Could a grainy, black-and-white photo, long buried in the National Archives, offer new evidence to solve the Amelia Earhart mystery?
The famous Kansas-born aviatrix disappeared July 2, 1937, while attempting to fly around the world. The most widely held theory is that she crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
But now a never-before-seen photograph — allegedly showing Earhart, her navigator Fred Noonan and her twin-engine Lockheed Electra — supports a theory that she crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, was captured by the Japanese and died while being held on the island of Saipan.
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“This absolutely changes history,” Shawn Henry, an NBC News analyst and former FBI executive assistant director who led the investigation featured in the documentary, tells People magazine.
“I think we proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she survived her flight and was held prisoner by the Japanese on the island of Saipan, where she eventually died.”
Many theories about Earhart’s fate have been researched and debated since she disappeared. Some even contend she survived and eventually returned to the United States under an assumed name.
The government’s official story, however, is that her plane ran out of gas and crashed into the Pacific Ocean somewhere near her destination, Howland Island. Some researchers have studied her plane’s typical fuel usage, her flight path and other factors to determine approximately where she would have gone down.
Based on that work, Maryland-based researchers have used sonar to search hundreds of square miles of ocean floor near Howland Island without success.
Another theory pushed by a Pennsylvania group, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, is that she crash-landed near Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, in the Phoenix Islands chain and survived for some time before dying there.
Supporters of that theory have visited the island repeatedly. They found a woman’s shoe, aircraft aluminum and other artifacts they say support their theory. But opponents say nothing they’ve found proves anything.
A few Earhart sleuths contend she turned around and flew back to New Guinea.
Meanwhile, many researchers are convinced she ended up imprisoned on Saipan, which the Japanese controlled, and eventually died there, either of disease or killed by her captors. Not everyone agrees about how she got there.
But researchers point to interviews of at least 50 witnesses that give credibility to the theory she crash-landed at Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands, and that both she and Noonan survived that landing.
Witnesses reported seeing the plane, with a broken wing, in a sling on the back of a ship in the Marshall Islands.
The new photo, unearthed by retired U.S. Treasury agent Les Kinney five years ago and revealed for the first time in the documentary, is stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence markings that read “Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor.”
The photo shows a ship towing a barge with an airplane on it. A group of people are standing on the dock. Kinney believes the plane on the barge is the Electra, and that two of the people on the dock are Earhart and Noonan.
Earhart is believed to be the woman in the photo with short dark hair, wearing a white shirt, sitting on the dock with her head turned to the right.
Kinney found the photo while hunting through the National Archives looking for anything concerning Earhart’s demise that might have been overlooked. He found the picture in a “formerly top secret” file in the National Archives.
“It was misfiled,” Kinney, who spent 15 years trying to solve the Earhart mystery, says in the documentary. “That’s the only reason I was able to find it.”
Kinney theorizes the photo was taken before 1943 because the United States conducted more than 30 bombing runs on Jaluit in 1943-1944.
Independent analysts confirmed the legitimacy of the photo for History and that it is undoctored.
“When you pull it out, and when you see the analysis that’s been done, I think it leaves no doubt to the viewers that that’s Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan,” Henry told NBC News.
The documentary makers believe the photo was taken by someone who was spying on Japanese military activity in the Pacific for the United States.
Japanese officials told NBC News they have no record of Earhart being in their custody.