The First World War II Casualties in the Pacific:

What Really Happened to “Lady Lindy”?

By Ralph Heller, NPRI Senior Research Fellow

 

When pilot Linda Finch took off in a Lockheed Electra March 17 to duplicate Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated ‘round-the-world journey of 60 years ago, the American press showed its customary lack of intellectual curiosity about what had really happened to the aviatrix Americans liked to call "Lady Lindy." Accordingly, most Americans still believe that Earhart simply disappeared somewhere over the Pacific in the summer of 1937 and have never been told what really happened to her.

Once aviator Charles Lindbergh had been nicknamed "Lucky Lindy" it became Earhart’s inevitable fate to be known as "Lady Lindy" although she resented it and wanted her own public identity. On her last flight she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, flew an advanced model, twin engine, aluminum Electra especially designed for the trip, and as it turned out the two of them became the first American casualties of the Pacific war about to break out between the U.S. and Japan.

By 1937 Tokyo had concluded that war with the U.S. was inevitable over control of the western Pacific, and Japan was already plotting with Hitler how to divide up Dutch, British and French possessions in an emerging Pacific empire the Japanese called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Japan already had control of key Pacific islands under a League of Nations mandate and was secretly pouring military resources into them. To assure secrecy Japanese military personnel worked in civilian clothes and airstrips were designated as "farms" on maps.

On July 2, 1937, bewildered and more than 100 miles off course, Amelia Earhart ran out of fuel and set the Electra down at the edge of an atoll near Mili Mili, a principal military position in the Japanese Marshall Island chain. The truth is that neither Earhart nor Noonan were skilled navigators and neither of them knew how to work the state-of-the-art navigation equipment designed especially for their ‘round-the-world journey.

Searching U.S. ships and planes failed to turn up any trace of Earhart, Noonan or their plane. As far as anyone knew they had simply vanished into the vastness of the Pacific. But years later, a former U.S. Air Force pilot with extensive Pacific experience, Vincent Loomis, became fascinated with the Earhart mystery and went to the Pacific and actually interviewed natives who remembered Earhart and Noonan and what had happened to them.

Fearing that their surprise visitors would reveal what they had seen of the military build up in the Marshall Islands, the Japanese took them both prisoner and wondered if they might even be spies. Not knowing what to do with their captives, the Japanese sent Earhart and Noonan to Japanese Military Headquarters on Saipan and put them in jail.

Conditions were miserable — the jail had not been set up to serve food since most of the prisoners were natives whose families brought meals to them. Earhart and Noonan were irregularly provided with some poor quality soup, fish and rice.

One day Noonan, utterly exasperated, threw a bowl of foul soup at a Japanese jailer, unfortunately forgetting that pre-war Imperial Japan was not exactly a permissive society. He was forced to dig his own grave and then beheaded.

After a time Earhart herself was permitted a certain amount of freedom and made friends with several native families, members of which were later interviewed by Loomis. She was permitted to make nearby visits to see her new friends and her diet and spirits were improving when, in mid-1938, life in the tropics overcame her and she came down with a severe case of dysentery. She weakened rapidly and died. The Japanese military permitted the natives to provide a funeral wreath for her and she was buried next to Noonan on Saipan.

It almost appears as though she never really grasped the full significance of the things she had seen — perhaps because she simply didn’t want to. She was a committed philosophical pacifist who had unwittingly become one of the very first casualties of a conflict that would become known a few years later as the greatest war in the history of mankind.

Ralph Heller is Senior Consulting Editor of Nevada Journal.

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