In closing my Aug. 1, post, “Did Earhart tell Walker about her ‘real mission’?” I wrote that, “We won’t get any further involved in the Hawaii Clipper disappearance now, but I thought some of Hill’s speculations might be interesting to many readers of this blog . . . ”
That was the plan, anyway, until longtime Truth at Last reader and professional scuba diver Larry McLean, of Seattle, Wash., sent me a fascinating email with entirely new information about a story I think readers will also find interesting.
McLean, 57, who’s been “all over the world,” says his favorite place is Truk Lagoon, where he lived and worked from 1993 through 1995, sparking a passion for researching and documenting shipwrecks. “I love shipwrecks,” he wrote in an Aug. 5 email. “And Truk has the best collection of accessible genuine World War II shipwrecks on the planet.”
McLean didn’t know about the Hawaii Clipper mystery until he returned to the states in early 2000. “When I discovered Charles Hill’s book and the mystery of the Hawaii Clipper it made a lot of sense to me,” he recalled. “The witness names also jumped out at me because while I lived in Truk (Chuuk) I’ve gotten to know several members of the Mori family and new several Chuukese whose home island was Dublon (AKA Tonoas). I was gripped by Fix on the Rising Sun. I got hooked on the mystery, and it also rekindled my interest in Amelia Earhart and the possibility that she had overflown Truk in 1937.”
Since receiving McLean’s emails, I’ve been re-reading Charles N. Hill’s Fix on the Rising Sun (2000), to get more familiar with the Hawaii Clipper case, at least as Hill viewed it. To recap briefly, Hill is best known for his conviction that the “Hawaii Clipper did not simply ‘disappear’ ” as he writes in his book’s opening pages, “she was hi-jacked [sic] to Truk Atoll by radical officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Her fifteen crew and passengers were murdered and entombed within a slab of wet concrete on Dublon Island, at Truk Atoll, and quite inexplicably, the United States Government continues to keep this secret for the Japanese government — and from the American People [sic] — as it has, since 1938.” (Italics in original, boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
Hill’s contention that the Hawaii Clipper’s crew and passengers “were murdered and entombed within a slab of wet concrete on Dublon Island, at Truk Atoll” is serious indeed, and we’re certainly entitled to know where Hill got this blockbuster piece of intel.
Hill’s source was none other than Joe Gervais, whose main claim to fame will forever be the vile Irene Bolam-as-Amelia Earhart “theory,” introduced to a stunned America by Gervais’ Air Force crony Joe Klaas in his 1970 book, Amelia Earhart Lives. AE Lives was taken off the shelves by publisher McGraw-Hill just weeks after publication when Mrs. Bolam filed a lawsuit for defamation. If you’re new to that story or want to catch up on the Bolamite travesty, here’s the first of my four-part series, “Irene Bolam and the Decline of the Amelia Earhart Society.”
Gervais was on Truk in November 1964, searching down a lead on a wreck that he hoped would be Earhart’s Electra, but turned out to be a Japanese “Betty” bomber. Gervais’ guide on Truk Atoll’s Dublon Island was an old “Franco-Micronesian” named Robert Nauroon, who wasn’t interested in Amelia Earhart, but had quite a story to tell Gervais nonetheless.
As described by Hill in Fix on the Rising Sun, in 1938, the Japanese planned to build a small naval hospital on Dublon Island, and hired Nauroon and a man named Taro Mori to supervise the pouring of a 30-by-60 foot concrete slab upon which the hospital would rest. Hill continued:
According to Gervais’ account of Nauroon’s story, Nauroon, Mori and their crews arrived at the hospital site early one morning in the late summer of 1938. There were a number of Japanese guards and officers waiting for them, and Nouroon quickly realized why. There, in the northern half of the excavated slab site, were fifteen men, or the bodies of fifteen men, lying face down and arranged in three rows of four men each and one row of three. Some . . . wore dark uniforms (as did the PAA crews), but the rest wore western civilian clothing. At some point, Nauroon was made aware of the fact that the fifteen men were Americans.
The crews worked quickly in the growing heat, and by noon, the fifteen Americans had been covered and the concrete surface was finished. Nauroon explained to Joe that they had all worked quickly because the job had turned out to be so unpleasant. But perhaps they realized as well, that the sooner they left the site, the safer they might be: the Japanese were not above executing civilians on any pretext — and knowledge of this job would certainly have been such a pretext.
Nauroon insisted many times to Joe that the Americans had been dead when the slab was poured, but he added that, when recovered, there would be found “no marks of death upon them.” (Italics in original.) That is, they had not been beheaded or shot, and they may well have been poisoned, as was suspected in the case of Earl Ellis, in 1923. But, according to Joe, Mori, confirming all that Nauroon had told him, had added that it had been necessary to fasten reinforcing wire over the men — “to keep them down.” Mori may have been referring to a tendency of bodies to “float” in wet concrete, but he may also have been referring to men struggling to lift their heads above the concrete — as it engulfed them.
Hill claimed that at the time he heard Nauroon’s story, Gervais wasn’t even aware of the Hawaii Clipper disappearance, but was focused on the Earhart case. “In 1964, Gervais felt that he was hot on the trail of Earhart and had no desire to pursue another story,” Hill wrote in Fix.
In 1980, Gervais “circulated numerous copies of the PAA [Engineering] Report [of Aug. 2, 1938], the ASB [Air Safety Board of the Civil Aeronautics Authority] Report [of July 29, 1938]* and the notes of his own brief pursuit of the Clipper,” Hill added. “It was from one of those copies, provided by fellow researcher, John Luttrell, of Atlanta, that the present analysis has been derived. In recent years, Joe has provided additional material., relating to medical war crimes committed at the naval hospital, many of them committed against American military personnel.” Following his involvement in these murky events, Gervais disappeared from Hill’s narrative.
- [Editor’s note: All reports were inconclusive, with none attributing the Hawaii Clipper’s disappearance to hijacking, though none ruled out the possibility.]
McLean returns to Truk
Returning to Larry McLean, at some point he met Guy Noffsinger, Hawaii Clipper researcher and owner of Hunt for the Lost Clipper, who, he learned, was working on a movie about the Hawaii Clipper. McLean and Noffsinger became “fast friends,” and McLean found himself becoming even more involved in the 1938 mystery. In a previous visit to Truk, Noffsinger and his crew were rudely “run off of Dublon at gun and knife point,” McLean wrote. “The Chuukese don’t take kindly to uninvited strangers. . . . Often the landowners require huge sums of money to set foot on their land. At the minimum you have to respect that this is their land and you must be invited or allowed on.”
On the other hand, McLean had established himself with the locals on Truk. He knew several member of the Mori family, had a good working relationship with the former mayor of Dublon (Tonoas), knew and respected the culture of the islands, having worked for the S.S. Thorfinn live-aboard and briefly had a dive shop in Moen (Mwan) with a local partner, and he speaks Chuukese.
“In 2014 I had a planned mapping expedition exploring shipwrecks for an upcoming book,” McLean continued in his recent message:
It turns out my trip to Truk was happening a few weeks before Guy’s next [planned] expedition. When I arrived in Truk in 2014 I connected with the former mayor of Dublon, Gradvin Aisek of Blue lagoon Dive Shop and Resort. Gradvin then reached out to the current Mayor of the Dublon and gained permission for me to visit and explore. I explored Dublon for two days. I went around and looked at every potential post in the target area. I met landowners and was able to build relationships with locals who could facilitate Guy’s objectives on his next trip. With the help of my local crew we gained their full support and cooperation.
After two days of searching on Dublon with the local guides, McLean smoothed the way for Noffsinger and his crew to visit the island, this time under much friendlier terms than their previous foray. “At that point, Guy nicknamed me his ‘Ambassador to Truk’ and assured me that I would be recognized as a production assistant in his upcoming movie,” McLean wrote.
“The key to finding this location was finding the post and the slab in Joe’s [Gervais] pictures,” he went on. “This is where the Mr. Mori and others reported to have buried the Hawaii Clipper crew in a concrete slab. The slab was the foundation for an IJN Hospital building. By 2014 the Hospital building was long gone and the local land owners had built a house over the slab.”
Within a few weeks Noffsinger and his team were permitted to dig up the floor of the house. “But the dig was incomplete and they found no bones,” McLean wrote. “It appears the original slab had been demolished and possibly used as fill for the new foundation. They did find evidence of the hospital and artifacts from the hospital. The search for Mark Walker’s grave continues. There may be another dig in the future. There is more work to do here.”
Perhaps, but well-known Earhart researcher Les Kinney’s lengthy, skeptical comments of Aug. 4 on this blog cast a shadow on some of Hill’s claims. “Gervais and Hill put out so much garbage, it’s hard to tell what was good research and misinformation,” Kinney wrote. “When something is repeated over so much it tends to become accepted as fact. Greenwood’s story fits in nicely with Hill’s and Gervais’ wild speculation.” For much more on Kinney’s comments, please click here.
Tony Gochar, of Guam (see pages 263, 264 of Truth at Last), another researcher with an interest in the Hawaii Clipper case, advised me of a few “serious oversights” upon his initial review of this post, notably the lack of any reference to Ronald Jackson’s 2017 book, China Clipper: The Secret Pre-War Story of Pan American’s Flying Boats (First edition, 1980).
“His redo in 2017 provides some good insight,” Gochar wrote, “and the Epilogue is worth a read and mention. Hill mentions him in many places.” He also recommended Witness to War: Truk Lagoon’s Master Diver Kimiuo Aisek (2015), by Dianne M. Strong.
I told Tony that not mentioning Jackson’s and Strong’s books, neither of which I’ve read, isn’t a serious oversight as long as this post doesn’t pretend to be more than what it is — Larry McLean’s Truk-Dublon experience and more on Charles N. Hill’s vision of the Hawaii Clipper disappearance, and not any sort of definitive disquisition on the Hawaii Clipper mystery. We’ll get to Jackson and Strong if their work and insights are compelling enough to merit it.
As readers of this blog know, I rarely stray from the subject of the Earhart disappearance, but this likely isn’t the last time we’ll hear about the Hawaii Clipper.