey was released from captivity on Sept. 25, 1945.

Undated photo of Langdon Brown Gilkey....

Undated photo of Langdon Brown Gilkey, author of the 1966 book Shantung Compound, his first-person account of American and British nationals in China who were incarcerated by the Japanese at the Weishien, China civilian internment center for several years during World War II. Gilkey, who authored 20 books, has been called “one of the most influential American Christian theologians of the 20th century,” by a colleague who taught alongside him at the University of Chicago for 20 years. Gilkey passed away in Charlottesville, Va., at 85 in November 2004.

In his letter to Steigmann, Gilkey says, “I have never heard of the Yank female, nor of her solitary captivity in Weishien. 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 Weishien 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 Weishien. 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 Weishien “Civilian Assembly Center.” Masters, who was held at Weishien with her family, briefly discusses the alleged Earhart-Weishien connection and says she recently located the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) major who commanded the operation to liberate Weishien in 1945.

“The first time he heard of Amelia Earhart supposedly being in Weishien 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 Weishien 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.”

This is the story of one such group of American, British, and Allied nationals who were caught in North China and imprisoned in Wei-Hsien (Way-shen) Prison Camp in Shandong Province.

Pamela Masters’ 1998 memoir, The Mushroom Years, is “the story of a group of a group of American, British, and Allied nationals who were caught in North China and imprisoned in Wei-Hsien (Way-shen) [sic] Prison Camp [sic] in Shandong Province,” according to Masters’ website.

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 Weishien, 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 Weishien 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 Weishien, 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.”

The infamous Weihsien Telegram, which caused such an uproar in the Earhart research community during the 1990s.

The infamous Weihsien Telegram, which caused an uproar in the Earhart research community during the 1990s.

Steigmann also advocated the Joe Gervais-Joe Klass 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 Weishien 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. Since it was unsigned, Putnam would know it was from his son of a prior marriage,” Devine wrote. “‘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 Weishien 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 Weishien 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.

Ahmad Kamal, circa 1935, who sent the "Love to Mother" speed letter from Weihsien, China, to George Putnam in August 1945.

Ahmad Kamal, circa 1935, who sent the “Love to Mother” telegram from Weihsien, China, to George Putnam in August 1945. The speedletter created a sensation among Earhart researchers when it was discovered in U.S. State Department archives in 1987.

Bright found that the author of the controversial telegram was Turkish author and world traveler Ahmad Kamal, who was interned at Weishien 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 Weishien” 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 Weishien 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 Weishien 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 Weishien 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 Weishien Camp in the summer of 1943. There they remained until liberated in August 1945.

Turan-Mirza Kamal (1951–2004) an American-born classical guitarist and composer, in Southern California, and the veil on the Weishien 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.

Turan-Mirza Kamal (1951–2004) an American-born classical guitarist and composer, in Southern California, and the veil on the Weishien 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.

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 Weishien 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.

This lengthy story by Ahmad Kamal appeared in the Sept. 26, 1953 Saturday Evening Post.

This compelling first-person account by Ahmad Kamal appeared in the Sept. 26, 1953 Saturday Evening Post.

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.”

10 responses

  1. Thank you very much Mike, for another great article. I would only add that the idea about Amelia Earhart being a “double agent” and “helping” Japanese to develop Zero or any other plane, as lunatic as it is, is very illustrative and shows very well how far the ignorance and lack of historic knowledge and erudition can lead the overenthusiastic researcher biten by a “conspirology” bug. The appearance of such wild ideas could be explained in 1940s – 50s – when the knowledge of technical history of Japanese aviation on the West was very limited. But already by 60-70s it was already researched and documented pretty well, and by now it is known not less then the technical history of the US or British aviation. So by now anybody who would accept such ideas seriously, or promote them, can also claim that the US wartime P-51s or B-29s were secretly designed and produced on the Moon, or any other fantasy like that… with the same degree of historic credibility.

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  2. It is an interesting article, and probably is correct that Amelia was not held at the camp in China, but there really isn’t anything conclusive about the article or its arguments regarding Amelia’s survival.

    One of the key points in the article for Amelia not being in the camp is that there was no one with her name on the list of camp detainees:while it is true there is no “Earhart” on that list, there IS a “Putnam” so that aspect of the article doesn’t necessarily prove anything.

    Insofar as Kamal having been “proven” to have authored the “Love to Mother” letter, the article doesn’t really prove that. The article makes the leap of faith that because a fellow asked George Putnam to keep an eye on his mother during the war that this person would send a brief, unsigned telegram to Putnam asking him to convey his love to his mother. That makes no sense. Why wouldn’t he have sent a telegram to his mother rather than expect an acquaintance like Putnam to deduce from an unsigned telegram that this was Kamal?
    Was GPP somehow to deduce that this telegram was from Kamal with no reference to who the author was? While it’s nice that Kamal’s son supposedly recalls two telegrams from the camp, even these seem anomalous — why send one to GPP rather than a family member, and if Kamal would entrust concerns about his mother to Putnam, why wouldn’t he have contacted Putnam directly about publishing his war memoirs?

    I doubt that Amelia was in that detention camp too, but the article is at most interesting speculation, and doesn’t conclusively prove anything.

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    1. Your “logic” is sadly lacking, Mr. Emanuele, and I would venture to say Ron Bright would agree with me. Kamal’s son told Bright that the telegram was from his father to George Putnam, end of story. All the other details are there for anyone to inspect. And where did you get the idea that there was anyone named Putnam at Weishien? Not from this piece, from which I quote: “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.

      I suggest you re-read the article, and perhaps reconsider your position.

      MC

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      1. The article says there’s no one in the list with that name, presumably meaning “Earhart.” But look at the list itself. There is a Putnam about halfway through the list.

        Insofar as the son’s recollections, he may be right. I’m just puzzled as to how George Putnam was expected to know from whom the telegram was coming if indeed it was coming from Kamal, who was neither a family member nor a very close friend. Why omit a signature? And the son’s recollection is anomalous with respect to the second letter. Putnam published a substantial number of books for Harcourt, Brace, and some under his own name. If Kamal knew Putnam so closely that he would expect an unsigned telegram’s author to be obvious, then why would he be bypassing GPP and be asking Scribner’s to be the publisher? That makes no sense at all.

        I have no particular belief that the telegram proves Amelia survived through the war, I’m just not satisfied that the article proves anything conclusive. Like you, I try to rely on first sources. The only first sources we have here are an unsigned telegram and the camp detainee list that has a “Putnam” on it.

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      2. Do you have a copy of the list of the Weishien internees? I DO NOT, and am reporting only what Bright told me about it. You say there is a Putnam on the list, halfway down, and I will give you the benefit of the doubt. What that means is another question, though it’s not Amelia Earhart. Meanwhile I’ve asked Bright for his comments, but he’s indisposed for now.
        MC

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      3. Ben,
        I received the following from Ron Bright yesterday, and he asked me to post it. I also found a website with a list of the Weishien internees, and it doesn’t have anyone named Putnam on it. Here’s the link, followed by Bright’s comments:

        http://www.weihsien-paintings.org/RonBridge/habitants/FullList.htm

        Mike,
        I have the entire list dated 30 June 44 but no “Putnam” or related name on this list. I would ask Ben to send you a copy of his internee list. Recall the only unsigned msg was from someone who knew GP’s address and asking for him to check on his mother. I wonder if the list that Ben has also shows a MSG from the “Putnam” to his relative.

        Many jumped to conclusion about the “love to mother” salutation at the end of the msg as who else but AE who would know GP’s Holly wood address by heart and want to convey a warm wish to her mother. The answer lies in the investigation of Kamal . He passed on this “unauthorized” msg because the internees were limited to one msg, and Kamal already sent on to his family. Hence the “LTM” unsigned msg.

        Why would Kamal send a msg to GP. Well my investigation, including the FBI FOIA documents, shows that GP took a great interest in a” young man” in LA in 1939 who was already supplying the Japanese with low level intel re ship movements, according to GP. KAMAL was a very attractive guy to GP. They met in LA on some kind of movie.

        Putnam, ever the patriot [ a former FBI agent and friend of Hoover], tried to recruit Kamal for the FBI to spy on the Japs. They became very close. Putnam arranged a meeting with the FBI at his home, but although seen by the agents in his living room, they declined to approach KAMAL, stating that the FBI was not interested in him because they did not have jurisdiction over foreign intelligence in 1937, but recommended he talk to ONI.

        Kamal and GP became, as I said, close and this is when GP learned that Kamal’s mother lived in LA too. Thus this relationship was the connection of the unsigned msg to GP regarding his request to check on his mother in LA mother. Kamal had been to GPs house in Hollywood and of course knew the address. This really just a short summary.

        Your free to forward this on to Ben and if he wants I can further expand.

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  3. “…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)…”

    I have searched for this article by Bill P., but can not find any mention of it at this link (below)… ….was it in another issue of Ommi mag?
    https://omnimagindex.wordpress.com/contents-pages/

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    1. Dave,

      The link you sent shows only the front, or index page of the magazine. Prymak’s comments were in the “Continuum” section of the magazine, which is like a compendium of smaller items of interest. So you won’t see any headlined stories in the index related to Prymak and the Weishien Telegram.

      MC

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  4. Thanks Mike… I thought that might be the explanation.
    Bill Prymak also had an interesting letter published in Air Classics around that same time.
    It was another, as you say, “…informed rebuttal of the false claims by (TIGHAR)…”

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  5. The unsigned telegram and researchers jump to conclusions. Another example of, Amelia Earhart mistaken identity. There should be an *[AWARD of STUPIDITY] presented to such claims as this; and a plaque given to, none other than, Ric Gillespie/TIGHAR’s denial of the TRUTH.

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