Since her Lockheed Electra disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, people have been speculating about what happened to Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan. It is, without a doubt, one of aviation’s most widely-known mysteries. Now, a new History Channel documentary is claiming to have found fresh evidence suggesting that Earhart and Noonan weren’t killed in the crash, but were, instead, taken prisoner by the Japanese military.
Among the evidence is a photo that comes from the National Archives, a now-declassified image taken at Jaluit Atoll by a U.S. spy operating in the Marshall Islands. Interestingly enough, this isn’t necessarily a new theory, but rather possible evidence corroborating an old one. In the 1960s, an account surfaced stating that Earhart’s plane had been seen landing in the Marshall Islands and that Earhart and Noonan were taken into Japanese custody on suspicion of being spies, were held at Saipan, and died there, possibly by execution.
The problem with this theory, as with many surrounding Earhart’s disappearance, is that it requires turning speculation and possibility into solid evidence. There isn’t a date on the photo, though it’s almost certain it was taken pre-1943. The image itself is blurry and was taken from a distance—the woman sitting on the dock with her back to the camera could be Amelia Earhart. The man standing nearby might be Fred Noonan. It’s possible that the object being towed in a barge behind a Japanese military ship at the very edge of the photo is the fuselage of her plane—it is the right size.
As has been pointed out by skeptics, there don’t appear to be any soldiers in the photo. Neither of the figures seem to be restrained or in distress. Their clothing is doesn’t match what Noonan and Earhart had with them and the woman’s hair seems to be a good bit longer than Amelia’s often-noted short cut. When it comes to the eyewitness account, Earhart and Noonan weren’t identified, nor was what happened to them. The recollection was only that two tall white people were seen under guard, and there might have been a plane.
For now, this latest theory seems to be no more or less than those that have come before it—a good story, possible, maybe even plausible, but lacking a satisfying conclusion.
Watch a preview of the documentary, Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, or find air-times at the History Channel.