Amelia Earhart had a knack for making news. From her groundbreaking flight in 1928, as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic to her later solo flight in 1932, Amelia made headlines wherever she went. But no headline was more heartbreaking than the news that her plane was lost. The around the world flight was to be her biggest challenge and her last ‘stunt’ flight, after which she planned to retire from long-distance flying. Earhart was about to turn 40, and thinking about a life on the ground instead of a life in the air. An ill omen seemed to hang over the trip from the start. A botched attempt in March severely damaged her plane. Still determined, Earhart had the twin engine Lockheed Electra rebuilt. "I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it," she said. While the plane was being repaired, Amelia decided to change her flight plan to travel west to east, leaving from Miami instead. The change in plans was due to changes in global wind and weather patterns. When she finally took off on June 1st, with Fred Noonan as her navigator, she left behind crucial equipment, including her parachute, life raft, and wireless antenna.
After numerous stops in South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, Amelia and Fred landed in Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. Amelia had flown for thirty days and twenty-two thousand miles by that point. There were 7,000 miles to go before she completed her journey. Physically and mentally she was exhausted. The Electra didn’t take off again until July 2, due to adverse weather conditions. Their intended destination was tiny Howland Island, where Amelia expected to refuel. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, their radio contact, was stationed just offshore of Howland Island. Two other U.S. ships were positioned along the flight route as markers. Radio contact between Amelia and the U.S. Coast Guard was intermittent. While they could hear her, she couldn’t hear them. The Electra never made it, disappearing somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
A search began near where they estimated the plane had gone down, 35 to 100 miles northwest of Howland Island. The search effort, authorized by President Roosevelt, cost over $4 million involving ten ships, 66 aircraft, and over 3,000 Navy personnel. It was the most extensive air and sea search in naval history thus far. Neither the plane nor the bodies of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were ever discovered. The effort was discontinued two weeks later on July 19th. George Putnam privately financed another search but finally gave up hope and Amelia was officially declared dead on January 5, 1939. Since her disappearance, a whole cottage industry of myths, urban legends and unsupported claims have sprung up, all of which have been generally dismissed for lack of evidence. Still several unsupported theories have become well known in popular culture.
One theory, and the most plausible, is that put forth by pilot Elgen Long. Long believes that Earhart ran out of fuel just after her last transmission, the ditched plane quickly filling with water and sand. Although she supposedly had a life raft, and emergency supplies, they may not have had enough time to escape before the plane went down. Some believe that Earhart and Fred Noonan managed to land on a remote uninhabited island where they eventually ended up dying of starvation.
The most popular theory is that Amelia was actually on a mission to spy on the Japanese in the Pacific at the request of FDR’s administration. The 1943 film Flight for Freedom starring Rosalind Russell as an Amelia Earhart-like flyer and Fred MacMurray furthered that myth. After the war, both the Japanese and the U.S. Governments denied the rumors. Amelia was known to be a strong pacifist, so the idea of her spying for the military is highly unlikely. She also didn’t have the time or the fuel to make a detour over the Japanese islands, nor would she have been able to see anything of interest, since she would have been in the area at night.
Others believe that Earhart and Noonan were captured and executed when their aircraft crashed on Saipan Island while it was under Japanese occupation. More than 50 witnesses have stated that a tall, thin, short-haired woman dressed like a pilot and a man were seen on the island. In 2009, one of Amelia’s relatives stated that the pair died in Japanese custody, citing unnamed witnesses including Japanese troops and Saipan natives. He said that the Japanese cut the valuable Lockheed aircraft into scrap and threw the pieces into the ocean. Another theory is that Earhart was captured and used for propaganda purposes, serving as the infamous Tokyo Rose whose English radio broadcasts were used as psychological warfare against the Americans. George Putnam, Amelia’s husband, listened to several recordings of Tokyo Rose and concluded that none of the voices matched hers. Still the theory persisted. Even Amelia’s mother Amy believed the rumor. She told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 1949 that “Amelia did not die in the ocean. She died in Japan.”
One of the more outlandish theories is that that after the war, Amelia’s friend and pioneering aviator, Jackie Cochran discovered Earhart in Japan, and smuggled her back to the United States. Earhart then was given the new identity of Irene Craigmile Bolam for national security reasons, moved to New Jersey and remarried. This theory was put forth by US Air force Major Joseph Gervais whose research was used by author Joe Klass in the book Amelia Earhart Lives (1970). It was also claimed in the book that her name appeared to be a code which spelled out in degrees and minutes the latitude and longitude of the precise location of the island where Earhart and Noonan crashed after being shot down by the Japanese. Irene Bolam denied being Earhart, and sued the authors. The book's publisher withdrew the book from the market shortly after it was released, settling out of court with her. Bolam's personal life history has been thoroughly documented by researchers, eliminating any possibility she was Earhart.