Recent news item: The producers of a new investigative TV special from the History Channel believe they have the answers to the question of Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance in the South Pacific in 1937. An old cracked photo found recently in the National Archives shows a group of people on a dock in the Marshall Islands. Among the figures are two people who according to facial recognition experts appear to be Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan.
Eighty years ago last Sunday, July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart, an extremely popular American aviation pioneer, author and lecturer, and the first woman to fly solo cross the Atlantic Ocean, mysteriously disappeared during a flight over the South Pacific.
Earhart, and her navigator Fred Noonan, had vanished on one of the last (and definitely the most dangerous) legs of a heavily publicized around-the-world-flight. Just after midnight on July 2, they had taken off from Lae, New Guinea, and were headed for Howland Island, a tiny speck of land 2,500 miles distant, in the center of a vast expanse of ocean. They were expected to arrive before 8 a.m.
Throughout the night, numerous radio signals from Earhart’s plane were heard on the U.S. Coast Guard communications ship Itaska. The Itaska had been positioned near Howland Island to provide navigation and radio links to help guide her in.
Yet, apparently due to her unfamiliarity with the then-new radio equipment that had recently been installed on her plane, and with possible damage occurring to her plane’s antennas as she left New Guinea, Earhart was unable to hear the signals from the Itaska, and never arrived at her destination.
Despite a 17-day search (the largest and most expensive search in U.S history) by dozens of U.S. Navy ships, including the battleship USS Colorado, and planes from both the Colorado and the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, no trace of Earhart, Noonan, nor their plane was ever found.
While I was only six years old at the time of Earhart’s disappearance, because of the constant news reporting in newspapers and on the radio, and my parents’ numerous conversations on the heavily publicized situation, I remember it well.
The official report from the U.S. Navy concluded that Earhart had probably been lost at sea. Yet there were many other theories that quickly began to appear. One was that she had been on an intelligence mission for the U.S. government, spying on the Japanese military who were busy fortifying many of the islands in the South and Central Pacific. This in preparation for the anticipated war with the United States which would break out a little over four years later.
Many of those who advocated the spying theory also theorized that Earhart and Noonan had been forced to land on one of the Japanese-held Marshall Islands, had been captured by the Japanese military, and had been taken to Japan’s Pacific military headquarters on Saipan where they were later executed or died in captivity.
Despite strong denials by the Roosevelt administration, the spying theories continued, and gained momentum with the1943 release of the Oscar-nominated motion picture “Flight for Freedom,” starring the then-popular actress Rosalind Russell as a fictionalized Earhart. The movie, which I saw at a neighborhood theater in Philly, was released while World War II was at its peak, and featured a storyline that stressed that Earhart had indeed been spying on the Japanese.
Still, the U.S. Navy and the president continued to deny it.
Over the next couple of decades, interest in the Earhart story pretty much waned. Then, in 1960, the Columbia Broadcasting System agreed to sponsor four expeditions to the Marshall Islands and two to Saipan in an attempt to finally resolve the issue. Fred Goerner, a CBS correspondent in San Francisco, was selected to make the inquiries.
When questioned, natives in the Marshalls told Goerner that several years before the war, a “giant bird” had fallen from the sky, and from it had come a white man and woman who were taken away by Japanese soldiers.
On Saipan, several natives spoke of a white man and woman who had been brought there before the war by the Japanese. Some claimed that the woman had died of dysentery, and that the man had been beheaded. They pointed out unmarked graves on the edge of a natïve cemetery, and claimed that was where they had been buried.
In 1966, Goerner’s book, “The Search for Amelia Earhart” was published and became an instant best-seller. It postulated his theory that Earhart had indeed been captured and died at the hands of the Japanese.
It also contained accounts of several U.S. Marine Corps veterans who had fought in the 1944 battle for Saipan, and claimed that they had discovered evidence of Earhart’s time on the island.
Several former Marines insisted they had disinterred Earhart and Noonan’s bodies and that they had been shipped to the United States. Others described a briefcase they claimed to have found that had belonged to Earhart.
To back up his controversial theories, Goerner cited several high-ranking American military sources.
He insisted that in a phone conversation in 1965, five-star fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (who had commanded American forces in the Pacific during World War II) told him, “Earhart and her navigator did go down in the Marshall Islands and were picked up by the Japanese.”
He referred to a letter (written to him on Aug. 10, 1971) from Marine General Alexander A. Vandegrift, who commanded the US Marine Corps in the Pacific during the later stages of WW II. The letter stated in part, “It was substantiated that Miss Earhart met her death on Saipan. The information was given to me directly by General Thomas Watson, who commanded the 2nd U.S. Marine Corps Division during the assault on Saipan in 1944.”
Goerner also cited a statement from Marine Corps General Graves B. Erskine, who in a 1966 CBS interview allegedly said, “We did learn that Earhart was on Saipan and that she died there.”
Not surprisingly, there are numerous other theories about Earhart’s mysterious disappearance, including one that she crashed and survived for a time on Gardner Island. Yet, if the History Channel’s theory is proven to have any real merit, the recently found photo might prove to be the “smoking gun” in the effort to determine what did actually happen to the famed aviatrix and her navigator.
Note: The History Channel’s Amelia Earhart special is schedule for this evening at 9 p.m.
Jerry Jonas’column appears in the Life Section every Sunday. Reach Jerry at 215-949-0376; email: firstname.lastname@example.org