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.