What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

In the 73 years since Amelia Earhart vanished into thin air, a number of theories have emerged about how and where the famed aviator died. According to some researchers, new discoveries on the Pacific island of Nikumaroro may bring us closer than ever before to an answer.

Amelia Earhart‘s daring round-the-world-flight was cut short when her Lockheed Electra disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on June 2, 1937. Within hours, rescue workers began scouring the area for signs of the famed aviator and her navigator, Fred Noonan.

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard launched the largest and most expensive air and sea search in American history. When their efforts failed, Earhart’s husband of six years, George Putnam, financed his own search but came up equally empty-handed. A living legend had vanished into thin air.

In an official report, the U.S. government concluded that the two seasoned flyers, unable to locate their destination of Howland Island, ran out of fuel, crashed into the water and sank. Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939. The question of why and where her plane went down, however, has never been put to rest.

In the seven decades since Earhart’s disappearance, a number of hypotheses have emerged, some with scientific evidence behind them and others based on more dubious claims. Some theorists, for instance, believe Earhart was actually a secret agent working for the U.S. government, pointing to her close friendship with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.

They suggest that the plane crashed after its pilots intentionally deviated from their course to spy on Japanese-occupied islands in the Pacific, or that Earhart and Noonan landed on one of them and were taken prisoner. Yet another theory holds that Earhart returned safely to the United States, changed her name and lived a long life in obscurity.

Another widely held belief is that Earhart and Noonan touched down on a remote South Pacific island called Nikumaroro, which at the time of their disappearance was uninhabited and known as Gardner Island. The Earhart Project, a division of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), is dedicated to investigating the Nikumaroro hypothesis.

TIGHAR has been combing the island since 1989, assembling a collection of artifacts that includes improvised tools, shoe remnants and aircraft wreckage that is consistent with Earhart’s Electra. They have also discovered that, several years after Earhart vanished, a British colonial officer found the remains of a castaway on Nikumaroro. The bones were sent to Fiji for analysis, but were ultimately misplaced and lost.

During TIGHAR’s 2010 expedition, the team uncovered some of their most compelling clues yet. While foraging in a spot where they had previously identified traces of a campfire, they came across three pieces of a pocketknife, shells that had been cut open, fragments of a glass cosmetic jar, bits of makeup and—perhaps most intriguing of all—bone fragments that may be from a human.

New Evidence Discovered

According to HISTORY’s upcoming investigative special “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” retired federal agent Les Kinney scoured the National Archives for records that may have been overlooked in the search for the lost aviator.

Among thousands of documents he uncovered was a photograph stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading “Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor.” In the photo, a ship can be seen towing a barge with an airplane on the back; on a nearby dock are several people.

Kinney argues the photo must have been taken before 1943, as U.S. air forces conducted more than 30 bombing runs on Jaluit in 1943-44. He believes the plane on the barge is the Electra, and that two of the people on the dock are Earhart and Noonan.

As part of the program’s investigation, Doug Carner, a digital forensic analyst, examined the photo and determined it was authentic and had not been manipulated, while Kent Gibson, another forensic analyst who specializes in facial recognition, said it was “very likely” the individuals in it are Earhart and Noonan. Both analysts identified the ship in the photo as the Japanese military vessel Koshu Maru, which is thought to be the ship that took Earhart and Noonan away after their crash landing.

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