The mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937 during her around-the-world flight attempt persists to the present day, and is especially alive and well on the Internet. If you were to Google the term “Amelia Earhart Disappearance,” for example, the list of hits would be about 1,950,000 items! Some websites, too numerous to mention, are filled with crank conspiratorial ideas. One, for example, militarycorruption.com, claims that U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was involved in the cover-up of the destruction of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E at Aslito Field on Saipan in 1944. The site doesn’t exactly say why Forrestal would have done such a thing, but the implication is that he was attempting to efface any evidence that might have implicated Earhart in a secret spy mission for the U.S. government.
Nevertheless, the idea that people are still fascinated by Earhart’s disappearance after seventy-three years, whether it is tied up in conspiratorial theories or not, is worthy of note. The government put forth an extraordinary attempt to find Earhart that went on for sixteen days, involved nine vessels, four thousand crewmen, and sixty-six aircraft at a cost of more than $4 million. All of this was to no avail. As Tom Crouch puts it, the contingent of ships and aircraft “searched an area of the Pacific roughly the size of Texas without turning up a clue. Radio operators in the United States and across the Pacific reported receiving everything from surefire messages from Earhart to strange sounds that could have been from her. Authorities dismissed the flurry of reports as either wishful thinking or cruel hoaxes.”
Those wishful thoughts and cruel hoaxes seemed to be a harbinger of things to come. Almost immediately after Earhart’s disappearance, stories about Earhart’s whereabouts began to pop up. Perhaps more important, a few years after Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939, her husband George Palmer Putnam approved a treatment for a film to be titled Stand By to Die, to be produced by RKO, which contained some resemblances to the facts about Earhart’s life and disappearance, for which the Amelia Earhart estate would receive $7500. (Putnam had hoped that his own idea for a film about his wife, which would be called Lady with Wings: The Story of My Wife, Amelia Earhart, would be produced, but there had been no takers, and the Earhart estate was in poor financial condition.) Putnam reluctantly agreed to sign the agreement so long as there would be no obvious similarities between the film and Earhart’s life.
The film was eventually produced by RKO, and it was renamed Flight for Freedom.
It starred Rosalind Russell as a woman aviator, Tonie Carter, whose ambition was to fly around the world, and Fred MacMurray, as Randy Britton, a hotshot pilot who accompanies Tonie on the flight as navigator. Flight for Freedom appears to have laid the groundwork for a whole series of speculations about what happened to Earhart and Noonan. These scenarios range from the idea that the flight had been a secret spying mission for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to the notion that Earhart and Noonan had landed on Saipan, and were captured and killed by the Japanese, to the idea that Earhart was captured by the Japanese and had reappeared as “Tokyo Rose,” a name for women whom the Japanese forced to broadcast propaganda to American troops in the Pacific during World War II, or that Earhart had assumed another identity and was discovered to be living in New Jersey.
What probably did happen to Earhart and Noonan? Richard Gillespie, head of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), is an Earhart disappearance researcher who has gained some credibility. TIGHAR has made numerous trips to Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island), a remote coral atoll in the Western Pacific Ocean, the place where the organization believes Earhart and Noonan ended up. They have turned up some interesting finds: an aluminum panel that might possibly have come from an Electra; a piece of curved glass that might be a window from an Electra; a heel from a woman’s shoe like the kind of footware, Earhart wore, among other items. None of these, however, can conclusively be connected to Earhart and Noonan. Gillespie has written a book titled Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, which puts forth his ideas about the disappearance.
Elgin Long, an experienced pilot and another longtime Earhart disappearance theorist, offers perhaps the most plausible explanation for the disappearance. Having experienced bad weather during the long 4,113 km (2,556 miles) flight from Lea to Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan used up their supply of fuel, and crash landed in the ocean. Long notes the urgency in Earhart’s voice on the radio on the way to Howland Island, when she was trying to locate the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, the ship that was assigned the task of providing navigational and radio links to Earhart and Noonan. Long has written a book (with Marie K. Long) titled Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, in which he puts forth a well-constructed argument that the aircraft came to rest at the bottom of the ocean near Howland Island.
On the significance of the disappearance, Doris Rich, one of Earhart’s biographers, believes that “nothing she might have said or done, no scheme George Palmer Putnam might have designed, could so enhance Earhart’s renown as the mystery of her disappearance. She had been famous. By vanishing she became legendary.” By the same token, her disappearance ironically seems to have overtaken her life’s accomplishments as an aviator and advocate for women’s rights. Susan Ware, author of Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism, points out that “with all the mythology surrounding Amelia Earhart’s last flight in 1937, it is hard to assess her career separately from the ongoing mystery of her disappearance.” Ware suggests that it is Earhart’s life, not the disappearance and presumed death that matters.
Nevertheless, it is Earhart’s disappearance that has captured the imagination of Americans in the nearly three quarters of a century since she vanished. What does this say about us as a society? The implication, perhaps, is that Americans are prone to believe things that are unproven and unable to think analytically enough to question ideas founded on baseless evidence. Another is that we have an obsessive need to explain mysteries that have no obvious solutions. Whatever the reasons, the ideas about Earhart’s disappearance, like the widespread belief in UFOs, or in the various conspiracy theories that have arisen around such events as the JFK assassination, Watergate, and 9/11, persist and have become part and parcel of the American psyche.
Dominick A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum