Tinian is best known as the launching pad for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945, followed by a second atomic device, “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki by the B-29 Bockscar. But if the site an American Marine was shown by a native Hawaiian who worked under the Japanese in 1937 and claimed was the grave of Amelia Earhart could be found and verified, Tinian’s notoriety in world history would be exponentially increased. (Boldface mine throughout.)
St. John Naftel was a Marine gunner’s mate assigned to the 18th AAA Marine Battalion stationed on Tinian shortly after the American invasion of July 24-Aug. 1, 1944. The 8,000-man Japanese garrison was eliminated, and the island joined Saipan and Guam as a base for the Twentieth Air Force. Japanese losses were 5,543 killed, 2,265 missing and 252 captured, while 326 Americans died and 1,593 were wounded.
By Aug. 10, 1944, 13,000 Japanese civilians were interned, but up to 4,000 were dead through suicide, murdered by Japanese troops or killed in combat. The garrison on Aguijan Island off the southwest cape of Tinian, commanded by Lt. Kinichi Yamada, held out until the end of the war, surrendering on Sept. 4, 1945. The last holdout on Tinian, Murata Susumu, was captured in 1953.
Fast-forward to September 2003, when “It all began with a call from Jennings Bunn to Jim Sullivan on the ‘The Deep,’ a radio talk show aired on K57 radio in Guam,” wrote Rlene Santos Steffy, a columnist for The Guam Daily Post, in “The Tinian Earhart Expedition 2004,” still available online:
Jennings was in possession of a letter from Mr. Elliot Broughton, who knew of a WWII veteran claiming knowledge of the fate of Amelia Earhart and her navigator following their much publicized disappearance following their attempted flight around the globe in 1937. Jennings contacted Mr. Broughton and learned of Mr. St John Naftel, who was stationed on Tinian at the end of the Japanese era of control. During Mr. Naftel’s time on Tinian, he came to know a conscript of the Japanese army who confided the location of two graves that he had been forced to dig five days after his arrival in 1937. In these graves, he told Naftel, were buried the bodies of Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan.
Jennings’ call to the radio show was a plea for assistance that Jim Sullivan and his guest host that evening Bob Silvers responded to. After an initial meeting to discuss the details, The Tinian Earhart Expedition [also known as The Tinian Dig] was formed. During the next month, the group interviewed Mr. Naftel, researched his story, conducted an aerial survey of the area and dug into the historical archives for additional supporting documentation to try to determine the validity of Mr. Naftel’s story. By the end of September, it was looking very promising and it was decided that the only way to progress further was to bring Mr. Naftel to Tinian to undertake a physical search for evidence of the grave sites. With great confidence and anticipation, the arrangements were made.
Steffy is an ethnographer, oral historian and research associate at the University of Guam’s Micronesia Area Research Center, and also wrote a review of Truth at Last in July 2017.
Following is Naftel’s account as given to Cassandra “Sandy” Frost, self-identified as “an award-winning e-journalist and editor who has covered the topics of Intuition, Remote Viewing and Consciousness from an Athabascan or Alaska Native point of view the past three years,” who also chronicled The Tinian Dig in a series of articles for Rense.com (see below):
The first job for my unit was to clean the place up.
There was a place that I called “the stockade” which consisted of three sections. First made up of military personnel, second, island natives (farmers, shopkeepers, etc.), third, the people the Japanese had brought in prior to any military action (they were like slaves to the Jap military). Because the cleanup operation required a lot of labor, these people could be trusted (used) to help with the cleanup.
My first job was to escort a truck load of these people from the stockade to our camp each day.
JOB — Pick a truck load of these people at the stockade which usually consisted of about 30 people — each day as we loaded the truck (open body) I would ask, “Is there anyone that can speak English?” Because these people came from different international locations, there was always some that could speak English. I would then choose one of them to act as a sort of “foreman” to help me with the job.
On about the third or fourth day when I asked this question, a man stepped forward speaking good English. I do not remember this man’s name because I had never known it before. He told me he was from one of the Hawaii [sic] Islands when he fell for the Japanese promise to come work for them at a good wage. Only when he along with others arrived at Tinian did they find out that they were actually slaves.
After the third day that he was on my truck load of people, he began to open up in talking with me while we were traveling to my camp. On the third or fourth day our conversation went kinda like this:
Man: “On the way in I want to show you something and tell you about it. Can you have the driver to slow down when I ask you to?”
Me: “Yes, no problem.”
Man: “Can we move over the side of the truck?” pointing to the left side
Me: “Yes,” which we did. I tapped the truck cab and asked Hall (clarification, C.C. Hall was the truck driver) if he would slow down when asked. As we began a downward slope toward what was Tinian Town this man asked me to slow down, then “Look out there.” He was pointing to the left (on the left was a cliff that the Japs had made in the hillside). In the cliff there were three man-made caves. These caves overlooked Tinian Bay. In each of them the Japs had some large guns. I had visited these caves earlier.
When the man pointed to the left and said, “Look,” I replied, “Yes, I see the caves. I have not been in them before.” “No, not the caves,” he said. “Look like I am pointing.” The truck had slowed down, so the man was kind of pointing back up the slope.
Man: “Look, see those two graves up there?”
Me: “Yes, what about them?”
Man: “I have never said anything to anyone about this before because there was no one that I could trust. I was about the third or fourth day that I was brought here that the Japs brought me and five or six other men here and gave us shovels and picks and pointed out that we were to dig graves. We were under the guard of two Jap soldiers. After we dug the graves to please these guards, a truck soon arrived. There were two bodies in the truck. One was a man — the other was a woman. I immediately noted that they were both Americans. The woman was dressed in pants and a jacket. On the jacket (he reached his hand across his left chest) was what looked like a wing. Before I got hooked up with these Japs, I had heard and saw newspaper pictures of this American woman that was going to fly around the world. I can’t think of her name right now.”
Me: “Would it be Amelia Earhart?”
Man: “Yes, that’s who it was. As we were instructed we buried the bodies, then the Jap in charge — he could speak English — called us together and told us that we were never to speak to anyone about this, and that if they even thought we had, we could be digging our own graves. You could not trust anyone in the camp because they tell a guard so they could get a favor. You are the first and only person I have ever mentioned this to.”
At this point we arrived at my camp and I was called to the office. I had to take a detail out aboard a ship (several had arrived carrying a lot of cargo and some with a lot of Seabees) and help with the unloading. This took two weeks. When I returned to camp we were being divided up into different gun crews — I never saw the man again. (End of Naftel account.)
“St. John was talking about picking up the workers at a ‘camp,’ that was ‘Camp Chulu,’ Jennings Bunn told me in a November 2018 email. “I took St. John there, and he recognized the standing façade of the old headquarter building and police station. Kind of like a city hall. The ‘workers’ there were primarily Okinawans who were hired long before the war to work in sugar cane fields on Tinian.”
Several established facts militate against the possibility of Earhart or Fred Noonan’s burial on Tinian. Most importantly, not one of the many Saipan witnesses — people like Josephine Blanco Akiyama, Matidle F. Arriola, Joaquina Cabrera, José Pangelinan, Dr. Manual Aldan, Jesús Salas and others — ever claimed they were told that the American fliers were taken to Tinian or buried there.
Matilde was told the American woman was cremated by an alleged eyewitness, Mr. Jose Sadao Tomokane in an account recently revealed by Marie Castro, in which case no Earhart gravesite would have existed at all. Don Kothera and the Cleveland Group’s interview of Anna Magofna (pages 245-247 Truth at Last) is a fairly compelling story that suggests Amelia might have been buried outside the Liyang Cemetery outside of southern Garapan, as José Pangelinan told Fred Goerner, and where Marine Capt. Tracy Griswold directed privates Everett Henson Jr. and Billy Burks to excavate skeletal remains of two individuals in the summer of 1944. Many others, too numerous to mention here, attested to their common knowledge of Earhart’s death on Saipan, none ever mentioning Tinian in any context.
Further, the idea that the fliers had been buried on Tinian came from just one unnamed eyewitness, who shared his story with Naftel in 1944 under unusual, strained circumstances. The anonymous Hawaiian’s own words to Naftel could be considered questionable in themselves by a suspicious observer. “You could not trust anyone in the camp because they tell a guard so they could get a favor,” he told Naftel of his 1937 experience working under the Japanese. “You are the first and only person I have ever mentioned this to.” Did the Hawaiian man himself hope to gain a favor from Naftel for this amazing revelation?
Another provocative detail in Naftel’s story was the Hawaiian man’s description of the jacket worn by the dead woman. “On the jacket (he reached his hand across his left chest) was what looked like a wing,” he told Naftel. On the back cover of Mary Lovell’s 1989 book, The Sound of Wings, is a small portrait photo of Amelia in a dress with what appears to be three pearl necklaces and a wing device attached. Also, on page 134 of Carol Osborne and Muriel Earhart Morrissey’s 1987 biography, Amelia, My Courageous Sister, Amelia is shown in June 1932 in two photos with National Geographic officials in Washington, wearing what could be the same wing device. In the appendix of the same book, on page 302, three different wing devices are shown in very small photos without descriptions.
Was the “jacket” worn by the dead woman a leather flight jacket? Though many photos of Amelia wearing such a jacket can be found on an internet search and in various books, I’ve not seen any with a wing attached, sewn or embroidered on it, as commonly done among U.S. Navy and Marine aviators, then and now, and which is likely what the Hawaiian man was describing. The Japanese would have removed a wing device and any other jewelry from a dead body, and would they even bury such a jacket with a body?
Although a photo of Amelia in a jacket with a wing on the left side would support Naftel’s story, it would not absolutely confirm it. Naftel’s account doesn’t add up for many reasons, but if you have a photo or can direct us to one that matches the Hawaiian man’s story, please let us know.
Needless to say, The Tinian Dig did not locate the remains of Earhart or Noonan. In a series of posts for Rense.com, Cassandra Frost traced the roots and progress of the Tinian Earhart Expedition 2004. In chronological order, here are Frost’s detailed reports: “Amelia Earhart’s Grave Found?”; “Earhart – Latest On-Scene Report”; “Earhart Dig – Day One”; “Earhart Dig – Day 2”; “Interview With Saint John Naftel”; “Earhart Dig – Day 3 Expedition Shifts Gears”; “Earhart Dig – Day 4 Time Travel, High Tech Style”; “Earhart Expedition – The Day After”; “Interview With Jim Sullivan”; “Earhart Expedition – Breakfast With Bob.”
In my closing comments on The Tinian Dig in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last (p. 305), I compare the highly promoted 2006 Nauticos “Deep Sea Search for Amelia Earhart,” with The Tinian Earhart Expedition 2004, which was completely ignored by the American media, and came to a familiar conclusion:
The Nauticos search and Tinian Dig are minor footnotes in the long history of failure to find the smoking gun in the Earhart disappearance. Neither seems worthy of further consideration, but they reveal a disturbing reality when examined from another perspective. As we’ve seen, the Nauticos effort was well publicized in the months preceding its launching. News of the Tinian Expedition, by contrast, was found only in small publications such as the Saipan Tribune and Pacific Magazine. How can big media’s blackout of The Tinian Dig be squared with its boundless enthusiasm for the ill-conceived Nauticos excursion into the empty depths of crashed-and-sank theory? After all, both ventures were aimed at achieving the same goal: solving the great Earhart “mystery.”
The answer is simple. The intensity of our media’s passion for the idea that the Electra lies on the Pacific’s floor is equaled only by its abhorrence of the very thought of the fliers’ deaths on Saipan at the hands of the Japanese—now among our strongest allies in the Pacific Rim. Anything that might lead the public to seek more information about the fate of Earhart and Noonan, such as broadcasting or printing news stories about an investigation into their possible burial site on nearby Tinian, must be strenuously avoided. Tinian is in the same forbidden neighborhood as Saipan—too close to the truth and strictly off-limits.
St. John Naftel passed away on Feb. 2, 2015 in Montgomery, Ala., at 92.
(Editor’s note: Jerry Wilson, of Chattaroy, Wash., a longtime Earhart researcher and Tinian advocate, contributed much of the information in this post, which would not have been possible without him. My sincere thanks and appreciation go out to Jerry, as well as to Jennings Bunn.)