November 22, 2017


by Kelly Burton, Film Archivist

Of all the larger-than-life figures to emerge from twentieth century history, few rival the early aviators when it comes to pure panache and romantic allure. This is certainly true in the case of Amelia Earhart, an aviation pioneer and author whose celebrity has remained extremely durable throughout the decades following her disappearance over the central Pacific Ocean in 1937. The brief visit that Ms. Earhart made to Helena, Montana in 1933 stands as a testament to her appeal at the time, and both the enthusiastic civic response and the wide regional press coverage speak to the breadth of her fame. References to Earhart’s historic appearance persist to this day: Helena’s annual history pageant – the Vigilante Parade – honored Earhart’s visit with separate floats in 2013 and 2017, and the appearance was further immortalized in 2010 with a painting which now hangs at the Helena Airport.

telegram from Amelia Earhart, 1933 (PAc 2003-62)
title card from Amelia Earhart, 1933 (PAc 2003-62)

Adding its own unique piece to this historical narrative, the Montana Historical Society has an amateur motion picture film of a portion of Amelia Earhart’s 1933 promotional tour for Northwest Airways.  As part of the airline’s bid for the coveted airmail contract for the Northern Transcontinental Route from Minneapolis to Seattle, general manager John Croil Hunter invited Earhart to fly as a guest aboard a Northwest Airways Ford Trimotor on a portion of the northern route to “assess the desirability of flying the route in mid-winter.” [1]  The aviator landed in Helena around 4:30 pm on January 29, 1933, and this particular trip found her playing the role of passenger, observer, and spokesperson for the value of aeronautics. After addressing a crowd of thousands at the Helena Airport administration building, Earhart was then taken to a banquet in her honor at Helena’s Placer Hotel, where she regaled Montana governor John E. Erickson and the town’s elite with stories of her various transatlantic flights. Staying with the State Commissioner of Aeronautics Fred B. Sheriff and his family at 700 Power Street in Helena that evening, Earhart departed for Spokane and Seattle after a luncheon the following afternoon. [2]

Earhart landing at Helena Airport (PAc 2003-62)  
Earhart disembarking at Helena Airport (PAc 2003-62)

The 70-foot, 5-minute reel of silent, black and white, 8mm film begins with handwritten title cards that read, “these pictures of Amelia Earhart taken in Helena Feb. 1933” and “the flight pictures are from Helena to Seattle.” Following these homemade titles, we find footage of a telegram sent from Earhart to Mrs. Fred B. Sheriff of Helena, Montana: “Mr. Putnam and I are off to Chicago this afternoon where I expect to see Mr. Hunter. Please tell your husband I will write him after the interview. Sincerely yours, Amelia Earhart.” The film then shows the approach, landing and taxiing of a Northwest Airways Ford Trimotor airplane, as photographed from the ground at the Helena Airport. Earhart disembarks the plane, where she is immediately engaged by a closely-gathered crowd. The aviator is soon escorted to the airport’s administration building, where she speaks and gestures from a second-story window, and eventually leaves the airport. On what is presumed to be the following day, we see Earhart board the same Ford plane and depart from the Helena valley.  The final images from the reel are aerial views of various mountain ranges and lakes, culminating in very brief shots of the Seattle area from the air and ground.

Earhart at the Helena Airport (PAc 2003-62)

Earhart speaking from the airport administration building (PAc 2003-62)

While motion pictures of early promotional aviation tours – especially those undertaken by pilots of Earhart’s stature –  often existed as widely-distributed newsreels, there are several details from this Helena film which point to a more unique document. In lieu of professionally printed credits, intertitles and copyright information, the filmmaker used only two homemade title cards to identify the contents of the reel. The presence in the film of a personal telegram from Earhart to Bernice Sheriff points to the family of the aeronautics commissioner as the probable source for the amateur film, and this idea is confirmed by the donation paperwork itself. American historian and Montana rancher Jean Baucus, who brought the film to the Historical Society in 2003, is in fact the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Sheriff. A VHS transfer of this wonderfully distinctive film (collection PAc 2003-62) was provided by the donor, and this copy is available for viewing in the Historical Society’s Research Center.

Earhart leaving the Helena valley (PAc 2003-62)

Earhart departing from Helena Airport (PAc 2003-62)

[1] Ric Gillespie, Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Electra (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 55-56.
[2] “Greatest Woman Flyer Delights Helena Crowd,” Helena Independent (Helena, MT), January 30, 1933.

November 16, 2017

EXTRA! Montana Newspaper Stories 1864-1922: Montana Historical Society's founding

When the territory was only a few months old, Montana's earliest white settlers began planning for a historical society.

Key dates

February 2, 1865—The territorial assembly passes an act to incorporate the Historical Society of Montana.
March 4, 1865—Society President W. F. Sanders advertises for the first public event at the Society, a lecture by a local judge. The event is held in a local church.
March 25, 1865—The Historical Society is officially organized with elected officers.

From the newspapers

To find more

Search for these terms: historical society

Written by Catherine W. Ockey

November 9, 2017

"Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry."

"Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry." FDR, 3 February 1943

George Suyama
Photo Courtesy of Carl Williams
Montana native George Washington Suyama was last seen October 22, 1944, as he was shot from a tank by a German shooter.   The tank was one of several on the road to liberate Bruyeres, France from German occupation.  Sergeant Suyama was a member of Company A, 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment.  The 100th Battalion and 442nd were segregated units manned by hundreds of first generation Japanese fighting for the USA  in the European Theater.  They fought for the United States while many of their families were interned in the United States.  A year and a day after his disappearance, the U.S. Government contacted George’s  siblings of his “Missing in Action” status. [1] Sergeant Suyama died a long way from home.

George Suyama was born in Great Falls, MT, 7 October 1918, the second child of Harry and Tamy Suyama.  The family was among a group of Japanese who lived near, and worked for the Great Northern Railway.   By 1930, the Suyama family included five children.  They had moved north of Havre to establish a truck farm.[2]  Mr. and Mrs. Suyama’s produce soon earned a reputation of quality, and the family was active in the local Methodist church. They encouraged their children to attend school and all excelled in their education.  Sadly, both parents passed away while the two younger children were still in school. [3] It appears the older siblinlgs, Marda, George, and Tana, supported the family. By 1940 the Suyama children, all Nisei, or first generation Japanese Americans, were hard at work. Betty, the youngest, lodged with the Green family while finishing Havre High School. Frank and George labored at a mine in Fergus County, while 23-year-old Mary lived and worked in Helena for Montana’s ex-governor John Erickson and his wife Grace. [4]  After graduating from Havre High School with a 4.0 average, Tana headed east.  By 1942 she would meet and marry Dr. George Marumoto in Minneapolis. [5]

George Suyama with coworkers and neighbors at Mill Site near Brooks, MT circa 1940
Photo courtesy of  Carl Williams
In December 1941, George Washington Suyama was once again living near the railroad with other workers of Japanese descent, this time in Helena.  His enlistment card recorded his employer as Ogata Gardens.   He traveled to Missoula to enlist in the Army two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack. [6] Due to his Japanese ethnicity, he was denied combat duty and stationed in Arkansas. However, with the formation of the 442nd Infantry, Sergeant Suyama saw the opportunity to prove the “lie to the wrong headedness and racism that led to internment.” [7]   By October 1944, he was serving as a replacement for the 100th Battalion Combat Unit as it fearlessly fought its way through France.  For his service and sacrifice, the U.S. Army recognized Sergeant George Washington Suyama for,

 . . . heroic achievement on 22 October 1944. Directed to establish contact with elements of their battalion entrapped in the vicinity of Biffontaine, France, Sergeant Suyama and his comrades started for their objective mounted on five light tanks. Encountering a hail of fire from well dug-in enemy positions on the road, Sergeant Suyama and the rest of the platoon fearlessly resisted with their individual weapons and the machine guns emplaced on the tanks, neutralized a considerable portion of the concentrated fire and enabled the tanks to reach friendly forces. By his heroic disregard for personal safety, Sergeant Suyama contributed immeasurably to the subsequent attainment of the objective and reflects honor on the United States Army.” HEADQUARTERS SIXTH ARMY GROUP, U.S. ARMY, GENERAL ORDERS NUMBER 15, 30 December, 1944. [8]

Sergeant Suyama was ultimately awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, Distinguished Unit Badge, Combat Infantry Badge, American Campaign Medal, and more.  For its size, the 442nd was the most decorated unit in the history of U.S. warfare. [9]

With the naming of their oldest son George Washington, Harry and Tamy  Suyama professed their appreciation and commitment to this county.  With his actions and sacrifice so far from the fields of central Montana, Sergeant Suyama not only reinforced his parents’ love of the United States, he succeeded in proving that despite the grotesquely unfair treatment that Americans of Japanese descent were subjected, patriotism is not a matter of ethnicity.

[1] Neil Nakadate, Looking After Minidoka: An American Memoir, Indiana University Press, 2013, p. 195
[2] See 1920, 1930 & 1940 U.S. Census for Harry Suyama family. 
[3] “Mrs. Harry Suyama Taken By Death,” The Havre Daily News, 23 August 1938.
[4] 1940 U.S. Census, Suyama, George, Frank, Betty & Mary
[5] Nakadate,  p. 124-126,  194-96
[6] Suyama, George Enlistment card, RS 223, Montana Adjutant General’s Office Records, Polks Helena City Directory 1941-42, p, 204, 1940 U.S. Census for Rinzi Ogata. 
[7] Nakadate, p. 195
[8] Carl Williams, Hill 555 Project, Report to Donors, 31 October, 2017, Biography Sgt. George Washington Suyama,   Russ Pickett, “Sgt. George W. Suymana,” Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial, Lorraine, France, Find a Grave,  Accessed 7 September 2017.
[9] Ibid.