A newly unearthed picture from the US national archives has given new credence to a popular theory about the disappearance of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.
Some experts say the image shows the pilot, her navigator Fred Noonan and her airplane in the Marshall Islands in 1937, when the archipelago was occupied by Japan – proving that she died in Japanese custody, rather than during a crash landing in the Pacific.
“When you pull out, and when you see the analysis that’s been done, I think it leaves no doubt to the viewers that that’s Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan,” Shawn Henry told NBC News. Henry is the former executive assistant director for the FBI and an NBC News analyst.
Kent Gibson, a forensic analyst who specializes in facial recognition, told the History Channel that it was “very likely” the individuals pictured are Earhart and Noonan.
Not everyone is so convinced, however. “There is such an appetite for anything related to Amelia Earhart that even something this ridiculous will get everybody talking about it,” said Ric Gillespie, author of Finding Amelia and the executive director of the The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (Tighar).
“This is just a picture of a wharf at Jaluit [in the Marshall Islands], with a bunch of people,” Gillespie said. “It’s just silly. And this is coming from a guy who has spent the last 28 years doing genuine research into the Earhart disappearance and led 11 expeditions into the South Pacific.”
The picture was discovered by retired federal agent Les Kinney, who scoured the national archives for records that may have been overlooked in the now 80-year-old mystery of Earhart’s last flight.
It was 2 July 1937, toward the end of her history-making flight around the world, when the 40-year-old Earhart vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. The crash has long been blamed on poor weather conditions and a technical failure with the plane’s radio system. Most historians believe that Earhart ran out of fuel, crashed into the Pacific Ocean and sunk to the ocean’s darkest depths.
But since no trace of Earhart, Noonan or her Lockheed Electra airplane have ever been confirmed, alternate theories have abounded for decades. This past November, another forensic breakthrough supported an alternate theory that Earhart may have died a castaway on an island in modern-day Kiribati.
Gillespie is an exponent of this account and believes there is copious evidence to support it, including the timing of radio transmissions received after the plane was no longer airborne, the location of human remains on the then uninhabited island, and items he and his team have recovered – including a popular US women’s moisturizer, a zipper from a jacket and a makeup case.
“We found the site, we’ve done three excavations there and we’re finding artifacts that speak of an American woman of the 1930s,” Gillespie said.
The Marshall Island theory, which the photograph is alleged to support, has been around since at least the 1960s and fueled by accounts from Marshall Islanders who claimed they saw the aircraft land and saw Earhart and Noonan in Japanese custody.
Kinney found the most recent photograph stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading “Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor”. The photograph has been credited to a US spy.
In the photo, a ship can be seen towing a barge with an airplane on the back, and on a nearby dock what appears to be a woman with a short haircut can be seen sitting, facing away from the camera. Gillespie notes, for what it’s worth, that the woman’s hair is far too long to be that of Earhart, of whom pictures exist from just a few days earlier.
“It wasn’t that long [a period of time] and hair doesn’t grow that fast,” Gillespie said.
Also visible is the face of a man who several experts told the History Channel is Noonan.
The picture “clearly indicates that Earhart was captured by the Japanese”, Kinney said in History’s investigation.
Japanese officials have stated on more than one occasion that they have no records of Earhart or Noonan ever having been in their custody, but many of the nation’s records did not survive the second world war.