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What Really Happened to Amelia Earhart?

by Liz Lee

Most of us know Amelia Earhart as the famous aviatrix tragically lost at sea during an attempted round-the-world flight in 1937. The Kansas-born darling of early aviation was an international sensation in the 1930’s, setting world records as the first woman to complete a solo, round-trip flight across the United States, and the first woman to cross the Atlantic alone in her famous Lockheed Electra plane. She was a true pioneer, breaking altitude records and crossing oceans at a time when regular commercial flights were still a thing of the future, and pilots risked their lives flying machines much less reliable than today’s modern aircraft. At the time, Earhart’s feminist philosophy, boyish haircut, and penchant for pants and leather jackets were radical personal statements, solidifying her iconic public image and earning her a place indelibly in America’s collective consciousness.

But there is another reason for Earhart’s unrelenting presence in American culture. Her legacy lies mostly in the fact that not a shred of evidence has ever been found to substantiate the most widely-accepted explanation of her disappearance: that she and navigator Fred Noonan perished at sea somewhere near the Phoenix Islands in the central Pacific. Despite purported evidence of Earhart and Noonan’s castaway presence on tiny islands in the Pacific; despite extensive deep-sea surveys of the alleged crash site in recent years; despite the fact that, in the days following her disappearance, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard completed the largest and most costly air and sea search ever conducted for a civilian; never has there been found any proof that Earhart and Noonan, as the official story goes, simply ran out of gas and died at sea.

There is, in fact, more evidence to suggest that Earhart and Noonan survived whatever aviation perils they may have encountered that day, and met entirely different ends all together. Researchers and theorists have been asking questions about Earhart’s disappearance for years—questions concerning the true nature of her last flight, and the government’s inextricable involvement in it.

While not much is certain about her fate, it is clear that Amelia Earhart’s exceptional intelligence allowed her to wear many hats during her lifetime; she was by turns a wartime nurse’s aide, a social worker, a stunt pilot, a fashion designer, the aviation editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine, and the author of several successful books. Who’s to say she wasn’t also at times a spy, an island castaway, a prisoner of war, a repatriated housewife living in New Jersey, or a rogue government agent who “disregarded all orders”?

The “Official” Story
While it’s true that the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s fate has been left open for interpretation, the explanation most often conveyed to the public via history books, mainstream news media, and film is the “crash and sink” theory. That version of the story goes something like this:

On July 1, 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan departed from Lae, New Guinea in Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10, on what was to be the longest portion of Earhart’s highly publicized round-the-world flight. About 2,550 miles away, a tiny speck of land known as Howland Island was prepared with a landing strip (courtesy of the U.S. government), and a Coast Guard cutter, Itasca, equipped with radio operators waiting to guide Earhart and Noonan safely to the ground. But in the early hours of the morning on July 2, radio communication with Earhart was lost. One of her last verifiable radio transmissions to the Itasca reads: “WE MUST BE ON YOU BUT CANNOT SEE YOU BUT GAS IS RUNNING LOW. BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO WE ARE FLYING AT ALTITUDE 1000 FEET.”

About two hours later, the U.S. government launched the largest and most costly peacetime land and sea search ever conducted before or since. On July 19, 1937, the search was called off and not a trace of the missing flyers or their plane was ever found. Amelia Earhart was pronounced legally dead on January 5, 1939.

Despite carrying out a search which cost upwards of four million dollars, the U.S. government never released an official statement about the disappearance of the two fliers. It is generally accepted, however, that Earhart and Noonan ran out of gas, ditched the plane at sea, and died shortly thereafter.

Proponents of this theory have founded their research on analysis of the officially documented radio transmissions, and most attribute Earhart and Noonan’s tragic end to primitive navigational techniques, poor planning, and inadequate radio equipment.

Ric Gillespie, executive director of the nonprofit group TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery), is a champion of the “crash and sink” theory, and has spent the last 22 years trying to prove its validity. TIGHAR supports the hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan landed and died on the tiny island of Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island) in the western Pacific. The group’s efforts are based on reports that members of the original Earhart search party found “signs of recent habitation” on Gardner Island, and that a set of bones (which has since been lost) found on the island in 1940 might possibly have belonged to Earhart. But as one journalist puts it, TIGHAR’s tenth and most recent expedition, completed during the summer of 2010, marks the organization’s “10th consecutive failure to produce ‘smoking gun’ evidence of [Earhart’s] castaway presence on that island” (prweb.com).

Another notable advocate of the “crash and sink” theory is former Navy pilot Elgen Long, whose 1999 book Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, provided the basis for extensive deep-sea searches by groups like Nauticos and the Waitt Institute. Long’s theory states simply that Earhart ran out of gas and sank to the bottom of the Pacific somewhere near Howland Island. The subsequent multi-million dollar expeditions that set out to prove this theory scoured thousands of square miles of ocean floor near the island in the hopes of turning up Earhart wreckage. Nothing was found.

The resurgence of the simplistic “crash and sink” theory comes, incidentally, despite decades of research suggesting a more complicated fate for the fliers. Theories involving espionage, imprisonment, and secret identities have abounded since the early 1940’s, but have been swept under the rug by mainstream media in recent years. Several of them present some compelling, albeit circumstantial, evidence.

Saipan: Rumors, Theories, and Eyewitness Accounts
The most persistent alternative to the “crash and sink” theory involves the island of Saipan in the western Pacific. Now part of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands, Saipan was occupied by the Japanese between World Wars I and II under a League of Nations mandate. According to several eyewitness accounts from Saipan natives, Earhart and Noonan were seen on the island in July of 1937.

The idea that the fliers ended up on Saipan was first popularized by author Paul Briand in his 1960 book Daughter of the Sky. Briand relates the testimony of Josephine Blanco Akiyama, who claims that in the summer of 1937 she watched a silver plane make a crash landing near the military base surrounding Tanapag Harbor. According to Akiyama, two American fliers were then taken into the woods by Japanese soldiers. Shots rang out, and the soldiers returned alone (Briand, 213).

Briand’s book spawned what amounted to a veritable renaissance in the Earhart mystery. Over 100 Saipan natives interviewed by both reporters and U.S. military personnel during the 1960’s claim to have known of the presence of the American fliers on Saipan that summer. Many accounts place Earhart and Noonan as prisoners at the military-operated Hotel Kobayashi Royokan, and the general consensus among those interviewed is that the two were being held as spies. Some claim Earhart was executed and buried on the island, while others speculate that she was later brought to Japan, and at least one witness claims that Earhart died in the prison of apparent dysentery after only a couple of weeks (Klaas, 120-121).

It was during this same time that CBS radio reporter Fred Goerner made headlines with claims that he had located the graves of Earhart and Noonan, and even dredged a piece of their plane out of the harbor. While these claims eventually proved false, Goerner was one of the first to suggest that Earhart’s plane went down not in Saipan, as Akiyama suggests, but elsewhere in the Marshall Islands, where the fliers were picked up by the Japanese and later brought to Saipan.

Credibility is lent to this theory by a number of facts. Most interesting, and always left out of the official story, is the fact that there were substantial areas of the Pacific Ocean in which the U.S. was forbidden to search for the plane due to the League of Nations mandate. According to declassified State Department files, the U.S. Navy sent a formal request to the Japanese, asking for permission to search that area in the Marshalls where the plane was most likely to have gone down. Such permission was denied, and U.S. Naval records show that the Japanese Navy ministry instead deployed its own ships to search for Earhart’s plane (Brink 146).

Additionally, there are scores of reports indicating that signals from Earhart’s radio continued to be heard for up to four days after the plane went down, positioning the fliers somewhere in the Marshall Islands. A New York Times article from July 5, 1937 reports the Itasca intercepted signals that would “indicate possibility Earhart plane still afloat 281 miles north of Howland Island.” As Randall Brink writes in his book Lost Star: The Search for Amelia Earhart, several of the official radio operators hired to standby during the flight corroborate that Earhart was communicating via radio from somewhere near the Marshalls days after the plane went down:

The Itasca off Howland Island, Pan American Airways on Wake Island, the U.S. Navy in Honolulu, the Coast Guard Station at San Francisco, … George Palmer Putnam [Earhart’s husband and promoter] in Los Angeles — all heard the message sent by Earhart and Noonan reporting they were down on land “approximately 281 miles northwest” of Howland. The only ships in that area were Japanese (148).
In 1987, on the 50th anniversary of Earhart’s last flight, the Republic of the Marshall Islands issued a series of commemorative stamps depicting Earhart and Noonan’s takeoff from Lae, their flight over the Pacific, and their subsequent rescue by Japanese ships at Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands. To the Marshallese, the idea that Earhart and Noonan went down in the Marshalls is not wild speculation, but historical fact.

Various first-hand accounts related by U.S. military personnel also give credence to the possibility that Earhart and Noonan ended up on Saipan. Thomas E. Devine, a former postal worker for the U.S. military, claims that while stationed on the island in 1944, he saw Earhart’s plane, registration number NR-16020, in a hangar at Aslito airfield, and subsequently witnessed the burning of it by then Under Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal. He also claims that a native Chamarro woman told him the fliers had been executed and buried on the island (Devine, 38-42).

Former marine Robert E. Wallack also claims to have found evidence of Earhart’s presence on Saipan. While stationed on the island during World War II he came across a locked safe amid the rubble of a bombed-out building. After opening the safe with explosives, he discovered “…official-looking papers all concerning Amelia Earhart: maps, permits, and reports apparently pertaining to her around-the-world flight.” Wallack turned the findings in to a naval officer and they were never returned to him (Brink, 159).

So then, in light of substantial indications that Earhart and Noonan survived the initial crash, why is the “crash and sink” theory the only one that persists? And how much does the U.S. government know about what really happened?

Amelia Earhart: Secret Agent?

“Amelia told me many things, but there were some things she couldn’t tell me. I am convinced she was on some sort of a government mission, probably on verbal orders.” — Amy Earhart, Amelia Earhart’s mother, New York Times, July 25, 1949.
In 1937, most of Micronesia (a network of islands in the equatorial region of the central and western Pacific) belonged to Japan; an outcome of the first World War. The 1919 Versailles Treaty, which gave Japan jurisdiction over all of Germany’s Pacific islands north of the equator after World War I, held that the islands were not to be used for military fortification or training. By the mid 1930’s, however, Japan had closed the islands to outsiders and the United States had reason to believe that Japan was indeed violating the treaty, building military fortifications throughout Micronesia in preparation for the coming world conflict (Brink, 86-87). American-Japanese relations in the Pacific were growing tense, and it was in this political climate that Amelia Earhart would be attempting to circumnavigate the globe.

In fact, the flight was attempted not once, but twice. Earhart’s first attempt began, and ended abruptly, on March 20th of 1937, when her plane crashed during take-off from Honolulu. Her original intention was to complete a round-the-world flight at the equator, traveling from east to west. But in the two months following the crash, which was reportedly due to excessive cargo weight, Earhart’s plans changed in some pretty peculiar ways.

By the time her plane left the runway in Oakland, California two months later, several interesting developments had taken place. She would now be flying in the opposite direction, from west to east, vaguely citing a change in wind patterns as the reason. Second, the plane would now be flying over tiny Howland Island, where the U.S. had constructed an airfield, supposedly for Earhart’s benefit alone. And whereas Earhart and her husband and promoter, George P. Putnam, had struggled to raise funds for the first round-the-world attempt, the bill was now being footed by the U.S. military (Brink, 103).

This is the foundation upon which the espionage theory is built, and recently declassified government files make it hard to ignore. While it’s true that the airstrip on Howland Island was, at least in part, built for Earhart, it’s clear now that the United States had been colonizing Howland and other portions of the Phoenix Islands since at least 1935 (Brink101). This small group of islands was an important line of defense between Hawaii and the Japanese-held Marshalls, thus, securing them was in the Roosevelt administration’s best interest; making the move public and raising foreign suspicions, however, was not. What better way then, to build the airstrip than under the ruse that its sole function was to accommodate an innocent female stunt pilot?

At the same time plans were being made for Howland Island, Earhart’s plane was supposedly being repaired at the Lockeed factory in Burbank, California. Former Lockheed technician Robert T. Elliot claims to have participated in the upgrade of an Electra Model 10 during this time, and was instructed to cut two holes at the base of the aircraft to be used for cameras. Elliot recalls being called out of his regular duties several times to work on this plane, as it was off the main assembly line. According to him, Earhart’s original aircraft was not the one she would be flying on her second attempt, though the same registration number was painted on the side. In fact, the new plane would have larger engines, more advanced propellers, and modifications to the fuselage, making it more akin to the sophisticated XC-35 model. Says Elliot, “That bit about repairing her crashed Model 10 was just a ruse” (Brink, 109). A photo comparison of Earhart’s Electra Model 10 before her first attempt and during her second does, in fact, confirm several notable differences in the plane’s design (Klaas, 116 – 117).

Did the Roosevelt administration find in Earhart the perfect cover for an aerial reconnaissance mission over Japanese territory? According to Margo de Carrie, who handled the clerical details of Earhart’s round-the-world flight, another strange thing happened during the period of time between her first and second attempts. Presidential advisor Bernard Baruch began meeting with Earhart and Putnam at their home in Hollywood to discuss with them the possibility of “volunteering for an intelligence mission that would be assisted and underwritten by the military.” Shortly thereafter says de Carrie, bills for aircraft and other expenses stopped arriving at the Putnam’s home (Brink, 103).

Does this explain why so many of the Saipan natives interviewed in the 1960’s referred to the female pilot they saw as “American spy lady” (Klaas, 82)? Did Japanese military personnel discover hidden cameras in Earhart’s plane during its recovery?

The idea that Earhart and Noonan were among the first American casualties of World War II is not new; it has simply been suppressed by years of mass media subterfuge. Take, for instance, the questions posed in this article from the November, 1942 issue of Skyways magazine:

Were these two fliers the first victims in the present war between the United States and Japan? Did an alert U.S. Navy, already aware in 1937 that America sooner or later would be locked in conflict with the small yellow “Aryans” of Nippon, grasp an opportunity to observe secret war preparations in the closely guarded Japanese mandated islands – strategic stepping stones between Hawaii and the heart of Japan?…
If we assume, then, that the greatest rescue expedition in the history of flying was actually predicated upon an extraordinary opportunity to pry beneath the lid of secrecy covering Japanese activities in the South Pacific in 1937, the Navy deserves an accolade for a piece of smart thinking and execution which may prove to have supplied a turning point in the present struggle.
The following year, the movie Flight for Freedom was released in theaters, starring Rosalind Russell as the fictional aviatrix Tonie Carter, and Fred MacMurry as her navigator Randy Britton. The characters are blatantly based on Earhart and Noonan, and the storyline holds that the pair was ordered to “get lost” during their round-the-world flight so that the U.S. Navy might have an excuse to search Japanese mandated territory.

In comparison with these relatively subversive media exploits, today we have history books, Hollywood, and televised National Geographic specials that all seem to share the same agenda: to disprove any alternative to the “crash and sink” theory.

The Earhart Files
While there does not seem to exist a single “secret” Earhart file within the government archives, certain declassified documents, as well as reports from individuals with high-level security clearance, have surfaced during the past few decades, bringing new clues to light.

In 1983, former Navy photographer Carroll F. Harris discussed with author Randall Brink his discovery of a Top Secret Earhart file while working under Flag Secretary Admiral J.R. Smedberg. Harris was given high-security clearance to secret Naval records during this time, in order to photograph documents on 16 mm microfilm from both the Naval Operations general files and the Office of Naval Intelligence. According to Harris, the file included extensive information regarding, amongst other things: the details of Earhart’s actual route between Lae and Howland Island as well as the reasons for its secrecy; descriptions of modifications made to her plane, including camera installation, increased wingspan, and upgraded radio equipment; and plans for Naval Intelligence officers to recover film and equipment after her mission was completed (Brink, 173-174).

Among the most compelling Earhart documents available to the public is a telephone transcript excerpted from the Henry Morgenthau Jr. diaries at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York. The transcript, dated May 13, 1938, relates a conversation between White House personnel and Morgenthau (then Secretary of the Treasury), in which he explains why Eleanor Roosevelt’s request for the official report on her close friend Amelia Earhart must be denied:

H.M.Jr: … This letter that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote me about trying to get the report on Amelia Earhart. Now, I’ve been given a verbal report. If we’re going to release this, it’s just going to smear the whole reputation of Amelia Earhart, and my….. — Yes, but I mean if we give it to this one man we’ve got to make it public; we can’t let one man see it. And if we ever release the report of the Itasca on Amelia Earhart, any reputation she’s got is gone, because — and I’d like to — I’d really like to return this to you.

[Continuing] Now I know what Navy did, I know what the Itasca did, and I know how Amelia Earhart absolutely disregarded all orders, and if we ever release this thing, goodbye Amelia Earhart’s reputation…And we have the report of all those wireless messages and everything else, what that woman — happened to her the last few minutes. I hope I’ve just got to never make it public, I mean. — O.K. — Well, still if she wants it, I’ll tell her — I mean what happened. It isn’t a very nice story…. (Brink, 160)

Exactly what that report contains is anybody’s guess, but the conversation makes it apparent that the Roosevelt administration knew a lot more than they let on.

In 1987, long-time State Department employee Patricia Morton came forward with her discovery of a telegram dated August 24, 1945, sent from Weishien, China and addressed to Earhart’s husband, George P. Putnam. It reads: “CAMP LIBERATED ALL WELL VOLUMES TO TELL LOVE TO MOTHER.” While there is no mention of Amelia’s name directly on the telegram, the file was labeled “Earhart, Amelia,” and included a “PW” along with the file number, a classification used for prisoners of war. As Brink mentions, the State Department division that declassified the file identified itself as the “Special War Problems Branch” (179).

Why would the Special War Problems Branch keep a file on someone who was declared dead two years before the United States became involved in the war?

Who is Irene Bolam?
If Earhart did, in fact, end up at an internment camp in China during the war, as that mysterious telegram suggests, what became of her afterwards? Some theorize that she was repatriated under a new identity, living out the rest of her life as a New Jersey housewife named Irene Bolam. This theory was popularized in 1970 with the publication of Joe Klass’ book Amelia Earhart Lives, which suggests that Earhart’s identity was inextricably entwined with Bolam’s.

Drawing on the research of Major Joe Gervais, the book bases its claim on Bolam’s resemblance to Earhart, and the assertion that no records of Bolam’s identity prior to 1940 can be located. The allegation was widely refuted by both the media and Bolam herself, who filed a 1.5 million dollar lawsuit against Gervais and Klaas soon after the book’s publication. Interestingly enough, the suit was settled outside of court “…with a ten-dollar consideration paid by both sides after … Irene refused to submit her fingerprints as proof-positive of her identity” (www.irene-amelia.com).

Making the story even more intriguing, if still hard to believe, is the testimony of the late Monsignor James Francis Kelley. As a former president of Seton Hall, and a distinguished member of the Catholic Church who held doctorates in psychology and philosophy, Monsignor Kelley told news reporter Dean Magley in 1987 that he served as Amelia Earhart’s counselor upon her return to the United States after World War II. Coincidentally, he was also the recipient of a medal, awarded to him in 1941 by none other than Henry Morgenthau Jr., “For three years of Patriotic Service with integrity and diligence for the Treasury Department of the United States of America” (www.irene-amelia.com).

Something to Hide
Did the United States use Amelia Earhart’s round-the-world flight as a guise for gathering intelligence? If so, it would surely explain why so much information, including classified government and military files and gaps in the official Itasca logs, is still being withheld from the public. The government has always denied any involvement with Earhart’s last flight, but it’s clear from Henry Morgenthau Jr’s telephone transcripts that she “absolutely disregarded all orders.” From whom exactly was she taking orders?

Although a verdict cannot be reached as to Earhart’s fate, substantial evidence exists to support that she and Noonan survived after their plane went down on July 2, 1937. And the government’s evasion of this evidence only helps to affirm their involvement in the mystery.

Henry Morgenthau Jr. is on record saying that Earhart’s reputation would be ruined if the public knew the real story. But considering the official secrecy in regards to Earhart even 70 years later, it seems more likely that the government’s reputation is the real concern.

News Update – February 23, 2010

Scientists are currently trying to determine whether a tiny bone fragment found on the island of Nikumaroro in the South Pacific once belonged to Amelia Earhart. By examining saliva remnants taken from envelopes thought to have been sealed by the missing pilot, researchers in the Molecular Anthropology Laboratories at the University of Oklahoma hope to create a “genetic profile” for Earhart in order to determine if the bone is a match. (Time.com, February 23, 2011)

The bone sliver was found in 2010 during The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery’s (TIGHAR’s) most recent expedition, which sought specifically to prove the theory that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan died on the island some time after their plane went down in July of 1937. It is not clear at this time, however, whether the bone sliver is even of human origin, as researchers initially suspected it was a turtle bone. (TIGHAR.com)

TIGHAR’s hypothesis is based on documents which indicate that British Colonial Officer Gerald Gallagher discovered human remains on the island in 1940. The officer’s forensic report described the skeletal remains as “more likely female than male,” “more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander,” “most likely between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 9 inches in height.” (DiscoveryNews.com, December 10, 2010)

Those bones, however, were mysteriously “misplaced” long ago. According to TIGHAR’s Thomas F. King, the records for Gallagher’s report end in 1942, with the remains being held for the British government in Fiji. No other evidence of them exists.

Other artifacts found on the island during TIGHAR’s exhaustive missions include the remnants of a 1930’s-style woman’s oxford shoe, a sexton box, and fragments of a small glass jar thought to have contained Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment, which was marketed between 1892 and 1961. Earhart was said to have been self-conscious about her freckles. (TIGHAR.com)

References

“Amelia Earhart Search Inches Toward Psychic Military Map, According to Interview with Logistics News Network.” 26 July, 2010.
<http://www.prweb.com/releases2010/07/prweb4303574.htm>.
Briand, Paul. Daughter of the Sky. New York: Van Rees Press. 1960
Brink, Randall. Lost Star: The Search for Amelia Earhart. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1994.

Devine, Thomas E. Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident. Frederick, CO: Renaissance House. 1987.

Klaas, Joe. Amelia Earhart Lives. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1970.

“Mother Tells Fate of Amelia Earhart.” New York Times. 24 July, 1949.

Swindell, Tod. “Former Seton Hall University President, Msgr. Kelley & NASA Astronaut Schirra On Amelia Earhart.” 2010.
<http://www.irene-amelia.com/id68.html>.

Swindell, Tod. “Wikipedia: The Irene Craigmile Bolam Manipulated “Public Info Provided” On-Line Encyclopedia.” 2010.
<http://www.irene-amelia.com/id79.html>.

About the Author

Liz Lee lives in Providence, Rhode Island and is an assistant editor for Paranoia: The Conspiracy Reader.
Her email address is: [email protected]

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