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.
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 Below is the unpublished section of Chapter 13 of Truth at Last, “Griswold, Henson, and Burks.”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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Joe Klaas, who passed away earlier this year, is best known for his authorship of the notorious Amelia Earhart Lives: A trip through intrigue to find America’s first lady of mystery, the 1970 book that introduced Irene Bolam as Amelia Earhart and forever cast a shadow on the credibility of all Earhart research, further driving the truth into the tiny corner it now inhabits, largely ignored, if not ridiculed by the mainstream media, entrenched in its longtime refusal to acknowledge the truth in the Earhart disappearance.
But Klaas didn’t create the Irene Bolam travesty. His fellow Air Force officer and friend, Joe Gervais, wove the Bolam fiction out of whole cloth and his Earhart-addled imagination. Klaas, the author of 11 other books, served mainly as Gervais’ personal stenographer during the creation of Amelia Earhart Lives, though he might have questioned Gervais’ absurd Bolam claim a bit more assiduously before he wrote a book and exposed himself to ridicule from nearly every corner of the Earhart research community, as well as much of the reading public.
None of that is relevant to the following essay, however, written by Klaas in 2001 and posted on the website of the Amelia Earhart Society. In “Next Stop Kwajalein,” Klaas takes the available eyewitness and witness testimony and crafts a plausible version of the events surrounding the delivery of Amelia and Fred Noonan by the Japanese, from stops at Jaluit and Kwajalein, to their final destination at Saipan.
Several aspects of the scenarios laid out by Klaas, such his belief, based on statements made by Mrs. Amy Otis Earhart, Amelia’s mother, that Amelia was allowed to broadcast by captors or that the fliers may have been taken to Japan, are clearly false or highly doubtful, and are not endorsed by this writer, but have not been edited out of Klaas’ narrative, which I present for your entertainment and discernment.
“Next Stop Kwajalein” by Joe Klaas with Joe Gervais
Four years prior to the three weeks of media frenzy triggered by the 1970 suggestion in Amelia Earhart Lives that the supposedly dead flying heroine might be alive in New Jersey, Fred Goerner, whose The Search for Amelia Earhart deduced she had died of dysentery or was executed on Saipan, wrote to her sister, Muriel Morrissey, in West Medford, Massachusetts.
“I want you to know that I decided to go ahead with the book last December at the advice of the late Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz who had become my friend and helped me with the investigation for several years,” Goerner told Earhart’s sibling on Aug. 31, 1966. “He said, ‘It (the book) may help produce the justice Earhart and Noonan deserve.’ The Admiral told me without equivocation that Amelia and Fred had gone down in the Marshalls and were taken by the Japanese and that his knowledge was documented in Washington. He also said several departments of government have strong reasons for not wanting the information to be made public.”
What “strong reasons for not wanting the information made public” short of their being assassinated by our own government would motivate the endless cover-up of the fact that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were still alive after July 2,1937?
“Even when we investigators join together in The Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, and The [Yahoo!] Earhart Group on the internet, those who’ve been out here spend so much energy picking each other’s evidence apart,” I said to Joe Gervais aboard a 95-foot boat anchored off a bomb-dented concrete relic of a seaplane ramp in Imiej harbor at Jaluit, “we look only at how one another’s interviews with islanders don’t agree.”
It was Joe’s seventeenth trip to Pacific islands in search of Amelia Earhart. Ten of us aboard the 1997 AES expedition led by Bill Prymak disagreed 10 different ways.
“To hell with the differences!” I complained. “Why don’t we focus on only those details which match?”
I told Joe that when we got home I would follow five decades of conflicting interviews from dot-to-dot to determine only the ways they agree on Amelia Earhart’s after death journey from across the 1937 pre-war Pacific until now.
“To hell with inconsistencies that lead nowhere!” I griped. “Let’s see only where we all match will take us.”
1937 residents of Jaluit and Majuro atolls said they heard the white woman pilot named “Meel-ya” and her flying companion with knee and head injuries were taken by Japanese ship to Saipan in the Mariana Islands where the Emperor’s South Sea Islands military governor was in command. Others said they took her first to Kwajalein, and then to Saipan.
“After I treated the man’s knee with paraply,” Bilimon Amaron told Joe Gervais and Bill Prymak, “I overheard Japanese nearby say the ship was going to leave Jaluit to go to Kwajalein. I remembered that because I had relatives on Kwajalein. From there it would maybe go to Truk and on to Saipan.”
Majuro Attorney John Heine, who clearly remembered seeing the flyers in custody at Jaluit after their prematurely reported deaths, also believed that “after the ship left Jaluit, it went to Kwajalein, then on to Truk and Saipan.” From there, according to what he was told by his missionary parents, whom the Japanese at Jaluit later beheaded as spies, “he thought the ship would later go to Japan.”
Heine told Joe and Bill a simultaneous event at his school enabled him to place the crash and departure for Kwajalein in “the middle of July 1937.”
Marshall Islanders Tomaki Mayazo and Lotan Jack told Fred Goerner in the 60s that the woman flyer and her companion “were taken to Kwajalein on their way to Saipan.” In The Search for Amelia Earhart, Goerner reported that four Likiep Island residents of Kwajalein, Edward and Bonjo Capelli, and two men known only as Jajock and Biki told Navy Chief Petty Officer J.F. Kelleher, stationed on Kwajalein in 1946, that a man and a woman who crashed a plane in the Marshalls “were brought to Kwajalein.”
Ted Burris, a 1965 government employee on Kwajalein, volunteered as neighborhood commissioner for the Aloha Council, Boy Scouts of America. He set out to establish Scouting three islands-north of Kwajalein on Ebeye [Island]. In January 1997 he informed members of the AES that while waiting for a boat back to his workplace one night his interpreter, Onisimum Cappelle, introduced him to an old man who had met two Americans there “five years before the war” even though “the Japanese had closed the Marshall Islands to foreigners in the late ’20s.”
The war reached the Marshalls in 1942, so “five years before” meant 1937, when Earhart and Noonan vanished.
“How did you meet the Americans before the war?” Burris asked the old man.
“Well, I didn’t exactly meet them,” he said. “But I did bring them in.”
“Bring them in? I don’t understand. What happened?”
“A plane landed on the water,” he said. “A big plane.”
“Come. I show you.”
They walked to the south end of the perimeter road where there were two A-frame houses with a line of coconut trees.
“You see those trees?” the old man asked. “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.”
Arrival of the boat to take Burris to nearby Kwajalein ended the conversation.
All who heard the story, including Burris, jumped to the conclusion that the plane was Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 10E, not a very “big plane” in comparison to Japanese flying boats that occasionally landed there. They assumed that was where she had actually crashed.
But what the old man precisely said was: “A plane landed on the water.” He didn’t say it crashed there. Aircraft with landing gear are seldom said to have “landed on the water.” They would normally have been said to have “crashed into the water” or “ditched in the water.” Not that they had “landed on the water.”
One simple question, “Did the plane land or crash?” might have cleared that up, but apparently assumption overcame curiosity, and that question was never asked.
Jaluit and Kwajalein had something in common. In 1936 a concrete seaplane ramp was built at Kwajalein in addition to its already existing airstrip for land planes. Land planes and seaplanes used two different Kwajalein facilities.
A year later in 1937 at Saipan, a concrete seaplane ramp was under construction to augment an air strip already used only by land planes. Had a flying boat ever before made a water landing at Saipan? It’s a good question.
Isn’t it more likely that, unbeknown to the Marshallese at Jaluit, instead of taking Earhart and Noonan to Kwajalein aboard ship on the Koshu, they changed plans and flew them there in a flying boat which would match the old man’s memory of “a big plane” which “landed on the water”?
To understand what an eyewitness meant, might it not be a good idea to take what they said literally? Going a step further, would it not be possible that natives of Saipan, who might only have previously seen planes touch down on their one airstrip, might mistakenly think a flying boat landing in Garapan Harbor was a land plane crashing into water off-shore?
How would the Japanese Captain be able to tell the old man “they were spies” if they hadn’t arrived from Jaluit already accused of espionage?
“None of this registered with me in particular until a couple of years later when I had moved to another assignment on Roi Namur (also in the Kwajalein group),” Burris said. “The Island Manager there was Frank Serafini. I mentioned the story the old man had told me.”
“Let me tell you a few things.” Frank went to his desk and took out a letter from a Navy Commander, whose name Burris couldn’t remember after thirty years. “He was with Navy Intelligence during the war, and was attached to the 4th Marines when they invaded Roi-Namur. He went in with the first wave on Roi. His specific task was to look for evidence that Amelia Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan, had been there!”
“Why here?” Burris asked.
“Because Roi had the only airfield on the atoll at that time,” Frank said. “If the Japs were going to take them anyplace from Kwajalein Atoll, they had to come through here!”
“Did he find anything?”
“Here, read this letter.” He pointed to a place on its second page: “I was rummaging through a pile of debris in a corner of the burned-out main hanger,” the writer said, when I came across a blue leatherette map case. It was empty. But it had the letters AE embossed on it in gold. They were here all right!”
“What did the Commander do with the map case?” Burris asked.
“He said he turned it over to Naval Intelligence. He doesn’t know what happened to it after that.”
“Does anybody know about this?” asked Burris. “Why would they keep such a thing secret?”
“Because even now the Navy doesn’t want to admit they had anything to do with spying against the Japanese before the war.”
When Burris heard about a plane with two American spies aboard landing 100-yards off-shore at Kwajalein, he naturally assumed it was Earhart’s land plane.
But couldn’t a twin-engine Japanese seaplane have “landed in the water” at Kwajalein, from which they were then flown to Saipan where the Japanese pilot landed alongside the beach?
As reported in both Goerner’s book and mine, Josephine Akiyama watched “a silver two-engined plane belly-land” in shallow water at Saipan and “saw the American woman who looked like a man and the tall man with her . . . led away by the Japanese soldiers.”
At first, those who heard her story assumed it was Amelia Earhart’s plane.
All of us who heard eyewitness reports from Kwajalein or Saipan made the same mistake. We all wanted so hard to find the Earhart plane, we assumed any aircraft that came down with her aboard was hers. At both Saipan and Kwajalein we were wrong. She and Noonan were aboard all right in both places, not as pilot and navigator, but as captured spies!
Wouldn’t it be more logical to deduce from eyewitness reports that Earhart and Noonan were flown from Kwajalein Atoll in a seaplane which made no attempt to land on Saipan’s completed airstrip, but instead “belly landed” along a beach in Garapan Harbor?
“None of it can be true!” objected a radio engineer at a 1998 gathering in Aspen, Colorado. “Those islanders made it all up!”
“What makes you think that?” I gasped.
“Because it’s all predicated from the start on her originally ditching into the water at Mili Atoll on July 2, 1937 and then sending out a bunch of so-called radio signals for three days. That could never have happened.”
“Because if she went down in the water, she couldn’t have broadcast at all. Her transmitter was incapable of broadcasting from the water.”
No one thought to ask a radio engineer how he would have made a radio work if he crashed in the water off a strange island in the middle of the Pacific. In such a matter of life and death, wouldn’t a radio engineer figure out some way to make a transmitter broadcast from a downed airplane still afloat in salt water?
Absolutely impossible! Without a bigger source of power than the battery aboard that Lockheed 10E aircraft, I was assured by three other experts I consulted, there was no way it could happen! Without the extra power provided by the engines operating, she could not have broadcast from in the water!
And yet the messages existed, logged by professional radio operators all across the Pacific so they can be read to this day. AES President Bill Prymak sent me a copy of actual loggings of her radio calls for help. Remember, she was supposed to have died the morning of July 2,1937. (Editor’s note: For a lengthy discussion of the alleged “post-loss messages,” please see Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, Chapter III, “The Search and the Radio Signals.”)
Here were 30 distress call broadcasts recorded on paper as actually heard by experienced operators at twelve different radio stations from one side of the Pacific to the other. . . . Beginning on July 3, 1937, 12 experienced operators at official radio stations thousands of miles apart across the vast Pacific heard and logged 30 distress messages they identified as Earhart’s for three days after she supposedly crashed and drowned on July 2, 1937.
Since these 30 distress signals were obviously heard as logged by 12 of the most highly trained and experienced radio operators across the Pacific, how could she have sent them if her radio transmitter could not possibly operate from her plane sitting in the water at Mili Atoll?
Could Amelia Earhart’s mother, Amy Otis Earhart, give us a simple clue as to how her daughter managed to transmit these “impossible” broadcasts? Was Mother Earhart, from sources of information peculiarly available to her, in possession of knowledge withheld from the public that would explain how her daughter was able to send all these messages for help?
“I know she was permitted to broadcast to Washington from the Marshalls,” Amelia’s mother told the Los Angeles Times on July 25, 1949, and then does she give us the answer? . . . “because the officials on the island where she was taken — I can’t remember the name of it — believed she was merely a trans-ocean flier in distress. But Tokyo had a different opinion of her significance in the area. She was taken to Japan.”
Is it not rather clear from Mother Earhart’s inside information that Amelia Earhart was rescued as a celebrity by the Japanese on Mili Atoll? Wouldn’t the Japanese on that island permit the famous American flyers to use their island transmitter to call for help for three days?
Isn’t it obvious that if it were impossible for her to transmit messages from the water, she must have done so from the land? And wasn’t a Japanese transmitter the only way that could have been done? And wouldn’t the messages suddenly stop when Tokyo ordered the Mili Atoll Japanese outpost, through channels, to quit sending her distress broadcasts and arrest Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan for espionage?
“I am certain that Amelia’s voice was recognized in the radio broadcast from the Marshalls to the capitol,” Earhart’s mother told The Los Angeles Times and later repeated in a letter to Earhart’s flying instructor, Neta Snook.
“I have kept quiet through the years, but certainly this could hurt no one now.”
“That’s quite a stretch,” Joe Gervais said in awe when I explained how all of us had mistaken Japanese planes for hers, and seaplanes landing on the water for her land plane crashing at sea. It may seem a stretch to those who want to believe Earhart and Noonan drowned at sea near Howland Island on July 2,1937.
“All Earhart hunters have been so busy challenging differences in eyewitness reports each of us gathered,” I sighed, “we became blind to all the many points we agree on, where the truth may finally be found.” “Well,” Joe exhaled slowly. “If we’re gonna quit sneering at one another’s versions of what happened, and connect dot-to-dot to what’ll crack one of the biggest cover-ups in American history, we’d best not be afraid to stretch!”
Next stop for prisoners Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan was by land plane or flying boat to Saipan, it makes small difference which. There on Saipan, more witnesses than were talked to on all other islands combined remembered seeing them alive.
They were in custody as spies!
(End of “Next Stop Kwajalein.”)
Two years before Klaas and Gervais collaborated on “Next Stop Kwajalein,” Klaas advanced a scenario that differed from the seaplane-landing-on-Saipan situation they proposed in 2001. In a 1999 e-mail to Rollin Reineck, Bill Prymak and others, Klaas reviewed the Ted Burris account and insisted it wasn’t a seaplane that landed in Tanapag Harbor:
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.” What “landed” Earhart and Noonan “on the water” off Kwajalein was obviously a seaplane from Jaluit. . . . Nobody ever said there was a crash at Kwajalein.
Earhart and Noonan were then flown by land plane from Kwajalein to Saipan, where its pilot got into trouble. [Italics mine.] Josephine Akiyama, the very first witness in the Earhart mystery, watched “a silver two-engined plane belly-land” in shallow water along a beach. She “saw the American woman who looked like a man, and the tall 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 Mili 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?
I asked Klaas if he could explain his differing visions of Earhart’s arrival at Saipan, suggesting that a land-based aircraft might indeed be most likely in the Tanapag Harbor-landing scenario. “Very well could be,” Klaas told me in a September 2007 email.
“However, I do believe it was a seaplane that landed in the water at Kwajalein, according to the man who picked her up there and rowed her ashore. There was a landing field there at that time. A lot of people jumped to the conclusion that she had crashed into the water there, according to witnesses. However that was only because the native who picked her up said the plane had landed in the water, obviously flown there from Majuro. She could very well have been transferred to a land plane there [at Kwajalein] after that and have been flown in it on to Saipan, where a lot of us at first mistook as she and Noonan crashing on the beach in her own plane. It was obviously a Japanese aircraft, however.”
So despite the many witnesses who reported that they saw a woman flier who could only have been Amelia Earhart in the Marshalls and later on Saipan, how she reached Saipan from Kwajalein is a major question that lingers. Was it a land plane or a seaplane that took the doomed fliers to their final destination?