Today rejoin Fred Goerner for Part II of his January 1964 Argosy magazine opus, “I’ll Find Amelia Earhart.” When we left Part I, Goerner was learning a few details about the mysterious Naval Technical Training Unit (NTTU), the CIA spy school located in the northern end of Saipan that he was told to judiciously avoid by Commander Paul Bridwell, the top Navy administrator on the island, who knew far more about the Earhart disappearance than he ever let on to Goerner or anyone else in the media.
Without further delay, here is Part II of “I’ll Find Amelia Earhart”:
I started to draw the conclusion that the Navy was giving Nationalist Chinese some special training. The guess was inadequate, although I felt my suspicions were confirmed by an inadvertent slip at the officer’s club. Bridwell had a dinner party in my honor, and one officer’s wife, after a half-dozen cocktails, gushed, “Yes, you have to know of a lot of languages on Saipan: Chamorro, Spanish, German, Japanese. And now we’re even speaking Chinese.”
There was a hush at the table as if someone had used an especially pungent four-letter word, and then the conversation picked up at double time.
One day, Father Sylvan took me up Mount Tapochau, a little over 1,500 feet, the highest point on Saipan. From there, one can see the whole island, but not down into the jungle. I shot about a hundred feet of motion-picture film and a few stills, and then we headed back to the village.
Commander Bridwell was waiting. “Understand you’ve been up Tapochau with your cameras?” he said.
“Right. Nice climb and view. Couldn’t see into your restricted areas, though.”
“I wasn’t really worried about that.” He smiled. “But we’d like it very much if you dropped your film off with the PIO officers at Guam for a look-see.”
Before I left Saipan in 1960, I let one question get the better of me: Did Earhart and Noonan fly their plane to Saipan? It seemed incredible. Saipan lies about 1,500 miles due north of their final take-off point, Lae, New Guinea. Saipan, with Howland Island as an intended destination, would have represented a navigational error of ninety to a hundred degrees. Yet there was that possibility. The question enlarged to: If they did fly here, could any part of that plane still remain on the bottom of Tanapag?
Monsignor Calvo brought me Gregorio Magofna and Antonio Taitano, who had been shelling and fishing in the harbor for many years. After viewing a photograph of Amelia’s Lockheed Electra, Greg and Toni agreed that they knew of the wreckage of a “two-motor” plane. About three-quarters of a mile from what was once the ramps of the Japanese seaplane base, we went down in twenty-five to thirty feet of water.
The bottom of Tanapag Harbor is like another world. Every conceivable type of wreckage is littered as far as a face mask will let you see. Landing craft, jeeps, large-caliber shells, what’s left of a Japanese destroyer, the Japanese supply ship, Kieyo Maru, in deeper water beyond the reef, a huge submarine – all covered with slime and of coral.
The “two-motor” plane proved to be a huge, twisted mass of junk. From this incoherent form, we hauled several hundred pounds of vile-smelling wreckage to the surface. Later, I knocked a chunk of coral as big as a man’s head from one piece of equipment, and found the first sign of aircraft-parts wired together. In the early days, before the advent of shakeproof nuts, this was standard procedure.
It was not until [Rear] Admiral [Waldemar F.A.] Wendt’s technicians at Guam announced that the equipment possibly could have come from the type of aircraft Amelia had flown, that I began to have some hope for its identification. My motion-picture and still films were checked, and I headed back home. (Editor’s note: After promotion to rear admiral, Wendt assumed command on Jan. 17, 1960 of U.S. Naval Forces Marianas, with additional duty as CINCPAC representative, Marianas-Bonins, as Deputy High Commissioner of the Marianas District of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and as Deputy Military Governor of the Bonin-Volcano Islands; with headquarters in Guam.)
In San Francisco, July 1, 1960, the tape-recorded testimony of Saipan’s natives made an impression on the press, but the wreckage created much more interest. Several numbers found on the interior of what was once a heavy-duty generator were sent to Bendix Aircraft in New Jersey. Several days later, Bendix, which had manufactured much of the electrical equipment carried on the Lockheed Electra, announced that the bearings had been produced by the Toyo Bearing Company of Osaka, Japan. The equipment was a Japanese copy of Bendix gear!
The Saipanese witnesses somehow became lost in the reverberations from the Bendix press release, and Earhart and Noonan were again assigned to limbo.
If detailed, the next part of the investigation would fill a book. It concerns the search by the Navy and Coast Guard, in 1937. I’ll sketch the high points in a very few words.
We obtained photostatic copies of the message log of the Itasca, Amelia’s Coast Guard homing vessel at Howland Island, and the search report of the U.S.S. Lexington, the carrier dispatched by the Navy to hunt for the missing flyers. What we found produced a mystery within a mystery. Immediately after the plane was thought lost, the Itasca had radioed to the San Francisco Division of the Coast Guard a group of messages purportedly to have come from the Earhart plane. Three days later, another group of messages, also supposed to have come from Amelia, was sent to San Francisco. From the first to the second group, the time and content of every message had been much altered.
How could such discrepancies occur?
The answers of two of the radio operators who were aboard the Itasca that morning in 1937 were a continuing contradiction. William Galten, of Brisbane, California, was radioman, third-class. He maintained that the first group was correct. Leo Bellarts, of Everett, Washington, was the chief radioman, charged with handling all the communications with the plane. He stipulated that the second group was accurate.
I went to see Galten, and when faced with the photostats and Bellarts’ statement, he admitted, “I may have been mistaken. We were under great pressure.” (Editor’s note: Goerner’s description of “two groups” of alleged messages from the Earhart plane, with one being accurate, the other inaccurate, is itself inaccurate, as well as confusing. For an accurate discussion on this topic, see “Chapter III: The Search and the Radio Signals” in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last.)
You may have already guessed this: The Lexington’s planes flew over 151,000 square miles of open ocean, an area determined only by the first group of messages, not one of which was correct as to time or content.
Why didn’t the Navy double check with the Itasca, or why weren’t the corrected group of messages relayed from San Francisco to the Lexington? There are only two possible answers: A completely unexplainable lack of communications between the Navy and the Coast Guard – or design. When you know that the Navy spent nearly $4,000,000 on the search, it becomes utterly incredible. Heads have certainly rolled for less.
The statement I have just made was contained in a monograph I sent to the Navy Department in 1962. Some five weeks later, I received a call from a chief at the Coast Guard office in San Francisco, advising me to check the next day’s edition of the Navy Times for further information on the Earhart matter. The next day, the Coast Guard released a report that had been kept in a classified file for twenty-five years. It was the report of Commander Warner K. Thompson, who had been the commanding officer of the Itasca in 1937. It revealed that the Coast Guard had known next to nothing about the plans for the final flight; that the Navy appeared to be handling the whole show; that the Navy had brought special direction-finding equipment aboard the Itasca; that on the morning of the disappearance, a number of secret messages signed with the code name “Vacuum” were received aboard Itasca addressed to one Richard Black, who ostensibly was a Department of Interior employee. The Coast Guard felt it had been used as a front and could not be blamed for anything when it have been given so little information.
The overtones of “intelligence” become quite audible, but I’m ahead of the story.
Early in 1961, I felt we had more than enough to warrant another trip to Saipan. In addition to further questioning of the natives and raising more of the wreckage from Tanapag Harbor to establish its identity, I wanted to follow through on information given to us by Thomas E. Devine of West Haven, Connecticut. Devine had been a member of an Army postal unit on Saipan in 1945, and claimed that a native woman had shown him the grave of “two white people, a man and a woman, who had come before the war.” Devine said he had not connected the incident with Earhart and Noonan until he read of our investigation. For evidence, he produced pictures of the native woman and an area near a tiny graveyard where the woman had lived. He also provided a fairly detailed description of the unmarked grave’s location outside a small cemetery.
Navy permission to go to Saipan was really tough to come by this time. The first application was filed in April 1961, and for several months, there was no answer.
In June, Jules Dundes, CBS Vice President in San Francisco, called Admiral [Daniel F. Jr.] Smith’s office in Washington, and finally got Captain [R.W.] Alexander, then the Navy’s Deputy Chief of Information, on the phone. Alexander flatly stated that permission to return to Saipan was denied.
Not liking the tenor of that conversation, Dundes called CBS Vice President Ted Koop, in Washington, who promptly went to work with Arthur Sylvester, Assistant Secretary of Defense. Early in September, I departed for the now familiar Marianas – with the necessary clearance.
I went back with a bit more information about our friend, NTTU, too. Control of Saipan had been transferred from Department of Interior to the Navy by Presidential order in 1952. Shortly thereafter a contract amounting to nearly $30,000,000 was let to an amalgamation of three companies, Brown-Pacific-Maxon, for the construction of certain facilities on the north and east side of the island, the concrete foundations of which went down ten to twenty-five feet.
At Guam, I told Admiral Wendt what I thought might be going on. Then, at Saipan, I met once again with my old friend Commander Bridwell, who quickly reiterated that I was to stay away from the north end and the east side of the island.
“Look, Paul,” I replied. “I’m not after NTTU. Quit muddying the water for me on the Earhart story. Let us get the final answer and you’ll have me off your back. It’s not my business if you’re training Nationalist Chinese or operating ballistic missile sites; that’s a security matter.”
“We’re glad you feel that way,” returned Paul, but if you do come up with the final answer to Earhart, a dozen newsmen will be knocking on our door.”
“Don’t you believe it, I retorted. “No one is going to send a photographer six thousand miles to duplicate something we already have. Just cooperate with me.”
Bridwell finally did cooperate – the day before I left Saipan for the second time, and only after I had received an invitation to enter the super-secret NTTU area. Bridwell believes strongly that Amelia and Fred were brought to Saipan in 1937 and their lives ended six months to a year later, but at that time, he was obliged to block the investigation in any way he could. He and the rest of the Naval Administration Unit were fronting for the Central Intelligence Agency.
I know now that word was passed to natives working for the Navy or NTTU that it would be best to reply in the negative to questions asked about any Americans being on the island before the war. Bridwell even attempted to get witnesses to change their testimony. In one case, he was successful. Brother Gregorio, now with the Church at Yap, had been on Saipan in 1937. Father Sylvan had seen him during the year I had been gone. Brother Gregorio said that he had heard from several people that a white man and woman, reportedly flyers, had been brought to Saipan. He had not seen them himself because the Japanese had restricted him to the church, but he gave the names of the two men who had told him. Commander Bridwell got to them first. The pair had jobs with the Navy and refused to talk. I hold no grudge. The Navy did what it felt necessary to protect the CIA.
During the ’61 stay, Magofna and Taitano took me back down to the wreckage off the old seaplane ramps, and an afternoon of diving produced conclusive evidence that the “two-motor” plane was Japanese. A corroded plate from a radio-direction finder unmistakably bore Japanese markings.
Father Sylvan and I then went to work on Thomas Devine’s information. The small graveyard was easy to locate. One of Devine’s photos showed a cross in the graveyard; another pictured an angel with upraised arms surrounded by crosses and tombstones. The only change was the jungle. It had grown up forty or more feet over the cemetery. Devine had also sent a picture of the woman who had shown him the grave site. Father Sylvan showed the print to a native who works for the mission, and the old man brightened.
“Okinawa woman,” he said. “Sent back Okinawa after war.”
Father Sylvan acknowledged that many Okinawans and Koreans had been brought to Saipan by the Japanese before the war to build airfields and harbor installations. All who hadn’t married Chamorros or Carolinians were repatriated.
Devine had indicated that the grave site was outside the cemetery. Another of his photographs, taken from a narrow dirt road with the island’s mountain range in the background, was supposed to have the most significance. “The grave,” Devine had written, “is located thirty to forty feet to the left of this road.” (End of Part II.)