Did Amelia Earhart survive, only to be captured by the Japanese?

The story of aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937 while trying to circumnavigate the globe with her navigator Fred Noonan, continues to fascinate us.  There have been sporadic reports that her bones have been found on some atoll or another, or of a jar that could have contained her freckle cream was found on an island, or that remnants of the aircraft have appeared. But none of these have been terribly convincing.

Now there’s a new story, and to my mind this one is pretty good—and disturbing. As NBC News reports, the story is based on a photograph found by investigator Les Kinney in the National Archives, among files that were previously off limits as secret:

The photo, found in a long-forgotten file in the National Archives, shows a woman who resembles Earhart and a man who appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan, on a dock. The discovery is featured in a new History channel special, “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” that airs Sunday.

Independent analysts told History the photo appears legitimate and undoctored. Shawn Henry, former executive assistant director for the FBI and an NBC News analyst, has studied the photo and feels confident it shows the famed pilot and her navigator.

Here’s what was found, labeled as being from the Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands, near the place where the last transmission from Earhart was received; the date of the photograph is apparently 1937:

And the photograph blown up:


The photo, marked “Jaluit Atoll” and believed to have been taken in 1937, shows a short-haired woman — potentially Earhart — on a dock with her back to the camera. (She’s wearing pants, something for which Earhart was known.) She sits near a standing man who looks like Noonan — down to the hairline.

“The hairline is the most distinctive characteristic,” said Ken Gibson, a facial recognition expert who studied the image. “It’s a very sharp receding hairline. The nose is very prominent.”

Gibson added: “It’s my feeling that this is very convincing evidence that this is probably Noonan.”

One possibility is that Earhart’s plane was shot down by the Japanese.

The big ship above is towing a barge that’s carrying a 38-foot object—just the size of Earhart’s plane. That would explain why the woman is sitting on the dock and looking at it. Labeled below are the purported figures of Noonan and Earhart, with the barge enlarged:

Here’s Earhart with her Lockheed Electra 10E, the plane she had built for her voyage:

The NBC report continues:

The photo shows a Japanese ship, Koshu, towing a barge with something that appears to be 38-feet-long — the same length as Earhart’s plane.

For decades, locals have claimed they saw Earhart’s plane crash before she and Noonan were taken away. Native schoolkids insisted they saw Earhart in captivity. The story was even documented in postage stamps issued in the 1980s.

“We believe that the Koshu took her to Saipan [in the Mariana Islands], and that she died there under the custody of the Japanese,” said Gary Tarpinian, the executive producer of the History special.

“We don’t know how she died,” Tarpinian said. “We don’t know when.”

Josephine Blanco Akiyama, who lived on Saipan as a child, has long claimed she saw Earhart in Japanese custody.

“I didn’t even know it was a woman, I thought it was a man,” said Akiyama. “Everybody was talking about her — they were talking about in Japanese. That’s why I know that she’s a woman. They were talking about a woman flyer.”

It is not clear if the U.S. government knew who was in the photo. If it was taken by a spy, the U.S. may not have wanted to compromise that person by revealing the image.

Earhart was heading for Howland Island (shown at point of red marker in the map below) when her transmissions stopped. Jalut Atoll, 1600 km from Howland, is not visible here, but is 22 km to the southwest of Majuro Island in this photo:

The NBC News I watched las night added that there existed records of extensive correspondence between the American and Japanese government about Earhart soon after her disappearance, but that correspondence has disappeared.

Here’s a 7-minute video that summarizes what we know, and offers theories about why the Japanese held her in custody and why the U.S. government didn’t reveal this information if they knew it at the time:

We’ve had a lot of skepticism here about reported finds of Earhart and solutions to the mystery of her and Noonan’s disappearance. I tend to be credulous about them because I admire the pair and want their fates to be resolved at last. What do you think about this latest news?


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    That pic appeals to my gut.

    That is, if I think about it – despite saying they make measurements and things – weak evidence at best.

  2. GBJames
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Seems kind of like the photo of Nessie. Sure, it could be Earhart and Noonan, but then it could be one of countless other nameless people. It is just not clear enough to convince me.

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink


    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      I would guess the same with the purported date, it is “believed to have been taken in 1937”, “presumably by a US spy [ http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40515754 ]” instead of dated and contextualized. If it was taken well before or after the war, the photo would not be very mysterious.

      We will see if the documentary has anything to add on the photo, else it looks like a Nessie, except hopefully not doctored. (The easy way to find cherry picked evidence.)

      • darrelle
        Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        Being that it’s a History Channel documentary, I doubt it will have much useful information to offer.

  3. Quadrivial
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    How did they determine that the short-haired person was a woman? It looks completely ambiguous to my mind as to whether the figure is male or female.

    • sshort
      Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Assuming it is a real foto… the shape of the torso; broad shoulder, tapered waist, broader hips, along with the apparent thickness of the hair, would have me giving high priors to this being a sitting female.

      And based on the slight tonal changes to the face in profile, an assumption as to a high cheekbone and a tapered jaw would not be out of the question.

      • Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        The slope of the shoulders compared to those of the following photo gave me pause. Her right shoulder sags more than her left. A very good match in profile. The timeline of the photo could also be questionable though.

        • Quadrivial
          Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          I hadn’t noticed the shoulder thing. Good call.

        • sshort
          Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          Interesting point. Also, Amelia had a rather large head and a thinner frame. On closer inspection, this head seems a bit out of proportion to the torso. Even allowing for a bit of foreshortening, which would be very slight, it is making me readjust my priors.

  4. Nicholas K.
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I was visiting the Marshall Islands back in the early 1990’s. I recall many people speaking matter-of-factly about Earhart having been there in custody of Japanese (the Japanese closed off the islands to all foreigners in 1935 and began fortifications). Rumor was that FDR had asked her to fly over to get a peak at what they were doing. It was well-established island lore. Of course, this conflicts directly with the ongoing expedition at Nikumaroro, where researchers claim to have bits of her airplane and there are old reports that bones were found there too.

    I find it all very interesting. Still quite a mystery after 80 years!

  5. johnw
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    The individuals in question do not appear to be in any type of custody. Seems if the Japanese authorities were going to whisk them away as spies they wouldn’t be sitting around on a dock with the locals. Also, the authenticity of this photo, which could be completely fake, I think needs more supportive evidence. Who took it and why? I also think the large vessel in the background looks odd, as does the thing it’s supposedly towing. Mark me down as very skeptical.

    • Nicholas K.
      Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      The explanation is that the photo was taken covertly by a spy. Japan was building fortifications in the Marshall Islands (the Pearl Harbor task force departed from a base in the Marshalls)and had closed the islands to all foreigners. Story says the U.S. may have kept it all quiet so as not to out the existence of their spies. Is it possible the Japanese simply rescued a crashed pilot and navigator (hence the casual photo) only to take them into custody a bit later? I think so.

      • Randy Bessinger
        Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:34 am | Permalink

        And no one in the US govt talked even after the war? I am skeptical.

      • johnw
        Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Yeah possible…particularly as the Japanese would have understood who they were and would have been cautious at first until they realized help from the states was not on the way… Still think the photo looks hoaky though.

      • jeff riese
        Posted July 7, 2017 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

        The Pearl Harbor attack force left a naval base in northern Japan. They then kept on a northern route to miss the normal trade routes. The Marshall Islands had NOTHING to do with the attack at Pearl harbor.
        Damn reality bites again.

        • Nicholas K.
          Posted July 10, 2017 at 9:14 am | Permalink

          Yes, sorry — I mistakenly stated the attack force left Kwajalein. In fact, Kwajalein was the base for the Japanese Navy 6th Fleet (submarines). There were several submarines that conducted recon mission in advance of the Pearl Harbor attack. It was an important base for the Japanese Navy, and japan had closed the Marshalls and built fortifications.

  6. Rasmo carenna
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Totally unconvincing.

  7. Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I’m not saying it’s on the History Channel…but it’s on the History Channel.

  8. Historian
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Documentaries on television, particularly the cable stations, tend to sensationalism and try to tantalize us with the question “isn’t it possible that X can be true?” without providing convincing evidence. Think of ancient aliens as an extreme case. Hoaxes have been known to happen. For many decades a lot of people bought Anna Anderson’s story that she was actually Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of Czar Nicholas II. So, whatever happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan will never be known for sure unless DNA reveals that she died on some island or more definitive documentation emerges that she was captured by the Japanese.

  9. sshort
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I would really like to see the forensics on this foto. Although it is hard to ascertain on a monitor compared to the actual foto, Something about the apparent focal length, the sharpness and blur, the abrupt tonal changes, the position of the light source do tend to seem like the objects do not exactly sit in the same space.

    The midground sailboat just off the dock to the right of the people, in particular, seems to me, a bit out of place.

    • Sastra
      Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:11 am | Permalink


      • Colin McLachlan
        Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        Ah, yes, where are the CSI backroom boys when you need them?

      • sshort
        Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink



  10. busterggi
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    A poor photo with unknown provenance (I can label photos too) is very unconvincing.

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Yep. I don’t discount the photo out of hand, but I ain’t buying it unless and until something firmer turns up.

  11. rickflick
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    The photo is provocative. It’s frustrating to think that if the photograph was take closer, or a few minutes earlier or later, the identification might have been much clearer. If a close shot of the plane showing it’s registration was at hand we’d really know something.

    The suggestion that the Japanese captured her are somewhat defeated by the fact that the Japanese were involved with the search:
    “the Japanese oceanographic survey vessel Koshu and the Japanese seaplane tender Kamoi searched for six–seven days each, covering 150,000 square miles (390,000 km2).”
    It would be curious if the Japanese government had her in hand that the survey ships would have applied so much effort.

    Also reducing this likelihood, Putnam, Earhart’s husband conducted an extensive search which included the populated Islands in the area. You’d think someone with knowledge would have surfaced and directed him to this island.

    The new excitement seems to me to be based on shady evidence.

    • Nicholas K.
      Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Keep in mind that Japan was only days away from events that led to full scale invasion of China (July 7, 1937). The U.S. had strongly condemned Japan’s incursions in China, souring relations. Japan had not signed Geneva Convention and the government was very secretive and suspicious with overt imperialist aims in the Pacific. They were in the process of fortifying the Marshall Islands and would have been wary of potential spying.

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Discovered in a forgotten archive, or recently declassified?

    And are things automatically declassified after 80yrs?

  13. darrelle
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    This is interesting. A few years ago I had a long conversation about the Amelia Earhart mystery with a friend who has spent his entire life in law enforcement and currently is a maritime security consultant. He is not given to conspiracy theories, he is very thoughtful. He’s been an investigator, a Soviet and then Russian analyst.

    Apparently this mystery has been something of a hobby for my friend. He described pretty convincing evidence that Earhart and Noonan were working for the US government to provide photo reconnaissance of Japanese activities in the Pacific. The plane was supposedly modified specifically for that task. The story was that Earhart and Noonan were shot down by the Japanese, taken prisoner and that the US government hung them out to dry. According to my friend there are transcripts of communications from both the Japanese and the US that support this.

    It was a few years ago and I don’t remember the details well, but I remember asking a lot of questions and that at the time my thought was that my friends story and the evidence supporting it were fairly convincing. If I remember correctly the scenario was not originated by him, he was certainly not claiming to have come up with it or to have uncovered the evidence personally. Caveats are that I have only my friend’s descriptions of the evidence to evaluate rather than the evidence itself, and that even given that the evidence were accurate he could simply be wrong. But I trust his nature and abilities well enough to consider this scenario plausible.

    • Nicholas K.
      Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      This is very similar to stories I heard while in the Marshall Islands.

    • busterggi
      Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      FOAFlore at best.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        Certainly from the perspective of anyone I pass it on to, but not from my perspective. It’s all about evaluating reliability of sources and plausibility.

        You don’t know hardly anything about me so rightly your assessment of plausibility is low. I know my friend somewhat better than you know me. I know his background and I know that spent some time and effort over a period of years researching this, so my assessment of plausibility is a little higher.

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I don’t understand. If your friend says this evidence exists…where is it? It’s not like this is such a minor story that no one would go looking for that evidence.

      So, where is it? It certainly seems plausible.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        I’m sure scattered in various places, dug up or otherwise discovered by various people. During the conversation he did describe much of the evidence to one degree or another but I don’t remember the details off hand. But there are all kinds of documents stored in all sorts of places. And yes, I’m sure that many people have gone looking for such evidence, found something and shared it with others of similar interests. Though this may be the first time this general scenario has made it to TV, it isn’t brand new.

        Also, if this general scenario is accurate then the US government intentionally tried to bury it back when it happened. If that was fairly successful then initially no one had reason to go looking for government documentary evidence of the incident until decades later and by then the trail would be quite cold. I imagine it is pretty tedious trying to find a relative few documents that you aren’t sure exist and you don’t know how to identify in the ocean of records the government has stored from that era.

        • Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          Thanks Darrelle. But I must say that not unless and until that evidence is produced will I believe it. I don’t discount it, but I give it no more credence than any other plausible claim.

          I remember when I was young a woman claimed to be Amelia Earhart. She produced some evidence that was debunked (IIRC). But she had more than your friend.

          • darrelle
            Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            Oh, I think your position on this is eminently sensible! I wouldn’t try to convince you or anyone else to not be skeptical of this scenario. I am skeptical of it, but admittedly not to the same degree you are.

  14. zoolady
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    There would have been publicity value for the Japanese, if they’d captured the two.

    • Mark R.
      Posted July 6, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      That was my exact thought. Wouldn’t they flaunt the capture?

      • zoolady
        Posted July 7, 2017 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        Glad it’s not just ME! 🙂

  15. jeffery
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    In my book, if a story gets more and more complicated as it goes on, it becomes less and less plausible. The accounts by natives could well be a more-recent “meme” triggered by the increasing interest in this matter. It doesn’t help that the “Mythtory Channel” has a reputation for airing garbage like, “Ancient Aliens”….it’s roughly equivalent to my seeing the article in the “National Enquirer”.

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I reckon it’s time to post a video of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia”

  17. Pliny the in Between
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Hard to know without access to the original print to run through the photo editor. As a parent of a female aviator, I still suspect that mechanical or weather related issues over thousands of miles of open ocean in a 1930’s vintage plane is a far far more likely, if unsatisfying, conclusion.

  18. JJH
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Doubtful to me in multiple ways.

    1) The evidence, at least how it is presented in the video, consistently ignores prior probabilities. How many aircraft (especially with 1930’s navigation equipment) have gone off course, crashed in the ocean, and no traces of wreckage have been found? How many other people would fit the body profile of Earhart and the facial profile of Noonan? How many things that are not Earhart’s plane are 38′ long and would be towed on a barge?

    2) Missing evidence is implied to point to a conspiracy to hide the evidence that would support the proposed theory. Missing documentation is a frequent challenge historians face and conspiracies to hide information are rare and frequently unsuccessful. The missing documentation is just as likely to refute or be irrelevant to the theory.

    3) The geopolitics of the time make the theory highly unlikely. Earhart was a superstar celebrity with a well publicized flight plan. Using her as a photo reconnaissance spy would have been irrational. Also, in 1937, recovering Earhart would have been a propaganda coup for the Japanese. It would have had great propaganda value if they presented her as a captured spy or if they portrayed themselves as her noble rescuers. Why would they keep it secret?

    4) The big tell. As with all tales of the type, questions like the ones above are not presented and then convincingly (or at the very least superficially) refuted.

  19. Đani Stojanov
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Gore Vidal discussed this in one of his essays.
    He claimed great intimacy between Earhart and his father Gene. He states details of her departure and a story of a russian sailor claiming sighting of a woman wearing nothing but man’s jockey shorts.

    Apparently, Amelia used to wear his father’s shorts on her flights (unbeknownst to her husband / manager) who claimed she was wearing his boxers so it couldn’t have been her.

    They were also all convinced she wasn’t on any spy mission.

  20. Jay Baldwin
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    The image in the photo resembles D.B. Cooper, maybe captured by an old Kodak camera in black and white.

  21. Michael Fisher
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    This is probably nonsense. The way the info is presented to us is dodgy in the extreme.

    I would expect more info on the objects in the picture than we’re given. This raises an alarm signal – it is creationist types who look only for confirming evidence & don’t weigh the negatives too. If I was presented with this picture the very first thing I would do is look for evidence that blows the theory out of the water! For example if I could show that one of those ships sank in 1933 or wasn’t built until 1943 or if I could show that quay is elsewhere.

    History Channel indeed…

    [0] These ‘experts’ … Where’s the Marshall Islands historian? Where’s the nerd who knows everything about 1930s ships, boats, sailing boats. The expert on the sorts of quays that are built on atoll volcanic islands. Prove this isn’t a quay in Malta for example [the woman in seeming North African garb]

    [1] We are told the boat is 38′ long which matches the length of the Lockheed Electra, but there could be some reverse reasoning here, “that boat must be 38′ ish long to fit the Lockheed fuselage”, until someone provides a convincing independent yardstick.

    [2] The yardstick could be the single funnel ship [10,000 tons ?] to the left of the ‘Lockheed’ from porthole gaps, or deck heights. I dunno

    [3] We are told it’s being towed by the ship to its left – nonsense! No evidence for that at all. Also that vessel looks set up as a passenger ship or passenger/cargo ship… where is the cargo winch on it that can lift a 55′ wingspan, twin-engined plane out of the sea – a winch that can swing it onto the smaller boat? A very tricky operation. [I think winches can be ‘stowed’ on the deck so maybe I’ve asked a silly landlubber question]

    [4] Estimated tonnage & class of the ‘modern’ ships. Can we guess the ship line from the fuzzy funnel logo?

    [5] Other photos need to be tracked down from other sources that show this same quay – some proof that this is the Marshall Islands [or elsewhere] – I realise there’s quite a few islands, but there are very few quays & this one looks important/busy

  22. Mark R.
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    IIRC the last time you posted about Earhart, I think one theory was she could have crash landed and then eaten by coconut crabs. ewww.

  23. Posted July 6, 2017 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  24. Greg Mills
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    N U T S!

  25. Harry M. Corrigan
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Let me toss in my two cents worth: I think my late father qualifies as an “old time aviator” – he helped build the Spirit of St. Louis, had a pilot’s license number in the mid-four digits – they are in the millions now, of course. Although he admired Earhart’s courage, he had a low opinion of her piloting abilities; even less of Noonan’s navigation effectiveness. He always thought they just ran out of gas over empty ocean, and that was it. Of course he may have been prejudiced, since Earhart’s disappearance was probably one of the reasons the Civil Aeronautics Administration denied him permission to fly to Ireland in 1938 – they were not looking forward to another search for a lost pilot over an ocean. He did end up in Ireland though, due to a 5,000 mile navigation error, when he planned to fly from Long Island, NY to Long Beach, CA. harrync

  26. ethologist
    Posted July 7, 2017 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Picture is very suggestive, and made me want to learn more. One thing I did learn is that (according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaluit_Atoll), Jaluit Atoll is 220 km from Majuro, not 22 km.

  27. Bob Barber
    Posted July 7, 2017 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Fred Noonan was a navigator for Pan Am and a pilot.


    I recall reading in a book I no longer have, that he was aboard because Earhart was not a very good navigator.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted July 7, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Here is a Google map of the Earhart/Noonan attempt to fly the globe eastwards: https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1zeM5lOwmEcSurMla8vXGHipFqTs&hl=en&ll=-10.131116733011792%2C-37.15576300000009&z=1

      They sensibly took the shortest possible Atlantic crossing, but for the Pacific they attempted [& failed] to cross at the widest possible point & they chose poor island targets.

      I believe Earhart chose a more southern Pacific crossing route to increase her chances of good weather [& possibly for geopolitical reasons too] – But, that’s a longer flight over the ocean between island ‘hops’ than a more northern route.

      She went with the rather beautiful & fast Lockheed 10E, but at the cost of reduced range – if one intends to fly the long crossing, then using the Electra is nuts. Because of her general route decisions she was forced to choose small island targets – there being no large islands on her route.

      Also the 10E has a metal ‘roof’ on the cockpit so one can’t easily measure star positions – an astrodome could have been easily installed

      Worst of all – she was almost incapable of instrument flying

      Compare with the Aussie Charles Kingsford Smith who went with a horrible, old, boxy Fokker of much greater range & a sizeable crew. Because of his range capability he was able to choose to make the Pacific hop between Fiji & Hawaii – nice, big chunky targets.

      I think Earhart & Noonan made some poor initial choices that led to them lacking a decent margin for error. I wonder why they didn’t see it? Noonan was planning to open a school [flying? navigation?] on the back of this global flight. Earhart started her public flight career as a P.T. Barnum-like fake, promoted as the first woman to fly the Atlantic [in 1928], when all she did was sit in the back & keep the log. I think her spectacular achievements later were her way of making up for this & also the fame bug…

      Both of them took unnecessary, poorly calculated risks IMO

  28. Phil Rounds
    Posted July 7, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    So many “could be”s, “I believe”s and “what if”s!
    If i were presenting this “evidence” as proof of extraterrestrials, the scientific community would say….”go get more evidence”.
    …So i’d say they should go get more evidence before i waste my time watching 2 hours of blurry pictures and hearsay.

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