Amelia Earhart was one of the most influential women and pilots in history, for many reasons. She was the first female to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and received many awards for her accomplishments throughout her aviation career. She was even an accomplished author, accounting stories of her incredible flights around the world. But when she disappeared on July 2nd, 1937, it sparked something that would last a long time–the world’s obsession with her. Many sought out answers about what happened to her on that tragic day, but to no avail.
Until now, that is.
Amelia Earhart was 39 when she disappeared flying over the Pacific Ocean in route to Howland Island. In an attempt to fly all the way around the globe Amelia and navigator Fred Noonan set out on their mission, made possible by Purdue University, who funded this leg of the trip. Earhart was a well-known faculty member at Purdue, where she often counseled women in the aeronautical engineering department. She was also an early supporter and fighter for the Equal Rights Movement.
She didn’t just break records for women, she was the first PERSON to ever fly from Hawaii to the US mainland. Throughout her career, she broke speed and distance records of all kinds, her final time in a Lockheed Model 10-E Electra. Planes were much different when she was flying, leading officials to believe there was only one way they could have gone down.
For years officials told the general public that the two experienced pilots most likely ran out of fuel, as planes needed to be refueled much more frequently in the early days of flight. By the time they went missing, they were already a month into their globe-trotting journey, crossing more than 22,000 out of 29,000 miles. 7,000 miles from their destination, the tiny uninhabited US island, they vanished.
Interestingly enough, communications right before their disappearance were patchy and raised more questions than it answered.
Last Known Communication
The last people they had contact with was the US ship, the Itasca. The last known communication didn’t do much in regard to solving the mystery. Regardless, copious amounts of theories circulated. One theory that stuck was due to the type of navigation they were using, they could have ended up further away from Howland island than they originally thought. They could have been closer to an island then known as Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, nearly 350 miles off course.
Nikumaroro island was explored in 1940 in hopes of locating remains of the crash and/or proof of their survival. When the search team made their way to the island, they discovered signs of a fatal crash. They collected a few things to bring back for further testing, including human bones. They found many bones, including a skull, a humerus, radius, tibia fibula and both femurs, giving them enough information to make an “accurate” assessment.
Tools & Clothes
Along with bones, they found clothing and navigational tools pilots would have had on them. But to everyone’s surprise, the bones weren’t hers. The bones were examined in 1941 by Dr. David Hoodless, a doctor and anatomy teacher who determined that they were the bones of a middle-aged man, not Amelia.
For years, people went on searching for the crash site and her remains, endlessly searching for answers. Although she was traveling with Fred Noonan, no other bones were found with this set, prompting investigative focus to land elsewhere. And even though they didn’t have conclusive evidence of her death, it didn’t take long for them to declare it.
18 months after her disappearance, she was declared “missing, presumably dead”. Usually, this type of declaration would take seven years to be completed, but her husband, George Putman, pushed for it so he could take control of her finances. At the time, he said he wanted to use them to aid in her search, however he remarried four months later.
Regardless of her shady husband, many were still loyal to Earhart and continued to search for her remains.
Many people returned to the island to search for more clues, some finding further evidence. Landing gear, parts of a window, sunscreen–all of which couldn’t definitively be traced back to Amelia or Frank. As if that wasn’t frustrating enough, the bones originally found and determined to be male, were missing; and many wanted them retested. There was still some hope, however.
In 1991 another group searching the island for clues found a piece of metal that would eventually reveal more information about the intense final moments of Amelia’s life. It would take more than 20 years for someone to determine where the metal came from.
In October of 2014, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) determined that the metal indeed belonged to Earhart’s plane. It was attached to her plane when she was on an eight-day stop in Miami, confirming at some point, this was with her. Over the years more and more people became skeptical of the original conclusion regarding the bones, and so it was determined that they would be retested. But where were they?
Missing In Fiji
The bones went missing in Fiji after being analyzed the first time, but thankfully the information recorded during the analysis was recovered. This time, University of Tennessee professor Richard Jantz was doing the testing, and technology had drastically improved. Due to the latest advancements in osteology, the mystery was finally solved.
Although Dr. Hoodless was using the only scientific method known at the time, his testing was most likely inaccurate. Jantz explained in a report published in the Journal of Forensic Anthropology, “When Hoodless conducted his analysis, forensic osteology was not yet a well-developed discipline…Evaluating his methods with reference to modern data and methods suggests that they were inadequate to his task; this is particularly the case with his sexing method. Therefore his sex assessment of the Nikumaroro bones cannot be assumed to be correct.”
After analyzing all of the available information regarding Amelia’s bone structure, including measurements and photographs for reference, Jantz determined they were in fact, the remains of Amelia Earhart. He stated that the remains were, “in the case of the Nikumaroro bones, the only documented person to whom they may belong is Amelia Earhart,”. How can we make sure that Jantz’s information is correct unlike the first time around? Here’s how.
This time around they compared the bones to a sample group of nearly 3,000 European descendants lived around the same time-frame to compare DNA and bone structure. Jantz conclusion was, “This analysis reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample.”
Although we now know that these were, in fact, the remains of beloved Amelia Earhart, the circumstances surrounding her death may still surprise you.
Due to the location of the crash site and other evidence found on the uninhabited island, many officials believe she actually survived the initial crash. You may be wondering how they could possibly know if/how she survived if they just figure out these were her bones–and rightfully so. But it has to do with other evidence found on the island.
When search parties were on the island originally, they found signs of human life–including evidence of fires with remnants of fish, birds, and even a rat. This, paired with the geographical set-up of the island (shallow waters and atolls surrounding the coastline), lead officials to believe that she most likely survived the initial crash, as her experience would have aided her in landing the plane.
Although Jantz’s results were published and widely believed to be true, there are some modern scientists that believe Hoodless’ conclusions, and their not the only ones.
Many people still agree with the original findings, refusing to believe Amelia met her fate on Nikumaroro. Some believe they even believe to have evidence supporting the theory that she landed in the Marshall Islands instead. One thing was for sure, there was disbelief and disagreement among the Earhart community.
Dick Spink, a high school teacher from Washington State, has spent nearly $50,000 of his own money tracking down Amelia’s crash point and believes he knows what really happened to her. Knowing many Marshallese, Spink found himself in the middle of many Amelia conversations with people determined to share their information. One guy told him, “she landed on our island, and my uncle watched her for two days,” while others claimed similar accounts. One thing was for sure, Spink, “heard a consistent story from too many people in the Marshalls to dismiss it.”
Although there are still many theories circulating about Amelia and Frank’s disappearance, it’s the first time in history that multiple sources of evidence have confirmed the same account–Amelia and Frank went down on Nikumaroro, not the Marshall islands, and may have survived the initial impact, living for weeks. The evidence? Well, it may just compel you.
In 2017 a photo circulated on the Internet which many believed was new evidence suggesting information about Earhart and Noonan’s fate. A blogger Tweeted the photo suggesting that it was of Earhart after the crash, showing her alive and well. The blogger told The Guardian that she had unearthed the photo in the archives of Japan’s National Diet Library. The photo was captioned, ““PL-MARSHALL ISLANDS, JALUIT ATOLL, JALUIT ISLAND. JALUIT HARBOR. ONI #14381.”
But the question still remained, was this really Amelia after her supposed death? And if so, then what REALLY happened to her?
If we go with the notion that this photograph is actually Amelia and Fred after their crash, then it would mean that they not only survived the impact, but that something else happened to them. Did they really become Japanese prisoners? Although no further evidence was found to suggest they were held against their will, the photo circulated so much attention that the History Channel picked up the story and added it to a documentary titled: Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence.
It wasn’t until the following year that the truth really came out.
Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence
In the documentary, many historians use the photo as supporting evidence that Amelia and Frank survived the crash. Those same historians went on to say they believed that they most likely died as prisoners on Saipan island in the hands of the Japanese. But why would the Japanese want to harm her? The answer may lay in what she was doing for the US government.
The Japanese blogger wasn’t the only one to unearth this unexplained photo; former U.S. Treasury Agent Les Kinney discovered the photo in the US National Archives. He appeared in the documentary, stating, “The photograph came out of a Navy file, a formerly top secret file in the National Archives, it was misfiled and that was the only reason I found it.” He also suggests that the reason there is so much confusion and secrecy among what happened to Amelia is because she was working as a spy for the US government.
Just A Theory
The theory that she was spying for the US government and got captured doing so, would mean that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew about it and kept it quite. However, this too remains a theory as there is no actual evidence to back up the claim. What we do have evidence of, is her account of why she tried to fly around the world from her autobiography aptly named For The Fun Of It, “I chose to fly the Atlantic because I wanted to. It was, in a measure, a self-justification–a proving to me, and to anyone else interested, that a woman with adequate experience could do it.”
What We Know
So what we can confirm today is that the scientific community (the majority of it, anyway) agrees that there is a 99% chance that the bones recovered from the island were Amelia Earhart. Unfortunately, nothing more is known for her navigator Fred Noonan. People will continue to support other theories and endlessly search for more evidence because, after this long, some people just love the mystery surrounding her disappearance.