In the wake of our recent three part series about George P. Putnam’s desperate search for Amelia Earhart, which included consultations with psychics and others who offered advice to him from the “other side,” the question of whether Putnam ever visited Saipan to search for his wife’s gravesite has often been raised.
Truth at Last presents the eyewitness accounts of Everett Henson Jr. and Billy Burks, former Marine privates who were ordered by Capt. Tracy Griswold to execute a special excavation detail on Saipan during the summer of 1944. An entire chapter is devoted to their stories, and in a subsection within that chapter, titled, “Secret Files and Executive Orders,” Putnam’s possible Saipan search is examined.
California newspaperman Ross Game accompanied Goerner during at least one of his early investigative forays into Washington’s inner sanctums. In a 1998 letter to Rollin Reineck, Game recalled that he and Goerner had been granted access to secret files in 1963 — before Henson came forward to Game with his story — files that outlined the basics of the Griswold, Henson, and Burks incident:
In Washington files we learned that George Palmer Putnam was secretly
brought to the Saipan gravesite after the island had been captured by
U.S. Marines and the remains “secretly” removed under the direction of
an intelligence officer (we even obtained his name, thanks to the CIA).
I wrote to Game in September 2007, and he kindly responded and confirmed that the name of the officer who removed the fliers’ remains was Captain Tracy Griswold. Game was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and passed away in October 2009 at his home in Napa, Calif. Earhart researcher Ron Reuther met with him in 2005 at a Napa restaurant, and described the seventy-five-year-old newsman as “very sharp on recall.”
Game reiterated to Reuther his conviction that Earhart met her end on Saipan and that Griswold directed the recovery of the remains, and he shared an interesting comment Griswold had made to him and Goerner: “Game still strongly believes AE/FN died on Saipan in December 1937, AE of dysentery, and Noonan was killed shortly after,” Reuther wrote in a 2005 e-mail to the Amelia Earhart Society. “He still believes they were buried together and that USMC Captain Tracy Griswold supervised their exhumation, and that the remains were returned to this country. Game and Goerner talked with the two Marine enlisted persons, Henson and Burks who dug up the remains. He says when they later found and talked with Griswold, he said of their efforts and revelations, ‘You did a wonderful job.’ But he would not confirm anything else.”
Putnam’s presence on Saipan during the war is not certain, as the records Game claimed he and Goerner saw have never been released. Major Putnam was an intelligence officer for the 468th Bombardment Group that operated in China, India, Burma, and the Marianas during 1944 and ’45, and could have been on Saipan, but nothing officially confirming it has surfaced.
J. Gordon Vaeth told Goerner in 1964 that in his job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he interviewed an ex-Air Force officer who had been on Saipan and “had personally driven G.P. Putnam around the island. Putnam was busy asking questions intended to reveal whether there was any trace of his wife there,” Vaeth wrote. “According to this interviewee, he did not know whether Putnam ever found anything concrete or not.” Vaeth, eighty-seven and living in Olympia, Washington, told Ron Bright in 2007 that the man’s name was Charles Cushman.
I called Vaeth in July 2008, and he confirmed that Cushman was the man who said he drove Putnam around Saipan “during the days when the war was winding down,” well after the island had been secured and was under the control of the U.S. garrison force. Cushman worked for about “five or six years” at NOAA, Vaeth said, and “died about 20 years ago.” Vaeth said the subject came up between them on a few occasions, and he was sure Cushman said Putnam “came up with no information” that indicated his wife’s presence on Saipan, nor did Cushman say anything to Vaeth about Putnam visiting a gravesite.
Cushman’s name also surfaced when Ron Reuther looked into the alleged Putnam gravesite visit. In October 2005, Reuther wrote to the Amelia Earhart Society online forum that he had narrowed the possible time window for Putnam’s visit to Saipan, citing as sources unnamed “family members, many of whom were women”:
Sometime between July 20 and November 2, 1944 George flew to Saipan and was driven around in a jeep by a U.S. military person, later Col. USAF Cushman. Putnam tried to determine if Earhart had been there, but supposedly found no evidence. It seems to me that with his being a Major and an intelligence officer, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Saipan, with the strong likelihood of a number of GI’s being present who had been told of and/or having found evidence of Earhart and Noonan having being on the island, and with several prominent U.S. Marine officers involved with the invasion who have been quoted by Goerner as having said the Marines had determined Earhart had died there, that George would have been told much of this same information while he was there, especially with his strong connections in Washington or to high brass.
Another voice who supported the Putnam-on-Saipan scenario was British biographer Mary S. Lovell, whose The Sound of Wings (1989) is among the best Earhart biographies, but she offered nothing about a clandestine visit to his wife’s gravesite:
At some time during this period of service George visited Saipan. By now stories that Amelia had been captured by the Japanese and taken to Saipan had started to circulate widely. . . . George drove all over the island making extensive enquiries about the white woman flier but he got no answers that gave him any hope that Amelia had ever been there.
Lovell’s scenario is similar to those offered by G. Gordon Vaeth and Ron Reuther, but she cited no source for her statement placing Putnam on Saipan.
Though the foregoing is suggestive and not definitive about Putnam’s alleged Saipan visit and search, researcher Les Kinney is certain that it never happened. When I recently asked him about this, he said we had “pretty much covered” this topic in the comments section of my Dec. 26, 2017 post, “KCBS 1966 release a rare treasure in Earhart saga, and suggested using his comments in this post.
In one of those remarks, on Jan. 8, 2018, Les wrote:
The story of Putnam traveling to Saipan is “fake news.” It never happened. I tracked his travel from China (where he was stationed) back to the US. The story apparently originated second hand when a guy in a jeep reportedly said he drove Putnam on Saipan. He later said, maybe it was China.
One of the Earhart biographies [Lovell] said Putnam went to Saipan but it was never sourced. Putnam left his unit early in China because of severe health problems which eventually killed him. He never flew to Saipan.
For more of Les Kinney’s statements from the Dec. 26, 2017 post, please click here.
But Les had more to offer. In a May 11, 2021 email, he sent “a few more details regarding the apocryphal Putnam visit to Saipan that might not have been in those comments”:
Putnam left the United States on April 15, 1944. He was a briefing officer attached to the 468th Bomber Group. It was the first week of May 1944 before the entire unit mustered in Kharagpur, India.
Putnam didn’t stay in the theater long. On June 6th, when one of the unit members was introduced to Putnam, he wrote, Putnam didn’t stay long and left because of political connections. That wasn’t true. Putnam contracted a parasite which attacked his kidneys. He hung on for another couple months but departed India back to the states sometime in September. According to military records I reviewed, George arrived in the U.S. on September 25th and was admitted to a hospital. He was discharged a few months later but was never able to shake the lingering parasite that eventually killed him. He died of uremic poisoning in a Trona, California Hospital on January 4, 1950.
Putnam never was assigned per se to China. All the B-29 bombing missions for the 468th originated at Kharagpur, India. They flew over the “Hump” to a refueling strip known as A-7, south of Chengtu China. From that forward refueling base, they carried out raids on Thailand, Burma, Singapore, and later in Japan. Base A-7 is 900 miles from the Eastern Chinese coast which was in Japanese hands and remained that way until the close of war.
The 468th Bomber Group was not reassigned to Tinian (not Saipan three miles north) until May of 1945. By then, Putnam was in California.
There’s no reason to believe Charles Cushman hadn’t met Putnam in India and maybe even had flown with him to forward base A-7. But if Cushman drove Putnam around in a jeep, it would have been in India or possibly at the A7 refueling base in western China.
Cushman wouldn’t have arrived at Tinian until May of 1945 which meant he never drove Putnam around Saipan.
Cushman told Gordon Vaeth, a FAA bureaucrat with an interest in Earhart, the story of driving Putnam around Saipan looking for Amelia’s grave. Later, Cushman told Vaeth he might have been mistaken and that it was China where he ferried Putnam around in a jeep. I have that account in my files. I have no idea where one of the Earhart biographers came up with the story. But it simply couldn’t have happened. Flights from western China to the Pacific islands didn’t occur until spring of 1945. When B-29’s flew to India or western China, prior to that time, they were routed through South America, across the Atlantic to Africa, and then on to India. The first B-29’s didn’t arrive on Saipan from the other direction until late fall of 1944. If Putnam visited Saipan in the summer of 1944, he would have traveled in ill health literally around the world to reach Amelia’s grave site. It just didn’t happen.
A similar account has George analyzing the voice of Tokyo Rose. In Courage is the Price, Amelia’s sister, Muriel, wrote that George made a dangerous three-day trek through Japanese held territory to reach a Marine Corps radio station near the coast where the broadcast reception was loud and clear. After listening to the voice for less than a minute, he said “I’ll stake my life that that is not Amelia’s voice.” None of Muriel’s letters describe any such incident. In fact, she had to write the Army department to determine when and where Putnam served overseas. Much of what Muriel wrote is apocryphal and bordering on the ridiculous. Traveling through Japanese territory for three days to a Marine station on the coast? Muriel knew nothing. As adults, Amelia was more the mother to a petulant child.
Les Kinney makes a strong case that Putnam never made it to Saipan, and I trust that he has the file wherein “Cushman told Vaeth he might have been mistaken and that it was China where he ferried Putnam around in a jeep,” as he describes it, though I’d still like to see the hard copy.
Several years earlier, Amelia Earhart Society researcher Ron Bright joined Kinney in dismissing the idea of Putnam’s alleged Saipan search. During an Oct. 28, 2015 discussion on the now defunct AERA (Amelia Earhart Research Association) Yahoo! Group Forum, Bright wrote that he agreed it was “unlikely that GP toured Saipan looking for his wife.” The former ONI agent continued:
I think the U.S. government was comfortable in the “crash and sank” version, and doubt that he would have taken on such a search without a lot of folks knowing it, including those Navy officials on Saipan in 1944. Never have I seen any other mention of this alleged search.
The only source I would depend on was Vaeth’s identification of Cushman, but who knows how credible Cushman was. He simply could have been mistaken about the identity. I just didn’t press Vaeth on Cushman and the circumstances he found Cushman. Hearsay at best.
. . . Anyway GP would have told Amy, Muriel , et al , even if unsuccessful, that he tried his best to find AE on Saipan. Never a word from him and as a journalist, this would have been reported somewhere, someplace.
Thus, I think you are right, that there really isn’t any solid evidence that GP toured the war torn Saipan. If GP had been there, other reporters would have picked up on it.
Prior to Les Kinney’s recent update, I was undecided about the Putnam-on-Saipan question. Most of all, I had Ross Game’s statement that he and Fred Goerner had viewed secret files in Washington that revealed Putnam’s Saipan visit, and the Cushman story via J. Gordon Vaeth seemed to support Game’s account. Otherwise, Mary Lovell had mentioned Putnam’s alleged Saipan search in her book, without citing a source, and Ron Reuther referenced “female sources“ that he never identified in his message to the AES.
Now I think Kinney’s research and reasoning is superior to the rest of what we have, and he’s made a believer out of me, at least unless and until more definitive information surfaces. Ross Game’s claim, however, still reverberates.