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  • By Bruce Lloyd

What really happened to Amelia Earhart?

Pilot Earhart test flew her Electra in 1937. Earhart posed with navigator Fred Noonan in front of the plane before the flight

Saipan- In the course of some 40 years working in historic preservation in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Scott Russell has received a master course in the theories and facts concerning the 1937 disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

Russell has listened patiently to visitors to Saipan spinning out stories and fanciful tales claiming to solve this long running mystery. He, along with likely hundreds, thousands of researchers has combed the files and stacks of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. looking for clues. As the go to guy on Earhart, he’s kept track of visitors who want to dig up her remains or find them underwater. And he has reviewed decades old interviews of Saipan residents in the 1930s who claimed to have seen Earhart or at least a short haired white woman, who would have stood out on Saipan in 1937.

All this attention to Saipan over the years is because the island is the epicenter of one of the major theories of what happened to the flier and her navigator, Fred Noonan. Russell casts a very skeptical eye on that theory, which, with some embroidery, is the basis for a recent and highly publicized History Channel documentary. Russell doesn’t have much use for the History Channel, which he says has degenerated these days into offering such programming as a documentary on “Alien Astronauts.”

“They’ve made it sensational and they’re taking advantage of the 80th anniversary [of Earhart’s disappearance], plus anything on Amelia Earhart will sell tickets.”

“That’s kind of rehashing old stories, old ideas,” Russell says. “One of them is that she was on a spy mission. She was overflying the Marshalls and she was either shot down or brought down and then she and her plane and Noonan were taken aboard a Japanese ship and transported to Saipan.”

Other major theories include the official U.S. position that Earhart and Noonan simply ran out of gas as they attempted to find Howland Island just north of the equator in the central Pacific Ocean under radio guidance from the Coast Guard cutter Itasca. Efforts to scan the deep ocean in the likely area for wreckage of Earhart’s plane have yet to yield results, though typically of the Earhart obsessed, proponents will likely continue to pursue this work as long as they have the funds to do so.

And finally, there’s the ‘crash landed on an exposed reef flat at Nikumaroro Island and died there theory’ to which Russell subscribes. This has been pursued by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) in numerous expeditions to the former Gardner Island since 1989.

Since June 30, bone sniffing dogs, their handlers and a group of researchers have been on Nikumaroro as part of an expedition paid for by National Geographic, looking for new evidence that Earhart and Noonan had been there.

Given the renewed attention to the Earhart mystery generated by the History Channel documentary, a variety of experts besides Russell have been dusting off old files and reviewing other material to formulate responses in support of their favored theory.

The documentary leans hard on what it describes as a ‘newly discovered’ photo found at the National Archives, which analysts working for the History Channel suggest shows Earhart sitting and Noonan standing on a dock at Jaluit Atoll in the Marshalls. In the background is a ship which is towing a barge freighted with a blurry object that the analysts say is about the length of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E plane.

Russell says that the ‘newness’ of the photo has been hyped by the documentary makers. The TIGHAR group earlier reviewed the photo and discounted its significance. More than that, it’s not clear what year or under what circumstances it was taken. Other observers of the photo have wondered about the relaxed scene it portrays.

“In 1937 there would have been so many government restrictions, even if it was just a normal day at the dock, let alone having two foreign spies that you’re getting ready to ship off to their death. And somebody at the end of the dock just randomly snapping a photograph of Noonan and Earhart is just unbelievable.”

“I’ve been told by a couple of Japanese scholars that there was a prohibition placed on the use of cameras in about 1935 by the Japanese administration,” Russell says. “If you were a Japanese resident of Micronesia and you were out photographing things that could have any possible military value, such as a dock, you could be in big trouble.” That, he thinks, makes a partial case that the photo was taken much earlier, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, before the Japanese embarked fully on militarizing areas of Micronesia.

In fact Russell’s skepticism is backed up by Marshalls resident Matthew B. Holly, who​ said he had tracked the original image to a Japanese photographer's travelogue through Micronesia, published before Earhart vanished.

Holly told Agence France-Presse documents showed the photograph was taken at Jaluit Atoll in 1935 and published as part of the 111-page travelogue in 1936. "There is no question the photo was taken in 1935," Holly told the news agency.

Following the Earhart disappearance and with increasing signs that a Pacific war was ahead, U.S. military intelligence officials desperately sought any available information about the region. Russell reviewed debriefings of these travelers. Such photographs could have provided valuable information to war planners.

“If you’ve seen the actual photograph, you will have seen at the bottom of it the initials ONI, which is Office of Naval Intelligence, so I’m pretty sure that it ended up with the National Archives because it had been vacuumed up by ONI in the pre-war years or maybe just after the outbreak of the war. It would have been for military intelligence purposes, not some secret file on Amelia Earhart.”

The TIGHAR camp has accumulated much more evidence in the course of a 30 year but as yet incomplete investigation. First, says Russell, there were recorded radio transmissions following the disappearance by someone claiming to be Amelia Earhart, “And if that was the case, she needed to be somewhere where her aircraft could be upright and out of the water and crank one of her engines in order to power up her radio.”

As the theory goes, the plane was eventually swept off the reef into deep water. TIGHAR interviewed elderly persons who lived in a copra plantation village set up on the island in 1940. “They had stories about an airplane wing that was out on the reef. They went out to harvest aluminum for handicraft making and some of that aluminum has been found in the village site in the ruins of one of the buildings that must have served as a workshop.”

Plantation workers also found a skull and long bones near an abandoned campsite. There was evidence of food consumption, a wooden sextant box and bottles. The bones were shipped to Fiji for examination, but apparently lost.

More recently, TIGHAR researchers found some fascinating if inconclusive artifacts: “One of them is fragments of a freckle cream container that was produced in the 1930s that Earhart was known to use. And they have fragments of a woman’s compact with traces of cosmetics inside and a mirror.”

As researchers continue to pursue clues as to the fate of the fliers on Nikumaroro, somewhat grisly outcomes are suggesting themselves. Since the island has no natural supply of water it would be tough for anyone but an experienced survivalist to endure without outside help. The scattering of the remains, Russell says, suggest that scavenger coconut crabs, not unlike wild pigs, had their way with the corpses.


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