You’ve all heard the story, and the mystery it evokes. Amelia Earhart embarks on a grand adventure to circumnavigate the globe in her specially modified Lockheed Electra. Taking along navigator Fred Noonan, they were embarking for the second attempt because Earhart, who had lately been away from flying for quite some time, had issues with the plane in both Oakland (where a piece had fallen off because of a mechanical issue,) and then again in Hawaii where she ground-looped the plane due to a propeller pitch problem and had to have it shipped back to Lockheed for repairs. This time, they decided to go east instead of west, and they took off from Miami, Florida on June 1, 1937. They flew south to Brazil, across to Africa, then India, The Philippines, and New Guinea.
After that, the information gets fuzzy. Earhart’s next destination was Howland Island, a tiny piece of land of about 2.6 square kilometers usually inhabited by rotating groups of four students from Hawaii at a time, where the US Navy had prepared an airstrip and a refueling station for her. She never arrived, due to potentially drunk navigation by Noonan, or radio issues between her plane and the ship monitoring her flight, or aliens, or flying off the edge of the planet, or running out of fuel, or any number of other reasons that have been proposed since her disappearance. They had a long trailing wire antenna, but they had cut it off because of the drudgery of winding it back in after landing, but they should have been able to use their other antenna to receive communications. In those early days of aviation, there were many different things that could have gone wrong. The logical theory, based on the available evidence, was that they ran out of gas and crash landed somewhere in the ocean near Howland.
After an exhaustive search, she was declared missing and presumed dead on January 5, 1939.
On a surprisingly creative related note, my mother-in-law was born on Saipan, then part of the Japanese South Pacific Mandate on October 27, 1929. She grew up learning Japanese in school and was crowned Queen of the Marianas (more of a beauty pageant title than an actual royal title,) when she was 16. The seminal event of her childhood was the siege, bombing, and takeover of the island by the Americans in World War II. The population were all told that the Americans were demons who would kill the men, rape the women, and eat the children. She remembered running to the caves at the north end of the island for shelter, where there were few rations, and desperate Japanese troops. They spent days in the caves, venturing out only in emergencies. Thousands of petrified Japanese civilians leapt to their deaths, some with their children, from the sheer cliffs next to the sea rather than be captured.
The Chamorro islanders were put in camps and given food, shelter, and education, because most of the island’s buildings had been bombed flat. But they persevered, and within a few years, the place was a going concern again. My mother-in-law learned English, accounting, and bookkeeping, and she eventually emigrated to the United States, where she worked for an aerospace company. There, she raised a family that included my high school sweetheart and future wife.
One might be wondering at this point about how this relates to Amelia Earhart.
There is a theory of Earhart’s disappearance that links these two threads. The theory is not supported by much evidence, but it goes like this: Amelia Earhart was sent on a secret espionage mission, where she would fly over the Japanese held islands in the pacific for President Roosevelt and military intelligence so she could take pictures of the war preparations of the Japanese to give the Navy time to prepare for the conflict. Earhart and Noonan were then captured by Japanese forces, perhaps after somehow navigating to somewhere within the Japanese South Pacific Mandate. They were then captured and executed when their aircraft crashed on Saipan, or on the Marshall Islands, and the pair were then moved to Saipan to be imprisoned and eventually executed. As conspiracy theorists often do, they produced an interview with a Saipanese woman who claimed to have witnessed Earhart and Noonan’s execution by Japanese soldiers. No independent confirmation has ever emerged for any of these claims. Various purported photographs of Earhart during her captivity have been identified as either fraudulent or having been taken before her final flight. Additionally, had the Japanese found a crashed Earhart and Noonan, they would have had substantial motivation to rescue the famous aviators and be hailed as heroes.
To bring it together, this theory existed, when we were living on Saipan. We used to joke about how my mother-in-law must have somehow been involved in the scheme. We asked her what she did when Miss Earhart was in prison on the island. She said, “Me? Nothing! I never saw her.” So, every now and again, over the next few decades, we would ask her if she brought her food, or helped her out with chores or something while she was in prison. Or, if she ever tried to help her escape, because nobody would suspect an eight-year-old of being involved. She always thought it was funny and would react with mock outrage or shock. Once, I told her that they had found a woman’s pilot jacket and a diary that they thought was Earhart’s on the island where her childhood home used to be. She said that she knew nothing about it, but if she did, she would never tell anyone. Since she has passed away, my wife and I will still occasionally make up scenarios for how her mom could have somehow been involved in the cover-up and the capture.
I think it is a part of our national psyche to think of folks like Amelia Earhart as archetypical stories of mystery, rather than historical figures to whom something happened. We like a puzzle, and we like to try and figure them out, whether based in fact or on conjecture. One thing is certain – we know that Earhart was a courageous adventurer, and she often made risky choices during those adventures. She was possibly the most famous woman in America at the time, and she vanished on what might have been her last and most audacious attempt. She will live forever as a subject of myth and speculation, and as an inspiration to those who would also try to achieve things that nobody expects they can do.