When the Almighty made Thomas E. Devine, He broke the mold. What He said when Devine returned to Him in September 2003 at age 88, only He and Devine know. But if I had never met the Saipan veteran and author of one of the most important Earhart disappearance books, I wouldn’t have become involved with the Earhart story, and today I’d be doing something entirely different with my life. I can’t conceive of what that might be.
I read Devine’s 1987 classic, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, for the first time in the spring of 1988, as I researched an assignment to do a news story about the so-called Earhart “mystery” as a civilian writer for the Navy Editor Service in Arlington, Va. The piece went out to the fleet worldwide, as well as all Navy shore stations and Marine Corps bases, for use in their local newspapers, radio stations and other official media. I’ve always considered it extremely ironic that the first story I ever wrote about the Earhart case was facilitated by the same U.S. Navy that has been so intimately involved with the cover-up and suppression of the truth, practically from the very beginning of the Earhart search.
I’ll have more to say about Thomas Devine and his contributions to the Earhart saga, as well as the strange and sometimes tenuous nature of our relationship, in future posts. But today, for those who haven’t read Devine’s extraordinary Eyewitness, this brief, cryptic chapter from the book provides a glimpse into the sometimes bizarre world of the man who once stood on the wing of Amelia Earhart’s Electra, NR 16020, at the captured Japanese Aslito Airfield on Saipan in July 1944.
As Sgt. Thomas Devine peered into the famed Electra’s cluttered interior, which he once described as “littered with broken glass” in a letter to me, he was looking into already forbidden American history, as well as a vision that would define and shape his life from that day until his last.
FROM SAIPAN TO BOSTON
Since Mrs. Odlum could not supply the dental records, I arranged to visit Earhart’s sister, Muriel Earhart Morrissey, of West Medford, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. (Bold emphasis mine throughout.) I arrived at the Boston depot early on Sunday, 16 July 1961. While proceeding with a crowd of passengers to find local transportation, a man about thirty years old pushed his way through the crowd. There was nothing remarkable about him, except that he stepped directly in front of me and called a peculiar invitation to the crowd.
“Anyone here on their way to West Medford?” he asked. “I’m taking my cab to the garage and I have a ride – a free ride.”
So many quickly accepted the driver’s offer that I decided against the free ride to West Medford. Yet for some reason, the man singled me out.
“Are you going to West Medford?” he inquired. “Yes,” I replied, “but I’ll find another cab.”
“Wait right where you are; don’t go away,” he ordered. “I’ll get the cab and be right back.”
Others in the crowd persisted, but he put them off saying, “I don’t have any more room.”
The cabbie again told me to wait and amazingly he did return, and escorted me to his cab. Oddly, there were no other passengers in the vehicle. Since I expected others to be joining us, I sat in front. But when three prospective passengers arrived to claim their free ride, the cabbie turned them away!
“Turn on the meter,” I said as the driver got in. “I’ll be more than happy to pay.”
“It’s a free ride,” he countered. “I’m returning the cab to the garage. You’re lucky you ran into me because cabs don ‘t operate on Sundays.” Reluctantly he accepted a dollar tip, and off we drove. The driver never asked my destination; we had little conversation. Shortly after entering West Medford, he stopped.
“This is as far as I go,” he said.
“Thanks. Do you have any idea where Vernon Street is?”
“This is it, right up the hill. It’s that corner house,” he said, pointing.
“Oh, I’m looking for number one,” I remarked absently. “That’s it, the corner house on the hill, where Amelia Earhart’s sister lives.”
“Thanks again,” I replied.
Completely baffled by this whole encounter, I walked up the short hill and was greeted by Mrs. Morrissey. Her husband [Albert Morrissey, who died in 1978], a former Navy man, had hoped to be there, but he had to work. She had advised the Navy of our appointment, she said, but had received no reply. I was curious why she had contacted the Navy, but I didn’t ask.
Mrs. Morrissey was charming and gracious. The resemblance to her famous sister was so striking that she could be taken, for Amelia herself. We enjoyed an amiable discussion for several hours. She said she knew of my efforts, and was interested in the real solution to her sister’s mysterious disappearance. I related the information I had concerning the gravesite on Saipan, as well as a summary of my efforts to obtain a dental chart. Mrs. Morrissey said both she and her sister had dental work done in Boston many years before, although she could not recall the name of their dentist. Later, I spent many hours in Boston attempting to locate Earhart’s dental chart, but to no avail.
Mrs. Morrissey said she had sought information about her sister’s fate from the Japanese government, but her requests went unanswered. Their mother [Amy Otis Earhart], who was bedridden and living in the Morrissey home, believed Amelia was on an intelligence flight* for the United States government when she and Fred Noonan disappeared. I could not corroborate Mrs. Earhart’s belief, but I assured Mrs. Morrissey, “I am certain of the events that occurred while I was on Saipan. I only want an opportunity to bring forth the proof, and your sister’s dental chart would be of prime importance in doing so.”
Mrs. Morrissey mentioned that she had been visited recently by Paul Briand [Jr.], who was associated with Joseph Gervais and Robert Dinger. Briand, she said, was writing a thesis about Earhart which he hoped would evolve into his second book.
Over the years, she said several people had brought information to her, which they irresponsibly claimed would solve the Earhart mystery. These sensational disclosures had put a tremendous strain on the family. I hoped Mrs. Morrissey was not classing my investigation with those. After years of investigative failures, she said she had accepted the 1937 report that Amelia Fred were lost at sea near Howland Island.* I pointed out that no physical evidence substantiated this conclusion. I reviewed how the gigantic sea and air search for Earhart and Noonan had fail to turn up one scrap of wreckage or equipment.
We both enjoyed our conversation, but an odd thing happened as I was preparing to leave. Mrs. Morrissey went to a window where the shade was pulled. She raised and lowered the wind shade its full length, then made a remark about protecting room from the effect of the sun. Saying she would be right back to see me off, she excused herself to look in on her mother. After Mrs. Morrissey left, I peeked out the window. A short distance from the house, I saw two men. One was the cabbie who had driven me from the depot. I did not recognize the other, who was shorter and stockier.
Saying goodbye, I left the house and walked down the hill. The two men were nowhere to be seen. As I rounded the corner, looking for transportation to Boston, there was the cab driver! Without the slightest awkwardness, he directed me to a stop on the MTA which would shuttle me back to Boston. While I was waiting for the local train, I noticed the man who had been talking to the cab driver, standing a short distance from me.
Back at the depot, I stopped for a quick lunch. Except for two people at a table, the restaurant was empty. Presently two men and a woman entered the restaurant and claimed a table. The woman then walked behind the counter where I was seated, and went into the kitchen with my waiter. I caught only a portion of their whispered conversation, but she asked him for an apron. I paid no particular attention to the woman, who was apparently serving the two men at the table behind me. Suddenly she said, “You’ll have to sit at one of the tables, or I can’t serve you.”
Since I was nearly finished, I said nothing, but the woman persisted.
“You’ll have to sit at one of the tables.”
Contemplating another cup of coffee, I agreed to move. Turning, I saw the cab driver and the man who had been talking with him outside the Morrissey home. I pretended not to recognize them and took a seat a few tables away. They seemed oblivious to me. After I was seated, the two men began a real show. The woman encouraged me to speak to the men about their foul language, but I declined; then they pretended to argue. “Here I invite you in for a drink,” the cab driver roared, “but you don’t reciprocate!”
I stole a glance at their table and saw three full beers in front of the man. Again the woman prodded me to speak up, but I refused.
The cab driver pounded on the table, threatening to beat up the other man. They rose and left. Amazingly, the woman urged to go out and intervene, but I had seen enough of this ridiculous charade. I was not about to be relieved of my briefcase. Instead, I left the restaurant by another door. Shortly, who should I spy amidst a group of passengers in the depot but the cab driver! As I looked toward him, he turned his head. Finally my train arrived, and I boarded, but there was the cab driver, also boarding. Thoroughly unnerved, I walked to the last car and stepped off just as the train started moving.
Unfortunately, there was a long interval before the next train to New Haven. I wandered around in the railroad station until I found myself back at the restaurant, deciding to risk a cup of coffee.
The same waiter was behind the counter, but I did not see the man.
“Where’s your waitress?” I asked.
“She left,” was his only response. After several cups of coffee and a little conversation, I boarded the next train and arrived home without out further incident.
In 1963 when I visited the Hartford station of the Office of Naval Intelligence, I read a confidential report on the location of Amelia Earhart’s gravesite. Later I made a second visit to the facility to determine if the ONI were still active in its investigation. I was ushered into an office where two men and a woman were seated. One of the men opened the safe to get the Earhart file, shuffled through some of the pages, and pointed out certain passages for the woman to read. She was obviously acquainted with the file and understood the significance of the noted passages. During this exchange, the second man left.
I was haunted; the woman looked familiar to me. Slowly, I came to the astounding realization that this woman was the “waitress” in the Boston depot! The woman must have sensed that I recognized her, for she immediately excused herself. Hastily, the remaining ONI agent informed me that there had been no further investigation of Amelia Earhart’s grave. I left the meeting convinced that the people who had accosted me in Boston were agents of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Why their presence in Boston on the day of my visit with Mrs. Morrissey? I cannot say. Mrs. Morrissey did tell me that she had informed the Navy of my intended visit. But why would the ONI trail me to West Medford? I don’t know. What was the purpose of the ONI agents’ peculiar antics in Boston? That I do not know, either. Perhaps they were trying to frighten me into curtailing my investigation.
Although Mrs. Morrissey was unable to assist me in locating her sister’s dental charts, I was pleasantly surprised to receive from her a portrait of Amelia. On the back of the photograph, Mrs. Morrissey graciously wrote:
To Thomas Devine,
who is genuinely and unselfishly interested in
Amelia’s fate, I am happy to give this
photograph of her.
Muriel Earhart Morrissey
August 19, 1961
Devine’s Notes to Chapter 7
*Mrs. Morrissey said her sister used a new plane for her second attempt. Supporters of the spy theory contend that this faster, more sophisticated aircraft would have enabled her to deviate from her flight path and avoid detection. Mrs. Morrissey herself never believed that her sister had been sent to spy on the Japanese Mandates.
*Fred Goerner claims Mrs. Morrissey abandoned the belief that her sister had crashed near Howland Island after hearing his progress report in September October, 1961, and after his second expedition to Saipan. By 26 June 1962, however, Mrs. Morrissey had returned to her original conclusion. She wrote to me somewhat bitterly, “The claims of Captain Briand and the CBS have been shown to be completely false and unsubstantiated, so why continue the discussion? Amelia’s plane went down near Howland Island [and] because of a radio failure – the Coast Guard Cutter could not home her in.” (End of Chapter 7.)
Editor’s Note: To my knowledge, no Earhart researcher or author has ever been physically harmed by any U.S. government agency or operative while pursuing information in the Earhart disappearance, but the foregoing situation might have produced a different result had Devine behaved with less caution. Sixteen years earlier, in August 1945, Devine was probably even closer to serious harm when he was ordered to board a Navy plane by a man who was likely an Office of Naval Intelligence agent, who told Devine, “You can’t go back. . . You know about Amelia Earhart!” (See pages 64-66 in Eyewitness.)
In February 1991, while I was visiting at his home in West Haven, Conn., Devine told me he was “flabbergasted,” with the situation he faced in August 1945. “I don’t know what they were going to do with me,” he said. “Was I going to be interviewed? Would they have offered me a government position or something for silence? Because I think that might have happened to [Pfc. Paul] Anderson. The thought persists that if I had boarded the plane at Tanapag Harbor on Saipan in 1945 at the insistence of the ONI agent, I might never have arrived at any destination.”
Grace Muriel Earhart Morrissey died in her sleep on Monday, March 2, 1998 at the age of 98.