It is nearly impossible to accurately quantify the number of eyewitnesses and witnesses to the presence and deaths of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan following their arrival there sometime in the summer of 1937. I’ve never tried, having seen others’ unsuccessful attempts to capture an arbitrary number that seems as fluid as mercury.
First, we have the native Saipanese witnesses, led by Josephine Blanco Akiyama, whose eyewitness account ignited Fred Goerner’s early 1960s investigations on Saipan that revealed the undeniable, shocking truth. Next are the American GI witnesses, featuring the myth-busting accounts of Thomas E. Devine, Robert E. Wallack, Earskin J. Nabers and a host of others who saw or had firsthand knowledge of the Earhart Electra and other hard evidence of Amelia’s presence on Saipan prior to the war.
Many others were privy to information gleaned in the postwar years, and then we have the issue of defining what actually constitutes a witness, not to mention the entirely separate grouping of Marshall Islands witnesses, to whom I devote the longest chapter in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last. Today’s post concerns a relatively obscure American witness from postwar Saipan, and though Charlotte White’s story is insignificant in the big picture, it’s yet another of countless footnotes to the Earhart saga.
In the Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune, of Dec. 27, 1990, Mrs. Charlotte White, of Burlington, Ky., described an incident that occurred while she was living on Saipan, from 1955 to 1961. Her husband, Edward, was a retired Army master sergeant and World War II prisoner of the Germans who was working for the CIA on Saipan. Mrs. White said she was being driven home one day when they were stopped by some reporters from Look magazine, who said they were doing a story about Amelia Earhart. Though White knew nothing about the Earhart disappearance at the time, she began asking questions, and soon she “met the police chief . . . who claimed to know Miss Earhart’s fate,” according to the Tribune. “The chief showed Mrs. White a leather fliers’ jacket that he said belonged to ‘the lady flier.’“ Following is the entire article, written by Jack Hicks, which also appeared in the Dallas Morning News:
BURLINGTON, Ky. — Few mysteries have intrigued the American public like the disappearance of flier Amelia Earhart. Speculation about Miss Earhart’s fate surfaces in books and the media from time to time. Recently the prime-time television show Unsolved Mysteries featured the 53-year-old puzzler. Charlotte White of Burlington, Ky., hasn’t solved the puzzle of Miss Earhart’s disappearance during a round-the-world flight in 1937. But Mrs. White can add a few pieces.
Mrs. White met a man on the Pacific island of Saipan who claimed to know Miss Earhart’s fate. The man, a police chief on the island, showed Mrs. White a leather flyer’s jacket that he said belonged to “the lady flyer.” In tropical Saipan, it’s unlikely a native would wear a leather jacket at any time of year. Mrs. White lived on Saipan from 1955 to 1961 with her husband, Edward, who has since died. A retired Army master sergeant and World War II prisoner of the Germans, White worked for the CIA.* “I’d heard about Amelia Earhart being missing, everybody in America had. But I never connected it with Saipan,” recalled Mrs. White, now 71. “Then one day I was being driven home, and we were stopped by some people who said they were from Look magazine, and were doing research on a story about Amelia Earhart.”
(Editor’s note: Edward White’s CIA affiliation was likely connected to the Naval Technical Training Unit (NTTU) on Saipan. In a July 1961 memorandum from Brig. General Edward G. Lansdale, Pentagon expert on guerrilla warfare, to Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, President John F. Kennedy’s military advisor on Resources for Unconventional Warfare, SE Asia, Lansdale wrote: “In 1948, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) closed off half of Saipan to islanders and outsiders, using the northern part of the island for covert military maneuvers. The end of WWII left a power vacuum that was being filled by communism; the Cold War objectives of the CIA’s covert facility on Saipan were to thwart communist expansion. The island’s remoteness and control by the military made it an ideal base for this training and the NTTU was established. The primary mission of the Saipan Training Station [was] to provide physical facilities and competent instructor personnel to fulfill a variety of training requirements including intelligence tradecraft, communications, counter-intelligence and psychological warfare techniques. Training [was] performed in support of CIA activities conducted throughout the Far East.”
The NTTU was established in 1953 and closed down in 1962. Fred Goerner wrote at length about the NTTU and its role in discouraging media from visiting Saipan in search of Amelia Earhart. See The Search for Amelia Earhart and Truth at Last, pages 104, 105 for more.)
Mrs. White began asking some questions of her own, and ultimately talked with the police chief, named Gurerro [sic]. He had been on the island when it was occupied by the Japanese, before American forces captured it in 1944. “He said he remembered the flyers, and he described Miss Earhart to a T,” White said. “She had curly brown hair. ‘They killed her,’ he said of the Japanese.” Gurerro told her that Miss Earhart’s plane had crashed near Saipan, apparently when it flew off course and ran out of fuel. “Her co-pilot [sic], Fred Noonan, was injured in the crash and soon died, the police chief said. He took me to Garapan, a large city which had been heavily damaged during the war, and showed me the place where he said they kept her in an underground cell. ‘She was very sick,’ he said.”
Miss Earhart was buried within the military’s postwar training ground, which is off-limits, according to Gurerro. Gurerro had the jacket hanging on a hook in his office. “He said it was the lady flyer’s jacket, but he didn’t say how he got it. I tried to touch it and he said, ‘No Missy, don’t touch.’ He let me look at it, but he wouldn’t let me touch it,” Mrs. White said. “I have absolutely nothing to authenticate any of this. All I know is what he told me all those years ago.”
The memory comes back to her from time to time, especially when someone mentions Amelia Earhart or something appears in the news or on television, such as the Unsolved Mysteries segment. No investigator has ever contacted her since she met the Look magazine reporters. She didn’t know anything at the time, she said. Her husband, who may have known something he never told her, admonished her not to talk about it. Edward White, who worked as a security guard after the family returned to Kentucky, died in 1989. Mrs. White would like to go back to Saipan for another look, but she isn’t keen on a flight across the ocean. She had enough of that, she says, as an Army and CIA wife. (Jack Hicks is a reporter for the Kentucky Post in Covington.)
Perhaps the most curious aspect of this story is that the police chief’s name was “Gurerro,” according to Mrs. White, and he had been on the island when it was occupied by the Japanese. Could this have been the same Jesús De Leon Guerrero, also known as Kumoi, who terrorized his fellow Saipanese as a Japanese collaborator and police officer before and during the war years?
Paul Briand Jr., author of the seminal 1960 book, Daughter of the Sky, which introduced the eyewitness account of Josephine Blanco Akiyama to the world, wrote in a 1966 essay, “Requiem for Amelia,” that Kumoi was 51 in 1937. In 1966, Briand wrote, Kumoi had “no official connections with either the American or Japanese government—he is a dealer in scrap metal.” Briand added that Guerrero was “still greatly feared and respected on Saipan as the man who could extract confessions out of anybody. For this reason he was very useful to the Japanese authorities on Saipan in dealing with the natives and getting necessary information out of prisoners.”
I haven’t been able to locate Jesús De Leon Guerrero’s obituary, and if any reader out there can help with that information, it would be most appreciated.
During the course of his early Earhart investigations, Fred Goerner, author of the classic 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart, wrote several letters to Leo Bellarts, the chief radioman aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca on July 2, 1937, who retired from the Coast Guard as a lieutenant in 1946. Most of Goerner’s letter of Nov. 30, 1961, below, was initially published in the July 1996 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, as was Bellarts’ reply of Dec. 15, 1961.
Many of the Goerner’s questions are still relevant today, especially since the American public has been fed a steady diet of disinformation for many decades by a U.S. media that hasn’t shown the slightest interest in learning the facts since Time magazine panned Search as a book that “barely hangs together” in its 1966 review that signaled the establishment’s aversion to the truth the KCBS newsman found on Saipan. Goerner died in 1994 at age 69, Bellarts in May 1974 at 66.
28 November 1961
1920 State St.
Mr. Fred Goerner,
San Francisco, Calif.
Dear Mr. Goerner,
I have just received a letter and an article from a San Diego paper relative to your attempt to establish identity of some bones and teeth you found on Saipan. Having a long time interest in the Earhart story I am curious just to know why you believe Earhart wound up on Saipan.
Last year I believe that you attempted to identify an airplane generator as belonging to the Earhart plane. I’m sure that if a search was made around Saipan that many planes could be found and parts by the thousands cold be located, but none from the Earhart plane.
My curiosity stems from the fact that I believe I was one of the very few people that heard the last message from the Earhart plane. I was the Chief Radioman on the USCG Itasca at Howland Island during her ill-fated trip. Having heard practically every transmission she made from about 0200 till her crash when she was very loud and clear, I can assure you that she crashed very near Howland Island. The only island near Howland that it would have been possible for her to land would have been Baker Island and she didn’t land there.
Considering the increase in her signal strength from her first to her last transmission there leaves no doubt in my mind that she now rests peacefully on the bottom of the sea, no farther than 100 miles from Howland. If you could have heard the last transmission, the frantic note and near hysteria in her voice you also would be convinced of her fate but not on Saipan.
I firmly believe that she died a hero in the public eye and that is the way I believe that she would like it to be.
Leo G. Bellarts
Lieut. USCG (Ret)
November 30, 1961
Leo G. Bellarts
Lieut. USCG (Ret)
1920 State Street
Dear Mr. Bellarts:
Your letter of the 28th just arrived, and I was delighted to receive it. I believe you may be able to answer a number of questions that have arisen from a thorough scrutiny of the official logs of the ITASCA and the Navy carrier, LEXINGTON. (Caps Goerner’s throughout.)
But, first, to answer your question: Why does CBS believe Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan?
Two expeditions to Saipan and three file cabinets filled with the most painstaking research concerning every aspect of the disappearance has given us very strong reasons to believe Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan for an indefinite period prior to the war. I might add that the Catholic Church authorities on Saipan and many of the Naval Officers at the Saipan facilities are also completely convinced. The Office of Naval Intelligence has admitted that their investigation of the testimony gathered from native Saipanese indicates that it cannot be discounted. Every attempt was made to puncture that testimony this last year, and in several cases it was impossible.
The main matter for conjecture is: How did Earhart and Noonan reach Saipan? Did they fly there in their Lockheed Electra, or were they taken to the Island by the Japanese after a landing in another area?
We have submitted the available information concerning the flight to a number of aviation experts familiar with that area of the Pacific, and all have said that it was physically possible for the plane to have flown to Saipan, but it certainly is not probable. The chances have been rated at one in a thousand to one in one hundred thousand.
The aircraft wreckage brought up from Tanapag Harbor during the expedition of June 1960 was almost an afterthought. Two native divers believed they knew where the wreckage of a twin-engine plane was in the harbor. We brought some of it to the surface with little hope it represented the Electra. The fact that a generator was a Japanese copy of the Bendix 50 amp which was carried on the Earhart craft gave hope for a brief time that it might be the proper one.
You are quite right in your assumption that the ocean floor surrounding Saipan is littered with wreckage, wreckage of every conceivable size and shape.
During my most recent trip to Saipan in September of this year, we further investigated the wreckage the generator was taken from, and definitely proved that the plane was Japanese and not Earhart’s Lockheed 10-E. A partially disintegrated name-plate on a direction finder had still legible Japanese markings.
The testimony about Earhart and Noonan being on the island, however, stood firm. The Navy had put two ONI men on the case, and their estimation was that the testimony from several reputable Saipanese in particular was irrefutable.
How then did Earhart and Noonan get to Saipan if they did not fly the Lockheed there. Commander Paul Bridwell, Commandant NavAd Saipan, came up with the answer. The pair had gone down in or near the Marshalls and had been brought to Saipan, then the military headquarters for the Mandates, by Japanese ship to Yap, and then a flight by Japanese Naval Seaplane. Bridwell said there was proof to this theory contained in the logs of four United States Logistic Vessels, THE GOLD STAR, THE BLACKHAWK, THE HENDERSON, and THE CHAUMOUNT, which had been plying the Pacific in 1938 and ’39 supplying the Far East Fleet. “Certain coded messages sent from Japanese vessels and shore installations,” said Bridwell, “were intercepted by these ships.”
The Japanese code was not broken until just before the war, so I gather these messages may not have been decoded until just recently. That’s the only reason I can imagine why these messages have not been brought to light before. (Editor’s note: At the time of this letter, Goerner lacked important information about U.S. code-breaking abilities in 1937. See pages 263-264 of Truth at Last, Second Edition, for more on this complex issue.)
December 10, 1961
As you can see, there has been considerable delay in the completion of this letter. Dr. [Theodore] McCown’s findings regarding the remains has touched off a chain reaction that has kept me away from my office until today.
To say that McCown’s findings were a disappointment is an understatement; however, it in no way changes our basic hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan. As Dr. McCown put it,”It doesn’t mean you weren’t on the right track. You may have missed the actual grave site by six inches. That’s the way it is with archeology.”
(Editor’s note: Dr. Theodore McCown was the University of California anthropologist who examined bones excavated by Goerner from a Saipan gravesite in 1961. See pages 224-225 of Truth at Last for more.)
Along with this letter, I am sending you our most recent press release which details many of the things I have already discussed.
Now, if I may, I would like to ask you several questions. As you were present on the ITASCA the morning of July 2, 1937, perhaps you can clarify some points that seem most enigmatic to us.
Why do many people cling to the theory that the Earhart radio was incapable of transmitting more than 50 to 100 miles when the last check-in with Lae, New Guinea was 785 miles out at 5:20 in the afternoon?
Why was “30 minutes of gas remaining” changed to read “but are running low on gas”?
Why do many people say the Earhart radio receiver was not functioning when one of the messages received by the ITASCA states, “We are receiving your signals, but they are too weak for a minimum”?
Why wasn’t Earhart alerted to the fact that a special direction finder had been set up aboard the ITASCA?
Why was a Lt. [Daniel A.] Cooper of the U.S. Army Air Forces aboard the ITASCA the morning of the disappearance?
Why is there a complete absence of any mention of the Coast Guard Vessel ONTARIO in the log of the ITASCA? The ONTARIO was a weather ship stationed at the half-way point of the flight. Didn’t the ONTARIO ever read the Earhart plane during the flight? If the ONTARIO didn’t read Earhart, why not? The flight plan would have taken the Electra fight over the ONTARIO.
Why wasn’t the emergency 3105 direction finder set up on Howland Island able to cut in the Earhart plane if the plane was as close to the island as everyone supposed?
Was there anything else beside “strength of signal” that lead those aboard the ITASCA to believe Earhart was within 50 to 100 miles of the vessel?
What was the first reaction of those aboard the ITASCA to “We are 157-337, running north and south”? Did they think it a radio bearing or a sun line? Certainly no one could have believed it a position that an experienced navigator such as Noonan would send if he knew where he was.
Why did the LEXINGTON base its search on the July 2 group of messages rather than the July 5 group? The July 5 group paint an entirely different picture, especially 0515: “200 miles” and 0545: “100 miles.” If the plane made 100 miles in 30 minutes, it’s quite obvious Earhart and Noonan figured their air speed at 200 miles per hour, which is far different than the 111 miles per hour the LEXINGTON assumed. The Electra was capable of 200 miles an hour top speed, but Earhart, conserving gas, would have been at cruise speed of 155. They must have picked up a tail wind, and the ITASCA log indicated the wind had shifted from the southeast.
I know these are a lot of questions, but there is so much that is inexplicable. Would you be so kind as to clarify some of these points for us? We will be most grateful.
Thank you so much for your time and interest.
Frederick A. Goerner
News Dept., KCBS Radio
San Francisco, California
In future posts, thanks to the generous contributions of Dave Bellarts, of Lakewood, Wash., son of Leo, we’ll continue this fascinating correspondence between history’s foremost Earhart investigator and arguably the most reliable eyewitness aboard Itasca when Amelia sent her final “official” message that fateful July morning.