Tag Archives: Bill Prymak

Art Kennedy’s sensational Earhart claims persist: Was Amelia on mission to overfly Truk?

We begin 2019 with a closer look at one of the more controversial characters in the history of the Earhart saga.  Art Kennedy was an aircraft technician for the Pacific Airmotive Company in Burbank, Calif., during the 1930s, and first met Amelia in 1934 when he serviced her Lockheed Vega for a Bendix Trophy race.  Later, he directed the repairs of the Electra when it was shipped back to Burbank in boxes following the March 20, 1937 accident at Luke Field, Hawaii, during her takeoff on the second leg of her first world-flight attempt, which could have easily resulted in her death.

Much speculation surrounded the cause of the Electra’s so-called ground loop, and Amelia herself said thatpossibly the right landing gear’s right shock absorber, as it lengthened, may have given way. . . . For a moment I thought I would be able to gain control and straighten the course.”  Army aviation expertsexpressed unofficial opinions that a landing gear failed just before the right tire of her plane burst, but Harry Manning, who was in the co-pilot’s seat that day, said Amelia “lost it on takeoff. 

 “The plane began to sway during takeoff, and according to Manning, Earhart tried to correct with the throttles and simply over-corrected, Fred Goerner wrote in a 1992 letter to Ron Reuther.   He said it wasn’t a matter of a tire blowing at all.  It was pilot error with a load of 940 gallons of fuel.  He added it was a miracle there was no fire.

The seriously damaged Electra 10E after Amelia’s Luke Field, Hawaii “ground loop” on March 20, 1937.  Amelia and Fred can be seen standing next to the pilot’s side of plane.  The Electra was sent back to the Lockheed plant in Burbank for months of costly repairs, including bigger engines, according to Art Kennedy, who worked on the Electra during that time.

In his 1992 autobiography co-written by JoAnn Ridley, High Times — Keeping ‘Em Flying, Kennedy offered a far more sinister explanation for the crash.  After a close examination of the plane’s damaged right wing, right gear, brakes and propellers, Kennedy said he realized the ground loop was not normal, but “forced,” and that Earhart purposely wrecked the plane.  When confronted by Kennedy, she “told me not to mention it and to mind my own business,” he wrote.

Kennedy, who passed away in September 1998 at 85, said he reminded her that an inspector was due the next day to make an official accident report and would recognize the plane’s condition would never have been caused by an accident. Damn! I forgot about the gear,  Kennedy claimed she said.  Art, you and I are good friends. You didn’t see a thing.  We’ll just force the gear back over to make it look natural. Will you promise me never to say anything about what you know?”  Kennedy complied and swore he kept his word for 50 years.

Most recently we heard from Kennedy when his account was featured in Did Earhart crash on purpose in Hawaii takeoff?” on Nov. 2, 2018.  The following interview, titled “A Visit With Art Kennedy in Portugal,” by Bill Prymak, appeared in the February 1993  Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter.  Prymak described Kennedy, who then lived in Cellerrico De Beria, Portugal, as a “walking encyclopedia on every aspect of airplanes in the Golden Years of Aviation and at the age of 81 [in 1993] his mind is incredibly sharp. . . . It is with a feeling of deep veneration that we sit and break bread with a man who knew Amelia Earhart so intimately, a man who worked with her, laughed and joked with her, took her home at nights when she didn’t have the car, dined with her.  There is virtually no one alive today who knew her as well as Arthur Kennedy.

As an added feature in this interview, still relevant after 25 years, Kennedy lent his considerable expertise to the early TIGHAR claims that made so much international noise in its early days, and sadly, continues to do so, though only those without critical thinking ability pay any attention these days.  We begin:

AES:  Art, you spent quite a bit of time with Amelia, both professionally and personally.  What was she like?

KENNEDY:  Bill, this gal was a true lady . . . lots of class, but no snob, friendly with all the shop guys, very inquisitive about the work being done on her airplane.  Always looking over the shoulder, but never interfering with the mechanics.  She and I developed a special relationship as I was the only one, once she got to know my work, who she would allow to work on her engines.  Polly (Art’s high-school sweetheart and wife of 45 years, who died in 1978), Amelia and I would go out for supper many times when we were working late.  On one occasion she lamented how she was tiring of all the notoriety, sick of all the false fancy friends, fed up with George’s constant pressures, and simply yearned once more to be a simple American gal who could enjoy her privacy like the rest of us could.  Polly and Amelia got along great, went shopping together, had girl-to-girl private times, and really developed a close friendship.

Undated photo of Art Kennedy, back in his heyday.  According to Bill Prymak, who knew him well, Kennedy fabricated stories about what Amelia Earhart told him after she crashed the Electra on takeoff from Luke Field in March 1937.  These tales from Kennedy have been cited by some as strong evidence that Amelia was ordered to ground loop her plane, change directions of her world flight and even embark on a spy mission.

AES:  If they went shopping together, did they ever shop for shoes, and if so, do you recall if Amelia’s shoe size ever came up?

KENNEDY:  If you’re alluding to Mr. Gillespie and his size 9 theory, with all the hoopla I’ve recently read about this great discovery, let me put it to rest once and for all.  Polly wore a size 7 and COULD NOT fit into Amelia’s shoes . . . not by a longshot.  That TIGHAR theory is pure baloney.  (ED. NOTE: Art was more inelegant in his choice of words, and we simply had to clean it up.)  Where did they find this guy?

AES:  What about Paul Mantz?

KENNEDY:  Paul was one of the finest pilots I had ever met, but everybody used to call him the HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR BOY, and I did quite a bit of work for him before I moved over to PAC, and it was Paul who first introduced me to AE.  He gave her countless hours of dual (instruction) in the Electra and Paul was pretty satisfied that she could tackle the world flight.  He could never figure out the groundloop [sic] at Hawaii . . . that puzzled him to his dying day.  But Paul in his business dealings was a bulldozer, and quite a wheeler and dealer.

AES:  Did you ever meet her husband George?

KENNEDY:  No, but I saw him several times looking for AE in the shop, and, on one occasion, when she saw him beckoning with this finger, AE pleadingly caught my eye, and her facial expression seemed to say: Gad, why did he have to show up at this time, when I was really enjoying these guys around me and my airplane!  Polly and I never went out with the Putnams as a foursome.  George was too big to socialize with a ramp rat.  Amelia was different that way.

AES:  You indicate in your book that Amelia told you that she was told, immediately before takeoff at Hawaii bound for Howland Island, to somehow abort the flight.  This is potent stuff, Art, and not many are buying this.  Can you expand on this?

KENNEDY:  I never did ask her who ordered her to abort at Hawaii and it really was none of my business, and she probably would not have told me even if I did ask her, but indeed she did state that she was ordered to abort.  I can think of only two reasons for this; something was not ready downstream, or, somebody figured she needed bigger generators as the existing generator blew fuses or burned out on the way to Hawaii.

AES:  But Art, if somebody wanted to abort an airplane, I could think of a dozen safer ways to do it — run the wing into a telephone pole, hit a pickup truck, slide into a ditch, fake a brake failure and run into a brick wall . . .

KENNEDY:  Yea, I know, but she was probably planning on a very slow, deliberate ground loop at very slow speed, where she figured there’d be no risk with all that has on board.  But in a situation like that, if you start the takeoff roll and hesitate for just a fraction of a second, bam . . . you’re already past thesafe zoneand you find yourself doing things that are absolutely crazy!  One spark in the wrong place and they all would have been fried.

AES:  Was she really a good pilot?

Bill Prymak and Joe Gervais traveled to the Marshall Islands to visit with the iconic Earhart eyewitness Bilimon Amaron at Amaron’s Majuro home in 1991.  A year later, Prymak and Gervais journeyed to Art Kennedy’s home in Portugal to interview the controversial expert who personally worked on Amelia Earhart’s Electra 10E.

KENNEDY:  Bill, I flew with a bunch of the old timers, even got a pilot’s license myself.  A lot of the final checkouts, such as rigging and engine performance, had to be done in flight . . . and yes, Earhart was a good solid, pilotI flew with her many times, even once watched her bring in the Electra down to the runway with a 25 mph crosswind straight as a die.  When the Bendix rep who was halfway down the runway during the ill-fated Hawaii takeoff told me that her tailwheel was already high when the groundloop began, I could not believe it!  Even a dumb student pilot does not groundloop on takeoff at 50 mph.   Something very fishy here.

AES:  You’re still convinced she was on a spy mission?

KENNEDY:  Absolutely!  I’m 81 years old and have no need for storytelling or ego trips at my age.  I have only one trip left, and that’s to meet my Maker.  I can’t tell you everything she told me about the mission because other people were involved who might still be alive, but I will tell you thisShe mentioned the mission taking her over Truk, the big engines received brand new from Pratt & Whitney in May 1937, were modified by me personally to accommodate the bigger generators, and even though her regular engines were being overhauled, these two new super engines were charged to NR 16020 — her airplane!  Many strange things and many strange people were involved in her last flight.

AES:  How do you address the claim by TIGHAR [The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, which has never recovered a single historic aircraft, to my knowledge] that the piece of aluminum they found came from the belly  of NR 16020?

KENNEDY:  This simply cannot be!  When the damaged aircraft came back from Hawaii, Amelia Earhart and I personally and meticulously went over the entire fuselage.  We had to raise the fuselage high enough to get a low-boy tractor underneath for transport to the Lockheed factory on the other side of the field.  In lifting the fuselage, Amelia and I got a good look at the belly, and there was absolutely no damage, not even dirt, from the groundloop accident.  There was however, cable sling damage from hoisting the airplane onto the boat from Hawaii, and in unloading same stateside.  Cable sling damage was observed at Station 239, where two stringers were buckled in, and it was here that Lockheed removed and replaced stringers and full skin sections, NOT patches, as TIGHAR claims.

AES:  But Gillespie claims that Lockheed people like Ed Werner and Harvey Christen are wrong when they state that the rivet and stringer spacing could not vary from the original specification, as found on TIGHAR’s piece of aluminum.

KENNEDY:  I don’t remember Ed, but if Harvey Christen says after studying the TIGHAR piece that it could not have come from the Electra, well you can bet the farm, the wife, and your bottom dollar that it did NOT come from an Electra.  Let me tell you something about Harvey . . . there was a guy, who in the early days of Lockheed, started as a wrench rat and who, through his some forty years with the firm, rose to be Vice-President of Quality Control Engineering.  He was revered, respected, and loved by everybody, and nobody knew his job better than Harvey.  There is no greater authority on this argument than this man.  For Gillespie to say that Lockheed “could have changed” original design integrity is ludicrous, stupid and pretty damn arrogant of him.  He must have a lot of money riding on this piece of aluminum.

High Times — Keeping ‘Em Flying, Art Kennedy’s 1992 autobiography with Jo Ann Ridley, is “a lively account of growing up in early West Coast aviation, working on famous aircraft with famous flyers; of practical jokes and competitive dirty tricks; and of significant innovative contributions to aircraft safety. . . . Aviation has given this old ramp rat one hell of a great life!”

AES:  But TIGHAR claims that the piece has an ink-stained stencil reading 24S-T3, in red ink, and that because it was hand-stampedat the factory, it had to be pre-World War II.

KENNEDY:  All aircraft companies bought their aluminum from ALCOA starting in 1932.  24S-Condition 3 was used on all aircraft prior to World War II.  24S-T3 was produced right through the beginning of WWII and was used on tens of thousands of American aircraft, including the PBY, DC-4, P-38, P-51, P-47, and the 247D.  Lockheed and other airplane manufacturers were stacked to the rafters with 24S-T3 on the onset of WWII, and as far as identifying the date of manufacture of a piece of stamped aluminum, hell, I saw the stamps put on in blue, red, green, black . . . they used every color under the sun, and sometimes they stamped with the grain, sometimes against the grain, diagonally, every which way.  Nobody today, shown a piece of 24S-T3, can pinpoint the date of manufacture just by the color of the ALCLAD stamp or by the shape of the letters.

AES:  You have seen a sketch of the TIGHAR artifact.  Comments?

KENNEDY:  Absolutely no way would Lockheed permit a change of rivet spacing on the replacement of a skin panel . . . it would never pass inspection.  Nobody in their right mind . . . in any repair situation, would ever change the pattern of the rivet holes and make different holes thru stringers, circumferentials [sic], keels, and other attaching structures and put more holes in these structures and thusly compromise the structural integrity of the original design.  This TIGHAR piece of aluminum might have come from the nose gear door of a Catalina Flying Boat because they got easily damaged and were always in constant repair.  You might also check the bottom of the floats as they have a rivet pattern similar to what you showed me.  Lockheed did skin replacements, not patches.

AES:  TIGHAR claims that they have evidence that Amelia and Fred removed a fuel cell from the cabin and with an engine cover jury-rigged a water-catchment device on Gardner Island, using only a screwdriver.  Your comments?

KENNEDY:  Bill and Joe, you guys can’t be serious that somebody would try to bamboozle the American public into thinking that AE and Fred would even attempt such an impossible job on a deserted island.  First, you’d have to remove the radio blocking your way to the fuel tank to be removed.  Then you have to tear apart the floor boards of the entire rear of the airplane . . . then you need special wrenches to get at the nuts tying down the tank; then you need BIGGER 1.5-inch wrenches to release the B-nuts  tying the vent lines to the other tanks.  And when this is all said and done what have you got?  I’ll tell you what you’ve got!  Ever try drinking water out of an aluminum can that’s been full of aviation gas for two months?  It’ll kill ya, and Fred certainly knew better.  Didn’t I read someplace that somebody suggested that if they really were down on a deserted island they simply would have deployed their life raft for water-catching purposes? 

AES: Yeah, we suggested that in a previous AES Newsletter.

KENNEDY:  And another point . . . the engine covers were never taken on the final flight.  I remember walking into Firman Grey’s office at Lockheed several weeks after she went down and seeing engine covers in the corner stenciled NR 16020.   Firman said Amelia thought they were too bulky and heavy to be trucking around the world.

AES:  But AE’s book Last Flight states that they used engine and prop covers at Timor.

Art Kennedy, Alverca, Portugal, 1991.

KENNEDY:  That’s baloney.   Putnam wrote that book and filled in all that fancy prose.  Amelia was too busy and dog tired at every stop to write notes for George.  GP got a few scraps of information from phone calls to AE and from the press, but there was no press or telephone at Timor, so George filled in some empty space with his own creations.

AES:  Art, you’ve been a superb host, and a fabulous source of “firsthand” information on the greatest Lady of Aviation.  In closing, what do you feel really happened?

KENNEDY:  I am convinced she went down in the Marshall Islands, as so many researchers besides you two guys have theorized.  Something BIG has always bugged me: I kept immaculate fuel low records from the tests cells on her engines, and so help me, from her last message to Itasca at 20 hours and 14 minutes into the flight, she had AT LEAST five hours of fuel left.  Think about it: if you’re really lost, then when your fuel runs out, you’re about to die, and you know it.  Talking to somebody there on the radio is your only lifeline, and it costs you nothing to talk and yell for help, as the average pilot would have done in this situation.  The silence with an operational radio and five hours of fuel left really bugs me.  That was not the Amelia I knew.  She had somewhere else to go to.  It was planned.  (End of Kennedy interview.)

In High Times, Kennedy wrote that Earhart told him she was ordered to abort the Luke Field takeoff and did it the only way she knew how.”  According to Kennedy, she saida lot depended on my keeping quiet about what I’d seen because she was going on a special mission that had to look like a routine attempt to go around the world.  She said, ‘Can you imagine me being a spy?’ then she sort of tittered and added, ‘I never said that!’” Several researchers, including some who knew him well, have looked askance at Kennedy’s claims and pointed to his reputation as a well-known “bullshit artist,” as he himself admits in his book’s prologue.  Who knows for sure?

Bill Prymak, who knew Kennedy well, was among those who agreed with Fred Goerner in dismissing Kennedy’s claim about the Luke Field accident.  On the other hand, Prymak wrote that Joe Gervais (who accompanied Prymak to Portugal) and I were left with some lasting impressions of Art Kennedy, not the least being his total love and admiration for Amelia, his uncanny knowledge of the Lockheed Electra, and his unquestioned honesty and resolve not to embellish when we quizzed him on matters that happened 55 years ago that since became fuzzy.  We appreciated that kind of candor.”  So what are we to think?

Was this Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated flight route on July 2, 1937?  This map appeared in the September 1966 issue of True magazine, along with a lengthy preview of Fred Goerner’s soon-to-be-published The Search for Amelia Earhart.  Art Kennedy may have thought so, and to this day the true path of Earhart’s last flight eludes us, and remains the biggest mystery of the Earhart saga.

It’s hard to buy Kennedy’s claim about the ground loop, as it’s difficult to imagine that Amelia would purposely endanger Harry Manning and Fred Noonan, who were both aboard.  It’s more likely that she honestly blew the takeoff at Luke Field, but what of Kennedy’s assertion about Amelia’s “mission taking her over Truk,” and that the Electra received “big engines” in May 1937 that he personally “modified” for the flight’s extra miles?  We have no credible evidence that supports the idea that a new pair of “big engines” was put on NR 16020, but could it have happened?

The total distance from Lae to Truk to Howland Island is 3,250 statute miles, compared with 2,556 statute miles when flying direct from Lae, well within the Electra’s normal range of 4,000 miles, even without modified enginesCan we so easily dismiss these separate and altogether plausible — at least in this observer’s opinion — claims from Kennedy?  Most probably the fliers reached Mili in a different way, but a definitive answer continues to elude us.

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Don Wilson’s bizarre 1994 Earhart encounter

Donald M. Wilson was a veteran of the Battle of Saipan, where he was both a rifleman and a chaplain’s assistant in the 2nd Marine Division, and where he no doubt heard stories about the presence and death of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan in the pre-war years.  He became an ordained minister and served as a pastor and assistant pastor in several churches in Ohio, Michigan and finally in Lake Pleasant, New York, where he passed away on Thanksgiving Day, 2012, at age 86.

Wilson was also an avid student of the Earhart disappearance, and he occasionally corresponded with fellow Saipan veteran Thomas E. Devine.  In 1994, Wilson self-published Amelia Earhart: Lost Legend: Accounts by Pacific Island Witnesses of the Crash, Rescue and Imprisonment of America’s Most Famous Female Aviator and Her Navigator, an obscure anthology known chiefly to habitués of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, where he was a respected member.

The following letter, from Wilson to Prymak in April 1994, appeared in the November 1998 Amelia Earhart Society Newslettersconcerns a strange incident involving Wilson and an unidentified man that occurred at an unknown time and location, and in that regard it is reminiscent of several other accounts of unknown provenance that have been passed down to us through the years.  It also reprises some of the more unpleasant possible scenarios of Earhart’s final days on Saipan, and I present it for your consideration.  Boldface is mine throughout.

A STRANGE ENCOUNTER BY DON WILSON

Donald Moyer Wilson
One Woods Point
Webster, NY 14580

April 28, 1994

Dear Bill,

During a book signing recently, a man came up to me and said insistently that Amelia Earhart was captured by the Japanese and executed by them.  He identified himself as a former Marine Corps colonel, who had spent three months at the Pentagon.  He pulled out his wallet to show me some identification.  Unfortunately, I did not look at it carefully, and do not remember his name.

He seemed to be bitter about his experience with the Pentagon.  He said that he had worked with G-2 — Intelligence.  He claimed that he saw secret documents about Amelia Earhart.  He said there were two witnesses to her execution, not just one.  He also said that she had been stripped at the time of her execution and previously raped by her guards.  He also said (and I neglected to tell you this) something about her fingers or fingernails, that they had been mutilated, or possibly her fingernails had been pulled out. He also said (again I forgot to tell you this) that, as I recall, her body had been removed from the grave later, and cremated (possibly by Americans? — I’m not sure of this).

He said that the Earhart plane had been destroyed — I’m quite sure he said by Americans on Saipan.  He was very reluctant to give more details, and when I suggested things like the name of the airfield on Saipan, he would neither confirm nor deny them.  I spoke of the Freedom of Information Act, and asked where the materials might be obtained.  He implied that the Navy might have them.  As I recall, I asked him to get in touch with you,* and I believe I gave him your address.  Also, he mentioned another individual briefly who might have the same (or different) information, and I again said I hoped he would supply more information.

Undated photo of Donald M. Wilson, from his book, Amelia Earhart: Lost Legend.

A couple of thoughts have gone through my mind. He might be telling the truth and was torn between the desire to give information and the fear of risking retaliation of some sort for giving it.  There is a slight possibility that he might have been discharged from the service for homosexual behavior.  Or he might have taken information he obtained elsewhere, particularly the Unsolved Mysteries program with Tom Devine and Nieves Cabrera Blas, among others, and built on their stories — for the fun (?) of it.  He asked me what my interest in Amelia Earhart was, but walked away before I could give him an answer.

(Signed) Don Wilson

*He Never Did

Prymak note: Don Wilson must sure wish he had collared this guy for subsequent interviews. (End of Wilson letter.)

Wherever thisMarine colonelgot this information in the early to mid 1990s, it didn’t all come from the Nov. 7, 1990 Unsolved Mysteries segment, “New Evidence Points to Saipan,” which featured Thomas E. Devine, Robert E. Wallack, Fred Goerner, T.C. BuddyBrennan and even crash-and-sank poster boy Elgen M. Long.  Nothing was mentioned in that program about Amelia being stripped, horribly mutilated or her body’s removal from a gravesite, though all these things could well have happened during her captivity on Saipan.  For more on this theme, please see my June 12, 2015 post, “Navy nurse’s letter describes gruesome end for fliers, but was it true?

Many of the smaller details have yet to be learned, but we do know beyond any doubt that the doomed fliers met their tragic ends on Saipan.  The U.S. government and its media toadies still do not want you to know the truth about the death of Amelia Earhart, for all the reasons I continue to re-emphasize and present to the few who are willing and able to accept the truth.

From forgotten files of the Earhart lunatic fringe: The incredible tale of Ellis Bailey and USS Vega

In Chapter 13 of the second edition of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, titled “Griswold, Henson and Burks,” I present the story of  Capt. Tracy Griswold and Privates Everett Henson Jr. and Billy Burks, the three Marines who excavated what might well have been the remains of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan from a gravesite just outside the Liyang Cemetery, on the outskirts of southern Garapan, in late July or early August 1944.

The original version of the  chapter included the strange account of Ellis Bailey, whose incredible story, if true, would have lent great credibility to the claims of Henson and Burks, who were told by Griswold that they had just excavated the remains of Amelia Earhart. Twenty-one years later, they both separately identified Griswold from photo lineups, while the former Marine Intelligence captain denied ever knowing them or ordering them to excavate skeletal remains on Saipan.

I was reluctant to include Bailey’s story in The Truth at Last, because it did nothing to advance the truth, so I decided to cut his section from the final manuscript. I still feel it’s quite instructive, in that it shows the extreme lengths that some of the Earhart-addled will go to gain attention. The Earhart chase has badly infected some with its own peculiar strain of fever, and those carrying the bug can usually be identified by their ridiculous claims.  The recent History Channel imbroglio, which I have written about at length, is a prime example of this awful malady.  Earhart lore is replete with many other examples, but Bailey’s fantasy, at least for me, was one of the most believable, well-conceived fabrications ever; it certainly caught my attention and spurred me to make a serious effort to confirm it.

USS Vega (AK-17), circa late 1930s. Vega was a Sirius-class cargo ship, laid down July 8, 1918, launched July 18, 1919 and commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on Dec. 21, 1921. She was at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941, but was not damaged, and in 1944-1945, Vega supported three major amphibious operations — in the Marianas, the Western Carolines and at Okinawa — carrying supplies and construction materials to assist the “Seabees” in establishing the advance bases necessary to the smooth operation of the Fleet.

For a time, it did appear that a series of amazing letters forwarded to me by Bill Prymak in 2008 might hold the key to unlocking the next stage of the government’s top-secret operation to return the fliers’ bones to the United States in 1944. Below is the unpublished section of Chapter 13 of Truth at Last, “Griswold, Henson, and Burks.” Obviously, this passage will make far more sense to those who have the book, and can place it in the original context.

Between 1991 and 1999, Ellis Bailey, of Middletown, Iowa, wrote seven letters to Prymak, describing a series of remarkable events he witnessed aboard the USS Vega (AK-17), a Capella class cargo ship that carried a crew of 439 and displaced 11,500 tons, during operations off Saipan and in the Marshall Islands during July and August 1944.  Bailey’s recollections of the remarkable incidents remained clear and consistent throughout his letters, and though he offered his own strange ideas about the meaning and the significance of the events, the core of Bailey’s account never changed. He never indicated his Navy rating, or job, in his letters, but a copy of the “Muster Roll of the Crew” of USS Vega for Sept. 30, 1944, shows that Bailey was a storekeeper first class (SK1).

In Bailey’s final letter to Prymak, titled “Amelia Earhart,” he recalled that Vega came to Saipan the “first part of July 1944,” and that after dropping anchor a group of Marines came aboard and informed Bailey and others that someone had just found “Amelia Earhart’s helmet,” somewhere on the island, but they offered no details.

The next day, Bailey “got permission to go ashore,” and “tried to visit Aslito Airfield” but was told it was restricted and off-limits. “While waiting for a ride back to the ship I talked to boat crew members who were discussing an important meeting of top General and Admirals,” he wrote. “One had come in that day. The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was there and he probably called the meeting.”  With this, Bailey joined the handful of GIs claiming knowledge of Forrestal’s presence on the island during the invasion – an allegation that has never been officially confirmed, and which further research indicated was not possible.

The scuttlebutt Bailey said he heard about Amelia Earhart, Aslito Airfield, and Forrestal during Vega’s early July stop at Saipan was mere prologue to the astonishing episode he claimed he witnessed when the ship returned to Saipan later that month. The morning after the crew unloaded 61 tons of dynamite, the captain received orders to “take on fuel and supplies, enough to go 1,000 miles to Majuro and to take a government intelligence officer and two boxes of human remains that were two Caucasian flyers lost at sea seven years earlier,” Bailey wrote. “One was a woman.” [Italics mine.] 

The next day, the intelligence officer, who had “no insignia but lots of authority,” came aboard with two boxes, “the remains of the flyers,” according to Bailey. “They were taken to the bridge and put under 24-hour guard,” he wrote, and the captain was ordered to steam to Majuro. Four days later Vega reached the Marshalls capital, Majuro, and while waiting for a “whale boat to be lowered to take him to shore,” the intelligence officer, apparently addressing Bailey, said, “I expect you are wondering why you are here. Seven years ago two Caucasian flyers were lost at sea. One was a woman. I came to see and talk with the two natives that had seen and talked with the flyers.” The agent returned to the ship the next morning, and ordered the captain to set sail for Kwajalein.

Bill Prymak, a veteran pilot with more than 6,500 hours in private aircraft since 1960, corresponded with Ellis Bailey for several years during the 1990s, and even arranged for Bailey to address the Amelia Earhart Society. Prymak called Bailey’s performances “unbelievable, and that is why I never seriously wrote about him in the AES Newsletters.”

Upon arrival at Kwajalein, a small contingent of Marines came aboard and “told us that the day before one of their group was on . . . Roi Namur, [and] found Amelia Earhart’s suitcase of clothes and her diary in a barracks,” Bailey continued. “They had taken it to the man in charge of Kwajalein [Rear Admiral Alva D. Bernhard, who died in 1955].  The government officer with no insignia took the guarded boxes of the remains and left the U.S.S. Vega at once.”  According to Bailey, the agent never mentioned any names in connection to the boxed remains, and Bailey himself didn’t believe the bones were those of Earhart or Noonan. The remains “weren’t the American flyers, they were British, which makes the whole situation so confusing,” Bailey wrote.

The Marines’ story about the discovery of Earhart’s suitcase, clothes, and diary on Roi Namur mirrored W.B. Jackson’s 1964 account to Fred Goerner, but Bailey’s story began to unravel when it became apparent their find did not occur “the day before,” Vega arrived, as Bailey wrote, because Kwajalein was secured in early February 1944, and by April 1, four months before Vega allegedly arrived at Kwajalein, 14,000 thousand Americans occupied the main island, with 6,500 more on Roi-Namur.

Bailey’s repeated references to the “British flyers” lost at sea at the same time as the Earhart flight must have originated with The Earhart Disappearance: The British Connection, by James A. Donahue, among the most bizarre Earhart conspiracy books ever. Contrary to Donahue’s fanciful scenarios, no evidence has ever supported the idea that two British flyers, male and female, were operating anywhere in the Pacific area at that time. Writing to Ron Reuther in 1992, Goerner described The British Connection with Robert Myers’ Stand By To Die as one that “perfectly represents the totally irresponsible weirdo fringe which has been omnipresent in the Earhart matter since 1937.” In The British Connection, Donahue “has used photos and benign basic research and stitched the wildest kind of fiction to them and it is without any proof or ANY reference to source,” Goerner wrote.

“You’ll see that Ellis read too many AE books,” Prymak, who met Bailey in the “very early ‘90s,” wrote in a note attached to Bailey’s original letters. As a researcher who had seen and heard nearly everything during his four-decade investigation into the Earhart mystery, Prymak never put much stock in Bailey’s story. “Ellis spoke at the [August 1993] Flying Lady Symposium in [Morgan Hill] CA and at Atchison [Kansas],” Prymak wrote in a March 2008 email. “Both times he was a very ineffective and poor speaker, losing his thought process as he went along. He became very ‘unbelievable,’ and that is why I never seriously wrote about him in the AES Newsletters.” 

Bailey’s imaginative ramblings reflected a few of the most implausible scenarios found in Earhart literature, but the remote possibility that his story about the intelligence agent and the canisters might be true was too compelling for me to immediately dismiss out of hand. Admittedly, I hoped against hope that Bailey’s story would prove to be true. If it were, another missing piece in the Earhart puzzle — the transport of the fliers’ remains off the island of Saipan — could be placed into the final solution.

This is page 1 of the “Muster Roll of the Crew” of USS Vega for Sept. 30, 1944.  Ellis Orrin Bailey is listed second from the bottom, along with his rating, SK1 (Storekeeper First Class), followed by his date of enlistment and date he reported aboard, Nov. 16, 1942. According to one source, Vega’s normal contingent was 36 officers and 413 enlisted men. Bailey’s affiliation with Vega was about the only thing he was honest about in his letters to Bill Prymak.

My efforts to find any surviving members of the 1944 Vega crew who might have corroborated Bailey’s story were unsuccessful, but Tony Gellepis, of Santa Clara, Calif., a fireman aboard Vega from 1940 to 1942, was skeptical about Bailey’s alleged shore visit at Saipan during early July 1944. “In all my six years experience on various supply ships, shore leave was never granted while the ship was ‘swinging on the hook [anchored in the harbor],’ especially so during war time,” Gellepis, 87, told me in a July 2008 email.  “Shore leave was granted only after the ship was docked and secured, if at all.  And Bailey claims he went ashore the next day while Vega was at anchor!  And this guy was set to go to Aslito Field? Incredible! I consider this to be a stretch, an embellishment.” Gellepis passed away in 2016 at age 96.

Much to my disappointment, a November 2008 trip to the nearby National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md., to verify Bailey’s affiliation with Vega and its purported movements during the key dates, confirmed that Prymak and Gellepis’ doubts were well founded.

Vega’s deck logs for July and August 1944 reveal the ship was not at Saipan in early July, as Bailey claimed, but anchored at Eniwetok Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, though July 21, when it left for Saipan, arriving July 25. Vega anchored in Tanapag Harbor until July 31, per Bailey’s account, but then departed for Guam – not Majuro – in convoy with the cargo ship USS William Ward Burroughs (AP-7), LST (landing ship tanks) 341, and the destroyers USS Stockham (DD-683) and USS Trisdale (DE-33), reaching Guam Aug. 1.

On Aug. 15, Vega left Guam en route to Eniwetok, its home operating base in the Pacific war zone, arriving Aug. 20.  The muster roll of the Vega for the quarter ending September 1944 does establish that Ellis Orrin Bailey, a storekeeper first class (SK1), was a member of its crew, having joined the ship’s company Nov. 16, 1942.  Otherwise, as Prymak observed, it seems obvious that Bailey, who died in 2004, had indeed read too many Earhart books. And though he didn’t author one himself, Ellis Bailey’s serial letter-writing adventures qualify him to join James A. Donahue, Robert Myers and others who will remain unnamed here among the disreputable ranks of Fred Goerner’s “totally irresponsible weirdo fringe” in the annals of Earhart lore. (End of unpublished Ellis Bailey section.)

Without doubt, the ranks of the Earhart-addled have not been yet filled, as the lure of instant attention and imagined fame is usually sufficient to ensnare these unprincipled characters in its unsavory web. Your humble correspondent will keep a sharp lookout, and if the story is wild or ridiculous enough to merit mention, you’ll see it here.

Weihsien Telegram: Another sensation that fizzled

We begin 2017 with a look at the notorious Weihsien Telegram, as it was known, one of the more sensational claims we’ve seen in recent years.  In 2001, this hot potato was relegated to the dustbin of dead-end myth, when researcher Ron Bright definitively disproved the idea that Amelia Earhart had been confined at the Weihsien, China civilian internment camp during World War II.  This notion sprang from the 1987 discovery in State Department archives of an unsigned telegram, or “speedletter” to George Putnam from Weihsien in 1945; Amelia Earhart was soon “identified” as its sender by a group heavily invested in the Amelia Earhart-as-Irene Bolam canard.  The unsigned telegram reads, “Camp liberated — all well — volumes to tell — love to mother.” Sent from Weihsien, north China, and dated Aug. 28, 1945, this document created a huge buzz among researchers who speculated it could have been sent by Amelia herself.

During the ensuing debate within the Amelia Earhart Society, Bright, working with Patrick Gaston, an Overland Park, Kansas, attorney, obtained key documents, witness accounts and other evidence that helped put the lie to this lingering pest of a theory. Before we get to Bright’s findings, which hammered the final nails in the coffin of the Weihsien falsehood, we’ll hear from others involved in the promotion and debunking of this once-popular idea.

Longtime researcher Ron Bright, of Bremerton, Wash.,

In 2001,. longtime researcher Ron Bright, of Bremerton, Wash., with a few associates, debunked the Weihsien Telegram theory, which proponents claimed showed that Amelia Earhart was alive in a Japanese civilian internment camp in 1945.

In the September 1993 issue of Omni Magazine, Amelia Earhart Society President Bill Prymak offered an informed rebuttal of the false claims by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) that Earhart crashed-landed on Nikumaroro Atoll, formerly known as Gardner Island, in the central Pacific’s Phoenix Chain. As for her true fate, Prymak said he had “tantalizing evidence but nothing concrete. We do have a telegram from her to her husband, George Putnam, which was dated Aug. 28, 1945, from a prison camp in China.” Thus, Joe Gervais’ long-discredited claim in Amelia Earhart Lives that Earhart had lived in the Emperor of Japan’s palace before returning to the United States as New Jersey housewife Irene Bolam was transformed into an equally implausible — if less glamorous — scenario. Bright’s findings would later force Prymak and most others to admit their errors, but not before several years of confusion had passed.

Though Prymak and many of his AES associates believed that the telegram sent to George Putnam “informed Putnam that his wife was alive” in a Japanese internment camp in 1945, others with knowledge soon attempted to debunk this notion.  In late July 1993, Devine sent me a copy of a recent letter from Langdon Gilkey, 73, author of Shantung Compound (Harper and Row, 1966) to retired New York Police Department forensic specialist and Earhart theorist Jerome Steigmann, who died in 2003, as did Devine.  

In 1943 Gilkey was an American bachelor teaching at Peking’s Yenching University, a privately owned Anglo-American school and one of 10 “Christian Colleges” in China. Gilkey was advised by the Japanese that he and other American and British nationals then in Peking would be sent to a “civilian internment center” for their “safety and comfort.” Many people, including doctors, professors, instructors, businessmen, missionaries and travelers were incarcerated in the facility in Weihsien. Shantung Compound is Gilkey’s account of his experience there. Gilkey was released from captivity on Sept. 25, 1945.

Undated photo of Langdon Brown Gilkey....

Undated photo of Langdon Brown Gilkey, author of the 1966 book Shantung Compound, his first-person account of American and British nationals in China who were incarcerated by the Japanese at the Weihsien, China civilian internment center for several years during World War II. Gilkey, who authored 20 books, has been called “one of the most influential American Christian theologians of the 20th century,” by a colleague who taught alongside him at the University of Chicago for 20 years. Gilkey passed away in Charlottesville, Va., at 85 in November 2004.

In his letter to Steigmann, Gilkey says, “I have never heard of the Yank female, nor of her solitary captivity in Weihsien. I am also as positive as I am of anything in my life that this story is fiction, that, in other words, it did not and could not have happened without one hearing or knowing of it. I am, as I say, as sure of this as I am of anything in my past.”

“Not one person of the hundred or possibly thousands of internees held at Weihsien has ever reported Earhart’s presence at the camp,” Devine wrote in “The Concealed Grave of Amelia Earhart,” his unpublished manuscript. “Langdon Gilkey certainly would have known, as he emphatically states.”

Responding to my July 2001 letter asking his clearance to quote him in my 2002 book, With Our Own Eyes: Eyewitnesses to the Final Days of Amelia Earhart, Steigmann provided more evidence against the idea that Earhart spent time at Weihsien. He sent copies of a few introductory pages to The Mushroom Years: A Story of Survival (Henderson House Publishing, 1998), by Pamela Masters, another veteran of the Weihsien “Civilian Assembly Center.” Masters, who was held at Weihsien with her family, briefly discusses the alleged Earhart-Weihsien connection and says she recently located the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) major who commanded the operation to liberate Weihsien in 1945.

“The first time he heard of Amelia Earhart supposedly being in Weihsien was in December of ’97,” Masters wrote in her opening note to The Mushroom Years. “And to all those souls who want to find closure regarding Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, I empathize with you, but all I can say is: Forget Weihsien — look somewhere else.”

Steigmann also sent Devine a copy of a letter from former Col. John A. White of Millbrae, California, who wrote, “I have never heard anything about Amelia Earhart being a prisoner in China.” White told Steigmann a friend of his had been interned in Weihsien during World War II. Devine wrote to this woman, who informed Devine, “I have asked old friends whether the rumor was true about Amelia Earhart coming into the camp at the end of the war, and protected by Catholic priests and sisters. NO is the big answer.”

This is the story of one such group of American, British, and Allied nationals who were caught in North China and imprisoned in Wei-Hsien (Way-shen) Prison Camp in Shandong Province.

Pamela Masters’ 1998 memoir, The Mushroom Years, is “the story of a group of a group of American, British, and Allied nationals who were caught in North China and imprisoned in Wei-Hsien (Way-shen) [sic] Prison Camp [sic] in Shandong Province,” according to Masters’ website.

Gilkey did not respond to Devine’s correspondence, but in another letter to him, Steigmann wrote, “In addition to the Gilkey letter, I have been in contact with other former internees of the Weihsien, China Camp. They all agree Amelia Earhart was never in the hospital or any other part of the camp.”

In late August 1993, Steigmann took his information to the Amelia Earhart Symposium, sponsored by the Amelia Earhart Society and held at Morgan Hill, Calif.  There, amid a gathering of AES luminaries including Gervais, Prymak and Reineck, Steigmann ripped a gaping hole in the Weihsien Telegram theory: “The ‘Heavy Hitters’ of the AES were putting the audience to sleep,with their boring discussions about fuel, navigation, radio messages, etc.,” Steigmann wrote. “Ann P. [Pellegreno] persuaded the ‘Good Ole Boys’ to let me speak, and I ‘Awakened Them’ very fast, and even though there was a time limit, the audience insisted that I have all the time I needed to finish my scenarios. The AES ‘Clique’ [sic] were upset that they were upstaged by an ‘outsider!’ During the breaks, I was surrounded by publishers, authors, members of female flying groups, etc., who wanted me to speak at other events. Rollin Reineck, of Hawaii, who still claims Amelia was ‘interned’ at Weihsien, China, was not too happy when I produced additional letters from former camp residents that AE was never at the camp.”

Steigmann’s derailing of the telegram theory was convincing enough for Prymak and company to rethink their ideas. In the Dec. 3, 1993 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, Prymak wrote, “Steigmann’s conclusions seem most logical.”

Meanwhile, Steigmann had other ideas about the Earhart disappearance, strange flights of fancy far removed from logic. In Steigmann’s world, Amelia was a “double agent, working simultaneously for the U.S. Marine Corps, the ONI and the Japanese from the early 1920s through her contact with Admiral Yamamoto and Japanese Naval Intelligence: As an agent for Japan, Amelia Earhart rendered technical assistance to the Japanese Naval air forces and in the development of their fighter plane, the Zero. She furnished Japanese Naval Air Intelligence photos of U.S. Army and Navy airfields in Hawaii as well as their schedules.”

The infamous Weihsien Telegram, which caused such an uproar in the Earhart research community during the 1990s.

The infamous Weihsien Telegram, which caused an uproar in the Earhart research community during the 1990s.

Steigmann also advocated the Joe Gervais-Joe Klass idea that Earhart lived in the Japanese Imperial Palace during the war: “When Amelia was liberated from ‘guest status’ at the Imperial Palace, she was secretly repatriated to the U.S. by the unseen hand of the Secretary of the Navy Forrestal. It was Forrestal who had inherited the Amelia Earhart mission from his predecessors, who was the prime architect when Amelia was facially renovated at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.”

Steigmann concluded his fantasy by claiming Earhart “is still alive, at 96, awaiting the appropriate time to emerge from her long exile.” Steigmann sent Devine a copy of an unidentified tabloid with a picture of Earhart, Fred Noonan and the Electra. The story is headlined “Amelia Earhart’s Plane Is Found — In Japan” and subtitled “U.S. knew it for 48 years.” As if this validated Steigmann’s ideas, he wrote over the headline, “It was never on Aslito Airfield, Saipan!” and under the subtitle he wrote, “So did Jerry Steigmann.”

Devine had no use for such delusions, nor did he need Steigmann to shed the light of truth on the Weihsien Telegram theory. He already possessed decades-old information that strongly suggested the possible identity of the telegram’s originator, and it certainly wasn’t Amelia Earhart.

“Many years ago, during my early investigation, I had located the son of George Putnam. David Binney Putnam was in the real estate business in Florida,” Devine explained. “During our phone conversation, he was a bit cool regarding Amelia since it was Amelia who parted his parents. I questioned as to which branch of the service he may have served in during the war. He immediately responded he had spent most of the war years in a prison camp in China. I did not want it to appear that I was about to cross-examine him so I did not press on which branch of the service he may have served in. But he may have been incarcerated as an American citizen, or he could have been employed in clandestine activities involving our secret Office of Strategic Services [OSS].”

Devine said that when he first heard about the telegram, he was merely amused. He recalled visiting Muriel Morrissey in Boston in 1961: “She was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned David Binney Putnam, and asked me for his address, which I forwarded to her on a later date. She had lost track of him for many years. He was, she said, in a prisoner-of-war camp, which she thought was in China. When I first saw the news item of a woman in Washington who had found the cablegram, unsigned, I thought it may have been one that he had sent to his father. I never realized that Gervais and his cohorts would stipulate it was from Amelia. I had nothing in writing to refute them, only a phone conversation.”

Seeking to confirm his theory, Devine tried to contact David Binney Putnam in 1993, but learned he had passed away in May 1992. Hoping David’s brother, George P. Putnam Jr., could help clear things up, Devine was initially disappointed. Finally responding to Devine’s inquiries, Putnam told Devine he hadn’t the “faintest idea” what he was talking about. “No member of our family was ever in prison in China during the WWII era,” Putnam told Devine.

“If Putnam had received a telegram from his wife Amelia in 1945, he would have announced it to the entire world. Since it was unsigned, Putnam would know it was from his son of a prior marriage,” Devine wrote. “‘Love to mother’ was indicative of this association. Prymak’s remark, ‘We do have a telegram from her to her husband George Putnam which was dated Aug. 28, 1945 from a prison camp in China’. . . perpetuates the three-ring atmosphere, rather than the authenticity of the tragedy that befell Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. Perhaps the general public is receptive to some of the rumors peddled by these individuals, since they are so succinctly resolved. But because of my firsthand knowledge and eyewitness involvement, I feel it is sickening.”

The Weihsien Telegram’s true author found

As it turned out, Devine’s best guess was wrong. Ron Bright and Patrick Gaston initiated a well-executed investigation aimed at nailing the source of the Weihsien Telegram, the details and results of which were initially published in the May 2001 TIGHAR Tracks newsletter. As I’m not a member of TIGHAR, Bright kindly provided a copy for my use, and it was included in With Our Own Eyes.

Ahmad Kamal, circa 1935, who sent the "Love to Mother" speed letter from Weihsien, China, to George Putnam in August 1945.

Ahmad Kamal, circa 1935, who sent the “Love to Mother” telegram from Weihsien, China, to George Putnam in August 1945. The speedletter created a sensation among Earhart researchers when it was discovered in U.S. State Department archives in 1987.

Bright found that the author of the controversial telegram was Turkish author and world traveler Ahmad Kamal, who was interned at Weihsien from summer 1943 to August 1945. Kamal knew George Putnam well enough to ask him to look in on his elderly mother, who apparently lived in the Los Angeles area, while he was away. Bright also secured what he called “the entire list of the 1,800 plus internees at Weihsien” from former camp administrator Desmond Powers, a Canadian.  Needless to say, Amelia Earhart’s name wasn’t on the list.

(Editor’s note: A google search reveals a site that contains a spread sheet that claims to be said list of Weihsien internees.  Neither Amelia Earhart nor any Putnam is on it. To view the list, please click here.)

Kamal died in 1989, but Bright found his son, Turan-Mirza Kamal (1951–2004) an American-born classical guitarist and composer, in Southern California, and the veil on the Weihsien mystery was finally lifted. Kamal told Bright his father was a pilot, and kept his airplane at Burbank Airport in the early 1930s, where he met Howard Hughes, George Putnam and Amelia Earhart.

Bright’s investigation finally put the Weihsien speculation to rest. Here is the former ONI agent’s summary of his findings:

Sometime about 1939–1940, Kamal returned to China where he met and married his wife at Tientsin, China. The war broke out in December 1941 and, soon afterward, the Japanese Secret Police captured him and his wife. Refusing to cooperate, they were transferred to Weihsien Camp in the summer of 1943. There they remained until liberated in August 1945.

Turan-Mirza Kamal (1951–2004) an American-born classical guitarist and composer, in Southern California, and the veil on the Weishien mystery was finally lifted. Kamal told Bright his father was a pilot, and kept his airplane at Burbank Airport in the early 1930s, where he met Howard Hughes, George Putnam, and Amelia Earhart.

Turan-Mirza Kamal (1951–2004) an American-born classical guitarist and composer, in Southern California, and the veil on the Weihsien mystery was finally lifted. Kamal told Bright his father was a pilot, and kept his airplane at Burbank Airport in the early 1930s, where he met Howard Hughes, George Putnam and Amelia Earhart.

According to his son, shortly after the camp was liberated, Kamal sent out two radio messages: One to Scribner and Sons about publishing a book, and one to George Putnam. His son said he has seen either notes or a journal of that message and could repeat it almost by heart — something like “camp liberated, all was well, volumes to follow and love to mother.” The “love to mother” was added, said Kamal’s son, because Putnam had agreed to look after Kamal’s aging mother when Kamal left for China. Mrs. Kamal lived nearby and Putnam was to look in on her. It was an informal caregiver arrangement.

Kamal said his father often discussed Amelia Earhart and the mystery of her disappearance, and believed she went down in the sea. The elder Kamal had also told his son that Earhart was not at Weihsien while he was there, from 1942 until August 1945.

Kamal was an American, and probably a convert to Islam, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ian Johnson, author of A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). Johnson obtained Kamal’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, which reveals that Kamal was born on Feb. 2, 1914, in Arvada, Colo., and his birth name was Cimarron Hathaway; his mother was Caroline Grossmann Hathaway, his father, James Worth Hathaway. According to an interview Johnson obtained with a daughter, James was a stepfather and Cimarron’s biological father was Qara Yusuf, a Uyghur from Turkestan who was much older than Caroline – he was 64 and she 16 when they married.

This lengthy story by Ahmad Kamal appeared in the Sept. 26, 1953 Saturday Evening Post.

This compelling first-person account by Ahmad Kamal appeared in the Sept. 26, 1953 Saturday Evening Post.

Kamal’s 1940 book Land Without Laughter, was “one of those fascinating, slightly archaic, offbeat adventure books set in that mysterious region, Chinese Turkestan,” wrote Leslie Evans, whose review of A Mosque in Munich and more on Kamal can be found online at The Strange Career of Ahmad Kamal and How He Helped the CIA Invite Radical Islam into Europe.Kamal also wrote Full Fathom Five (Doubleday & Co. 1948), “a wonderful story of the sponge fishermen Americans of Greek ancestry of Tarpon Springs, Florida, their strange and beautiful customs, and the warmth and goodness of their way of life,” according to the book’s paperback description on Amazon.com. “It is a story told by Alek Paradisis, a man who believed he could solve any problem with his fist.”

Paul Rafford Jr., “Elder Statesman” of Earhart researchers, dies in Florida hospice at 97

Paul Rafford Jr., the “Elder Statesman” of Earhart research and the last of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, passed away on Dec. 10 in a hospice in Rockledge, Fla., at 97. Michael Betteridge, Paul’s nephew and general manager of WTHU AM 1450, a talk radio station in Thurmont, Md., said his uncle passed peacefully with his daughter, Lynn, at his side. “We lost a great man on that day,” Betteridge said in an email.

Earhart fans will recall Paul’s name from Vincent V. Loomis’ 1985 book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story (Random House), wherein he presented his then-current ideas about the Electra’s radio propagation capabilities and Amelia’s strange decisions during the final flight. In 2006, Paul’s book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, was published by the Paragon Agency, and though it wasn’t a commercial success, it remains a treasure trove of invaluable information unavailable anywhere else.

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, is among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s.

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, is among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s. He wrote more than a dozen unique, scholarly articles for the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter between 1989 and 2000.

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with Paul’s fascinating and inventive work. In the past few years, I’ve written three lengthy pieces that brought new focus on his important contributions to the modern search for Amelia Earhart: “The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change”: Another unique Rafford gift to Earhart saga; Rafford’s “Earhart Deception” presents intriguing possibilities; and  Rafford’s “Enigma” brings true mystery into focus: What was Earhart really doing in final hours?

Paul was a regular contributor to the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter between 1989 and 2000, expounding his theories about radio deceptions and plane switches, some of the most imaginative and compelling possibilities ever advanced to explain what could have happened during those final hours of July 2, 1937, before and after Amelia’s last officially recognized message was heard at 8:44 a.m. Howland Island Time. He even wrote two pieces with the nearly the same title, “The Amelia Earhart Radio Enigma” in 1997, and “The Earhart Radio Enigma,” in 2000, as if to emphasize the major problems and unanswered questions that still stumped him – and continue to baffle Earhart researchers.

Paul began his aviation career with Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer in 1940, flying with Pan Am until 1946. He worked with crew members who had flown with Fred Noonan, and talked with technicians who had worked on Amelia Earhart’s Electra 10E. After a promotion with Pan Am, he continued to fly as a technical consultant before transferring to the U.S. Manned Spaceflight Program in 1963. During the early space shots he was a Pan Am project engineer in communications services at Patrick Air Force Base, and joined the team that put man on the moon. He retired from NASA in 1988.

Paul Rafford Jr., now 95, the elder statesman of Earhart researchers. As a Pan Am radio flight officer from 1940 to 1946, Rafford is uniquely qualified as an expert in Earhart-era radio capabilities.

A recent photo of Paul Rafford Jr., the “Elder Statesman” of Earhart researchers. As a Pan Am radio flight officer from 1940 to 1946, Rafford was uniquely qualified as an expert in Earhart-era radio capabilities.

“I know of no person more qualified than Mr. Paul Rafford to present to the American public the most probable cause of Earhart’s failure to find her destination island,” Bill Prymak wrote in 2006. “Mr. Rafford is world recognized for his astute radio propagation analysis and is THE man to contact re: radio problems. We are proud to have him as an AES member and radio consultant.”

With Paul Rafford’s passing, we can now mark the end of the “Greatest Generation” of Earhart researchers, an exclusive club whose members include Paul Briand Jr., Fred Goerner, Vincent V. Loomis, Bill Prymak, Thomas E. Devine, Almon Gray, Joe Gervais, Joe Klaas, Rollin Reineck, Don Kothera and of course, Paul himself. If there were an Earhart Research Hall of Fame, Paul Rafford Jr. would have been inducted long ago on the first ballot. He was a fine and decent man, admired and respected by his peers, and loved by many. He made many significant contributions to the Earhart saga, and he will be missed.  May he Rest in Peace.

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