Amelia Earhart and the Marshall Islands

Amelia Earhart was the first women to attempt to fly around the world in 1937. She made all but the last 7,000 of a 27,000 mile flight before disappearing over the Pacific ocean. To this day her fate is unknown, however several theories have been put forth, including one in which she crashed into the Marshall Islands.

Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were last seen alive when they departed Lae, New Guinea in their Lockhead Electra plane on July 2nd, 1937. They were embarking on an estimated 19 hour long flight to Howland Island. At 2,600 miles this would have been the longest leg of the trip. Howland Island is a US territory and is only 1.5 miles long and ½ mile wide, a tiny speck when one considers the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. To aid in locating the island, the US Coast Guard ship the Itasca was at Howland Island during this pre-radar era to provided radio contact and to function as a visual aid. About 1/3 of the way into their flight Earhart and Noonan ran into overcast skies, rain and wind. Noonan’s favored preferred method of navigation was dead reckoning and the use of celestial navigation. The unfavorable weather pattern made this difficult for Noonan. The plane flew through the night and in morning it was close enough to Howland Island that the Itasca received a message that “fuel is running low”. The last radio transmission from Earhart was at 8:45 AM when she reported “We are running north and south.”

Photo from Wikipedia

Afterwards, the largest search effort to date by the USA was made by the Navy and Coast Guard. No signs of wreckage were seen and the official position from the U.S. government was that Earhart and Noonan crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Today, this remains the official position of the US government.

A second popular theory about Earhart and Noonan’s fate is that they crashed 350 miles to the southeast of Howland Island on Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro Island in Kirabati. Support for this theory is that radio transmissions at Earhart’s frequency were heard in the direction of Gardner Island after their disappearance and human remains and artifacts where found on the previously uninhabited island in 1938 that were consistent with remains from Earhart.

A third and less popular theory, is that Earhart and Noonan crash landed on Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Mili atoll is about 800 miles west of Howland Island which is a 4.5 hour flight at Electra’s cruising speed.

Why would Earhart fly 800 miles to the west if she was near Howland Island? Some propose that Earhart’s fallback plan if she could not find Howland Island was to fly west to the Gilbert (Kirabati) Islands and land on a sandy beach. However, due the weather and winds encountered during their flight, Earhart and Noonan were blown north. When they eventual turned and flew west she landed in the farther north group of atolls of the Marshall Islands. Earhart did carry an extra 1,000 pounds of fuel for this leg. Was this enough to make it to Mili atoll?

It is reported that near Barre Island at Mili atoll Marshallese natives Lajuan and Jororo saw the Lockheed Electra crash. The two were fishing in the lagoon of the atoll when they heard the engine and saw a silver plane glide onto the rocks of the reef, tearing off the landing gear and a wing. The two men subsequently said that a Caucasian woman and man emerged from the plane, the man was injured and the woman had short hair and long pants. The fishermen tried to help them but couldn’t understand the pair’s language. The Marshall Islands were part of the mandated Japanese territory during this pre-WWII era. Several Marshallese witnesses later said the Japanese came and took both the fliers and the airplane.

A key witness that supports the Marshall Islands theory is Bilimon Amram.  He was a 16 year old corpsman from Jaluit  in 1937 and was working for the Japanese government.   In the summer of 1937 he was summoned to the Japanese ship Koshu Maro to treat minor injuries of an American man with dark hair and blue eyes. He also reported seeing a female with short hair and noted a large silver plane with a broken off wing, consistent with the Electra, that was being pulled in sling behind the ship.

This Mili theory became popular enough that at the 50 year anniversary (1987) of her disappearance, the Marshall Islands post office produced stamps commemorating their disappearance in the Marshall Islands and even show the airplane being transported away on the Japanese ship, Koshu.

In 2015 Dick Spink, from Washington state, found two pieces of an airplane on Mili that he felt was from the trim and dust cover of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. Parker Aerospace analyzed the metal parts but was unwilling to make a positive identification. However, they did not rule out the possibility the parts belonged to Earhart’s plane.

In 2017, The History channel produced a documentary called The Lost Evidence where they proposed a detailed theory where Earhart and Noonan crashed at Mili atoll and were taken by the Japanese to Jaluit Atoll. They proposed that a grainy photo from Jaluit atoll showed Earhart, Noonan and their plane being towed by the Japanese boat Koshu. Earhart and Noonan were later taken to Japanese held Saipan where they later perished. However, the photo in this documentary was discredited after a Japanese blogger, Kota Yamano, found the reported photo of Earhart and Noonan was from a Japanese travel guide published in 1935, two years before their disappearance.

Photo used in the documentary The Lost Evidence, later discredited when found it was published in 1935

Other less popular theories of Amelia Earhart’s fate includes that she became Tokyo Rose and that she returned to the United States and lived under a false name, Irene Bolam. 

Despite many theories, though, no proof of Earhart’s fate exists. There is no doubt, however, that the world will always remember Amelia Earhart for her courage, vision and groundbreaking achievements, both in aviation and for women.