David Henley: Theory may tell the fate of pilot Amelia Earhart

This cellblock in the old Japanese prison on Saipan contains about a dozen cells, one of which may have held Amelia Earhart or Fred Noonan.

This cellblock in the old Japanese prison on Saipan contains about a dozen cells, one of which may have held Amelia Earhart or Fred Noonan.

SAIPAN, Northern Marianas Islands — The old Japanese prison, set in a grove of spindly tangan-tangan trees, lies in a secluded jungle clearing south of Garapan, the capital of this remote U.S. territory in the western Pacific about 6,000 miles from the west coast of the United States.

Located east of Beach Road and west of the Saipan Cockfighting Arena, the crumbling and long-empty prison has, indeed, a frightful legacy.

Built in 1929 by the Japanese government, which had taken control of this chain of 14 islands from Germany following the outbreak of World War I, the prison incarcerated untold numbers of indigenous Chamorros who were starved, beaten, tortured and, on occasion, beheaded by their Japanese captors during Japan’s 30-year reign here.

Several American servicemen, captured by the Japanese during the June, 1944 U.S. invasions of Saipan and neighboring Tinian, met similar fates.

Scores of bullet holes pockmark the exterior and interior walls of the 85-year-old prison, testimony to the fierce fighting between U.S. Marines and the Japanese defenders during the battles of Saipan and Tinian 70 years ago this month that resulted in the defeat of the Japanese and the United States’ capture of the Marianas.

As I toured the prison’s infamous “torture block,” guards’ quarters and cells — there were 29 cells for men and four for women, each equipped with a Japanese-style “squat” toilet — a battered pickup truck drove up and its driver, a young man, got out, shook my hand and asked, “where are you from?”

“America,” I replied.

“Great ... we hardly get any visitors here. Did you know that the American pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were captured by the Japanese and held in this jail?” he asked.

“Yes, I have read reports that they were,” I answered, although I was not particularly taken aback by what he told me about Earhart and Noonan, who went missing on July 2, 1937, when they and their twin-engine Electra airplane vanished in the Pacific during a round-the-world flight.

A theory was after the fliers’ Electra was running out of gas when they made an emergency landing on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands, Earhart, Noonan and their aircraft were picked up by a Japanese fishing boat and transported by a Japanese Navy ship to Japanese-held Saipan where they were held in the prison here, possibly tortured and eventually executed on charges of spying for the U.S. It’s a theory that’s being more accepted today, particularly with the recent release of the book “Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last” written by Florida military historian Mike Campbell.

Campbell states in his riveting 460-page book, which includes quotes from Saipan residents they saw Earhart and Noonan in the prison, he’s “positive” the fates of the pair were sealed on this island.

Of course other plausible theories abound, such as the fliers’ airplane crashed on the deserted Pacific island of Nikumoro, where they eventually died of starvation, or were killed when their airplane crashed into the sea. Because no evidence has yet been discovered of the airplane’s location and the remains of Earhart and Noonan, all theories are open to conjecture.

The mystery of what happened to Earhart and Noonan, like the mystery surrounding the disappearance three months ago of a Malaysian Airlines airplane with 239 aboard, still remains officially unsolved.

There’s something about an airplane vanishing into thin air that fascinates all people in the world, and this is especially true in Northern Nevada and Northern California, where there continues to be high interest in the fates of Earhart and Noonan, particularly Earhart.

Earhart made headlines in Nevada and California when she flew to several cities in both states in an autogiro, the forerunner of the helicopter, during a cross-country tour in June of 1931.

On this tour, sponsored by a chewing gum company, she stopped at Elko, Battle Mountain, Lovelock, Reno and Sacramento before ending her trip in Oakland.

During the Nevada segment, her autogiro developed engine trouble during a dust storm and she crash-landed, without injuries, near the tiny community of Toy (now extinct) that lay astride the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks in Pershing County. She and the aircraft were taken back to Lovelock, where she spent the night while the autogiro was repaired, before resuming her flight to the west coast.

And there’s another Earhart connection to Nevada.

Dorothy Putnam, the first wife of Earhart’s husband, publishing heir George Palmer Putnam, filed for divorce from Putnam in Reno, and she spent the then-mandated six-week residency in Reno before her divorce from Putnam could be finalized.

Earhart and Putnam were married just four months before her autogiro flight across Nevada and California.

And on July 3, 1966, the National Geographic Society and the Ninety-Nines, a women’s pilot organization founded by Earhart in 1929, won approval from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to have a yet-named 11,974-foot mountain peak in Northern California officially and permanently named “Mount Amelia Earhart.”

The peak is located in Tuolumne County off State Route 108 near the communities of Long Barn and Mi-Wuk Village, about 75 air miles southwest of South Lake Tahoe.

At the top of Mount Amelia Earhart, there’s affixed a plaque containing words from a poem written by Earhart, that says, in part:

“Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace ... courage knows no release from little things ... it knows not the livid loneliness of fear nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear the sound of wings.”

Earhart, who was born 117 years ago in Atchinson, Kan., went missing at the age of 40 when she and Noonan’s Electra vanished over the Pacific.

The 77th anniversary of that last flight will be commemorated in just a few days, and what befell the two aviators and their aircraft remains one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries.


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