There is hardly a mystery more prominent in the United States than the tale of the pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan who disappeared in 1937. Many are content to believe that she was a lousy pilot and simply crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, end of story. Others are sure that Amelia was captured by the Japanese and either was executed on Saipan along with Fred Noonan or she was taken to China and interred in a Japanese POW camp. Some take the theory one step farther and say Amelia returned to the United States in 1946 as Irene Craigmile who married an ex-MI5 British agent named Guy Bolem. Ric Gillespie thinks she crashed on Gardiner Island and regularly leads searches to the island.
At first I dismissed the theory of Amelia being Irene Craigmile Bolam, but there are many questions that would be answered if one considers that Amelia was recruited by President Roosevelt to spy on the Japanese and was thus assisted in her return to the States. It isn’t so farfetched since thanks to President Hoover spying was illegal in 1937 as “gentlemen do not open other gentlemen’s mail”. FDR knew that the Japanese were up to something on the Marshall Islands and had no discrete way to be sure they were not fortifying the islands (they were of course). Amelia was also personal friends with the First Lady, Eleanor.
The story of Amelia Earhart has been told many times, so I will not repeat every detail here, but there are some highlights that need to be looked at closer. The first item to be noted is that the Earhart file is under WWII files at the National Archives, which is interesting since the U.S. did not enter the war until 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. Two high-ranking military officers visited her in California before she left on her around the world flight. This was no easy task in 1937 as transportation was lacking and required changing planes, trains and taxis several times. One did not just hop a plane from one coast to the other, so there was some pressing issue for the government to meet with a civilian. During the meeting with the officers, Amelia’s husband and Noonan were asked to leave the room.
After the meeting Earhart changed flight plans and reversed her original route, instead taking one that sent her east over Africa where maintenance stops were unprepared and caused long delays. Amelia also turned down help from Pan Am which offered to track her with their state of the art high frequency technology. This would make no sense unless one considers the alleged mission she did for the government and she did not want to be found. Earhart was also quite rude in turning the help down.
Earhart then was swing around and approach tiny Howland Island from the west stating that she was in a cloud bank and could not see. Howland was a rest and refueling stop and the last leg to California. They would come around and approach from the east, but instead of actually landing on Howland (which was a difficult feat anyway since it was a like finding a blue marble in a swimming pool) Earhart would turn north where she would run into “bad weather”. Rather than spy on the Japanese personally, she would “get lost” and fly instead to a privately owned island in Hawaii where she would remain while her search ensued. For those who think that is a bizarre idea, consider that Amelia had dinner with the owners, the Robinson’s, the night before leaving on the historic flight. The U.S. military could then search for a world-famous lady pilot in the areas where the Japanese were suspected of fortifying. How could the Japanese say no when Earhart was even admired in Japan?
It should be mentioned that the military search for a “civilian” flyer was extensive involving both ships and planes and never was there any trace of an oil slick found anywhere. It is unlikely that the plane went down in the water for this simple fact alone. Oil and water do not mix and there would have been oil floating on the water days or even weeks after the accident.
A crucial part of this plan was for Amelia and Fred to maintain radio silence and they did not for which no explanation has been given. The Japanese would have been able to pick up on transmissions and know that the Americans were dangerously close to the Marshall Islands. Whether she was shot down or crashed for some unknown cause researchers cannot agree. The people of the Marshall Islands have no doubts about the incident and issued postage stamps detailing the rescue of Earhart and Noonan by a fishing boat. The plane was hoisted aboard by a crane also depicted on a stamp. A letter addressed to Earhart was later found at the Marshall Island post office unopened. Who could have known to write to her there? Predictably, the current whereabouts of the letter are now unknown.
Prior to rescue by the fishing crew, Amelia had broadcast for hours trying to reach someone in the U.S. and there is considerable controversy about who did hear her. The U.S. Navy did not, but two teenagers in Florida and Idaho did. Radio experts say that it was impossible for radio waves to have traveled such a long distance, however, the two teens tell similar stories. Betty Klenck Brown of St. Petersburg, Florida wrote down the dialogue she heard from a voice she recognized as Earhart. Betty heard the woman tell of a plane half in the water on a reef and a man with a head wound who was panicking and trying to climb over her head to get to the escape hatch over the pilot’s seat. The Marshall Island postal stamps portray a tall woman and a man with a bandaged head. A local medic also stated that he treated a woman named Amelia for an injured knee and a man with a head wound on a ship.
Betty heard something much more interesting though, which lends credibility to who she heard that night. The woman broadcast that she hoped they could hear her in New York (her home) and that if they could, to tell George to destroy the suitcase. As it happened, Earhart had a suitcase full of unknown items that she wanted no one to see. She had informed her husband, George P. Putnam, before leaving that if anything happened to her he was to get rid of it. How could a young girl playing with a ham radio know that? How could she even make it up?
A young sixteen year old black boy, whose father had installed an extended antenna like Betty’s father had also done, heard Amelia say they were stuck on a reef south of the equator. He ran to get his father who recognized the voice and the two of them went to the sheriff. I mention his race here because it backs up the story. In 1937 two black men in Idaho telling tales about a famous white woman could have been disastrous if taken for hoax. Fortunately, the sheriff believed them and notified authorities. I have no doubt that Dana Randolph and his father heard the desperate pleas of Amelia Earhart who was not only stranded, but dealing with a delirious injured navigator.
From the Marshall Islands the two downed flyers were taken to Saipan, also controlled by the Japanese where various stories abound regarding their fates. Some theories have them held at the prison in deplorable conditions and then beheaded. This could be entirely possible for Fred since he was a drunk and could be belligerent. It is doubtful that the Japanese would have executed a famous woman flyer wearing men’s clothes as Japanese men were fascinated by her. Women did not act that way in Japan. Another version has Amelia dying of dysentery at a hotel on Saipan. There was at that time a young, tall Japanese American woman who could have been the woman seen instead of Amelia, one called Tokyo Rosa years before the notorious “Tokyo Rose”.
When I worked in nursing I met several older gentlemen who told me that they saw Amelia’s plane in a hangar on Saipan after the war. Rather than pay to ship equipment back to the States, the army was destroying it or sinking it in the ocean. The plane in the hanger was completely burnt. It’s interesting to note that later the CIA built a secret training facility at one end of the island.
I tend to believe the theory about Amelia being transported to China where the Japanese had several POW camps. Several facts persuade me this is the correct version. The Japanese liked to have English-speaking women broadcast as “Tokyo Rose” the radio personality designed to weaken the morale of U.S. fighting men in the southwest pacific. Two American soldiers stated they heard Amelia Earhart over the airwaves talking as Tokyo Rose. The government took it seriously enough to do something odd. George Putnam, who had no military training was commissioned as a Major in Army Intelligence and sent to the pacific area to listen to the woman who was allegedly Amelia. He stated that the woman had certainly done her homework, but she couldn’t be Amelia. One year after his wife’s disappearance Putnam had her declared legally dead when the usual time period is seven years.
Another thing the Japanese liked to do with American POWs was to make them nationalized Japanese citizens after being held captive for years for further humiliation. In 1946 an Irene Craigmile, AKA, Mrs. G.P. Putnam, a Japanese citizen applied to immigrate to the United States. This will be addressed again a bit later.
Further evidence that Amelia was in China with the Japanese military can be found in a photograph of Amelia standing next to a Japanese plane that was experimental at the time and not being used during the war. It would not be so unusual for the flyer to feel at home among the Japanese as she spoke fluent Japanese, learning it from a housekeeper her parents employed when she was a child.
Now enters Irene Craigmile Bolam, wife of a retired MI5 agent named Guy Bolam, and a writer/pilot named Joe Gervais. He met her at a meeting of a women’s pilot group named the “Ninety Nine’s” started in 1929. Gervais’ research is chronicled in a book by Joe Klaas, Amelia Earhart Lives, and is well worth reading as Mr. Gervais also describes four planes and not just one made for the around the world flight. The plane Amelia supposedly flew he found crashed on a mountain side in California.
Upon meeting Irene Gervais was struck hard by the realization that the woman was Amelia Earhart and indeed had the very same medals and awards as Amelia. He wrote a book asserting that theory and Irene sued him and his publisher, MacGraw Hill. The book was withdrawn. Gervais was surprised at the hostility and asked her why it would be such an insult to be called Amelia Earhart, a well-known and loved American heroine. Her response revealed much more than she realized.
Irene retorted, “Well then, that would make me a traitor and a bigamist wouldn’t it?” A bigamist yes, but how could she have known that Amelia could be judged a traitor? Joe asked Irene to be fingerprinted and put to rest the allegation and she refused. Mrs. Bolam went steps further by donating her body to a medical school and left instructions for no prints to be taken or any samples to be kept. The body was cremated forever leaving the question open. Even her best friend, also a pilot, thought Irene was Amelia Earhart but never brought up the subject for fear it would ruin the friendship.
What stories of such persons as Earhart present to us is that nothing may be as it seems and the versions printed in textbooks are meant to make us accept a certain template. Recent movies about Amelia fall short when they try to convince us that Amelia had a hot romance with G.P. Putnam. Difficult to buy when Putnam badgered her regarding marriage and she only relented after the sixth proposal when she no longer had the funds to keep flying. Right before the wedding Amelia had Putnam sign an agreement stating that she had reservations about the marriage and if she was still not happy in a year they would divorce- true love all right.
Whatever the truth about Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, she did not just crash in the ocean and vanish from history. I would recommend that anyone interested in the Earhart story read the following books, as well as others, to ask questions and form their own opinions.
- Joe Klaas, Amelia Earhart Lives
- Ric Gillespie, Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance.
- Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident
- J.A. Donahue, The Earhart Disappearance: The British Connection
- Amelia Earhart, Last Flight
- Muriel Earhart Morrissey, Amelia, My Courageous Sister
- Joe Davidson, Amelia Earhart Returns from Saipan
- T.C. Buddy Brennan, Witness to the Execution
- Col. Rollin Reineck, Amelia Earhart Survived.