We return to the early 1960s and the seminal Saipan investigations by Fred Goerner, Joe Gervais and Robert Dinger. Brother Gregorio, who signed his full name as “Brother Gregorio Oroquieth, Churio, S.J.” in the 1961 letter he wrote to researcher Joe Gervais below, while Gervais was still in the Air Force, was a minor footnote in the Earhart saga, but this is yet another credible account that places Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan soon after their July 2, 1937 disappearance.
Based on the letter’s date, Gregorio wrote it before Fred Goerner’s arrival on Saipan in September 1961 for his second investigation, although Goerner apparently learned of Gregorio’s story a year earlier. We’ll return to Goerner after presenting Gregorio’s interesting missive to Gervais, who was doing respectable research on Guam and Saipan during those early days.
The letter below appeared in the November 1994 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
Translated 17 February 1961 by Roy Sorenson, Spanish teacher, Kubisaki High School, Okinawa
6 February 1961
Dear Captain Gervais, Saipan
I am writing this letter in Spanish rather than English because I feel I can express my reply more understandably for you. I enjoyed the photos you sent of Father Arnold [Bendowski], yourself, and [Robert] Dinger. Dinger is certainly a beautiful [sic] Air Force Captain, isn’t he?
I recall a little over 20 years ago before War was declared during the summer holidays for the children, when they came to the vestry to tell me of the two American spies who were apprehended on Saipan near Garapan. They mentioned one was an American woman who wears long pants like a man and has a haircut like a man. The Japanese police have these Americans as spies, and the woman’s companion’s face is very suntanned like Spanish people’s face. The Japanese take them away to ask questions. The children were Jesus Rios, Juan Sanches, Jose Sanches [sic, correct spelling for Juan and Jose is Sanchez, according to Fred Goerner, see page 102, 103 The Search for Amelia Earhart], Jose Geregeyo [sic], and the Americans were seen coming from the direction of Lisang near Garapan.
Kumoi [Jesús De Leon Guerrero] spoke to me about them a few days later of these two American Intelligence Spies and says he will show them everything if they give him much money. I spoke to Father Arnold in 1947, and again in 1960 on Guam about Kumoi, and his story has changed recently from that which was said over 20 years ago, and at the same time of the children’s, as I best can recall.
After the invasion of Saipan I went to Intelligence Officer there on Saipan, I don’t remember the Officer’s name, and asked him if they wanted any information of the two Americans, the man and the woman who come to Saipan from Hawaii in an airplane for American intelligence before the invasion. He said there was no such thing as an American woman in any airplane of any kind for Intelligence that he ever heard of. He was not interested at all in more talking after saying that, and I left. Vinciente Guerror [sic, Vicente Guerrero is correct] in 1947 on Saipan — Father [Jose Maria] Tardio (can’t make this out clearly) [sic].
My best wishes to you both, and Father Arnold. I do not know if this will be of help as I don’t know what became of these two Americans as the vestry was far located from where they were apprehended. If can be of further assistance please feel free to correspond.
Your friend and servant,
Brother Gregorio, Oroquieth, Churio, S.J.
In his 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart Fred Goerner provided the rest of the known background on Brother Gregorio and what he knew about the presence and death of Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan:
As I had learned the preceding year, only one person assigned to the Catholic mission before the war had survived the invasion and the years that followed. Father Tardio had died in Spain after the war, but one of the lay brothers, Brother Gregorio, was at the church on Yap Island. During the year, Father Sylvan [Conover] had talked with Gregorio at a gathering of church officials on Guam. Brother Gregorio remembered the story of the two white people, supposedly fliers, who had been held by the Japanese during 1937-1938, but it was not eyewitness testimony. The Brother along with the Fathers and Sisters at the mission had been restricted to church grounds by the Japanese during that period, and then had been placed under house arrest on December 8, 1941. Two young Saipanese, the Sanchez brothers, Juan and Jose, had told Gregorio of the two Americans and what the Japanese had done to them. The brothers had been in their teens at the time, but Gregorio was certain that they had told him the truth. He felt that it was extremely unlikely the boys could have invented such a story.
Father Sylvan and I traced the brothers Sanchez and found them working as mechanics for the mysterious entity known as NTTU [Naval Technical Training Unit]. They were surprised and disturbed when Father Sylvan asked them about Brother Gregorio’s statement, but admitted they had some knowledge of the incident. Both felt they would like to refresh their memories before making a definite statement and promised to come to the church mission house the next day and give us the details. Only one Sanchez appeared the following morning, and his attitude had completely changed. He claimed neither he nor his brother had any information that would help us. “Brother Gregorio does not remember correctly,” he said. “We know nothing of what he says.”
Father Sylvan questioned hard and long but to no avail. The Sanchez brothers were obviously frightened and were not going to say a thing. Another full year passed before we learned the two Saipanese had been told by the Navy or NTTU not to cooperate with the people who were asking questions about the missing fliers. Father Sylvan and I had suspected as much in 1961.
Brother Gregorio’s 1961 account added another voice to the ever-growing chorus attesting to the presence and deaths of Earhart and Noonan on Saipan. The incident between Father Sylvan Conover and the Sanchez brothers as recounted by Fred Goerner is yet another example of the U.S. government’s ongoing commitment to controlling and covering up the truth about the fliers’ Saipan deaths — as if we needed any more proof.
In the wake of our recent three part series about George P. Putnam’s desperate search for Amelia Earhart, which included consultations with psychics and others who offered advice to him from the “other side,” the question of whether Putnam ever visited Saipan to search for his wife’s gravesite has often been raised.
Truth at Last presents the eyewitness accounts of Everett Henson Jr. and Billy Burks, former Marine privates who were ordered by Capt. Tracy Griswold to execute a special excavation detail on Saipan during the summer of 1944. An entire chapter is devoted to their stories, and in a subsection within that chapter, titled, “Secret Files and Executive Orders,” Putnam’s possible Saipan search is examined.
California newspaperman Ross Game accompanied Goerner during at least one of his early investigative forays into Washington’s inner sanctums. In a 1998 letter to Rollin Reineck, Game recalled that he and Goerner had been granted access to secret files in 1963 — before Henson came forward to Game with his story — files that outlined the basics of the Griswold, Henson, and Burks incident:
In Washington files we learned that George Palmer Putnam was secretly
brought to the Saipan gravesite after the island had been captured by
U.S. Marines and the remains “secretly” removed under the direction of
an intelligence officer (we even obtained his name, thanks to the CIA).
I wrote to Game in September 2007, and he kindly responded and confirmed that the name of the officer who removed the fliers’ remains was Captain Tracy Griswold. Game was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and passed away in October 2009 at his home in Napa, Calif. Earhart researcher Ron Reuther met with him in 2005 at a Napa restaurant, and described the seventy-five-year-old newsman as “very sharp on recall.”
Game reiterated to Reuther his conviction that Earhart met her end on Saipan and that Griswold directed the recovery of the remains, and he shared an interesting comment Griswold had made to him and Goerner: “Game still strongly believes AE/FN died on Saipan in December 1937, AE of dysentery, and Noonan was killed shortly after,” Reuther wrote in a 2005 e-mail to the Amelia Earhart Society. “He still believes they were buried together and that USMC Captain Tracy Griswold supervised their exhumation, and that the remains were returned to this country. Game and Goerner talked with the two Marine enlisted persons, Henson and Burks who dug up the remains. He says when they later found and talked with Griswold, he said of their efforts and revelations, ‘You did a wonderful job.’ But he would not confirm anything else.”
Putnam’s presence on Saipan during the war is not certain, as the records Game claimed he and Goerner saw have never been released. Major Putnam was an intelligence officer for the 468th Bombardment Group that operated in China, India, Burma, and the Marianas during 1944 and ’45, and could have been on Saipan, but nothing officially confirming it has surfaced.
J. Gordon Vaeth told Goerner in 1964 that in his job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he interviewed an ex-Air Force officer who had been on Saipan and “had personally driven G.P. Putnam around the island. Putnam was busy asking questions intended to reveal whether there was any trace of his wife there,” Vaeth wrote. “According to this interviewee, he did not know whether Putnam ever found anything concrete or not.” Vaeth, eighty-seven and living in Olympia, Washington, told Ron Bright in 2007 that the man’s name was Charles Cushman.
I called Vaeth in July 2008, and he confirmed that Cushman was the man who said he drove Putnam around Saipan “during the days when the war was winding down,” well after the island had been secured and was under the control of the U.S. garrison force. Cushman worked for about “five or six years” at NOAA, Vaeth said, and “died about 20 years ago.” Vaeth said the subject came up between them on a few occasions, and he was sure Cushman said Putnam “came up with no information” that indicated his wife’s presence on Saipan, nor did Cushman say anything to Vaeth about Putnam visiting a gravesite.
Cushman’s name also surfaced when Ron Reuther looked into the alleged Putnam gravesite visit. In October 2005, Reuther wrote to the Amelia Earhart Society online forum that he had narrowed the possible time window for Putnam’s visit to Saipan, citing as sources unnamed “family members, many of whom were women”:
Sometime between July 20 and November 2, 1944 George flew to Saipan and was driven around in a jeep by a U.S. military person, later Col. USAF Cushman. Putnam tried to determine if Earhart had been there, but supposedly found no evidence. It seems to me that with his being a Major and an intelligence officer, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Saipan, with the strong likelihood of a number of GI’s being present who had been told of and/or having found evidence of Earhart and Noonan having being on the island, and with several prominent U.S. Marine officers involved with the invasion who have been quoted by Goerner as having said the Marines had determined Earhart had died there, that George would have been told much of this same information while he was there, especially with his strong connections in Washington or to high brass.
Another voice who supported the Putnam-on-Saipan scenario was British biographer Mary S. Lovell, whose The Sound of Wings (1989) is among the best Earhart biographies, but she offered nothing about a clandestine visit to his wife’s gravesite:
At some time during this period of service George visited Saipan. By now stories that Amelia had been captured by the Japanese and taken to Saipan had started to circulate widely. . . . George drove all over the island making extensive enquiries about the white woman flier but he got no answers that gave him any hope that Amelia had ever been there.
Lovell’s scenario is similar to those offered by G. Gordon Vaeth and Ron Reuther, but she cited no source for her statement placing Putnam on Saipan.
Though the foregoing is suggestive and not definitive about Putnam’s alleged Saipan visit and search, researcher Les Kinney is certain that it never happened. When I recently asked him about this, he said we had “pretty much covered” this topic in the comments section of my Dec. 26, 2017 post, “KCBS 1966 release a rare treasure in Earhart saga, and suggested using his comments in this post.
In one of those remarks, on Jan. 8, 2018, Les wrote:
The story of Putnam traveling to Saipan is “fake news.” It never happened. I tracked his travel from China (where he was stationed) back to the US. The story apparently originated second hand when a guy in a jeep reportedly said he drove Putnam on Saipan. He later said, maybe it was China.
One of the Earhart biographies [Lovell] said Putnam went to Saipan but it was never sourced. Putnam left his unit early in China because of severe health problems which eventually killed him. He never flew to Saipan.
For more of Les Kinney’s statements from the Dec. 26, 2017 post, please click here.
But Les had more to offer. In a May 11, 2021 email, he sent “a few more details regarding the apocryphal Putnam visit to Saipan that might not have been in those comments”:
Putnam left the United States on April 15, 1944. He was a briefing officer attached to the 468th Bomber Group. It was the first week of May 1944 before the entire unit mustered in Kharagpur, India.
Putnam didn’t stay in the theater long. On June 6th, when one of the unit members was introduced to Putnam, he wrote, Putnam didn’t stay long and left because of political connections. That wasn’t true. Putnam contracted a parasite which attacked his kidneys. He hung on for another couple months but departed India back to the states sometime in September. According to military records I reviewed, George arrived in the U.S. on September 25th and was admitted to a hospital. He was discharged a few months later but was never able to shake the lingering parasite that eventually killed him. He died of uremic poisoning in a Trona, California Hospital on January 4, 1950.
Putnam never was assigned per se to China. All the B-29 bombing missions for the 468th originated at Kharagpur, India. They flew over the “Hump” to a refueling strip known as A-7, south of Chengtu China. From that forward refueling base, they carried out raids on Thailand, Burma, Singapore, and later in Japan. Base A-7 is 900 miles from the Eastern Chinese coast which was in Japanese hands and remained that way until the close of war.
The 468th Bomber Group was not reassigned to Tinian (not Saipan three miles north) until May of 1945. By then, Putnam was in California.
There’s no reason to believe Charles Cushman hadn’t met Putnam in India and maybe even had flown with him to forward base A-7. But if Cushman drove Putnam around in a jeep, it would have been in India or possibly at the A7 refueling base in western China.
Cushman wouldn’t have arrived at Tinian until May of 1945 which meant he never drove Putnam around Saipan.
Cushman told Gordon Vaeth, a FAA bureaucrat with an interest in Earhart, the story of driving Putnam around Saipan looking for Amelia’s grave. Later, Cushman told Vaeth he might have been mistaken and that it was China where he ferried Putnam around in a jeep. I have that account in my files. I have no idea where one of the Earhart biographers came up with the story. But it simply couldn’t have happened. Flights from western China to the Pacific islands didn’t occur until spring of 1945. When B-29’s flew to India or western China, prior to that time, they were routed through South America, across the Atlantic to Africa, and then on to India. The first B-29’s didn’t arrive on Saipan from the other direction until late fall of 1944. If Putnam visited Saipan in the summer of 1944, he would have traveled in ill health literally around the world to reach Amelia’s grave site. It just didn’t happen.
A similar account has George analyzing the voice of Tokyo Rose. In Courage is the Price, Amelia’s sister, Muriel, wrote that George made a dangerous three-day trek through Japanese held territory to reach a Marine Corps radio station near the coast where the broadcast reception was loud and clear. After listening to the voice for less than a minute, he said “I’ll stake my life that that is not Amelia’s voice.” None of Muriel’s letters describe any such incident. In fact, she had to write the Army department to determine when and where Putnam served overseas. Much of what Muriel wrote is apocryphal and bordering on the ridiculous. Traveling through Japanese territory for three days to a Marine station on the coast? Muriel knew nothing. As adults, Amelia was more the mother to a petulant child.
Les Kinney makes a strong case that Putnam never made it to Saipan, and I trust that he has the file wherein “Cushman told Vaeth he might have been mistaken and that it was China where he ferried Putnam around in a jeep,” as he describes it, though I’d still like to see the hard copy.
Several years earlier, Amelia Earhart Society researcher Ron Bright joined Kinney in dismissing the idea of Putnam’s alleged Saipan search. During an Oct. 28, 2015 discussion on the now defunct AERA (Amelia Earhart Research Association) Yahoo! Group Forum, Bright wrote that he agreed it was “unlikely that GP toured Saipan looking for his wife.” The former ONI agent continued:
I think the U.S. government was comfortable in the “crash and sank” version, and doubt that he would have taken on such a search without a lot of folks knowing it, including those Navy officials on Saipan in 1944. Never have I seen any other mention of this alleged search.
The only source I would depend on was Vaeth’s identification of Cushman, but who knows how credible Cushman was. He simply could have been mistaken about the identity. I just didn’t press Vaeth on Cushman and the circumstances he found Cushman. Hearsay at best.
. . . Anyway GP would have told Amy, Muriel , et al , even if unsuccessful, that he tried his best to find AE on Saipan. Never a word from him and as a journalist, this would have been reported somewhere, someplace.
Thus, I think you are right, that there really isn’t any solid evidence that GP toured the war torn Saipan. If GP had been there, other reporters would have picked up on it.
Prior to Les Kinney’s recent update, I was undecided about the Putnam-on-Saipan question. Most of all, I had Ross Game’s statement that he and Fred Goerner had viewed secret files in Washington that revealed Putnam’s Saipan visit, and the Cushman story via J. Gordon Vaeth seemed to support Game’s account. Otherwise, Mary Lovell had mentioned Putnam’s alleged Saipan search in her book, without citing a source, and Ron Reuther referenced “female sources“ that he never identified in his message to the AES.
Now I think Kinney’s research and reasoning is superior to the rest of what we have, and he’s made a believer out of me, at least unless and until more definitive information surfaces. Ross Game’s claim, however, still reverberates.
Readers of this blog are familiar with the efforts of Marie S. Castro and the Amelia Earhart Memorial Monument Inc. (AEMMI) to establish a permanent memorial to Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan, as well as the less-than-encouraging progress they’ve made since the formation of the AEMMI in September 2017. Although the Marianas Variety and Saipan TV have supported the AEMMI movement with several stories about Marie and her wealth of Earhart-related experience, the vast majority of the citizens of Saipan remain overwhelmingly opposed to the Earhart Memorial Monument.
What appears to be a small step forward occurred on Feb. 9, when Marie and several members of the AEMMI gathered at the offices of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (CNMI) Historic Preservation Office at Saipan’s Springs Plaza in Gualo Rai to make a charitable donation of several extremely important books that present many aspects of the truth in the Amelia Earhart saga so that local readers can learn the truth for themselves.
Saipan TV’s Ashley McDowell was on hand to chronicle the brief event for local viewers, and interviewed Marie about the AEMMI’s donation to the CNMI Historic Preservation Office of the seven best books ever written (in my opinion) that present various aspects of the truth about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
“This is valuable material that is going into the archives of the Historic Preservation [Office], and this is for anybody who would like to know more about the story on Saipan in 1937,” Marie told McDowell.
Marie then formally read the names and authors of the seven books that will be available in the HPO archives, and presented the AEMMI official HPO resolution to HPO Director Rita Chong. Most are Earhart disappearance classics familiar to anyone with even a casual interest in the Earhart story.
Chronologically, these books are Paul Briand Jr.’s Daughter of the Sky (1960), Fred Goerner’s The Search for Amelia Earhart (1966); Vincent V. Loomis’ Amelia Earhart: The Final Story (1985); Thomas E. Devine’s Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident (1987); Marie S. Castro’s Without a Penny in My Pocket (2013); Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last (2nd Ed. 2016), by Mike Campbell; and Marie Castro: My Life and Amelia Earhart’s Saipan Legacy (2019) by Mike Campbell with Marie S.C. Castro.
“Castro says she hopes these books will give insight to anyone questioning Earhart’s story in 1937 on Saipan,” McDowell said. To watch the Saipan TV video, please click here and go to 13:45.
Better late than never, the Marianas Variety followed with a story and photo by Bryan Manabat on Feb. 16, “Amelia Earhart books donated to Historic Preservation Office.”
Manabat’s story presented some powerful quotes from Marie,, including these:
Castro believes that there is “undeniable evidence that Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan were on Saipan. Earhart’s plane was seen in a Japanese hangar at the Aslito Airfield on Saipan and a Marine, Robert E. Wallack, discovered Earhart’s briefcase in a blown safe on Saipan shortly after the island was declared secure on July 9, 1944.”
Castro pointed out, “Three high-ranking military officials — Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, Gen. Graves B. Erskine and Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the Pacific commander-in-chief during WWII and the last of the Navy’s 5-star admirals — came to the same conclusion that Amelia Earhart had been on Saipan.”
“So we have the responsibility to keep and honor this part of our history, as recorded in these books,” Castro said.
Soon another opportunity for Marie and the AEMMI to bring their Earhart Memorial Monument proposal to public attention looms. The 5th Marianas History Conference, co-organized by the University of Guam, Northern Marianas College, Northern Marianas Humanities Council, Humanities Guåhan, Guampedia, and Guam Preservation Trust, will be held virtually [via Zoom] from Feb. 19-26, 2021 and will feature on-site venues in the CNMI and Guam for select, conference-related events and presentations.
Marie will present her Earhart story to the conference on Feb. 26. Please stay tuned.
Saipan’s Marie Castro is well known to readers of this blog, and I won’t repeat the myriad details of the many stories I’ve posted about this brave woman. Though she was only 4 years old in 1937 when Amelia Earhart came ashore at Saipan’s Tanapag Harbor with Fred Noonan as captives of the Japanese military, Marie later came to know and interview several eyewitnesses to the presence and deaths of Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan.
On Nov. 16, Marie, now 87, appeared on “1001 Heroes, Legends, Histories and Mysteries” podcast with Jon Hagadorn. To listen please click here and scroll down to “The Shocking Truth: Marie Castro Recalls Stories of Amelia Earhart’s 1937 Captivity on Saipan.”
“I have been receiving good responses from people who heard the interview about Amelia Earhart,” Marie wrote in a Nov. 17 email. “Thank you kindly for referring me to Jon so we could reach more people in learning what really happened to the two fliers. I tried my best to answer Jon’s questions during the interview although I missed two or three minor details. I am satisfied for bringing out the real truth of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s presence on Saipan in 1937.”
In September 2021, Amelia Earhart Memorial Monument Inc. (AEMMI), the group Marie founded on Saipan, will mark its fourth anniversary, but despite its best efforts to educate Saipan’s limited populace, scant progress has been made toward erecting a monument to the famed aviatrix and her navigator who became perhaps the first casualties of World War II during their captivity on Saipan in 1937.
Barely a dent has been made in the estimated $200,000 price tag for the monument, and local officials have yet to designate a small plot of land for the monument’s location. The resistance on Saipan to the monument is overwhelming, and I’ve written about this insidious problem at length on this blog and in the Marianas Variety (Micronesia’s Leading Newspaper Since 1972).
A bit closer on the horizon, in February 2021, another opportunity for Marie and the AEMMI to bring their Earhart Memorial Monument proposal to public attention looms. The 5th Marianas History Conference, co-organized by the University of Guam, Northern Marianas College, Northern Marianas Humanities Council, Humanities Guåhan, Guampedia, and Guam Preservation Trust, will be held virtually from Feb. 19-26, 2021 and will feature on-site venues in the CNMI and Guam for select, conference-related events and presentations. Here’s more about this event, straight from their official online promotion (boldface emphasis theirs):
The 5th Marianas History Conference invites scholars, students, and individuals with oral history knowledge of events and people in the Marianas to submit a brief abstract of a paper or presentation that contributes to the many stories that define the history and identity of one archipelago.
The conference theme, One Archipelago, Many Stories: Navigating 500 Years of Cross-Cultural Contact, calls for participants to examine aspects related to history, cultural heritage, language, political status, demographic change, and the overall process of adaptation of the Mariana Islands and her people following Western contact.
In 1521, half a millennium ago, the people of the Mariana Islands had the first known encounter with people from the other side of the world, through the Spanish expedition of Ferdinand Magellan. Those first, complex interactions triggered a number of consequences for our islands: being placed in world maps, the visits in succeeding years by other explorers, and eventually an intense process of colonization that in some respects continues to this day in Guam and in other parts of the Pacific.
I may be biased, but what could be more fitting for this Marianas “History Conference” than to designate the heretofore unacknowledged presence and deaths of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan during the years leading up to World War II as the No. 1 item for discussion? More than likely, however, the eight decades of corrupt politics surrounding the Earhart sacred cow will militate heavily against any meaningful mention of the Earhart case at this “virtual” event, regardless of anything Marie and the AEMMI do to create interest. I hope I’m wrong, but so far I’m batting 1.000 in predicting developments — or lack of same — on Saipan.
“This is the first time also I’ve learned about this event,” the ever-optimistic Marie wrote in a Nov. 23 email. “I told Frances [Mary Sablan, AEMMI vice president] that we need to take any occasion to expose the Amelia Earhart Memorial Monument project. The committee is enthusiastic about it. This strategy serves in educating the whole island about Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.”
With that in mind, Marie has sent the required 200-word abstract on behalf of the AEMMI to the board and staff of the Northern Marianas Humanities Council for their consideration. I won’t be holding my breath, but as always, will be hoping and praying for a merciful break in the constant flood of irrational resistance to the long-overdue establishment of the Amelia Earhart Memorial Monument on Saipan.
To contribute to the Amelia Earhart Memorial Monument on Saipan (see March 16, 2018 story), please make your tax-deductible check payable to: Amelia Earhart Memorial Monument, Inc., and send to AEMMI, c/o Marie S. Castro, P.O. Box 500213, Saipan MP 96950. The monument’s success is 100 percent dependent on private donations, and everyone who gives will receive a letter of appreciation from the Earhart Memorial Committee.
In late October 2017, Ms. Carla Henson, daughter of the late Everett Henson Jr., contacted me for the first time, completely out of the blue. You will recall Pvt. Henson, who, along with Pvt. Billy Burks, was ordered by Marine Capt. Tracy Griswold to excavate a gravesite several feet outside of the Liyang Cemetery on Saipan in late July or early August 1944. This incident is chronicled in detail on pages 233-253 in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
When the pair had removed the skeletal remains of two individuals and deposited them in a large container that Henson later described as a “canister,” Henson asked Griswold what the impromptu grave-digging detail was all about. Griswold’s reply, “Have you heard of Amelia Earhart?” has echoed down through the decades and continues to reverberate among students of the Earhart disappearance.
To read more about Carla, her father and the Saipan gravesite incident in 1944, please see my Dec. 26, 2017 post, “KCBS 1966 release a rare treasure in Earhart saga.”
Richard Bergren, 70, a retired naval flight officer with whom I once worked on a story as a Navy civilian at the Navy Internal Relations Activity in Alexandria, Va., in the late 1980s, has recently done some research that sheds more light on the 1944 search for Amelia Earhart on Saipan, and brings more insight to the Griswold, Henson and Burks saga. I thought some would be interested, and so present his findings forthwith. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
“Did top doctors search for Earhart on 1944 Saipan?”
by Richard Bergren
A number of books and articles have mentioned efforts to locate and recover the remains of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on Saipan, as well as on other Pacific Islands. Most of those attempts were “rush jobs” which were conducted with questionable expertise and methods and often under arbitrary time constraints. If any remains were actually recovered, they have yet to be officially and publicly identified as the bodies of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.
Starting in July 1944 with the U.S. takeover of Saipan, and beginning again with renewed interest in the early 1960’s, excavations of potential gravesites were made based on sketchy stories, and human memories which were 25 years old. Searches for burial sites were made in areas significantly changed since 1937 and World War II.
Eyewitness stories vary widely in details, but all seem to agree that the Japanese held American aviators prisoner and that they buried more than one in the years and months prior to June 1944.
Rather than sort through and evaluate the details of the conflicting eyewitness stories, I wanted to see what might be in World War II era U.S. records regarding the recovery of aviator remains on Saipan in 1944. This was the first time that the U.S. had access to Saipan since Amelia and Fred were declared missing.
Operation Forager began on 22 February 1944 with U.S. Navy (and later Army Air Force) air strikes carried out on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. This was in preparation for all out amphibious attacks which began the invasion of Saipan on 10 June 1944. Fighting on Saipan was savage and it continued even after the island was officially declared secure on 10 July 1944. Casualties of killed, wounded, and missing were high and the U.S. Army hospital and graves personnel were very busy in the days which followed the fighting.
“The largest number of casualties handled over a short period of time by the Central Pacific Area general hospitals occurred following the Saipan, Guam, and Tinian battles,” according to the U.S. Army Office of Medical History, Chapter 11. These casualties were evacuated from the islands by hospital ship and landed at Kwajalein for care and transshipment to the hospitals on Oahu. These casualties numbered 2,900 during June and July of 1944.” While U.S. casualties were high, Japanese losses were much higher, totaling close to 30,000 killed on Saipan alone. As fighting continued sporadically on Saipan in mid-July 1944, the invasions of Tinian and Guam had just begun.
Where do Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan fit into this picture? They had gone missing on July 2 1937, seven years earlier. Exactly what intelligence the U.S. government may have had prior to the 1944 capture of Saipan is not publicly known, but starting in 1944, a number of Armed Forces personnel (Army, Marine Corps, and Navy) came to learn from various sources that Amelia and Fred had been imprisoned on Saipan, and had met their deaths there.
A number of books mention efforts to locate graves of Amelia and Fred, but the earliest account is probably that of Fred Goerner in his book The Search for Amelia Earhart. In it he relates the story told by Marines Everett Henson, Jr. and Billy Burks who claim that they were ordered by a Captain Griswold (USMC) in “late July or early August” 1944 to dig up two graves in or near a civilian cemetery on Saipan in an effort to find the two missing aviators. Allegedly some bones were found and taken by this Captain Griswold, with no further information regarding their final resolution or destination.
The story may be true, although vague as to exactly when and where the dig took place; unfortunately there seems to be no official resolution to the account because there was no definite confirmation that the remains were those of Amelia and/or Fred. And no information as to what was done with those alleged remains.
Remains recovery was not normally the job of the U.S. Marine Corps. It was a task specifically assigned to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, Graves Registration Unit. In fact, the U.S. Army had established the 27th Division Cemetery on Saipan for interment of the U.S. dead who were killed or died of wounds in the recent battle and there was a whole unit of those specially trained Army personnel on Saipan.
A number of Saipan eyewitness statements allude to the burial of “aviators” on Saipan prior to the June 10, 1944 invasion. Some of these accounts state that it was a single burial and others say there were two. Some accounts claim that it was a man and a woman who were so buried. Seldom, if ever, do those eyewitnesses identify the “aviators” by name or provide specific information regarding when or where the burial(s) took place. One Saipan witness states that he was pressed into service to bury an aviator on or about Feb. 23 or 24, 1944. This would most likely have been a U.S. Navy pilot killed in the opening air attacks of Operation Forager.
World War II historian Ted Darcy has compiled a website featuring U.S. aviation casualties. Like many other such efforts, it is not a complete listing of casualties, but it does contain a lot of very interesting information. Through his efforts, some previously unidentified/unknown servicemen, killed in World War II, have been positively identified and returned home for burial.
One veteran so identified was Navy Lieutenant Woodie McVay, a Naval Aviator killed on Feb. 22, 1944 while flying a mission with his wingman, Lt. (junior grade) Arthur Davis off the carrier USS Yorktown. Both men were lost over Saipan and initially declared missing in action.
Here is an excerpt from Ted Darcy’s website, Pacific Wrecks, about the effort which led to the 2009 eventual identification of Lt. McVay:
On July 17, 1944 during the American occupation of Saipan, Col. Elliott G. Colby and Lt. Col Richard C. Wadsworth (both U.S. Army Medical Corps) visited the Catholic Cemetery at Garapan to recover the remains of three aviators that had been reported buried there on February 23 or 24 1944. The remains were exhumed and taken to the 369th Station Hospital for an autopsy.
During that examination the following findings were made: One body was clothed in a one-piece, greenish-khaki coverall type of uniform; the buttons on the uniform contained the words “U.S. Navy”; a plain silver ring was found on the left hand; and on the underwear, marked in two places appeared the name W. L. McVay. It was determined that the injuries were caused as a result of an aircraft accident, not a war crime.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Army doctors had no records with which to compare their findings in an effort to identify this victim. The body was removed to the 27th Division Cemetery and buried as Unknown (Saipan X-35) in plot 3, row 11, grave 1132. In March 1948, these remains were moved to a mausoleum on Saipan. During October 1948, the remains were buried as an unknown at the Manila American Cemetery for “final burial” as unknown X-35 in section F, row 12, grave 2.
Lt. McVay was officially declared dead on Jan. 15, 1946. He posthumously earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), Air Medal and Purple Heart.
Through the research of Ted Darcy, it was found that the height and dental records of unknown X-35 matched with MIA/KIA McVay. The results were forwarded to Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii. In February 2009, the grave in Manila was opened and the remains shipped to the Central Identification Lab, where they arrived on Feb. 25, 2009. The identification was confirmed in May 2009, and Elizabeth Huff was notified that X-35 was positively identified as her grandfather, Lt. Woodie McVay.
McVay’s remains were transported to Mobile, Ala., for internment. On July 13 2009, McVay was laid to rest at his existing memorial marker, next to his parents in the Pine Crest Cemetery at Mobile, Ala. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings published a lengthy story on McVay by historian Bruce M. Petty in its June 2015 issue. (End of Darcy excerpt.)
I located more information on both Army Doctors, Col. Elliott G. Colby and Lt. Col. Richard C. Wadsworth. Colby was the commanding officer of the 369th (Army) Station Hospital on Saipan in July 1944. Wadsworth was also a medical doctor and pathologist, possibly attached to the same command, but I have not found him on any rosters to prove that. Dr. Colby died in 1960 in San Diego, CA, and Dr. Wadsworth died in 1980 in Bangor, Maine — both after long and distinguished medical careers.
Goerner mentions an unnamed Department of Commerce person who contacted him in 1964, and suggested that an unnamed medical doctor may have taken remains to Washington D.C. Goerner associated that information with the name Griswold from his previous research and located a doctor by that name who had served on Saipan in 1944. Goerner did not specify, but he was likely an Army doctor, since it was an Army hospital on Saipan.
[Editor’s note: In a March 1968 letter to Fred Goerner, Tracy Griswold informed him that he had learned from his brother-in-law about a Major E.K. Griswold, of Santa Ana, Calif., who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. “It is further recalled that this particular Major Griswold spent time in the Pacific during World War II,” Tracy Griswold wrote. “This becomes rather remarkable in as much as you were told, as I recall it, by Marine Corp headquarters that there was not another Griswold in the Pacific Theatre [sic] during World War II, in the Marine Corp. [sic] I was sure that you would want to contact this party, particularly since he is in California in the event that there might possibly be a further clue to the Saipan incident.” Nothing further is contained in Goerner’s Griswold file.]
A report by an Army medical officer on conditions in the Marianas immediately following the U.S. takeover described the huge amount of medical work being done on Saipan (see above). The hospital dealt with hundreds of surgeries and hundreds of other treatments daily — and yet the locating and disinterment of three graves by these two high ranking Army doctors took a higher precedence.
It might follow that the remains of the other two “aviators” disinterred with McVay’s body on 17 July 1944 were also buried as unknowns in the 27th Division Cemetery on Saipan — and might have followed a similar documented path to Manila either as “Saipan Unknowns” or under names yet to be found. If they were NOT buried in the 27th Division Cemetery, what became of them and why?
Whether or not the other two bodies were Amelia Earhart and/or Fred Noonan is not stated in anything I have seen to date. It is a possibility. Regardless of who those two bodies were, it seems likely that they were disinterred and autopsied by these two medical doctors on the premise that they might be Amelia and Fred.
What are the chances that these two high ranking medical officers (Colby and Wadsworth) with their credentials and qualifications would just happen to be attached to a forward area army field hospital, temporary cemetery, or refugee camp? And on their own initiative go digging up a civilian cemetery?
The July 17, 1944 disinterment and subsequent autopsy begs several questions:
– Why was it so important to send two high ranking officers to a civilian cemetery at a time when the service of medical officers was so critical? Even though Saipan had been declared “secure” a few days before, fighting was continuing, and there were thousands of wounded military and civilians to care for.
– Who ordered these disinterments?
– How was intelligence of their location obtained?
The stated purpose at the time was that they were looking for downed military aviators, yet even when evidence obtained from the grave indicated one body was that of Navy Lieutenant McVay, it was stated that the doctors did not have Navy information to compare/confirm his identity and so he was buried as an “Unknown.” Clearly they were NOT looking for him specifically, nor did they identify the other two bodies as being military aviators.
The autopsy report goes out of its way to state that Unknown X35 (McVay) died as a result of injuries received in a crash rather than due to a “war crime.” This indicates that they may have been looking for bodies of Americans taken prisoner, tortured, and killed during a war crime — perhaps by beheading?
With all of the work to be done on Saipan in the way of securing the Island, caring for the wounded, bringing in supplies, and building hospitals, roads and airports, why was this disinterment of such high importance? It is highly doubtful that the two senior medical doctors on Saipan would on their own initiative go digging in a civilian cemetery.
(Editor’s note: I’m not an expert on the location of all the cemeteries on Saipan, either in 1944 or now, but the Catholic Cemetery discussed in this piece was not the same place as the Liyang Cemetery on Saipan, as far as I can tell. Liyang was south, outside of Garapan, while the Catholic cemetery was within the city limits, according to Everett Henson Jr., Billy Burks, Anna Diaz Magofna and others who knew of these events. See Les Kinney’s comments below for more clarification.)
What became of the other two “aviators” disinterred at the same time as Unknown X35 (Lt. McVay)? In light of the careful cemetery record keeping of the Army Quartermaster Corps (as seen in the McVay case) it might follow that the other two bodies were also autopsied and buried in the 27th (Army) Division Cemetery as unknowns and later also transferred to Manila for reburial.
Note: There were a number (perhaps as many as 20) of U.S. Navy and Army Air Force aviators declared Missing in Action (MIA) during and prior to the Saipan invasion. Except for Lt. McVay, none of them have ever been recovered and identified.
It is quite possible that the other two “aviators” were also military pilots. If so, they were never identified as such.
Could it be that the two doctors had been specifically tasked to locate the bodies of Fred Noonan and Amelia Earhart? (End of Richard Bergren’s piece.)
Richard Bergren retired from the U.S. Navy in 1994 after 22 years as a naval flight officer (NFO). He flew in the Lockheed P-3B Orion, the Lockheed EC-130 Hercules, and numerous types of trainer planes. Piloted Pioneer unmanned air vehicles (UAV’s) from the Battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) and USS Shreveport (LPD-12). He earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Michigan State University, and a master’s degree in public administration from Troy State University, Troy, Ala. He is a graduate of the Naval War College and took postgraduate courses in Japanese, German, and history at various colleges.
He is a military historian, writer, teacher, musician and competitive rifleman. He’s married, the father of six and grandfather of 12.