Amelia Earhart held in Saipan’s Garapan Prison: Was she also buried somewhere nearby?

On the 88th anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s solo Atlantic flight, by which she became the first woman and second person to achieve that remarkable feat, we return to a recurring theme in the Earhart saga — the possible location of Amelia’s final resting place.  “THE GARAPAN PRISON . . . Another Incident” appeared in the November 1998 issue of The Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters In his introduction, Bill Prymak wrote, Recently, Don Wilson, author of Amelia Earhart: Lost Legend [Enigma Press, 1994] received a letter from a [person] who had been on Saipan in 1953, long before public interest in the AE disappearance took off in the early 1960s.”  The unnamed person’s letter follows.  Boldface emphasis mine throughout.

I arrived on Saipan in early summer of 1953, for a tour of duty.  Two or three months later, by which time I and others had pretty thoroughly explored the island, the subject of Amelia Earhart came up, probably during a dinner party.  We all remembered the story of Amelia’s disappearance many years earlier, and that she may have been captured by the Japanese and taken to Saipan, assuming that her plane went down elsewhere than Saipan. A few days later I was talking with a Chamorran  native, a male about mid-thirties in age, and I asked him about Amelia.  He offered to take me and one or two other friends to the prison where she and Fred Noonan had been held.  A day or two thereafter we followed the Chamorran into a fairly heavily overgrown area near where the headquarters of the prewar Japanese sugar and tapioca business was located.

The smaller of the two Garapan Prison cell blocks, often reserved for “special” prisoners and females, according to some reports, where several witnesses reported that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were held after their arrival on Saipan in the summer of 1937.  “It also seems to be a consensus that she [Earhart] was kept in the cell block on the left,” Guam researcher Tony Gochar wrote in July 2015.  “This cell is the closet to the office building and would have been the quickest for the Japanese to have access to her.  After seeing the compound I am convinced she was in the small building and her cell was on the left.”  (Courtesy Tony Gochar.)

The main building was roofless and the walls were in bad shape from the bombings that occurred during the American invasion.  Beyond the headquarters building in the direction of Garapan, but I would guess to be about halfway between Chalan Kanoa and Garapan, we came to a small clearing in which stood the remains of a jail.  As I remember, there were four cells and the second cell from the right was pointed out to us as the one in which Amelia was kept.  Fred was in the one to the far left.

As I recall, the cells were about five by eight feet in dimension so the entire cell block was only twenty some feet long.  The paint on the interior of the cells was faded and chipped and open to the elements because the roof was missing.  There was no floor, just sand and coral.  The wall of her cell had faded writings, scratchings really, which were unintelligible except for those made by an American GI, a corporal, who may have been locked up for a few days for some misdemeanor or, more likely, simply scratched his name and date while visiting the cells as I was.

Father Sylvan Conover with eyewitness Jesús Bacha Salas, a Chamorro farmer who was held at Garapan Prison between 1937 and 1944 for fighting with a Japanese soldier.  Fred Goerner reported that “sometime during 1937 a white woman was placed in the next cell [beside Salas], but kept there only a few hours.  He saw the woman only once but gave a description of her that fitted those given by the other witnesses.  The guards told him the woman was an American pilot the Japanese had captured.” (Photo by Fred Goerner, Courtesy Lance Goerner.)

My Chamorran guide said that Amelia was kept there for an unspecified period of time and then executed and buried in the jungle beyond the cell block fifty yards or so.  Fred met a similar fate, according to him.

Please bear in mind two things: one is that I was not in search of Amelia at that time.  It was just a curious thing that I happened to find myself in a spot on which a very interesting event took place.  I now wish I had spent a lot more time questioning my Chamorran friend and looking farther afield for other natives who might have knowledge.  Second, in 1953 there was no public interest that I was aware of in Amelia’s fate and surely there was no excitement on the part of the native population in the story that would have served to whet their appetites or imagination and produced exaggerated details.

This appears to be the back of the same prison block. Wilson’s photo caption says only, “Amelia’s cell window — the closest one.”

The attitude at the time amongst all of us including the Chamorros was sort of ho-hum, isn’t this interesting.  So I am quite willing to accept the story told to me by the Chamorran.  Whether he acquired his story from other credible sources, from stories circulated by the Japanese to suit their own purposes, or saw any portions of the story himself, I don’t know.  Nor was a time frame hung on this scenario.  Amelia and Fred went down in 1937.  I was there 16 years later.  My Chamorran friend didn’t say when Amelia and Fred were brought there, from where, or when they were executed.  If he did, then I have forgotten that part.  I did not scratch around for graves.  The undergrowth was much too thick for that.  I simply took his word for what he said because he would have had no ulterior motive.  I had not offered to pay him, nor did I.

So, Don, that is the extent of my recollection.  I realize it offers you nothing new and may only confuse matters even more than they are now.  I wish I could have been more useful.  I shall now open your book for the first time and read with interest what you have acquired.

Good Luck.  (End of letter.)

This is the inside of the cell at Saipan’s old Garapan prison that is said to have been occupied by Amelia Earhart. Former Marine and Saipan veteran Henry Duda took it during his visit to Saipan for the 50th anniversary of the historic 1944 Battle of Saipan. Note the larger square area at the bottom center of the barred window, which is where the food door was located.

DON WILSON’s response to this letter, in part, was as follows:

I really appreciate the detailed information you sent me about your experiences on Saipan regarding accounts of, Amelia Earhart.  You stated that We all remembered the story of Amelia’s disappearance many years earlier and that she may have been captured by the Japanese and taken to Saipan.”  This statement surprised me because I was not aware that people had been talking very much about her being taken to Saipan until after the investigations began in the 1960’s.  As I mention in my book, there were some American servicemen both in the Marshalls and on Saipan who had some information during WWII regarding Amelia.  But to my knowledge these accounts were not widely publicized in the ’50s.

It was fascinating to read about your recollection of the jail and the four cells in one of the cell blocks.  It was especially interesting to read that your source indicated different cells for both Fred and Amelia than my source. But that’s OK, and does not discredit the tact that Amelia and Fred may well have been imprisoned there.

You wrote that you wished that you “could have been more useful.”  Actually, your account is significant to me because of the early date — 1953 — in which your experiences occurred.  Many people were interviewed years later, but yours is the earliest account that am aware of where Americans talked with the islanders about Amelia and Fred after WWII.  I would agree that they had no ulterior motive for their accounts.

When you have a chance I would appreciate any comments that you might want to make about my book. You may or may not agree with my conclusions, but I would like to know your thoughts.

Don Wilson provided this photo of a sketching from the inside of the cell that he believed was occupied by Amelia Earhart.  He was told that a Japanese guard was the artist, but not the date of its creation.  Who really can say?  

I would like to be able to share what you have written to me with other members of the Amelia Earhart Society.  A newsletter is published several times a year for the benefit of the 100 or so members who have an interest in the fate of Amelia and Fred, and who from time to time come up with bits of information which they share with fellow members.  Much of my resource material came from the newsletters of the society.

May I have your permission to send the information you sent me to the editor of the newsletter?  An issue will be coming out in a few weeks and your material could be included in that newsletter.  It would also be helpful if you could give your name and your reason for being on Saipan.  But I leave that up to you.

Members of the Society simply are trying to find out what really happened.  They do so at their own expense, and are not engaged in fund raising for any special projects.  The Society does not have an officialposition as to what happened to Fred and Amelia, but welcomes information from any source.  Despite years of work, and extensive travel by some members, there are still many unanswered questions, and many conflicting opinions.

Best Wishes, Don

The 7-by 8-inch steel door through which food may have been passed to
Amelia Earhart while she was held prisoner in Garapan Prison, Saipan, in 1937. Thomas E. Devine observed this door and various inscriptions on the prison wall during the American invasion of Saipan in 1944.  The door was retrieved by a native islander on Saipan, and is now in the possession of Deanna Mick, a pilot who co-owned an inter-island charter service from Saipan. (Photo courtesy of Deanna Mick, circa 1994.)

Note that the person who wrote this letter to Don Wilson, apparently a former member of the U.S. military — he mentions a tour of duty”   — and almost certainly a male, did not want Wilson to know his name.  This is not a rare phenomenon in Earhart research. 

I still haven’t posted my story about a fourth U.S. flag officer — another admiral, this one on active duty in the early 1980s — who stated that Earhart and Noonan died on Saipan.  The man who provided the information to me — a retired Navy officer himself — refuses to have his name associated with the Earhart story, or what he obviously considers to be the wrong side of it.

His fear is real, but entirely unfounded.  This man and other former high ranking officers I’ve encountered who refuse to lend their names to this cause don’t inspire my faith in humanity, or my hope that our deeply corrupt establishment will ever do the right thing in the Earhart case.  Although the relatively scant numbers of those who care about the Earhart disappearance continue to dwindle as I write, this sacred cow has long been among the Deep State’s most revered, and the documents that reveal the truth will stay out of public hands unless and until a U.S. president decides the time has come.  

The unidentified letter writer wasn’t the first to suggest that Earhart might have been buried near the prison, but most of the native witnesses pointed to other locations on Saipan, most often the Liyang Cemetery, south of Garapan, where Marine Privates Everett Henson Jr. and Billy Burks were ordered by Marine Capt. Tracy Griswold to excavate a gravesite several feet outside of the Liyang Cemetery in late July or early August 1944.  This incident is detailed in Chapter 13 of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Lasttitled “Griswold, Henson and Burks.”

Japanese crematorium on Saipan circa 1944. (Courtesy Marie Castro.)

In late October 2017, Ms. Carla Henson, daughter of the late Everett Henson Jr., contacted me about her father’s experience on Saipan.  To read more about Carla, her father and the Saipan gravesite incident in 1944, please see my Dec. 26, 2017 post, KCBS 1966 release a rare treasure in Earhart saga.”

For extended discussions on several of the more prominently alleged Earhart gravesites on Saipan, please see pages 219-231, 233-240 and 245-249 in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at LastOther suggested locations include Arlington National Cemetery and the basement of Amelia’s birthplace museum in Atchison, Kansas.

And let’s not forget the real possibility that Amelia may not have been buried at all, but cremated and her ashes scattered to the wind, as Saipan eyewitnesses Matilde F. Arriola, Joaquina Cabrera and others were told.  In May 2018, Marie Castro presented Jose Sadao Tomokane, who claimed to have been an eyewitness to Earhart’s cremation.

For more about Tomakane and other witnesses, please see my May 18, 2018 post, “Marie Castro, a treasure chest of Saipan history, Reveals previously unpublished witness accounts.”

12 responses

  1. I think the two key phrases in this account are: A surprise that anyone even thought of the possibility that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese and taken to Saipan. My recollections don’t go back that far(I was only 6 at the time), but for years it was always assumed they ran out of fuel and went down in the Pacific. To think otherwise was really ahead of its time. But more importantly, this native witness. like all the others, had no ulterior motive to lie- certainly not in 1953. What was there to gain except ridicule? The confusion about the gravesite is certainly understandable. Isn’t it possible they were cremated but the flames did not completely consume all of the bones, which were then interred in a grave?

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  2. The etchings on the jail wall wake up the old questions about the “food door” too. Whom ever the etcher/artist was in either case left us something to ponder…something to wonder about in the mysterious ending of Amelia and Fred. Why does it matter at this point in time? Perhaps it does not! However, the imaginations and curiosity of the human mind is what may…at some future date …bring an answer to our nagging questions. The importance will not be just an answer to the myth…but it may rewrite history.

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    1. Nice to hear from you, Deanna. Sorry I forgot about the food door and its possible great significance relative to Amelia’s captivity in Garapan Prison. I’ve added the photo of the door and its explanatory caption just tonight, May 22. Better late than never!

      All Best,
      Mike

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      1. Mike…that wasn’t necessary. Was not looking for that attention…just seemed to fit with the other.Hope this finds you safe and well. Our schools closed here mid-March so more time on my hands! Deanna

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  3. Mike,

    I can’t wait to read your post about the anonymous fourth U.S. flag officer…any time soon?

    Tom

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    1. Tom,

      As I said in the post, the retired Navy officer will not allow his name to be used, and in this case I don’t feel the story is viable without his name. The story isn’t much anyway, just a flat statement from a former admiral, but that admiral did rise to a very high position. If the informant ever finds a backbone, I have the story ready to go.

      Mike

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  4. The reluctance tends to confirm there is still some very sensitive aspect to the story.

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  5. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Tracy Griswold’s laughable evasions (“…someone from COMINCH Staff [Marine Intelligence] must have been using his [Tracy’s] name as a cover, or there was some sort of weird coincidence involved.”) are a whole lot less than one should expect of a U.S. Marine Corps officer — especially one involved in intelligence work. However, it serves as yet another confirmation that the U.S. Government knows exactly what happened to AE and FN.

    All best,

    William

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A bit of trivia: The prison cells had bamboo slat flooring raised above the ground. Does anyone know the identity of the Japanese officer in charge of that prison at that time?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      R,W, R&B:

      Thank you for the bit of trivia about the raised, bamboo slat flooring, very interesting. I did not know about that. Also, thank you for your intriguing question as to the identity of the Japanese officer-in-charge of the Garapan prison at the time that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan would have been held there. It prompted me to go online to see what, if anything might be found. I didn’t expect to find anything, and what I did find is something most people would consider a disappointing dead-end. Here it is from the earhartonsaipan.blogspot.com:

      “In a visit to the Japanese Military Library in Tokyo, I was told that even though they have 19 volumes of detailed records of every prison they maintained from Manchuria to Guam, with prisoner lists and details of everyone taken prisoner from 1935-1944, there is only one set of records that is missing; the records from the prison on Saipan.”

      Wow! That’s very interesting to me, because what you don’t find is very often just as important as what you do find. The Imperial Japanese, like their counterparts in Nazi Germany, were meticulous record-keepers. Even the records of the infamous Unit 731’s human experiments were preserved. So, why not the Garapan Prison records from Saipan? That these particular prison records are “missing” when all others “from Manchuria to Guam” were so carefully preserved and protected and survive in the Japanese Military Library holdings to this very day is to me a glaring indication of deliberate deception and cover-up.

      All best,

      William

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You are welcome! Glad to inspire.

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  8. I think it was 2013 when Ric came back to Saipan ( He was accompanied by a Southwest Airline pilot, Cooper)
    They had Ground penetrating RADAR that they 1st tried to find remains of Electra near Airport, but nil found of the Electra.

    Then I was with my Friend , Bob ( USN retired Ordinance) when Cooper brought the GPR to the jail and they searched near the jail, but nil found.
    Steve Tokokane was there & he informed them that he had heard the burial site was closer to their house ( 100 yards south across the driveway from the jail.)
    They searched around the road, but nil.

    I heard from a Tinian Photographer ( Bob Regalado) who told me a few years ago that he had met up with a team in 1984 including 2 WWII marines
    that told him that AE’s remains were moved to Tinian and took to a creamation pit there & burned. ( They never found that site either)
    Bob told me that is was near the Barcinas farm area.
    ( I hope to get my friend Eric who grew up on Tinian to take me there one day.)

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