What happened to Amelia Earhart?

Reader's Digest Editors

Soaring through life, the famed aviatrix slipped the bonds of gravity and gender when she vanished in 1937.

Antoine de Sainte-Exupery, who gained fame through his writing as well as through his explorations as an aviator, once wrote, “One of the miracles of the airplane is that it plunges a man directly into the heart of mystery.” Earhart’s Lockheed twin-engine Electra did just that, when in the final stage of her historic 1937 around-the-world flight it disappeared, along with her navigator Fred Noonan.

Earhart’s trip had generated considerable attention. By 1937, she was easily the foremost woman pilot in the world.

Her husband, publisher George Palmer Putnam, shares some responsibility for her fame. Following their marriage in 1931, he began promoting her with businesslike energy, having her launch a line of clothing and luggage and give lecture tours and press conferences. Earhart became a much sought-after name on the guest lists of the nation’s most exclusive dinner parties.

 

The flight to Howard Island

Amelia Earhart
Map via Wiki

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan left Lae, New Guinea, for the most difficult segment of their round-the-world flight—the 2,556 miles of open ocean to tiny Howland Island. The US Coast Guard cutter Itasca had been stationed at Howland to aid in navigation. Yet neither Noonan nor Earhart was proficient in radio homing or Morse code, the two methods the Itasca’s crew planned to use.

Earhart, who disdained electronic gadgetry, mixed up the units of radio frequency measurement and repeatedly asked the Itasca to transmit on a frequency well above the tuning range of the Electra’s radio. Communication with the cutter was confused, and the crew determined that Earhart was lost.

For several months the Coast Guard and Navy searched the Pacific for the Electra, but found nothing. In 1939, Earhart was officially declared dead.

Soon, theories of her whereabouts and demise began to appear. In the 1943 film Flight for Freedom, a heroine based on Earhart flies a spy mission to fictional Gull Island. She then purposely dives her plane into the ocean to grant the Navy an excuse to search an area thought to be heavily fortified by the Japanese.

Rumours that Earhart had flown with ulterior motives abounded. In 1948, her mother, Amy Earhart, claimed that her daughter had been flying a secret mission for FDR.

 

A sea of speculations

The first serious attempts to explain Earhart’s disappearance were published in the 1960s. In 1966, radio journalist Fred Goerner wrote The Search for Amelia Earhart, in which he concluded that the Electra had landed on the island of Saipan, where Earhart and Noonan were taken prisoner by the Japanese and later died.

Goerner’s book was based on the testimony of Saipanese who recalled a white man and woman who came from the sky and were captured by Japanese forces on the island.

In 1985, Vincent Loomis’s Amelia Earhart: The Final Story says that the plane landed on an island in the South Pacific, where Earhart and Noonan were seized by Japanese officers and taken to Saipan. Basing his account on interviews with eyewitnesses, Loomis concludes that Noonan was beheaded for disobedience and Earhart died  in a cell after months of gruesome dysentery.

But such conjecture is still theory. It is now largely believed that the Electra simply ran out of fuel, forcing Earhart and Noonan to crash on an uninhabitable island with no source of fresh water, where they slowly died of thirst.

Yet theories continue to abound, and though it seems unlikely that any will provide a complete explanation, the sea of speculations might be . thought of as Earhart’s final resting place.

 

Off-the-wall theories

amelia earhart
Amelia Earhart's pilot license photo. Image via Wiki

Like any unsolved mystery, Earhart’s disappearance brought dubious theorisers out of the woodwork. Vincent Loomis’s book claims that an ex-marine named Thom Thomas reported seeing Earhart in Japan after the war, working as a prostitute for a Japanese fisherman who rescued her from death. After having sex with the famed aviatrix, Thomas decided that she was “suffering from amnesia.”

Another theory arose in 1970, when two men named Joe Klass and Joe Gervais penned a book claiming that Earhart was alive and living in New Jersey—as one Irene Bolam. Their book bore striking striking similarities to the plot of the movie Flight for Freedom: Klass and Gervais believed that Earhart had purposely gotten lost and landed on “Hull [not Gull] Island,” giving the US Navy the chance to investigate the area.

According to the book, Earhart was captured and imprisoned at the Imperial Palace in Japan until the war ended, whereupon she was released.

The authors’ theory was dubious at best: In the book, they sinisterly note that if put together and lightly edited, the names of the eight Phoenix Islands—an archipelago southeast of Howland— would spell out Irene Bolam’s husband's name.