78 years after the U.S. concluded that Amelia Earhart’s plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean and declared her dead, a newly uncovered photo found in a long-forgotten file in the National Archives suggests she may have survived the crash.
Earhart, whose remains were never found, was trying to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She was last heard from on July 2, 1937.
The photo, which independent analysts told History seems legitimate and undoctored, appears to show Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, on a dock in the Marshall Islands. It’s featured in “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” a new History channel special that airs Sunday.
“When you pull out, and when you see the analysis that’s been done, I think it leaves no doubt to the viewers that that’s Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan,” Shawn Henry, former executive assistant director for the FBI and an NBC News analyst, told NBC News.
The new piece of evidence indicates that Earhart and Noonan were blown off course but survived the crash, investigators said. The photo could have been taken by someone who was spying on Japanese military activity in the Pacific for the U.S., the investigative team behind the History special believes. If it was, that could be why the U.S. didn’t want to release the image, as doing so would compromise the spy.
The photo clearly shows that Earhart was captured by the Japanese, according to Les Kinney, a retired government investigator who has spent 15 years looking for Earhart clues.
Marked “Jaluit Atoll” and believed to have been taken in 1937, the photo shows a woman with short hair with her back to the camera. She is wearing long pants, something Earhart was known for, and is standing near a man who resembles Noonan down to the hairline.
“The hairline is the most distinctive characteristic,” said Ken Gibson, a facial recognition expert who studied the image. “It’s a very sharp receding hairline. The nose is very prominent.”
The photo also shows an object 38 feet in length, the same length as Earhart’s plane, being towed on a barge by the Japanese ship Koshu.
Locals have claimed for decades that they saw Earhart and Noonan taken away after watching their plane crash, and native schoolkids said they saw the pair in captivity.
“We believe that the Koshu took her to Saipan [in the Mariana Islands], and that she died there under the custody of the Japanese,” said Gary Tarpinian, the executive producer of the History special. He added that it is unknown how or when Earhart died.
Japanese authorities have no record of Earhart being in their custody, they told NBC News.