Was Amelia Earhart buried on Tinian?

Tinian is best known as the launching pad for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb Little Boyon Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945, followed by a second atomic device, Fat Man,dropped on Nagasaki by the B-29 BockscarBut if the site an American Marine was shown by a native Hawaiian who worked under the Japanese in 1937 and claimed was the grave of Amelia Earhart could be found and verified, Tinian’s notoriety in world history would be exponentially increased.  (Boldface mine throughout.)

St. John Naftel was a Marine gunner’s mate assigned to the 18th AAA Marine Battalion stationed on Tinian shortly after the American invasion of July 24-Aug. 1, 1944.  The 8,000-man Japanese garrison was eliminated, and the island joined Saipan and Guam as a base for the Twentieth Air ForceJapanese losses were 5,543 killed, 2,265 missing and 252 captured, while 326 Americans died and 1,593 were wounded.

By Aug. 10, 1944, 13,000 Japanese civilians were interned, but up to 4,000 were dead through suicide, murdered by Japanese troops or killed in combat.  The garrison on Aguijan Island off the southwest cape of Tinian, commanded by Lt. Kinichi Yamada, held out until the end of the war, surrendering on Sept. 4, 1945. The last holdout on Tinian, Murata Susumu, was captured in 1953.

On Guam, St. John Naftel hoists the Nov. 7, 2004 Pacific Daily News, shortly before the Tinian Earhart Expedition failed to answer the headline’s question in the affirmative.  (Photo courtesy Rlene Santos Steffy.)

Fast-forward to September 2003, when “It all began with a call from Jennings Bunn to Jim Sullivan on the ‘The Deep,’ a radio talk show aired on K57 radio in Guam,” wrote Rlene Santos Steffy, a columnist for The Guam Daily Post, in The Tinian Earhart Expedition 2004,” still available online:

Jennings was in possession of a letter from Mr. Elliot Broughton, who knew of a WWII veteran claiming knowledge of the fate of Amelia Earhart and her navigator following their much publicized disappearance following their attempted flight around the globe in 1937.  Jennings contacted Mr. Broughton and learned of Mr. St John Naftel, who was stationed on Tinian at the end of the Japanese era of control.  During Mr. Naftel’s time on Tinian, he came to know a conscript of the Japanese army who confided the location of two graves that he had been forced to dig five days after his arrival in 1937.  In these graves, he told Naftel, were buried the bodies of Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan.

Jennings’ call to the radio show was a plea for assistance that Jim Sullivan and his guest host that evening Bob Silvers responded to.  After an initial meeting to discuss the details, The Tinian Earhart Expedition [also known as The Tinian Dig] was formed.  During the next month, the group interviewed Mr. Naftel, researched his story, conducted an aerial survey of the area and dug into the historical archives for additional supporting documentation to try to determine the validity of Mr. Naftel’s story.  By the end of September, it was looking very promising and it was decided that the only way to progress further was to bring Mr. Naftel to Tinian to undertake a physical search for evidence of the grave sites.  With great confidence and anticipation, the arrangements were made.

Steffy is an ethnographer, oral historian and research associate at the University of Guam’s Micronesia Area Research Center, and also wrote a review of Truth at Last in July 2017.

Following is Naftel’s account as given to Cassandra Sandy Frost, self-identified as an award-winning e-journalist and editor who has covered the topics of Intuition, Remote Viewing and Consciousness from an Athabascan or Alaska Native point of view the past three years, who also chronicled The Tinian Dig in a series of articles for Rense.com (see below):

The first job for my unit was to clean the place up.

There was a place that I called the stockade which consisted of three sections.  First made up of military personnel, second, island natives (farmers, shopkeepers, etc.), third, the people the Japanese had brought in prior to any military action (they were like slaves to the Jap military).  Because the cleanup operation required a lot of labor, these people could be trusted (used) to help with the cleanup.

My first job was to escort a truck load of these people from the stockade to our camp each day.

JOB — Pick a truck load of these people at the stockade which usually consisted of about 30 people — each day as we loaded the truck (open body) I would ask, Is there anyone that can speak English?  Because these people came from different international locations, there was always some that could speak English.  I would then choose one of them to act as a sort offoreman to help me with the job.

On about the third or fourth day when I asked this question, a man stepped forward speaking good English.  I do not remember this man’s name because I had never known it before.  He told me he was from one of the Hawaii [sic] Islands when he fell for the Japanese promise to come work for them at a good wage.  Only when he along with others arrived at Tinian did they find out that they were actually slaves.

St. John Naftel, left, is accompanied by expedition organizer Jennings Bunn as he arrives on Tinian in early November 2004.  (Photo courtesy Rlene Santos Steffy.)

After the third day that he was on my truck load of people, he began to open up in talking with me while we were traveling to my camp.  On the third or fourth day our conversation went kinda like this:

Man:  On the way in I want to show you something and tell you about it.  Can you have the driver to slow down when I ask you to?

Me:   Yes, no problem.

Man: Can we move over the side of the truck?pointing to the left side

Me: Yes, which we did.  I tapped the truck cab and asked Hall (clarification, C.C. Hall was the truck driver) if he would slow down when asked.  As we began a downward slope toward what was Tinian Town this man asked me to slow down, then Look out there.  He was pointing to the left (on the left was a cliff that the Japs had made in the hillside).  In the cliff there were three man-made caves.  These caves overlooked Tinian Bay.  In each of them the Japs had some large guns.  I had visited these caves earlier.

When the man pointed to the left and said,Look, I replied, Yes, I see the caves.  I have not been in them before.” “No, not the caves,he said.  Look like I am pointing. The truck had slowed down, so the man was kind of pointing back up the slope.

Man:  “Look, see those two graves up there?”

Me: Yes, what about them?

Man:  I have never said anything to anyone about this before because there was no one that I could trust.  I was about the third or fourth day that I was brought here that the Japs brought me and five or six other men here and gave us shovels and picks and pointed out that we were to dig graves.  We were under the guard of two Jap soldiers.  After we dug the graves to please these guards, a truck soon arrived.  There were two bodies in the truck.  One was a man — the other was a woman.  I immediately noted that they were both Americans.  The woman was dressed in pants and a jacket.  On the jacket (he reached his hand across his left chest) was what looked like a wing.  Before I got hooked up with these Japs, I had heard and saw newspaper pictures of this American woman that was going to fly around the world.  I can’t think of her name right now.”

St. John Naftel, right, points out the spot on Tinian he believed to be the location of the gravesite he was shown by the unnamed Hawaiian man in 1944.  “I would bet my life this is where I saw the two graves,” Naftel told Bob Silvers, left, according to Jennings Bunn, who was standing nearby.  (Photo courtesy Rlene Santos Steffy.)

Me: “Would it be Amelia Earhart?”

Man: “Yes, that’s who it was.  As we were instructed we buried the bodies, then the Jap in charge — he could speak English — called us together and told us that we were never to speak to anyone about this, and that if they even thought we had, we could be digging our own graves.  You could not trust anyone in the camp because they tell a guard so they could get a favor.  You are the first and only person I have ever mentioned this to.”

At this point we arrived at my camp and I was called to the office.  I had to take a detail out aboard a ship (several had arrived carrying a lot of cargo and some with a lot of Seabees) and help with the unloading.  This took two weeks.  When I returned to camp we were being divided up into different gun crews — I never saw the man again.  (End of Naftel account.)

St. John was talking about picking up the workers at acamp,that was Camp Chulu,Jennings Bunn told me in a November 2018 email.  I took St. John there, and he recognized the standing façade of the old headquarter building and police station.  Kind of like a city hall.  The workers there were primarily Okinawans who were hired long before the war to work in sugar cane fields on Tinian.

Several established facts militate against the possibility of Earhart or Fred Noonan’s burial on Tinian.  Most importantly, not one of the many Saipan witnesses — people like Josephine Blanco Akiyama, Matidle F. Arriola, Joaquina Cabrera, José Pangelinan, Dr. Manual Aldan, Jesús Salas and others — ever claimed they were told that the American fliers were taken to Tinian or buried there. 

The Tinian Dig begins.  Among those assisting in the excavations were Dr. Hiro Kurishina, University of Guam, who brought his archaeology class; TIGHAR’s Tom King Ph.D.; and Karen Ramey Burns Ph.D., a forensic anthropologist at the University of North Carolina. (Photo courtesy Rlene Santos Steffy.)

Matilde was told the American woman was cremated by an alleged eyewitness, Mr. Tomokane, in an account recently revealed by Marie Castro, in which case no Earhart gravesite would have existed at all.  Don Kothera and the Cleveland Group’s interview of Anna Magofna (pages 245-247 Truth at Last) is a fairly compelling story that suggests Amelia might have been buried outside the Liyang Cemetery outside of southern Garapan, as José Pangelinan told Fred Goerner, and where Marine Capt. Tracy Griswold directed privates Everett Henson Jr. and Billy Burks to excavate skeletal remains of two individuals in the summer of 1944.  Many others, too numerous to mention here, attested to their common knowledge of Earhart’s death on Saipan, none ever mentioning Tinian in any context. 

Further, the idea that the fliers had been buried on Tinian came from just one unnamed eyewitness, who shared his story with Naftel in 1944 under unusual, strained circumstances.  The anonymous Hawaiian’s own words to Naftel could be considered questionable in themselves by a suspicious observer.  “You could not trust anyone in the camp because they tell a guard so they could get a favor,” he told Naftel of his 1937 experience working under the Japanese.  “You are the first and only person I have ever mentioned this to.”  Did the Hawaiian man himself hope to gain a favor from Naftel for this amazing revelation? 

Another provocative detail in Naftel’s story was the Hawaiian man’s description of the jacket worn by the dead woman. “On the jacket (he reached his hand across his left chest) was what looked like a wing,” he told Naftel.  On the back cover of Mary Lovell’s 1989 book, The Sound of Wings, is a small portrait photo of Amelia in a dress with what appears to be three pearl necklaces and a wing device attached.  Also, on page 134 of Carol Osborne and Muriel Earhart Morrissey’s 1987 biography, Amelia, My Courageous Sister, Amelia is shown in June 1932 in two photos with National Geographic officials in Washington, wearing what could be the same wing device.  In the appendix of the same book, on page 302, three different wing devices are shown in very small photos without descriptions.

Was the “jacket” worn by the dead woman a leather flight jacket?  Though many photos of Amelia wearing such a jacket can be found on an internet search and in various books, I’ve not seen any with a wing attached, sewn or embroidered on it, as commonly done among U.S. Navy and Marine aviators, then and now, and which is likely what the Hawaiian man was describing.  The Japanese would have removed a wing device and any other jewelry from a dead body, and would they even bury such a jacket with a body?  

Although a photo of Amelia in a jacket with a wing on the left side would support Naftel’s story, it would not absolutely confirm it.  Naftel’s account doesn’t add up for many reasons, but if you have a photo or can direct us to one that matches the Hawaiian man’s story, please let us know.  

Needless to say, The Tinian Dig did not locate the remains of Earhart or Noonan.  In a series of posts for Rense.com Cassandra Frost traced the roots and progress of the Tinian Earhart Expedition 2004.  In chronological order, here are Frost’s detailed reports:Amelia Earhart’s Grave Found?;  “Earhart – Latest On-Scene Report;  “Earhart Dig – Day One;Earhart Dig – Day 2;  “Interview With Saint John Naftel“Earhart Dig – Day 3 Expedition Shifts Gears; “Earhart Dig – Day 4 Time Travel, High Tech Style”; “Earhart Expedition – The Day AfterInterview With Jim Sullivan “Earhart Expedition – Breakfast With Bob.”

Members of The Tinian Earhart Expedition 2004, left to right: Bob Silvers, Jennings Bunn, St. John Naftel and Jim Sullivan.  (Photo courtesy Rlene Santos Steffy.)

In my closing comments on The Tinian Dig in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last (p. 305), I compare the highly promoted 2006 Nauticos Deep Sea Search for Amelia Earhart,” with The Tinian Earhart Expedition 2004, which was completely ignored by the American media, and came to a familiar conclusion:

The Nauticos search and Tinian Dig are minor footnotes in the long history of failure to find the smoking gun in the Earhart disappearance.  Neither seems worthy of further consideration, but they reveal a disturbing reality when examined from another perspective.  As we’ve seen, the Nauticos effort was well publicized in the months preceding its launching.  News of the Tinian Expedition, by contrast, was found only in small publications such as the Saipan Tribune and Pacific Magazine.  How can big media’s blackout of The Tinian Dig be squared with its boundless enthusiasm for the ill-conceived Nauticos excursion into the empty depths of crashed-and-sank theory?  After all, both ventures were aimed at achieving the same goal: solving the great Earhart mystery.” 

The answer is simple.  The intensity of our media’s passion for the idea that the Electra lies on the Pacific’s floor is equaled only by its abhorrence of the very thought of the fliers’ deaths on Saipan at the hands of the Japanese—now among our strongest allies in the Pacific Rim.  Anything that might lead the public to seek more information about the fate of Earhart and Noonan, such as broadcasting or printing news stories about an investigation into their possible burial site on nearby Tinian, must be strenuously avoided.  Tinian is in the same forbidden neighborhood as Saipan—too close to the truth and strictly off-limits.

St. John Naftel passed away on Feb. 2, 2015 in Montgomery, Ala., at 92.

(Editor’s note:  Jerry Wilson, of Chattaroy, Wash., a longtime Earhart researcher and Tinian advocate, contributed much of the information in this post, which would not have been possible without him.  My sincere thanks and appreciation go out to Jerry, as well as to Jennings Bunn.)

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7 responses

  1. I realize that it’s anathema to cite a TIGHAR document on this site, but my notes on the Tinian dig are at https://tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/Archives/Tinian/tigharstinian.htm, in case anyone’s interested.

    Like

  2. Mike,

    Another stellar piece of work with help from Jerry Wilson and Jennings Bunn. Thanks, guys, for your time, effort, and new information.

    Calvin Pitts

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike your skepticism is well founded.

    Over the years, Jerry Wilson has been kind enough to share his research with me. If my memory is correct, Jerry is a retired principal and is a consummate professional. During my conversations with Jerry, he never embellished the accounts he heard from Naftel. With that said, I agree with Tom King’s remarks, that Naftel must have been a “great story teller.”

    In order to determine if Naftel’s story had legs, I looked into the background of Hawaiian Nisei who returned to Japan prior to the war. Thousands of disillusioned Japanese returned to the homeland from Hawaii and the U.S. mainland during the 1920’s and 30’s. Naturally, many men of draft bearing age were conscripted or drafted into the Japanese military. These English speaking recruits were sought after and highly prized for their dual language skills. I can’t imagine a situation where these men would have been considered “slaves” as Naftel describes his conversation with the unknown Japanese/Hawaiian.

    I also reached out to several professors at the University of Hawaii familiar with Japanese Hawaiian history. None recalled the Japanese government enticing local Hawaiian boys to work in the sugar cane fields in the Marianas nor were there any advertisements in the Honolulu newspapers offering work in Saipan and Tinian. With that said, it’s not within the realm of possibility that a few young men returning to Japan in the 1930’s then decided to make a better life for themselves in the Marianas – but slave labor, no way.

    The pecking order for those living in the Marianas in the 1930’s were as follows:
    Japanese – first class citizens, Okinawans – second class citizens, Chamorros and Carolinians – third class citizens. A Japanese Hawaiian would not have been classified as slave labor. As far as a native Hawaiian relocating to Tinian in the 1930’s – Marine G- 2 reports listed all those captured after the invasion. There is no record of a “Hawaiian” being taken into custody on Tinian or on Saipan for that matter.

    I haven’t found evidence of Japanese Army personnel stationed in Saipan in 1937. However, there are unsubstantiated reports that some Japanese Army personnel arrived in Saipan from the China campaign in December 1937. I have found pictures and the presence of Japanese Naval soldiers on Saipan in 1937. The Japanese Naval contingent was based adjacent to the seaplane base at Tanapag.

    It’s doubtful the Japanese high command would have ordered “slave labor” to bury the bodies of two Caucasians and why on Tinian? There was no military presence on Tinian in 1937. Why would the Japanese take the remains of two Caucasians to Tinian for burial?

    If, Naftel did here such a story, it wouldn’t have come from a Japanese Hawaiian or Hawaiian working as slave labor on Tinian. Although I haven’t seen such a report, it could have been someone describing the burial of American Aviators shot down over Tinian in 1944.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Les,

      Thanks for your exceptionally well-researched information, which, in my opinion at least, destroys any remaining doubts that Naftel’s tale was legit. If Jennings Bunn, Jim Sullivan, Bob Silvers and the others involved had known all that you present here, I cannot imagine them going forward with The Tinian Dig in 2004.

      Mike

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  4. Here we go again, another grave, but no body. This Hawaiian tells an interesting tale, but can we believe him? Either there was another couple who were imprisoned, tortured and executed and thought to be Amelia & Fred; or this Hawaiian knew something, that the rest of us didn’t. Wouldn’t it have been so much easier, to have told the American public the *truth; than for our government to have fibbed, foiled and fabricated Amelia’s disappearance over the Pacific Ocean? Did they really think, the average American was going to buy this false notion? The tale makes me wonder, if it was a rouse to blind side a an American or the American’s?

    Doug

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  5. William H. Trail | Reply

    Les makes an excellent point. The Japanese would have had absolutely no plausible reason whatsoever to transport the bodies of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan from Saipan to Tinian for burial there. The idea is ludicrous. That said, a good investigator nonetheless runs out all the leads, starting with the best, most logical and promising ones first.

    As for the “Hawaiian,” this prisoner could likely have been a very savvy, knowledgeable, English-speaking Japanese who, unsure of his future, cunningly decided to pass himself off as just a poor, unfortunate Hawaiian or ethnic Japanese Hawaiian in hope of better treatment from the Americans. His story sounds like an attempt to ingratiate himself, and perhaps receive better treatment.

    All best,

    William

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  6. Good evening folks, wanted to say that to not have checked this account from St. John would have plagued me though the rest of my life. However, I, too, had my doubts as to the graves actually being those of Amelia & Fred. I do firmly believe that St. John did see two graves. I lived on Guam for 14 years, and visited Tinian at least 30 times. So, I am very aware of the transformation we, the U.S. Military, caused on that Island. Had graves existed they highly likely would have been destroyed anyway. So, I will say that to have failed to pursue that possible lead would have been wrong, if for no other reason than to eliminate Tinian as a potential source.

    I do believe that Mike Campbell is correct in his book, and his belief in the Saipan theory. Too much evidence has been recovered, and Americans who were there in 1945, found or witnessed. No better evidence exists, anywhere.
    Jennings Bunn

    Liked by 1 person

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