World War II veteran and American Legion member Robert T. Stocker, of West Haven, Conn., sent the following “In Search Of” item to The American Legion magazine in January 1993. It appeared in the August 1993 issue:
Saipan Marines who guarded Amelia Earhart’s plane at Aslito Field, or those aware of Navy Secretary James Forrestal’s presence there. Contact: Robert T. Stocker . . . West Haven CT, 06516.
John N. Fletcher, of Elkhorn, Nebraska, immediately responded to Stocker’s request. Fletcher, who piloted a B-25 while serving in Europe during World War II, had no eyewitness information, but his longtime friend, Howard Ferris, a Marine machine gunner who served on Saipan and died in 1979, certainly did, and told him all about it when they returned to their hometown of Frankfort, Kansas, after the war.
In August 2008, Fletcher, 83, told me he flew C-47 “Gooneybirds” delivering the mail between Paris and Naples, Italy before his discharge in April 1946, and he had no firsthand Earhart information. But Ferris’ remarkable experience lived on in his friend, and in the letter Fletcher wrote to Devine in September 1993 that vividly described it. Following are excerpts of the letter, a copy of which Fletcher provided after I wrote him:
. . . I have given this matter a lot of thought since receiving your letter and will tell you all I can remember about it. Howard Ferris was a machine gunner in his unit of Marines, and after being wounded was returned to States from Pacific, and was an instructor at aerial gunner school, I believe at Alamagorda, N. Mexico. He was discharged earlier than I was, and had been home for some time before I was discharged. As soon as I arrived home, my mother said Howard was home and wanted to see me. It was a week or so later that I found him at his parent’s home, and spent at least 2 hours going over our wartime experiences. Having been a pilot myself, he asked me what I thought of the story he told me. I said Howard, anything, could be, we only know what we are told.
Howard said they received very short notice, I cannot remember his unit, but there were quite a large number of them, were sent immediately to this island, to guard duty. They came from another island that his unit had taken from the Japanese just to do guard duty on an old hangar structure at end of a runway. This hangar was not large, but he said small trees had grown up in front of big doors, so it was obvious nothing had come in or out recently. At first they didn’t even know what was inside, and were quite put out they had been transported in from another island to do guard duty on an old hangar structure, when the place was crawling with Army personnel already there.
He also said it was guarded with (he named the amount) but I can’t remember the number [of troops guarding] around the clock. His firsthand story to me was, while he was on duty, a vehicle full of high ranking army officers arrived to have a look inside. They exchanged words, and a heated exchange followed. The marine officer at the scene stood his ground, and refused them entrance. The army men threatened the marine officer. The marine said he was following his orders, the army then left with the remark that his orders would soon be changed. Howard said that they were not seen again. This was about the time they learned (how I don’t know) there was an aircraft inside.
Some time went by, and the question all had was how long was this going to go on? Their Captain, Howard said Captain Green or Greene said they were awaiting word from Washington on what to do. By then all marines thought they were guarding the Earhart plane, or at least the crashed parts of it. Howard was not present at the fire, but one of his buddies was. The buddy said a truck arrived with many gas cans, and the guards saturated the entire hangar, the officers going inside with cans first and Captain Green personally started the fire, and it burned totally. Howard said he was at the scene before they left and it had been one plane, twin engine, and twin tail, obviously not a P-38, it was a type neither U.S. or Japan had in the area. It was burned and twisted so badly he could not tell if it had been in flying condition, or was a crash relic. At any rate almost before the fire had cooled down all the marine unit was transported back to the island that they had left, when they left to guard the plane. They were ordered to keep their mouths shut and that the incident never happened.
With the exception of the incorrect identification of the Marine guard as an “officer,” Fletcher’s report of Ferris’ Saipan experience mirrored Earskin Nabers’ story, which was presented here in a Sept. 17, 2022 post.
Though Nabers was a private, not an officer, and no report has mentioned an officer guarding the hangar, Ferris’ recollection of the encounter with “high ranking army officers” who wanted to enter the hangar and were challenged by the Marine who “stood his ground” is too much like Nabers account to be coincidental.
Fletcher didn’t remember Ferris saying anyone from Washington was present at the hangar. “They waited for word from Washington on what to do with the object of their guard,” Fletcher wrote. Though his recollection that Ferris said the “guards saturated the entire hangar” with gas is missing from the Devine and Nabers accounts, it doesn’t completely contradict them, nor does Fletcher’s incorrect identification of Lt. Col. Wallace R. Greene as a captain. But Fletcher’s statement that Ferris’ unit was sent from an unnamed island to Saipan and returned there upon completion of their clandestine mission at Aslito Airfield remains puzzling.
Two decades later, Ferris told Fletcher that Greene had been named commandant of the Marine Corps. “In Howard’s words, ‘What does that tell you?’” Fletcher wrote. “The other thing he would shake his head about was that not one word of this incident was ever reported back to the U.S. during, or after the war. Like Captain Green [sic] had said, it never happened.”