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The Earhart mystery

Deseret Morning News graphic The Earhart mystery

How do you lose track of a well-publicized flight monitored by the Coast Guard and equipped with then-state-of-the-art radio and navigation gear?

How does an experienced pilot like Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, suddenly vanish without a trace?

The 70th anniversary of Earhart's attempt to circumnavigate the globe (May 20,1937), and a new expedition to the Pacific by The Internatinal Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, has once again raised questions that have intrigued the public for years.

Earhart was a true aviation pioneer. In her 40 years, she accumulated a number of aeronautical firsts. No small accomplishment in a field dominated by men.

Earhart was born in Atchison, Kan., on July 24, 1897. Her father, Edwin, was an attorney with the railroad, a job that forced the family to move several times. In fact, Earhart attended six high schools and three colleges.

In 1918, during World War I, Earhart worked as a nurse's aide in Canada and later that year took her first flying lesson, soloing after 10 hours of instruction. She received her pilot's license in 1922.

This was the beginning of "Lady Lindy's" aviation career. Earhart was dubbed "Lady Lindy" because of her resem-blance to Charles Lindbergh — not only in appearance but also in temperament.

· · · · ·

Amelia Earhart

1932: First solo flight across the Atlantic by a woman.

1935: First solo flight from Hawaii to Oakland, Calif.

1935: First nonstop flight from Mexico City to Newark N.J.

Fred Noonan

Former navigator for Pan American Airways.

Helped pioneer trans-Pacific routes.

Fired from Pan American for alcoholism.

· · · · ·

At the time of Earhart's attempt to circumnavigate the globe, the Pacific was on the brink of World War II. Rumors that Earhart had been recruited to photograph Japanese fortifications in the Pacific seemed plausible, especially when some aircraft technicians who worked on the Electra later swore they had fitted the aircraft with cameras. Later inquiries about the ill-fated flight conducted by the U.S. and Japanese governments failed to give any credibility to the theory.

· · · · ·

The stories

Many theories about Earhart and Noonan's fate have surfaced over the years, ranging from the Electra running out of fuel and going down at sea, to the pair being stranded on a desert island, to government cover-ups of a spying mission, to the couple being captured by the Japanese. Here are some of the stories:

Josephine Akiyama, a Saipan native, remembered as a child seeing a silver twin-engine aircraft containing a man and a woman crash on the beach. She heard they were both executed. — 1960

Capt. Joseph Gervais, a troop carrier pilot stationed on Okinawa, stated he had Japanese military photos and 72 eyewitness accounts that proved Earhart was captured and executed on Saipan. — 1960

Earhart and Noonan were supposedly shot down while doing photo reconnaissance for the U.S. government over Hull Island. Earhart was imprisoned in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo until the end of World War II (1945) and was released in exchange for amnesty for the emperor for alleged war crimes. In 1970, a book titled "Amelia Earhart Lives," written by a pair of ex-Air Force officers, alleged that Irene Bolam, who had been living in New Jersey since the end of the war, was the long-lost Earhart. — 1970

TIGHAR* sent explorers to Nikumaroro Island after a size 9 Blucher-style oxford, a large sheet of aluminum (the size used on an Electra) and a cap from a bottle of stomach medicine were found. All items fit the Earhart profile. Speculation was that the pair landed on the reef at low tide, after which the plane was washed away in a storm. The two were then thought to have died of thirst. — 1991

TIGHAR launched another expedition in 2007 with local physician Dr. Tommy Love.

*The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery

A Bendix generator, said to be Earhart's, was found in Saipan Bay. The wreckage of a plane thought to be the Electra was also found. Both claims were later discounted. — 1960

T.C. Brennan, a former real estate agent, believed Earhart had been imprisoned by the Japanese for seven years on Saipan and executed one month before its liberation by U.S. troops. A Japanese woman stated she had seen Earhart being shot twice. — 1986

Stories of two decapitated bodies being found on Saipan prompted Fred Goerner, a former Salt Lake City radio newsman, to fly to the Pacific Island. Numerous accounts by the locals told of a man being beheaded and a Caucasian woman dying of dysentery. Bone fragments from a body turned out to not be Earhart's. — 1966

Vincent Loomis, a former Air Force pilot, claimed he found a weather-beaten shoe and plane wreckage in dense jungle on an atoll (Marshall Islands) north of Howland Island. He believed the items belonged to Earhart. A silver container, said to have been buried by Earhart before her capture by the Japanese, was also thought to be on the island. — 1979

Bilimon Amran, a former Japanese Navy corpsman, said he was summoned aboard the Fukuum Mara (a cargo ship) in 1937 to treat an injured Caucasian man and a woman that fit Earhart's description. He claimed the man (Noonan) was beheaded and Earhart was poisoned. — 1979

Sources: Deseret Morning News archives; "Women Aloft" Time/Life; World Book Encyclopedia


E-mail: bob@desnews.com