Joe Klaas, who died in February 2016 at his home in Monterey, Calif., at 95, was probably the most gifted writer of all Earhart researchers. Unfortunately, Klaas was best known as the author of the most controversial — and damaging to legitimate research — Earhart book of all time, Amelia Earhart Lives: A trip through intrigue to find America’s first lady of mystery (McGraw-Hill, 1970).
Klaas accomplished far more in his remarkable life than pen history’s most scandalous Earhart disappearance work. Besides Amelia Earhart Lives, Klaas wrote nine books including Maybe I’m Dead, a World War II novel; The 12 Steps to Happiness; and (anonymously) Staying Clean.
In July 1999, long after the delusional Amelia Earhart Lives had done its insidious damage, Klaas wrote a fairly lengthy, pointed email to several associates at the Broomfield, Colo.-based Amelia Earhart Society including Bill Prymak and Rollin Reineck, presenting his vision of the movements of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan just after their July 2 landing in the Marshall Islands, though Klaas did not specify Mili Atoll or Barre Island as the location of the Electra’s descent.
Klaas’s email, with the subject “Keep it Simple (I HAD TO CLEAN THIS UP, OR WE’D ALL BE LOST!),” appeared in the October 1999 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
1937 Jaluit and Majuro residents said they heard a white woman pilot named “Meel-ya” and her companion, both prisoners, were thought to have been taken by Japanese ship to Saipan.
Others said they took her first to Kwajalein, and then to Saipan.
Medical corpsman Bilimon Amaron told Joe Gervais and Bill Prymak:
“I overheard Japanese nearby say the ship was going to leave Jaluit to go to Kwajalein . . . from there it would maybe go to Saipan.”
So the Japanese ship, Koshu, and Earhart and Noonan, were reported to have headed for Kwajalein. Naturally, all concerned assumed they were aboard the ship. But no one saw them leave on it. They assumed it.
Majuro Attorney John Heine, who saw the flyers in custody at Jaluit, said: “After the ship left Jaluit, it went to Kwajalein, then on to Truk and Saipan.” He thought the ship would later go to Japan. An event at his school fixed the date in his memory as “the middle of July, 1937.”
[Editor’s note: John Heine did not see the fliers at Jaluit or anywhere else. See page 156 and rest of “Chapter VII: The Marshall Islands Witnesses” of Truth at Last, 2nd Edition for more on Heine’s account.]
Marshall Islanders Tomaki Mayazo and Lotan Jack told Fred Goerner in 1960 that the woman flyer and her companion “were taken to Kwajalein on their way to Saipan.”
They didn’t say how they were transported.
Goerner said that in 1946 four Likiep Island residents at Kwajalein, Edard and Bonjo Capelli, and two more known as Jajock and Biki, told U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer J.F. Kelleher that in 1937 a man and woman who crashed a plane in the Marshalls “were brought to Kwajalein.”
A 1946 U.S. employee on Kwajalein, Ted Burris, told Amelia Earhart Society members that his interpreter, Oniisimum Cappelle (Capelli?) introduced him to an old man who had met two Americans there “five years before the war,” which didn’t start in the Marshalls until 1942, five years after 1937.
“How did you meet Americans before the war?” Burris asked.
“Well I didn’t exactly meet them,” the old man said. “But I did bring them in.”
“Bring them in? I don’t understand.”
“A plane landed on the water,” the old man remembered. “Come. I show you.”
They walked to the south end of the perimeter road where there were two A-frame houses and a row of coconut trees.
“You see these trees? The plane was exactly in line with them.”
“How far out?”
“About a hundred yards from the land.”
“What happened then?”
“Two people got out. A man and a woman. The Captain made me take my boat out and pick them up. I didn’t talk to them.”
“The boss. The Japanese officer. The Captain took them away. I never saw them again. He said they were spies.” [See my Aug. 28, 2015 post, “Burris’ account among many to put Earhart on Kwaj.“]
This incident has too long been thought to be a false report that Earhart’s Lockheed 10E crashed off Kwajalein. But what the old man precisely said was:
“A plane landed on the water.”
He didn’t say it crashed there or ditched there. Planes with landing gear don’t land “on the water.”
In 1936, a concrete airstrip was built at Kwajalein. It was being used in 1937 while a still unusable seaplane ramp was under construction at Saipan.
What “landed” Earhart and Noonan “on the water” off Kwajalein was obviously a seaplane from Jaluit. Earhart’s Electra couldn’t have “landed on the water.”
Nobody ever said there was a crash at Kwajalein.
They were already in custody. How could the Japanese Captain tell the old man “they were spies” if they hadn’t arrived at Kwajalein from Jaluit lready charged with being spies?
Earhart and Noonan were then flown by land plane from Kwajalein to Saipan, where its pilot got into trouble, the very first witness in the Earhart mystery, watched “a silver two-engined plane betty-land” in shallow water along a beach. She “saw the American woman who looked like a man, and the tail man with her, led away by the Japanese soldiers.”
We must never assume every twin-engined aircraft in the Pacific had to be the Earhart Plane to be significant. We don’t need Darwin to find the missing link from Howland to Milli to Kwajalein to Saipan.
Keep it simple and follow facts in sequence to the truth. Above all, let’s start believing our witnesses.
Why would they lie?
— Joe Klaas, 7/14/99
Paul Rafford Jr. provided more witness evidence supporting the idea that Earhart and Noonan departed Kwajalein bound for Saipan in a land-based Japanese aircraft. In an unpublished 2008 commentary, Rafford recalled the account of fellow engineer James Raymond Knighton, who worked for Pan Am with Rafford at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the 1980s and was later assigned to the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll facility from 1999 to 2001. Knighton worked on Roi-Namur, 50 miles north of Kwajalein, commuting to work each day by air.
“One day during lunch I was walking around Roi and I happened across an old Marshallese who was very friendly,” Knighton told Rafford in 2007.
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.
For more on Rafford’s account, please see my Sept. 6, 2022 post, “Conclusion of Rafford on radio in AE Mystery.”
For much more on Joe Klaas, please click here.
Cameron A. “Cam” Warren, former longtime member of the Amelia Earhart Society, may be still with us and in his upper 90s in Fountain Hills, Ariz., but my information on his current status remains nil. Warren was among the best known of the few “crashed-and-sankers” in the AES, along with former ONI agent Ron Bright and Gary LaPook, who are both alive and well, to my knowledge.
Warren’s “Noonan and Earhart” appeared in the October 1999 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. It’s a good general summary of the nuts and bolts of the Earhart story, something you don’t see often, and good to use occasionally as a reference. Opinions expressed in this piece are those of the Cam Warren and do not necessarily reflect those of the editor or anyone else. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
“Noonan & Earhart”
by Cam Warren
What exactly was the relationship between Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan? Originally Amelia was going to fly around the earth solo, at least if her husband, George Putnam, had his way. And his way was to revive a fading star, turn her into the World’s Most Famous Woman, and live comfortably ever after on book royalties, endorsements and the other fruits of international fame.
Accounts and interpretations vary, and curiously enough the true relationship of the Putnams has been well glossed over by most biographers. There is little doubt of Amelia’s accomplishments both in aviation and in the field of what we now know as the feminist movement. We have been told of the love that presumably existed between George and Amelia, but the latter herself showed some doubt as to how well the marriage would work out. And there is more than a little suspicion that George was very much the Svengali, manipulating Amelia to his own purposes. Perhaps, but she had her own ambitions too, and probably didn’t require a great deal of persuading to set forth on the next big adventure — a solo flight around the world.
When Putnam & Company got into the serious planning for the ambitious undertaking, it didn’t take long for them to realize that the long over-water portions would require some help in the form of a skilled navigator. (Apparently a co-pilot wasn’t considered — this was to be an Earhart showcase.) So Amelia would have the services of Harry Manning, an accomplished sea captain, skilled in navigation and radio operation. He would accompany Amelia as far as Australia, shepherding her over the vast Pacific. Since Howland Island, the first stop after Hawaii, was such a small target, it was further decided to obtain the services of ex-Pan American Airways navigator Fred Noonan, an acknowledged expert on trans-Pacific flying.
Noonan’s credentials included Pan Am survey flights, and the first commercial seaplane operations in the Pacific. There have been hints he was relieved of his Pan Am position as the result of a drinking problem, although precise confirmation of this has not surfaced. Suffice to say, he was available and, despite having just been married, was willing to accept the risks of the flight. It has been said he planned to open a school for aviation navigators after his stint with Amelia; undoubtedly, he felt the attendant publicity would be useful.
But to avoid any upstaging of Amelia, Noonan’s contribution would be relatively small — he would accompany her to Honolulu, and then to Howland, where he would disembark and catch a ride back to Hawaii on a Coast Guard cutter. But plans had to be revised when Earhart cracked up her Electra on takeoff from Hawaii’s Luke Field. Manning, saying his leave of absence from the cruise line for which he normally worked was about to expire, bowed out when Amelia spoke of a “retry.” Privately Manning expressed great relief at surviving the accident and did not wish to press his luck further.
Noonan agreed to stay on, even after Putnam explained his role would be expanded to the full circumnavigation — this time starting eastward. One suspects it was made clear that Amelia would be the star; Noonan’s role was to be minor — he would be merely a hired hand. A proud and capable man, Fred was still a good soldier, and knew all about performing a subordinate role on a team. AE would be the boss — no doubt about it — and Fred would carry out her orders without question. Mindful of his less than strong bargaining position, he accepted the terms.
A word about teams, especially the two-party type. Successful ones depend heavily on inter-personal relationships; the pair must fit together like Yin and Yang. Abilities must be respected, but an occasional misstep must be accepted without rancor, in the full knowledge that the mistake was not an intentional one. Most commonly, the experienced know that A’s error will most assuredly be matched, sooner or later, by B’s. Any tendency to flare up by one of the parties is extremely serious, and quickly becomes the “burr under the saddle.” A famous recent example being a young couple, very much in love, who undertook to row to Australia together. They eventually made it, but never spoke to each other again.
It’s highly likely that friction developed within the Electra, and a safe bet that of the two, Fred was the more restrained. Obviously, the success of the mission largely depended on a comfortable rapport between them. Quite likely, under the stress and strain of the long hops, patience wore thin, and the chances are good that when operational questions arose, Amelia did it her way. Perhaps this could be excused; she was very proud of her flying ability and justifiably so, but “seat of the pants” judgments are risky. Noonan would go by the book, but would no doubt accept her decision if need be.
Earhart was impressed by Fred’s navigational wizardry, although her self-confidence apparently led her astray as they approached Dakar, on the African west coast. She overrode Fred’s advice and turned left to St. Louis, a couple of hundred miles to the north. This has been explained as intentional by some researchers, but Amelia sounded contrite about her move in Last Flight, the book put together from her in-flight notes by ghost-writer Janet Mabie, and hastily published by Putnam. The book seems to indicate Fred rode up front, at least during the early days, but moved back into the navigator’s “office” as time went on and the atmosphere grew chilly.
If my analysis of the situation is correct, several puzzling facts in the story of the Electra’s disappearance are explained. Firstly, why was Noonan never heard on the radio? Certainly, common sense would dictate his sitting up in the co-pilot’s seat as they looked for Howland Island. A second pair of eyes would help Earhart’s visual search, and Fred could easily man the radio. But such does not appear to have been the case; Fred had his charts and his navigation gear and a convenient table back aft, and most likely Amelia thought he should remain back there calculating their position.
Researcher Joe Gervais interviewed Jim Collopy at his home in Melbourne, Australia in 1962. Collopy, the former regional aviation administrator at Lae, told of joining Noonan for a drink before dinner the evening following the Electra’s arrival in New Guinea. He described a confidence Fred privately shared about his employer. After describing Amelia in a less-than-complimentary, fashion, Noonan added “she can fly and I can navigate and let’s leave it at that!” Incidentally, although he may have been sorely tempted under the circumstances, Fred did not do any heavy drinking the night before takeoff, as some reports have stated.
Fred certainly knew the value of radio communications; Amelia treated the facilities in a cavalier fashion. This can partly be traced to previous flights, when eavesdropping listeners were plotting the Electra’s progress to the annoyance of Putnam and the newspapers to which he had promised “exclusive” coverage. “Keep your messages as brief as possible” he likely warned her, “and don’t give away anything over the radio.” How else to explain her on-the-air reticence; the terse broadcasts only on a set schedule?
As they approached Howland, Earhart was heard to say, “We must be on you, but cannot see you,” referring to the waiting Coast Guard cutter Itasca. Then “we are circling but cannot hear you — go ahead on 7500 [kc]” [an unsuccessful attempt to get a direction finder fix]. This offers us a clue as to her mind-set. “Circling” was what an old barnstormer would do, while looking for a landing place, or trying to spot a ship. A highly unlikely maneuver for Noonan to suggest — search patterns are invariably flown in a precise rectangular pattern that can be plotted. Circling, on the other hand, is an imprecise maneuver.
When Howland did not appear, and a search was not bearing any fruit, Noonan would certainly suggest a heading for the nearest land, and land of sufficient size to be easily spotted. His choice most likely would have been to the southeast, toward Baker and the Phoenix Islands. Had they headed in that direction, they would have emerged from the cloud bank they undoubtedly were in. Then they might have spotted the Itasca, which was making black smoke, or at least Fred could have worked out a position based on the now-visible sun.
Earhart allegedly told friends that if she couldn’t find Howland, she would reverse course and “head back to the Gilberts.” Again, most likely a choice not enthusiastically supported by Fred. Many researchers feel they were much further north than believed, and somehow reached the Marshall Islands instead. No one knows just how close to Howland they really were — there is conflicting evidence — but the nearest land to the west or northwest was a long distance away, and even with her gasoline reserve, probably unreachable.
The Coast Guard, the Navy, and most experts are sure the Electra splashed down hard and went to the bottom. A few optimists postulate Earhart made a successful water landing, and the plane floated for a time. If so, perhaps the crew WAS rescued by a Japanese ship, although none has ever been positively placed in the vicinity. No matter, the ending may well have been a success story, despite the ill-luck with the weather and the malfunctioning, or the mishandling, of the radio and direction finder, if only the crew had been able to work together more smoothly.
No hard evidence supports this scenario, so we cannot claim to have “solved the mystery.” However, it certainly is credible, and a thoughtful analysis of the personalities involved offers considerable substantiation. Even Putnam’s post-loss behavior tells us something, for he lost no time in having his wife declared legally dead within months, and quickly took a new bride. Hardly the behavior of a devoted husband, grieving over his true love. Of Amelia and Fred, my deepest sympathies go to the latter; to a talented and capable man thrust into a life-threatening situation, saddled with an ambitious and overconfident pilot. Fred undoubtedly never faltered in his assignment, and most likely died with a slide-rule in his hand.
For more on Cam Warren’s work, please see my Feb. 1, 2019 post, “Fred Hooven: ‘Man Who (Nearly) Found Earhart.‘ ”
Paul Mantz was a noted air racer, movie stunt pilot and aviation consultant from the late 1930s until his death in the mid-1960s. He gained fame in Hollywood, and to many familiar with the Earhart disappearance, Mantz is known as Amelia’s technical advisor for her final flight — or at least that’s the popular narrative.
Bolstering the idea that Mantz was solely in charge of everything about the Earhart Electra, we have a letter from Mantz to Eastern Airlines executive William Van Dusen of May 6, 1965, one month before Mantz died. The letter appeared in the November 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, and is reproduced fully here:
This letter tells us things about Paul Mantz that I’d always suspected — primarily, that humility was a virtue with which Mantz seldom, if ever, had even a nodding acquaintance. Who, in such a prestigious position, writes a letter dealing with aviation technicalities to another professional in all upper case? Whether it’s 1965 or 2022, it’s simply bad form, rude and unacceptable.
William Van Dusen (1901-1976) was public relations director for Pan American Airways and later worked for Eastern Airlines, retiring as a vice president in 1969. “In the late 1920’s Mr. Van Dusen organized, and for 20 years, directed public relations for Pan American World Airways,” the New York Times wrote in his obituary:
In this capacity, he accompanied crews on ninny [sic] trailblazing survey flights by Pan Am around the world and was a specialist on early commercial flight planning and promotion. In 1920 he accompanied Col. Charles A. Lindbergh on the aerial exploration of Mexico and Central America, in which several “lost” cities of Mayan civilization were found. Mr. Van Dusen wrote many articles on aviation in leading national magazines.
Van Dusen wasn’t an insignificant figure, but neither was he ever accused of anything important relative to the Earhart flight, so why did Mantz use such an unconventional style in addressing Van Dusen — a tiny sample of other Mantz letters I’ve seen are written in a normal style. Note also the repetitive use of the personal pronoun “I.” You don’t have to be a licensed psychoanalyst to recognize egomania on steroids.
As for the message in Mantz’s missive to the Eastern Airlines executive, he couldn’t have been more emphatic that he “was in complete charge of the building of this airplane and equipping it for Amelia — working with Lockheed,” that there was “no special equipment” installed and that “if there had been any camera guide lines or cameras installed, I would have been in complete charge of it.” And what did Mantz mean when he wrote, “She didn’t listen to Papa” when referring to Earhart’s Hawaii crackup?
Mantz’s letter, for all its bluster, seems rather authoritative, if not definitive. According to Mantz, when it came to Amelia Earhart’s Electra, he was the “The Man.” But a paragraph from a May 13, 1979 letter from Fred Goerner to radio expert Joseph Gurr that appeared in the March 2000 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters directly contradicts Mantz’s claims about being “in complete charge” of any changes to the Earhart bird:
Joe, did you know that Paul Mantz was removed as the so-called “technical advisor” for the AE flight after the crackup in Honolulu, and that the real man behind the scenes was Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, of Lockheed? Johnson in recent years has been head of the U-2 and SR-71 programs. Johnson tells me he still is not permitted to tell the degree of U.S. Government involvement in the AE flight. I’m still in communication with him, and I am hopeful he will experience a change of attitude.
I don’t know when Goerner learned that Mantz had been taken off the Earhart team following her March 1937 Luke Field crash in Hawaii, but in a 1971 letter to Fred Hooven, Goerner called Johnson “the real technical advisor for the AE flight.“ So it appears that in addition to Mantz’s egomania, we can add dishonesty to the list of his notable traits, as he lied by omission in not including the fact that he had been removed as Earhart’s technical guru prior to her second attempt in June 1937.
When considering Paul Mantz and Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who an unnamed Lockheed publicist called the “Architect of the Air,” one could not imagine two more disparate personalities. “To this day, Kelly Johnson’s resume of accomplishments reads like a list of the most iconic airplanes in aviation history,” Lockheed’s “Architect of the Air” proclaims:
During World War II, he designed the speedy P-38 Lightning, which pummeled destroyers and intercepted enemy fighters and bombers from Berlin to Tokyo; late in the war his team developed America’s first operational jet fighter, the P-80, in less than six months. Then he delivered the immortal Constellation, which revolutionized commercial aviation. By 1955, Johnson and his secret division of engineers — dubbed Skunk Works — launched the world’s first dedicated spy plane, the U-2, just nine months after receiving an official contract.
Imperious, passionate, and demanding, Johnson was just as likely to deliver a kick to someone’s pants as a compliment to his face. In the pursuit of breakthrough designs, he tolerated errors — with the caveat that they were made just once. He asked only for hard work, good communication, and unwavering honesty. Despite his volatile approach, Johnson earned unparalleled loyalty from his highly skilled team. (Italics mine.)
I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Johnson ever experienced the “change of attitude” that Goerner told Gurr he hoped would happen, and we’re left to speculate about what Johnson’s role in Earhart’s last flight might have been. There’s nothing in Johnson’s amazing Wikipedia page that even hints that he had anything to do with the Earhart plane or her last flight, at a time when he was only about 27 years old and earning the 1937 Lawrence Sperry Award, Presented by the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences for “Important improvements of aeronautical design of high-speed commercial aircraft.”
But we know Wikipedia is an establishment reference site designed to protect our sacred cows, among other functions, and my knowledge of Kelly Johnson borders on superficial at best. Perhaps an astute reader might know more about Johnson’s possible involvement with Amelia Earhart, her plane or her disappearance, but I suspect nothing new will surface.
We’ll probably never know precisely what Johnson’s involvement with Earhart might have been, but some will always wonder about it, and whether Kelly Johnson was the face behind the U.S. government’s covert plan for Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan that went awry and resulted in their tragic, unnecessary deaths on Saipan. How much of this wretched story was Johnson responsible for creating, if any at all?
Paul Mantz died on July 8, 1965 while working on the movie The Flight of the Phoenix. Flying an unusual plane, the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, built especially for the film, Mantz struck a small hillock while skimming over a desert site in Arizona. As he attempted to recover by opening the throttle to its maximum, the over-stressed aircraft broke in two and nosed over into the ground, killing Mantz instantly. He was 62.
The FAA investigation noted Mantz’s alcohol consumption before the flight and said the resulting impairment to his “efficiency and judgment” contributed to the accident. Some might agree that, in the end, Mantz’s oversized ego was also a factor, one that proved to be his fatal undoing.
UPDATE OCT. 15: Longtime reader William Trail found an informative story on Paul Mantz in the May 2020 issue of Aviation History magazine. Titled “King of Hollywood Pilots,” it’s subtitled, “Stunt Pilot and Air Racer Paul Mantz Flew In More Than 250 Movies And Once Owned The World’s Seventh Largest Air Force.”
Little is mentioned about Mantz’s relationship with Earhart in this story. Here’s the closing two paragraphs:
An autopsy finding his blood-alcohol level to be .13 has been disputed by witnesses. “I know he had nothing to drink,” Mantz’s secretary stated. “I knew him for many years, and he never seemed sharper than he did that morning.” It’s conceivable desert heat might have hastened decomposition, raising microbial ethanol levels. As a friend shrugged, “Drunk or sober, he was one hell of a pilot.”
More than 400 people attended Mantz’s funeral at Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park. His pallbearers included Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Doolittle, John Ford and Chuck Yeager. He left a photo of Amelia Earhart at his desk. In 2006 The International Council of Air Shows inducted Paul Mantz into its Hall of Fame, naming him the “King of Hollywood Pilots.” He died the way he lived: flying for the cameras.