Occasionally it behooves us, as students and enthusiasts of the Earhart saga, to return to the very roots of the matter, and to re-examine some of the original accounts that sparked the seminal investigations that paved the way for seven decades of research that now so emphatically reveals Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s Mili Atoll landing and subsequent deaths on Saipan.
Today we present the first-person account of Josephine Blanco Akiyama, as presented by Josephine herself in Family Weekly, the San Mateo Times Sunday magazine, on July 3, 1960. In all fairness, we should note that Josephine was not the first Pacific islander to share her knowledge of the post-July 2, 1937 survival of the American fliers with outsiders.
In my Feb. 16, 2015 post, “Marshall Islands ‘fishing boat pickup’ update,” we saw the March 1944 story from AP correspondent Eugene Burns, “Clue Obtained To Mystery of Amelia Earhart,” that appeared in the Benton Harbor (Mich.) News Palladium and a few other newspapers across the country.
In his story, Burns reported the account of Marshall Islander Elieu Jibambam as told to Navy Lieutenant Eugene Bogan in early 1944. “A Jap trader named Ajima three and a half years ago on Rita island told me than an American woman pilot came down between Jaluit and Ailinglapalap atolls,” Elieu reportedly told Bogan. “She was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat and the trader Ajima heard that she was taken to Japan.”
Elieu told other American military men the same story, but Burns’ report caused nary a ripple in the United States, largely because it was ignored by most papers and buried in others. The nation was focused on far more pressing wartime business in early 1944, and the Earhart story had no legs. But by 1960, the world had changed immensely, and when Linwood Day of the San Mateo Times was alerted to Josephine Blanco Akiyama’s childhood story as revealed by Paul Briand Jr., in his 1960 book Daughter of the Sky, the real modern search for Amelia Earhart began.
Without further background already available in several other posts on this blog, the following story, bylined “Mrs. Josephine Blanco Akiyama” appeared in Family Weekly, the July 3, 1960 Sunday magazine of the San Mateo Times, and begins with the following introduction. (Italic emphasis in original, boldface emphasis is mine throughout.)
On July 1 [sic], 1937, Amelia Earhart, at 39, America’s most famous aviatrix, disappeared without trace while on the last lap of a round-the-world flight.
Accompanied by her navigator, Capt. Fred J. Noonan, she had set out from the East Indies toward Howland Island in the West Pacific. It has been variously speculated that they perished at sea, were made prisoners of the Japanese, were cast away on an undiscovered island, even that they are still living in Japan under assumed names!
Now an eyewitness claims that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were shot by the Japanese as spies in her native Saipan. Mrs. Josephine Blanco Akiyama, who was 11 years old when she witnessed Miss Earhart’s crash landing on the beach of her homeland, taught school and worked as a dental assistant for the U.S. Navy in Saipan before she came to the United States three years ago. She now lives in San Mateo, Calif., with her husband and eight-year-old son.
“I Saw Amelia Earhart Crash on Saipan”
I SAW AMELIA EARHART crash on Saipan in the summer of 1937. I know that Miss Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were executed as spies by the Japanese a few days later.
I was 11 years old then and probably the only civilian witness because they crashed in a restricted zone of the island. But I had a special pass to let me bicycle through this area because my brother-in-law worked as a mechanic for the Japanese Navy, and I was permitted to bring him his lunch every noon.
That day the sky was not particularly clear. There were clouds hanging over the beaches.
About three or four minutes after I entered the restricted zone, I heard a plane. I looked up and saw a twin-engine plane cut through the clouds. The motors seemed to be functioning all right, but I was too young to know much about that.
The plane circled briefly, disappeared, same back into view, and dived toward the beach. It seemed to level off at the last moment.
I was not close enough to see how badly it was damaged. Nor did I dare go closer. I had been raised to curb my curiosity about anything military. And everything that happened in a restricted zone was military.
But my curiosity was too great to overcome, so I waited around to see what would happen. After a few minutes I saw soldiers rush to the scene. They surrounded the plane and, a little later, escorted two people past me: a fairly tall slim woman with a short haircut and dressed in man’s clothing; and a tall man who was wearing dark trousers and a light shirt with short sleeves.
I could tell that both were terribly exhausted. But they didn’t appear to be hurt. Nor were their clothes torn.
When I saw my bother-in-law a few minutes later, I tried to tell him what had happened. There were so many people around that I didn’t dare speak up. But I did tell my parents as soon as I got home.
I can still hear their reaction. “Don’t tell anyone, Josephine, or we’ll all be in serious trouble,” my father pleaded.
“We might get shot,” my mother cried out. “Forget what you saw!”
They were scared. All of us on Saipan were scared, for we had come under Japanese control when the island became its mandate shortly after World War I and was turned into an important naval base. Before, it had belonged to Germany and before that to Spain.
I was born there and, like most natives, was taught early to respect, obey, and fear the Japanese. At least the military. Socially, we got along quite well with them, and there were many intermarriages. My own family was so prominent that whenever a Japanese dignitary came to Saipan, he would be taken to our house for a native meal.
WHILE WE HAD a lot of Japanese civilian friends, we knew only a few of the military. I asked one of them repeatedly what happened to the man and woman who were captured. At first he kept evading the issue, but finally he told me they both had been shot as spies.
Again my parents warned me never to mention what I had seen or heard, or all of us would surely be killed. This time I put it out of my mind till after World War II.
When the Americans captured Saipan, a Navy dental clinic was established on the island. I was trained and then hired as a dental assistant. I worked with a Navy lieutenant, Dr. Casimir Sheft. It was to him that I mentioned one day the Americans who had been captured and killed in 1937.
His curiosity about them was immense. He asked me to describe the people, the plane, and the time it happened. He was very excited about what I told him.
A few days later he showed me a picture of a man and woman whom I identified as the same two who had crashed on the beach when I was 11.
“That’s Amelia Earhart!” he exclaimed, pointing at the lady.
“Who was Amelia Earhart?” I asked.
It was only then, after he explained, that I realized I had been an eyewitness to a momentous and fateful event in aviation history.
(End of July 3, 1960 Family Weekly story.)
On one of the copies of the story I have, Fred Goerner scribbled, “Who was ghost writer?” directly under Josephine’s name in the byline. It was a natural question, as the story was clearly edited, if not completely written, by a professional. Since Linwood Day penned all the Earhart stories presented in the San Mateo Times that summer (see “Linwood Day: Forgotten hero of the Earhart saga“), it’s likely that Day also worked with Josephine on this one.
Goerner wrote other interesting comments as well, numbering them from one to 13 across the top of the page. Number one for the KCBS radio newsman who was soon to become a national celebrity, was “Lady Pilot and Her Navigator — Who told her?”
Other comments included “Originally said man was injured,” “Told Briand she heard shots,” a “few days later” and “a few weeks later,” and other discrepancies Goerner found in the Family Weekly story as compared with Josephine’s account to Dr. Casimir Sheft and related to Paul Briand Jr. in his 1960 book, Daughter of the Sky, and later as seen in Linwood Day’s San Mateo Times stories of May through July 1960.
When we consider the many and varying witness accounts given to investigators over the years, we can also be fairly certain that contrary to Josephine’s original story that the fliers were shot by the Japanese soon after their arrival on Saipan, Amelia and Fred did survive for a still-undermined time before meeting their ends.
Whether the plane that “belly landed” in Tanapag Harbor, as Josephine described it to Sheft, who was later indirectly quoted by Briand in his book, was a Japanese seaplane or land-based aircraft is still not known, and remains one of the most nagging of many unresolved questions in the Earhart-arrival-on-Saipan scenario.
But these are the natural problems that arise when a 34-year-old woman is relating an incident she witnessed as a youth of 11. Josephine Blanco Akiyama will always be remembered as the first and best known of the Saipan witnesses, whose account as initially reported by Briand spurred Goerner’s four highly publicized investigative trips to Saipan, and without which Goerner’s blockbuster The Search for Amelia Earhart would never have been written.
In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it was Josephine’s story that made it possible for a few intrepid souls to break through the decades-old establishment truth embargo and set out upon the real modern search for Amelia Earhart. It is no small distinction.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of research into the disappearance of Amelia Earhart knows about Fred Goerner and his 1966 classic The Search for Amelia Earhart. Goerner’s book remains the only bestseller ever penned about the Earhart case, and it opened the doors for other researchers, including this one, to continue the quest to establish the truth about what has evolved into one of the greatest travesties and cover-ups in modern American history.
But the popular San Francisco radio newsman would have never known about Amelia Earhart had it not been for the fine work of San Mateo Times reporter Linwood McGuire Day, whose groundbreaking stories set the stage for everything that was to come in the real modern-day search for Amelia Earhart. On May 27, 1960, a full-page headline adorned the top of page 1 of the Times, exclaiming, “San Matean Says Japanese Executed Amelia Earhart.” The first of many of Day’s reports, titled “Woman’s Story: Aviatrix Died Before Saipan Firing Squad,” began:
A San Mateo woman who may have been one of the last to see Amelia Earhart alive, says that the famed aviatrix was executed by a Japanese firing squad even while the U.S. Navy was spending $4,000,000 in a futile search for the missing flier and her navigator, Frederick Noonan.
Mrs. Josephine Blanco Akiyama of 15 South Idaho Street, has identified pictures of Amelia as the “American lady pilot” she saw taken into custody on the fortress island of Saipan in July 1937. The woman flier was accompanied by a man, she said, an American also dressed in aviator’s garb.
Little more than a month later, the front page of the July 1, 1960 Times, with its 100-point headline, “AMELIA EARHART MYSTERY IS SOLVED” rocked the nation. As true today as it was 54 years ago, the page is framed and mounted on my study wall, and it never fails to inspire. Even in 1960, though hundreds of newspapers ran Day’s story, and United Press International, then one of the preeminent news wires in the world, picked it up immediately, no trace of it can be found in the major papers such as the Washington Post and New York Times. Apparently, the word came down quickly from the nation’s power centers that the truth in the Earhart story was off limits, and it’s remained so to this day.
I always wondered about Linwood Day, the forgotten scribe who produced so many great stories in May, June and July of 1960, stories that rattled cages across the country and reverberated all the way to the halls of Congress. Quite serendipitously, I recently came across Linwood Day and his daughter Beverly’s names in a state of Maine genealogy chat room discussion. A few more steps and a kind cousin provided Beverly’s email address, as well as her snail mail. Soon we were talking on the phone, and she was happy to share her memories of her father’s days on the Earhart story, and how much it meant to him.
A byline in a family newspaper
“Goerner contacted him because he saw the newspaper story that came out that my dad wrote,” Beverly told me from her home in Waterville, Maine. “He told me a lot about his conversation with her [Josephine Blanco Akiyama, whose account was first reported by Paul Briand Jr. in his little-known 1960 book, Daughter of the Sky]. What sticks with me is that my father was absolutely certain that she was correct about the fact that Earhart and Noonan died on Saipan, and that it was the Japanese that had taken them there and that Josephine was a young girl at the time but she saw them being pushed through the jungle. And they went to this military barracks kind of thing where they imprisoned them.”
But while Day’s stories transfixed the nation and launched Goerner on his life’s mission, the public never heard the rest of the story, the story behind the story, so to speak, and it wasn’t a happy one. Goerner got all the glory and wrote the famous book. Linwood Day got a byline in a family newspaper, and that was it, except perhaps his own satisfaction in a job well done.
For Goerner, it was always about himself, about fame and celebrity, narcissism and greed. Sure, he was a great radio newsman and is still the most important Earhart researcher ever, but Fred Goerner wasn’t a nice guy, not by any stretch. Many anecdotes I’ve heard in recent years attest to this unhappy fact, and I don’t enjoy reporting it. Moreover, I’ve kept the most disturbing things I’ve learned about Goerner off the pages of this blog, and will continue to do so.
From the first time Goerner saw Day’s story, he determined to make it his own. One fact I was unaware of until talking to Beverly was that beginning with the July 1, 1960 shocker, the Earhart stories her father produced were written with information Goerner provided over the phone. Day was never sent to Saipan to cover Goerner’s investigations in the summer of 1960, the first of his four visits to the island prior to the publication of Search.
“My dad was really upset,” Beverly recalled. “The deal was Goerner got his station [KCBS] to send him to Saipan, while my dad tried to get the newspaper to send him along and they refused. . . . He was heartbroken about not being able to go to Saipan when KCBS sent Goerner. . . . My dad was the real writer. It was ridiculous, because Goerner came in on it after my dad had started this whole thing. It was like he all of a sudden took over and took all the credit. My dad was going to write a book about it and Goerner said, “No, no. We can work on this book together.
“And then he wrote the book and never gave my dad credit for anything. . . . My father was livid. He called Goerner and they argued on the phone, and I remember that because I remember my father slamming the phone down and pacing back and forth in his den. His face was just blood red. I had never seen my dad so angry, and you can imagine how he felt because he had to convince the Times to run the Earhart story. At first they were very nervous about doing this because ‘How do you know this is true’ and ‘Are we going to be liable?’ blah, blah, blah. But my dad was such a good reporter. Not only did he know how to write, he knew how to tell a story, how to pull it all together.
“He gave Goerner all this information” she continued, “what questions to ask, he told him who talk to [on Saipan], he told him everything. He [Goerner] totally screwed my dad; it did not end well.” A check of The Search for Amelia Earhart reveals just one single mention of Linwood Day. On page 2, Goerner wrote about how he initially became involved with the Earhart story: “Intrigued, I called Lin Day, the Times newsman who had written the story.” And that was it for the man Goerner promised co-authorship of the book that was to become the definitive Earhart work and turn Goerner a national celebrity.
“He [Day] was very charismatic . . . a great intellectual and he had a way of getting people to talk to him,” Beverly said. “He was very professorial and had an innate grasp on history. He was always interested in the way things happened. I mean he did a lot of firsts. He was the first reporter on an atomic submarine . . . and then wrote about what it was like.” Indeed, an archive search of the San Mateo Times revealed an October 1964 story headlined “Staff Travels Around Globe” with the statement, “Linwood Day spent two days beneath the ocean in an atomic submarine.”
Another story in the same October 1964 issue, titled “Times News Staff Builds Top Record in its Coverage,” tells us that “Lin Day has served seven years with the staff and gained his experience in Philadelphia and Maine journalism. He was formerly on the staff of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, and San Jose (California) Mercury,” as well as the Maine Sunday Telegram. Most importantly, Day’s coverage of the Search for Amelia Earhart brought the San Mateo Times worldwide attention, though few papers covered his Earhart work.
“Discourses” with presidents and kings
Linwood Day spent most of his days in San Mateo at the Times, where he was eventually promoted to editor, recalled Beverly. “He first edited The Post, a ‘weekly grocery rag‘ put out by the San Mateo Times, and he did something unexpected,” she said. “He applied the tenacious spirit and dedication to detail that had made him a great reporter to molding The Post into something people actually wanted to read. And read they did. The Post’s circulation increased fourfold. And Lin Day? He was swiftly moved over to a new position — editor of the San Mateo Times. Besides his editing duties, my Dad also served as the Times Food Editor — — which I remember all too well as he would get tons of free coupons for ‘a hand-packed quart’ of Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors Ice Cream. Ah, to be a kid again.”
Beverly also worked as a journalist before branching off into a multifaceted writing and high-tech marketing career that included positions with Cray Supercomputers, Lockheed Martin and the advertising agency VIA in Portland, Maine. She laughs when talking about her last position with the famed Jackson Laboratory, in Bar Harbor, Maine saying, “I could probably tell you more than you ever wanted to know about 3,000 strains of inbred mice.”
An animal lover, she’s also owned Arabian horses for many years and has been breeding Maine Coon Cats since 1993, with an eye toward earning a Grand Championship for her 9-month-old Maine Coon cat, Honeycoon Sir Braeburn during the next show season. “Like my Dad, I love a challenge and have a very competitive spirit,” she said.
When asked what she most remembers about her Dad, she answers, “His growl! Friends of Dad used to joke that when he was on a story he was like a bulldog, he just wouldn’t let go. He developed the habit that whenever he finished a story he would let out this great terrier growl. The only time I don’t recall the growl was when he was on the Amelia Earhart story.” Why no growl? “To my Dad the Amelia Earhart story wasn’t finished yet,” Beverly recalled. “There was more, much more to be written.”
Beverly spoke fondly of a childhood spent mainly with her father, who took the family to California when she was 4 but was divorced her mother four years later. “It was just my dad and me from the age of 8 till I was 13 or 14 when he married for the second time,” she said. “So from that age, I was the one he talked to and I was mature for my age because I had to be. He would take me with him on stories. I would accompany him all over the place. If there was a fire engine passing, he would jump in the car and I would jump in the car and off we’d go.” Linwood Day, without doubt, often caught up with the fire engine or whatever else he was chasing for a story during his heyday at the San Mateo Times.
Below is a list of just a few of the many memories – “random facts” – about her father that Beverly created on short notice:
- He was heavily involved in political writing and mentions that he “walked the floor of Philadelphia’s Convention Hall with Jim Farley, stood by as Harry Truman ‘gave ’em hell,‘ sat on the floor in dim hotel rooms with Henry Wallace Progressives, and accompanied the Goldwater crusaders in their epic San Francisco takeover.”
- He interviewed, “or discoursed with” (his words) President Richard Nixon, President John F. Kennedy, Estes Kefauver, Harold Stassen, Joe Martin, Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Edward VIII of England and Robert Frost.
- He wrote a speech for Nixon when he was running for Governor of California.
- He received a brief note from Ronald Reagan when he was Gov. of Calif. thanking him for his book [The Constitutional Conservative: The Poetry of a Cause, 1972] and saying, “I enjoyed reading it and found much food for thought.”
“My father could talk anyone into just about anything,” Beverly wrote, “and somewhere I have a picture of him getting the head of a museum in San Francisco along with the Egyptian liaison – well – he got them to let him try on King Tut’s ring – when the King Tut Exhibit came to California.”
Linwood McGuire Day was born in 1917 and attended the University of Maine in Orono, majored in history and journalism and graduated about 1941. He retired at age 68 and spent the remaining years of his life in Davis, California, where he died in 2003 at age 85. I like to think that Amelia was among the first to welcome him at the Pearly Gates, and that she thanked him profusely for all he did to tell the world the truth about her sad end on Saipan.