[This originally appeared, in a slightly different version, as my column in the local paper.]
Now you have heard my story of that awful tragedy;
We pray that she might fly home safe again.
Oh, in years to come though others blaze a trail across the seas,
We’ll ne’er forget Amelia and her plane.
—Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight
—by Red River Dave McEnery
It certainly seems that Red River Dave was right about America remembering Amelia.
It’s been eighty years since the July 2, 1937 disappearance of “America’s Sweetheart” Amelia Earhart, and the debate over her fate goes on. A History (formerly The History Channel) docudrama a few weeks ago and a current expedition sponsored by National Geographic testify to the continuing interest in the story.
July 7 articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post discussed the controversial subject. The internet is rife with competing theories, most of which can be boiled down to three primary ending points: 1. the Pacific Ocean, 2. the Marshall Islands/Saipan and 3. the island of Nikumuroro.
It’s been a subject of interest to me ever since I learned the song from college friends who formed “The Amelia Earhart Memorial Bluegrass Band.” Oddly enough, on this last July 2, I was flipping through my old song sheets looking for things I might learn to play on the mandolin, which I have lately taken up, when I came across McEnery’s 1939 song about Amelia. I was just into the first verse when I realized that as I sang “onthe second of July” it was the second of July! Then I looked at the year and realized I was singing this song on exactly the 80th anniversary of her disappearance. I was so moved that I noted this on social media with a first-ever recording of myself singing and playing. ( I won’t go into how that went.)
And then all the media hype about Amelia began to pop up. It felt like the universe was speaking to me about her. I got more interested; I watched the History program; I read articles; I did a salon presentation on her.
I now know more about Amelia Earhart than I ever imagined there was to know.
The official story, the one produced by the U.S. Navy about a week after her disappearance, is that she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crashed in the ocean. No evidence, other than a lack of any evidence to the contrary, has ever been found to support that theory. It was widely disbelieved at the time, as Dave’s line “we pray that she might fly home safe again” shows, and has been labeled everything from convenient to coverup.
Possibly the most-favored theory, the one propounded by the History docudrama and the one that seems to me to have the most evidence, is that she landed on an atoll in the Marshall Islands and was taken to Saipan where she died a prisoner.
The third major strain of investigation is the one currently being followed by a National Geographic-supported team, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). This theory holds that she wandered far to the south and crashed on or near Gardner Island, now called Nikumuroro, where she lived for some time and died a castaway.
The details of all these notions fill countless volumes. Books, articles, movies, documentaries, websites, talk shows and more recount the stories of supposed eyewitnesses, the material evidence —including, perhaps most intriguingly, a jar of freckle cream!—and maps and charts depicting how the plane managed to miss Howland Island and arrive somewhere else.
The whole affair is certainly an extreme exercise in historical epistemology: How do we know what we know?
Of course, history is nothing more than what historians say it is, and our best efforts will always be only rough approximations, but this one is intriguing.
It also has some deep social and political implications, especially the theory I favor: that Amelia ended up in a Japanese prison on Saipan, via Milli Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
THE MARSHALL ISLANDS
The thing I like about the Marshall Islands/Saipan version is that it offers a pretty good rationale for the persistent claims around the fringes that this whole thing was a huge government coverup from early on. The thing that makes me tend to believe it is that there are at least five eyewitnesses whose independently recorded stories mesh with this version. The History program includes video, some of it original, some recorded by the researchers, of witnesses and second-hand reports of witnesses accounts. These recordings all have that ring of truth that is hard to falsify.
The photograph that History claims is new evidence has already been pretty well discredited, but in fact did not add anything of substance to the theory. Just drama. The story works just as well without it.
While I readily admit that much of this would not likely meet the standards of evidence, here’s the version of what happened that, to me, makes the most sense and seems to have the most corroborating evidence:
On account of navigational errors (possibly because of faulty or poorly understood equipment installed just before takeoff from Lae headed for Howland) Earhart and her Electra angled slightly to the north, ending up quite far north of Howland. Realizing that they should be at Howland, she and Noonan turned back, thinking to either cross Howland or return to Lae.
Instead, on account of the more northerly position, she came across the Marshalls, and either decided it looked like a suitable place to land or was forced down by the Japanese. Realize, this was just months before the outbreak of World War II and the Japanese were already in a highly militarized posture in the Pacific.
It’s also possible that Earhart, who was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and other high officials in the U.S., had agreed to do some low-level spy work under the cover of her ‘round-the-world flight attempt. So the Japanese may well have been suspicious, and the deviation in course over the Marshalls could have been intentional.
Both physical evidence and accounts from Marshall Islanders indicate a plane similar to the Lockheed Electra was dragged to a port on Milli Atoll and loaded onto a barge, which theoretically could have taken plane and crew to nearby Saipan.
Several witnesses attest to the presence of a short-haired American woman wearing pants (which was notable in 1937) who was held prisoner in a Japanese facility on Saipan, and two U.S. Marines have said they were sent to Saipan to recover her remains from a graveyard near the prison.
The level of detail one would need to sort through to ascertain the truth about all this is pretty daunting, but this evidence fits well with another long-touted piece of the story: the U.S. Navy intercepted Japanese transmissions stating that Amelia had been captured, and thus U.S. military officials knew that she was being held prisoner, but refused to admit it because they didn’t want the Japanese to know that they could de-code their messages.
In addition, with the war looming, U.S. leaders would not risk sparking conflicts with the Japanese to actually search for or even request return of the Americans. And of course, it even fits the scenario that the massive search for Amelia and her plane gave the entire U.S. Pacific fleet good reason to wander all over the Japanese-controlled areas, unobtrusively gathering military intelligence.
Amelia and Fred it seems, like many Americans before and since, were abandoned by their country because their lives were an inconvenient obstacle to the pursuit of a global war.