On the 80th anniversary of that fateful flight over the Pacific, new evidence has emerged to suggest Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, didn’t just vanish over the ocean in 1937. That was the year Earhart made two attempts to circumnavigate the globe in her Lockheed Electra, the second of which appeared to have ended in her crash landing somewhere over the Pacific when she wasn’t able to refuel on Howland Island. Not everyone accepted Earhart and Noonan’s fate, though; some people, including folks on the Marshall Islands, believe Earhart actually made it to land, eventually dying in a Japanese prison. The theory really gained traction after CBS correspondent Fred Goerner published his book, The Search For Amelia Earhart. Those notions have been dusted off in an upcoming History special, Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, which centers on a decades-old photo that appears to show Earhart and Noonan, alive and relatively well in the Marshall Islands.
NBC News’ spoke with the special’s investigators, who say the photo was dug out of the National Archives. It’s captioned Jaluit Atoll, which is part of the Marshall Islands; the photo features several people on a dock, with the Japanese ship, Koshu, nearby. According to History’s investigative team, that’s Noonan standing on the left, facing the camera, though his face is partially obscured. And sitting at the dock of the bay is Earhart, who appears to be looking at the Koshu. Now, the photo is blurry, and there’s no mention in the handwritten caption of who’s in the picture, but History consulted some forensic analysts, who think it’s “very likely” that it’s of Noonan and Earhart. A facial recognition expert notes Noonan’s “distinctive” receding hairline, and also found that the woman’s back and outline fit Earhart’s measurements. The Lockheed Electra is also rumored to be on the barge in the background.
The special’s investigators and analysts think this is “very convincing” evidence that Noonan and Earhart actually ended up in the Marshall Islands, where residents have said for years that they saw her plane crash nearby. To this day, kids in the Marshall Islands (and elsewhere) talk about Earhart’s disappearance. And now this special suggests that the aviator, who’d captured the world’s imagination by being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, died in a Saipan prison. The speculation doesn’t end there, though; there are also theories that Earhart and Noonan were actually spies, and that’s why they were taken prisoner. There’s also the notion that if an American spy took the photo of Earhart and Noonan, the U.S. government wouldn’t be at liberty to say one way or the other. But Japanese officials say there’s no record Earhart was ever in their custody. You can extrapolate for yourself when the special airs this Sunday on History.