Did Putnam search for Amelia Earhart on Saipan?

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.

In this September 1962 photo, California newspaperman Ross Game, who accompanied Fred Goerner during some of his early 1960s investigations, is flanked on Saipan by Guam Detective Edward Camacho (left), and Capt. Jose Quintanilla, Guam Police Chief.

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.

Undated photo of J. Gordon Vaeth, who told Fred 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.”  After initially supporting Goerner’s work, Vaeth later changed his position became a convinced “crashed-and-sanker.”

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 unnamedfamily 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.

A 2002 photo of Ron Reuther, chairman of the Northern California Chapter of the Explorers Club.  Reuther was a founding member of the Amelia Earhart Society, and was a committed naturalist who directed the San Francisco and Philadelphia zoos, among others.  He passed away in 2007 at age 77.

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.       

Retired Treasury Agent Les Kinney, featured in a July 6, 2017 AP story that promoted the History Channel’s Earhart special, “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” about which much has been written on this blog.

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 sankversion, 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.

Undated photo of longtime researcher Ron Bright, of Bremerton, Wash., who agrees with Les Kinney that George P. Putnam never searched for his wife’s gravesite on Saipan. 

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.

 

10 responses

  1. Like everything else in this case.. who do you believe? Both accounts sound reasonable and possibly true. Why would Goerner and Ross Game lie about finding their evidence? To relate what they thought history would like to hear? Nothing seems straight forward

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  2. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Has anyone made an examination of Putnam’s 201 File (U.S. Army Personnel Record)? Or was it destroyed in the fire at the U.S. Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO back in the early 70s? If it still exists, it should contain copies of Putnam’s travel orders, and indicate his travel priority. By the way, the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of Operations had the lowest priority for “beans, bullets, fuel, transport, etc.” coming in third behind the European and Pacific theaters. Air transport was on a priority basis. Those with priority flew, everyone else took a slow boat. Of course, nothing is absolute, and chance always plays a hand in events.

    I just cannot conceive of Fred Goerner, or Ross Game “lying” about what they saw in those “secret” files they were briefly given access to in 1963. They saw what they saw. If Putnam had secretly traveled to Saipan in 1944 after the island had been fully secured, there wouldn’t be a paper trail as in travel orders in MAJ. Putnam’s 201 File, but there may have been classified documentation elsewhere; hence, what Goerner and Game saw. And, a “secret” trip to Saipan for Putnam at that time could only have occurred with approval from the highest level of the U.S. Government.

    To my mind, Cushman’s claim is dubious. First of all, he didn’t arrive on Saipan until May 1945. Secondly, if you met, and essentially served as George Palmer Putnam’s chauffeur — driving him around in a jeep, you’d remember if it were a dusty forward refueling airfield in China, or the lush island of Saipan in the Northern Marianas. From all I’ve read of him, Putnam was a standout character, not “the little gray man” nobody noticed. I think anyone would remember where they met him.

    The idea that Putnam traveled three days behind Japanese lines to a U.S. Marine Corps radio listening station on the China coast is just ludicrous.

    All best,

    William

    Liked by 2 people

    1. William, you are correct. Putnam’s military personnel jacket was destroyed in the July 1973 fire.

      As far as Goerner and Game lying – no they never lied but did have some memory lapse as to what they were shown but were not able to copy or take notes on their first visit to Washington. As you know, the military, and Navy specifically had a habit of over classifying everything – and still do.

      Goerner and Ross were initially allowed to read files – (there were a lot of them) but not copy. So, a lot of what they later wrote came from memory. When documents were eventually released to Goerner, some of the material Goerner previously spoke of wasn’t quite suggestive what he had been originally shown. For example Joe Patton’s 1960 ONI report. With that said, there are files – somewhere – held by the Navy, and especially the Marines, that answer the question what happened to Amelia and Fred.

      As far as Ross’ remarks to Reineck, they are a very big deal if true:
      “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)”

      Unfortunately, I don’t believe Ross’ statements are true. I believe with the passage of time, he just got carried away. I spent a considerable amount of time attempting to corroborate Ross’ remarks to Reineck. Goerner never mentions this in his book nor do Goerner’s massive files and notes mention anything close to what Ross told Reineck.

      Les Kinney

      Liked by 1 person

      1. William H. Trail

        Les,

        Too bad Putnam’s military personnel records jacket was destroyed in the fire. Maybe you’ve already checked, but could anything possibly be gleaned from the records of the USAAF 468th Bombardment Group?

        Thanks for the insights on Fred Goerner, Ross Game, and Rollin Reineck. Very interesting.

        All best,

        William

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      2. For veterans whose personnel records were lost in the 1973 fire it is possible to partially reconstruct a service history from unit rosters, morning reports, payroll records, unit orders including travel orders, and some medical records. Those records were apparently stored at a different location than the personnel records. Since the approximate date G.P.P. departed from the 468th is known that narrows the scope of the search considerably. It sounds like Les has already found some of that material.

        Another source would be a veterans organization for the unit. They often have already acquired unit rosters and other records for the WWII period. Many of those organizations, unfortunately, have become inactive.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. William H. Trail

        Ken & CDA,

        How correct you both are. I’ve investigated a few things in my career and I can tell you from my own experience that there are few, if any, true “dead ends.” That GP’s MPRJ was destroyed in the ’73 fire simply presents an additional challenge to be overcome; alternate avenues are to be pursued, and there are many out there. Tenacity is the key. I’m sure Les has explored them all already.

        All best,

        William

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I read an article about the lost Clipper that it was carrying 4 million ransom for Amelia and Fred. If so they thought to still in captivity in July 1938. Have you ever heard this?

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    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      Juanita,

      Thanks for the question. Yes, we’ve indeed heard of it. In short, the 4 million dollars in high denomination U.S. gold certificates was allegedly carried on PAA’s ill-fated Hawaii Clipper by passenger, Wah Sun Choy aka, “Watson Choy,” a prosperous New York/New Jersey Chinese-American restaurateur. There was much discussion about it here on Mike’s blog back in August 2020. My personal belief is that those gold certificates were not to ransom Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, who I believe were dead by 1938, but was U.S. covert aid destined for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Government who had been fighting the Imperial Japanese since 1931.

      All best,

      William

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi William,
    Thank you for the interesting info!
    Juanita

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  5. Even modern day Police recognize the value of “alternative sources” of information on missing persons when normal sources dry up. Has been shown to be worthwhile.

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