Many eyewitnesses and several investigators have established the presence of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan, but only one of these alleged eyewitnesses has ever claimed she actually watched Amelia’s execution. The stunning account of Mrs. Nieves Cabrera Blas, who was interviewed extensively in the mid-1980s by Texas real estate man-turned-Earhart-investigator T.C. “Buddy” Brennan, remains perhaps the most provocative of all the first-person testimonies to have ever been taken on Saipan. (Boldface mine throughout.)
Besides listening to Mrs. Blas’ incredible story, Brennan, author of the 1988 book, Witness to the Execution: The Odyssey of Amelia Earhart, excavated yet another alleged Earhart gravesite on Saipan in 1984. Manny Muna, a child there during the war years, told Brennan several Earhart stories, but nothing approached the blockbuster potential of the alleged eyewitness account of Mrs. Blas, an 83-year-old native who had never been interviewed before Brennan came to her home in November 1983. If her story was true, Amelia lived much longer on Saipan than most researchers have believed.
Initially, Mrs. Blas feared that Brennan was affiliated with the CIA, but he assured her that he only wanted to inform Amelia’s long-suffering family about her true fate. More than once, Brennan had to convince Mrs. Blas that U.S. officials weren’t lurking nearby, determined to send her to an American prison for telling civilian investigators what she knew about the famous pilot’s death.
Before the war, Nieves Cabrera lived on a farm near Garapan, and part of her family’s land was next to a fence the Japanese built to protect their base. One day, she said, they were told Japan was at war with the United States and only her family would be permitted to work in that area. Mrs. Blas’ account as told to Brennan, Mike Harris and Brennan’s son, T.C. Brennan II, is the highlight of Witness to the Execution:
Before the war one day there is great excitement. It is said that the Japanese have captured two spy people. They are holding them in the town. Many of us go there to see the two spies. I saw them in the square where the Japanese police building was. The Japanese guards made them take off all the clothes, everything they had on their bodies.
It is then we can see that one of the spies is a woman. Both of them were wearing trousers and I had believed both were men. I had never known before a woman who wore men’s trousers. The man seemed to be hurt and had a bandage on his head. The woman was wearing a watch, and some rings and some kind of medal. They take these, then put her back in the cells. We learn in the village the woman’s name is Amelia Earhart and she was a flyer and an American spy.
Realizing he might be onto something big — “an eyewitness placing Earhart and Noonan on Saipan, a source never before contacted by anyone!” — Brennan asked Mrs. Blas if she saw Earhart again. “Not for many years,” she told him, but she heard Earhart had been kept in “the little prison building . . . and never brought outside the fence again.” Through Rosa, their native interpreter, Brennan learned it wasn’t until several years after the war had started that Mrs. Blas and her family were “surprised to be bombed by ships and airplanes.” She said the Japanese told them it was the Americans and ordered her family to seek shelter in the caves. The Cabrera family eventually returned to their farm, where she picked up her story:
Then one day I am working . . . and I see three Japanese motorcycles. Amelia Earhart is in a little seat on the side of one motorcycle. She is wearing handcuffs and she is blindfolded. I watch and they take her to this place where there is a hole been dug. They make her kneel in front then they tear the blindfold from her face and throw it into the hole. The soldiers shoot her in the chest and she fall backwards into the grave.
Mrs. Blas said she “ran from that place so the soldiers do not see me. Later, I go back to see if they bury her, and they had.” An unidentified local had informed Mrs. Blas that Brennan was a “good person,” so she acceded to his pleas and led the group to a spot below a huge parking lot surrounded by a seven-foot security fence.
Brennan and Harris returned to Saipan several months later, sometime in mid-1984. Brennan wasn’t precise with his dates, but he and Harris calculated that Mrs. Blas watched the alleged Earhart execution on a day between the February 1944 U.S. naval and aerial bombardment of the island and the June 1944 invasion. The day after their arrival, Brennan and Harris excavated the site with the assistance of a native equipment operator, a front loader, and two additional hired hands as Mrs. Blas and Rosa looked on. When the digging was finished, a “trench roughly four feet wide and about 12 feet long,” according to Brennan, and at least five-and-a-half-feet deep yielded nothing of interest until a strange piece of cloth suddenly appeared.
“It was not a random scrap of torn cloth,” Brennan wrote, but was “cut to a distinct pattern, portions of a stitched hem were faintly discernible. The top was cut straight and measured slightly over 24 inches in length. It was the bottom portion that puzzled us. The center segment was a uniform width of about six or eight inches, but on each side it had been cut in even arcs to form thin bands at the top.” As Brennan and Harris stood in the ditch looking over their find, Mrs. Blas peered down on them with no doubt about its provenance, as Rosa translated. “She believes that is the blindfold Amelia was wearing,” Rosa said. “The soldiers removed it and threw it into the grave just before they shot her.”
Though he needed only the parking lot manager’s permission to dig, Brennan had agreed to complete the job on a Sunday, a condition he would later claim seriously compromised their efforts. “We could have been within a foot of our artifacts,” Brennan told Harris afterward. “Until we get permission to cover at least a 10- to 15-square-yard area we can’t prove or disprove anything. . . . I believe we came within inches of finding human remains out there today. And I believe that when we do find them they will be those of Amelia Earhart.”
In closing Witness to the Execution, Brennan said efforts to “validate the blindfold developed into a real Catch-22 situation,” without explaining his use of that term, and that “publicly funded crime labs” performed this kind of analysis. A “formal, signed, official report would have to wait for the future,” Brennan wrote, and claimed the blindfold was “made of cotton fiber, consistent with fabrics in general use during the early ’40s. There is nothing to indicate it was woven more recently than fifty years ago. Yes, it could well have survived that length of time underground.”
Mrs. Blas told a fascinating story, but it’s been contradicted by many who place Earhart’s death within months, or a few years at most, of her arrival on Saipan. Her gravesite’s location, relative to any known community or landmark, was never described by Brennan, but it was not the site revealed to Thomas E. Devine by the unnamed Okinawan woman in 1945, nor was it the gravesite outside the Liyang Cemetery excavated by Marine Privates Everett Henson Jr. and Billy Burks under the direction of Marine Capt. Tracy Griswold sometime after the island was secured on July 9, 1944, and to which an entire chapter of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last is devoted. Devine offered an alternate scenario that he thought could explain Mrs. Blas’ story, while preserving the integrity of the Okinawan woman’s site, which he never doubted was the true Earhart burial place.
“Mrs. Blas may have been confused by prior events that have taken place on Saipan,” Devine wrote:
I recall the ONI Report, I was allowed to read at their office in Hartford, Connecticut, stating white women were not a rarity on Saipan, since a Russian woman writer had arrived on the island in the early 1930s. But there is no report of her departure. And since Vincente Taman had bragged about burying a white woman in the Tanapag village area, as did Jesús Salas, it could very well have been the Russian woman writer. Mrs. Blas, as well as other residents of Saipan, no doubt recalls the existence of a cemetery in the Tanapag area, where burials took place.
When I observed this piece of rag, I recalled rags such as these were used as sweat bands by prisoners, as well as civilians, working at labor in the hot sun on Saipan. But I cannot imagine Brennan coming along with a rag saying it was in there since that time, when the bones are gone and the teeth are gone and the rag survived. The Brennan- [Ray] Rosenbaum [ghostwriter] book is a repeat of prior misinformation; the exhibition and interpretation of a piece of rag is extraordinarily bizarre.
Devine’s critique of Brennan’s blindfold claim was valid, but the Texan interviewed three significant witnesses for the first time ever — Lotan Jack, Manny Muna and Nieves Cabrera Blas. The “prior misinformation” Devine referenced was undoubtedly anything suggesting a Marshall Islands landfall by the fliers—the accounts of Oscar deBrum, John Heine and Queen Bosket Diklan, for example. Devine’s aversion to Earhart’s Marshalls landing was among his greatest flaws as a researcher, and prevented him from developing a true vision of the events that led to her arrival on Saipan.
Whether Mrs. Blas witnessed the execution of Amelia Earhart or not, and regardless of Brennan’s dubious blindfold claim, Witness to the Execution is a valuable contribution to Earhart research. The witnesses it presented further established the most important truth about the fliers’ fate, a reality that the American and Japanese governments continue to ignore — that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan died on Saipan. Brennan recognized this, and concluded his book on that note:
That Earhart and Noonan were incarcerated in Garapan Prison is no longer open to speculation. They were there. People like David Sablan, a highly respected businessman, and Manny Muna, an ex-senator, as well as members of their families remember the appearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan. (Italics Brennan’s.)