Monthly Archives: September, 2022

Nabers’ Saipan account among GIs’ most compelling

Readers here are familiar with Thomas E. Devine’s 1987 classic, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, the former Army postal sergeant’s dramatic recollection of his three eyewitness encounters with the Earhart Electra on Saipan during the U.S invasion in summer 1944, the final time watching as the Earhart plane was torched, strafed and burned beyond recognition.  Devine closed Eyewitness with an emotional plea to any and all with similar knowledge to step forward in support of his efforts to establish the truth:

. . . But now, after four decades of exhaustive study and analysis, I can unequivocally substantiate the presence of Earhart and Noonan on Saipan in 1937 as well as their deaths and subsequent interment in an unmarked grave in the southern outskirts of Garapan.

I am determined to return to Saipan and authenticate the remains of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.  I appeal to readers to join me in this effort by supplying any documents, foreign or domestic, which have bearing on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, her navigator Frederick Noonan, or their Lockheed Electra.  Should you merely hold memories in the shadows, I urge you to correspond with me now.  The challenge is there and the burden of proof is ours to share. 

Thomas E. Devine, whose involvement with events surrounding the discovery and destruction of Amelia Earhart’s Electra 10E as a 28-year-old Army postal sergeant on Saipan in July 1944 shaped the rest of his life.  Devine’s 1987 classic, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, is among the most important books about the Earhart disappearance ever penned.

After his 1963 Saipan visit with Fred Goerner to search for the gravesite shown him by an Okinawan woman there in 1945, Devine would never return, for a variety of frustrating reasons — mainly the CNMI and Saipan governments’ concerted opposition to his plans — an outcome he never imagined.  But as a result of his appeal in Eyewitness and elsewhere, 26 former GIs who served on Saipan contacted him and shared their experiences relative to Earhart and Noonan’s presence and deaths there, and this formed the basis for our 2002 book, With Our Own Eyes: Eyewitnesses to the Final Days of Amelia Earhart.

Robert E. Wallack, of Woodbridge, Conn., a short drive from Devine’s West Haven home, contacted him shortly after learning of Eyewitness’s publication.  With his gregarious personality and riveting account of his discovery of Amelia Earhart’s briefcase in a blown safe on Saipan, he became the best known of all the GI witnesses.  For much more on Wallack’s account, see my Sept. 28, 2015 post, Son Bill tells Robert E. Wallack’s amazing story.

Earskin J. Nabers, of Baldwyn, Mississippi, also had a Saipan story to tell, every bit as compelling and important as Wallack’s, but it almost never got out.  The low-key Nabers was content to live a quiet life in rural Mississippi, and never sought attention, despite the fact that his story features more twists, turns and chapters than Wallack’s, and is the most fascinating and complex of all the Saipan GI witnesses.

Nabers was a 20-year-old code clerk in the H & S Communication Platoon of the 8th Marines during the invasion of Saipan.  In October 1992, a friend showed him this notice placed by Devine in the spring edition of Follow Me, the official publication of the 2nd Marine Division Association, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina:

I am seeking to contact any of the Marines, who, during the
invasion of Saipan, were placed on guard duty at Aslito Field,
to guard a padlocked hangar containing Amelia Earhart’s
airplane.

The hangar was not one of those located along the runway.
It was located near what may have been a Japanese administration
building, and an unfinished hangar at the tarmac, in the southwest
corner of the airfield.

Please contact: Thomas E. Devine,
81 Isadore St., West Haven, CT 06516
(Yes, I was there.) Thomas E. Devine

Marine Corp. Earskin J. Nabers at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in 1946, just before his discharge and return to his Baldwyn, Miss., home.  As a code clerk in the communications center of the 8th Marine Regiment on Saipan in July 1944, Nabers decoded the top-secret message announcing the discovery of Amelia Earhart’s Electra in a hangar at Aslito Field. (Courtesy Sandra Nabers Sealy.)

The following is Nabers’ reply to Devine (handwritten), dated July 11, 1992:

Dear Thomas,

I want to apologize first for not writing earlier.

I will start from the first. I was a code clerk in the H & S Communications Plt. It was made up of wire section, radio section and message section.  I was in the message section, all the messages came through our message center.

We were on mopping up duty on opposite end of Saipan from where we landed (the South end).  The message came over our field radios.  I decoded it and I was quite excited when I read the message.  The message read (the best I remember) that Amelia Earhart’s plane had been found at Aslito Field, this was about the middle of the morning.

(We had to get Col. [Clarence R.] Wallace to sign all the messages that came through the message center.)

Shortly after we received the message, Hq. 8th moved back to bivouac area.  I was dropped off at the Hangar for guard duty [at] the main road that went by west side of hangar.  The road that went out to hangar, I was placed on the right side, just as it left the main road.  And there was an Army man on the opposite side. He had arrived on the island just a few days before.  I don’t remember his name but I think he was from Minnesota.  I stayed on duty first day, that night, most of next day.

We were told not to let anyone go in.  There was a jeep come by with some officers in it.  They wanted to go in to see the plane.  We told them our orders, they said what if we go anyway.  We stepped in front of the Jeep, and told them that it would be in the best interest of all involved for them to turn around and leave.  There was some other people come and checked us out, but they did not go in, they were just checking on security.

After I went back to my platoon there was another message come through that said something about destroying the plane.  Myself and two more boys went back down to the airfield to see it destroyed.  (the message give the time it was supposed to be destroyed)

The best I can recall the plane was pulled on the field by a jeep (driven by some Marines.  I have got ahead of myself, the first time we went down there wasn’t anything done to plane it was the second day that the plane was pulled on the field but we went both times and we learned the second time from a message that come off the radio.

Saipan’s Aslito Airfield just after its capture by the 165th Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry Division on June 18, 1944.  Standing hangars and Japanese aircraft, though damaged, belie skeptics’ claims that the Navy’s pre-invasion aerial bombardment leveled all buildings, and therefore Amelia Earhart’s Electra could not have been housed and discovered there.  (U.S. Army photo.)

Picking up from the plane being pulled on the field.  The plane was facing north after the plane was parked and jeep moved.  A plane come over real low and the next pass he strafed the plane and it went up in a huge fireball.  (We were sitting on the west side of the airfield about one hundred yard from plane.  We were on higher ground.  As far I remember, the ones that pulled the plane on the field and us guys from H & S 8th were the only ones there.  We were not there officially, you know how Marines were, got to see what was going on.)

. . . This is a bit sketchy, but I hope it is worth something to you, as you know not everyone believes us.  I told about it a few times & got the look as if to say that guy must have got shell shocked & had one guy tell me that can’t be so.  I will stand by what I have said and I will place my hand on the Holy Book and repeat the whole thing over.

If ever I can be of any help to you in any way feel free to call on me.  I guarantee that I will reply pronto.

Best Wishes,
Earskin J. Nabers

P.S. about not writing earlier, I had a problem to come up in the family that left me emotionally or I should say took the most of my time thinking about it.  But thank God everything seems to be working out for the best. E.J.N

During an October 1992 phone conversation with me, Nabers, a receiving clerk in Baldwyn, repeated the details of his account.  He added he was able to get a look into the padlocked hangar through a small opening between the doors.  Nabers described a silver, twin-engine civilian plane.  He said he couldn’t make out the registration marks from his vantage point.  Neither could he discern its registration as he witnessed the Electra’s destruction because, “It was dark and we were too far away to read them.”

We’ll hear more from Earskin J.  Nabers in future posts, and I promise you won’t be bored.  For more on what we’ve already done about American military personnel on 1944-’45 Saipan and their experiences that revealed the presence and deaths of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan there, please see “Veterans recall seeing Earhart photos on SaipanandKanna’s letter among first of GI Saipan witnesses,” my March 13, 2020 and Jan. 4, 2022 posts.

 

Conclusion of Rafford on radio in AE “Mystery”

Today we present the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s fascinating and thought-provoking analysis of Amelia Earhart’s final flight, “Amateur radio’s part in the Amelia Earhart Mystery,” previously unpublished.  Rafford sent this gem to the Amelia Earhart Society’s online forum in 2008, too late for admission to the AES Newsletters.

Conclusion of “Amateur radio’s part in the Amelia Earhart Mystery”
by Paul Rafford Jr.

Government records claim that after the shore party was hastily called back to Itasca, four radio operators remained behind to man the Howland direction finder.  They were Yau Fai Lum, Henry Lau, Frank Cipriani and Ah Kin Leong.  The latter three were part of the shore party while Lum was the resident radio operator. Supposedly, they operated the station for nearly two weeks, keeping nightly vigil on 3105 kHz.  Their logs can be found in the government’s Earhart files.

However, close inspection of the records shows that Cipriani signed off with Itasca at 0802 July 2, stating No signals on 3105 and impossible to work.  The shore party was ordered to return at 0826 and arrived aboard Itasca at 0912.  There is no evidence indicating that Cipriani and the others were told to remain behind.  No reference to the group appears in the records until July 5.  At 0001 a message is allegedly received by K6GNW from Itasca.  It orders the Chinese boys to assist Cipriani in manning the direction finder during Itasca’s search.  Are we to believe that Cipriani and the others, having made a last-minute decision on their own to stay on Howland are now, three days later being pressed into service to man the direction finder?

A close-up look at the Howland Island camp, taken Jan. 23, 1937, that Amelia Earhart never enjoyed.  (National Archives.)

When John Riley questioned Lum, he was vehement in declaring that Cipriani, Leong and Lau had returned to the ship as soon as word was received that it was about to leave on a search for the missing flyers.  In a letter to Riley dated September 4, 1994 Ah Kin Leong backs up Lum.  He declares, “No idea who wrote the false log.  Stood no watches on Howland Island.  Cipriani, Henry Lau and me were on the Coast Guard cutter Itasca when it left Howland Island looking for Earhart.”

In October 1994, Lum wrote Riley as follows,This letter from Ah Kin Leong proves that I am right and Captain Thompson’s report is not accurate.  If we were watch standers we would have spoken to Cipriani at least 16 times when we change shifts in monitoring Earhart. This never happened.  I have never seen the CG equipment nor did Cipriani ever come over to look at my equipment. I stand by my previous statement, ‘The radio report is false!’ ”

In his answer to Lum, Riley sums up the situation as follows: Unfortunately, if the Itasca log is partly fraudulent, it means that all research since Earhart disappeared, whether conducted by Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, or by private parties, has been based on deliberate misinformation put out by a few.  The radio logs of the Itasca are the most fundamental, most primary, of reference material.  Nothing else compares.  They supposedly tell us what is known of this tragedy.”  If, as it appears, the Howland logs are forgeries, what would have been gained by such a subterfuge and who would have directed it?

[See my March 30, 2022 post,Rafford and Horner on the bogus Howland log for the full story on Yau Fai Lum’s claim that challenged the veracity of the Howland radio log, and thus the Coast Guard’s version of the final hours of the Earhart flight.]

Exactly three years after Earhart and Noonan disappeared, I joined Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer. I soon met several people who were involved one way or another in the mystery and/or knew Fred Noonan.  My first boss, Harry Drake had shared bachelor quarters with Fred in Miami during the mid-1930’s. Later, Harry was the station manager at Caripito, Venezuela where the flyers spent their second night He offered to collect the latest weather forecasts along the route they would follow the next day.  Earhart rebuffed him with, “I don’t need that!  I got it all back in California.” 

Amelia Earhart is greeted upon her arrival at Caripito, Venezuela, June 2, 1937.  “A muddy river wound through the mountain pass we followed, a reddish-brown snake crawling among tight-packed greenery,” Earhart wrote in Last Flight.  “A few miles inland lay the red-roofed town of Caripito, with squat oil tanks on the outskirts. There was a splendid airfield, with paved runways and a well-equipped hangar.  It is managed jointly by Pan American Airways and the Standard Oil Company.“

The latest weather? Harry mused to himself.  Nevertheless, he sat up all night collecting the weather as promised.  But to no avail!  Just as he pulled into the airport parking lot he heard the roar of her engines as she took off.  The thought struck him, “I wonder if I’ll ever see Fred alive again?”

My first assignment with Pan Am was on the training plane flying with John Ray, instrument flight instructor.  John had been moonlighting an aviation radio service business when he was contracted to remove Earhart’s trailing antenna.  She had just arrived from California at the start of her round-the-world flight.  Her explanation to reporters was that she had it removed to save weight and the bother of reeling it out and in.  But the weight saving would be little more than a gallon of gas, while Noonan was familiar with the operation of trailing antennas aboard our Pan Am planes.

For years I wondered why Earhart would have discarded her trailing antenna.  I even built a model of her plane on a scale of 9 to 1, transmitting on a frequency 9 times 3105 kHz.  I equipped it with both a trailing antenna and a fixed antenna. I discovered that transmissions on 3105 kHz with the small, fixed antenna would have been 20 dB (decibels), weaker than with a quarter wave trailing antenna.  To check the experimentally derived measurements, I referred to the antenna formulas in my engineering hand books.  After working the equations, I found the theoretical values very closely matched my experimental values.  Earhart’s fixed antenna radiated only one-half watt on 3105 kHz.

During World War II, I discussed the Earhart disappearance with our Miami radio engineer, Charlie Winter.  He had offered Earhart the services of the Pan Am direction finding net in the Pacific if she would carry a Pan Am frequency.  She rejected his offer with a terse, ”I don’t need that!  I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.”  Charlie wasn’t offering to send the positions back to her.  He was merely offering a flight following service in case of an emergency.  But Earhart would have none of it!  Why?  Didn’t she want anyone to know where she was?

Also during World War II, I met Bill Galten after he came to work for Pan Am.  He had been the Itasca radio operator assigned to contact Earhart.  Despite his more than fifty calls on all his frequencies, she never answered him.  Her method of operating was to suddenly come on 3105 kHz. without a call-up, deliver a brief message and be off, all in less than ten seconds.  [Navy] Radioman Cipriani, manning the portable direction finder on Howland, never had a chance to get a bearing.

Many thousands of “Gooney birds” like these pictured on Midway Island posed a real threat to plane landings or takeoffs on Howland, another factor that led many to believe that Amelia Earhart never intended to land there.

Bill Galten expressed his opinion to me, “Paul, that woman never intended to land on Howland!”  There were several reasons.  Chief among them was the bird problem. Howland, the tip of an extinct underwater volcano, was the home of thousands of sea birds, many as large as turkeys.  They found its runways an ideal nesting spot.

Yau Fai Lum wrote me how he had watched an attempt to disburse the birds by setting off a dynamite charge the day before Earhart’s expected arrival.  “The birds leaped in the air, fluttered around for about ten seconds and then settled right back down again.” Because of the bird problem, Howland’s runways were never used except in emergencies.  Today, the island is a bird sanctuary.  Visitors, such as ham DX-peditions, must be accompanied by U.S. Government officials.  For a DX-pedition, how far away from the rest of the world can you get than the intersection of the equator and the International Date Line?

While working for Pan Am in Miami I had known Bob Thibert when he was head of Pan Am’s electronic overhaul shops during the 1970’s.  But it was not until the early 1990s that I learned he had installed and calibrated a radio direction finding loop on Earhart’s plane the day before she left Miami.  But pictures of the plane arriving at Miami from California show that it already had a loop.  What was going on here!  When I queried Bob he was quite surprised.  No, he hadn’t seen any evidence that a loop might have been installed previously.

I realized we must be dealing with two different planes, but why the great secrecy?  And where could that second plane have come from?  Also, Thibert was surprised to learn that John Ray had worked on Earhart’s plane before he did.  Why hadn’t Pan Am’s radio shop removed the trailing antenna at the same time it performed the other work?

It was not until just recently that I got some answers. The publisher of my book, AMELIA EARHART’S RADIO, Douglas Westfall of the Paragon Agency (SpecialBooks.com) uncovered some interesting historical facts.  Less than a month before Earhart and Noonan left Miami, a sister ship of their Electra, the Daily Express had flown round trip between New York and London.  It carried pictures of the Hindenburg disaster to London and returned with pictures of King George’s coronation.  It was billed as the first commercial flight to fly the Atlantic.

Pictures show the Daily Express had no radio loop or trailing antenna during the London flight.  I maintain it was secretly swapped with Earhart’s Electra after John Ray removed the trailing antenna.  Earhart didn’t want a trailing antenna but she did need a direction finding loop.  This is where Bob Thibert came into the picture.  As he told me, the morning before she left Miami his boss handed him a new loop and told him to install and calibrate it immediately.

This primitive looking device is the main chassis of an RA-1 manual direction finder, which was installed on Earhart’s Electra, according to Paul Rafford in his book Amelia Earhart’s Radio.  The RA-1 control head was mounted in the cockpit.  The loop drive wheel was above Earhart’s right shoulder, Rafford wrote.

But why swap the original plane for the Daily Express?  There were two reasons.  Primarily it had 100 gallons greater fuel capacity and had already flown round trip between New York and London, non-stop each way.  Secondly, on Earhart’s first attempt to circle the globe she had cracked up at Honolulu.  Although Lockheed had repaired her plane, it was no longer a factory fresh model.  By contrast, the Daily Express was a proven flyer.  But why all the secrecy?

There is evidence that Earhart finally came down in the Marshall Islands, occupied by Japan.  She could have reached them without Noonan’s help by homing in on the high-power AM broadcasting station on Jaluit with her loop.  After over heading it she could have followed a bearing from it to the only land plane field in the Marshall Islands, Roi Namur.  But legend has it that she was forced down by a carrier-based fighter pilot before she could reach it.  In any case it was a very inappropriate time for an American to land in the Marshalls — Japan went to war with China just five days later!

Fast forward to 2004. Little had I realized that my fellow engineer on the Space Program, James Raymond Knighton, W4BCX would later work on Roi Namur when I delivered my Earhart speech to our Pan Am Management Club.  Later, he provided me with a fascinating story:

I was on Kwajelein from 1999 to 2001, living on Kwajelein Island but working on Roi-Namur, which is 50 miles north of Kwajalein.  I flew back and forth each day to work.

One day during lunch I was walking around Roi and I happened across an old Marshallese who was very friendly.  He was back visiting Roi after a long time.  He was very talky and spoke pretty good English.  He was excited because he was born on Roi-Namur and lived there during the Japanese occupation and the capture by the Marines in 1944.  Of course I was interested in his story of how it was living under the Japanese and the invasion.  I was very inquisitive and he was happy to talk about old times.                     

Then he said he saw Amelia Earhart on Roi when he was a young boy.  It was the first white woman he had ever seen and he could not get over her blond hair.  Basically, he told me that Earhart crashed on the Marshall Island of Mili.  The Japanese had gotten her and brought her to Roi, the only place that transport planes could land.

Sadly, John Riley joined silent keys before we had a chance to work together in writing this article. However, he had already shared his files with me so at least I have been able to work with his notes as well as my own.

Paul Rafford Jr., July 23, 2008 (End of Rafford article.)

Rafford, among the last of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society, passed away on Dec. 10, 2016 at age 97.     

 

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