For almost 80 years, most people believed the same story about how Amelia Earhart went missing. On July 2, 1937, Earhart was attempting to become the first woman pilot to circumnavigate the world with her navigator Fred Noonan. That was the last day anyone heard from her. Two years later, the United States declared Earhart dead, assuming her plane had crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
But a new discovery suggests otherwise.
In the National Archives, researchers for a new special on the History Channel called Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence found a previously unexamined photo that appears to show Earhart and Noonan sitting on a dock in 1937 — the year she allegedly went missing. The photo — seemingly legitimate and undoctored, independent analysts told the History Channel — shows a woman sporting Earhart’s signature short hair and pants sitting with her face turned away from the camera.
The man in the photo looks exactly like Noonan, down to the smallest detail. "The hairline is the most distinctive characteristic," Ken Gibson, a facial recognition expert, told NBC News. "It's a very sharp receding hairline. The nose is very prominent."
This photo, sitting in a long-forgotten file folder, has the potential to change Earhart’s legacy in a big way. The photo is labeled as "Jaluit Atoll" — an area in the Marshall Islands — and you can make out a Japanese barge ship in the background. According to Les Kinney, a retired government investigator who spent over a decade looking for traces of Earhart, that’s a big deal. He told NBC News that this photo "clearly indicates that Earhart was captured by the Japanese."
The Japanese government doesn’t have any records of Earhart’s capture, but this is the first trace of Earhart that’s been found in decades. Gary Tarpinian, the executive producer of the History Channel special, believes that Earhart died in Japanese custody. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions out there about her story. "We don't know how she died," Tarpinian said. "We don't know when."
So, the quest to find out what happened to the world’s most famous female pilot continues. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 80 years for more clues.