It’s arguably the most famous missing person case in history. Amelia Earhart was an icon of her time, a celebrity adventurer, famous for her amazing feats of flying.

Amelia Earhart Aviation Legend
Amelia Earhart

In 1937, tragedy struck. On an attempted round-the-world flight, her plane vanished without trace. It was a sensational story. Some think she simply crashed and drowned, but the mystery of what happened to her has still not been solved.

Amelia Earhart Conspiracy

Some have claimed that she became a prisoner of war or, incredibly, that Amelia Earhart was a Government spy and that she returned, after the war with a new name.

In the early 1930s, America was in the midst of The Great Depression. The country needed a shining light, and it found it in the story of Amelia Earhart.

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Amelia Earhart first came to public attention when she was just twenty-five. She set the woman’s altitude record at 14,000 feet. She was also the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, and the first ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the US mainland.

Amelia Earhart blew away the stereotype of what women could hope to achieve. She hit the big-time when she decided to take the last great challenge in aviation, to fly around the world following the equator.

Nick Forder an aviation historian comments “People had flown around the world previously, but no-one had flown around the equator, so this was the last big prize”.

Nick Forder
Nick Forder

Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, left Oakland on the 17th of March 1937. For over a month they had zigzagged back and forth over the equator covering 22,000 miles.

With three quarters of their journey behind them, triumph was within their grasp. But, on July 2nd the flight reached the longest and most dangerous leg.

Their destination was Howland Island, a speck of sand 2,500 miles away in the middle of the Pacific.

There, the plan was to refuel before completing the final two legs of the journey. But, as they took off from Lae, New Guinea they had no idea the elements were against them.

Fuel Filled to Capacity

Amelia Earhart had filled her plane’s fuel tanks to capacity, but seven hours into the flight, she reported 26mph head winds. Her plane was burning fuel faster than she’d planned, eating away at her reserve. The US Coastguard ship, Itasca, was anchored off shore at Howland Island, with it’s radio operators on standby to talk Earhart in.

Eighteen hours into the flight, Earhart had reached 200 miles from Howland Island. But, as well as running low on fuel, she had another problem. She radioed the Itasca to take a bearing on her signal, but she couldn’t hear their response. At this critical moment, navigator Fred Noonan was on his own. None of the navigational aids available to Noonan were accurate enough to find a land mass as small as Howland Island.

At 07:45AM, the Itasca logged a worrying call from Earhart; she was running low on fuel. Fifteen minutes later she said she was circling, but, due to poor visibility, couldn’t see the island. Not only was she flying blind, she couldn’t hear the radio responses and she had no idea if they could hear her. At 08:43 the Itasca logged Earhart’s final call and all contact was lost.

Amelia Earhart’s family were well-off, but her childhood was an unsettled time. Her father was an alcoholic, she was unpopular at school, and her parent’s relationship was deteriorating.

Amelia Earhart Pilot’s Licence

Amelia Earhart became only the 16th woman to be awarded a pilot’s licence and once she had it her adventurous flying exploits transformed her into a national heroin. Earhart came from a time when women were expected to know their place and it wasn’t in the cockpit of a plane. Even worse, she was taking risks that many male pilots wouldn’t dream of.

Earhart’s husband was also crucial to her failure. In February 1932 she married the publishing mogul George Putnam. Together they created a formidable PR machine that helped turn Amelia into a global celebrity.

Ric Gillespie, an author and Earhart investigator observes “The real reason she flew around the world, was for publicity. It’s the reason she did everything. Her husband was probably one of the greatest promoters of the 20th century”.

George Putnam Publishing Mogul

But, some say her husband’s ambitions pushed her too far. They argue that she spent too much time promoting her round-the-world flight and not enough time preparing for it.

Amelia Earhart Marries George Putnam
Amelia and George

Ultimately, Amelia Earhart’s adventure ended when she failed to reach her refuelling stop in the middle of the Pacific. But we still don’t know exactly what happened to her and, for some, this mystery has made solving her case an obsession.

For 35 years, veteran pilot and navigator, Elgen Long has been dissecting the radio logs and fuel calculations of Earhart’s final flight. He believes that soon after making her last call, she ran out of fuel, tragically close to her target of Howland Island, and crashed into the sea.

Amelia Earhart’s altitude was only 1,000 feet meaning she would have to act fast to pull off an emergency landing in the ocean.

Since 2002, millions of dollars have been spent searching for Earhart’s plane. By simulating her final radio transmissions to the Itasca, radio experts have narrowed down the 2,000 square mile patch of ocean off Howland Island.

A deep-sea exploration company has been scanning the 17,000 foot depths with sonar. So far they have searched a quarter of the area and found nothing.

Others disagree and argue that she simply ran out of fuel. Far from dead, they are certain Amelia Earhart survived. To begin with, they point out that she never radioed for help.

After the crash, the US Coastguard ship Itasca made an immediate search of the waters around Howland Island but didn’t find any trace of wreckage.

Ric Gillespie

This has opened the door to a raft of other theories. Ric Gillespie’s theory is that Amelia became a castaway. He believes that after her last transmission to the Itasca, Earhart gave up on finding Howland Island and flew on to another island where she set down on a shallow reef before making it safely to a deserted atoll. Here, Earhart and her navigator waited to be rescued but eventually died of thirst. Even though Earhart had reported that she was low on fuel, Gillespie believes this meant she was down to her last few hours, not minutes.

He explains his supposition “She had 1,000 gallons of fuel when she left Lae, New Guinea. That should get her 24 hours in the air, which means she had 5 hours of gas left. That’s a 20% reserve, a standard for long-range flights”.

Gillespie believes the key to the Earhart mystery lies among the nearly 200 reports of SOS calls heard in the days after her disappearance.

At first the US Navy and Coastguard took these calls seriously. For over two weeks, the Itasco along with six navy ships and 64 aircraft chased down these leads across 260,000 square miles of the Pacific without success. The navy dismissed every SOS call as a hoax, but to Gillespie this was simply a way of saving themselves more work.

Ric Gillespie acquired a map used by the navy in their search for Earhart. It charts the source of what Pan American Airways radio operators believed to be Amelia Earhart’s transmissions after she’d disappeared. They converge near Gardner Island, 300 miles south east of Howland. Gillespie thinks it would have made perfect navigational sense for Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan to aim for Gardner Island, now known as Nikumarora in the Phoenix Island chain.

Collecting Evidence

Gillespie’s team has undertaken 17 years of research and 8 archaeological expeditions. The evidence they’ve found has convinced him that his theories are right.

Ric Gillespie
Ric Gillespie

The first piece of evidence is a detailed diagram of a human skeleton. The bones were found by accident when a British expedition visited Gardner Island in 1940. The British examined and measured the bones.

The measurements have been evaluated by modern day forensic anthropologists. They judge them to be the bones of a white female who stood between 5’6″ and 5’8″. After the bones were examined by a British physician in Fiji they mysteriously went missing. So there’s no proof that they belong to Amelia now.

Gillespie’s team also found scraps of metal they think may have come from Earhart’s plane. They have also discovered the sole of a woman’s shoe dating back to the 1930’s. With each discovery, Gillespie has been quick to claim that they’ve solved the mystery.

But closer investigation reveals that the evidence is far less credible. The shoe size is not a match to Amelia’s shoe size. Gillespie has been forced to admit that none of his team’s evidence can be conclusively linked to Amelia Earhart, although he remains convinced his theory is right.

Others believe in an even more sinister version of events. They believe Earhart and Noonan landed on the Japanese-held Marshall Islands and were taken prisoners of war.

Marshal Islands

According to eye-witnesses in the Marshall Islands, Earhart made an emergency landing on the reef near the Mili Atoll. She and Noonan were picked up by boat and taken ashore.

The Marshallese ambassador to The United Nations, Alfred Capelle, thinks the strength of the eye-witness account is overwhelming. Capelle has interviewed many of the witnesses who claim to have seen two American flyers in captivity.

Perhaps the most detailed account comes from Bilimon Amran, a medic, who was taken aboard a Japanese ship to treat the wounds of two rescued American flyers, a man and a woman who was addressed as Amelia.

More eye-witness accounts place Earhart and Noonan in Garapan Prison on the island of Saipan during World War II, and there may be proof.

Japanese Involvement

In 1944, 7 years after Earhart went missing, US marines overcame the Japanese forces on Saipan. One marine thinks he found crucial evidence during that mission which backs up the eye-witness accounts.

Robert Wallack believe he found Earhart’s personal documents in a safe on the bombed-out military base. The documents, held in a briefcase, included Amelia’s passport and visas. If Wallack still had the documents the evidence would be compelling, but he turned them over to an officer, never to be seen again.

The only clues that remain are several questionable inscriptions found in the prison. If Earhart and Noonan were held in Garapan Prison, the big question is “What happened to them?”

The eye-witness accounts of their demise are varied. Some say that they were beheaded, others that Earhart died from dysentery and Noonan was shot. Wallack says he was shown to an unmarked grave site by a Saipanese woman who saw a white woman and a man buried there. But it all falls short of physical proof.

Senior officers in the US Navy including Admiral Chester Nimitz were quoted by reporters to have said the rumours of Earhart’s capture were true.

If the eye-witness accounts depicting Amelia Earhart as a POW are true it might explain the US Government’s history of secrecy over the whole Earhart mystery.

World of Secrecy

Another explanation for the secrecy could have it’s basis in yet another theory. Some argue that it was no accident that Amelia Earhart ended up in Japanese territory.

They believe she was on a mission to help the US Navy gather intelligence and her famous flight was the perfect cover. Spy theorists believe Earhart was recruited shortly after an earlier round-the-world attempt had failed.

She had completed the first leg, flying from California to Hawaii. The second leg would take her across the Pacific from Honolulu to Howland Island but on take-off her aircraft span out of control and crashed.

Earhart was lucky to get out alive. The theory is that while her plane was being repaired, the US military arranged to meet her.

Colonel Rollin Reineck, a veteran navigator from the Pacific in World War II, has spent 30 years scrutinising the Earhart mystery. He believes the US military offered to take over the logistics and funding for Amelia Earhart’s second round-the-world attempt. But there were strings attached.

He believes that she was instructed to ditch the plane at the Marshall Islands. In order that the navy could come to her rescue. This would allow them the opportunity to reconnoitre the islands.

Change of Plans

Amelia Earhart made a surprising change to her flight plan.

However, Rollins Reineck believes this must have been an order from the US military. This time she would circumnavigate the globe flying east not west.

This would mean flying into the wind making her journey much harder. Flying east meant the spying mission taking place near the end of her flight raising fewer suspicions.

Amelia Earhart should appear to become lost. She would maintain radio silence and make an emergency landing in the Marshall Islands.

The US Navy search for her would be the cover story for their ships and planes to do a reconnaissance of the Japanese territory.

But, Rollins Reineck believes that the mission went tragically wrong. The Japanese thought that she was a spy and arrested her.

What we do know is that, just days after Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, the United Sates was denied permission from the Japanese Government to search the Marshal Islands.

The spy theorists believe that the Earhart plot came from the very top. In fact, they think it could have come from the naval Commander in Chief.

Irene Bolam

The final most controversial part of the theory lies with the fate of Amelia Earhart.

Convinced that Earhart survived the war, Rollins Reineck thinks she returned to the United States. He also believes that she used an assumed name; Irene Bolam.

Irene Bolam
Irene Bolam

In 1965 Irene Craigmile Bolam first hit the headlines after a chance meeting with veteran pilot and Earhart investigator Major Joe Gervais.

In 1970, Gervais and his partner, Joe Klaas, published their suspicions in the book “Amelia Earhart Lives”. Irene Bolam became enraged by the published claims that she was Amelia Earhart. She sued the publishers for $1.5 million.

According to Klaas, Bolam could have got the $1.5 million if she had submitted her fingerprints to prove her identity. The mystery surrounding her death in 1982 seemed destined to remain unresolved.

Now, Tod Swindell, a professional screenwriter and producer, has produced forensic photographic work which he believes proves this theory true. “My conclusion on the forensic evidence is that the woman identified as Irene Craigmile Bolam from 1945 until 1982 definitely was the former Amelia Earhart”.

Forensic Evidence

Using photo overlay techniques, commonly used to identify corpses. Swindell has scrutinised the facial details of Irene Bolam overlaid with photos of Amelia Earhart. He claims they appear to be a perfect match, right down to the tear ducts.

The persuasive evidence does not have everyone convinced. Amelia’s sister, Muriel Morrissey has stated, emphatically, that Irene is not her sister.

Detective Kevin Richlin, a criminal investigator, made his own analysis. And looks for dissimilarities like facial features. He determines that there are a number of such dissimilarities. Amelia had a mole and freckles, Irene does not. The eyebrows and mouth line are different. And, he concludes that these are not the same people.

Nick Forder continues to think that the simplest explanation is the most likely, that they ran out of fuel and crashed. Elgen Long shares this view, but he also thinks there was a cover-up and that the real conspiracy was to conceal a tragedy of errors.

It wasn’t a conspiracy, but the Aberfan Disaster was a tragedy the could and should have been avoided.

External Links

Amelia Earhart – Wikipedia Page

The Disappearance of Amelia: 80 years on

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