Amelia Earhart and the French Connection

This is a fascinating, complex (for me, at least) story that at least three Earhart researchers have researched and written about in their own unique styles.  Retired Air Force Col. Rollin C. Reineck’s “Amelia Earhart and the French Connection” appeared in the March 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters

Clearly the best, most exhaustively researched version of the bottle messagestory was written by AES member Dave Horner, who, in his fine 2013 book, The Earhart Enigma, presented  a lengthy subsection, Genevieve’s Discovery,” in which Bill Prymak concluded thatthe message in the bottle is genuine.”  In 2001, Daryll Bolinger, another AES figure, wrote “Two If By Air, Two If By Sea,” also longer and more detailed than Reineck’s, and presented it on the AES Forum.  Last but maybe far from least, Polish author and publisher Sławomir M. Kozak is completing his Requiem for Amelia Earhart; he plans to release it soon, and tells me Requiem will include a chapter on the bottle message.

Retired Air Force Col. Rollin C. Reineck, circa 2003.

But for the purposes and format of this blog, I think Reineck’s “Amelia Earhart and the French Connection” is the best fit, though it’s far from the most exhaustive or accurate rendition of this story, which remains a strange and nearly inscrutable chapter in the Earhart saga.  Today I present the first of two parts.  Boldface emphasis mine throughout.

by Rollin C. Reineck

(Bill Prymak note: This is an abbreviated account of Colonel Reineck’s story.  Col. Reineck has complete copies of all reports, original letters, and memorandum from the French and U.S. Government.  You may all plan to read the complete version in the Air Classics magazine.)

[Truth at Last editor’s note: I don’t have the unidentified Air Classics issue referenced by Prymak, have searched diligently for it and have been unable to even pinpoint its specific month and year.  Anyone who might have it, please contact me via email or comment to this blog.] *See update below Part I.*

In October 1938, the search for Amelia Earhart was over, without success.  Her name was no longer a headline, and her adoring public was gradually putting her out of their mindsBut suddenly, evidence of her survival surfaced off the coast of France!  Were the American people told this exciting news?  NO — the U.S. State Dept. immediately classified it “Confidential” to protect the security of the United States.  Without taking any action, the State Department sent it to the Navy Depsrtment, but without giving any orders or guidance concerning an investigation.  The accompanying message read, “TAKE SUCH ACTION, IF ANY, AS YOU MAY DEEM DESIRABLE.”  The Navy deemed only to keep the information classified from the public for 12 years.  Were they trying to hide something?  Does this action suggest a cover-up?  Follow this story, and you decide . . . .

Almost 60 years ago in a small residential community along the French coast, a 37-year old housewife was walking along the beach, and spotted a sealed bottle floating on the waves close to shore.  The lady’s name was Genevieve Barrat, place was Soulac-sur-Mer, France, and the date was 30 October 1938.  Genevieve picked up the bottle, removed the wrapping that covered the cork, and opened the bottle. Inside were three sheets of paper, and a lock of hair.  The writing on the paper was in both longhand and shorthand.  Genevieve read the writing, which among other things directed the finder to turn the contents over to the police without delay.  She did exactly that.

The beach at Soulac-sur-Mer, France, where Ms. Genevieve Barrat found one of the most provocative bottle messages of the 20th century in late October 1938.

The French Gendarme made a complete report, and forwarded it on 18 Nov. 1938, to the District Attorney at the Prefect of Gironde.  (Original reports in French were translated later at the American Embassy in Paris.)  They first reiterated Genevieve’s story and her actions.  They described the bottle (10 centilitres; bottom of the glass marked V.B.2.; closed with a cork and covered with wax).  They described the hair found in the bottle as light brown.  The inscriptions on the documents were:

1.  Further proof: a lock of hair.
2.  “May God guide this bottle. I entrust to it my life and that of my companions in misery.”
3.  In ordinary handwriting:

RECTO: Have been prisoner of Jalint (Jaluit, Marshall) of Japanese in a prison at Jalint.  Have seen Amelia Earhart (aviatrix) and in another prison her mechanic (man), as well as other prisoners held for so-called espionage of the gigantic fortifications which are built at Atoll. 

Earhart and her companion were picked up by a Japanese seaplane and will be
held as hostage, say the Japanese.  I was a prisoner because I debarked at Mili Atoll. My yachtViveo sunk, crew massacred (3 Maoris), the boat (26T) (sailing boat) was supplied with wireless.

VERSO: Having remained a long time at Jalint (Jaluit) as prisoner, was enrolled
by forces as bunker-hand, simple fed, on boardNippon NOM? going to Europe. Shall escape as soon as the boat is near the coast.  Take this message immediately to the Gendarmerie in order to be saved. This message was probably thrown off Santander, and will surely arrive at the Vendee towards September or at the latest in October 1938, remainder in the bottle tied to this one, Message No. 6.”

In Shorthand:

In order to have more chance at freeing Miss Amelia Earhart and her companion, as well as the other prisoners, it would be preferable that policemen should arrive incognito at Jalint?  I shall be with JO . . . . . eux [sic] and if I succeed in escaping . . . . . for if the Japanese are asked to free the prisoners they will say that they have no prisoners at Jalint.  It will therefore be necessary to be crafty in order to send further messages to save the prisoners at Jalint.  At the risk of my life, I shall send further messages.

Photo of “RECTO” of bottle message found by Genevieve Barrat at Soulac-sur-Mer, France in October 1938. (Courtesy of National Archives and The Earhart Enigma.)

This bottle serves as a float to a second bottle containing the story of my life and . . . . . . empty, and a few objects having belonged to Amelia Earhart.  These documents prove the truth of the story in ordinary writing and shorthand and that I have approached Amelia Earhart . . . . . believed to be dead.

The second bottle doesn’t matter.

I am writing on my knees for I have very little paper, for finger prints taken by
police.  Another with thumb.

Message written on cargo boat No. 6.

The report by the Gendarme at Soulac-sur-Mer was sent to the District Attorney at the Prefect of Gironde in Bordeaux on 18 Nov. 1938.  From there it was sent to the Minister of the Interior in Paris.

In Paris. on 2 Dec. 1938, the Minister of the Interior sent the file to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  However, they added a note concerning a lecture given on 25 Nov.’38, by a well known navigator, Mr. Eric de Bisschop, at the Geographical Society.  Mr. de Bisschop’s lecture was titled, “Six Years of Adventure in a Chinese Junk and a Polynesian Canoe.”  In it, he told of his voyage taking him through the Marshall Islands.  (The fact that his visit there was approximately a month after the bottle washed ashore in France, is probably coincidental.)

When Mr. de Bisschop stopped off in the Marshalls, he was very cordially received by
the local Japanese authorities, until he mentioned passing Mili Atoll.  They then became distinctly hostile toward him.  He was suspected of spying, and endured very close questioning, and his boat was subjected to a particularly severe inspection.  When nothing was discovered, he was released.

The next day, Mr. de Bisschop received a beautiful basket of fruit from the Japanese
authorities.  Being wary of Greeks bearing gifts, he did not touch the fruit, even though he could have used some fresh food after his tong voyage.  A day later, suspicious brown spots appeared on the fruit, so he threw it all into the sea.

It appears the Japanese at that time were up to more than just increasing commerce with the Marshallese.  It is difficult not to connect Mr. de Bisschop’s incident, and the details contained in the note in the bottle thrown overboard by an unknown sailor.  A note that gives information concerning the disappearance of the American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and her mechanic.  Mr. de Bisschop did allude, in his lecture, to the passage of Amelia in the vicinity of the Marshall Islands during her attempted round-the-world flight.

[Editor’s Note: From Wikipedia, which cites Eric de Bisschop’s 1940 book, Voyage of the Kaimiloa, we learn that de Bisschop built a Chinese junk, the Fou Po and from 1932 to 1935 sailed with Joseph Tatibouet in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.  Fou Po was destroyed in a hurricane on Formosa (modern day Taiwan), but de Bisschop quickly built a new, smaller junk, Fou Po II in 1933.  In July 1935, they were detained for two weeks by the Japanese in Jaluit, under suspicion of being spies, and barely escaped, fleeing toward Hawaii.  (Italic emphasis mine.)  On Oct. 25, they reached, half starving, Molokai Island and were rescued at the Kalaupapa hospital.  On the 27th, the Fou Po II was destroyed by a storm, along with all the scientific work done during these years of seafaring.  After a while, they flew to Honolulu.]

Edwin C. Wilson, circa 1943, American diplomat, acting chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 1939, who served as U.S. Minister to Uruguay from 1939-1941, U.S. Ambassador to Panama from 1941-1943 and U.S. Ambassador to Turkey from 1945-1948. (Associated Press photo.)

On Jan. 3, 1939, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs handed all the documents to
Edwin C. Wilson, acting chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy in Paris.  Mr. Wilson immediately classified the reportConfidential, and dispatched it on Jan. 4, 1939, to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C.  The cover letter noted there were only two pages of notes, whereas the police at Lesparre said the bottle contained three pages of notes. There was also no mention of the lock of hair that allegedly belonged to Amelia Earhart.  (End of Reineck’s “AMELIA EARHART AND THE FRENCH CONNECTION” Part I.)

In The Earhart Enigma, Dave Horner notes that the top line of the RECTOmessage contains a series of numbers, 942 9652 9077 V 10 135 815613114 X 6 / 75 2865, that appears to be a code of some kind.  If you look closely at the photo on this page, you can see small traces of this series of numbers, though it’s not easy to make out.

Horner looked deeply into this possible code, consulting with cipher specialist General Ribadeau-Dumas, then 93, former chief of the Cipher Section of the Deuxième Bureau of the [French] War Department, who Horner described as having aclear mind and good memory.”  Though the general believed the bottle message could be authentic, he couldn’t help with the string of numbers at the top of the message.

Later, French intelligence sources told Horner the code was “Marine Code RD,” widely used from 1937 to 1939.  In spite of an intense search, Horner wrote, “no dictionary for Marine Code RD cold be found.  The absolute rule of incineration had been accomplished,” and the code remains a mystery.

*Update Nov. 7: Longtime reader William Trail has found the original issue of Air Classic Magazine, its December 2000 edition, that published Rollin C. Reineck’s “Amelia Earhart and the French Connection,” and sent the cover, below.  Thanks William!

4 responses

  1. Wow- great stuff Mike..more mystery piled upon mystery in this case..have any of the researchers done more work on this letter?


  2. A very interesting story which tends to give some credence to the stories of Amelia and Fred going down in the Marshalls.

    The fact that one of the three pages and the lock of hair were not sent to the US is suspicious. Where are they, and would the last page reveal the name of the unknown sailor who allegedly wrote the messages?

    There are some clues which were possibly looked into back in 1938. For instance, various ship registries could have been searched for the named ships, such as the yacht “Vivio” and the Japanese freighter “Nippon Nom”. Also, radio logs from various stations prior to July 1937 might show transmissions from Vivio.

    There is no signature, no names of any of the other mentioned prisoners, and no dates to research, or verify. The very fact that he mentions his fingerprints would indicate that he was trying to reveal his identity, and this may have been information contained on the missing third page.

    Use of the code is strange. How could a prisoner employed as a “stoker” or bunker hand know what he was writing/coding without having a code book at hand? He would have had to have memorized those numbers from something he had written previously.

    It is also interesting to see how the transcription consistently refers to the island as “Jalint”, even though the original text clearly spells it out as “Jaluit”. He also mentions Mili atoll.

    The transcription also states: “documents prove the truth of the story in ordinary writing and shorthand and that I have approached Amelia Earhart . . . . . believed to be dead.”

    One has to wonder how he came to know that she supposedly died before 30 October 1938.

    Another puzzling bit of information is that this unknown sailor mentions that he is writing his message in “Cargo Boat number 6”. This indicates that the ship on which he was serving was large enough to have boats aboard which could be lowered and used to deliver cargo. He was not referring to the ship itself as a “boat”. He would be on his knees to write if the boat was covered with a tarp, and therefore not much room inside.

    A second bottle is referred to, but evidently only the one bottle was found.

    The story of Mr. de Bisschop is interesting, but when told in the context of the Message in a Bottle story, tends to make for confusing reading. The de Bisschop story does tend to support in general the fact that the Japanese were very suspicious of potential “spies”, and that they would detain and imprison anyone captured in what they believed to be their Pacific territory. Also that Jaluit and Mili were of particular interest.


  3. The first interesting thing to surface on this story in years. Does not look like it will lead anywhere though. Spooks don’t reveal this kind of stuff often.


  4. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Author David Horner thought it was legit. And Bill Prymak was leaning heavily that way.

    My reasoning against the validity of the message-in-a-bottle is that messages-in-bottles are most often the stuff of fiction, the author did not identify himself, and there seemed to to have been no hue and cry over a missing sailboat/yacht. Where did Vemeo sail from? Who owned it? Where was it registered? What was it’s ome port? Where was it bound? Was someone expecting it at it’s intended final destination? When it didn’t show up, why weren’t there inquires about it and it’s missing crew? Did the anonymous message writer not have any family/friends/acquaintances — anyone who would have missed him? Too many nagging, unanswered questions. That’s why I’m leaning toward this being a hoax. However, I’m not ready to 100% rule it out.

    On the other hand, could the ill-fated voyage of Vemeo have been a covert intelligence-gathering mission of the French Deuxieme Bureau targeting Japanese activities in the Mandates? That’s a very real possibility as well. It might also account for the use of a French marine code. I’m also intrigued by the way the French passed the information to Acting Charge d’affaires Edwin C. Wilson, who passed everything to SecState, who dutifully passed it to SecNav. It seems they were all taking things very seriously. And, what did the French know that they weren’t telling us? As it is said, “There are no friendly foreign intelligence services — only the intelligence services of friendly foreign countries.” And, foreign countries really don’t have “friends,” they have “interests.”

    The “message-in-a-bottle” business makes for a very interesting story, but nothing more than that. In the end it does not materially add to nor does it subtract from the essential truth that AE and FN landed on Mili Atoll, became prisoners of the Japanese, and died badly in their hands.

    All best,



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