Finally, “Expedition Amelia” is in our rear-views, and today we present Part II of “The Jaluit Report,” Bill Prymak’s account of his November 1990 trip to Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands with Joe Gervais, infamous as the creator of the mendacious Amelia Earhart-as-Irene Bolam myth. “The Jaluit Report” appeared in the May 1991 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface and italics emphasis are mine throughout, capitalizations for emphasis are Prymak’s, and some have been edited for consistency.
“The Jaluit Report,” January 1991 (Part II of two)
by Bill Prymak and Major Joe Gervais, U.S. Air Force (Ret.)
DAY TWO ON EMIDJ: Spent the first hour with Joel who suggested we motor some ten miles further up the lagoon to visit a very old Japanese native who lived on a remote island. “TOKYO” apparently had worked on the construction phase of the seaplane base, and would surely have some interesting experiences to relate. With great apprehension (OL’ BOOM-BOOM was really gasping and belching at this stage) we chugged northward past dozens of islands . . . finally, a settlement came into view, with a beautiful white church perched just off the beach. The Pastor was amazed that any white man would chose to visit his Parish, but a ten dollar donation popped his eyes and put him at our service. Yes, Tokyo was around, back in the bush. He was frightened to have white visitors, but our Pastor soon put him at ease. He was awed at the attention bestowed, spoke no English, but our Pastor conveyed the following, acting as interpreter:
Tokyo had been brought to Emidj from Japan as a labor foreman to run concrete pouring crews. Thousands of Koreans and Marshallese were conscripted for this work, which began about 1934-’35. Several years into the work, according to Tokyo, there was a great flurry of excitement one day as the weekly barge came up from Jabor.
The barge normally carried construction materials off-loaded from the larger ships in Jabor Harbor, but on this day the barge carried no ordinary cargo. All work was suspended for the day and the entire work force was kept off base. Tokyo could see from a distance that a silver land airplane partially covered by a canvas tarp was being off-loaded by bulldozers with winches and dragged to a remote area where it was promptly fenced off and camouflaged. Tokyo stated that this event was excitedly discussed amongst the Japanese soldiers, but such talk amongst the civilian work force was forbidden, and would result in severe punishment.
Tokyo worked as foreman on. the base until the start of bombing raids, when he fled, with other Marshallese, to remote islands in the Jaluit Chain. With no family to go home to in Japan after World War II, Tokyo decided to embrace the Marshallese as his own and remain for the rest of his days. He is currently 75 (give or take a few) years old.
DAY THREE: JABOR: The BOOM-BOOM boat finally boomed out, so we decided to seek out old-timers in the village. The Mayor was still gracious and helpful. First stop: KUBANG BUNITAK, the donut baker. He’s some 75 years old, and his donut shop is something to behold: #5 bunker oil in a 55-gallon drum over a wood fire . . . and there you have it! DONUTS! Joe gave Kubang five dollars for a bag of donuts, and his eyes nearly popped out! He had never received so much money for his goods. I accidentally dropped one of the donuts: it hit the floor and bounced up to the ceiling! Joe later remarked that they would make great wheels on supermarket shopping carts!
The interview with Kubang was brief but very interesting. He had been at Jabor since 1935. “Many thousands” of Japanese soldiers and construction workers were based both at Jabot, the deep harbor, and at Emidj, the Naval seaplane base, he related. He remembered Bilimon Amaron working in the Naval Hospital and the flurry of excitement when Bilamon treated “two American flyers who were ’shot down’ near Mill Island and brought to Jabor for medical treatment and interrogation.” He further described how a strange-looking airplane was unloaded from a Naval Tender ship, put onto the Emidj barge, and disappeared from Jabor that night. Great secrecy was imposed by the military during this operation, and several Marshallese received cruel punishment for “being too close.”
Kubang went on to describe the terrible devastation rendered Jabor Island during the American bombing raids. He remembered well Carl Heine and his two sons John and Dwight. The previous Marshall Island Report describes our interview with John Heine and his witnessing the silver airplane on a barge at Jabor. (See newsletter for Mr. Heine’s interesting report re: the letter addressed to Amelia Earhart that was delivered to the Jaluit Post Office in November, 1937.)
The only white men Kubang had ever seen were the occasional contract school teachers at Jabor, and, rarely, when a sailing ship popped into the Harbor. He told us that he was delighted to share with us his experiences, as he had never talked with white visitors before. He never asked what the outside world was like . . . their simple lives seem to be self-fulfilling and pretty content.
Mr. Hatfield was next interviewed. A very soft-spoken elderly gentlemen who could communicate with us in broken English, he was the Mobil agent for the Island, and ran what passed for a country store. It was here that Joe and I found our survival rations for the week . . . Spam and beans! In discussing the Earhart issue, yes, he knew Tomaki Mayazo, the coal tender who [believed he] loaded the Kamoi. He remembered the ship hurriedly leaving port for Mili and returning a few days later to Jabor under great security and much fanfare.
Mr. Hatfield’s most interesting story was of his close relationship with a Mr. Lee, who, unfortunately for us, had died in 1987. Lee was the chief translator between the Marshallese natives and the Japanese military, and evidently commanded considerable respect and fraternized quite frequently with Japanese officers. Lee told Mr. Hatfield several times the events on the night of July 2nd, 1937, when he (Lee) was drinking heavily with some high-ranking naval officers. Suddenly one of the officers jumped out of chair, slammed his fist on the table, and boasted to Lee: “We know that the American Lady Pilot is flying over (these) islands tonight!” Joe and I were astonished to hear such a statement. Hatfield went on to relate how Lee told him of the arrival of a “huge” aircraft carrier and several destroyers that engaged in war games back in 1937 (this, incidentally, was corroborated by Capt. Alfred Parker; see Joe Klaas’s book, Amelia Earhart Lives, page 40). These war exercises were conducted at Jaluit and surrounding waters.
Mr. Hatfield concluded our interview with a startling statement: Lee told him that he had met one of the carrier pilots who, during a drinking bout, had claimed that he had shot down Amelia Earhart near Mill Atoll! Such a statement by itself may not be very credible, but I refer the reader to [T.C.] Buddy Brennan’s book Witness to the Execution (page 117) and immediately we see a hard connection. Brennan, nor Lee or Hatfield had never met before. Could Fujie Firmosa be the one and same person? Could the Akagi be the aircraft carrier seen at Jabor by several different persons?
(Editor’s note: The Akagi was shown to be in Japan’s Sasebo Navy Yard from 1935 to 1938, undergoing a major modernization. Fujie Firmosa, who, according to Buddy Brennan, told Manny Muna on Saipan that he shot down Amelia Earhart’s plane in the Marshalls while assigned to the Japanese carrier Akagi. Firmosa’s last known address was in Osaka, according to Brennan (Witness to the Execution, footnote p. 118) but he “was recently deceased” circa 1983. Further, I’m not aware of any claim by “several different persons” of seeing an aircraft carrier at Jabor. Anyone out there who can shed light in this one?]
DAY FOUR: BACK TO EMIDJ
Boom-Boom boat was dead. But somebody had another outboard, and after much ceremony and cussin’ the engine kicked into life and we were on our way. Joel, our schoolmaster friend, greeted us with the warmest smile imaginable, and the candy we had brought from the States made a great hit with the kids. We were told that an American airplane has been shot down during the February 1942 air strike, and that a native boy had recently seen it in some twenty feet of water several hundred yards off the seaplane ramp. It took some 30 minutes of trolling before I finally spotted the outline. Donning fins and snorkel gear, I made an amazing discovery: As I dove on the aircraft, it clearly turned out to be a TBF Torpedo Bomber in pristine condition. The black barrels of the twin machine guns on each wing clearly stood out in the semi-hazy water.
The aircraft had apparently pancaked into the water, nosed over, and settled in 20 feet to the bottom on its back. I was to learn later that the pilot, either Ensign R.L. Wright or Ensign W.A. Haas was still in the plane. Studying the strike reports from the Yorktown, the two pilots had radioed they were ditching together. Both to this day are [listed as] MIAs. Neither Joel, nor the other older natives had any knowledge of any person ever making an attempt to recover either parts or the remains of the pilot. It was an eerie feeling, knowing that I was the first to dive on an American military plane sequestered in the water for nearly 50 years. I plan to go back and complete my search of the aircraft.
It was sad leaving Emidj; we cemented deep bonds of friendship with natives, and promised to come back.
Parting Jabor on our final day, Mr. Hatfield had one last bit of information for us: “Capt. Fukusuke Fujita, commanding the base at Emidj during the war, wrote a book re: his experiences, and this book is in the possession of a certain Japanese restaurant owner on Majuro.” We held our breath: could this be the final clue? The undeniable clue? Landing at Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, we did meet the restaurant owner, we did make a copy of said book; after weeks of tracking down competent translators . . . no cigar! Capt. Fujita had simply documented his post-war trips to the Islands to honor the war dead.
The long flight back to the states gave ample time for reflection. So many compelling questions begging for a rational answer need to be addressed: Exactly whose airplane was down there on the ramp at Emidj as shown on the United States Air Force pre-strike photo?
What did the bulldozers bury or push into a indefinable mass of aluminum back in 1977?
Just what did the old Japanese labor foreman see on that barge in 1937?
Why would a Japanese donut baker, who had never been interviewed before, talk of a “strange-looking” (can we read-non Japanese?) airplane being loaded onto a barge during the same period of time as the Bilamon Amaron experience?
Is this all hot smoke and sheer coincidence?
Joe and I did agree on one point: Our week at Jaluit and Emidj sure n’ hell beat laying on the beach at Fiji sipping pina coladas! (End of “The Jaluit Report.”)
Bill Prymak, along with several members of the Amelia Earhart Society, returned to Jaluit in late January 1997 and interviewed several new witnesses for the first time ever. We’ll hear from them soon.