The Amelia Earhart mystery has gripped the imagination for almost 80 years and despite numerous searches and millions of dollars, no conclusive evidence has yet been found regarding the aviator’s disappearance, although Roderick Eime revisits a persistent theory that just may be the explanation.
Many theories have been put forward over the years and just as many discounted, but one just keeps coming back. The idea that Earhart was forced down and captured by the Japanese in the Marshall Islands is as unpalatable as it is incredible. But one researcher, Mike Campbell, makes a compelling case for this proposition.
To refresh our memories, it was early in the morning of July 2nd, 1937. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were flying their specially-modified, twin-engined Lockheed Electra 10E on the final stages of a much-publicised round-the-world flight and supposedly heading to remote Howland Island, 800 Nautical Miles beyond Majuro in the Marshall Islands.
Popularly held accounts attest that Earhart struggled with her radio direction finding (RDF) equipment while attempting to contact the specially-located US Coast Guard ship, Itasca, which was supposed to guide her to the tiny 2000m-long island where an airstrip had been prepared especially for her.
In a flurry of garbled and confused radio messages in both voice and morse code, Earhart apparently believed she had arrived at Howland, but could not see either the island or the Coast Guard vessel and by 9am, she was silent and never seen or heard from again. Comprehensive and expensive searches were conducted by the US Navy and Coast Guard, but by January 1939, Earhart was officially declared dead.
In recent years, ardent investigators have revived an alternate theory contrived at the time, that the plane, critically low on fuel, had ditched near Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro in iribati) 560 km southeast of Howland. These researchers, notably The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), posted on their website “… not only was a safe landing obviously feasible (on Gardner) but we found artifacts that were undeniably aircraft wreckage in the island’s abandoned village.” Despite years of persistence and tantalising clues, TIGHAR have yet to prove the connection to Earhart and their quest continues.
Even though there are several discrepancies in the competing account, it’s a compelling story nonetheless supported by numerous witnesses from the time of their alleged capture by the Japanese (as spies) through to their supposed transport to Saipan and eventual execution.
Sure, it’s a decent conspiracy theory, but one that will not go away. One is drawn to wonder why such effort is expended in decrying this version of events and what any interested parties might be seeking to hide.
Let’s consider the scenario, first postulated by researcher and author, Fred Goerner in his 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart.
In 1937, the Japanese Empire had control of the Marshall Islands, having been given them by the League of Nations as a protectorate after the defeat of Germany in WWI. Jaluit was then the capital and the Japanese expanded the settlement, as they did elsewhere in the Central Pacific, by encouraging civilian migration from Japan.
A very secret place
Things were going fine for a while, but in the early ‘30s Japan began to quietly build its military presence in these territories in contravention of its agreement with the League of Nations. Chuuk in Micronesia, for example, was expanded to a huge military base to rival Pearl Harbour.
One of Marshall’s most prominent modern pioneers, Robert Reimers, born on Jaluit in 1909, recalls the increased activity in his home region in a 1991 interview with journalist and Earhart researcher, Bill Prymak.
“When the Japanese Navy kicked out the Germans, they sealed the (Marshall) Islands to all foreigners,” said Reimers.
“Before 1935, the work was mainly commercial and communication facilities: harbour dredging; wharves; docks; hospitals; and big, tall radio towers. But after 1935, the Japanese began some military projects like the airfields at Wotje and Maloelap. Emidj, in particular, was a very secret place, and even my local workers had little access to this area.”
It follows then that the US government would take particular interest in the ambitious empire, especially after Japan’s military intervention in China and clear signs it was building its armed forces elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. What if an otherwise innocent civilian flight could be diverted to reconnoitre these secret islands and determine if Japan was demonstrating hostile intentions to its neighbours, the US included?
It was well known that Earhart was short of funds after the first (east to west) attempt at the round-the-world flight ended in an expensive accident in Hawaii. But she miraculously acquired enough money to relaunch her attempt just two months later when the flight took off from Oaklands California in the opposite direction.
For the final and most difficult section across the Pacific, the aircraft was equipped with advanced RDF equipment and, as mentioned earlier, had the support of the US Coast Guard and a specially built airstrip on remote Howland Island. Proponents of this theory have suggested that was quite an investment for a pair of ‘stunt flyers’.
Perhaps Earhart was trying to find Howland after a major diversion past Jaluit to inspect Japanese installations on islands in that area. There are a couple of varying accounts of what happened at this time. One says the captain of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi was ordered to send up a fighter to ‘shoot down’ a twin-engined aircraft in the area. Whether forced down by a fighter or lack of fuel and in order to stay consistent with eyewitness reports later, the aircraft must have made some kind of controlled landing that left it more or less intact. Eyewitness accounts say the aircraft came down on or near Mili Atoll, a short distance by air from Jaluit.
Local islander, Eliu Jabambam, remembers there was much clandestine chatter among Marshallese at the time that a male and female pilot had been picked up by a fishing boat and brought to Jaluit. Local workers and civilians were under strict orders from their Japanese masters not to attempt to make any contact with the prisoners or even look at them for fear of severe punishment. So intimidation is cited as one of the reasons this story has not been more widely circulated even to this day. That, and the fact locals were not really that interested in the plight of a couple of mysterious strangers when their own circumstances were so dire. Reimers recalls:
“It was widely known throughout the Islands by both Japanese and Marshallese that a Japanese fishing boat first found them and their airplane near Mili. They then transferred them to a bigger boat (believed to be the Koshu Maru). They were brought to Jabor, where Bilimon [Amaron] treated them. They were then taken to Kwajalein and from there to Truk and then Saipan. There was no mystery . . . everybody knew it!”
The Bilimon mentioned above was a respected medical orderly on Jaluit and recalls treating a man he believed was Fred Noonan for an injury to his leg.
Just to make matters more interesting, there is an eyewitness account by then 11-year old Josephine Blanco who attests the aircraft landed in a restricted military zone on Saipan and the two aviators were immediately arrested and executed as spies a few days later. She told her story to Family Weekly Magazine in July 1960.
“My curiosity was too great to overcome,” said the young girl knowing that if she was caught observing events in the forbidden zone she and her family would be in big trouble. “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 Josephine tried to tell her parents, she was quickly silenced and told to forget what she had seen.
While there are parallel accounts of how Earhart and Noonan were supposed to have ended up on Saipan, all these versions agree that both died on Saipan. Noonan, as a male, was apparently beheaded either soon after arrival or after some years in a cell at the old Japanese jail with Earhart in a nearby cell. Other eyewitnesses say she was lead out of the jail and shot by a firing squad just prior to the US invasion in mid-1944, while another account claims she perished from dysentery.
Saipan resident Manual Muna is convinced the two were incarcerated in the old jail and can even point out the cells she and Noonan are reputed to have been locked in for up to seven years. Another Saipan resident, Mrs. Nieves Cabrera Blas, lived near the Japanese headquarters and recalls:
“One day I am working on the farm 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 falls backwards into the grave…”
A blown safe
To further compound the intrigue, liberating US soldiers claim to have seen a plane resembling the Electra removed from a hangar at the Aslito Airfield and torched at the orders of some higher authority. Another soldier blew open a safe he’d found in the rubble thinking he would find money or valuables. Instead, so he says, he found Earhart’s briefcase full of her documents.
USMC and Saipan veteran, Robert Wollack, recalls finding the briefcase. “After we blew the safe, I grabbed the briefcase and ran off with it. When I opened the case, lo and behold, it was Amelia Earhart’s papers that she had on the flight. But there was something wrong. The papers were bone dry. They’d never been wet.”
When one considers the full implications of the Saipan theory, it leads to the premise that Earhart and Noonan had, either through poor skill on their part or good intelligence on the part of the Japanese, allowed themselves to be captured during their spy mission. A cover story was created around the Howland Island version in order to preserve the reputation of Roosevelt’s government and avoid any diplomatic backlash with the militaristic Empire of Japan.
To further support his version, Goerner recalls a conversation he had with one of the US’s heroic commanders from WWII, five-star Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, then Chief of Pacific Operations where he said:
“Now that you’re going to Washington, Fred, I want to tell you Earhart and her navigator did go down in the Marshalls and were picked up by the Japanese.”
And Nimitz was not alone.
In 1966, Marine Gen. Graves B. Erskine, deputy commander of the V Amphibious Corps at the battle of Saipan, famously told news reporters, “It was established that Earhart was on Saipan. You’ll have to dig the rest out for yourselves.”
Will the truth ever be known?