New Efforts to Solve Amelia Earhart Mystery

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July 6, 2017

Two new developments add to the mystery of the fate of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who disappeared without a trace on a round-the-world flight 80 years ago. One of the new developments involves dogs; the other involves a decades-old photograph.

Earhart, one of the most famous people in America at the time of her ill-fated flight, was in the air over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, along with navigator Fred Noonan, when all communications from the plane ceased. The flight plan called for Earhart and Noonan to land on tiny Howland Island for refueling. They never arrived.

The photograph is the main evidence put forward in a new television documentary. A retired federal agent, Les Kinney, found the photo in the National Archives,; the photo was identified with the stamp of the Office of Naval Intelligence. The photo was also labeled "Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor."

It was that location that stimulated Kinney's research into what (and who) could be in the photo. The Marshall Islands are far from Howland Island and were under Japanese control at the time. One familiar theory of what happened to Earhart and Noonan is that they survived a landing and were picked up by a Japanese ship and taken to Saipan, where they were imprisoned and, some sources say, executed. This particular theory has many claimants, notably an author named Fred Goerner, who extensively researched the theory in the 1960s. 

Kinney is convinced that Earhart and Noonan are both in the photo. Two independent experts hired by the TV channel presenting the documentary confirmed Kinney's hypothesis. Among the tools employed by the researchers was facial recognition software. One expert also recognized a distinctive facial characteristic of Noonan's in one of the men in the photograph.

The photo shows a Japanese ship, the Koshu, towing a barge containing a machine that is 38 feet long, the exact length of the plane that Earhart and Noonan were flying when they disappeared.

Not all experts consulted about Kinney's research agreed with Kinney's hypothesis. No one knows who took the photo, which isn't crystal-clear in its resolution. As well, the Japanese government has long denied having any record of having Earhart or Noonan as prisoners. 

In the same vein, the U.S. government has long denied another popular theory, that Earhart and Noonan were on a spy mission to report on Japanese troop and ship movements in the Pacific. The U.S. and Japan were increasingly on hostile terms in the 1930s and after World War II began; this culminated with the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war.

Another main theory is that Earhart and Noonan piloted their plan to another island, Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro Island, and survived there for a time before dying of illness or starvation. This theory has supporters like Ric Gillespie, head of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). This group has conducted more than a dozen expeditions to tiny Nikumaroro Island and has issued several compelling claims, based on what many people see as convincing evidence, including a piece of metal that seemed to match once put on Earhart's plane the day before she disappeared. 

TIGHAR's latest expedition featured bone-sniffing dogs. People lived on the island intermittenly between 1940 and 1963; during that time, an archaeological team found 13 human bones and sent them off to Fiji for testing and identification; the bones have not been seen since. The TIGHAR team had a location in mind for the dogs, from California's Institute of Canine Forensics, to search. 

The dogs searched the island for a few days, but the humans accompanying the dogs reported no discoveries.

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