New Photo Incorrectly Claims Amelia Earhart Was Captured by the Japanese, Executed as a Spy

Ever since Amelia Earhart vanished in 1937, there have been various competing theories about what happened to her and how she, navigator Frank Noonan, and her Lockheed Electra vanished while attempting to fly from Lae to Howland Island. For decades, the prevailing theory was that the Electra had run out of fuel and simply crashed into the sea. But over the last thirty years, TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) has been documenting and presenting evidence that Earhart actually landed on Gardner Island (now known as Nikumaroro). A new photo claims to present evidence that conflicts with that hypothesis, but presents it rather poorly.

First, here’s the photo in question:

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Click to enlarge. Image by Les Kinney from the National Archives

And here’s an analysis of that photo with relevant details picked out and highlighted.

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Les Kinney/National Archives/HISTORY; (Graphic)Nok Acharee

There are problems with this theory, to put it kindly. First, the MSN article claims that “Shortly after midnight on July 2, 1937, Earhart climbed into her Lockheed Electra at an airfield in Papua New Guinea and took off into the dark, muggy night.” The writer made the mistake of assuming that Earhart’s takeoff time of 0000 GMT translated into midnight in Papau New Guinea. As the video below shows, Earhart didn’t take off into the dark muggy night; she took off at 10 AM in the morning.

Call that Strike 1.

Next, we’re told that Earhart’s final broadcast was: ““Gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We’re flying at 1,000 feet.” Except, that’s not true either. That transmission, while accurate, occurred at 0742. Sixteen minutes later, at 0758, Earhart tries again, possibly saying “We are circling but cannot hear you.” There’s considerable debate over what she said (TIGHAR believes “listening” is more accurate, based on analysis of the logs of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca).

Earhart then states, “Send me a signal either now or in two minutes.” This makes sense, because for Earhart, it’s 0758 and she’s supposed to be making radio contact with the Itasca. One problem is that she and the Itasca were using different time zone standards and were 30 minutes out of sync. As TIGHAR’s research reports, Earhart likely attempted to contact the ship at 0715 and 0815 (per her set standard). But this corresponded to exactly the same period of time the Itasca was attempting to contact her. More details on the controversy and analysis of the messages in question can be found here.

Earhart’s actual final transmission was at 0843, and concerns the “We are on the line 157-337” statement we’ve discussed extensively in earlier articles about what happened to the aviator and her co-pilot / navigator. Strike 2.

The theory that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese and eventually executed as traitors has literally been floating around for decades. The discovery of a single photo of a woman with her back to the camera, a non-distinct man, and what could be an aircraft in the background isn’t proof that either American spent years or decades held captive in Saipan.

Why Earhart Couldn’t Reach the Marshall Islands

To be more specific, it’s rumored Earhart somehow reached the Marshall Islands (then held by the Japanese) and were believed to be spies. The Japanese denied the United States permission to search this area, after all. So maybe the Japanese hid the Electra and took its pilot and navigator hostage, as shown in the image above?

Almost certainly not, for two reasons. First — and this is critical — messages from Earhart were heard following her plane running out of fuel. Had she ditched in the ocean, her radio wouldn’t have operated.

Multiple messages from the Itasca confirm this: “DYNAMOTORS ALL MOUNTED UNDER FUSELAGE AND WOULD POSITIVELY BE SUBMERGED IF PLANE WAS ON WATER” states one (all capitalization original), and “INFORMATION JUST RECEIVED FROM LOCKHEED AIRCRAFT COMPANY STATES POSITIVELY EARHART PLANES RADIO TRANSMITTER COULD NOT REPEAT NOT OPERATE IF PLANE WAS ON WATER” states another.

Furthermore, the Electra was neither watertight nor was her weight equally distributed. Even if it landed in the water, it wouldn’t have remained afloat for any significant length of time. Additional information is available here (reports on signal attenuation and reception across the Pacific is a bit much for this article). The idea that it floated for days towards the Marshall Islands until found by the Japanese is not supported by reality. Strike 3.

I’ve backed TIGHAR’s research and work before, and I still believe Gardner Island (Nikumaroro) is the most likely final destination for Earhart. That said, until they find some significant part of the Electra or other incontrovertible evidence, their theory is just that — a theory. Nevertheless, it’s a theory supported by significantly more evidence than the “Japanese took Earhart prisoner and eventually executed her as a spy” option, which doesn’t explain how the Japanese would’ve recovered the Electra supposedly shown above.

TIGHAR has done decades of research on Nikumaroro, including artifact recovery, interviews with past residents, pouring over records and survey data, testing the radio capabilities of the Electra Earhart flew (including investigating reports of whether individuals who claimed to have heard Earhart’s broadcasts could actually have done so), and a wealth of other information. None of it yet adds up to proof that Earhart landed on Nikumaroro. But there’s far more evidence she did than anything found on the Marshall Islands. Our slideshow and report on whether Earhart’s radio could have hit harmonic frequencies capable of being heard in the US is below:

And finally, the fact that the History Channel is the one pushing this theory doesn’t deserve the credit it once did. In the beginning, the History Channel was devoted to factual coverage of real events. Today, it’s much more likely to feature reality TV shows, mythical creatures, monsters of legend, the predictions of Nostradamus, and Mayan conspiracy theories involving the end of the world in 2012. It once theorized that aliens, not a meteorite impact, ended the dinosaurs. It’s not the channel that it used to be, and it doesn’t deserve the same respect it once garnered for its historical accuracy.

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