1. Does This Photo Prove Amelia Earhart Survived Her Final Flight?
Together with her navigator Fred Noonan, the 39-year-old pilot flew east toward Howland Island, a tiny sliver of land in the central Pacific Ocean, on the final leg of her boldest aeronautical adventure to date – circumnavigating the globe along the equator in a marathon 29,000-mile flight. And then suddenly, she vanished. “Gas is running low,” Earhart said in what’s believed to be her final radio broadcast to a Coast Guard cutter assisting with her navigation. “Have been unable to reach you by radio. We’re flying at 1,000 feet.” The mystery of what happened to Earhart and Noonan has gone unanswered for 80 years.
Now Shawn Henry, a former executive assistant director of the FBI – and the History Channel – have come forward with the two-hour documentary Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence that premieres on Sunday, July 9 at 9 p.m. ET and attempts to answer this question. Armed with a recently-discovered photograph purportedly taken of Earhart days after she crash-landed on a remote South Pacific atoll, Henry offers up a startling theory of a government cover-up that runs counter to the widely-accepted idea that she died after her plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean.
“This absolutely changes history,” says Henry, who led a team of investigators examining a range of evidence, including plane parts found on a remote Pacific island consistent with the aircraft Earhart was flying. “I think we proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she survived her flight and was held prisoner by the Japanese on the island of Saipan, where she eventually died.”
2. Co-pilot Fred Noonan was thought to be an alcoholic
It's somewhat accepted among many Earhart researchers that co-pilot Fred Noonan was an alcoholic. Rumors persist he was drunk on the flight that ended in the duo's disappearance, and the loss of the flight could have resulted from his debility.
During preparations for the flight to Howland Island, from which they later disappeared, Earhart sent a telegram saying that a delay was necessary due to a "personal unfitness." This has been interpreted as code for Noonan's having been too drunk, or hung over, to navigate, but there are other distinct possibilities. It would hardly be surprising if one, or both, members of the had been fatigued, or just plain sick. Footage exists showing Earhart and Noonan boarding the airplane—both appeared bright and cheerful with Noonan helping Amelia up onto the wing. The stories about his drinking seem to have begun in 1966 with the publication of The Search for Amelia Earhart by Frederick Goerner.
3. Was Amelia Earhart a New Jersey housewife?
One of the many theories over the years about what happened to Earhart was that she returned to the United States and was a housewife in New Jersey. In the 1970s, a book called Amelia Earhart Lives by Joe Klass was published, claiming that Irene Bolam, a woman living in Monroe Township, N.J., in Middlesex County, was the lost pilot. Someone saw Bolam at a garden party in New York's Long Island and thought her to be Earhart, said Richard Gillespie, founder and executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. Bolam denied she was the female aviator, but Klass' book claimed that Earhart returned to the United States after World War II to live a different life as a New Jersey housewife. Bolam, who bore a slight resemblance to Earhart, also was a pilot.
Bolam sued Klass and McGraw-Hill after the book was published and received a settlement of an unknown amount. The publisher pulled the books from the shelves. "People will believe anything," said Gillespie. The new History Channel documentary premiering Sunday claims the unearthed photograph depicts Earhart and Noonan on a dock while their Lockheed Electra 10E is towed by a boat and that the two were captured by the Japanese military and held until their deaths. Gillespie called the theory an "absolute myth" and "ridiculous." "It's a person who might be a white woman in the distance sitting on the edge of a dock and a guy that looks like a white guy so it has to be them," Gillespie said. "It's ridiculous."
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4. Did Coconut Crabs Really Hide Amelia Earhart's Remains?
The coconut crab (Birgus latro) is the largest land-dwelling arthropod in the world, able to grow up to nine pounds. This hermit crab is also considered a delicacy, and is quite rare in areas where humans live thanks to over hunting. It's found in costal regions throughout the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, including the area where Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan made their last report. True to their name, coconut crabs frequently feast on coconuts; their powerful claws can open a coconut shell, but they've also been observed eating animal meat.
But does that mean that, lurking somewhere in a coconut crab's burrow, there may be human bones? And could those bones really belong to Amelia Earhart?
The Nikumaroro Remains
Famed aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe along the equator. On June 2, 1937, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea, headed for Howland Island. Their last known reported position was near the Nukumanu islands, but they never reached Howland Island.
In 1940, British colonial officer Gerard Gallagher reported that he had discovered a partial skeleton along with an old sextant box on Gardner Island, which is now known as Nikumaroro, part of the Phoenix Islands in the Republic of Kiribati. During the initial search for Earhart and Noonan, Nikumaroro was suggested as a possible landing spot for Earhart's plane. The Phoenix Islands are located 350 miles southeast of Howland Island, and Nikumaroro in particular would have been visible from the air.
The partial skeleton discovered by Gallagher has since been lost, but in 1941, British colonial physician Dr. David Hoodless took measurements of the remains. His assessment was that the bones came from a male individual who stood five feet five inches tall. (Noonan was over six feet tall.) A more recent analysis of the measurements concluded that the bones belonged to a relatively tall woman of European ancestry.
There are two mysteries involving these remains. The most obvious is whose remains are they? There is circumstantial evidence that they could be Earhart's remains, but the evidence is far from conclusive. The serial numbers on the sextant box indicate that the sextant was a model that Noonan had been known to carry, and a cosmetics jar has since been found at the same site, one that resembles jars containing Dr. Berry's Freckle Ointment, which the freckled Earhart might have used. A rubber shoe heel manufactured in the 1930s was found, but it fit a size nine shoe, which would have been two big for Earhart. Bone fragments have been since found at the site were tested for DNA, but the testing proved inconclusive. And the debris field from Earhart's plane may have been spotted near the island.
Update: Many of the above claims come from TIGHAR, and there are individuals who are involved in maritime archaeology who dispute TIGHAR's claims. See the comment thread below with commenter MaritimeHistorian.
The other mystery is what happened to the rest of the skeleton? Gallagher discovered the following bones: a skull with the right zygoma and malar bones broken off; the mandible with only four teeth in position; part of the right scapula; the first thoracic vertebra; a portion of a rib; the left humerus; the right radius; the right innominate; the right femur; the left femur; the right tibia; the right fibula; and the right scaphoid bone of the foot. If other portions of the skeleton could be found, they could provide more clues to the identity of the person who died on Nikumaroro.
5. Earhart ran out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean
Long believes that relatively near to Earhart's destination, Howland Island, the Electra ran out of fuel. Earhart and Noonan were left with no choice but to ditch at sea. The Longs further concluded that the plane's empty fuel tanks would have filled up rapidly with sea water, causing the Electra to sink. Without any survival equipment aboard and no land anywhere near them, the duo would have gone down with the plane.
6. Books of The Times; Amelia Earhart a Spy? Author Answers Yes
The public assumed that her plane had run out of fuel somewhere near her destination, Howland Island, a tiny coral airstrip to the east of the Gilbert Islands. The airstrip had been especially built for the world-famous flier's journey to help substantiate the American claim to Howland and two small islands nearby. So, more or less, went the Government's official story.
Not so, writes Randall Brink in "Lost Star," a new look at the Amelia Earhart story. Mr. Brink has quite a different view of the purpose of Earhart's mission, of the futile search for her and, yes, of her survival. He claims that there was a vast coverup at the highest levels of the Roosevelt Administration, including the President himself, to prevent the facts from coming out during that time of sensitive military and diplomatic fencing between Washington and Tokyo. He also asserts that documents to prove his case exist in closed files to this day.
What is the real story? Mr. Brink maintains that Earhart was on a spying mission for the United States and not just embarking on a daring civilian flight. Other journalists and authors have raised the same possibility, but "Lost Star" offers the strongest evidence and analysis thus far to show that Earhart's plane was secretly equipped to take pictures of Japanese island installations.
Mr. Brink interviewed a Lockheed technician, who told him: "I recall that I was directed to cut two 16-to-18-inch-diameter holes for the cameras, which were to be mounted in the lower aft fuselage bay and would be electrically operated." These cameras, Mr. Brink says, were placed there to take pictures of Japan's military buildup in the islands.
He writes that Earhart wandered into forbidden Japanese military airspace over the Marshall Islands, was detected and either shot down or forced down. On July 5, 1937, the day of her last known radio transmission, according to State Department files, Earhart reported that she had been captured by a Japanese shore patrol. "He must be at least an admiral," went the final message she radioed that day.
The author says Earhart and Noonan were taken to Saipan, a major Japanese base in the Mariana Islands where "certainly Amelia was seen by scores of witnesses and photographed by at least one." This photograph, supposedly taken by a Saipan police officer two months after Earhart's plane disappeared, is reproduced in the book. It was obtained from the police officer in 1980 by a retired Air Force investigator, Maj. Joseph Gervais.
Mr. Brink writes: "It was a shocking picture of Amelia Earhart in a ravaged condition; her hands appeared to be bound in the back." Here, the author seems to be guessing to strengthen his case; although it is indeed Earhart, her hands do not look tied in the picture.
Now the story gets fanciful. "After Saipan, the trail grows cold until late in the war," the author says. He then adds that "developments suggest" she was taken to Japan as a prisoner of war -- four and a half years before Pearl Harbor! He raises the possibility that she was kept in Japan from 1937 all through World War II. But why?
Mr. Brink repeats the rumor that Earhart was one of dozens of English-speaking voices that broadcast anti-American propaganda as "Tokyo Rose" during the war. He points out that the natives on Saipan referred to her as "Tokyo Rosa." In response to such rumors in 1944, Earhart's husband, the book publisher George Palmer Putnam, was commissioned in Air Corps intelligence and flown to China for the express purpose of hearing "Tokyo Rose" speak. After listening, Putnam said he would stake his life that it was not his wife's voice.
What makes "Lost Star" valuable is the new research and special knowledge about flying that Mr. Brink brings to his book. He is a former airline pilot and aviation industry journalist. Some of his facts were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, through personal interviews with people who claim they saw Earhart alive on Japanese-held islands, and by his technical interpretation of flight records.
The photocopies of documents in the book clearly show that Earhart was not simply on a strictly civilian flight. Her flight plan was secretly changed and she was given a new plane with the latest military navigation equipment. Naval intelligence watched her every move and briefed the White House and several Government agencies about her activities.
Where does "Lost Star" leave the reader? Captivated by what amounts to a true-life detective story, with political and military overtones, about a fascinating personality who was compared to Charles A. Lindbergh. (As a feminist and flier who made her own mark in the skies, Earhart detested being called "Lady Lindy.")
Mr. Brink is also convincing in arguing that Earhart was indeed on an intelligence mission for the United States when she disappeared. Or did she? Mr. Brink concludes: "One tantalizing persistent account has Amelia supposedly returning to the U.S. and assuming a new identity."
It's such wild speculation that sometimes hobbles the author's otherwise strong case. But "Lost Star" makes one wish that, after all this time, Washington and Tokyo would open their files on Amelia Earhart -- by, say, the 50th anniversary of V-J Day in 1995 -- and let the truth come out.
7. Amelia Earhart's plane crashed near where she took off in New Guinea
The theory follows that Earhart and Noonan should have “arrived” close to their next stop (Howland Island), but after fruitlessly searching for the destination, Amelia turned back for the Gilbert Islands. Low on fuel, with no usable runways between Lae (where they began this leg of the journey) and Howland, there was at least the opportunity to ditch the aircraft near to or crash-land on the numerous inhabited islands in the Gilberts. Their aircraft is believed to have run out of fuel some 50 miles south of Rabaul, New Britain Island, and crashed into the jungle.