The Unsolved Mystery Of Pete Ellis
By LtCol P.N. Pierce - Originally Published February 1962
"In order to impose our will upon Japan, it will be necessary for us to project our fleet and land forces across the Pacific and wage war in Japanese waters."
-Maj Earl H. Ellis, 1921
Twenty years before Pearl Harbor, the Marine officer who predicted the attack disappeared mysteriously, somewhere in the "forbidden islands" of the Pacific.
Behind him, he left one of the most amazing documets ever written - a secret study which forecast the events of World War II, still two decades in the future.
What happened to LtCol Pete Ellis, the master strategist and spy who waged a single-handed war against the Japanese Empire?
The answer, obscured by a veil of secrecy and intrigue-has baffled investigators for 38-years.
The curtain rose on the mystery of Pete Ellis during the summed of 1920. On the first day of July, John Archer Lejeune became the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps. Two weeks later Ellis was ordered to Washington.
No one around Headquarters Marine Corps saw much of LtCol Ellis. Visitors to his cubby-hole office on the second floor were greeted by a terse sign: No Admittance. His nights were pretty well accounted for by the midwatch guard reports. Somewhere between midnight and dawn, they invariably showed a common entry: Lights burning in 209. Office occupied.
Occasionally, his friends bumped into him in the corridors. Those who inquired about his job all received the same answer. Mumbling something about "special assignment," he would excuse himself and retreat behind the locked door of his sanctum.
After almost a year, Ellis emerged from seclusion with the product of his labor-a 30,000-word document entitled "Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia." On 23 July 1921, classified Top Secret, it was officially approved as "Operation Plan 712-H" by Commandant Lejeune. In it Ellis predicted war between Japan and the United States.
Japan is a world power, he wrote. Considering our consistent policy of non-aggression, she will initiate the war. Both her army and navy will be up to date in training and personnel. Considering her natural defensive position, she will have sufficient military strength to defeat our fleet.
Then, with prophetic insight, he listed the objectives against which Japan would launch her attack: Hawaii, Wake, Midway, Guam, the Philippines.
Ellis' plan called for the US seizure of key islands in the Marshall and Caroline Islands. These objectives, he pointed out, would be necessary to provide the fleet with bases from which to launch a counterattack against the Philippines. The eventual advance on the Japanese homeland, he wrote, would have to be made via the Marianas and Bonin Islands.
Saw Importance of Aviation
Ellis did not limit himself to strategy. His study included tactical plans in some detail. Though aviation was still in its infancy, he provided for aerial attack against enemy positions.
The development of the airplane is proceeding so swiftly their characteristics and methods of attack can be foreseen only to a limited degree, Ellis wrote. Nevertheless, he foresaw bombers with speeds up to 200 miles per hour; fuel capacities for seven hours of flight, and bombs weighing up to 2,000 pounds.
He also predicted that torpedo planes would probably be developed.
Ellis' idea of Japanese aggression was nothing new to his friends. He had been rabid on the subject of Japan's motives in the Pacific since a tour of duty on Guam in 19M. After the Peace Conference at Versailles, following WWI, the subject had become a mania with him.
The peacemakers had met to divide the spoils of war among the victors. To Japan had gone League of Nations mandates over the widely-separated island group of Micronesia-the Marianas, the Carolines and the Marshalls. Pete Ellis was convinced the US delegates who had agreed to Japan's request for these territories had cast their vote for the next war.
As he saw it, the more than 2,500 islands of the archipelago-stretching from Japan to the equator-formed a screen for the eastern face of Asia. Behind its protective cover, the imperialistic Japanese were free to carry out their long-cherished dreams of expansion. Anyone who couldn't see the danger in giving Japan control over the Pacific islands had no business deciding the iisue. And Ellis said so, whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself.
His outspoken criticism of America's foreign policy soon landed him in hot water. Attending a reunion of WWI buddies in Washington's Willard Hotel, Pete was asked to say a few words. Warming to his subject, he proceeded to deliver a bitter tirade against the Administration's altitude of appeasement in world politics. A reporter, who happened to be present, dutifully reported Ellis' criticism in the morning's edition. By noon the blunt-talking Marine was highly unpopular on Capitol Hill.
Nineteen-twenty was an election year. With the recently finished "war to end all wars" still fresh in the public mind, no politician wanted a uniformed jingoist ruffling pre-election waters. Marine Corps Headquarters had received curt orders to put a muzzle on LtCol Ellis.
The completion of his study marked a big milestone in the driving ambition of Pete Ellis' life-to convince his government of Imperial Japan's plans in the Pacific. He had no illusions about the reaction he could expect to the radical theories set forth in his plan. Except to a few far-seeing thinkers they would be the ridiculous ideas of a crack-pot. Outside the military, he could expect to be damned as a war-monger.
What he needed was absolute proof to back up his arguments. But this was a step that would have to wait. The savage intensity with which he had driven himself to complete the plan, and the long hours of overwork, had taken their toll. A week after he finished his project, he was admitted to the Naval Hospital. The medical report showed: "Illness evidenced by headache, insomnia, loss of appetite and mental depression. Diagnosis: psychoasthenia."
Discharged after three months' hospitalization, he returned to duty. Two weeks later, with considerable casualness, he asked for 90 days leave "to visit France, Belgium and Germany."
There were two curious circumstances connected with his request for leave. In the first place, the request was approved by the Secretary of the Navy the same day it was received. Returned the following day, the letter set an all-time record for prompt handling of official correspondence.
The second oddity was noticed by Gen Lejeune's secretary. Prior to his departure, Ellis called at the Commandant's office to say goodbye. During the apparently normal conversation between the two officers, the secretary noticed Ellis pass a sealed envelope to the General. Without comment, Lejeune unobtrusively slipped it into his desk drawer.
Having said his goodbyes, LtCol Ellis walked out of the front door of Marine Corps Headquarters-and vanished.
Pete Ellis entered the scene on a cold, blustery, Kansas morning in mid-December, 1880. Christened Earl Hancock Ellis, he lived the youth of a typical mid-western farm boy. Graduating from high school at 18, he went to work on his father's place. But after two years of slopping hogs and riding plow handles, he'd had enough of the farm.
Lured by the excitement of life in the big city, Earl made the initial investment in his turbulent future for a few dollars and change. A day-coach ticket on the Santa Fe was his passport to the bustling activity of downtown Chicago. Before the week was out, the Windy City ceased to hold any allure for him.
Perhaps it was the fact that board and room came high in the big city. Maybe it was the enticement of the colorful recruiting poster. Shimmering in the sidewalk heat of a late summer afternoon, it promised a life of high adventure in exotic lands.
Whatever the reason, he marched resolutely into the Post Office Building-and a life far removed from the humdrum existence he had known amid the nodding cornfields of Kansas. It was three months before his twentieth birthday.
The change from Earl Ellis, farm hand, to Pvt Ellis, US Marine Corps, required three hours, the usual indignities of a physical exam, and a ten-minute lecture by a jut-jawed sergeant.
Pvt Ellis didn't finish his first enlistment. Before he reached voting age, he was commissioned a second lieutenant-and had been permanently tagged with the nickname "Pete."
By the end of WWI he had collected four decorations and a set of lieutenant colonel's leaves. He had also earned a widespread reputation as a brilliant officer, given to periodic bouts with the bottle.
Many tales have been told about Pete Ellis since that day he walked out of Marine Corps Headquarters. The true account of his mysterious adventure may be pieced together only from many sources.
No one in Europe ever saw him. When he failed to return at the end of his leave, some long-forgotten officer sent a brief note to the Adjutant Inspector. "The leave granted LtCol Ellis has expired. How shall he be carried on the muster roll?"
The memo came back with curt, underlined instructions scrawled across the bottom. "Continue to carry on leave."
On to Nippon
For almost a year nothing was heard from Ellis. Then, in late March, LtCol Robert H. Dunlap, one of his closest friends, received a cryptic cablegram:
IMPRACTICAL HERE STOP PROCEEDING JAPAN STOP EVERYTHING ALL RIGHT STOP
The message was sent from Sydney, Australia, where Ellis had just been released from the hospital after being treated for nephritis-a painful kidney infection. A few weeks later, he turned in at the Naval Hospital at Canacao in the Philippines.
The next dispatch, filed at the Naval Station, Cavite, was dated 19 June 1922. Stamped SECRET and transmitted in code, it was addressed to BGen Logan Feland at Marine Corps Headquarters:
ESSENTIAL TO OBJECTIVE BY NORTHERN ROUTE X HAVE GAINED COMPLETE AUTHORITY X DO NOT THINK THERE WILL BE FURTHER DIFFICULTY X DELAYED HERE WHILE ILL X DESIRE TO CONTINUE X REPLY BY RADIO NAVSTA CAVITE X
Sent Top Priority, the answer consisted of a single sentence.
LEAVE EXTENSION GRANTED FOR PERIOD SIX MONTHS
On 12 August, Cdr U. R. Webb, commanding the US Naval Hospital in Yokohama, received an urgent phone call from the Grand Hotel. An excited voice explained that an American guest was desperately ill. Would the doctor please come quickly?
Answering the summons, Webb found a civilian suffering from what appeared to be nephritis. There was also evidence that the sick man had been drinking heavily. Realizing that immediate hospitalization was necessary, the doctor took the man to the Naval Hospital. Upon admission, the patient identified himself as LtCol Earl H. Ellis, a Marine officer. He explained that he was touring the Orient while on leave.
After two week's treatment, Ellis was discharged from the hospital. A week later, he was admitted with the same trouble. Again he improved rapidly and was released.
On 20 September, he was brought back to the hospital from a Japanese resort. Under "Reason For Admission," the record card showed: "acute alcoholism."
Convinced that the Marine officer needed prolonged medical care in the States, Dr Webb gave him an ultimatum. He could either be sent home under medical survey on the next transport, or take the Mail Steamer at his own expense. Ellis chose the latter.
On 4 October he cabled his bank in the US for a thousand dollars. The money arrived on the sixth. That night Pete Ellis disappeared from his hospital bed and official sight.
The daily dispatches pouring into the State Department in Washington on 23 May 1923 looked pretty routine. One, not much out of the ordinary, was from the American Embassy in Tokyo. Logged in at 6:20 a.m., it read: "I am informed by the Governor General of Japanese South Sea Islands that E. H. Ellis, representative of Hughes Trading Company, #2 Rector St., New York City, holder of Department passport No. 4249, died at Koror, Caroline Islands on May 12th. Remains and effects in possession of Japanese Government awaiting instructions." It was signed "Wilson."
As a matter of standard procedure, the State Department checked with the Hughes Trading Company. By a strange coincidence, the company's president turned out to be a retired Marine colonel. From him, State was surprised to learn that E. H. Ellis was not a commercial traveller at all. He was, in fact, a Marine Corps officer on an intelligence mission. At that point, a lot of Washington telephones began ringing, closely followed by a noticeable increase in Pacific cable traffic.
Somehow the word leaked out. The story splashed across the front pages of the nation's press.
At Headquarters Marine Corps, his old friend, Gen Lejeune, maintained an attitude of utter innocence about Ellis and his activities. Badgered by insistent reporters, the Commandant issued a statement to the effect that Ellis had been AWOL for some time. A revocation of his leave had been sent from Washington several weeks before his disappearance. The official records backed up the General's statement.
For several days the news stories contrasted sharply with the gentle foreign policy of the country. Lejeune did everything possible-almost-to protect his Corps from the thinly veiled newspaper hints of espionage. There was one defense he could never bring himself to use.
Alone in his office, the graying General look the sealed envelope Ellis had left behind from the drawer of his desk. Tapping it absently against his thumbnail, he sat for a moment, lost in thought. Then, starting from his reveries, he placed the envelope in an ashtray and struck a match. Sadly he watched the curling flame silently consume Pete Ellis' undated resignation from the Marine Corps.
Starting at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Naval Intelligence agents began to make guarded inquiries. Up to a point, Pete Ellis had left a wide trail.
He had been around Yokohama for approximately two months. During that time, he had been drinking heavily and spending money freely. One sentence of the intelligence report was particularly significant. ". . . There can be little doubt that the Japanese Secret Service have made copious reports about him."
The agents found that he had settled his bill at the Grand Hotel; ordered an automobile from a nearby garage, and took some baggage to the Yokohama railway station.
The report continued: "The circumstances of the case preclude the possibility of making a thorough and comprehensive investigation. However, everything points to the fact that LtCol Ellis boarded a merchant vessel sailing for the Carolines at either Kobe or Moji."
Somewhere along the teeming Japanese waterfront the trail petered out.
Trader Saw Him
The next link in the chain of evidence fell into place in San Francisco. On 25 May a stocky man with a thick German accent appeared at Department of the Pacific Headquarters. He said he had just read an item in the newspaper about the death of LtCol Ellis. He had some information he thought might be of interest.
Ushered into the Comanding General's office, the man identified himself as Otto Herrman, a trader from the Marshall Islands. he Hold the General he had known an American named Earl Ellis in the Marshalls. Though Ellis appeared 10 know very little about the trading business, he always semed to have a large supply of money. He said Ellis once told him there was going to be a war between the United States and Japan. Sometime later, a native told him that Ellis was a military officer and the Japanese intended to put him in jail.
He next met Ellis on Kusaie, in the eastern Carolines. They had left the island together, on the same steamer. Ellis left the packet at Palau, in the western Carolines. This was around the middle of April. According to Herrman, Ellis was in good health at the time and was on his way to New Guinea.
The trader concluded his visit by saying the Japanese didn't want foreigners in the islands.
Still another link was added by Cornelius Vanderbilt III. Returning from a Pacific cruise, the famed sportsman told of meeting an American missionary on Jaluit. Her name was Miss Jessie R. Hoppin. She told Vanderbilt she had known Ellis, and had nursed him in her home when he had become seriously ill. She also said the Japanese authorities had been very angry with Ellis when he attempted to penetrate certain forbidden areas.
Had it not been for an ironic twist of fate, there was one man who might have supplied the solution to the mystery of Pete Ellis.
Key Witness Dies
Early in July, a Chief Pharmacist named Lawrence Zembsch left the Naval Hospital in Yokohama. He was under orders to proceed to the Carolines and bring back Ellis' body. On August 14 he returned with an urn containing what purported to be Ellis' ashes.
Why had Ellis' body been cremated?
Zembsch was unable to answer the question. A complete mental and physical wreck, and in a state of shock, he could only babble incoherently. Rushing him to the hospital, medical officers found evidence that he had been heavily drugged.
By the end of the month, his condition had improved to the point where the doctors felt he could be safely questioned. On 1 September, Zembsch's pretty wife arrived early for her daily visit to the hospital. She said she would stay only until lunch, since the questioning was set for afternoon.
At 11:42 Japan's terrible earthquake of 1923 struck Yokohama, smashing the hospital into a jumbled mass of debris. Both Zembsch and his wife perished in the ruins. With them disappeared, forever, one of the vital keys to the riddle of Pete Ellis.
What appeared to be the final act in the drama was contained in a letter from the Commander-In-Chief, Asiatic Fleet, to the American Consul General in Yokohama.
"Ashes of LtCol Earl H. Ellis, USMC, born 19 December 1880; died Palau, Caroline Islands 12 May 1923; were found in the ruins of receiving vault and identified by Lt T. P. Riddle, USN, through a typewritten slip pasted to a strip of wood which had evidently been a part of the outer case of a small casket. Ashes being sent to the United States on instructions of the Department."
They brought the ashes home. For a brief time the story blazed anew in the headlines. Then public interest died-and the world forgot.
The case remained closed until the summer of 1933 when Jessie Hoppin, the American missionary, returned to her home town of Auburndale, Massachusetts, on a month's leave. Now 67 years old, she had lived on Jaluit for over 35 years. Three days after she arrived in Auburndale, a Marine Corps officer paid her a visit.
Miss Hoppin was considerably more reserved than she had been with Vanderbilt ten years earlier. She refused point-blank to discuss Ellis or his activities. The officer left, convinced that the elderly missionary had been warned not to discuss the affairs of the territory to which she intended to return.
There the matter rested until the occupation of Japan following WWII. In 1948 US investigators, working through the Central Liaison and Coordinating Office, began an exhaustive search of Japanese records. The files of the former Secret Service Bureau-what could be found of them-contained no mention of anyone named Ellis. The searchers found nothing in the records of the National Rural Police Headquarters, the Yokohama Police Bureau, or the Police Department of Kanagawa Prefecture. None of the documents of either the Foreign Ministry or the Ministry of Colonies contained any information concerning such a person.
Finally, in the files of the Ministry of the Navy, the investigators found copies of two letters.
The first was written on 26 October 1921. Addressed to the Vice Minister of the Navy, the subject was "Voyage of Foreigners to the South Seas."
Consisting of a single paragraph, the letter indicated that a Mr. Earl Ellis, who represented himself as a delegate of the New York Hughes Company, had applied to the Foreign Affairs Ministry for a visa. As the reason for his request, Mr. Ellis stated he desired to make a business inspection tour of the Marshall-Caroline Islands. The final sentence read: "An expression of your Ministry is requested as to whether the permission may be given, or not."
Dated 9 November, the answer indicated that the Japanese had little doubt as to Ellis' true mission in the South Seas. Granting permission to issue the visa, it requested that detailed reports on his travels be submitted periodically.
This was the only evidence to be found.
A final attempt to find the missing pieces of the puzzle was made in 1950, when LtCol Waite W. Worden was sent to the Carolines. Arriving at the island of Koror in late March, his search led him to Ngerdako Gibbon. Ngerdako was the native wife of an Englishman, William Gibbon, now deceased.
An old, wrinkled woman of 65, Ngerdako told Worden that Ellis came to the island on a Japanese ship. Soon after his arrival he contacted her husband, the only English speaking person on Koror at the time. Ellis stayed at their house for about a week. At the end of that time, he asked Gibbon to find him a house in the native area where he could live in privacy. After some negotiations by Gibbon, a house was provided by the island's tribal chief.
During his stay on Koror, about a month and a half, Ellis drank heavily-sake, beer, whiskey, anything he could get. Once, when he ran out of liquor, the American showed up at Gibbon's house and demanded something to drink. When Gibbon told him there was no liquor in the house, Ellis tried to rip the walls apart, thinking there was a supply of whiskey hidden there.
Ngerdako said that Ellis would "walk around" during the day looking things over. But, she said, she didn't know what he was looking for. He was constantly followed by the Japanese. Frequently, he would find them peering in the windows of his house at night. Many times, she said, he rushed out of the house and beat up Japanese who were loitering close by.
One morning, according to Ngerdako, Ellis went "crazy drunk." By 1700 he was dead. Ngerdako and her husband built a coffin for Ellis and buried him in the native cemetery the next day.
Shortly thereafter, a man "who looked like an Englishman" arrived from japan. At the stranger's insistence, Ellis' body was dug up and cremated on a pile of rocks. The man, who identified himself as "Mr. Lorenz," put the ashes in a small box he had brought with him. He left Koror on the next ship, taking the small box with him.
Jose Tellei contributed other fragments to the account of Pete Ellis' last days. In 1923, Tellei had been the chief of native police under the Japanese regime. He said the Japanese Commissioner of Police ordered him to have Ellis watched at all times. The policemen assigned to the job were told not to carry police insignia, and to wear civilian clothing.
Tellei was present when Ellis' body was cremated. There was, he told Worden, a great mystery about what happened to Ellis' personal effects. They had been stored in the Government Building. When Mr. Lorenz's ship arrived, Tellei went to the building to get them. Though he had searched for a long time, he never was able to find the boxes.
How did Ellis die?
Perhaps the answer lies in the tragic medical record of a man whose consuming obsession had driven him beyond all human endurance. Perhaps it was the death of a man who had failed in an endless search.
The chances of finding the solution to the riddle grow slimmer with each passing day. But Marines of this and other generations will long remember the legendary prophet whose strange fate remains one of history's insoluble mysteries.
At MCS Quantico students of Amphibious Warfare School attend classes in Ellis Hall. To those who know the story of LtCol "Pete" Ellis, the final line of the inscription on the bronze memorial plaque which perpetuates his memory holds special meaning: His heart was dauntless and full of courage.