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

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 provide 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 in 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 gossip 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 was 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 during 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 was 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.

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, an 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 survived the crash and 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 cooperation 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 the name 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. According 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 kidnapping 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 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, 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