Sometimes I’m asked why searching for the Hawaii Clipper is still relevant. My answer usually depends on who asks the question because it may have come from curiosity, indifference or even hostility. More often than not, it comes as fascination because in an age where Hollywood is remaking remakes of remakes – there seems to be little new “material” or stories to be excited about. The Hawaii Clipper is such a story.
When I first discovered the story I was a freshly minted Ensign in the US Navy Reserve working on a thesis paper about the Naval perspective of the Amelia Earhart search. As I dug deeper and deeper in to the complex clipper story, I found myself learning something new with subjects I once thought I knew much about. I was self deceived. Over the next seventeen years, I have not only spent time, but also treasure in visiting Truk Lagoon and a dozen experts, eye witnesses and family members of the Hawaii Clipper crew to see if the whole thing was a vast conspiracy, a misunderstanding or simply bad luck. I have since come to a very certain conclusion and now hope to prove it with indisputable evidence.
The inspiration for today’s blog entry is to showcase an example of “Indicators in Plain Sight.” Drawing back from decades of experience, something very important such as a (metaphor) road sign, grave stone or similar easy to understand why it is there but being used for something else are easy to miss read. I’m sure you could probably come up with a few of your own within a minute or two. While reading this article entitled Why Amelia Earhart Still Matters, a possible indicator leaped out at me. If you read the story, you will see an observation made by Blitz: “… tiny Howland Island was a poor choice for a landing spot due to it being only two miles long and a mile wide. However, the U.S. military was looking to establish an outpost in the Pacific as a prelude to World War II and encouraged its selection. “
I agree but for an even greater reason. The USCGC Itasca was a fairly large and new vessel commissioned July 12, 1930. At a time of national financial hardship, it was not cheap to park that ship way out in the Pacific especially for a publicity stunt. From June 26 to 30 Itasca sailed off the coast of Howland and awaited the arrival of the Earhart plane while Interior Department personnel and technical aides were at work on runways and other precautionary work connected with the flight. What other reason would the US dispatch the ship, its crew, and other supporting members of the Navy and Army air corps to meet Amelia on the desolate spit of land? My theory is that she was indeed carrying photographs or perhaps film of possible Japanese Navy fortifications (which there was not a lot of ) that would immediately be transferred and perhaps developed. The cover story could be to help AE and Noonan safely find the island, support them on the ground and get them back in the air. Just think, the Japanese Army invaded China a few days after Amelia disappeared and six months later on December 12 1937, the USS Panay would be attacked and sunk by Japanese bombers and fighters. According to Lieutenant J.W. Geist, an officer aboard the ship, “the day before we told the Japanese army in the area who we were,” and three American flags were plainly visible on the ship. The Japanese responded that the Panay fired first and instigated the encounter. Hawaii Clipper pilot Mark Walker (then not in Pan Am but US Navy Pilot stationed on the USS Saratoga CV-3 seen below)
and was dispatched to Manila to hand carry motion picture film of the Panay attack back to the US aboard the Pan Am China Clipper. When the film was developed, it proved the eye witness accounts of the guns on deck being locked down and covered with canvas – thus posing no threat to the Japanese military. Forced to confess their mistake and lose face, Japan apologized and made reparations to the families and US government. As they say, an image is worth a thousand words and having proof of Japanese illegal fortifications being build in the Japanese mandated islands would have been all America needed to take some form of action.
As background, the Japanese military began making surveys of the island groups in 1921 and developed contingency plans for rapid deployment should hostilities with a neighbor become real. In 1933 Japan announced that it was withdrawing from the League of Nations, while making it clear that it still in no way intended to give up the mandated islands. In 1935 its representatives marched out of a conference on naval arms control and it announced its intention to abrogate existing treaties on the subject by the end of 1936. On January 1st, 1937, the Japanese began construction of the giant battleships Yamato and Musashi and construction of airfields and improved port facilities began. Considering the pace of economic growth and change in Micronesia at the time, the United States feared Japan was preparing for war and would begin to take any opportunity to study Japanese activity within the mandated islands any way possible. Chief of Staff of Japanese naval forces in northern China, Vice Admiral Rokuzo Sugiyama, was assigned to make an apology which reached Washington, D.C. on Christmas Eve. While the Japanese navy insisted the attack had been unintentional the presence of American flags, which would have been visible from the air, suggests the attack had not been a mistake, but rather a type of unauthorized action known by the classical Japanese term Gekokujō and means “overthrowing or surpassing one’s superiors” and comes from Confucian tradition as a kind of “government from below” which is condoned; meaning a “government of men” in contrast of a “government of laws.”