A newly discovered photo suggests legendary US pilot Amelia Earhart might have died in Japanese custody – and not in a plane crash in the Pacific.
If true it would solve one of aviation history’s biggest mysteries.
Earhart vanished during a 1937 flight over the Pacific – and her mystery disappearance has been a breeding ground for speculation ever since.
A photograph from the 1930s shows a figure that could be her, taken on the then-Japanese Marshall Islands.
Yet as the latest clue is no more than that, it will likely only add to the confusion rather than solve it.
The new material presented as fresh evidence for an old theory is a black-and-white photograph found in the vaults of the US National Archives.
It shows a group of people standing on a dock. The photograph is marked as having been taken on Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands, presumably by a US spy.
The link might seem thin though to the legendary pilot who five years before her disappearance had risen to fame as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
The claim is that one seated person with her back to the camera could be Earhart while another figure on the far left in the photo is said to be Fred Noonan, her navigator on that last flight.
On the very right of the picture is a blurry section which, it is claimed, shows Earhart’s plane.
The photograph was released by US TV network NBC ahead of a documentary to run this weekend. If the goal was to drum up attention – and hence audience numbers – it appears to have paid off.
A preview of the programme has two experts backing up the claim by looking at the torso measurements of the woman alleged to be Amelia Earhart in the photo, and teeth and hairline of the figure claimed to be Fred Noonan.
Mystery hunters and stories
A far stretch? After all, the heroine has her back to the camera and it’s debatable how much of a hairline let alone teeth can really be made out reliably on a faded photograph from the 1930s.
But the alleged scoop feeds into one of the existing theories about what happened to Earhart and her navigator.
She disappeared during her attempt to fly around the globe, trying to reach Howland Island in the Pacific for refuelling.
The official explanation is that she didn’t find the island, lost communication and ran out of fuel to then crash into the ocean.
While that’s a largely accepted version of events, there is no evidence – as in debris – to back it up.
The two other prominent theories are that Earhart crash-landed on or near the then-Japanese Marshall Islands or that she made it to Nikumaroro island near Kiribati and died a castaway there.
For both those theories there is no hard evidence – but that hasn’t stopped amateur and professional historians from digging into them.
Parts of a skeleton found on Nikumaroro in 1940 were initially thought to have been hers but doctors at the time decided it was of a male body. There’s also a makeup box from the 1930s said to have been found on the tiny atoll.
The conclusion however drawn by the NBC documentary based on the new Marshall Islands picture is that Earhart was taken by the Japanese, later interned and eventually died a prisoner of war.
The Marshall Islands went from German into Japanese hands during World War One and ahead of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor became an important military post for Tokyo.
NBC admits that Japanese archives have no records of her as a prisoner – but with many documents from these archives known to have been lost, this does not necessarily prove the story wrong.
At the same time, the discovery of a single photograph that may or may not show the two lost pilots is likely to add to the mystery rather than solve it.