What Happened to Amelia Earhart?
Theory 3: She Made It to the Marshall Islands, After Which Her Fate Is Unclear

Donna McGuire
The Kansas City Star
August 31, 2001
Three researchers spent two weeks recently in the Marshall Islands
trying to confirm an old photograph that appears to show an Electra
sitting on a beach.

As of the middle of August, Amelia Earhart
Society president Bill Prymak of Colorado had not heard from the team.

Many society members believe this decades-old tale: Earhart and Noonan crashed near Mili Atoll in the Marshalls (possibly after being shot down) and were picked up by a Japanese fishing boat or ship and taken to another island, where Noonan received medical treatment for cuts. Then they were taken to Saipan and imprisoned.

Witnesses reported seeing the plane, with a broken wing, in a sling on the back of a ship. Descriptions of the injured man, however, include a pencil-thin mustache, and Noonan had no mustache.

Some researchers believe the Japanese eventually killed Noonan and Earhart. Others think Earhart, and perhaps Noonan, returned to the United States under new names after the war.

How Earhart supposedly reached the Marshalls is debated.

Some say she agreed to spy on the Japanese for President Franklin Roosevelt, who was a friend. Others say U.S. officials asked her to use the Marshalls as a contingency landing spot. That way, the Navy could search the islands to see whether the Japanese were fortifying them during the pre-World War II years. Japan turned down U.S. search requests in 1937.

Failed Expeditions

Researchers now have made at least ten expeditions to the Marshalls and Saipan seeking evidence, Prymak said. Together, they have interviewed about 50 witnesses who place Earhart and Noonan in those locations.

Yet her plane has not been found.

"That's the reason I haven't written a book yet," Prymak said. "I can't. I don't have the final chapter."

Others didn't wait. One book claimed Earhart returned to the United States under a new name, and it identified a woman who supposedly was Earhart. The woman, now deceased, denied it. Kleppner calls that theory "absurd."

Believers of the Japanese theory include the director of the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kansas, and a pilot who retraced Earhart's around-the-world flight for the 30th anniversary in 1967.

Proponents cite as supporting evidence a 1949 interview that Earhart's mother, Amy Otis Earhart, gave the Los Angeles Times. She said: "Amelia did not die in the ocean. She died in Japan," and "I am sure there was a government mission involved in the flight, for Amelia explained there were some things she could not tell me."

Government Denial

The Japanese and U.S. governments denied the Earhart rumors.

Twice in recent years, Japanese television crews have visited Earhart's 80-year-old stepson at his Florida home to ask about his famous stepmother. They dislike being accused of imprisoning or killing Earhart, he said.

Earhart's sister, Muriel Morrissey, called the Japanese rumors false when she co-wrote an Earhart biography in the 1980s. Morrissey died in 1998.

Earhart's niece also discounts the theory.

"There's never been substantial support for that," Kleppner said. "There have been a great many conflicting stories."

There's one sure way to end the dispute: Find the plane.

"It's got to be out there," Prymak said. "One of us will find it."

Copyright 2001 The Kansas City Star

What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

Theory 1: She plunged into the sea at the place where she made her last radio contact. Go>>

Theory 2: She had a contingency plan, and would have made sure she had enough fuel to find another runway. She made land, but died on an uninhabited island. Go>>

Theory 3: She somehow made it to the Marshall Islands where she was photographed sitting on a beach. She was arrested by the Japanese who may have executed her for being a spy. Or she may have returned to the United States after the war under a new name.

Return to the beginning of this series, the day Amelia Earhart disappeared, includes a sidebar about her life. Go>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.