On the heels of our March 6 post, “Amaron’s death certificate sparks new questions“ and the issues raised by Bilimon Amaron’s listed birth date in what appeared to be an official Republic of the Marshall Islands document, and to a lesser extent, his date of death, I thought some might be interested in a letter from Bilimon’s brother Paul to Bill Prymak that appeared in the March 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Italics and boldface in the letter are in the AES version; otherwise boldface is mine.
“An Encounter to Remember
— with one of the most famous ladies of the world in 1937?”
by Bill Prymak
Bilimon Amaron, who possibly saw and treated Amelia long after the world had given up hope that she was alive, died a little over a year ago. But his younger brother, Paul Amaron, is a teacher in the Elementary School at Jabor, Jaluit Atoll. We were fortunate to talk with him on our trip to the Marshall Islands last spring . He told us the story of his brother’s dressing the wounds of an American lady pilot and man while on board a Japanese ship in the harbor at Jabor in 1937. He later wrote a letter (in English), and delivered it to us as we were leaving. He wanted to make sure we had understood it all. Following are Paul Amaron’s exact words:
Bilimon was half Japanese and half Marshallese. He was given good opportunities. Since he finished school on Jabot (Japanese Elementary school) the Japanese offered him few jobs but he preferred medical training. In Jaluit at this time there were 3 Japanese doctors on Jabor, and 7 or 8 Naval doctors on Imiej, taking care of the many Army and Air Force personnel on Imiej. Bilimon helped out a Naval doctor who was stationed at Sydney Town, now the terminal area [at Jabor]. At his place there were many Japanese working on probably the biggest fuel tank in Jaluit.
Current news was known to him for there was nothing hidden back from him. He was trusted.
One time he told that because of him five people were save. Anyone found
eating local food were beheaded.
If I remember it right, he said that the ship was a cargo ship, and not a war ship. I forget who had a false tooth, either the man or the woman. The woman, according to him, was neat.
Also one of them wanted to give him a ring or something. I forget exactly how he put it. He said the lady was calm, but the man seemed excited.
He told me this story a few months before he died, and also said that he misled some of his Marshallese friends or didn’t tell what he saw and knew.
Please find in Saipan who was the first Sanatarian [sic] who was either the Chief Police at that time, or the 2nd highest. He may be still living. Probably as old as Bilimon.”
(Signed) Paul Amaron (End of Prymak entry.)
Paul Amaron, a schoolteacher, confirmed his brother’s experience in an interview and written statement. “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,” Prymak wrote in the May 1997 AES Newsletter story, “Interviewing the Native Witnesses.” Just before Bilimon died in 1996, he told his family to “be sure to tell Joe and Bill, and the rest who asked about Amelia that my story is true,” Paul told Prymak.
All who interviewed Amaron, including Fred Goerner, Oliver Knaggs, Vincent V. Loomis, T.C. “Buddy” Brennan, Joe Gervais and Prymak unanimously endorsed his honesty. “Having personally interviewed [Amaron], I still put the personal stamp of total credibility upon him,” Prymak wrote in 2001. “Robert Reimers [local business tycoon] told me, ‘You will never find a more honest man’—that, coming from the number ONE man in the Marshalls before and during the war. [Emphasis Prymak’s.] So what if his testimony varies slightly from interviewer to interviewer? He never had a written script, he never embellished. So many times during our interview, after a tough question was asked, he simply stated, ‘I don’t recall,’ and during his last few days on earth, he told his family, ‘Be sure to tell Joe and Bill that it indeed happened.’ That’s as close to hard copy as one can get.”
For much more information on Bilimon Amaron’s account and other witness testimony about Amelia Earhart’s landing at Mili Atoll, please see Chapter VII, “The Marshall Islands Witnesses” in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last.
Even casual students of the Earhart disappearance have heard and read about the photos of Amelia and Fred Noonan allegedly found on Saipan during and after the June 15-July 9, 1944 Battle of Saipan. I’ve heard the wistful regrets that none of these photos have ever publicly surfaced, and have shared in the disappointment of those who believe things would be different if we just had one of these photos that show so clearly that Amelia Earhart was a prisoner of the Japanese. (Boldface mine throughout; italics Goerner’s.)
Ralph R. Kanna, of Johnson City, New York, assigned to the Army’s 106th Infantry Regiment on Saipan, was among the first of the former American servicemen to contact Fred Goerner during his early Saipan investigations. In 1961, Kanna told Goerner that as platoon sergeant of his intelligence unit on Saipan, his duty was “to insure [sic] that we would take as many prisoners as possible for interrogation purposes.” One prisoner captured in an area designated as Tank Valley had “a photo of Amelia Earhart standing near Japanese aircraft on an airfield,” Kanna wrote. The photo was forwarded up the chain of command, and when questioned, the Japanese captive “stated that this woman was taken prisoner along with a male companion and subsequently he felt that both of them had been executed,” according to Kanna.
He provided Goerner the names of three men who had served as interpreters for his unit. Goerner located only one of them, Richard Moritsugu, in Honolulu, whose voice “quavered and broke” on the phone when Goerner asked about Saipan and Sergeant Kanna. Moritsugu told Goerner he had no desire to discuss the war.
Robert Kinley, of Norfolk, Va., served with the 2nd Marine Division during the invasion and claimed he saw a photo of Earhart with a Japanese officer that he believed was taken on Saipan. Kinley said he was clearing a house of booby traps near a graveyard when the picture was found tacked to a wall. A Japanese mortar shell exploded nearby moments later, tearing away part of his chest. He lost the photo at that point and couldn’t remember if it was destroyed in the explosion or taken by one of the medics who attended him. Kinley wrote that the photo “showed Amelia standing in an open field with a Japanese soldier wearing some kind of combat or fatigue cap with a single star in its center.”
Sometime after the 1966 release of The Search for Amelia Earhart, Marine Col. Donald R. Kennedy, commandant of the 12th Marine Corps District, told Goerner he came into possession of photographs in Japan in 1945 that showed Earhart in Japanese custody. “He [Kennedy] says he turned them over to [General Douglas] MacArthur’s Intelligence Headquarters,” Goerner wrote to Jim Golden in 1969. “Marine Corps G-2 is now trying to trace what happened to the photographs after Kennedy turned them over.” Kennedy attempted “to get clearance from USMC Headquarters before he could go on record,” Goerner told Theodore Barreaux 19 years later. “After eighteen months, he got the clearance but with the proviso that this did not represent official USMC position.” Kennedy’s file contains nothing else of significance, so something must have derailed Kennedy from pursuing the matter further, a common occurrence in the Earhart search.
Just as Robert Kinley contacted Goerner about seeing a photo of Earhart on Saipan, Stanley F. Serzan, of Orange City, Fla., was among several veterans who told Thomas E. Devine, author of the 1987 classic, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident about seeing photos of one or both of the fliers. Serzan, a member of the 4th Marine Division on Saipan and a retired Bayonne, New Jersey, police officer, said one of his fellow Marines found a number of photos of Earhart and Noonan while searching a dead Japanese soldier. “I will never forget seeing those pictures of Amelia Earhart,” wrote Serzan, who died in 1995:
There were several Japanese officers with her and she certainly looked in good health. . . . The one picture I do recall to mind was one where Fred was standing sort of behind a Japanese officer to his right, and next was Amelia and then two more Japanese officers. There were other pictures of her and an officer alone and she was in sort of a fly jacket—and half a dozen others I don’t remember. All were taken outdoors—no buildings in sight. Trees in background. Fred appeared much taller than Japanese. I wish I had been able to get one of those pictures. When leaving Hawaii to come back to the mainland, we were told to get rid of the souvenirs because we would have to pay a duty. We threw tons of stuff away and we never were searched. We could have killed for being lied to like that.
Jerome Steigmann, of Phoenix, a longtime member of the Amelia Earhart Society, sent Devine information provided by Frank Howard, of Pueblo, Colo. Howard told Steigmann that he was in the first wave of Marines to hit the beach on Saipan, and later “a buddy found two photographs in a Jap Officer’s outpost they had just captured . . . one with Naval officers, and one with Army officers,” Howard wrote. The below drawing by Howard appeared in the September 1992 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, with the following narrative from Howard:
There were two photos, one with Naval officers, and one with Army officers. In one picture, the Naval officers must have left, as only the Army officers remained and Fred Noonan had his jacket off and had laid it on his lap, so it must have been a hot day, as the soldiers and officers were in short white-sleeved shirts, as was Amelia and Fred. The soldiers also had those curtain type sun shade cloths behind their necks, but they had those wrappings around their legs. Amelia and Fred seemed very tired and the day must have been at high noon. Amelia was wearing “jodhpurs” trousers with cuffs, and Fred dark trousers with cuffs. My buddy was killed in action, and I never saw the photos again. I enclose a sketch as best as I remember.
Another Amelia Earhart Society member, Col. Rollin Reineck (U.S. Air Force, retired), received a letter from Dale Chandler, a former radioman aboard the USS Rocky Mount (AGC-3), the flagship for the Joint Expeditionary Force attacking Saipan, Guam and Tinian in June-July, 1944. The following also appeared in the September 1992 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter:
One afternoon in early July 1944, I was going to my shift in the radio room, and on the way I met one of the ship’s photographers. I asked him if I could see some of the photos of the invasion. He showed me a photograph of a man and a woman among other photos in a shoe box found in a captured Jap Officer’s billet. I could not tell who they were, but the photographer stated that they were Amelia Earhart and her “pilot” (sic). He further stated that it proved they were on Saipan in 1937, and not lost at sea. The photo was taken in front of the building where he had found the photograph. He said the building where the photo was taken was in the background, but was now partially destroyed by shellfire but parts of the building still standing were easy to recognize. I was 12 years old when the Earhart disappearance took place, and I assumed she was dead, lost at sea.
The snapshot was taken on the side of the building, and facing the camera she was on the left. She was wearing a kaiki (sic) jacket, breeches and a wrapping around her, below her knees. No hat. He was on her left wearing a dark jacket and pants, white shirt, no tie and his hat cocked on the side of his head. The photo went to CIC, now the CIA.
All of this information is true and accurate.
Nothing more is presented in the AES Newsletters about Chandler’s claim.
Joseph Garofalo, a former Seabee and Saipan veteran, claimed to have found a photo of Earhart in the wallet of a dead Japanese soldier. In a letter to Devine, Garofalo, of the Bronx, New York wrote that he “searched a dead Jap officer and it was in his wallet along with a picture of his family.” Garofalo continued:
As best I can remember the photo fit on the inside of the Jap officer’s wallet, it was in black and white, with sort of a sepia finish, which looked faded. It was about the third week after we landed [on Saipan]. Many of my buddies had seen the picture at that time. As you face the photo, Amelia Earhart was standing on the left-hand side, wearing pants and the shirt she was wearing had short sleeves, it was probably khaki; she looked very haggard and thin. The Jap officer was on the right wearing the traditional short visor cap and leggings. She seemed a few inches taller than the Jap. It has been 49 years ago, the description of the picture is still in my mind, and I consider it accurate.
None of the priceless photos Saipan veterans reported seeing have publicly surfaced. For years Devine tried to obtain a photo of Earhart an ex-GI claimed he found on Saipan in 1944. The man told Devine that a Japanese officer, a woman, and two children were standing with Earhart in the photo, which he gave to a friend along with other personal items after being wounded. Devine offered the man $10,000, but the trail dried up when the man, who had entered a veterans hospital, stopped responding to his correspondence.
In another near miss, Virginia Ward, of Waterbury, Conn., told Devine that her two cousins, Marines who were both badly wounded on Saipan, brought back photos of Earhart they found there. Both died within two years of their return to the states, and Ward never found the photos.
For much more on the substantial oral histories of American military veterans and their knowledge of Amelia Earhart on Saipan, please see Chapter IX, “Saipan Veterans Come Forward,” in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, pages 180-204.
A stunning revelation in the form of an official Republic of the Marshall Islands death certificate for Bilimon Amaron has inspired, at least for now, new questions about the document’s birth date accuracy and how it would reflect upon the story so often told by the Marshall Islands legendary Earhart eyewitness. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout, caps emphasis Matt Holly’s.)
Bilimon, who died in 1994, according to his death certificate (see close below for more), told many researchers over the years that during the summer of 1937, while employed by the Japanese as a 16-year-old medical corpsman at the hospital on Jabor, he was summoned to a Japanese Navy tender ship to treat an American flier’s wounds. While there, Amaron treated an American man accompanied by a white female pilot, who could only have been Amelia Earhart, for minor head and knee wounds. A twin-engine silver airplane with a broken wing was attached to the stern of the ship, and almost certainly was the Earhart Electra 10E, NR 16020. More than once I’ve called Bilimon’s eyewitness account the “cornerstone of the Marshalls Islands landing scenario.”
In December 1989, Joe Gervais, Bill Prymak and his son John traveled to the Marshalls to hear Amaron’s eyewitness account at his Majuro home:
In July 1937, I was residing on Jaluit, site of major Japanese naval base, working as sixteen-year-old medical corpsman for naval hospital. One day, at mid-morning, Japanese navy tender ship comes to harbor and the chief naval doctor takes me on board the ship. Crew and officers were in naval uniforms. Sitting in deck chair was American woman, and sitting on hatch cover was thin American man with wounds.
. . . Japanese officer then take me rear of ship and show me their airplane silver, two motors, with left wing broken. Airplane still in sling on back of ship. I know Japanese airplanes. This airplane was new to me—not Japanese. This airplane on back of ship very shiny like silver—propellers had only two blades. Crew called lady, “Meel-ya—Meel-ya.” She dressed in dark skirt, white blouse and kerchief around neck. American man blue eyes, thin mustache, skinny, both very tired but in good health. Japanese officer tell me ship go to Saipan.
Amaron’s age at the time of his encounter with the fliers at Jaluit harbor, based on his account to numerous researchers, has always been accepted as 16; his sister Teresa told Bill Prymak in 1997 that Bilimon was 17. But now Matt Holly, 65, an American, longtime Marshall Islands resident and researcher who accompanied Vincent V. Loomis to Mili Atoll in 1979 and in 1997 brought Bill Prymak and his group to Jaluit, has found what appears to be an official Marshall Islands document that challenges that concept. In a Feb. 28 comment to this blog, Holly, the “Boss” at Marshall Islands Aquatics since 1981, wrote, “On that date [July 2] in 1937 Bilimon was 13 years old. I have the records, Death Certificate, Social Security docs, and his birth record will be on file in Japan, BTW.”
My initial skepticism upon seeing this statement, so at odds with all we’ve read about Bilimon Amaron, compelled me to immediately challenge Holly to present evidence to support this heretofore unknown idea, to “put up or shut up,” as extraordinary claims always require extraordinary evidence. Holly surprised me by doing just that.
“I found this [death certificate] late last year, and had the RMI [Republic of the Marshall Islands] Social Security Manager verify the information as THE record on file,” Holly, who says his main focus is on missing-in-action World War II military personnel, wrote in a Feb. 28 email. “Period. No other documents. I am not in this to make money Mike, and I knew if I published this information a world of trauma would occur. I’m a details kind of guy, and the details generally wander off toward the truth.
“I also believe his story to be true, but at 13 his age makes everything suspect,” Holly continued. “I am currently researching the requirements for IJN [Imperial Japanese Navy] Medics, and basically, they didn’t teach locals anything. Zero. They brought their own Japanese medical people. The local ‘Government’ doctors, being Marshallese, did teach skill sets to many younger ‘medics’ to go to assorted outer islands, as basically, medicine in 1937 was pretty raw. This custom is followed today, as many medics are taught here and go to the outer islands. But this was a local Marshallese thing I am sure the Japanese helped develop. But so far, no ‘book’ on how to teach the Marshallese to be a Japanese medical assistant exists, or any reference to this. But I am digging deeper.”
The notion that Bilimon could have been a mere 13 years old when he treated Fred Noonan’s knee injury at Jaluit wasn’t new to noted researcher Les Kinney, well known to readers of this blog, who flatly rejects the idea.
“Several years ago, while working with [Marshalls researcher] Karen Earnshaw, she obtained the ‘delayed’ birth certificate for Bilimon Amran [sic] which gave a date of birth as you described,” Kinney told me in a Feb. 28 email. “However, these birth certificates were based upon guess work. Since this is such an important issue, and at that time, we were attempting to interview Odar Lani, we made some inquiries.” Kinney went on:
Odar Lani said Bilimon was about three years older. Odar was born in January 1922 and said through his son, “Bilimon Amram [sic], a few years older than my Dad, told him once that he went to one of those Japanese boat and there on it was Amelia Earhart dining with those Japanese. But my Dad says he did not believe any of it because at that time he was 16 and a labor for those Japanese and should have known about it already.”
Amran’s [sic] daughter and brother also indicated Bilimon was about 17 when these events happened. During Jim Crowder’s interview with Bilimon in 1970 (first known interview of Bilimon), Bilimon said he was about 17 at the time. A guesstimate birth certificate leading to a death certificate probably is irrelevant but will fuel the fire to say Bilimon was lying – which I categorically do not believe he was lying.
Karen Earnshaw, who co-authored a a 2015 profile of Bilimon for the Daily Mail, is currently in Hawaii; when I sent her an email asking about the birth certificate Kinney referenced, she said he she wasn’t able to access her Earhart files. She wasn’t sure that she had Bilimon’s birth certificate, but would let me know when she got back to her home in Majuro sometime in May.
I had never heard of Odar Lani before Les Kinney introduced his name into his response to Holly’s claim, and it’s not found in any Earhart disappearance books. “On one of my early trips to Majuro, I had planned to travel to Jaluit where Odar Lani had lived since the Japanese times,” Kinney added. “Odar had been the station manager for the Marshallese Airlines. The weekly flight over to Jaluit was delayed. I never had a chance to interview Odar as the next time I was in the Marshalls, he was in a hospital in Honolulu. I could have talked to him on my way back from Majuro in Honolulu. I didn’t and regret that. What I found interesting was Odar describes Bilamon seeing Earhart dining on board ship with the Japanese. At that moment in time, this seems perfectly plausible and well within the realm of possibility. I am quite certain that in the early days of her discovery at Mili by the Japanese, she was treated with respect.”
“There is nothing ‘delayed’ about the DC [death certificate],” Holly, a 1979 graduate of San Diego State (Bachelor’s in Business Administration, Political Science and Marine Studies) shot back in response to Kinney’s Feb. 28 message. “Delayed birth or death certificates here, by the way, must say ‘delayed’ upon them, and are typically done for outer island folks. It was based upon MISSA (MI Social Security) documents filed years ago with their agency. Now that being said, sure an error could have occurred years ago, and compounded over the years. There is no way to prove or disprove a change in those facts here today, period. So it is what it is, another document, but it does raise more questions.”
Holly had more to add about the elusive (to me at least) Odar Lani:
I love Odar Lani. Almost every bit of info he really knew about was correct. But he was notorious for filling in the blanks when he didn’t know the answer, as he is a proud man who is the “expert” on everything Jaluit. His sister 3 years older and was an even better source of info since she had an “attitude” when I questioned her. A ship was bombed by the U.S. forces and set afire, and we wondered if it sank in the lagoon, [and] she say it put to sea thru the main channel while still on fire. . . BUT, I never questioned her about Bilimon’s age or any AE tales.
Bilimon’s place of birth has been generally held and reported to be Japan, but he spent most of his life in the Marshalls, where he was a respected and prosperous Majuro businessman for many years. Holly has a different take on Bilimon’s birth, and the death certificate he offers as evidence for a 13-year-old Bilimon seems to support him, listing his place of birth as “Marshalls Islands.”
“Bilimon was born in Jaluit I believe, not Japan,” Holly wrote in a March 3 email. “I don’t think he spent much time in Japan at all, and now wonder where he lived during the war years. I have a MUSTER ROLL somewhere of EVERY Japanese person sent home at the end of the war. I must find this and take a look. Also makes sense, born in Jaluit and stayed there . . . [though] his records may be available in Japan, as many other Marshallese born in the Marshalls from 1918/9 to 1942/44’ish have been located there.”
Bilimon’s father was Japanese, which may well have been the factor that allowed him access to the Japanese ship where he met Earhart and Noonan. “The fact that Bilimon was a half caste makes other issues, as I would presume this would preclude him from medical training, but may have allowed him medical training,” Holly wrote.
The clan of his mother may also be important. His father may have held some power. So this is hard to determine where he fit in. More research. This is where the age becomes important, as if 13, he would have still been in school, period. If 14 later that year, he may have been free to enroll in some medical training. But even at 16, or even 17, as a newbie AND a half caste, I am concerned he may have embellished himself into becoming an aid or medic or assistant or something working for the Japanese Navy. He may have not been such, or a mere medic in training. . . . Again, I do believe his story. I simply challenge the idea that a 13-16- year-old kid, from my understanding of Japanese culture at that moment in Jaluit, was involved in or with the IJN medical world. THIS IS WHAT I NEED TO PROVE TO help verify HIS story.
Paul Amaron, a schoolteacher, confirmed his brother’s experience in a written statement and 1997 interview with Bill Prymak. “Bilimon told his brother that the American man was slightly injured, but the woman was neat, calm, with no injuries,” Prymak wrote. “Both were taken to Kwajalein and then to Saipan.”
Just before Bilimon died in 1996, he told his family to “be sure to tell Joe and Bill, and the rest who asked about Amelia that my story is true,” Paul told Prymak. And why does either Paul Amaron or Prymak cite Bilimon’s death date as 1996, in contrast to the Marshall Islands death certificate produced by Matt Holly, which lists it as Jan. 24, 1994 in two boxes? Was this simply an oversight by Prymak, or is the Marshalls death certificate deficient in its most important function?
So that’s where we stand at the moment — with a questionable birth date listed on Bilimon Amaron’s death certificate, and with Paul Amaron’s reported statement to Bill Prymak, Bilimon’s date of death can be justifiably questioned as well.
Giff Johnson, Marshall Islands Journal editor, has not responded to my email asking if Bilimon’s obituary was published by his paper and available it its archives. An online search of the Marshall Islands Journal archives failed to produce anything.
For much more on Bilimon’s account, see pages 144-149 in Truth at Last, or do a search on his name on this blog.