The following column by Michael Fitzgerald first appeared in The Stockton Record on Feb. 4, 1996, and presents the account of Marine veteran Robert Ross, then 71, who claimed to have served on Saipan during the critical summer 1944 invasion, at that time the most important conflict of the Pacific war. Someone sent it to Bill Prymak, who included it in the July 1996 issue of his Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter.
At first glance it might appear compelling, especially to the uninformed, who comprise well over 99.99 percent of the nation’s populace. Let’s take a look anyway, before we explain what’s wrong with it. (Boldface and italic emphases are mine throughout.)
“Whatever Happened to Earhart?”
by Michael Fitzgerald, The Stockton Record
Today I offer a solution to the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. Seriously, but not positively.
How, you ask, could a punk columnist from Stockton solve one of the great mysteries of the 20th century — the disappearance of Earhart (1897-1937), the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean? The American heroine who, with her navigator Fred Noonan vanished without a trace over the Pacific in 1937 while attempting to fly around the world?
Well . . . in Lodi there lives a certain man, an older ex-Marine who says that long ago, on a mission deep in a jungle on a remote Pacific island, he stumbled onto Earhart’s missing airplane.
Robert Ross, 71, says he also learned Earhart’s terrible fate, but the U.S. Navy swore him to secrecy.
Now he’s talking.
In August of 1944, Ross was a Marine with the 2nd Raider Battalion, battling fiercely to recapture the Mariana Islands from the Japanese. One day on Saipan, Ross was ordered to undertake a solo night mission — to hunt down and kill a Japanese sniper firing from a mountain on U.S. soldiers at Tanepeg [sic] Harbor, Saipan’s west side.
Under cover of night, Ross says, he made stealthily through dense jungle toward the sniper’s vicinity. “The banana palms were so thick I had to cut through with a K-bar (a Marine knife).”
At one point, “I kind of fell into a space,” and there Ross unexpectedly found a hidden aircraft. “There was no crash, no nothing,” Ross recalled.
“I thought to myself, ‘Why did the (Japanese) set a Betty bomber (a twin-engine Japanese bomber) out here and leave it?’ ”
Intent on stalking his prey, Ross moved on. He put the plane out of his mind. Ross got the sniper, returned to the beach and was eating K-rations when, he says, he overheard one officer tell another, “We know her damned airplane is here somewhere. We just can’t find it!”
Ross realized the officer must be talking about Amelia Earhart. So he reported his find. The officers ordered him to lead them to the plane. In an armored vehicle, the men punched through the jungle.
Simultaneously, Ross says, U.S. soldiers were finding pictures of Earhart and Noonan in the wallets of dead Japanese soldiers. The photos depicted Earhart with Japanese officers. In some, the Japanese fleet could be seen in the background. “In one, I saw the airstrip on Saipan.”
Ross says a native maid who worked in a hotel in the village of Garapan came forward with information. The woman told the Americans that Earhart and Noonan had been held captive at the hotel. According to Ross, the maid said the Japanese had poisoned Earhart and shot Noonan and decapitated his corpse. Ross says the women led Americans to the shallow grave where Earhart’s corpse, and Noonan’s headless body, were found.
The next day, Ross says, an order came out: The discovery of Earhart was top secret. “Anyone having any Amelia Earhart paraphernalia after 0400 the next morning, it was a general court-martial offense,” Ross says.
“Why? I really don’t know.”
That is Ross’ story.
What to make of it? History records that Earhart and Noonan took off from New Guinea and crashed at sea somewhere en route to Howland Island. That, incidentally, was many of hundreds of miles from the spot where Ross says he discovered Earhart’s plane.
Some biographers theorize that the U.S. military on New Guinea outfitted Earhart’s plane with spy equipment and she embarked on an unpublicized mission for her country.
Following this theory, Earhart’s crash was picked up by Japanese military radio. The Japanese military rescued Earhart and Noonan, recovered the plane and transported their catch to the privacy of distant Saipan for interrogation. The plane was hidden so America would never learn the fate of its heroine.
Ross said he heard scuttlebutt that the remains of Earhart and Noonan were removed to a forensic lab near Pearl Harbor. A bulldozer plowed through the jungle and towed the plane out, and he has no idea what became of it.
Perhaps Amelia Earhart was killed because she was a spy; perhaps not. Perhaps the U.S. military clamped a lid on Ross’ discovery because Earhart’s top secret mission was a political embarrassment: perhaps not. Perhaps you are one of the first people in the world to learn the real solution to the mystery of Amelia Earhart. (End of Fitzgerald column.)
As I said, Ross’ story may appear impressive to some. I recall seeing a small print advertisement that he had taken out in a magazine several years ago, claiming to reveal the location of the Earhart Electra for several thousand dollars, but I can’t find it now. I must not have placed much stock in it, and apparently for very good reasons.
First of all, absolutely no evidence exists that the 2nd Raider Battalion served on Saipan. In fact, the record tells us this unit didn’t even exist in the summer of 1944. This is from the Wikipedia entry for Marine Raiders:
On 1 February 1944, the 1st Raider Regiment was redesignated the 4th Marine Regiment, and eventually became part of the 6th Marine Division. The 1st, 4th, and 3d Raider Battalions became respectively the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, 4th Marines. The 2nd Raider Battalion became the regimental weapons company, lacking the manpower to form an entire Battalion after the costly fighting in the Solomons. Personnel of the Raider Training Battalion at Camp Pendleton transferred to the 5th Marine Division.
Although the foregoing unassailable facts render the rest of Ross’ account moot, we’ll go through it anyway, perhaps to disabuse the querulous of any doubts about its lack of veracity, as well as to flesh out common misconceptions that sometimes plague those whose attention to detail might not be as well developed as they imagine.
Ross’ claims that he “heard scuttlebutt that the remains of Earhart and Noonan were removed to a forensic lab near Pearl Harbor,” and “A bulldozer plowed through the jungle and towed the plane out, and he has no idea what became of it” both strain credulity.
If “the discovery of Earhart was top secret” among a few GIs in the know on Saipan, how did a bulldozer “plough through the jungle” and tow the plane out without everyone on the island knowing about it? Further, I’ve never read nor heard a whisper about the involvement of forensic labs at Pearl Harbor with the remains of Amelia Earhart or Fred Noonan, have you?
Contrast this scenario with the one heard on Saipan in early April 1968, when Antonio Diaz, 59, a native witness whose credibility based on his interviews with several researchers is quite shaky, told Don Kothera, John Gacek and the Cleveland Group that “he had been called out to build a coral road [by the Japanese] into the jungle to bring out Amelia’s plane. The plane had gone down in some pine-like trees and was damaged very little.” (Page 131 second edition  of Joe Davidson’s Amelia Earhart Returns from Saipan; all references are for the second edition.)
Diaz said it took him two weeks to build the road, and “after building the road to bring the airplane out, it was loaded on a ship and probably sent to Japan; he was told it went to Japan,” Davidson wrote (p. 135).
Davidson mentioned nothing about the Cleveland Group finding any evidence of the coral road that Diaz claimed he built, nor about them even attempting to pin down the approximate date for the events Diaz described. But Diaz drew a map of the area that’s displayed on page 120 of Amelia Earhart Returns. All of it reeks of fabrication from Diaz, in my opinion. So which do you prefer, the Ross or Diaz accounts? Ross couldn’t have found a plane that Diaz had already taken out on a road he’d been ordered to build, but nothing exists to support Diaz’s claim either, not even another independent witness. Neither story withstands any real scrutiny.
Of course, we do have several credible reports that the Earhart Electra was discovered by American forces soon after D-Day, June 15, 1944, in a hangar at Aslito Field. Thomas E. Devine’s 1987 book Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident chronicles his experiences on Saipan on or about July 6, 1944, when he claimed to have seen the Earhart Electra on three separate occasions; the final time, at Aslito, the plane was in flames.
Devine presented a far more plausible narrative about the disposition of the Electra on Saipan. The former postal sergeant wrote that after he witnessed the “large, twin-engine, double-fin civilian plane,” with NR 16020 under its left wing clearly in view, flying over his bivouac area at Cape Obiam, he and Pfc. Paul Anderson violated an off-limits order surrounding Aslito Field and actually inspected NR 16020 at “the southwest end of the airfield, before a roofless hangar.” Later, after returning to his camp nearby, “a muffled explosion at Aslito Field erupted into a large flash fire,” Devine wrote, and after he quickly returned to the airfield to see what was going on, he watched “aghast” as the “twin-engine plane was engulfed in flames.” (Eyewitness, p. 40-41).
“I saw the plane,” Devine told me emphatically during our extensive discussion at his New Haven, Connecticut home in February 1991. “I know all about the plane. The plane was there. No matter what anyone would ever say, that plane was Earhart’s plane — positively, absolutely, 100 percent. I can drop dead right now if it wasn’t so. Nobody can change my mind about it, because it was her plane.”
It was then that Devine told me the remains of Electra NR 16020 were bulldozed into a landfill with the assorted rubble and refuse of war under Aslito Airfield, and remains buried under the tarmac of what is now Saipan International Airport. “I don’t know exactly where they pushed it, where it’s buried now under the airport,” Devine said, “but I’m sure they would not allow me to dig up an airfield to find an airplane.” (For a complete discussion, see Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, pages 65-78.)
Several GIs contacted Devine to corroborate his sighting after publication of Eyewitness in 1987. Both Devine, in 1963 and 1990, and Fred Goerner, in 1965, directly questioned Gen. Wallace M. Greene, who was promoted to commandant of the Marine Corps on Jan. 1, 1964. Greene, a lieutenant colonel and operations officer of the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan, was unofficially credited with discovering the Electra (See Truth at Last, multiple pages.) Of course Greene vehemently denied all involvement with the Earhart plane.
The Ross story typifies those created by certain types who are vaguely familiar with the known facts, who then pick and choose among the Earhart saga’s better known elements, stitching them together into new confections that suit their strange whimsies. It’s rather pathetic, actually, and those who weave these tales would be deserving of our sympathy if they weren’t so annoying, not to mention the extra confusion they create about a subject that’s already one of the most misunderstood in American history.
Not all Saipan veterans’ stories are equal — if they’re Saipan vets to begin with — and this one from Ross has a very strong aroma, much like that of Paul Erwin, who also claimed an amazing find on Saipan. Ironically, Erwin’s tale, “Soldier’s Secret,” also appeared in the July 1996 edition of the AES Newsletters. Originally appearing in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier, on June 16, 1996 and written by Jennifer Jacobs, “Soldier’s Secret” is another that didn’t pass the smell test, at least in this observer’s opinion. For a complete discussion of Paul Erwin’s account, please click here.
I’ve been unable to locate Ross, or even determine if he’s still alive. He would be 94 or 95 now, and little has been heard from him since the late 1990s. I have a letter from former newsman Ross Game, Fred Goerner’s close associate, that appears to be addressed to Ross, that I’ll present in a future post.
Michael Fitzgerald retired from The Stockton Record in October 2018 after 33 years and 4.200 columns. To read his final column, please click here.
(Editor’s note: Late on Friday, Dec. 13, I received an email from Marie Castro, who had just read this post. Regarding the Antonio Diaz account, Marie wrote: “The fabrication on Diaz’s story was never heard or mentioned among his family. Clearly it was a made up story. Right after the war all the conversations were only about the war, but Diaz’s story was never heard among the locals.”)