Today we move along to Part III of Fred Goerner’s January 1964 Argosy magazine opus, “I’ll Find Amelia Earhart.” When we left Part II, Goerner and missionary priest Father Sylvan Conover were trying to locate the gravesite of “two white people, a man and a woman, who had come [from the sky] before the war” that an otherwise unidentified Okinawan woman had shown to Thomas E. Devine in August 1945, and which Devine later wrote about extensively in his 1987 classic, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident.
We continue with Part III of “I’ll Find Amelia Earhart”:
Father Sylvan and I matched the photograph to the terrain as best we could, and one of the natives showed us where a small dirt train had run past the southern boundary of the cemetery. Pacing off “thirty to forty feet to the left,” we arrived in a grove of trees, and with a crew of eight Carolinian natives, excavation began. We went to a depth of six feet among the trees, and then moved slowly to the west. About one o’clock, the afternoon of September twenty-first, Commander Bridwell, who had been watching the proceedings, let out a shout and brushed the natives back from a newly opened area.
Dozens of pieces of skull and many teeth were visible at both ends of a shallow grave not more than two feet in depth. Large teeth were found at one end, smaller ones at the other – indication that at least two individuals, perhaps a man and a woman, had been buried head to foot. As quickly as Bridwell had moved, several shovelfuls had been thrown aside, so, for the next four days, we sifted every bit of earth for a dozen feet around. Seven pounds of bones and thirty-seven teeth were recovered. The island’s doctors inspected the remains, and generally agreed that the grave had been occupied by a man and a woman. The dentists felt there was a strong possibility that the people had been Caucasians, as some of the teeth appeared to contain zinc-oxide fillings; the Japanese had never used that material.
The afternoon the excavation was completed, we carefully wrapped the remains in cotton, and Father Sylvan placed the package in the church vault.
That night came the strangest experience of my life. I was staying in what was laughingly referred to as the “Presidential Suite.” It was nothing more than a Quonset hut, about twenty-five yards above the commander’s quarters. I don’t know what awakened me. It was about two o’clock in the morning and it was raining quite hard outside. As I sat bolt-upright on the cot, there was a flash of lightning, and I saw a man in the room by the door. I jumped from the cot and yelled at him, “What do you want?”
As he turned, I saw he had a machete in his hand. He stared at me for a second, then ran out through the front of the hut, banging the screen door behind him. I pursued him to the door, and in the glare of the running light on the front of the hut, I got a good look at him as he raced across the asphalt road and plunged into the jungle. He was a native – a man I was to hear a lot more from later.
As I tried to figure out what had happened, I was shaking so badly I could hardly light a cigarette.
“Were you really awake? Did you really see the man, or did you dream it?” I questioned myself. Wet sandal marks around the room leading from the door answered my question.
“What did he want?” was the next logical challenge. Certainly not my life. If he had wanted, he could have killed me as I lay on the cot. Expensive motion picture and still cameras and tape-recording equipment rested on the cot next to me. Several hundred dollars in cash was exposed on top of the bureau next to my passport. Nothing had been taken. Nothing had been disturbed. Nearly a year was to pass before the realization came as to what my visitor sought: The package of human remains I had given to Father Sylvan for safe-keeping.
The next day, I asked Bridwell for permission to take the package to an anthropologist in the States for study. He didn’t want the responsibility, and cabled Washington for clearance.
That night, as we waited for Washington’s answer, I received a mysterious summons by phone from a man named Schmitz. I was to be admitted to the NTTU area for the purpose of addressing their personnel on the subject of Amelia Earhart. A civilian in a handsome new car picked me up at my Quonset, drove me by circuitous route through the jungle, up a hill and deposited me in front of a night club! I mean a night club – complete with canopy leading from the road, dance floor, bar and stainless steel kitchen.
Mr. Schmitz (I never learned his full name) met me at the door and escorted me to the bandstand and waiting microphone. For the better part of an hour, I told an audience of several hundred, including many wives, of the investigation. Afterward, the applause was warm and prolonged, and many came forward to ask questions or contribute bits of information that had been heard from the natives. Mr. Schmitz and I had a drink at the bar and chatted for a while and then I was driven by the same circuitous route back to my “Presidential Suite.”
Just before I left the island, Bridwell began to cooperate. The invitation to NTTU had worked wonders. He readily admitted, “An ONI [Office of Naval Intelligence] man [Special Agent Joseph M. Patton] has been here checking on what you turned up last year. Most of the testimony couldn’t be shaken. A white man and woman were undoubtedly brought to Saipan before the war.”
The commander went on to expound his own theory: “I don’t believe Earhart and Noonan flew their plane in here. I think you’ll find that they went down near Ailinglapalap, Majuro and Jaluit Atolls in the Marshalls. The Japanese brought them to Saipan. A supply ship was used to take them to Yap in the western Carolines, and a Japanese naval seaplane flew them to Saipan. That’s why some of your witnesses said they came from the sky.”
“What have you got that’s tangible to prove that?” I naturally wanted to know.
“I think you’ll find all the proof you need,” replied Bridwell, “contained in the radio logs of four U.S. logistic vessels which were supplying the Far East Fleet in 1937. Remember these names: The [USS] Gold Star, [USS] Blackhawk, [USS] Chaumont and [USS] Henderson. I believe they intercepted certain coded Japanese messages that you’ll find fascinating reading.” (Editor’s note: Goerner reported nothing more about these four U.S. Navy ships in Search, or anywhere else, to my knowledge.)
Returning to San Francisco October 1, 1961, I was still without the last key to the Earhart puzzle, and without quite a few keys to NTTU. A few days later, a strange call came to me at KCBS from a Mr. Frederick Winter of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“I’d like to visit with you regarding a matter of national security,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied. “Come on up to our studios in the Sheraton-Palace.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather not,” rejoined Mr. Winter. “I’ll meet you in the lobby.”
“How will I know you?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that,” assured Mr. Winter. “I’ll recognize you.”
Mr. Winter located me without any trouble, and suggested that we drop into the coffee shop for a bite of something. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that conversation. Mr. Winter had a dish of strawberry ice cream, and I had a cup of coffee. We talked, there in the coffee shop, about one of the best-kept, most important U.S. Intelligence secrets since the end of World War II.
“Mr. Schmitz has alerted us,” began Winter, “that you have turned up a good deal of information regarding NTTU and Saipan. Washington has asked me to talk to you about the matter and to ask you to withhold this information from publication or broadcast until you are given a release. We know you to be a good American, and we hope you will comply.”
I agreed. Mr. Winter didn’t know that I had already made that decision.
The conversation lasted a little more than a half-hour, and then, with a hearty handshake we parted. I have not seen Mr. Winter since, although we’ve had one brief telephone conversation.
Was Mr. Winter really from the CIA? I wondered for a while myself. I hadn’t asked for identification, but I wouldn’t have known the proper card anyway. For protection, I wrote a note to John McCone, head of the CIA in Washington.
“We’re happy to inform you that Mr. Frederick Winter is the man he represents himself to be,” was the answer.
Lengthy conversations began with the Navy Department about whether an expert was to study the remains. The Navy stipulated a number of things that must be done before the package could be released; among them was written permission from the next of kin. There was no definite indication the remains were those of Earhart and Noonan, but the Navy wanted as much time as possible and was taking no chances.
Dr. Frank Stanton of CBS flew out from New York, and the entire situation was discussed. We all strongly felt that nothing should be broadcast or printed before a positive identification of the remains could be made. If identification was not possible, the package could be returned to Saipan without publicity. The primary consideration should be for next of kin.
I visited Amelia Earhart’s sister, Mrs. Albert Morrissey, in West Medford, Massachusetts, and presented the facts of the total investigation.
She thanked me for my efforts and granted permission on behalf of Amelia’s mother, who has since passed away [Oct. 29, 1962] at ninety-five years of age.
A week later, I met Mrs. Bea Noonan Ireland, the remarried widow of Fred Noonan, now living in Santa Barbara, California. She also gave her consent to do whatever was necessary to write an end to the mystery.
Dr. Theodore McCown, University of California anthropologist, was then asked to do the study should the Navy release the remains. He agreed.
It was another month before Navy permission was granted, and unfortunately, we had to learn of it from a wire service. A previous arrangement had been made for Father Sylvan to take the package from Saipan to Guam, address it to Dr. McCown, and ship it by commercial airliner to its destination.
Navy permission went direct to Saipan, and Father Sylvan carried through with his part. Someone on Guam, however, perhaps a customs official, leaked the story to a representative of Associated Press, and it was on every broadcast and every paper in the country before we could do anything to stop it.
There was nothing to do but admit we had been pursuing the investigation.
Dr. McCown’s study took a week, and his findings were disappointing in the extreme. Instead of two people, we had found three, perhaps four. At least one man and one woman were represented by the remains, but the strongest indications were that these people had been indigenous to the Saipan area. The “zinc-oxide” fillings that had excited the dentists on Saipan turned out to be calcified dentine. X-rays showed there were no metallic fillings present. “The hypothesis that the remains represented those of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan,” wrote Dr. McCown, “therefore is not supported.”
Privately, however, McCown told us, “Don’t be discouraged. You may have missed the actual grave site by six or sixty feet. That’s the way it is with archeology. In all my experience, I have never known a story with as much testimony supporting it as this one, not to have some basis in truth.”
Thomas Devine was also disappointed. His disappointment turned to frustration when he saw a complete set of photographs I had taken of our excavation and the surrounding area.
You were on the wrong end of the cemetery,” he wrote. “I’m sure now that the site was outside the northern perimeter, not the southern. There was a small dirt road that ran by the north side, too. Did you try to match that one photo against the mountain from the north side?”
I admitted I hadn’t because the jungle had grown too high in that area.
Nineteen sixty-one’s news reached the front page of nearly every newspaper in the nation, and a number of persons were motivated to come forward with bits of information. (Editor’s note: Here Goerner exaggerates the media coverage his investigation received, as I’ve found no evidence that any major newspapers published a single story about Goerner’s four Earhart investigations on Saipan in the early 1960s. Many smaller newspapers around the country did run stories produced by the San Mateo Times, Associated Press and United Press International, as shown in this clip from the Desert Sun, a local daily newspaper serving Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley in Southern California. But I’ve searched in vain for any traces of Goerner’s early 1960s Saipan investigations in papers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune or Los Angeles Times, to name just a few of the prominent newspapers that blacked out news of the search for Amelia Earhart on Saipan.)
Eugene Bogan, now a Washington, D.C. attorney, had been the senior Navy military government officer at Majuro Atoll in the Marshalls after the January 1944 invasion. Bogan claimed that several natives told him that two white flyers, one of them a woman, had landed their airplane near Ailinglapalap, close to Majuro, in 1937, and were taken away on a Japanese ship bound for Saipan. “The name of one of the natives is Elieu [Jibambam],” Bogan said. “Elieu was my most trusted native assistant.”
Charles Toole, of Bethesda, Maryland, now an expert in the Manpower Division of the Under Secretary of the Navy, had been an LCT (landing craft tank) Commander, plying between the same islands in 1944. “Bogan is absolutely right,” said Toole. “I came across the same information myself.”
Why didn’t Bogan and Toole file an official report on their findings?
“We were discouraged by the senior officer responsible for that over-all area in the Marshalls,” they replied. “The reason he gave was that there wasn’t any sense in raising false hopes at home that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan might still be alive.” (End of Part III.)