Today we return to Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters for another look at true Earhart research history. “The Jaluit Report” is Prymak’s account of his November 1990 trip to Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands with his longtime friend, the strange, unreliable researcher Joe Gervais, best known as the progenitor of the notorious Amelia Earhart-as-Irene Bolam myth. “The Jaluit Report” appeared in the May 1991 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter. Please understand that the words and opinions in this piece are those of the writers and others quoted, and not necessarily those of the editor. Boldface and italics emphasis is mine throughout.
“The Jaluit Report,” January 1991 (Part I of two)
by Bill Prymak and Major Joe Gervais, U.S. Air Force (Ret.)
This report summarizes the events experienced during our recent expedition to Jaluit and the great Japanese Naval Seaplane Base at Emidj, eight miles north of Jabor, the only harbor located in the Jaluit chain of islands, and where the administrative seat of Japanese Government was located prior to and during World War II.
Bill Prymak received considerable flak from the assemblage of critics out there for failing to maintain strict objectivity in the reporting of eyewitnesses interviewed during last year’s trip to Mill Atoll, so this report will simply “tell it as it happened,” with no editorializing, no personal opinions. It shall be for the reader to judge the veracity of the many eyewitness experiences related to us, and the impact these experiences may have on the Earhart Mystery. It should be noted, however, that we went so far back into the bush that many of these natives interviewed had rarely, if ever, seen a white visitor to their remote part of the Marshall Islands: none of them had ever been interviewed before, so we were fortunate indeed to visit with “uncontaminated” witnesses.
And yet, as the following report will detail, they knew of the “American Lady Spy who flew her own airplane” not from books (they have none there), not from previous visitors, not from their own government people, but they knew of the American Lady Spy relating only to a time many years ago, before the “Great War,” and always in concert with their servitude under harsh Japanese rule.
“Hey Bill, this is Joe Gervais. You gotta come down: I’ve got something important to show you, and when you see it, you’ll agree with me that we gotta take another trip to the Marshall Islands. There’s some unfinished business there.”
A typical Gervais call. Full of energy, optimism, and rarely failing to come up with a new tidbit on the Earhart mystery that has consumed the man for over thirty years.
Visiting Maj. Gervais has never been unpleasant nor without excitement; he lives in Las Vegas, and with my good fortune to own an airplane, it was a quick hop from Denver that late October, 1990. He is ever the gracious host, and his EARHART SUITE contains literally thousands of research data painstakingly procured over the past thirty years. It’s amazing how much Earhart material he has acquired that did not make his book.
Joe had photographs and spread sheets all over the table as he ushered me into the Earhart Suite. “Bill, let’s backtrack a bit: virtually every credible AE researcher has her down in the Marshall Islands, and every one of them tried to get to Jaluit, but because of time constraints, money, or logistics, none of ’em made it to Jaluit. Think about it; we have at least five sightings of what might be the Electra at Jaluit: Bilimon Amaron see it on the fantail of a Japanese naval ship; John Heine sees it on a barge [see page 156 Truth at Last] ; Oscar DeBroom reports seeing it at Jaluit; Tomaki [Mayazo, see pages 140-141 TAL for clarification], loading coal on the Kamoi, hears about the American Lady pilot and plane. And Jaluit was administrative headquarters for the Japanese long before World War II got underway. Why shouldn’t a ‘spy’ airplane be brought to Jaluit, placed on a barge for the inland water trip to a naval seaplane base under construction at that time, and far removed from prying eyes?
“Take a look at this,” Joe continued, his eyes lighting up with excitement, as he showed me classified pre-strike Target Detail Photos of Emidj, the Japanese naval seaplane base, taken by U.S. Air Force reconnaissance planes July 1943.
“My God,” I uttered, “that’s a mini Pearl Harbor down there,” as I studied the photographs. Clearly outlined were two massive concrete ramps leading into the lagoon, a main concrete apron 1,500 feet long by 360 feet wide, two enormous hangars scaling 240 feet by 160-feet wide (each!), numerous other support structures, and several giant Emily flying boats parked on the aprons.
“Study that overhead photo real hard, Bill, and see if you note anything unusual.” Joe was testing me. Besides the aforementioned ramps, hangars and airplanes, I could pick out AA guns, barracks, roads, and evidence that a tremendous amount of labor and materials had gone into this huge complex. But nothing that would precipitate an urgent trip to Las Vegas caught my eye. I looked up at Joe, plaintively, my eyes conceding defeat: “I give up — what’s so sensational down there?”
Joe whipped out a photo-enhanced copy of the recon photo and proudly placed it in front of me, pointing to what obviously was an Operations building . Behind the building, in what was apparently several years’ growth of underbrush, was a silver airplane! I was stunned! Intense magnification and scrutiny showed the object to be a twin-engined land airplane, twin tail, 55-foot wingspan, and looking just like a Lockheed Electra would look like from an overhead camera shot.
“Bill,” Joe said softly, “What the hell is a civilian land based airplane doing on a Japanese Naval Seaplane Base in the middle of a war?” I couldn’t even begin to answer, noting further on the photo that all the Jap military aircraft were clearly camouflage gray. Our attention was riveted upon a silver-looking (READ-Aluminum) airplane that just didn’t seem to belong there.
“Joe,” I asked, “when do we leave for Jaluit?”
You pay for at least three phone calls to the Marshall Islands before you finally connect with someone who might help you connect to Jaluit. And then the response to our request to visit Jaluit went something like: “Hey, mon, what for you wanna visit Jaluit? Nobody goes dere . . . dere ain’t no airport, no hotel, no beaches, no white folk . . . are you guys plannin’ on runnin’ dope or sumtin?” Finally, at no little expense, our twin-engine plane was headed southeast out of Majuro (capital of the Marshall Islands) some 115 miles down the road. It’s a big, big ocean out there.
Jaluit Atoll will never make the cover of ISLAND PARADISE MAGAZINE. It’s a scrawny looking string of very thin islands stretching some 40 miles in length and 20 miles at its widest girth. No beaches to speak of. We asked our pilot to make a low pass over Emidj for some photos; when we mentally compared our 1943 photos with the view below, we knew our work was cut out for us, as the encroaching jungle over the aprons and hangars showed a solid blanket of green.
As we approached Jabor, capital of Jaluit Atoll, I sat right seat next to the pilot; I jokingly asked if Jabor had a control tower. “We don’t even have an airstrip to land on,” complained the pilot, pointing to a narrow winding coral road. He skillfully dumped it in, however, and we were unceremoniously off loaded in front of a rusting hulk of metal vaguely resembling a beat-up pickup truck.
It had been previously arranged that the Mayor of Jabor (population some three hundred natives and thousands of chickens and pigs) would meet our flight and arrange food and lodging. But the fellow in the truck, a most agreeable chap who spoke some English, and who also happened to be the official Postmaster, advised us the Mayor was on a remote island attending a funeral, and his time or date or return was, well, “uncertain.” Mr. Johnson, our newfound Postmaster friend, took us to the Post Office to wait for the Mayor.
And then the rains came . . . in sheets like I’ve never seen before. Joe was resigned to sleeping on the P.O. desk, while I deliberated the delightful prospect of sleeping on the floor amongst all those crawling inhabitants. Suddenly Mr. Johnson remembered: school was on holiday, but one teacher remained, and might find us a bed in the teachers’ quarters. Miss Kimberly, a delightful transplant from Arkansas, saved the day for us, and proved to be a most charming hostess for the duration of our stay on Jabor.
Mayor Robert Diem was to be our guide and translator for the rest of our stay on Jaluit. His warmth, friendship and eagerness to help will be long remembered. First order of business on the first day was to get the BOOM-BOOM BOAT as they called it (didn’t Mill also have a BOOM-BOOM BOAT?) operational for the trip to Emidj, some eight miles up the lagoon. With much noise, fire and smoke by mid-morning we chugged northward and arrived some two hours later.
EMIDJ. What a great naval seaplane base this must have been. Begun in 1935 with 8,000 Korean and Marshallese labor, the enormous seaplane ramps, except for the 500-pound bomb direct hits, are today in excellent condition. The 30-foot-high bomb depository, with its 6-foot-thick walls and roof, stands as a testimony to the advanced engineering skills of the Japanese in that era. The structure today is as sound and solid as the day it was built.
Along the shore lay strewn dozens of radial engines, props, bomb carrier dollies, and rusting hulks of the machines of war. The big hangars were downed, devoured entirely by the creeping jungle. By my calculation, at least a hundred thousand tons of concrete were hand mixed to build this base.
Approximately 90 natives live on the concrete apron in tin shacks, with absolutely no visible sign of meaningful employment; the trading boat comes once a month with basic staples in exchange for the copra harvested. We were introduced to Joel, the school teacher who spoke fairly good English, and two native boys were assigned to us for initial reconnaissance work. We had previously plotted out precisely where the “aircraft in question” should locate, and as we brought in our survey lines, ground ZERO was surrounded by a solid wall of green. We were bitterly frustrated and disappointed at this turn of events, but “take heart!” we cried. This is only the first day.
Our two guides told us nothing existed at our ground ZERO, but we hacked our way to four corners of the huge hangars and were shown piles of aluminum aircraft debris that has been obviously bulldozed into one great mass. The jungle had flexed its muscles and embraced this mass of aluminum with a canopy that virtually defied penetration. We did identify several Japanese aircraft, including one huge Emily Flying Boat, but found nothing made in USA.
(Editor’s note: For those wondering about the one-winged plane that brought Gervais and Prymak to Jaluit, no trace of it was ever found.)
Crawling out of the jungle was like stepping out of a blast furnace, and nothing in the world refreshes like a cool drink of nectar out of a coconut. Joel, our schoolmaster friend told us that in 1977 the U.S. Army came in with bulldozers to deactivate any live ordinance strewn about and resettle the natives on Emidj. This was distressing news to us; it would take an army of men to cut through the jungle and mass of aluminum to affect a meaningful search for anything USA. We thanked our gracious hosts for their help and promised to return the next day. (End of Part I; witness interviews to come in Part II.)