Bill Prymak’s 1997 Marshalls witnesses, Part I

During the course of more than 30 years of Earhart research, Bill Prymak made three investigative visits to the Marshall Islands, in 1989, ’91 and ’97, locating and interviewing many previously unknown witnesses, including the famous Bilimon Amaron in 1989, though Prymak wasn’t the first to record Bilimon’s remarkable account. 

Today we begin a two-part look at Prymak’s 1997 Marshalls trip, as seen in the May 1997 issue of his Amelia Earhart Society NewslettersI thought readers might like more of Prymak’s original AES Newsletter format, and so the front page of the newsletter that contains today’s story is presented below.  (Boldface and italic emphases are both Prymak’s and mine; capitalization emphasis is Prymak’s.)

“INTERVIEWING THE NATIVE WITNESSES”
by Bill Prymak

In our quest for new material, the MARSHALL ISLANDS TRIP allowed us to reach some natives who had never been interviewed (by any researcher) before.  As Margaret Meade put it so succinctly, “There was absolutely no indication that the [interviewed] natives we met were perpetuating a myth or falsely embellishing their experiences and recollections.  No one put words in their mouths, led them on or enticed them with promises of gratuity in exchange for their information.”

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HATFIELD LEMAE

Joe Gervais and I had previously interviewed Hatfield six years ago, at which time he described his close relationship with MR. LEE, chief translator between the Japanese and Marshallese natives.  His story is well documented in the May 1991 NEWSLETTER, and it would behoove us to reread that interview.  Great stuff! On this trip, he reiterated his story of how AE & FN were picked up at MILI ATOLL, and brought to JALUIT.  Other pressing matters prevented us from reliving with him again his Mr. Lee experience.

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Six of the 10 members of the Amelia Earhart Society who made the 1997 trip to the Marshall Islands. Bill Prymak’s caption:  “A FEW OF THE CREW: L to R: Lou Foudray, Margaret Mead, Irene & John Bolam, Dr. Rick Perschau and Joe Klaas.”  (Courtesy Bill Prymak.)

MR. TOKYO

Again, Mr. Tokyo is a repeat witness from the 1991 trip. See NEWSLETTER, May 1991.  The six years since we saw him last have been hard on the aging man, but he did tell some new tidbits:

He reaffirmed, as several witnesses did, that BILIMON AMARON indeed was the young medic who assisted the Japanese doctor in treating two American flyers, one a woman, in 1937, aboard a Japanese vessel manned by uniformed naval personnel.

Mr. TOKYO worked on the EMIDJ SEAPLANE NAVAL BASE, and at least TWO Japanese Naval seaplanes were at the base at the time Bilimon treated the two Americans in 1937.  A great manyarmchair researchers naively believed the Japanese at the War Crimes Trials, when they deliberately lied in claiming that no fortifications were built in the Mandated Islands before the war.  Several other witnesses, further in this report, concur with Tokyo’s statement.  He further stated that it was his belief that AE & FN went down between the GILBERT ISLANDS and MILI.  Both plane and the two Americans were taken to MILI, transferred to a bigger boat, and then to JABOR, Japanese headquarters on JALUIT ATOLL, where Bilimon treated the man and saw the lady pilot.

If only we had one photo of those events in 1937 . . . but remember, the CARL HEINES were executed at EMIDJ for much less!

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MR. CALETA

Mr. Caleta lives on a tiny island just north of EMIDJ called TMIET. Born in 1928, he worked as a cook for the Japanese at the Naval base during the war years.  He was told by the Japanese that the carrier AKAGI and supporting naval vessels were holding war exercises at JALUIT in 1937, and one of the carrier pilots, FUJIE FIRMOSA, bragged about forcing down Earhart at MILI, where she was then picked up and brought to JALUIT.  Then a Japanese flying boat flew the two Americans to KWAJALEIN.

This is one of several witnesses stating that AE did not fly her own airplane to Saipan.

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MASHAISHI LOMETO

The schoolteacher at EMIDJ, Mashaishi Lometo related he was raised on MILI ATOLL, and his father told him the following:

Earhart crashed at MILI, on the lagoon side, when she ran out of gas.  Soldiers came to the crash site, captured the two Americans, kept them one day at MILI, and then transported them to JALUIT.  Meantime, the soldiers struggled to hide the airplane with palm fronds for fear more American planes might be coming to search for her airplane.

Mr. Lometo stated that many of the old-timers on MILI, some now dead, frequently of the AMERICAN LADY PILOT incident back in 1937.   Two names, NERO and LEROK, were mentioned.

If we had time, it would have been very opportunistic to travel the 85 miles to MILI with Lometo, and relive with him and the surviving elders, what they experienced in 1937.

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Recent overview of Jabor, “a quiet bucolic place once teeming with thousands of Japanese Navy and Army personnel,” Bill Prymak wrote. “The great naval seaplane base at Emidj in eight miles up the lagoon.”

ABA

The elderly Japanese woman, translated by her grandson, ICHIWATA LAMAE.

Lady Luck smiled upon us today!  As John and Irene Bolam were leisurely walking thru Jabor village, a young Japanese lad (17 or 18 years old) stopped them to inquire about college in the USA.  After a thorough, briefing by John, Ichiwata casually remarked that his 85-year-old grandmother lived on Jabor before, during and after the war, and might be a source of information.

Her husband had worked with the Japanese at EMIDJ before and during the war, and she stated that her husband had told her that a plane went down (several years before the war) between JALUIT and MILI ATOLLS.  Amelia and Fred were then brought to JABOR.  After JABOR, the two Americans were taken to places unknown; however, one rumor had it that they were taken to POHNPEI, and the native Chief’s daughter was allowed to see the “white woman” with her hands tied behind her back.  The daughter somehow relayed this experience back to Aba at JALUIT.  (POHNPEI at that time was a Japanese stopover for traffic going from JALUIT to TRUK.)

Aba also related stories of bestial atrocities the Japanese inflicted upon the local Marshallese, beating them for eating fruit from their own trees, and often beheading them as “spies.”  They usually brought them to EMIDJ for execution by Samurai sword.  POWs at EMIDJ suffered a similar fate, and a local Marshallese, ANUKOJ, witnessed the decapitation of three young American airmen at EMIDJ the end of July 1944.  Rear Admiral MASUDA,  Commander of EMIDJ, committed suicide on Oct 5, 1945, rather than face war crime trials.

This kind, gentle elderly lady simply could not have fabricated the above.  She was quite honored and humbled by our visit.  Her grandson later stated that she cried after we left . . . we were her first visitors outside of family in fifty years.

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PAUL AMARON

WOW!  We didn’t even know Bilimon had a brother, and an educated English schoolteacher at that.

To briefly review, Bilimon Amaron was a much revered and deeply religious Japanese store-owner from Majuro.  Since the early 1940s, he had told of his experiences of July 1937, at JALUIT, when as a medic for the Japanese Naval doctor, he was called out to a ship in the harbor manned by Japanese uniformed naval personnel.  Two Americans, one a woman fitting AE’s description, were on deck, with a silver-colored (“Not Japanese”) airplane on the fantail.  See Feb. 1996 AES NEWSLETTER for the complete story.

U.S. Air Force Intelligence Map. 1943. “The map of EMIDJ exemplifies the resourcefulness of the USAF in 1943 air reconnaissance,” Bill Prymak wrote in his May 1997 AES Newsletter.  “The written text accompanying the map describes in detail some 100 buildings, from latrines to thte two 155 x 220 foot clear- span hangars. Radio towers, storage tanks, torpedo storehouse, ammunition bunkers, power plants, all are described in minute detail.” (Courtesy Bill Prymak.)

BILIMON’s experience, along with his honesty and credibility, has withstood the test of time, and this editor has always regarded him as one of the most genuine, sincere, and honorable men he has ever met.  Bilimon died last year, but meeting his younger brother, PAUL, simply heaps more credence to the total AMARON experience.

PAUL AMARON, in an AES interview and a written statement, reaffirms his brother’s experience in 1937, and just before Bilimon died last year, he told his family tobe sure to tell Joe and Bill, and the rest who asked about Amelia, that my story is true.”  And Bilimon, with that covenant to his family, and to the world, passed on.

Paul’s interview disclosed some interesting tidbits:

In 1937, three Japanese Naval doctors were at JABOR, and 7 were at EMIDJ.  It tells you that major construction was already under way at this period in time.  (See Robert Reimers Interview.)

Local natives were beheaded by the Japanese simply for eating locally grown food, with executions carried out at EMIDJ.

Bilimon told his brother that the American man was slightly injured, but the woman was neat, calm, with no injuries. Both were taken to KWAJALEIN and then to SAIPAN.

Here’s a strange twist: The hospital at EMIDJ was sealed by the Japanese and to this day has never been opened.  The Japanese were known for their meticulous record keeping; wouldn’t you guess the naval doctor with Bilimon in 1937, would have recorded the spectacular event of two Americans dropping in on Jaluit aboard a Japanese naval vessel?  Or at least mention the medical treatment of these two extraordinary visitors in 19377

Why can’t you just walk in?  Not so simple.  The hospital is buried under tons of coral debris; three torpedoes adorn the roof in mock protection; and the natives have no desire to invade a tomb filled with evil spirits, slithering creatures, booby traps and the ghoulish ghosts of men long dead.  (End Part I.)

21 responses

  1. Matt Holly here, I was the Diving and shore guide on this adventure, aboard “Charlies Angel”. I took Prymak and company to the B-25 at Imroij, and then later to the 2 H8Ks sunk at their moorings off Emidj. My Marshallese family, all the ex’s, were from this islet, and I had spent alot of time here. It was a great trip, but sadly a couple people got bad chest colds and slowed the adventure. I loved Prymak, but even so, some of the interviews were faulty. We also looked for a US Aircraft off a coral head as reported but found nothing. Lots of history here. Mr. Klaas was a character, and sadly was aboard after his grand-daughter was kidnapped and killed. (*Polly Klaas). History was everywhere on this trip! Happy to elaborate if requested!

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    1. Just curious Matt, I heard the RMI HPO did a survey of that island recently. Is there a copy available to read?

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      1. RMIHPO did a bid out US NPService survey in 1997, the first of those in the RMI, I didnt do that one, and it was like 18 pages and slides like an old HS report. Not much intel at all. It did note the US AC lost near Pinglap islet, but mis-identified it as a SBD. We later determined it was a TBD, and thus started my work to find the second TBD lost deeper, which I did in 2002. A long story. My research, I found it in ONE DIVE 20 miles out into the lagoon…the other diver mentioned was my paid second set of eyes, he held no knowledge of any of the above… Many many long sub stories. TIGHAR eventually got involved with that too, I challenged the USN claim to ownership, ask me about that challenge!…the TBDs are still there. New adventures are trying to bribe their way into a recovery attempt.
        The USN effort is listed here: https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=26115
        I then did the next 4 RMI HPO US Park Service bidded surveys, and did one for Maloelap for free, an edited summary here: http://marshall.csu.edu.au/MJHSS/Issue2006/MJHSS2006_112.pdf

        I will look for a copy of the 1997 Jaluit Report, but again, it is pretty sparce. More AC lost in Jaluit lagoon, and I shot video of the 2 Emily’s and Imroij B-25 on this trip. Another sad story.

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      2. Actually Matt, the HPO did one during the years 1996 to 1997, and published it in 1999. Titled “Anthropological Survey of Jaluit Atoll – Terrestrial and Underwater Reconnaissance Surveys and Oral History Recordings”, it was a 3 part study 89 pages, with Boris Deunert as the lead author and HPO archeologist. It was stated that Donna Stone and Richard Williamson compiled the final draft and Mark Rudo from NPS did the final review. Looks like Matt was the lead on the underwater part.

        This survey reports nothing on any underground artifact. Very unfortunate.

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      3. Aaah, yes, Boris….Boris was a dinosaur moron who wanted the limelight and control, and not the history. Boris hated me, period. The Jaluit surveys were the first of the National Park Service monetary adventures in the Marshall Islands. All expate archaeologists were paid for by the US NPS, which sadly now controls which sites get $$$.

        I had previously been involved with Dirk Spennemann ( a great mentor, researcher and writer) and friend ( I taught Dirk and the HPO folks how to SCUBA dive) up to the creation of the 1992 RMI historic preservation laws. When I found the remains of USAAC Lt. John W. Starmann at Mili atoll in 1994 in his P-39, and got the US State Dept involved, Boris threatened to arrest me. I did everything to preserve Starmanns remains on the spot at Mili, and shall ever be proud and happy I did it my way. Otherwise the site would have been dug thru for gold teeth. I requested the Mayor on Mili for a Christian burial the next morning to “seal” the site, which I knew would protect the remain by local customs. Aaah you should have heard 100 people sing a church service in the jungle of Mili on crisp Sunday morning, wow…my long time research buddy, Bernie Cotter (RIP), and I, well we all cried. Boris was enraged. When CILHI came, Boris made sure I didnt return to Mili with them.

        He also ignored my research when CILHI returned and dug up a Marshallese elder near the other USA P-39 (Erdman) site. Arrogant prick is all I can say. CILHI later invited me to Hono for a Korean war return, and the 2nd Marine Raiders had just been ID’d and were all laid out on individual tables in a glass walled room. Kit and all. Another amazing vision.

        I was the one who bounced the idea of the first UW Surveys or Inventories of UW Historical assets, and Jaluit was first. My bid was rejected for not having a Masters Degree in Archaelogy…and the resulting UW portion of the survey is short and high schoolish. They mis-identified the TBD as an SBD. I didnt catch this until a few years later when my AC database was developing. I had nothing to do with the UW Jaluit survey, it was another Matt, not me…Matt Holly (*amazingly we had a Matt Hollis and Matt Harris, both divers, here on Majuro at one moment in history). Jaluit still has probably the most overlooked historical sites of all kinds, with Mili the treasure trove of WWII.

        Finding Lt Starmann and getting his remains ID’d and to Arlington, where I visited his grave years later, is one of those proud moments nobody can ever take from me.
        And again, the bunker at Emidj is empty.

        And love to lead a tour to Jaluit. Email me!

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      4. Greatly appreciate your explanations, Matt. It appears your “da man” with answers. So let me put it this way…since I know dam well what I saw and touched with my own eyes and hands in that bunker and you had never been in it and claim it to be empty, and IF it is now empty, who took all that gear out and when?

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      5. RMI Staff Archaeologist Leslie Mead would be the person…., I am sending her an email now also asking that question. Matt

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    2. Matt,

      What’s the status of the hospital at Emidj that was “buried under tons of coral debris”?

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      1. Tom,

        Speaking strictly for myself, that buried Japanese hospital at Emidj sounds intriguing. Who knows whats buried inside? Maybe something, maybe nothing. Still, it’d be interesting to find out. In the long, hard march to Tokyo and final victory, so many things were bypassed along the way, and eventually forgotten. This needs to be cracked open and explored.

        All best,

        William

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      2. Back in 2000, I went diving with Satoshi (perhaps Matt might remember him) to Jaluit and was thrilled to dive some of the plane wrecks. We spent the day at the Japanese seaplane base and with “permission” from our host elders, went into a covered bunker and was shocked to see lots of large liquid-filled burets. I have photos of this. Of course, none of my Marshallese hosts wanted to go down with me, too frightened of the ghosts. I am an ex-Navy Corpsman so was very intrigued by all the medical and pharmacy gear. I’ve been wanting to return and explore this underground mystery, but obviously need the blessing of HPO authorities. I’ve been told this bunker has been covered up after a “survey” was done of the underground. So Matt…who may have done this underground survey and where are the artifacts?

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      3. They opened it a number of years ago under RMI HPO Staff archaeologist Leslie Mead, basically nothing inside but rusted gear. More interesting to me was the errosion of the soil off the torpedoes stacked on top, so you could look at them and their insides and design. My machinist friend wanted to take one home (somehow to majuro) and rebuild it in a clear plastic tube. Little O2 and alcohol steam driven gem, thus why the O2 plant and torpedo racks nearby. But no historical gems inside. More gems to me in the writting on the walls in kanji….stories of basically kids lamenting for home. Too bad this site has no attachment feature, I would send you all photos.

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      4. William,
        Yes, there may be many stones left unturned.

        Mike,
        You went to the Japanese seaplane base at Emidj? I believe I found it on Google maps…literally the very eastern edge/elbow of Jaluit Atoll; if you zoom in the name Imiej comes up and there appears to be 2 large underwater ramps and at least 3 dozen buildings on the lagoon side, is that right place?

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      5. No Tom, I didn’t meet Bill Prymak until 2003, in Boulder, Colo. He once asked me if I wanted to go with him on another trip to the Marshalls, which I politely declined. I don’t travel well, and was convinced the major witness research was long done and by 2005 when Bill brought up the idea.

        Mike

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      6. Unlike Matt, I think there is more underground artifact yet to be explored. Would share photos with the group but can’t post photos. Give me an email and will send some to those interested.

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      7. I never said there wasnt even MORE buried sites to uncover, but the Emidj Jaluit hospital is done.  I presume more buried at Emidj and surely at Mili and Maloelap.  Wotje is pretty well explored, except the inner lagoon which I was told all the small arms were dumped into, but the locals say if you swim in this inner lagoon, SE of the new airfield, you will get parasites of unknown sci-fi trauma… I am tired, long day, SCUBA classes and yard work, dirt and concrete, so i will make a photo collection of sorts and forward it to you 1 topic at a time. Matt

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  2. ANOTHER Irene Bolam? That’s uncanny. I realize the “other” Irene died in 1982.

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    1. Not only too many Irenes Bolam but possibly too many Irenes Craigmile. Filmaker Tod Swindell has a website which claims that Amelia’s friend and student Irene Craigmile and Irene Craigmile Bolam were not one in the same person. There was statement to that effect by the son of Irene Craigmile.

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      1. Swindell calls himself a film maker, but I’ve not heard of any “films” he’s made, though I haven’t checked lately. His website is a pit of disinformation and deceit from start to bottom. Go there at your own peril.

        Search “Irene Bolam” here and you’ll find far more that you need to clear up any questions you might have.

        Mike

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  3. I had the same reaction when I saw the Irene Bolam. Bill did some great work on this quest, and should receive recognition for it.

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    1. Dave,

      I think we ALL had the same initial reaction.

      All best,

      William

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  4. This post of Bill Prymak’s journey to the Marshalls has got me thinking seriously about organizing a trip this year to Jaluit. What was most impressive to me was Bill’s knack for bringing like-minded people together for a worthy cause. I went to Jaluit just 3 years after Bill, to explore the underwater and land WW2 wrecks. Little did I know at that time, that Amelia and Fred had transitioned through that atoll. Like Bill, I love flying, diving and history. Too bad I didn’t get to meet him back then.

    I would love to get from Matt, any photos and first-hand stories he can share.

    For those interested in a trip to Jaluit, I would love to hear from you. This might be a wild goose chase, but from what I saw down in that old underground bunker on Emidj, it is worth further exploration. As the old saying goes… “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”.

    I will be sending some photos to Mike C for him to include in a post.

    Thanks,

    Mike Bennett
    mlbennett@sbcglobal.net

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