A History Channel documentary premiering this Sunday will claim that Amelia Earhart lived beyond her famous 1937 disappearance using a photograph recently discovered in the National Archives. The new evidence is already persuading many, though certain researchers remain unconvinced.
In the spring of 1937, Earhart flew out of California with navigator Fred Noonan, attempting to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She traveled east and made it all the way to New Guinea (the large island that contains parts of both Papua New Guinea and Indonesia) but vanished on the last leg of the trip. Her last confirmed radio signal was picked up on July 2.
The United States Coast Guard unsuccessfully searched for her plane and declared Earhart legally dead in 1939. It’s typically assumed that her plane ran out of fuel before making it to Howland Island, and that she and Noonan perished after crashing into the ocean.
But the History Channel’s forthcoming documentary, Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, will tell a different story.
Former United States Treasury worker Les Kinney found a circa-1937 photo taken on one of the Jaluit Atoll islands, which are a part of the Marshall Islands and were controlled by the Japanese at the time. Westerners were generally banned from the island, but the picture shows a white man and woman on a dock and the Japanese ship Koshu on the far right towing a barge with an item estimated to be 38 feet long, the size of Earhart’s plane.
Facial recognition expert Kent Gibson analyzed the photo and decided that it is “very likely” that these figures are Noonan and Earhart; the man’s hairline and the woman’s back measurements were his best clues.
A research team, including Shawn Henry of NBC News and formerly of the FBI, delved more into this new photographic evidence and concluded that Earhart and Noonan crashed in the Marshall Islands and were captured by the Japanese, who assumed that they were spies. The team believes that the pair was taken prisoner, transported to Saipan, and later died there.
However, these new claims are being met with skepticism by Ric Gillespie, the owner of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Gillespie says that the white woman in the photo could easily be a mercenary and that the people surrounding the two figures don’t appear to be threatening them. He also insists that Earhart didn’t have enough fuel in her plane to make it all the way to the Marshall Islands.
Gillespie has pursued an alternate theory about Earhart’s death for decades and raised plenty of his own evidence for it. He hypothesizes that Earhart and Noonan crashed on the then-uninhabited Gardner Island (now renamed Nikumaroro), which is closer to the location of Earhart’s final radio message than Jaluit Atoll.
The TIGHAR is in the process of sending dogs to Nikumaroro to search for Earhart’s remains.
We may never know for sure what happened to Earhart and Noonan. Still, this photo could be an important new piece of evidence; watch the forthcoming documentary to judge the likelihood of that for yourself.
Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence will premiere on the History Channel on July 9. Check out NBC’s full preview of the documentary below.