Even casual students of the Earhart disappearance have heard and read about the photos of Amelia and Fred Noonan allegedly found on Saipan during and after the June 15-July 9, 1944 Battle of Saipan. I’ve heard the wistful regrets that none of these photos have ever publicly surfaced, and have shared in the disappointment of those who believe things would be different if we just had one of these photos that show so clearly that Amelia Earhart was a prisoner of the Japanese. (Boldface mine throughout; italics Goerner’s.)
Ralph R. Kanna, of Johnson City, New York, assigned to the Army’s 106th Infantry Regiment on Saipan, was among the first of the former American servicemen to contact Fred Goerner during his early Saipan investigations. In 1961, Kanna told Goerner that as platoon sergeant of his intelligence unit on Saipan, his duty was “to insure [sic] that we would take as many prisoners as possible for interrogation purposes.” One prisoner captured in an area designated as Tank Valley had “a photo of Amelia Earhart standing near Japanese aircraft on an airfield,” Kanna wrote. The photo was forwarded up the chain of command, and when questioned, the Japanese captive “stated that this woman was taken prisoner along with a male companion and subsequently he felt that both of them had been executed,” according to Kanna.
He provided Goerner the names of three men who had served as interpreters for his unit. Goerner located only one of them, Richard Moritsugu, in Honolulu, whose voice “quavered and broke” on the phone when Goerner asked about Saipan and Sergeant Kanna. Moritsugu told Goerner he had no desire to discuss the war.
Robert Kinley, of Norfolk, Va., served with the 2nd Marine Division during the invasion and claimed he saw a photo of Earhart with a Japanese officer that he believed was taken on Saipan. Kinley said he was clearing a house of booby traps near a graveyard when the picture was found tacked to a wall. A Japanese mortar shell exploded nearby moments later, tearing away part of his chest. He lost the photo at that point and couldn’t remember if it was destroyed in the explosion or taken by one of the medics who attended him. Kinley wrote that the photo “showed Amelia standing in an open field with a Japanese soldier wearing some kind of combat or fatigue cap with a single star in its center.”
Sometime after the 1966 release of The Search for Amelia Earhart, Marine Col. Donald R. Kennedy, commandant of the 12th Marine Corps District, told Goerner he came into possession of photographs in Japan in 1945 that showed Earhart in Japanese custody. “He [Kennedy] says he turned them over to [General Douglas] MacArthur’s Intelligence Headquarters,” Goerner wrote to Jim Golden in 1969. “Marine Corps G-2 is now trying to trace what happened to the photographs after Kennedy turned them over.” Kennedy attempted “to get clearance from USMC Headquarters before he could go on record,” Goerner told Theodore Barreaux 19 years later. “After eighteen months, he got the clearance but with the proviso that this did not represent official USMC position.” Kennedy’s file contains nothing else of significance, so something must have derailed Kennedy from pursuing the matter further, a common occurrence in the Earhart search.
Just as Robert Kinley contacted Goerner about seeing a photo of Earhart on Saipan, Stanley F. Serzan, of Orange City, Fla., was among several veterans who told Thomas E. Devine, author of the 1987 classic, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident about seeing photos of one or both of the fliers. Serzan, a member of the 4th Marine Division on Saipan and a retired Bayonne, New Jersey, police officer, said one of his fellow Marines found a number of photos of Earhart and Noonan while searching a dead Japanese soldier. “I will never forget seeing those pictures of Amelia Earhart,” wrote Serzan, who died in 1995:
There were several Japanese officers with her and she certainly looked in good health. . . . The one picture I do recall to mind was one where Fred was standing sort of behind a Japanese officer to his right, and next was Amelia and then two more Japanese officers. There were other pictures of her and an officer alone and she was in sort of a fly jacket—and half a dozen others I don’t remember. All were taken outdoors—no buildings in sight. Trees in background. Fred appeared much taller than Japanese. I wish I had been able to get one of those pictures. When leaving Hawaii to come back to the mainland, we were told to get rid of the souvenirs because we would have to pay a duty. We threw tons of stuff away and we never were searched. We could have killed for being lied to like that.
Jerome Steigmann, of Phoenix, a longtime member of the Amelia Earhart Society, sent Devine information provided by Frank Howard, of Pueblo, Colo. Howard told Steigmann that he was in the first wave of Marines to hit the beach on Saipan, and later “a buddy found two photographs in a Jap Officer’s outpost they had just captured . . . one with Naval officers, and one with Army officers,” Howard wrote. The below drawing by Howard appeared in the September 1992 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, with the following narrative from Howard:
There were two photos, one with Naval officers, and one with Army officers. In one picture, the Naval officers must have left, as only the Army officers remained and Fred Noonan had his jacket off and had laid it on his lap, so it must have been a hot day, as the soldiers and officers were in short white-sleeved shirts, as was Amelia and Fred. The soldiers also had those curtain type sun shade cloths behind their necks, but they had those wrappings around their legs. Amelia and Fred seemed very tired and the day must have been at high noon. Amelia was wearing “jodhpurs” trousers with cuffs, and Fred dark trousers with cuffs. My buddy was killed in action, and I never saw the photos again. I enclose a sketch as best as I remember.
Another Amelia Earhart Society member, Col. Rollin Reineck (U.S. Air Force, retired), received a letter from Dale Chandler, a former radioman aboard the USS Rocky Mount (AGC-3), the flagship for the Joint Expeditionary Force attacking Saipan, Guam and Tinian in June-July, 1944. The following also appeared in the September 1992 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter:
One afternoon in early July 1944, I was going to my shift in the radio room, and on the way I met one of the ship’s photographers. I asked him if I could see some of the photos of the invasion. He showed me a photograph of a man and a woman among other photos in a shoe box found in a captured Jap Officer’s billet. I could not tell who they were, but the photographer stated that they were Amelia Earhart and her “pilot” (sic). He further stated that it proved they were on Saipan in 1937, and not lost at sea. The photo was taken in front of the building where he had found the photograph. He said the building where the photo was taken was in the background, but was now partially destroyed by shellfire but parts of the building still standing were easy to recognize. I was 12 years old when the Earhart disappearance took place, and I assumed she was dead, lost at sea.
The snapshot was taken on the side of the building, and facing the camera she was on the left. She was wearing a kaiki (sic) jacket, breeches and a wrapping around her, below her knees. No hat. He was on her left wearing a dark jacket and pants, white shirt, no tie and his hat cocked on the side of his head. The photo went to CIC, now the CIA.
All of this information is true and accurate.
Nothing more is presented in the AES Newsletters about Chandler’s claim.
Joseph Garofalo, a former Seabee and Saipan veteran, claimed to have found a photo of Earhart in the wallet of a dead Japanese soldier. In a letter to Devine, Garofalo, of the Bronx, New York wrote that he “searched a dead Jap officer and it was in his wallet along with a picture of his family.” Garofalo continued:
As best I can remember the photo fit on the inside of the Jap officer’s wallet, it was in black and white, with sort of a sepia finish, which looked faded. It was about the third week after we landed [on Saipan]. Many of my buddies had seen the picture at that time. As you face the photo, Amelia Earhart was standing on the left-hand side, wearing pants and the shirt she was wearing had short sleeves, it was probably khaki; she looked very haggard and thin. The Jap officer was on the right wearing the traditional short visor cap and leggings. She seemed a few inches taller than the Jap. It has been 49 years ago, the description of the picture is still in my mind, and I consider it accurate.
None of the priceless photos Saipan veterans reported seeing have publicly surfaced. For years Devine tried to obtain a photo of Earhart an ex-GI claimed he found on Saipan in 1944. The man told Devine that a Japanese officer, a woman, and two children were standing with Earhart in the photo, which he gave to a friend along with other personal items after being wounded. Devine offered the man $10,000, but the trail dried up when the man, who had entered a veterans hospital, stopped responding to his correspondence.
In another near miss, Virginia Ward, of Waterbury, Conn., told Devine that her two cousins, Marines who were both badly wounded on Saipan, brought back photos of Earhart they found there. Both died within two years of their return to the states, and Ward never found the photos.
For much more on the substantial oral histories of American military veterans and their knowledge of Amelia Earhart on Saipan, please see Chapter IX, “Saipan Veterans Come Forward,” in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, pages 180-204.