More than 80 years ago, American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator Frederick “Fred” Noonan disappeared while flying over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937. Earhart had become famous worldwide as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, and her next challenge was to fly around the entire world. Many had no doubts that the “Queen of the Air” would be successful.
Over the Pacific Ocean, however, something went very wrong, and Earhart, Noonan, and their plane disappeared. Search efforts were unsuccessful, and on January 5, 1939, she was declared dead in absentia. What really happened to Amelia Earhart? These following theories all attempt to shine a light on the mystery.
In 2011, locals in Papua New Guinea claimed they found parts of the wreckage of Earhart’s plane on a reef near Buka Island, Bougainville. Papua New Guinea was the last stop Earhart and Noonan made before they disappeared, and a team was assembled to examine the wreckage, which was discovered by divers. One diver even confirmed that he found two skulls in the cockpit that likely belonged to the missing pair.
Local Papua New Guinea newspaper Post Courier reported, “The crash site is in direct alignment with Earhart’s flight path out of Lae, past north of Buka Island in a straight north-east direction to Howland,” adding that there were “strong indications” that this was the missing plane. However, skeptics were not convinced, and Ric Gillespie, the executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, said the discovery of the wreckage did not match up with the last known radio transmissions received from Earhart, which placed her 320 kilometers (200 mi) from Howland Island.
According to a study published by Forensic Anthropology in 2018, Earhart’s bones were discovered on the Western Pacific island of Nikumaroro, proving that she crashed there and died as a castaway. Their report claimed the bones were a 99-percent match with the famed pilot, who was known to have flown close to the island during her doomed last journey.
The remains were recovered in 1940 by a party who were exploring the island for possible habitation, and they also found a bottle of Benedictine—an herbal liqueur Earhart was known to carry. Unfortunately, the bones were lost, so further analysis was not possible. Instead, researchers compared a record of the remains to photographs of Earhart. The report stated, “[This analysis] strongly supports the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart. Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.”
One of the most popular conspiracy theories surrounding the disappearance of Earhart is that she was captured by the Japanese and taken hostage. Relations between the US and Japan had been fractured since Japan attacked China in 1931. However, this theory was discredited, as during attempts to find the missing pilot, the State Department received a phone call from the Japanese Embassy in Washington asking if they needed assistance.
Greg Bradsher, senior archivist at the National Archives, reported that Earhart’s disappearance brought together the two countries in a combined search effort. The Japanese government allowed “closed territory” to Westerners, including the Japanese Mandate Islands, to no longer be restricted, which helped with the search. However, that relationship didn’t last long, as on December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. More than 2,300 Americans died in the attack, and over 1,100 were wounded. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan.
Was Amelia Earhart actually a spy for the US government? According to the book Lost Star: The Search for Amelia Earhart by Randall Brink, the answer is yes. Brink claims that Earhart was placed on a mission to take pictures of the military bases on several Japanese islands and that her plane was secretly equipped with gadgets to spy with. Unlike the hostage theory, Brink claims that she was shot down by the Japanese when she entered forbidden territory.
His evidence to support these claims came from interviewing a technician who said, “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.” Brink also added that he had documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which proved that Earhart’s final flight was equipped with the latest military navigation equipment of the time.
A photo from the 1930s found in the US National Archives has been touted as proof that Amelia Earhart was alive on the then-Japanese Marshall Islands. The black and white picture, taken by a possible US spy in Jaluit Atoll, is believed to show Earhart with her back to the camera, Fred Noonan, and their plane in the corner. The History Channel released the image, which triggered the conspiracy theory in 2017, 80 years after the disappearance.
Ric Gillespie, author of Finding Amelia, disagrees with this theory. He said, “This photograph has people convinced. I’m astounded by this. I mean, my God! Look at this photograph . . . Let’s use our heads for a moment. It’s undated. They think it’s from 1937. Okay. If it’s from July 1, 1937, then it can’t be Amelia, because she hadn’t taken off yet.” He added, “If it’s from 1935 or 1938 it can’t be her . . . This photograph has to have been taken within a very narrow window—within a couple of days of when she disappeared.” Although Gillespie is unconvinced, many other online theorists believe this photo is solid evidence that she did not crash.
One man who has a theory about the death of Amelia Earhart is William Sablan, whose uncle worked at a prison on the island of Saipan in 1937. He alleged that both Earhart and Noonan were held captive at the prison before their execution. Sablan recalled that he had dreams of becoming a pilot, and when he told his uncle this, he heard the story of how two Americans crashed near Saipan and were imprisoned for two or three days.
Sablan said, “They were both killed in Saipan and buried there. After the war was over, their bodies were exhumed by an American military branch and shipped back to the United States. Where those bodies are now is somebody’s own question to answer.” In 1960, a similar theory was floated when a CBS reporter said locals on the Marshall Islands had confirmed the death of two “spies” shortly before the beginning of World War II.
The book Amelia Earhart Lives by Joe Klass, published in the 1970s, claimed that Earhart was rescued from the Japanese government by the US military and ended up in New Jersey under the new identify of housewife “Irene Bolam.” The book attempted to give evidence to support this theory, including that Earhart and Bolam appeared strikingly similar and were both trained pilots.
This theory was not too popular with Bolam, who denied she was a pilot and sued both Klass and the publisher, McGraw-Hill. The amount Bolam received was not made public, as it’s believed the case was settled out of court, and the publisher pulled the book from the shelves. The book was simply dismissed as speculation and proof only that people really will believe anything.
“Tokyo Rose” was a name given to collectively refer to female English-speaking broadcasters of Japanese propaganda. The term was first coined by Allied Troops in the in the South Pacific during World War II. Several propaganda broadcasters worked under different aliases and would attempt to demoralize Allied troops by spreading word of their military losses. Shortly after the end of World War II, a rumor had begun that Earhart was one of the “Tokyo Rose” broadcasters.
This theory was disputed by George Putnam, an American publisher, author, and explorer who was married to Earhart from 1931 up to her disappearance. He investigated the claim by listening to hours of the propaganda, and he never recognized any of the voices as belonging to his wife. Following Earhart’s disappearance, Putnam published three books about his wife’s love of aviation.
The theory that Earhart was abducted by aliens is not too surprising, as similar conspiracy theories surrounding the disappearances of aircraft have been around for decades. The alien abduction theory even featured on an episode of the science fiction television show Star Trek: Voyager ; the plot is that Earhart was abducted and locked in a “cryostasis chamber” on another planet.
Alien abduction theories usually surround aviation disappearances where no wreckage or remains of the missing persons have been found—they simply just appear to have evaporated into thin air. The 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing somewhere over the Indian Ocean, also received the same treatment from conspiracy theorists.
Nowadays, missing planes are very rare, due to the “Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast” system, which automatically reports the position of airplanes to air traffic controllers and also nearby aircraft. Earhart took flight across the Pacific only around 34 years after people had begun flying planes, and it’s more likely she was simply victim to technologies that failed her.
For those who enjoy happy endings, there’s the widely believed theory that Earhart survived the trip and returned home safely and secretly. The 1943 movie Flight for Freedom, starring Rosalind Russell as a pilot clearly based on Earhart, helped to fuel rumors that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had enlisted Earhart as a spy.
Earhart’s real final flight over the Pacific Ocean was reported around the world, which would make for a strange spy story, given the enormous amount of publicity. She was also widely recognized as a famous aviator in her own right, which, even when considering a change of identity, would have also made it difficult for her to completely disappear from the spotlight.
About $4 million was spent on the rescue mission to find both Earhart and Noonan, but the search was not successful. Their disappearance is still one of the biggest aviation mysteries of all time.
Cheish Merryweather is a true crime fan and an oddities fanatic. Can either be found at house parties telling everyone Charles Manson was only 5’2″ or at home reading true crime magazines.