Asia Pacific

80 years on, mystery of U.S. aviatrix Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific remains unresolved

Eighty years after the U.S. aviatrix vanished over the Pacific, alternative theories explaining the failure to reach her destination - including several that involved the Imperial Japanese Army - are still no closer to solving the mystery

by Rob Gilhooly

Special To The Japan Times

On June 28, 1933, Nellie Simmons Meier sat at her desk and cast an expert eye over the imprint before her, searching for telltale signs much as she had done since she first started such readings as a young girl.

Picking up her pen, she began to jot down what she saw. “The length of the palm,” she wrote, “indicates the love of physical activity, but the restraining influence shown by the length of the fingers, indicative of carefulness in detail, enables careful preparation toward accomplishing a definite goal.”

Meier, an Indianapolis socialite and celebrated palmist, had performed thousands of similar readings, many of them persons of note, from Albert Einstein and Walt Disney to George Gershwin, Eleanor Roosevelt and even Esau II, a chimpanzee from the Belgian Congo.

On this summer day in 1933, however, she was testing her psychic skills on the “Queen of the Air,” Amelia Earhart — the aviatrix whose “wonderful exploits,” including the first solo trans-Atlantic flight by a female aviator the previous year, had delivered her into “the world of prominence,” Meier wrote in her introductory notes.

Indeed, Earhart had become the epitome of a swashbuckling aviator whose impressive array of speed, distance and altitude records — all achieved in just a few breathtaking years — had, according to writer Gore Vidal, “elevated her beyond stardom.”

Four years later, Earhart embarked on a mission to accomplish another definite goal: to circumnavigate the globe and in the process achieve another accolade for women, many of whom saw her as an icon of a new era that eschewed pinafores and cloche hats in favor of bomber jackets, khaki slacks and tall boots.

HELLERICK / CC BY-SA 3.0 / VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
HELLERICK / CC BY-SA 3.0 / VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

On July 2, 1937, Earhart took off from the dirt airstrip at Lae, Papua New Guinea, on the final and potentially most perilous stretch of the tour across the sparsely inhabited Pacific that would take her to Honolulu and, finally, California.

A refueling stop was scheduled some 4,000 kilometers to the northeast on a tiny uninhabited atoll known as Howland Island, where a makeshift airstrip had been built specifically for Earhart and her Lockheed Electra 10E aircraft.

Just hours into that flight, however, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared into thin air.

Although the official version of events postulates that she crashed into the Pacific, her exact resting place remains a mystery.

Much as Meier remained absorbed throughout her life in unraveling the mysteries of enigmatic personalities of the time, so too have scientists and explorers been consumed with solving the riddle of what exactly happened to Amelia Mary Earhart on that blustery day 80 years ago.

Amelia Earhart and her husband, George P. Putnam, relax at home in 1931.
Amelia Earhart and her husband, George P. Putnam, relax at home in 1931. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

Those searches began almost immediately after the aviatrix failed to arrive on Howland Island as scheduled, and the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat Itasca, which had been charged with providing air navigation and radio support for Earhart, raised the alarm. Over the following days and weeks, a search costing some $4 million was conducted, with U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships and even an aircraft carrier deployed to scour the area for the missing aviators. When that search and others by Earhart’s husband and publicist, George P. Putnam, proved fruitless, Earhart and Noonan were declared lost at sea.

Without any evidence upon which to substantiate that announcement, alternative theories explaining their disappearance soon began to surface, fueled in large part by reported sightings of the fliers in various places across the Pacific — even as far as Japan — and some intriguing, irresistible clues.

In the intervening years, searches to prove those theories — some of which seem more credible than others — have been conducted one after another. In the first half of 2017 alone, there have been at least three searches for Earhart’s remains.

One of them was conducted by Nauticos, a deep-sea exploration company that began searching for Earhart’s remains almost two decades ago. In April, it wound up its latest expedition, which was supported by former Google executive Alan Eustace and aviation pioneer Elgen Long, who has spent the best part of four decades trying to find out what happened to Earhart and is widely accredited as the originator of the so-called crash-and-sink theory.

So far those and two other known explorations have scanned at least 4,100 square miles (10,600 square kilometers) of the ocean’s floor using cutting-edge sonar to survey depths of up to 5,600 meters. Ultimately, they came away empty-handed, unearthing nothing more than a few visually compelling red herrings.

“We still have nothing to show for our endeavors — except where the plane isn’t,” says David Jourdan, founder and president of Maine-based Nauticos. “The story of most major finds — like the Titanic or the Bismarck or a lot of the treasure ships you hear about — is typically that it took many search efforts before it was finally uncovered. It takes persistence and determination.”

The Nauticos expeditions have focused on a tract of the South Pacific off Howland Island where Long and other proponents of the crash-and-sink theory believe that Earhart ditched at sea.

That belief is based largely on two broken radio messages logged by the Itasca on the morning of that ill-fated flight that indicated the aviators were low on fuel but in close proximity to the island.

U.S. aviatrix Amelia Earhart poses for a portrait in her flying gear in an undated photograph.
U.S. aviatrix Amelia Earhart poses for a portrait in her flying gear in an undated photograph. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

“We must be on you, but cannot see you — but gas is running low,” Earhart radioed at 7:42 a.m. “Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”

A further transmission 14 minutes later requesting voice signals to enable her to take a radio bearing was clear enough to suggest Earhart and Noonan were in the immediate vicinity. Yet remains have still to be located.

“The reason why we haven’t (found the plane) is it’s either just outside the area we have searched, or we missed it, but it’s there somewhere,” says Jourdan, whose company has uncovered dozens of relics during previous expeditions, including a historic wartime Japanese submarine, the I-52. “You keep looking at the data available, and you analyze it to try to find flaws, alternatives, different ways of explaining it, but time and time again we come back to the same place: that Amelia Earhart got very close to Howland Island and ran out of fuel and went into the ocean not far away.”

This method, says Jourdan, is very different from other theories, which are based not on known facts but “assumed answers.”

“They cherry-pick and massage information, some of it made up … to support those answers,” he says. “If somebody is looking, say, on an island and they have come up with a fairly extraordinary theory about how Earhart got there, they need extraordinary evidence to support it.”

Proponents of those other theories claim they have such evidence, among them bone fragments, photographs and pieces of aircraft skin.

One of the most recent finds was reported in 2015, when Dick Spink, a science teacher from Washington, visited a tiny atoll named Mili in the Marshall Islands armed with little more than a metal detector. Within days, he had struck gold.

Until just a few years before that, Spink admits he was indifferent to the Earhart story. Then, on a trip to the Marshall Islands, he attended a social event organized by a friend.

“Talk had turned to the war relics that can be found in the lagoons there,” explains Spink. “And as we talked, I said, ‘Didn’t Amelia Earhart disappear in this part of the world?’ and an old guy at the end of the table replied, ‘Yeah, she landed on our island; my uncle watched her for two days.’ I started laughing, but nobody else did.”

On subsequent visits, Spink began to document the stories of some of the Marshall Islands’ elderly residents, many of whom shared a thrillingly common tale: Two local fishermen, named Lajuan and Jororo, had been casting their nets when out of the blue a plane descended and landed on a nearby reef.

“There’s so many stories that come out of the Marshalls that are so realistic,” Spink says. “You just cannot dismiss them.”

Captivated by those stories, Spink spent $50,000 of his own savings to search the part of the island where he was told the plane had landed. Over the past four years he claims to have uncovered “some very, very compelling parts from a Lockheed Electra,” among them a piece with a slight reddish tinge that is thought by some to match the reddish trim of Earhart’s aircraft.

Nauticos has concentrated its deep-sea expeditions in the South Pacific off Howland Island.
Nauticos has concentrated its deep-sea expeditions in the South Pacific off Howland Island. | COURTESY OF NAUTICOS

“We have tested those pieces and the aluminum is consistent with what would have been on Earhart’s aircraft,” Spink says. “There are no serial numbers on them because they are just pieces that were torn off when the aircraft landed on Mili Atoll. So it’s not absolute 100 percent proof, but taken together with everything else that has happened and the stories that have come from the Marshalls, it’s pretty tough to dismiss it.”

Spink’s finds are all the more remarkable considering the Marshall Islands theory actually dates back more than 50 years, first gaining worldwide attention with the publication of Paul Briand’s 1960 book “Daughter of the Sky.”

Six years later, another book by award-winning broadcaster Fred Goerner titled “The Search for Amelia Earhart” became essential reading for any wannabe Marshall Islands theorist and contained an interesting twist that Earhart and Noonan were taken prisoner by the Japanese after landing in the Marshalls.

Earhart’s Electra, the aircraft that the aviatrix herself called a “flying laboratory,” was in fact a spy plane, the theory continues, mobilized by the U.S. to keep track of Japan’s movements in the Pacific.

“Her plane was moved by local men who were conscripted by the Japanese over to a shallow draft barge on the lagoon side of the island,” explains Spink, adding that even today evidence remains that coral heads were removed to smooth access for the vessel.

Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, pose for a photo in front of their twin-engine Lockheed Electra in Los Angeles at the end of May 1937.
Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, pose for a photo in front of their twin-engine Lockheed Electra in Los Angeles at the end of May 1937. | AP

Earhart and Noonan were then taken to Jaluit Atoll, then known as Nanyo, a mandated territory of Japan, where they were ushered aboard a tramp steamer called the Koshu Maru and transported to Saipan, the Electra towed behind on the barge, Spink adds.

Numerous locals on Saipan claimed to have seen the fliers, including the father of Stanley McGinnis Torres, a former Saipan congressman.

“My father was 23 at the time and working at the Japanese seaport moving drums of water for a Japanese company that took water from the big spring east of the port,” Torres says. “That dock area is where he saw the two tall white people under guard. He couldn’t say that the Americans he saw were Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. He couldn’t say for sure what happened to them, but it makes sense to me that the prisoners, whoever they were, were either killed here on Saipan or sent on to Japan for questioning.”

Other reports surfaced. One U.S. serviceman claimed to have come across Amelia’s briefcase and passport locked inside a Japanese military safe box, items that subsequently disappeared.

Meanwhile, another account by Saipan resident Josephine Blanco Akiyama, which Briand recorded in his book, claimed that as a young girl she had seen a silver plane fly over the island and, later, a Caucasian couple being led away by Japanese soldiers to a site where graves had been pre-excavated. Shortly after, shots rang out and the soldiers returned alone.

In November 1970, homemaker Michiko Sugita, who had lived in Saipan during the 1930s and ’40s, told The Japan Times that she overheard a conversation involving her father, a former police chief in Saipan, stating that Earhart had been shot by the Japanese military.

According to Spink, the bones of the couple in question were exhumed from the site in 1968 during another search by a team of investigators from Cleveland and sent to a lab at the University of Ohio for examination. Results confirmed the bones belonged to a Caucasian male and female. Following breakthroughs in DNA testing some years later, however, researchers returned to the lab only to find those bones had mysteriously disappeared.

“I think that was part of a huge cover-up,” says Spink. “The U.S. went to great lengths to cover up any evidence at all about Amelia Earhart.”

Critics of the Saipan capture theory point to scant hard evidence and an almost predictable pattern of anything else that could be considered even remotely circumstantial.

Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR)
Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) | TIGHAR

“There’s like a template for these stories,” says Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has conducted 11 explorations for Earhart’s remains on an island in the Central Pacific republic of Kiribati since the 1990s. “An enlisted man comes across a suitcase, a briefcase, log book, something that proves Earhart was in Japanese custody. He brings this to the attention of an officer who takes possession of it and … it’s never seen again.

“There are many, many anecdotal recollections, incidents that allegedly happened and most of them contradict. She was executed; no, she was imprisoned; no, she died of dysentery; she was taken to Saipan; no, to Japan. … What there aren’t are photos, records, artifacts, nothing. The whole Japanese-capture theme is fascinating, but there’s no proof whatsoever.”

Spink counters that the capture theory has “more bite” than anything else out there, adding that a yet-to-be-released photo recently uncovered by a retired U.S. federal investigator includes elements “that tie the entire Marshall Island landing theory together.”

He also believes that while many photos of Earhart taken by Japanese soldiers were confiscated by the U.S. military as part of its “Earhart as spy” espionage cover-up, there are many more out there.

“We already have photographic evidence,” he says, “but somewhere out there, locked away in a war chest in Japan, are photos of Japanese soldiers posing with Earhart, who was a well-known celebrity.”

Gillespie is doubtful they will ever surface, not because he believes in any cover-up claims but simply because he is convinced Earhart and Noonan never set foot on Saipan and instead lived out their lives as castaways on a Kiribati atoll.

Years of painstaking research by TIGHAR uncovered 57 “credible” radio distress calls made over six nights following Earhart’s disappearance. They came from a remote Kiribati atoll called Nikumaroro, some 640 kilometers southeast of Howland Island, and Gillespie and his team remain convinced they came from Earhart’s aircraft.

Nikumaroro atoll; a penknife purportedly identical to one Amelia Earhart had on board the Electra has been found on the atoll.
Nikumaroro atoll; a penknife purportedly identical to one Amelia Earhart had on board the Electra has been found on the atoll. | TIGHAR

Subsequent searches on the atoll have turned up interesting artifacts, including a penknife purportedly identical to one Earhart had onboard the Electra and pieces of aircraft skin, possibly from an Electra E10.

There were also bones, which were originally attributed by British medical professionals as being those of an older, possibly Polynesian male when they were discovered in the 1940s. More recent forensic research — undertaken in the U.S. using the original doctor’s records in the absence of the bones, which have disappeared — suggests they could well be from a Scandinavian woman of Earhart’s height and build, although a recent paper published by scientists in Britain and Australia have gone a long way to discrediting that claim.

Last week, another TIGHAR mission set off for Nikumaroro, with a pack of forensically trained border collies, to sniff out human bones that, through DNA matching, would confirm Earhart and Noonan landed and then perished on that island.

While many of the theories offer little hope of finding much of Earhart’s remains, Nauticos’ Jourdan holds an entirely different view. The nose-heavy Electra would have sunk quickly — within minutes, Jourdan estimates, leaving it mostly intact — while the cold, oxygen-starved waters thousands of meters beneath the Pacific would have preserved the craft and much organic matter, including paper, he adds.

Nikumaroro atoll
Nikumaroro atoll | R. BARREL, NAI’A FIJI

“My expectation is that she and Noonan were unable to exit the plane, so any of their personal effects, anything leather she was wearing, any jewelry, it’s going to be right there in the plane,” Jourdan says. “I think we will find possibly in readable form the maps that they used and possibly the notebook they used to communicate with each other. To read their last words to one another in itself makes all this worthwhile.”

Katie Evans, who is manager of the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kansas, believes the chances of such a find are rapidly diminishing, but is hopeful of a speedy conclusion, regardless of the theory that is proven to be right.

“So many people have spent their lives researching Amelia Earhart, including myself,” she says. “It would be nice to have some kind of closure so that we can go on remembering her and her life. So much of Amelia is remembered for how she disappeared that people tend to forget how much she accomplished throughout her life.”


Defining moments in Earhart’s life

July 24, 1897 Amelia Earhart is born in Atchison, Kansas.

1917 Takes course in Red Cross First Aid and enlists as a nurse’s aide at Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto, Canada, tending to wounded soldiers during World War I

1919 Enrolls as a premedical student at Columbia University in New York

1921 Learns to fly

1927 Moves to Boston, works as a social worker

1928 Selected as the first female passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight by her future husband, publisher George P. Putnam

1931 Marries Putnam, who becomes her publicist

1932 Becomes the first woman to make a solo trans-Atlantic flight

1935 Becomes first person to fly from Hawaii to the American mainland and, by so doing, becomes the first person to solo both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans

1935 Joins Purdue University as a female career consultant and purchases a Lockheed Electra plane

June 1937 Embarks upon the first around-the-world flight at the equator

July 2, 1937 Vanishes along with her navigator, Fred Noonan