The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart's Disappearance
The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance

Larry Holzwarth - March 19, 2020

Amelia Earhart was first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic, an achievement which she accomplished in 1932. Prior to that epic flight she was the first female to cross the Atlantic by air, as a passenger in 1928. In life she was frequently controversial, over her feminist views, her seemingly open marriage, and her political positions. Earhart emerged from a troubled childhood to serve as a nurse during the First World War, in Toronto, before her own country entered the conflict. Stricken during the Spanish flu pandemic, she developed pneumonia, underwent surgery on her sinuses, and suffered from sinus problems for the rest of her life.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Amelia Earhart stands before the Lockheed Electra in which she and Fred Noonan vanished in 1937. Wikimedia

Her famous last flight, during which she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished in the far Pacific, was not all that earth shaking. By 1937 established commercial aviation routes spanned the globe. Noonan plotted several of the routes during his career as a navigator for Pan American World Airways. One such route was the China Clipper, San Francisco to Manila, via Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Guam. Earhart’s round-the-world flight was planned to generate publicity for a new book she planned to write, and for the navigation school Noonan hoped to start in San Francisco, having retired from Pan Am. They vanished and became legends, subjects of an unending mystery. Here is some of their story.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Earhart was received at the White House following her first transatlantic flight, though she was just a passenger. Wikimedia

1. Earhart began flying in the early 1920s

In 1919 Amelia Earhart enrolled in New York’s Columbia University, intending at first on continuing her medical career, which began with nursing training in World War I. She did not complete her studies, moving to California the following year, where she lived with her parents. The latter had a difficult marriage, with financial difficulties exacerbated by her father’s heavy drinking. On December 28, 1920, her father paid for Amelia’s first flight, a ten-minute ride in an aircraft flown by Frank Hawks, who later gained fame as a racer. Earhart took several jobs, including as a stenographer, and a truck driver, to raise the money to support flying lessons.

The following summer, her lessons having gone well, Earhart purchased her first aircraft, a Kinner Airster biplane. Its bright yellow paint scheme led her to name the aircraft “the Canary”. In 1922 Earhart reached the altitude of 14,000 feet in the Canary, a world record for a female pilot. In May, 1923, Earhart received her pilot’s license, one of only sixteen women to have done so. One of them was her flight instructor, Anita Snook. In the mid-1920s a series of financial misadventures destroyed her family’s fortune, and the shock was the final blow to her parent’s marriage. They divorced in 1924, and Earhart drove her mother to Boston, in a lengthy road trip which took several months.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Earhart’s bout with Spanish Flu left her with sinus problems for the rest of her life. Library of Congress

2. Earhart required additional surgeries to continue flying

The sinus infections and resulting surgeries Earhart endured as a result of the Spanish Flu left her with recurring sinus problems, including severe headaches, issues with vision, and imbalance. Once back in New England she sought out specialists to correct the problems. The surgery was moderately successful, but she dealt with sinus issues for the rest of her life, often worsened by flying in non-pressurized aircraft. After the surgery she returned to Columbia, which she could no longer afford, and took work as a teacher and social worker in Boston. She continued to pursue her interests in flying. Though she was well known within the aviation community, she was not yet a celebrity.

By the late 1920s Earhart became better known, through her work as a sales representative for Kinner Aircraft and her newspaper and magazine columns extolling flying. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic solo, and aviation frenzy struck the United States. Amy Guest, a wealthy socialite, leased a Fokker Trimotor to carry her across the Atlantic, with noted pilot Wilmer Stultz at the controls. Louis Gordon accompanied the flight as a mechanic and navigator. Guest’s family intervened, declared the flight too dangerous for their daughter, and forbade her going. A search for the right woman to make the flight was entrusted to several people, among them publisher George P. Putnam.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
The Fokker Trimotor Friendship, in which Wilmer Stiltz flew Amelia Earhart across the Atlantic. Wikimedia

3. Earhart first flew the Atlantic as a passenger

By April, 1928, Amelia Earhart had about 500 hours in the air as a pilot. Interviewed by several involved in the project, including Putnam, she agreed to join the venture as a passenger. Mrs. Guest possessed a stubborn streak. Determined to place a woman at the forefront of the plan, she directed Earhart’s contract to designate her as Flight Commander. Both Stultz and Gordon were junior to her. Because of her position as commander Earhart assumed the task of keeping the flight’s log. At the time Earhart had little training for flying on instruments. The flight departed Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland, on June 17, 1928. It landed in Southampton after a flight of 20 hours, 40 minutes.

The crew returned to the United States and a reception at the White House, a ticker-tape parade in New York, and a frenzied press lauding primarily Earhart. She became known as the Queen of the Air, and due to her slight build, similar to Lindbergh’s, as Lady Lindy. She authored a book on the flight, based on the log she had kept, which Putnam took it upon himself to publish and promote. A lecture tour followed. As a celebrity, she endorse a clothing line, travel gear including luggage, and controversially, Lucky Strike cigarettes. Public smoking by women was still frowned upon, and the cigarette advertisements cost her a contract to produce articles for McCall’s Magazine.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Earhart and her husband, George Putnam, who served as her publicist through most of her career. Wikimedia

4. Earhart and Putnam turned her celebrity into money

The press frenzy and savvy marketing by Putnam kept Earhart in the public eye as the Roaring Twenties roared toward the stock market crash which brought them to an end. She worked tirelessly to promote herself, and in so doing promoted aviation. The money raised by her books, articles, lectures, and endorsements funded her flying. She also served as a vice-president of National Airways and promoted commercial airlines and passenger aviation. At the end of the summer, 1928, she flew across the United States and back, the first woman to do so. The newsreels and press dutifully reported her achievements. She began to participate in competitive events, including cross-country flying races, expanding her reputation.

Earhart joined the National Aeronautic Association in 1930, where she argued for the establishment of separate record categories for men and women flyers. Her position regarding the recording of achievements separately contradicted her feminist views, which she openly expressed at the time. She further expressed them with her marriage to George Putnam, in 1931. Earhart called her marriage a partnership, expressed no need to “hold you to a mediaeval code of faithfulness’ to her new husband, and explained she would not be so bound either. She continued to use her maiden name following the marriage, and unusual practice at the time which sent society tongues wagging.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Earhart with President Herbert Hoover at the White House following her transatlantic flight in 1932. Library of Congress

5. Transatlantic solo flight in 1932

In May, 1932, five years after Lindbergh made his world-changing transatlantic solo flight, 34-year old Amelia Earhart left Harbor Grace, in Newfoundland, to attempt to repeat the achievement. She planned to fly non-stop to Paris, as had Lindbergh, though her starting point was more than 1,700 miles closer to the intended destination. She used a Lockheed Vega 5B, an aircraft not equipped with floats (neither was the Spirit of Saint Louis flown by Lindbergh). Her flight of just under 15 hours took her as far as an Irish farmer’s pasture near Derry, Northern Ireland, 800 miles short of Paris, and Le Bourget Airfield.

Nonetheless, the flight cemented her fame as America’s leading aviatrix. She was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by act of Congress, and President Herbert Hoover bestowed the National Geographic Society’s Gold Medal upon her. The French government made her a Knight of the Legion of Honor, one of few women to have been so honored. Earhart used her celebrity and fame to further causes in which she held interests, and became a confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, with whom she shared many views. Eleanor expressed interest in learning to fly, though the Secret Service took a dim view of the idea and encouraged the President to squelch it.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
By 1932 Amelia Earhart was one of the most famous and recognizable women in the world. Library of Congress

6. The first aviator to fly from Honolulu to Oakland, California

By the mid-1930s several aviators had attempted to fly the distance between Honolulu, Hawaii and Oakland, on the American mainland. In 1927 the Dole Air Race attempted the flight, originating in California. Eight airplanes eventually participated. Only two arrived in Hawaii, three were lost without a trace, the rest crashed on takeoff. Flying from Hawaii presented similar disasters, and Earhart’s flight, alone, was considered highly dangerous among aviators. Earhart accomplished the feat on January 11, 1935, in a flight she described as “routine”. During the final hour of the flight she was able to listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast from New York.

On April 19 she flew to Mexico City on a flight which originated in Los Angeles, again making the journey alone. On May 8 she left Mexico City for a solo nonstop flight to New York, arriving at Newark, New Jersey to a cheering throng which gathered to greet her. During the first half of the 1930s Earhart established numerable records for speed and distance, and became linked in the public mind with her bright red Lockheed Vega, though she flew other types of aircraft as well. In 1935 she contemplated replacing the Vega. She decided another, longer-range and better equipped aircraft was needed for a goal which formed in her mind, an airborne circumnavigation of the globe.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Putnam and Earhart in 1937. Wikimedia

7. The Putnam fire and the move to California

Between flying achievements Earhart was frequently engaged in public appearances. When not traveling, she and her husband maintained their primary residence at his estate in Rye, New York. By the fall of 1934 Putnam sold his share of the publishing interests which bore his family name, and concentrated on promoting his wife’s works and appearances. In November she was away on a speaking tour when their home in Rye was swept by a fire. Nearly all of her mementoes, trophies, press clippings, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia were destroyed. Putnam family mementoes, including a nearly priceless collection of first edition books, were also consumed by the flames.

The aftermath of the fire led to Amelia and George relocating to California, where he joined the editorial staff at Paramount Pictures. Amelia began working with a Hollywood pilot, Paul Mantz, to both improve her own flying and provide flight training for students. Putnam served as the school’s publicity agent. The Earhart-Mantz Flying School operated out of Burbank Airport, about five miles from the site where Earhart and Putnam remodeled a home as their residence. Later the same year, 1935, Earhart joined the faculty of Purdue University as a visiting advisor to its new Department of Aeronautics.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Earhart posed for this publicity photograph for the US Department of Commerce in 1936. Library of Congress

8. Preparations for a circumnavigation flight

By 1936 several teams of flyers completed circumnavigations of the globe, first accomplished by the US Army Air Service in 1924. Earhart planned a flight to eclipse them all in terms of distance, staying on an equatorial route as much as possible. The flight she envisioned covered 29,000 miles, with some legs too long for her tried and true Lockheed Vega to cover. She obtained funding from several sources, primarily Purdue University, and worked with Lockheed engineers and designers on a modified Electra 10E, with the fuselage altered to carry greater loads of fuel. Lockheed assembled the twin-engine aircraft at Burbank, storing the finished plane at the flying school at Burbank Airport.

For press consumption Earhart called the Electra her flying laboratory, implying the flight was to gather scientific and research data for aeronautical research. In reality, Earhart planned a book based on the events of the flight, with no additional scientific requirements or experiments planned for the journey. For her navigator she approached Captain Harry Manning, whom she had met when returning from Europe following her transatlantic flight. He commanded the ship which brought her home. Manning was a navigator, qualified radio operator, and a pilot. The flight plan included a two-person crew – Earhart and Manning – traveling around the equator in an easterly direction.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Earhart’s famed Lockheed Vega was inadequate for her around the world flight. Library of Congress

9. Familiarizing herself with the new airplane

Earhart, with Putnam and Manning aboard, flew the new Electra several times to learn the aircraft and evaluate its capabilities. On one such cross-country fight, accompanied by Putnam and Manning, Earhart navigated by following familiar landmarks on her flight path. At the same time Manning performed navigational fixes. Manning’s computations put them within the acceptable margin of error for the day, but exactly following his navigation led them several miles off-course, acceptable over land, but not over large expanses of water. A concerned Putnam, supported by Mantz, lobbied for the addition of a second navigator.

Fred Noonan offered experience as a navigator on both ships (he held a Captain’s license) and aircraft. While with Pan American World Airways Noonan trained the company’s navigators for the San Francisco – Oakland overseas routes. The flight plan changed to travel west from California to Hawaii, thence to Howland Island, and on to Australia. On the first leg Earhart planned to fly, Noonan and Manning to navigate, with Mantz on board to monitor the aircraft and advise Earhart on the proper response to potential problems. Plans called for Noonan to accompany the flight only as far as Howland Island, after which Manning would navigate onward to Australia.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Fred Noonan boards Earhart’s new Electra as Amelia smiles for the photographer, 1937. Wikimedia

10. Fred Noonan mapped much of the Pacific for Pan Am

During his career with Pan American World Airways, Fred Noonan developed the reputation of being a superior celestial navigator. He planned most of Pan Am’s Pacific routes in operation at the time of Earhart’s proposed flight, and held a position of esteem amongst aviators. He also held the reputation of a womanizer (recently divorced and quickly remarried) and heavy drinker. Introduced to Earhart through mutual acquaintances, he recognized the publicity value of the flight and its potential benefits to the navigation school he planned to establish, having already left Pan Am.

The circumnavigation began with a flight from Burbank to Honolulu, the Electra encountering several problems on the first leg. Mantz corrected them while at Luke Field, on Ford Island. On March 20, 1937, Earhart attempted to take off from Luke Field, though problems with the aircraft forced her to abort, damaging the aircraft when the landing gear collapsed. Both propellers struck the runway, bending them and damage occurred to the fuselage. Earhart and Mantz shipped the aircraft to the United States for extensive repairs. Mantz wrote pilot error caused the aborted take-off; Earhart claimed a blown tire started the accident chain which resulted in the accident.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
The aborted takeoff damaged the Electra, forcing its return to California for repairs by ship. Pacific Aviation Museum

11. Manning withdrew from the project after the aborted takeoff

With the Electra back in California and both Putnam and Earhart involved in soliciting additional funds to support the project, Manning announced his decision to withdraw. As events turned out, the decision had an adverse impact on the flight. Neither Noonan nor Earhart possessed the radio communication and navigation skills which Manning brought to the plan. Morse communications remained a critical part of airborne navigation over long distances in 1937. Manning offered excellent Morse Code skills, while Noonan’s were rudimentary and slow. Earhart had virtually none.

Earhart had yet to publicly announce the proposed round-the-world flight. After discussions between Earhart, Putnam, and Noonan, an unannounced flight from Burbank to Miami, followed by a public description of the project, took place. Putnam believed the public would follow Earhart’s progress, increasing publicity and raising additional funds for the project. Earhart flew the Electra, with Noonan, to Miami without incident. The route selected again became easterly, following the line of the equator as much as possible. On June 1, 1937, Earhart and Noonan departed from Miami on the first leg of the circumnavigation, bound for Puerto Rico, with the world’s press following her progress and reporting it to their readers.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Earhart standing beneath the nose of the Lockheed Electra at some point during the around the world flight. Wikimedia

12. Earhart again transited the Atlantic Ocean as a pilot

After working their way through several airborne legs down the coast of South America, Earhart and Noonan crossed the Atlantic from Natal, Brazil to Saint-Louis, Senegal arriving on June 7. On June 13, they arrived in Khartoum, Sudan. Four days later they arrived in then Calcutta (Kolkata) British India. One week later, again after several overnight stops, found the Electra in Singapore. The following day they arrived in the Dutch East Indies, where delays were encountered due to monsoon rains, and Earhart’s coming down with dysentery. On June 28 they arrived in Darwin, Australia. While there, in order to save room and weight, the parachutes and raft they had theretofore carried were abandoned.

At Darwin technicians repaired problems with the direction finder aboard the aircraft, reported by Noonan. The next leg of the flight, to Lae, on the island of New Guinea, featured a distance of 1,012 miles. They arrived safely on June 29, 1937. From Lae, the longest single leg of the flight, 2,556 miles, loomed, the destination being Howland Island. After Howland, a 1,900 mile jaunt remained to Honolulu, followed by another 2,400 miles to Oakland. Upon arrival at Lae, Earhart and Noonan had completed approximately 22,000 miles of the proposed journey, over a course of 40 days, mostly without incident.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Government House on tiny Howland Island, January, 1937. Wikimedia

13. The flight to Howland Island

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae Airfield on the longest single leg of their proposed circumnavigation. The Electra carried approximately 1,100 gallons of fuel. Their destination, Howland Island, was a flat, narrow, and tiny strip of land a little more than a mile long, less than a third of a mile wide, and averaged about ten feet in elevation. To facilitate communication and radio navigation, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Itasca stationed itself at Howland Island, where it also carried several news reporters following the flight. Itasca provided a homing beacon for Earhart and Noonan to follow, as a backup to the latter’s celestial navigation.

During the flight Earhart transmitted they were encountering heavy cloud cover at 10,000 feet, and descended to about 7,000. The cloud cover may have impeded Noonan’s ability to use celestial navigation to ensure they were on course. During the flight the aircraft crossed the International Date Line (from west to east) which in itself induced an error of about 60 miles if Noonan failed to account for it. Whether he did or not remains unknown. Several attempts made from Itasca to establish voice and Morse radio contact with Earhart failed, as did providing a homing beam for the airplane. Earhart never arrived at Howland Island. The Electra and its two occupants vanished.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
The battleship USS Colorado was one of several warships which joined in the search for the missing Electra. US Navy

14. The approach to Howland Island was one of confusion

There are indications that though Itasca could hear Earhart’s voice communications clearly, she did not hear their replies. Shifting to various frequencies failed to establish solid communications. Itasca attempted to supplement voice communications with code, which neither Earhart nor Noonan could use efficiently. The partially overcast sky impeded visual contact. Itasca attempted to make smoke, an effort blocked by the limited visibility. Earhart’s last transmission received by Itasca indicated the aircraft was flying along a line which according to the chart they had aboard should have intersected Howland Island. Later determination found the island incorrectly charted by more than five miles.

Earhart and Noonan likely flew past Howland Island, ran out of fuel, and ditched at sea. Within an hour of her final transmission, Itasca acted on the possibility and began a search to the northwest of the island. Within three days the US Navy joined the search using aircraft, smaller surface ships, and the battleship USS Colorado. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington also joined the search. The search continued until July 19, and grew into the largest and most expensive operation of its kind conducted by US forces to that date. Nothing was found of Earhart, Noonan, or the aircraft. Two Japanese vessels assisted in the search, an oceanographic research vessel and a seaplane tender. These too searched in vain.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
The search for Earhart and Noonan continued into the 21st century. Library of Congress

15. George Putnam conducted a private search for the aircraft

After the official search ended on July 19, 1937, Earhart’s husband (and presumed widower) George Putnam initiated a search of his own. The former publishing magnate chartered boats and coordinated their search efforts from his offices in the United States. Islands bearing names which less than a decade later resonated in American minds; the Gilberts, Marshalls, and several others, were painstakingly searched for the lost Americans in vain. By the end of July widespread speculation that Earhart and Noonan were dead permeated the American media. Noonan’s fame proved short-lived, and he rapidly became a footnote of history.

George Putnam wanted to continue the search, in part to find answers to protect his late wife’s legacy. He took legal action that fall. Putnam intended to take charge of Earhart’s estate, which included royalties from her books, to fund additional searches for the Electra or what remained of it and its occupants. He lobbied for Earhart to be declared legally dead. Though the normal period of time between vanishing and a declaration of death, seven years, had not elapsed, Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead in January, 1939. Putnam endured criticism in the press and among gossips for his actions, many accusing him of merely wanting access to her estate and its considerable income.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Many refused to accept the official finding that Noonan and Earhart were lost and ran out of fuel. Wikimedia

16. The speculation over what happened began immediately

At the time of her death and in the immediate aftermath, the widely held consensus that she had crashed at sea, the wreckage sinking in the Pacific, explained the fate of Amelia Earhart. Dissenting views began quickly. Fans and admirers refused to accept the aviatrix they idolized could die because of a mistake, especially one of her own making. Those who believed navigational error the cause blamed it on Noonan. Some suggested nefarious activities, including sabotage, espionage, Japanese intercession, mechanical failures, and abandonment by the US Navy. In the latter case, a theory the two flyers made it to Gardner Island, to die of starvation, gained widespread acceptance.

For eighty years theories developed and were presented as the answer to the Earhart mystery. Scientific facts disprove their hypotheses, leading many supporters to discount the facts in favor of the theories. A widely supported theory emerged in the 1970s, which claimed Earhart was on a spying mission, examining by air Japanese military installations in the Pacific, leading to the mission being shot down. Another prominent theory had Earhart and Noonan captured by the Japanese, identified as spies after the aircraft was examined, and executed for their actions. Despite thin evidence, the theory became popular among conspiracy theorists, who further believed the US government knew of the events and covered them up.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
A 1943 motion picture gave rise to the theory Earhart was spying on the Japanese. imdb

17. The Japanese captured Earhart myth

In 1943 RKO Studios released a film entitled Flight for Freedom, with popular stars Rosalyn Russell and Fred MacMurray. In the film, an American aviatrix named Tonie Carter agrees to fly a spy mission over the Mandated Islands for the US Navy. She vanishes during the mission, and a massive search effort to find her proves fruitless. The film implies the Japanese, depicted as evil in accordance with the wartime propaganda prevalent in Hollywood of World War II, either killed or captured the flier. The connection with Earhart and her fate is intentional and unmistakable. Following World War II, Army Intelligence and United Press International investigated the allegations that Earhart had been spying for the United States and found them false.

The myth nonetheless persisted, and still does in the 21st century. In the early 1960s, during the turmoil following the shooting down of a real American spy flight, Gary Francis Powers in a U-2 over the Soviet Union, the myth returned. The 1966 book The Search for Amelia Earhart by Fred Goerner brought the myth to the forefront of public attention, though little evidence existed to support the story, and that presented proved false. Several books, magazine articles, and television “documentaries” kept the myth alive, including works on American spies and World War II. There exists no hard evidence that Earhart was either shot down or captured by the Japanese, nor that she spied for the United States.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Some believe navigator Fred Noonan was drunk during the flight, leading the aircraft off-course. Pinterest

18. The Noonan was drunk myth

The myth arose in the 1960s that Fred Noonan, Earhart’s navigator, drank heavily before and during the long flight to Howland Island, leading the pair to become lost. Noonan was a heavy drinker, of that there is no dispute. In the context of the time his drinking habits, well-known among his peers, were not out of line. The book The Search for Amelia Earhart contributed significantly to the belief in Noonan’s addiction to alcohol as a contributory factor in the loss of the Electra. Author Fred Goerner presented Noonan as a drunk who caused the aircraft’s drift off course. Truth be told, there existed at the time of the book’s writing no evidence to support the allegation.

Noonan contributed significantly to the advance of commercial aviation. In many ways his contributions were more important than Earhart’s, including the mapping of commercial routes throughout the Pacific Ocean. According to Goerner, Pan Am fired the navigator because of his drinking problem, another accusation unsupported by evidence, and refuted by other writers. Noonan left Pan Am because there existed no advancement opportunities. He had reached the pinnacle with the airline, and left in his early forties to explore other career opportunities, including the school he hoped to establish to train aviation navigators.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
This photograph, which predates Earhart’s last flight, was falsely claimed to prove she was held by the Japanese. US Navy

19. Earhart died on Saipan as a prisoner of the Japanese

The theory of Earhart captured in the Marshall Islands and held prisoner on Saipan offers several variations. In the version which emerged in the 1960s, Earhart ditched the airplane near a coral atoll, and the Japanese recovered the aircraft and its occupants. The Japanese continued to detain Earhart, and presumably Noonan, even as their ships joined in the massive search and rescue operation which ensued after her disappearance. Another version insists natives on Saipan saw the Electra land safely on the island, after which they were taken into custody, along with the aircraft.

The Earhart’s execution by the Japanese for spying myth relies on the aircraft being captured, and its examination revealing evidence she and Noonan were involved in espionage. Another version of the myth surfaced in 2017, when a “lost” photograph was found presenting the aviatrix, with Noonan, at Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands, in Japanese custody. Later investigation proved the photo dates from 1935, and appeared in a Japanese travelogue that year. There is also no evidence the people identified in the photograph are Earhart and Noonan, the woman has her back to the camera and is sitting down. Despite all “evidence” supporting the claim Earhart and Noonan met their fates in Japanese hands provably false, the myth persists.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Some have claimed Admiral Nimitz knew of Earhart’s imprisonment and execution and so informed reporters. US Navy

20. The US government conspired to keep Earhart’s capture a secret

The capture of Earhart by the Japanese and her subsequent death in custody, possibly by execution, required the US government to classify the events as top secret, a designation it retains more than 80 years later. According to some conspiracy theorists, Admiral Chester Nimitz knew of Earhart’s dying on Saipan and so informed a reporter in 1945 or 1946. Others claim US Marine Generals Vandergrift and Watson also confirmed Earhart’s death on Saipan in the late 1960s, without presenting physical evidence to support their assertions. The assertions themselves indicate the United States government participated in a conspiracy to prevent the truth of Earhart’s fate from reaching the public, and continues to do so.

An argument put forward by many conspiracy theorists postulates the fact the aircraft remains lost more than 80 years later proves Earhart did not crash into the sea. They believe its absence is proof of its deliberate destruction by the Japanese. Modern search technology otherwise should have located the wreckage by now. The argument is preposterous. The search area is huge, the waters deep, and the bottom littered with detritus from World War II. Locating the sunken Electra without an accurate crash location is virtually impossible, other than by happy accident. The US government’s official position on the Earhart disappearance is the airplane ran out of fuel and crashed, exact location unknown, in the general vicinity of Howland Island.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
All attempts to prove Earhart died on Nikumaroro Island have thus far failed. NASA

21. The mystery of Gardner Island

Gardner Island lies some 350 miles from Howland Island, to the southeast. Today it is generally known as Nikumaroro Island. For several days following Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance distress calls heard somewhere in the vicinity of the island drew the attention of the search teams. US Navy seaplanes overflew the island, but detected no activity. In 1940 a human skeleton was found on the island. British forensics experts examined the skeleton, and found it that of a male of European origin, though of a much shorter man than Noonan. In the 21st century, researchers decided the skeleton was possibly that of a female of European descent. One claimed they were likely Earhart’s but made the determination from reviewing the original British reports. The actual bones were not examined, they had by then been lost.

Other items found on Nikumaroro Island intrigued researchers, including a jar of freckle cream from the 1930s, of a brand favored by Amelia Earhart. Dogs trained to sniff out human remains explored the island in the early 21st century; they found nothing of interest. Subsequent research determined that many of the distress calls reported emanating from the area following Earhart’s disappearance were hoaxes, reported by amateur radio operators at the time. The US Navy search flights revealed nothing, though it is reasonable to assume if Noonan and Earhart were alive on the island and able to transmit messages they would attempt to contact or signal an aircraft flying overhead.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Despite abundant proof to the contrary, some claim Earhart assumed another identity. Newark Evening News

22. The Earhart survived and assumed another identity theory

In 1965 a researcher into the Earhart story met with a woman on Long Island named Irene Bolam. The researcher, Joe Gervais, noted the physical resemblance of Bolam to the missing flyer. Gervais created the theory that the two were in fact one; Bolam was Amelia Earhart. Gervais created the story that Earhart was captured by the Japanese, held for a time on Saipan, and transferred to the internment camp operated by the Japanese in Wieshien, on the Chinese mainland. There she remained until the end of the war, when she was repatriated with other surviving prisoners. Upon release she assumed a new identity with the support and co-operation of the US government, which acted out of a sense of embarrassment that so distinguished an American citizen had undergone such an ordeal.

The theory was supported by a telegram sent to George Putnam and revealed in 1987. The telegram reported the well being of its sender and admonished Putnam to give “love to mother”. Though later proved the telegram had been sent by a writer of the name of Ahmad Kamal, supporters of the Bolam was Earhart theory continue to cite it to support the belief that Earhart survived the war and lived out her life under an assumed name. Bolam doggedly denied she was Earhart in a press conference in 1970, when yet another book promoting the theory appeared. She successfully sued to have the book withdrawn. Since her death in 1982, forensic evidence conclusively proved that Irene Bolam and Amelia Earhart were not the same person, but the theory continues to percolate among conspiracy theorists in the 21st century.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Amelia Earhart in 1935, two years before becoming an enduring mystery. Wikimedia

23. Monsignor James Kelley and Amelia Earhart

Monsignor James Francis Kelley was a noted Catholic priest and a former president of Seton Hall University, and also a friend and confidant of Irene Bolam. In 1987, after Bolam had died, Kelley informed a Rockville, Illinois, reporter that Bolam was Earhart. Accordiing to Kelley, Earhart changed her identity as a result of the trauma suffered in Japanese hands. Previously, the priest informed a New Jersey newspaper that he could not comment on some of the things he learned from Bolam since it would “violate everything I learned in the confessional”. Kelley alleged that the repatriation of Earhart following the war was a government operation, conducted in strict secrecy, and he was at the heart of the whole affair.

During the repatriation process, according to Kelley, an emotionally exhausted Earhart expressed her desire for anonymity. All of Kelley’s story was related to friends who shared it with reporters and researchers following the priest’s death. His own memoirs made no mention of Earhart at all. Other claims made by Kelley regarding other celebrities were soundly rebutted by scholars. For example, he claimed to have visited Bruno Hauptman on death row at least three times just before the latter’s execution (for the Lindbergh baby kidnaping and murder). Prison records of Hauptman’s visitors don’t mention Kelley. He also claimed to have witnessed Clark Gable testing an ejection seat in Newark during World War II. Gable’s service record is well-documented, and he spent no time in Newark while in the service.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Claims Earhart served as a nurse on Tulagi during World War II persist, though proven false. US Navy

24. The Earhart was seen alive in the Solomon Islands in 1942 myth

During the Solomon Islands campaign in World War II, several wounded Americans reported they were treated by a nurse who closely resembled Amelia Earhart. Some stated directly that while on Tulagi the only woman on the island working as a nurse was the lost aviatrix. The stories were repeated by veterans returning to the United States and Pearl Harbor. Wartime censorship kept the stories from the press during the war, though they later appeared in war stories from veterans of the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands campaigns. Researchers tied the stories to Earhart’s previous service as a nurse during the First World War in Toronto. The myth arose that Earhart was alive in 1942, working as a nurse in the South Pacific.

The woman many erroneously assumed was Earhart was Merle Farland, a Methodist missionary from New Zealand. She remained behind when civilians were withdrawn from the Solomon Islands in 1942, providing assistance to coast watchers. She was withdrawn to the American seaplane base near Tulagi in December, 1942, arriving in a US Navy PBY. There she assisted in treating the wounded and performed other duties to assist the authorities. She also worked at different times on Vella LaVella and Guadalcanal. During her time in the Solomon Islands rumors of her being Earhart were repeated among the troops. They continued to spread after the war. Farland died in May, 1988; the myth that she was Earhart hasn’t died yet.

The Mystery Behind Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Australian aviation pioneer Charles Ulm and Amelia Earhart in December 1934. Ulm disappeared over the Pacific the same month. Wikimedia

25. So what happened to Amelia Earhart?

The short answer is that Amelia Earhart and her companion on the fateful flight, Fred Noonan, vanished without a trace. If Earhart was flying the course she radioed to Itasca at the time of her disappearance, she was on a line which missed Howland Island by more than five miles. The chart used by Noonan misplaced the tiny Howland Island by that distance. In the visual conditions at the time the island would not have been seen. Though a remote possibility the Electra could reach Gardner Island exists, it is mathematically unlikely. The most rational explanation is the aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific, where it sank. No trace of wreckage or oil slick was ever found.

That explanation remains unsatisfactory for those who admire Earhart’s flying skills (which are exaggerated). The theories touched on here are but a few of many involving conspiracies among the high command of the American Pacific military forces, the War Department and subsequent Department of Defense, and the White House. Earhart’s final radio transmissions indicated she knew she was in trouble, in an unknown position, and running perilously low on fuel. There was no call of an emergency, no notification the airplane was about to ditch in the sea. Nor was there notice of an attempt to land on an unknown island or coral reef. She simply flew into history.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Will the Search for Amelia Earhart Ever End?” Jerry Adler, Smithsonian Magazine. January, 2015

“Amelia Earhart”. Debra Michaels, National Women’s History Museum. 2015

“Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight”. Judith Thurman, The New Yorker. September 14, 2009

“Finding Amelia Earhart’s Plane Seemed Impossible. Then Came a Startling Clue”. Julie Cohn, New York Times Magazine. August 12, 2019

“Famed Scientist Searching for Amelia Earhart Wreckage”. Video report, ABC News. August 13, 2019. Online

“Amelia Earhart: Theories on her disappearance still fuel mystery”. Elinor Aspegren, USA Today. July 19, 2019

“Amelia Earhart Was Declared Dead 80 Years Ago. Here’s What to Know About What Actually Happened to Her”. Olivia Waxman, TIME Magazine. January 4, 2019

“The Search for Amelia Earhart”. Fred Goerner. 1966

“Amelia Earhart mystery: How Britain missed simple chance to solve disappearance”. Josh Saunders, The Express. March 1, 2020

“Amelia Earhart: Island bones ‘likely’ belonged to famous pilot”. BBC World News. March 8, 2018

“Smithsonian Curator Weighs In on Photo That Allegedly Shows Amelia Earhart in Japanese Captivity”. Brigit Katz, Smithsonian.com July 5, 2017. Online

“Why Amelia Earhart Still Matters”. Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics. August 23, 2017

“Amelia Earhart case “closed” after analysis of her distress signals, researcher says”. Report, CBS News. July 28, 2018. Online

“After 75 Years, the Amelia Earhart Search Begins Anew”. Amy Shira Teitel, Vice. May 21, 2012

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