In late October 2017, Ms. Carla Henson, daughter of the late Everett Henson Jr., contacted me for the first time, completely out of the blue. You will recall Pvt. Henson, who, along with Pvt. Billy Burks, was ordered by Marine Capt. Tracy Griswold to excavate a gravesite several feet outside of the Liyang Cemetery on Saipan in late July or early August 1944. This incident is chronicled in detail on pages 233-253 in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
When the pair had removed the skeletal remains of two individuals and deposited them in a large container that Henson later described as a “canister,” Henson asked Griswold what the impromptu grave-digging detail was all about. Griswold’s reply, “Have you heard of Amelia Earhart?” has echoed down through the decades and continues to reverberate among students of the Earhart disappearance.
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.”
Richard Bergren, 70, a retired naval flight officer with whom I once worked on a story as a Navy civilian at the Navy Internal Relations Activity in Alexandria, Va., in the late 1980s, has recently done some research that sheds more light on the 1944 search for Amelia Earhart on Saipan, and brings more insight to the Griswold, Henson and Burks saga. I thought some would be interested, and so present his findings forthwith. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
“Did top doctors search for Earhart on 1944 Saipan?”
by Richard Bergren
A number of books and articles have mentioned efforts to locate and recover the remains of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan, as well as on other Pacific Islands. Most of those attempts were “rush jobs” which were conducted with questionable expertise and methods and often under arbitrary time constraints. If any remains were actually recovered, they have yet to be officially and publicly identified as the bodies of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.
Starting in July 1944 with the U.S. takeover of Saipan, and beginning again with renewed interest in the early 1960’s, excavations of potential gravesites were made based on sketchy stories, and human memories which were 25 years old. Searches for burial sites were made in areas significantly changed since 1937 and World War II.
Eyewitness stories vary widely in details, but all seem to agree that the Japanese held American aviators prisoner and that they buried more than one in the years and months prior to June 1944.
Rather than sort through and evaluate the details of the conflicting eyewitness stories, I wanted to see what might be in World War II era U.S. records regarding the recovery of aviator remains on Saipan in 1944. This was the first time that the U.S. had access to Saipan since Amelia and Fred were declared missing.
Operation Forager began on 22 February 1944 with U.S. Navy (and later Army Air Force) air strikes carried out on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. This was in preparation for all out amphibious attacks which began the invasion of Saipan on 10 June 1944. Fighting on Saipan was savage and it continued even after the island was officially declared secure on 10 July 1944. Casualties of killed, wounded, and missing were high and the U.S. Army hospital and graves personnel were very busy in the days which followed the fighting.
“The largest number of casualties handled over a short period of time by the Central Pacific Area general hospitals occurred following the Saipan, Guam, and Tinian battles,” according to the U.S. Army Office of Medical History, Chapter 11. These casualties were evacuated from the islands by hospital ship and landed at Kwajalein for care and transshipment to the hospitals on Oahu. These casualties numbered 2,900 during June and July of 1944.” While U.S. casualties were high, Japanese losses were much higher, totaling close to 30,000 killed on Saipan alone. As fighting continued sporadically on Saipan in mid-July 1944, the invasions of Tinian and Guam had just begun.
Where do Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan fit into this picture? They had gone missing on July 2 1937, seven years earlier. Exactly what intelligence the U.S. government may have had prior to the 1944 capture of Saipan is not publicly known, but starting in 1944, a number of Armed Forces personnel (Army, Marine Corps, and Navy) came to learn from various sources that Amelia and Fred had been imprisoned on Saipan, and had met their deaths there.
A number of books mention efforts to locate graves of Amelia and Fred, but the earliest account is probably that of Fred Goerner in his book The Search for Amelia Earhart. In it he relates the story told by Marines Everett Henson, Jr. and Billy Burks who claim that they were ordered by a Captain Griswold (USMC) in “late July or early August” 1944 to dig up two graves in or near a civilian cemetery on Saipan in an effort to find the two missing aviators. Allegedly some bones were found and taken by this Captain Griswold, with no further information regarding their final resolution or destination.
The story may be true, although vague as to exactly when and where the dig took place; unfortunately there seems to be no official resolution to the account because there was no definite confirmation that the remains were those of Amelia and/or Fred. And no information as to what was done with those alleged remains.
Remains recovery was not normally the job of the U.S. Marine Corps. It was a task specifically assigned to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, Graves Registration Unit. In fact, the U.S. Army had established the 27th Division Cemetery on Saipan for interment of the U.S. dead who were killed or died of wounds in the recent battle and there was a whole unit of those specially trained Army personnel on Saipan.
A number of Saipan eyewitness statements allude to the burial of “aviators” on Saipan prior to the June 10, 1944 invasion. Some of these accounts state that it was a single burial and others say there were two. Some accounts claim that it was a man and a woman who were so buried. Seldom, if ever, do those eyewitnesses identify the “aviators” by name or provide specific information regarding when or where the burial(s) took place. One Saipan witness states that he was pressed into service to bury an aviator on or about Feb. 23 or 24, 1944. This would most likely have been a U.S. Navy pilot killed in the opening air attacks of Operation Forager.
World War II historian Ted Darcy has compiled a website featuring U.S. aviation casualties. Like many other such efforts, it is not a complete listing of casualties, but it does contain a lot of very interesting information. Through his efforts, some previously unidentified/unknown servicemen, killed in World War II, have been positively identified and returned home for burial.
One veteran so identified was Navy Lieutenant Woodie McVay, a Naval Aviator killed on Feb. 22, 1944 while flying a mission with his wingman, Lt. (junior grade) Arthur Davis off the carrier USS Yorktown. Both men were lost over Saipan and initially declared missing in action.
Here is an excerpt from Ted Darcy’s website, Pacific Wrecks, about the effort which led to the 2009 eventual identification of Lt. McVay:
On July 17, 1944 during the American occupation of Saipan, Col. Elliott G. Colby and Lt. Col Richard C. Wadsworth (both U.S. Army Medical Corps) visited the Catholic Cemetery at Garapan to recover the remains of three aviators that had been reported buried there on February 23 or 24 1944. The remains were exhumed and taken to the 369th Station Hospital for an autopsy.
During that examination the following findings were made: One body was clothed in a one-piece, greenish-khaki coverall type of uniform; the buttons on the uniform contained the words “U.S. Navy”; a plain silver ring was found on the left hand; and on the underwear, marked in two places appeared the name W. L. McVay. It was determined that the injuries were caused as a result of an aircraft accident, not a war crime.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Army doctors had no records with which to compare their findings in an effort to identify this victim. The body was removed to the 27th Division Cemetery and buried as Unknown (Saipan X-35) in plot 3, row 11, grave 1132. In March 1948, these remains were moved to a mausoleum on Saipan. During October 1948, the remains were buried as an unknown at the Manila American Cemetery for “final burial” as unknown X-35 in section F, row 12, grave 2.
Lt. McVay was officially declared dead on Jan. 15, 1946. He posthumously earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), Air Medal and Purple Heart.
Through the research of Ted Darcy, it was found that the height and dental records of unknown X-35 matched with MIA/KIA McVay. The results were forwarded to Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii. In February 2009, the grave in Manila was opened and the remains shipped to the Central Identification Lab, where they arrived on Feb. 25, 2009. The identification was confirmed in May 2009, and Elizabeth Huff was notified that X-35 was positively identified as her grandfather, Lt. Woodie McVay.
McVay’s remains were transported to Mobile, Ala., for internment. On July 13 2009, McVay was laid to rest at his existing memorial marker, next to his parents in the Pine Crest Cemetery at Mobile, Ala. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings published a lengthy story on McVay by historian Bruce M. Petty in its June 2015 issue. (End of Darcy excerpt.)
I located more information on both Army Doctors, Col. Elliott G. Colby and Lt. Col. Richard C. Wadsworth. Colby was the commanding officer of the 369th (Army) Station Hospital on Saipan in July 1944. Wadsworth was also a medical doctor and pathologist, possibly attached to the same command, but I have not found him on any rosters to prove that. Dr. Colby died in 1960 in San Diego, CA, and Dr. Wadsworth died in 1980 in Bangor, Maine — both after long and distinguished medical careers.
Goerner mentions an unnamed Department of Commerce person who contacted him in 1964, and suggested that an unnamed medical doctor may have taken remains to Washington D.C. Goerner associated that information with the name Griswold from his previous research and located a doctor by that name who had served on Saipan in 1944. Goerner did not specify, but he was likely an Army doctor, since it was an Army hospital on Saipan.
[Editor’s note: In a March 1968 letter to Fred Goerner, Tracy Griswold informed him that he had learned from his brother-in-law about a Major E.K. Griswold, of Santa Ana, Calif., who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. “It is further recalled that this particular Major Griswold spent time in the Pacific during World War II,” Tracy Griswold wrote. “This becomes rather remarkable in as much as you were told, as I recall it, by Marine Corp headquarters that there was not another Griswold in the Pacific Theatre [sic] during World War II, in the Marine Corp. [sic] I was sure that you would want to contact this party, particularly since he is in California in the event that there might possibly be a further clue to the Saipan incident.” Nothing further is contained in Goerner’s Griswold file.]
A report by an Army medical officer on conditions in the Marianas immediately following the U.S. takeover described the huge amount of medical work being done on Saipan (see above). The hospital dealt with hundreds of surgeries and hundreds of other treatments daily — and yet the locating and disinterment of three graves by these two high ranking Army doctors took a higher precedence.
It might follow that the remains of the other two “aviators” disinterred with McVay’s body on 17 July 1944 were also buried as unknowns in the 27th Division Cemetery on Saipan — and might have followed a similar documented path to Manila either as “Saipan Unknowns” or under names yet to be found. If they were NOT buried in the 27th Division Cemetery, what became of them and why?
Whether or not the other two bodies were Amelia Earhart and/or Fred Noonan is not stated in anything I have seen to date. It is a possibility. Regardless of who those two bodies were, it seems likely that they were disinterred and autopsied by these two medical doctors on the premise that they might be Amelia and Fred.
What are the chances that these two high ranking medical officers (Colby and Wadsworth) with their credentials and qualifications would just happen to be attached to a forward area army field hospital, temporary cemetery, or refugee camp? And on their own initiative go digging up a civilian cemetery?
The July 17, 1944 disinterment and subsequent autopsy begs several questions:
– Why was it so important to send two high ranking officers to a civilian cemetery at a time when the service of medical officers was so critical? Even though Saipan had been declared “secure” a few days before, fighting was continuing, and there were thousands of wounded military and civilians to care for.
– Who ordered these disinterments?
– How was intelligence of their location obtained?
The stated purpose at the time was that they were looking for downed military aviators, yet even when evidence obtained from the grave indicated one body was that of Navy Lieutenant McVay, it was stated that the doctors did not have Navy information to compare/confirm his identity and so he was buried as an “Unknown.” Clearly they were NOT looking for him specifically, nor did they identify the other two bodies as being military aviators.
The autopsy report goes out of its way to state that Unknown X35 (McVay) died as a result of injuries received in a crash rather than due to a “war crime.” This indicates that they may have been looking for bodies of Americans taken prisoner, tortured, and killed during a war crime — perhaps by beheading?
With all of the work to be done on Saipan in the way of securing the Island, caring for the wounded, bringing in supplies, and building hospitals, roads and airports, why was this disinterment of such high importance? It is highly doubtful that the two senior medical doctors on Saipan would on their own initiative go digging in a civilian cemetery.
(Editor’s note: I’m not an expert on the location of all the cemeteries on Saipan, either in 1944 or now, but the Catholic Cemetery discussed in this piece was not the same place as the Liyang Cemetery on Saipan, as far as I can tell. Liyang was south, outside of Garapan, while the Catholic cemetery was within the city limits, according to Everett Henson Jr., Billy Burks, Anna Diaz Magofna and others who knew of these events. See Les Kinney’s comments below for more clarification.)
What became of the other two “aviators” disinterred at the same time as Unknown X35 (Lt. McVay)? In light of the careful cemetery record keeping of the Army Quartermaster Corps (as seen in the McVay case) it might follow that the other two bodies were also autopsied and buried in the 27th (Army) Division Cemetery as unknowns and later also transferred to Manila for reburial.
Note: There were a number (perhaps as many as 20) of U.S. Navy and Army Air Force aviators declared Missing in Action (MIA) during and prior to the Saipan invasion. Except for Lt. McVay, none of them have ever been recovered and identified.
It is quite possible that the other two “aviators” were also military pilots. If so, they were never identified as such.
Could it be that the two doctors had been specifically tasked to locate the bodies of Fred Noonan and Amelia Earhart? (End of Richard Bergren’s piece.)
Richard Bergren retired from the U.S. Navy in 1994 after 22 years as a naval flight officer (NFO). He flew in the Lockheed P-3B Orion, the Lockheed EC-130 Hercules, and numerous types of trainer planes. Piloted Pioneer unmanned air vehicles (UAV’s) from the Battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) and USS Shreveport (LPD-12). He earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Michigan State University, and a master’s degree in public administration from Troy State University, Troy, Ala. He is a graduate of the Naval War College and took postgraduate courses in Japanese, German, and history at various colleges.
He is a military historian, writer, teacher, musician and competitive rifleman. He’s married, the father of six and grandfather of 12.