History Stories

Missing for years in the massive National Archives, a recently resurfaced three-page document provides new proof that aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan may have survived their plane crash only to be imprisoned by the Japanese.

On Sunday, HISTORY aired a new investigative special, “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” that revealed evidence in support of this very theory. Thanks to the fruits of retired U.S. Treasury Agent Les Kinney’s labor, over 10,000 documents on Earhart’s disappearance have been uncovered, but despite years of trying, Kinney still could not locate an important three-page document dated from January 1939. Efforts were renewed in June of this year, and again turned up nothing. But, just days before HISTORY aired its new special, the National Archives found the documents and posted the document online.

Page 1 of report, dated January 7, 1939, from the records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. This document provides information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. (Credit: National Archives)

Page 1 of report, dated January 7, 1939, from the records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. This document provides information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. (Credit: National Archives)

Labeled “CONFIDENTIAL” and dated January 7, 1939, the document in question details an eye-witness account backing up the theory that Earhart was in fact imprisoned by the Japanese on the Marshall Islands, on the remote coral atoll of Jaluit. This document was literally a message in a bottle: It was found by a 37-year-old woman on the beach near Soulac-sur-Mer, in southwestern France, inside a half-pint glass bottle sealed by a cork covered in wax. The document was declassified in 1977.

Included along with the note was a lock of chestnut-colored hair said to be Amelia Earhart’s and another paper that said, “God guide this bottle. I confide my life and that of my companions to it,” written in French. The lock of hair was intended to offer proof of the whereabouts of Earhart and corroborate the written testimony. These items were delivered to French military officials, and were never DNA tested.

The unknown person who sent the letter writes,

“I have been a prisoner at Jaluit (Marshalls) by the Japanese; in the prison there, I have seen Amelia Earhart (aviatrix) and in another cell her mechanic (a man), as well as several other European prisoners; held on charge of alleged spying on large fortifications erected on the atoll. Earhart and companion were picked up by Japanese hydroplane and will serve as hostages say Japanese.”

Page 2 of report, dated January 7, 1939, from the records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. This document provides information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. (Credit: National Archives)

Page 2 of report, dated January 7, 1939, from the records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. This document provides information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. (Credit: National Archives)

This prisoner was taken from Jaluit and forcibly enrolled as a crewmember aboard a ship bound for Europe, where they were able to send the message in the bottle—one of six attempts—while near the Spanish city of Santander. The sender requested that the message be delivered to the police upon being found, so that they—and the famous aviation duo—could be freed. The document even details how they should be rescued:

“To have a good chance of freeing Miss Earhart and her companion, and also other prisoners, they should arrive incognito at Jaluit…because if Japanese are asked to liberate the prisoners, they will say that none are detained at Jaluit.”

There is no hard evidence that the U.S. government tried to rescue Earhart from prison; instead the U.S. Navy declared her “lost at sea” two weeks after her disappearance. In HISTORY’s special, Kinney explains his belief that the U.S. government purged files that proved they knew of Earhart’s capture and did nothing about it. This newly resurfaced document has a section missing from the second page, at a point where it begins to again discuss Earhart.

Pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, with a map of the Pacific that shows the planned route of their last flight. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, with a map of the Pacific that shows the planned route of their last flight. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Why would they do this? According to the evidence revealed in “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” the U.S. government may have intercepted Japanese communication confirming that Earhart went down in the Marshall Islands. This communication, however, was written in code. If the U.S. had told Japan they knew of Earhart’s whereabouts, they would be admitting to breaking the Japanese codes—and with the war on the horizon this was a secret they couldn’t bear to disclose. And it proved useful in the Battle of Midway when the United States was able to preempt and counter Japan’s planned ambush of its few remaining aircraft carriers, inflicting permanent damage on the Japanese Navy.

The sender of the bottle message describes themselves as someone who was “imprisoned because I disembarked on Mila Atoll. My yacht ‘VEVO’ sunk; crew (3 Maoris killed); my yacht (25 tons, sailing ship) was equipped with radio.” It is unclear if the writer was ever identified.

The bottle that was uncovered was supposed to serve as a float for a second bottle containing more objects of Earhart’s—to date, no other bottles have been found.

Page 3 of report, dated January 7, 1939, from the records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. This document provides information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. (Credit: National Archives)

Page 3 of report, dated January 7, 1939, from the records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. This document provides information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. (Credit: National Archives)

This document offers intriguing new details about the fate of Amelia Earhart, but it also stirs up more questions. Who is this captured agent? Was it in fact Earhart’s lock of hair included in the bottle? What did the U.S. government do—if anything—when they received the contents of the bottle on January 7, 1939?

Among the 10,000 documents Kinney helped uncover in the National Archives is a photo that appears to show Earhart and Noonan after their plane crash. The photo is stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading “Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor.” In the background of the photo is a ship towing a barge with an airplane, which, according to Kinney, could be Earhart’s Electra.

The National Archives houses billions of documents and receives numerous requests a day. Among those requests were Kinney’s repeated appeals to locate the letter that washed up on a French beach inside a bottle—HISTORY is thrilled the document has since been recovered.

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