Joe Klaas, who died in February 2016 at his home in Monterey, Calif., at 95, was probably the most gifted writer of all Earhart researchers. Unfortunately, Klaas was best known as the author of the most controversial — and damaging to legitimate research — Earhart book of all time, Amelia Earhart Lives: A trip through intrigue to find America’s first lady of mystery (McGraw-Hill, 1970).
Klaas accomplished far more in his remarkable life than pen history’s most scandalous Earhart disappearance work. Besides Amelia Earhart Lives, Klaas wrote nine books including Maybe I’m Dead, a World War II novel; The 12 Steps to Happiness; and (anonymously) Staying Clean.
In July 1999, long after the delusional Amelia Earhart Lives had done its insidious damage, Klaas wrote a fairly lengthy, pointed email to several associates at the Broomfield, Colo.-based Amelia Earhart Society including Bill Prymak and Rollin Reineck, presenting his vision of the movements of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan just after their July 2 landing in the Marshall Islands, though Klaas did not specify Mili Atoll or Barre Island as the location of the Electra’s descent.
Klaas’s email, with the subject “Keep it Simple (I HAD TO CLEAN THIS UP, OR WE’D ALL BE LOST!),” appeared in the October 1999 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
1937 Jaluit and Majuro residents said they heard a white woman pilot named “Meel-ya” and her companion, both prisoners, were thought to have been taken by Japanese ship to Saipan.
Others said they took her first to Kwajalein, and then to Saipan.
Medical corpsman Bilimon Amaron told Joe Gervais and Bill Prymak:
“I overheard Japanese nearby say the ship was going to leave Jaluit to go to Kwajalein . . . from there it would maybe go to Saipan.”
So the Japanese ship, Koshu, and Earhart and Noonan, were reported to have headed for Kwajalein. Naturally, all concerned assumed they were aboard the ship. But no one saw them leave on it. They assumed it.
Majuro Attorney John Heine, who saw the flyers in custody at Jaluit, said: “After the ship left Jaluit, it went to Kwajalein, then on to Truk and Saipan.” He thought the ship would later go to Japan. An event at his school fixed the date in his memory as “the middle of July, 1937.”
[Editor’s note: John Heine did not see the fliers at Jaluit or anywhere else. See page 156 and rest of “Chapter VII: The Marshall Islands Witnesses” of Truth at Last, 2nd Edition for more on Heine’s account.]
Marshall Islanders Tomaki Mayazo and Lotan Jack told Fred Goerner in 1960 that the woman flyer and her companion “were taken to Kwajalein on their way to Saipan.”
They didn’t say how they were transported.
Goerner said that in 1946 four Likiep Island residents at Kwajalein, Edard and Bonjo Capelli, and two more known as Jajock and Biki, told U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer J.F. Kelleher that in 1937 a man and woman who crashed a plane in the Marshalls “were brought to Kwajalein.”
A 1946 U.S. employee on Kwajalein, Ted Burris, told Amelia Earhart Society members that his interpreter, Oniisimum Cappelle (Capelli?) introduced him to an old man who had met two Americans there “five years before the war,” which didn’t start in the Marshalls until 1942, five years after 1937.
“How did you meet Americans before the war?” Burris asked.
“Well I didn’t exactly meet them,” the old man said. “But I did bring them in.”
“Bring them in? I don’t understand.”
“A plane landed on the water,” the old man remembered. “Come. I show you.”
They walked to the south end of the perimeter road where there were two A-frame houses and a row of coconut trees.
“You see these trees? The plane was exactly in line with them.”
“How far out?”
“About a hundred yards from the land.”
“What happened then?”
“Two people got out. A man and a woman. The Captain made me take my boat out and pick them up. I didn’t talk to them.”
“The boss. The Japanese officer. The Captain took them away. I never saw them again. He said they were spies.” [See my Aug. 28, 2015 post, “Burris’ account among many to put Earhart on Kwaj.“]
This incident has too long been thought to be a false report that Earhart’s Lockheed 10E crashed off Kwajalein. But what the old man precisely said was:
“A plane landed on the water.”
He didn’t say it crashed there or ditched there. Planes with landing gear don’t land “on the water.”
In 1936, a concrete airstrip was built at Kwajalein. It was being used in 1937 while a still unusable seaplane ramp was under construction at Saipan.
What “landed” Earhart and Noonan “on the water” off Kwajalein was obviously a seaplane from Jaluit. Earhart’s Electra couldn’t have “landed on the water.”
Nobody ever said there was a crash at Kwajalein.
They were already in custody. How could the Japanese Captain tell the old man “they were spies” if they hadn’t arrived at Kwajalein from Jaluit lready charged with being spies?
Earhart and Noonan were then flown by land plane from Kwajalein to Saipan, where its pilot got into trouble, the very first witness in the Earhart mystery, watched “a silver two-engined plane betty-land” in shallow water along a beach. She “saw the American woman who looked like a man, and the tail man with her, led away by the Japanese soldiers.”
We must never assume every twin-engined aircraft in the Pacific had to be the Earhart Plane to be significant. We don’t need Darwin to find the missing link from Howland to Milli to Kwajalein to Saipan.
Keep it simple and follow facts in sequence to the truth. Above all, let’s start believing our witnesses.
Why would they lie?
— Joe Klaas, 7/14/99
Paul Rafford Jr. provided more witness evidence supporting the idea that Earhart and Noonan departed Kwajalein bound for Saipan in a land-based Japanese aircraft. In an unpublished 2008 commentary, Rafford recalled the account of fellow engineer James Raymond Knighton, who worked for Pan Am with Rafford at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the 1980s and was later assigned to the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll facility from 1999 to 2001. Knighton worked on Roi-Namur, 50 miles north of Kwajalein, commuting to work each day by air.
“One day during lunch I was walking around Roi and I happened across an old Marshallese who was very friendly,” Knighton told Rafford in 2007.
He was back visiting Roi after a long time. He was very talky and spoke pretty good English. He was excited because he was born on Roi-Namur and lived there during the Japanese occupation and the capture by the Marines in 1944. Of course I was interested in his story of how it was living under the Japanese and the invasion. I was very inquisitive and he was happy to talk about old times. Then he said he saw Amelia Earhart on Roi when he was a young boy. It was the first white woman he had ever seen and he could not get over her blond hair. Basically, he told me that Earhart crashed on the Marshall Island of Mili. The Japanese had gotten her and brought her to Roi, the only place that transport planes could land.
For more on Rafford’s account, please see my Sept. 6, 2022 post, “Conclusion of Rafford on radio in AE Mystery.”
For much more on Joe Klaas, please click here.
The Amelia Earhart-Mili Atoll connection is well known to those familiar with the work of authors and researchers such as Fred Goerner, Vincent V. Loomis, Bill Prymak and Oliver Knaggs, as well as readers of this blog and Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last.
Much less understood is what transpired between the time of Amelia and Fred Noonan’s pickup at one of Mili’s tiny Endriken Islands in July 1937 and their horrible deaths on Saipan on dates still not precisely known.
In “The Marshall Islands Witnesses” chapter of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last is a subsection titled “The Kwajalein Connection.” The following is taken from “The Kwajalein Connection,” and was originally published in the February 1996 edition of Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.
Other compelling stories, unseen in any published books before Truth at Last, will be presented in future posts so that interested readers can connect the dots in the Mili Atoll-to-Saipan logistical scenario.
“ANOTHER GI EXPERIENCE IN THE PACIFIC ISLANDS”
By Ted Burris
In 1965 I was working on Kwajalein, in the Marshall Islands. Having been there since 1964, I knew my job well enough to become a bit bored, and cast about for some volunteer work to absorb time and interest.
As it happened, the Aloha Council, Boy Scouts of America out of Honolulu, was looking for a neighborhood commissioner for the islands. I thought I’d try it.
My primary assignment was to introduce Scouting into the Marshall Islands. Kwajalein already had a couple of troops made up of the children of American families working on the island. So I determined to try to establish the program on Ebeye, three islands north of Kwaj, where most of the Marshallese in that part of the atoll lived.
Organizational meetings required my presence on Ebeye sometimes two or three evenings a week. The meetings were usually concluded by nine or shortly after, but I had to wait until 11 o’clock to get the last boat back to Kwaj. My friend and interpreter, Onisimum Chappelle, tried to keep me entertained until the boat got there.
One evening he mentioned that there was an old man there who had a story to tell. This intrigued me because I was interested in the history of the area.
In the course of our conversation, I asked the old man when was the first time he met Americans? “Before the war.” I was surprised, because I knew the Japanese had closed the Marshall Islands to foreigners in the late ’20s. “I don’t understand,” I said. “How long before the war?” “Five years,” he said.
“How did you meet Americans before the war?” I asked. “Well, I didn’t exactly meet them,” he said. “But I did bring them in.”
“Bring them in? I don’t understand. What happened?”
“A plane landed on the water,” he said. “A big plane.” “Four motors?” I asked. “No, two.” “Where?” I asked again. “Come. I show you,” he said. The old man walked with us from his house to the eastern shore of Ebeye. We went to the south end of the perimeter road. There stood two A-frame houses with a line of four coconut trees. “You see these trees,” he said. “The plane was exactly in line with them.” “How far out?” I asked. “About a hundred yards from the land,” he said.
I should tell you that, at the lowest tides, the reef there is virtually dry. And the Marshallese consider the reef as part of their ’land-holding’ or ’weito.’ In retrospect I was never sure whether the distance was 100 yards from the edge of the island, (i.e. on the edge of the reef), or 100 yards out from the edge of the reef. In the latter case the prevailing currents could have swept the plane south along the reef toward Big Buster before it sank.
“What happened then?” I asked. “Two people got out. A man and a woman,” he said. “The Captain made me take my boat out and pick them up. I didn’t talk to them.”
“The Captain?” I asked. He answered, “The boss, the Japanese officer. The Captain took them away. I never saw them again. He said they were spies.”
It was time to go for the boat back to Kwaj. I thanked the old man and left.
None of this registered with me in particular until a couple of years later when I had moved to another assignment on Roi Namur. The Island Manager there was Frank Serafini. He, too, was something of a history buff. Frank and I had many pleasant chats about the history of the islands. In one of these I mentioned the story the old man had told me.
“So that’s where it came down!” he exclaimed. “That answers it!”
“Answers what?” I said.
“Let me tell you a few things.” Frank went to his desk and took out a letter. “This is from Navy Commander so-and-so.” (I don’t remember the name.) “I’ve been corresponding with him for years.”
“Who was he?” I asked.
“He was with Navy Intelligence dining the war, and he was attached to the 4th Marines when they invaded Roi-Namur. He went in with the first wave on Roi. His specific task was to look for any evidence that Amelia Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan, had been there!”
“Why here?” I asked. “Because Roi had the only airfield on the atoll at that time,” Frank said. “If the Japs were going to take them anyplace from Kwajalein Atoll, they had to come through here!”
“Did he find anything?”
“Here, read this letter. Starting here.” He pointed to a place on the second page. “I was rummaging through a pile of debris in a comer of the burned-out main hanger,” the writer said, “when I came across a blue leatherette map case. It was empty. But it had the letters AE embossed on it in gold leaf! They were here all right!”
“That’s enough,” Frank said. He took the letter back, and that’s the last I saw of it. “What did the Commander do with the map case?” I asked. “He said he turned it over to Naval Intelligence. He doesn’t know what happened to it after that,” said Frank.
“Does anybody know about this? Why would they keep such a thing secret?” I wanted to know. “Because even now the Navy doesn’t want to admit they had anything to do with spying against the Japanese before the war,” Frank said.
Frank eventually left Roi and went to Saudi Arabia on another project. He and his wife moved to Sun City, Ariz., and may still be there. He also may still have his correspondence from the Commander.
I went back to Ebeye to find the old man, but I was told that he had gone back to Likiep, his birthplace, to die. I had wanted to ask him about his “five years before the war” comment. Then it hit me. The old man probably counted the war as starting when the U.S. made their first carrier strike against Kwajalein in late 1942.
I tried to talk the Army into using their recovery submarine to look around the reef; they told me they wouldn’t touch that situation with a ten-foot pole, and I should forget it. But — I never have. (End of Ted Burris account.)
The empty “leatherette map case” with the “letters AE embossed on it in gold leaf” reported by the unnamed Navy commander is strangely similar to a “locked diary engraved 10-Year Diary of Amelia Earhart,” discovered by former Marine W.B. Jackson on Namur Island in 1944. Jackson reported his experience to Fred Goerner in 1964, and Goerner presented it in his 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart. Were these different descriptions of the same item?
And what about the twin-engine plane that “landed on the water . . . about a hundred yards from the land,” as the old man told Ted Burris? Was it Amelia Earhart’s Electra, or an altogether different aircraft? We’ll try to answer this question in future posts.
I was unable to locate Burris, but the Roi-Namur Links page of the The Kwajalein Community Web Site, an impressive local history collection created by local personality Shermie Wiehe offers additional information about Frank H. Serafini, Roi-Namur assistant resident manager during the 1960s and ’70s.
“Frank was well known for making Roi-Namur beautiful by planting 100s of coconut trees,” Shermie wrote. “He was highly respected by the Roi-Rats for his excellent management of island life and not forgetting ‘Shermie & Friends Band‘ was treated very good by Frank’s Staff during our trips to entertain the Roi-Rats. Some of the best memories of performing was at Roi-Namur. Thanks Frank! Roi-Namur will never be the same. The days you were managing were the best!”
On the same page, Serafini’s son, Frank B. Serafini, a Shell official living in Egypt, recalled that his father was living in San Antonio, Texas, was in good health at 97, and though he didn’t hear well or use a computer, was otherwise “just the same ol’ guy he always was.”
In a recent email to me, Frank said his father will be 100 in December 2015, and though most of his friends are gone, “It is always a pleasure to hear from anyone who can recall his passion for work on the islands he so deeply cared for. Us people from the Pacific have an ingrained fascination for the Earhart story.”
I hope others who lived and worked on Kwajalein, where the captured Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were undoubtedly taken by the Japanese military in 1937 on their way to their miserable fates on Saipan, will help keep the truth alive, regardless of its continuing status as a sacred cow, not only in Washington but throughout the U.S. media establishment.